HOUSTON — As kickoff between the Houston Texans and Cleveland Browns drew closer on Sunday afternoon, a megaphone crackled near the front entrance of NRG Stadium. Behind it, a man started walking up and down the main avenue, past cars locked in traffic and congregating fans wearing Deshaun Watson jerseys. He shouted and waved his hands. The loudspeaker blared messages about sinning and salvation.
Eventually, the man hoisted a sign espousing a religious message. None of this makeshift sermon had anything to do with Watson.
Off the field, this is how Sunday morning unfolded. The circus that could have been … never was. In its place, a trickle of indifference materialized outside the stadium, taking on the feel of an exhibition game. While the NFL made sure that less than 7 percent of a national viewing audience could see Watson’s return, there appeared to be little inclination to see it in person, too.
Inside the stadium, there was little more than football curiosity mixed with the kind of in-game booing that often accompanies a star player forcing his way out of town. Outside, the league’s white-knuckling for so many months — not wanting Watson to return from an 11-game suspension in Houston — seemed almost entirely unnecessary.
As a roughly half-capacity crowd filed in, there were no protests and virtually no overt signs of outrage at the Browns quarterback. This despite Watson’s suspension being tied to a multitude of women — most from Houston — filing 26 civil lawsuits against the quarterback that alleged sexual misconduct or assault. Two of those civil lawsuits still remain.
But fan angst and outrage? If Sunday was any indication, it appears to be waning. That’s an unscientific notion, of course, largely driven on Sunday by the throngs of Watson jerseys that funneled into NRG by kickoff. Some were worn by Texans fans. A great many others adorned a strong contingent of Browns fans.
Even in the cases where the jerseys might have been worn in an ironic manner, the message seemed to be mostly toothless. One fan who wore a Texans jersey had taped over Watson’s original nameplate with the word “Weirdo.” Even that was less a criticism than a joke.
“I’m still a Deshaun Watson fan, besides what he did off the field,” Justin Coy said, adding that he’d driven to the game from Austin. “I mean, they settled [some civil cases], so I don’t know if he’s guilty or not guilty. I’m not a lawyer or a judge. I’m excited to see him play. He hasn’t thrown the ball what, like 700 days? [I want] to see if he still has it.”
As far as Sunday went, Watson likely hasn’t answered that football question. He looked lethargic and lost much of the day, skipping passes or sailing them on the way to an unremarkable 131 passing yards and one interception. Cleveland still managed a 27-14 win, propelled by defense and special teams, but the quarterback play looked worse than what backup Jacoby Brissett was providing for much of the season.
Of course, the Browns expect that will change. Head coach Kevin Stefanski said Watson looked a bit “jittery” and Watson himself said he was feeling “every bit” of the nearly 700-day layoff between competitive games. From a football perspective, it was to be expected. For months, when you spoke to anyone inside the franchise about Watson, they told you the two most important things in terms of the game itself was getting him back into practice and then getting the Houston return out of the way.
Now Cleveland is here. Where it goes next remains to be seen — on both fronts.
Lest anyone forget, there are still two fronts with Watson. Despite trying to steer the conversation away from his settlements, allegations or ongoing civil litigation earlier last week, he was asked again Sunday afternoon about whether he has remorse over what ultimately got him suspended. In what is likely to be the final party line from Watson moving forward, he reiterated he’s focusing on only football.
That won’t necessarily stop the questions. But like practicing a play, he'll seek to replicate the same outcome over and over. He’s moving on. He’s focusing on football. Unless his remaining civil litigation puts him onto a witness stand, the rest will be left to the court of public opinion.
This doesn’t mean Watson or the Browns are free of criticism, of course. The franchise has given him arguably the most jaw-dropping contract in NFL history, $230 million fully guaranteed. Now that he’s on a field, justifying it becomes a significant focal point for everyone involved, from general manager Andrew Berry to Stefanki and the multitude of surrounding players who now must fit in with whatever Watson does well.
On Sunday, that wasn’t much. Next week, against the Cincinnati Bengals, it will need to be exponentially more. Because while one circus didn’t materialize Sunday, the odyssey of disappointing football sideshows is long and lamented in Cleveland. And the organization has risked too much for Watson to become another iteration of it.