BEREA, Ohio – How Deshaun Watson feels about starting his first regular-season game in 700 days is something only he can say for certain. That remains a mystery of sorts as the Browns quarterback did not talk as they began preparing on Wednesday for Sunday’s trip to Houston. The anticipation Watson’s teammates have for his return is evident by their words.
“We’re all excited,’ running back Nick Chubb said. ‘We’ve been waiting a long time for him to come back. But it’s the same thing. We have to go out there and work. We can’t get too distracted by anything. Keep the main thing the main thing.”
No one, though, may benefit from Watson’s return from his 11-game suspension as much as Chubb. While Jacoby Brissett − who started the first 11 games at quarterback − was able to do some things with his legs, he wasn’t quite the natural running threat that Watson can provide.
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Right guard Wyatt Teller said after last Sunday’s overtime win over Tampa Bay he felt like teams wouldn’t be able to load up the box on defense to try and take away the Browns’ running game. Chubb, for one, would love to see that happen.
“It helps everyone just because defenses won’t know what to do,’ Chubb said. ‘Deshaun could throw the ball or run the ball. It makes it harder on them, obviously.”
What’s hard for the Browns to know for certain is the impact the time off will have on Watson. He’s been allowed to practice the previous two weeks, although most of his reps have been with the scout-team offense.
Watson spent his suspension working away from the facility, often with his personal quarterback coach, Quincy Avery. However, he did get substantial reps during the offseason program and the first part of training camp with the first-team offense, as well as three series in the preseason opener at Jacksonville.
During that appearance in Jacksonville, Watson was just 1-of-5 for 7 yards passing. Beyond that, though, was the fact he looked not just rusty, but rattled by some of the boos and catcalls which came down from the Jaguars fans.
‘I think a lot of that was just getting back in uniform, in the huddle, hearing my voice in the headset and those type of things,’ coach Kevin Stefanski said. ‘That was all about the preparation. No, I don’t put much stock on that.”
That doesn’t mean Stefanski doesn’t think there’s something to be said about a certain amount of rust building up on a player. No matter how much one works off to the side, or works with the scout team or whatever they may do to try and stay sharp, there’s nothing like actual game reps.
The Browns aren’t discounting rust showing up, at least early on, in Sunday’s game. That’s something, though, that’s out of their hands in many ways.
“It is a totally fair question,’ Stefanski said. ‘I don’t think I can predict that type of thing, but I know this, he is focusing on his work. Really in any endeavor, you have to focus on your preparation for Sunday. You can’t really worry about Sunday until you worry about Wednesday.”
This Wednesday was different than any of the previous Wednesdays this season. That’s because of Watson and the fact he will be playing on Sunday.
Brissett was more than adequate in handling the offense over the first 11 games. In fact, in many ways, he far surpassed what many expected out of him and the offense.
The offense Watson takes over is currently 11th in the NFL in scoring, while in the top 10 in total yards per game, rushing yards per game, first downs per game and average time of possession. However, what the Browns believe Watson provides that Brissett doesn’t is the elite quarterback necessary to take a team to the next level.
“Yeah, you definitely see that in Deshaun,’ cornerback Denzel Ward said. ‘We have seen that since camp and even the practices now when we are going against him and he was filling in as the second team quarterback. You see just the passes that he is capable of making, going through his reads and just the type of player that he is.”
Offensive lineman Greg Mancz knows very well what kind of player Watson can be at his peak. He saw it as a teammate of his in Houston from 2017-20.
Mancz, who signed with the Browns on Nov. 22, said part of what separates Watson from others is something that is hard to label. However, it’s something that you can see clearly when he’s playing at an elite level.
The problem, though, is that Watson hasn’t played at really any level since his last start as the Houston Texans’ quarterback on Jan. 3, 2021. That’s why even those familiar with him are anxious to see him play.
‘He’s always just had that like ‘it’ factor, right?,’ Mancz said. ‘You can’t really put a characteristic or anything like that. Even when he just showed up his rookie year, it was pretty outstanding. Obviously, I haven’t played with him in a couple years now, so I’m excited to watch him just like you guys are.’
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