Cleveland Browns star quarterback Deshaun Watson repeatedly declined to answer legal questions pertaining to his multiple sexual misconduct and sexual assault lawsuits he has settled.
The Georgia native said he's following the advice of his legal team, which includes Houston-based attorney Rusty Hardin.
As Watson prepares for Sunday's game against the Texans, the team that drafted him and traded him to the Browns at his request amidst him facing legal issues that led to an 11-game suspension for violations of the NFL personal conduct policy, the three-time Pro Bowl passer confined his answers to football topics and deflected questions about the mandatory counseling and mandatory treatment he participated in during his punishment. Two Texas grand juries declined to charge Watson with any crimes after he faced criminal complaints in Houston related to the allegations about his behavior in massage therapy sessions.
"I've been advised to stay away from that and keep it personal," Watson said during a Thursday press conference at the Browns' training facility in Berea, Ohio. "There are only football questions that I can address at this time. I’m open to answer any football questions. I’m focusing on football. That’s my main focus is football. Most of the settlement stuff with the NFL was mostly my agency and my legal team.
“At this time, I can’t address any of that stuff. Who knows what the future holds? Right now, I’m locked in on being the starting quarterback for the Cleveland Browns.”
What did he learn during those counseling sessions?
"I respect your question," Watson said. "I understand, but that's more in that phase of clinical and legal stuff and I've been advised to stay away from that and keep that personal."
Watson was asked what his response would be to those who believe he shouldn't be the face of an NFL franchise in light of the accusations he's faced, which includes two active lawsuits filed in Harris County. His reply: "Like I said, I'm going to focus in on football. That's my main focus is football."
Watson was technically a part of the Texans' roster a year ago as a disgruntled star quarterback who was seeking a trade out of town while dealing with serious legal allegations.
The backdrop to Watson's return to Houston is expected to include plaintiffs' attorney Tony Buzbee, who has said he'll attend the game along with some of Watson's accusers.
"I'm not worried about the atmosphere," Watson said.
It was an extremely awkward situation a year ago as Watson was paid his $10.5 million salary not to play or practice while general manager Nick Caserio attempted to orchestrate a blockbuster trade.
Ultimately, Watson was traded to the Browns this offseason in a massive exchange that included the Texans netting three first-round draft picks and the Georgia native being signed to an unprecedented $230 million fully guaranteed contract, the richest in NFL history negotiated between Browns general manager Andrew Berry and agent David Mulugheta.
Watson appeared to be rusty during brief preseason action, but he expressed confidence that he's ready and thanked his private quarterback coach Quincy Avery and personal trainers.
"I’m excited to be back," Watson said. "I’m excited to be back around my teammates."
Watson hasn't played in a game in 700 days. The last time he played in a regular-season game was for the Texans during the 2020 season.
"Two years is definitely a long time,” Watson said. "Just like riding a bike. We'll have to see Sunday honestly. It might take time, but it might not take time. I want to go out there and make plays as much as I possibly can. Two years is a long time, but I've been doing this since I was six years old."
Watson, 27, has passed for 14,539 yards and 104 touchdowns with 36 interceptions and a 104.5 passer rating.
He led the NFL in passing yards with 4,823 yards and 33 touchdowns with seven interceptions in his final season with the Texans, posting a 112.4 passer rating.
Watson said he has been staying ready and asking Jacoby Brissett a lot of questions to learn the offense.
"My biggest focus was the mental part," Watson said. "Staying locked in on defensive schemes and staying locked in on the scheme we have here. Just following Jacoby, asking him questions, preparing like I was the starter that week.
"The big brother he's been to me and everyone in that locker room, the passion, and grit he's shown in these past weeks. He's been awesome for me. Our relationship has been great and the bond has been great."
The trade was engineered after discussions were held with the Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers after Watson was not charged with any crimes, clearing the path for him to be moved off the Texans' roster.
