Rusty Deshaun Watson booed relentlessly in Browns debut

Deshaun Watson got hit hard by defensive tackle Michael Dwumfour as he released the football, and he didn't see Jalen Pitre waiting in coverage, reading his eyes. The Texans' rookie safety alertly intercepted Watson in the end zone when he tried to force a pass over the middle to wide receiver Amari Cooper.

Watson got a piece of the tackle after being picked off. It was that kind of day for the Cleveland Browns quarterback in his first game back after serving an 11-game NFL suspension for multiple violations of the personal conduct policy. 

The Georgia native and three-time Pro Bowl selection delivered an admittedly rusty performance in his first game in 700 days, a span dating back to his final game with the Texans before being traded this offseason in a blockbuster move and signed to an unprecedented $230 million fully guaranteed contract amidst the controversy of multiple accusations of sexual misconduct and not being charged by a crime by two Texas grand juries.

Watson generated the lowest passer rating of his career, a 53.4 mark, completing just 12 of 22 passes for 131 yards and the one interception. The Browns managed to win despite not scoring an offensive touchdown. He clearly looked like a quarterback that hadn't played in a long time. He also flashed his trademark mobility, eluding defenders.

“I would just say I felt every single one of those 700 days, honestly," Watson said. "However long I've been out, I felt every single one of those days. Getting back in shape and everything is definitely what I needed today. I wouldn't say I was jittery. 

"It was just more so of getting out there and being able to play. Live bullets are coming at you. It's just knocking off the rust and getting the timing down. It was the first time for live action, but it was good to feel it.”

Watson had several errant throws and, overall, had a sloppy game in his regular-season debut for the Browns while playing in a relatively hostile atmosphere. He was booed relentlessly every time he took the field. He also signed autographs for Browns and Texans fans before kickoff and was greeted warmly by former teammates Laremy Tunsil, Tytus Howard and Brandin Cooks.

"They're supposed to boo," Watson said. "I'm a Cleveland Brown now."

Drafted by the Texans in 2017 after former general manager Rick Smith maneuvered with a trade to acquire the former consensus All-American and national champion, Watson has a complicated history with the AFC South franchise. He became disgruntled with the organization when they traded All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins to the Arizona Cardinals, but still signed a $156 million contract extension. When he didn't feel like the communication with chairman and CEO Cal McNair was what he expected during the hiring process of former coach David Culley and general manager Nick Caserio, Watson requested a trade. That caused a disconnect with a majority of the vocal fan base, and ultimately led to this high-profile divorce. Now, both Watson and the Texans have moved on. There was a brief handshake and hug with McNair before the game.

“Yeah, it's been a long road," Watson said. "Just kind of from being traded, Houston is still part of me. It's part of my legacy. I got drafted here. We went through a lot of ups and downs with this organization. Being traded was tough, but it's a business decision, and it had to happen. Being into that and my first game back here in Houston was tough. Walking into the stadium on the opposite side of the stadium and locker room, it was different.

"There was a lot of emotion, a lot of just kind of just trying to keep everything in, knowing a lot of guys that's on that defense and on that offense. It was tough, but, at the same time, it was very exciting to be able to just get my feet wet and be able to run around and take some hits and see everything kind of happen full speed.”

Watson, as he did days before kickoff, declined to address the allegations against him, which he has repeatedly denied in public statements and through his Houston-based attorney Rusty Hardin. Watson has settled 23 civil lawsuits. There are two active lawsuits with one refusing settlement offers. In the other active lawsuit, Hardin is seeking sanctions.

Watson was fined $5 million by the NFL, which sought a season-long suspension before reaching a negotiated settlement of the suspension after an original punishment of six games meted out by Judge Sue L. Robinson, and ordered to undergo mandatory counseling and treatment.

The plaintiffs' attorney, Tony Buzbee, attended the game with some of the accusers. There were some negative signs and T-shirts related to Watson, but there was no picketing outside of the stadium.

“Of course, it was a tough situation,” Watson said. “The suspension was tough but, at the same time, my main focus was just to try to be 1-0 as a football player today.

"I was just excited to be back on the field today. I did everything that I was asked and was required to do. I did all that, and I was able to be able to play and be on the field today.”

A lot of Watson's throws were low and hit the ground, not giving his receivers much of a chance to make a play. His timing was clearly off and he was adapting to game speed still.

"We knew we’d be going to a hostile environment and have to pick him up,” defensive end Myles Garrett said. “He’s telling us, ‘Y’all get a stop, y’all get a takeaway, we’re going to score. Don’t worry about it.’ He has our back just like we have his back. It was never a big deal for him.

“We’re not going to hold him to a crazy standard and expect him to be Superman out there when he hasn’t played in two years. But we know the kind of football player he has been in the past and know who he is. We’ve seen him on the practice field doing things athletically that few players can match.”

Texans safety Jonathan Owens, who once competed against Watson on the practice squad, had a friendly conversation with him after a tackle where he told his former teammate he's a starter now.

"I mean obviously if you don't play football in a couple years you got to get back in the flow," Owens said. "He's still a good athlete. I thought we did a good job rattling him and making plays."

Watson's mother and other family members attended the game along with his agent, David Mulugheta, marketing agent Bryan Burney and private quarterback coach Quincy Avery, showing their support for him.

The boos were loud, but it didn't seem to faze Watson emotionally.

“It is what it is,” Watson said of the boos. “I can’t control what the fans do. My job is to go out there and execute.”

The Browns won primarily because they scored two defensive touchdowns and once on special teams to defeat the 1-10-1 Texans, the team Watson previously led to the playoffs.

“I'm sure Deshaun is going to play better games than he did today," Texans coach Lovie Smith said. "I don't know what all his stats said, but I thought we, for the most part, we were pretty much in control defensively. We were pretty much in control of their offense most of the day.”

Watson's first completion to wide receiver Anthony Schwartz was fumbled. Watson, especially with the Browns' hefty investment, will need to improve as quickly as possible.

“He looked very sharp in practice and he’s excited for the next one," Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said. "So, he understood this one was going to be different. Obviously, you're missing a bunch of time. You've got to get back in it. You've got to get these game reps. You've got to get this first one out of the way and all those types of things, but I know what the kid is capable of.”

Aaron Wilson is a contributor to Sports Talk 790.

Cleveland Browns v Houston Texans

Photo: Getty Images

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