Deshaun Watson's return won't silence the essential questions just yet | Opinion

Deshaun Watson operated from his damage-control playbook with a ground rule – “football questions only” – as he met with reporters in ramping up to his debut as Cleveland Browns quarterback.

Watson, back from an 11-game NFL suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy after more than two-dozen allegations of sexual misconduct, is attempting to turn the page on his sordid saga.

Easier said than done.

What did he learn about himself through therapy and counseling?

“I respect your question and I understand,” Watson replied, “but that is more in that phase of clinical and legal stuff, and I have been advised to stay away from that and keep that personal.”

Football only.

What’s his message for fans who don’t think he should be the face of the franchise?

“I am focusing on football,” he said.

Deshaun Watson will make his Browns debut on Sunday.
Deshaun Watson will make his Browns debut on Sunday.

So it went, with much range in interpreting what constituted a “football” question during his media session on Thursday. Regardless, it’s nearly impossible to separate football from the “non-football” issues related to a grown man who happens to play football.

The questions persist. And they are sure to continue long after Watson plays his first game in 700 days on Sunday against his former team, the Houston Texans, in the city where many of the alleged incidents involving the massage therapists occurred. Talk about coincidence. Or not.

The fact that Watson’s return comes in Houston, of all places, after the original, six-game suspension from retired federal judge Sue L. Robinson was adjusted after the NFL’s appeal to an 11-game ban with a $5 million fine (not 10 games, not 12, but 11), is intriguing in its own right, when considering the extra hook in timing a matchup that includes the worst team in the league. But there are more essential questions.

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What’s the mental toll on Watson? After such an extended layoff, it’s one thing to knock off the rust and get up to speed in reacting to blitzes and disguised coverages. I’m wondering whether the weight of Watson’s legal issues will alter the course – and we’re talking football here, for a moment – for a player who commanded a fully guaranteed, $230 million contract on top of the six draft picks (including three first-rounders) the Browns traded away to get him.

Sometimes, we’ve heard players come back after dealing with serious off-the-field issues contend that they are at peace in returning to the arena. The game becomes a refuge to get away from the drama of their personal lives. On the flip side, there’s the prospect of a distraction that could be created by bringing extra baggage to work. Presumably, this is where the therapy and counseling will help Watson cope.

Listen to the declarations from coaches and teammates, and it appears that Watson has been in a good space and taken the proper steps to gain trust inside the building.

It’s also worth noting, as he mentioned on Thursday – departing from the “football-only” theme – that he grew up in poverty with unique challenges that some, if not many, can relate to. He lived in a two-bedroom apartment with six other people at one point. During his sophomore year at Gainesville (Georgia) High, his mother, a non-smoker, battled tongue cancer … and beat it.

Such challenges didn’t stop Watson from engaging in the self-inflicted actions that led to the mess that put his career on hold. But perhaps they will add context as he seeks to re-establish his way.

Another essential question involves whether Watson has come to grips with the perceived mental health issues that seemingly fueled the series of allegations that changed the course of his life. While Watson has denied any wrongdoing and wasn't charged with any crimes after two Texas grand juries declined to indict him earlier this year, he has settled 23 of 26 civil lawsuits, believed to have totaled millions of dollars in payouts. (One lawsuit was dropped in March 2021 a few weeks after being filed.)

Again, the hope is that counseling and therapy will make a major difference. If we never hear of another new allegation regarding Watson and sexual misconduct, so be it.

But the existing allegations are more than enough. At least 10 of Watson’s accusers are expected to be in the stadium on Sunday when the Browns (4-7) look to legitimately begin a new chapter with their new quarterback. Never mind the boo-birds. That’s typical NFL road game stuff. If there are protestors on site, it may have little impact on the quarterback himself, who will likely be so far removed physically (and perhaps mentally, too) to hear or feel any brushback.

I mean, take it from Watson himself, sounding like a robot as he repeated:

“My main focus is locked in on the game plan,” he said, “trying to execute…”

From multiple playbooks.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Deshaun Watson's return to NFL won't silence essential questions yet