BEREA, Ohio – The Browns finally have some clarity on Deshaun Watson's playing status. Now, they're waiting for closure.
It could be hours or days away.
More than four months since Cleveland signed him to a five-year, $230 million contract, Watson was suspended six games without pay Monday by independent arbiter Sue L. Robinson, who ruled that he violated the NFL’s personal conduct policy after being accused by more than two dozen women in Texas of sexual misconduct.
But while the long-awaited decision came as the Browns braced for the possibility he could be suspended for the entire 2022 season, nothing is final.
The league, which pushed for Watson to be disciplined harshly, is weighing whether to appeal Robinson’s ruling, which she detailed in a 16-page document. If there's an appeal — the league has until 9 a.m. Thursday to file it — the case will go to Commissioner Roger Goodell or someone he designates to either shorten, lengthen or maintain the punishment.
For now, Watson's debut for the Browns will be delayed until Oct. 23 at Baltimore — nearly 22 months since his last appearance in an NFL game.
About 90 minutes after Robinson's decision was released, Watson ran onto the practice field in his orange No. 4 jersey to cheers. It seemed like any other work day as he joked with teammates during the stretching period, fired precision passes and waved to fans clamoring for a better view or to get the QB's autograph afterward.
“I didn’t notice any difference,” Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said when asked about Watson's demeanor following the decision.
Watson is allowed to practice and play in exhibition games during his suspension. He continued to take most of the snaps with Cleveland's first-team offense Monday, with backup Jacoby Brissett getting the others.
The 29-year-old Brissett is poised to play in Cleveland's first six games, pending a change to Watson's suspension. Stefanski said the team will get both QBs prepared for the start of the season.
Watson's still first in line, though.
"More than anything he’s our starter, and we need to get him ready to play games,” Stefanski said. “Jacoby’s our backup, we need to get him ready to play games. Obviously Week 1 with the suspension we expect Jacoby to be in there.
“So there’s a point in our practice plan where we’ll shift gears, if you will. But for right now, we feel comfortable with the plan we have.”
Stefanski was the only member of Cleveland's organization to speak publicly, and that didn't happen until eight hours after Robinson's ruling.
Owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam issued a statement, with a team spokesman saying they will wait along with general manager Andrew Berry until the process is complete before commenting in person.
Stefanski said he hadn't read Robinson's ruling but planned to. When he does, he'll see where she called his behavior “egregious” and “predatory” and noted that the player's “lack of expressed remorse” factored into her decision.
She also weighed him being a first-time offender and his reputation before the allegations.
Stefanski has defended the team's pursuit of Watson, and he believes the 26-year-old, who has previously said he doesn't have any regrets, does indeed feel remorse.
“He's told me privately, he wants to be the best version of himself,” Stefanski said. “I believe that wholeheartedly. He’s working on that."
Stefanski’s also aware that some Browns fans will never be comfortable with Watson.
“I feel incredible empathy for anyone who’s been impacted by this decision,” he said. “It’s something that I don’t take lightly, I’ve spoken to women in our organization, I’ve spoken to women in the community, and that’s something I’ll continue to do.
“And our fans, whether you’re a man or a woman, our fans are really important to us, so I want to make sure they understand that and that they’re never going to be dismissed in any way.”
The Haslams attended Cleveland's fifth practice of training camp, but didn't speak to reporters.
In their statement, the Haslams, who were widely criticized for trading for Watson despite his massive legal issues, offered sympathy for victims while backing their star.
“We respect Judge Robinson’s decision, and at the same time, empathize and understand that there have been many individuals triggered throughout this process,” they said. "We know Deshaun is remorseful that this situation has caused much heartache to many and he will continue the work needed to show who he is on and off the field, and we will continue to support him.”
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