But at every opportunity -- a rep here and there with the first string, on the side with receivers, in meetings with coaches -- sources say Watson has been squeezing in work he and the team hope will have him ready for his first meaningful game action in nearly two years on Dec. 4 against his old team in Houston.
The NFL confirmed on Saturday that Watson remains on track to be fully reinstated on Monday from his 11-game suspension for violating the league's personal-conduct policy and play next Sunday against the Texans. Under terms of a settlement negotiated in August by the NFL and NFL Players Association, Watson was also fined $5 million (on top of $632,500 in lost salary) and required to undergo an evaluation and follow a treatment plan, including regular counseling, in light of allegations of sexual misconduct against several women during massage therapy sessions. (Watson reached confidential settlement agreements in more than 20 of the civil lawsuits against him; he was never charged with a crime, and two grand juries declined to indict him.)
Other than three forgettable series in Cleveland's preseason opener Aug. 12, Watson has not played in a game since Jan. 3, 2021, the finale of the Texans' 2020 season. Watson requested a trade soon thereafter and didn't play at all in 2021 under an agreement with the Texans and after no trade materialized during the 2021 season. Then he was traded in March to the Browns, who sent Houston an unprecedented package of draft picks -- including first-rounders in the 2022, 2023 and 2024 drafts -- and gave Watson an unprecedented new contract for five years and worth $230 million fully guaranteed.
Knowing a suspension for Watson was likely, the Browns gave him around 70% of practice reps through the spring and summer before shifting more work later in training camp to Jacoby Brissett, who has a career-high 90.7 passer rating with 11 touchdowns and five interceptions in Cleveland's 3-7 start entering Sunday’s game against Brady and the Buccaneers.
The Browns walked a fine line between getting Brissett ready and making sure Watson owned each week's game plan as if he were starting; in each practice over the past two weeks, sources say Watson got just a few reps with the first string, usually near the end of a period and always on plays Brissett had repped many times before. Even those few reps helped Watson and his teammates get used to his voice in the huddle. The rest of Watson's work came on the scout team, where coaches reminded him this week not to scramble since that's one of his strengths, not Brady's.
Watson has gotten some extra throws on the side against air during certain periods, such as special teams, the past two weeks with his receivers. But that was a fine line, too, since coaches don't want to, say, have Amari Cooper run 30 extra routes at a time they're trying to keep Cooper's legs fresh for the stretch run.
Everything has been geared toward Brissett in meetings, too. But coaches have spent extra time with Watson -- including quarterbacks coach Drew Petzing, who has talked through each week's call sheet with Watson, asking what he likes and doesn't, making sure he knows the reads and checks, and simulating the process Watson will go through as the starter beginning this week.
Even in the six weeks Watson wasn't allowed at the facility, the Browns made adjustments to play calls, names of routes, etc. But sources say he caught up quickly. By all accounts, Watson has looked good in practice, making multiple impressive throws on a daily basis.
There will be a natural pivot in Cleveland's offensive scheme based on Watson's unique skill set, but it won't come all at once. And for any player who has missed this much time, there's an adjustment period to game speed.
The Browns visit the Texans at NRG Stadium on Dec. 4 at 1 p.m. ET.