Browns now enduring the price of going all-in on Deshaun Watson

Less than three months ago, Jimmy and Dee Haslam, the owners of the Cleveland Browns, expressed supreme confidence in Deshaun Watson.

We are talking quarter-billion-dollar-to-Watson confidence. We are talking about three-first-round-picks confidence. We are talking about $55-million-salary-cap-hit confidence.

That’s a lot for a guy who sat out an entire season seeking a trade while dealing with an onslaught of sexual assault allegations.

“We are confident in Deshaun,” the Haslams said in a statement.

The root of this confidence came from what general manager Andrew Berry described as “extensive investigative, legal and reference work” to “make an informed decision about pursuing [Watson] as our quarterback.”

Presumably, the Browns' investigative work was more extensive than the The New York Times, which reported Tuesday that Watson contacted at least 66 women for massages over 17 months. The report detailed all sorts of boorish behavior and under oath quotes that belie Watson’s previous narrative.

Some 24 women — including two new ones in the past eight days — are suing him for sexual assault. Maybe more will come. It’s improbable the newspaper found all the women or all the potential stories.

The only person who knows how many women Watson interacted with and what those interactions entailed is Watson. But he’s continued to express confusion on why anything he has done is even of interest to anyone else, let alone a problem, so maybe it doesn’t even dawn on him.

Watson will not face local criminal charges in the two counties where the allegations occurred. The NFL still hasn’t determined a punishment, if any. If there is to be a suspension, it is unlikely to get weaker after the Times' report. The NFL hates these drip, drip, drip stories.

If the Browns were as thorough in investigating Watson as they implied, then none of this is a surprise. Surely a billion-dollar organization making a high-stakes decision would devote more resources than an out-of-town newspaper.

The Cleveland Browns are in a bind as the Deshaun Watson case has gotten even uglier, but perhaps they expected that. (AP Photo/David Richard)
The Cleveland Browns are in a bind as the Deshaun Watson case has gotten even uglier, but perhaps they expected that. (AP Photo/David Richard)

If so, it’s clear the Haslams knew all of this (and perhaps more) and simply didn’t care about any of it. The Browns saw Watson’s lifestyle and any resulting potential problems not as any appreciable negative, but rather as an opportunity to acquire the kind of talented quarterback that has eluded the franchise for decades.

This, to them, was a golden opportunity. They seized it.

Hey, this is the NFL. This is business. If you’re good enough, you can get away with anything. At least three other teams pursued Watson as well. Others just didn’t have the assets to make a deal.

The Haslams assume, probably accurately, that most Browns fans won’t care either, especially if Watson delivers on the field the way he did in Houston.

If they didn’t know at least as much as the Times, then the Haslams look like fools. That’s their problem, though. And maybe Berry's.

Whatever the case, Cleveland is all-in on Watson even if no one knows when he might be able to play a game for the Browns. The NFL could put him on the commissioner’s exempt list, which would hold Watson out while delaying a ruling. Roger Goodell has previously said that wouldn’t be the case since the potential for criminal charges was resolved, but who knows.

Or they could announce a suspension. Ezekiel Elliott got six games for violating the league’s “Personal Conduct Policy” involving interactions with a single woman. Watson could get the same. Or more. Or six games for every incident. Who knows?

Maybe it’s eight. Maybe it’s 12 games, which would leave Cleveland hoping to unleash Watson for a five-game stretch run this season despite the fact he wouldn’t have played any football in nearly two years.

Or it could be a season-long deal, or more. By football standards, and that’s clearly all Cleveland cares about, the longer the suspension the more devastating. The Browns have Watson under contract for five years. Losing 20 percent of that wouldn’t be ideal, especially since the Browns are built to win right now.

Cleveland pursued Watson in an attempt to seize this window of opportunity. It dished six draft picks to get him, including its 2022, 2023 and 2024 first-rounders. It handed over a guaranteed $230 million deal, including setting up the contract so Watson is paid just $1 million this year, which all but eliminates any financial penalty that would come from an NFL suspension.

The Haslams didn’t punish Watson for his behavior. They rewarded him. They even all but ended their relationship with Baker Mayfield, who isn’t accused of assaulting women but he threw a lot of interceptions. He won’t attend mandatory minicamp next week in a decision dubbed “mutual.”

It appears the Browns are willing to enter the season that may or may not feature Watson with only journeymen Jacoby Brissett and Joshua Dobbs, who has completed 10 passes in his career, as the other options at quarterback.

Those guys were stopgaps for what Cleveland hoped would be a brief Watson suspension.

If humiliating yourself in the pursuit of quarterback talent is part of the cost of doing business, it seems like groveling to Mayfield is at least as reasonable as banking everything on a guy whose offseason pastime appears to be contacting random women on social media and driving around Houston with the hopes of getting, in the parlance of Watson’s attorney, a “happy ending.”

At this point though, Cleveland can only cover its eyes and hope this doesn’t get worse, or that whatever suspension is coming doesn’t get longer and a promising roster isn’t wasted.

That was always the case. Confidence is just confidence.

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