As Deshaun Watson heads into practice, Browns fans have to recognize this is just the start of many changes

As Deshaun Watson heads into practice, Browns fans have to recognize this is just the start of many changes

Deshaun Watson will walk a regular season practice field on Wednesday. What this means for the Cleveland Browns is very different from the unfulfilled hopes and dreams of September.

At the start of the 2022 season, the ceiling for the Browns (3-6) was to get a playoff contender back to Watson in Week 13. But something closer to the basement unfolded for a variety of reasons.

The only thing that matters now is reality for the franchise. The stark truth is that Watson’s return from an 11-game suspension is a starting point. It’s an opportunity to put a team on the field around him, and then fine-tune which elements Watson can elevate, versus which positions the front office and coaching staff will need to revamp in the offseason. The fact remains that this no longer looks like a team that can be fixed by simply connecting Watson to a regular-season NFL game for the first time in 23 months. There are too many issues to deal with, ranging from training to talent to injuries.

Adding a patience issue on top of all that isn’t going to help anyone. Not Watson. Not head coach Kevin Stefanski. Not general manager Andrew Berry. And certainly not all Browns fans who view the quarterback switch as some sort of panacea for that troubling, lethargic start.

CLEVELAND, OH - AUGUST 27: Deshaun Watson #4 of the Cleveland Browns warms up before a preseason game against the Chicago Bears at FirstEnergy Stadium on August 27, 2022 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images)

Deshaun Watson is eligible to return to play for the Cleveland Browns in Week 13 after serving an 11-game suspension. He was fined $5million after 24 women accused him in civil lawsuits of sexual assault and varying degrees of sexual misconduct during massage therapy sessions. (Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images)

Have no illusions about a Watson turnaround

Of course, that’s not what many Browns fans want to hear. There’s a segment that wants to believe that splitting the next two games against the Buffalo Bills and Tampa Bay Buccaneers and then going from a 4-7 team to Watson in Week 13 sets Cleveland up for a transformational run on the duration. This flourishing finish under Watson should assume that the defense could suddenly stop opposing running games or that Watson shows no delay since being laid off.

Not to mention the simple fact that an offensive head coach like Stefanski and an elite quarterback like Watson still need a lot of live work to learn their best harmony. If you think that’s not a real thing, watch the Denver Broncos disaster unfolding between Russell Wilson and head coach Nathaniel Hackett. Or consider that after three straight 13-3 seasons and back-to-back league MVP awards for Aaron Rodgers, the Green Bay Packers quarterback is still complaining about how head coach Matt LaFleur calls his offensive plan.

Finding a rhythm with even the best quarterbacks can take a lot of time and patience. Anyone in the Browns’ orbit who doesn’t understand that is setting themselves up for significant frustration. It’s also self-inflicted because everyone invested in this should understand that some kind of flip-switch moonshot for an otherwise mediocre team is crazy. Everyone is warned right now and right here. If you’re tearing your hair out after a few spotty performances from Watson and the Browns, part of that is up to you. And if you’re apoplectic that Watson couldn’t pull off six straight wins to close out the season, that’s everything on you.

There is a decent frame of reference for expectations that can be drawn from recent history. If you want a comparable situation in terms of adding quality quarterbacks mid-season, look at the 2017 San Francisco 49ers. That team acquired Jimmy Garoppolo at the start of Week 9 of the regular season. He wouldn’t start his first match until Week 13. Amazingly, he closed the schedule with five straight wins. But it was a double-edged sword that I spoke with head coach Kyle Shanahan nearly 18 months later. For the coaching staff, the acquisition of Garoppolo and his debut with the team in 2017 was not the franchise’s destination. It was just the roadmap and a starting point for a possible Super Bowl appearance.

As Shanahan told me in the summer of 2019, “Jimmy’s 5-0 finish [to the 2017 season] was probably a little misleading about how much work we had to do then and still have to do now. It is part of the foundation, but there is still a process to figure out how to build above the foundation. We are still figuring it out. We feel good, but there is work to be done.

Six months after Shanahan said that, the 49ers and Garoppolo qualified for the Super Bowl. It took a lot of editing to get the list right. Changes in the coaching staff. List changes. Even changes to the pattern and how Shanahan called a match with Garoppolo in the saddle.

This Browns roster is way ahead of the 2017 49ers roster, but I always think of that San Francisco team when I think of what’s in store for Watson and the Browns on the football field. Garoppolo and Shanahan had a five-game sprint to learn things about each other and understand the fit with the surrounding roster. The Browns will have a similar six-game experience with Watson. Maybe they strike gold and win all six. Perhaps the result is something much less. But the insights gained are the communication, the interaction, the film, and the end results that will be the subject of a full autopsy this upcoming offseason.

MIAMI, FL - FEBRUARY 02: Head Coach Kyle Shanahan of the San Francisco 49ers talks to Jimmy Garoppolo #10 before Super Bowl LIV against the Kansas City Chiefs at Hard Rock Stadium on February 02, 2020 in Miami, Florida Florida.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan chats with Jimmy Garoppolo before Super Bowl LIV on February 2, 2020 in Miami. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

What can Watson bring to the field in 2022?

Each data molecule acquired becomes something for Berry to polish the list. Every missed play or mistake becomes a training point or schematic adjustment for Stefanski. And the whole process that unfolds becomes a lesson to fans who might have thought that a major quarterback addition changes everything. Can this happen? Sure. Whether it’s a transformational quarterback like Tom Brady or a final missing piece like Matthew Stafford. But as Wilson showed us in Denver, it can also go horribly wrong.

The key for Cleveland is carefully guiding the needle to experience the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Los Angeles Rams. And the part of those experiences that worked the best was having the high caliber surrounding talent that made the difference.

In perfect health, Cleveland has some of this skill. Other additions may be made this offseason. Not to mention all the moves needed to bolster the run defense and the languor of the defensive scheme that appears to be an extension of coordinator Joe Woods. But what needs to be understood is that Watson isn’t going to answer whether Jadeveon Clowney is a viable defensive play beyond 2022. Watson isn’t going to fix the defensive tackle deficit. He can’t make the offensive line healthier or add depth where it matters most.

What Watson can do is the one thing fans should expect from him for the final six games of 2022. Play clean and error-free. Protect football from turnovers. Develop a rhythm with Stefanski. Stay healthy and seek answers on which player skill position best matches his game. If he can do all of those things, that will be precisely what Cleveland needs in this brief window that finally sets up 2023.

The rest of the equation is on Stefanski and Berry, and whoever the coordinators are next season to figure out how to consolidate or rotate parts of the roster and schedule. As for fans, there’s really only one brutal mission that’s set to continue until next season.

Finding a silver lining and cultivating patience. It’s a lot to ask of this fanbase after all these years, but not reaching it now guarantees more pain and frustration than they already know so well.

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