Deshaun Watson has hovered like a ghost over the NFL for more than a year, ever-present but almost entirely unseen and unheard. With a January 2021 trade demand shortly followed by scores of sexual misconduct allegations stemming from massage therapy sessions, one of the NFL's best quarterbacks abruptly entered a bizarre, unsettling exile.
Now the Browns will host his re-entry into the league, as Watson chose Cleveland as his trade destination on Friday -- a surprising development, considering the Browns had been informed that they were eliminated from consideration just one day prior. That final twist followed a courtship by at least four teams -- the Browns, Falcons, Panthers and Saints -- who waited just long enough to find out Watson would not be charged with any crimes before burying any lingering queasiness and plowing ahead with a pursuit of the rarest of NFL prizes: a young, top-five quarterback, available on the open market.
The payoff for the Browns could be enormous. The message sent by this portion of Watson's life and career arc is pretty big, too.
Watson still faces 22 civil lawsuits and an NFL investigation that could result in a suspension. Shortly after the trade was announced, NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy released the following statement:
"Any transaction would have no effect on the NFL's ongoing and comprehensive investigation of the serious allegations against Deshaun Watson. Nor would it affect his status under the Collective Bargaining Agreement and the Personal Conduct Policy.
"If the league's investigation determines that Watson violated the Personal Conduct Policy, discipline may be imposed pursuant to the policy and the CBA."
A grand jury declined to indict Watson last Friday, eliminating the greatest threat to his reputation and his career. But the behavior of which Watson is accused remains, at the very least, disturbing. There will undoubtedly be public outcry over this trade.
The four aforementioned teams knew all of that and took it into consideration -- especially the fact that Watson could miss games in 2022 -- before hoping they would be the chosen recipients of the three-time Pro Bowler's prodigious talent.
None of this should surprise anyone.
The message has been made abundantly clear in recent years: Football teams are not ultimately in the business of being moral pillars for their communities, despite the Women's History Month celebrations and anti-racism slogans. They are in the business of winning games. And that is what all of us -- players, coaches, fans, media -- demand of them every day.
And that is why -- distasteful as the recruiting meetings looked, juxtaposed as they were with Watson being deposed for some of the civil cases -- teams were quite literally lining up to meet with the quarterback. In fact, some teams considered trading for him last season, long before they knew what the grand jury would decide. If the Browns win with Watson -- and let's be honest, they have a much better chance of winning the Super Bowl now and for the next decade with Watson in the fold -- they will be heralded in many circles for their aggressive pursuit of excellence. If they had not pursued Watson and lost, they would not have been spared criticism. That is the balancing act teams face, and from a business perspective, it's hard to blame them for their choices.
Throughout all of this, Watson, who has maintained his innocence, has yet to publicly express any humility about even being in this predicament. Whenever he finally addresses the situation in Cleveland, a note of regret would help. It is a well-worn path to public acceptance -- just ask Mike Vick and the Philadelphia Eagles -- and it would seem to be crucial for a face of a franchise.
But to have expected a team to demand some accountability before wanting Watson would have been naïve. The race was on for his services, and he had a no-trade clause, giving him control of the situation. So we had the unsavory spectacle of billionaires courting Watson without his legal travails fully resolved. That the Browns have been desperate for a franchise quarterback, for a chance to win the organization's first championship since 1964, may ease Watson's arrival and insulate him from some of the concerns about his legal situation. Cleveland fully guaranteeing his five-year, $230 million contract also puts the weight of the franchise behind Watson.
The bottom line is that NFL teams give second chances to those they want on the field, which is why Ben Roethlisberger and Jameis Winston returned -- and flourished -- after serving league suspensions following similarly troubling incidents with women that, as in Watson's case, did not rise to the level of criminal charges. The calculation the Browns made is that, after Watson's legal issues are resolved and the NFL makes its judgment, practically everyone will look past his alleged transgressions because he is a transcendent talent. It's not hard to imagine that transpiring -- not hard at all.
Cleveland now joins the fray in an AFC that is loaded with young, superstar quarterbacks. The Browns went to the playoffs with Baker Mayfield -- who will now be traded -- two seasons ago. They have a defense that just ranked fifth in yards allowed, a good offensive line, a phenomenal backfield duo in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, newly acquired receiver Amari Cooper and franchise-tagged tight end David Njoku. Watson also positions Cleveland to be a direct threat to the reigning AFC champion Cincinnati Bengals. The 26-year-old joins a division that already features a pair of prolific 25-year-old quarterbacks -- Cincy's Joe Burrow and Baltimore's Lamar Jackson -- setting the table for years of titanic clashes at the game's most important position. Watson missed the entire 2021 season, so it is easy to forget just how spectacular a player he is. In 2020, on a Texans team that finished 4-12, he led the league with 4,823 passing yards. His completion percentage (70.2) only trailed those of Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees. He threw 33 touchdown passes against just seven interceptions. He led the league in both yards per pass attempt and yards per completion.
Under those conditions, fans shouldn't be expected to keep the allegations against Watson front and center. Look at the Washington Commanders, a franchise rife with sexual harassment allegations in recent years. Despite widespread calls for a sale by Daniel Snyder -- who's now the subject of an investigation into his own conduct -- he still owns the team. If the NFL doesn't demand that the buck stop with the owner, why should fans or media or team brass make such a demand of a player?
We shouldn't have to choose between baseline decency and winning a lot of games. Now that Watson is back, let's hope he proves the Browns didn't just make that choice for us.