Watson and the Texans have both moved on, and now they meet again after the former first-round draft pick from Clemson completed his negotiated 11-game NFL suspension for violations of the league's personal conduct policy stemming from multiple accusations of sexual misconduct and sexual assault. This marks Watson's first regular-season game since his final game for the Texans during the 2020 season after previously signing a $156 million contract prior to becoming displeased with the direction of the franchise because of the lopsided DeAndre Hopkins trade and other reasons.
Watson was positive in discussing the Texans, the McNair family and the city of Houston.
"I’m just excited to play football in general. In front of Cleveland Browns fans, but also in front of some of the Houston Texans fans,” Watson said. "I respect the whole organization of the Houston Texans. I respect the McNair family. I respect everyone that was there that drafted me in 2017. It’s been great memories, fun memories.
"I still have a home in Houston. I still have friends and family that’s still in Houston, relationships that are still there. People, some of the players on the team I played with and have seen come up through practice squad or injuries. So I’m excited to get in front of those fans. I have so much love for the city of Houston, H-town. And everyone in that city pretty much knows that. So, I’m excited to do that.”
Now, the Texans are preparing to face Watson, their former franchise quarterback, in a high-profile situation on and off the field in the wake of him settling 23 of 24 lawsuits filed by Buzbee on behalf of massage therapists and two Texas grand juries declining to charge the former Atlanta Falcons ball boy with any crimes. Watson has repeatedly denied all wrongdoing and steadfastly maintained his innocence in public statements and through Hardin.
Hardin is seeking sanctions for a recent civil lawsuit, alleging the filing was in bad faith and intended to embarrass Watson, a Georgia native who was a consensus All-American at Clemson drafted by former Texans general manager Rick Smith.
From the standpoint of the Texans, who also reached financial settlements with plaintiffs after it was alleged they enabled and were aware of Watson's behavior with a standard nondisclosure agreement provided to him and a membership at the Houstonian hotel and spa where some of the alleged encounters with massage therapists took place, they're focused solely on defending Watson, the player and elusive dual-threat quarterback.
“Yeah, I think this will probably be the final piece to that story," said Texans coach Lovie Smith, who served as the defensive coordinator last year under former coach David Culley during Watson's final season in Houston. "Deshaun is back. He’s playing football. The way things go, his first game would be back down here. What a great opportunity for us, too. Again, we hadn’t played our best ball. A lot of people will be watching this game and, hopefully, we put our best effort we’ve had all year.”
Watson was officially reinstated to the Browns' 53-man roster Monday as they cut third quarterback Josh Dobbs. Watson, who appeared rusty during limited preseason action with the Browns as he threw an interception, will start and Jacoby Brissett will back him up after going 4-7 as the starter in Watson's absence.
For the 1-9-1 Texans, they're focusing on building a strategy to defend Watson's multidimensional skill more than the obvious conversations surrounding his dramatic return.
“You’re right, it was a little bit different last year," Smith said. "Deshaun was in the building a little bit, but we didn’t have a whole lot of interaction with him. But that is in the past. Changed area codes and all that. Now it’s just about a great quarterback coming into town that we need to get ready for with a history with our franchise.
"I think it’s just about that. When you start watching the video of them as a football team, you kind of move past that. Did I tell you we’ve got a lot of young guys? They don’t know a whole lot about our past and what we’ve done. They are just trying to get better and help us get another win.”
Under the terms of his suspension, Watson began practicing and participating in meetings with the Browns on Nov. 14. That ramp-up period should help his transition to playing again. Watson is, by all accounts, in excellent shape after working with private quarterbacks coach Quincy Avery and his personal trainer during his absence from the Browns.
"I mean, he hasn’t played in a long period of time, but he’s a heck of a football player," Smith said. "I know that. I assume playing quarterback is a lot like riding a bike. It comes back to you fairly quickly. I know he has been practicing with them. They have been playing good football. Adding Deshaun will make them that much better."
Aaron Wilson is a contributor to Sports Talk 790.