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Where does NFL’s Deshaun Watson appeal leave Browns? Reality and the Jimmy Garoppolo question

Two days after the Cleveland Browns were informed that quarterback Deshaun Watson would serve a six-game suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy, the NFL appealed the decision made by independent arbitrator and former federal judge Sue L. Robinson.

That means this new and collectively bargained discipline system moves on to a new stage: a final decision made by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell or someone Goodell designates. It remains uncertain exactly who will oversee the NFL process and when an amended decision will be released, but the NFL is expected to seek a yearlong suspension according to multiple reports.

Watson was accused by at least two dozen women of sexual assault and sexual misconduct. Robinson’s proposed discipline came after more than a month of deliberation following a three-day hearing from June 28 to 30.

It’s hard to see the NFL extending this case without reason to believe it’s likely going to get its way (in the form of a more substantial punishment), and the league went into the final stages of this process seeking a suspension of at least one full season. The appeal can only include evidence that was presented in the original hearing, and Robinson found Watson’s behavior to be “egregious.”

The NFL Players Association released a statement before the original decision saying it wouldn’t appeal and calling on the NFL to adhere to the initial decision as well. The next step for the players association and Watson’s representation could be to take the case to federal court, at which point Watson might be able to play under an injunction or temporary restraining order while the case is pending. The NFL has a history of eventually winning cases that reach that level, but there’s no exact roadmap for how that would go. All we know now is that a conclusion could be coming next week since the NFL’s decision on appeal is supposed to be binding — or it could be months away if the players association sues.

The Browns signed up for this. They traded three first-round picks for Watson and gave him a record-setting contract while knowing he had civil lawsuits that were unsettled and that NFL discipline was almost certainly coming. Obviously, the Browns hoped Monday’s ruling of six games would mark the end. It clearly has not.

The quarterback situation

To this point, Watson has been first in every quarterback line and has taken every first rep with the No. 1 offense as the Browns go through their practice scripts. Jacoby Brissett has been getting a handful of snaps with the No. 1 offensive line since last Saturday, but Brissett has not yet taken a full drill’s worth of reps with the starters and has mostly played behind the No. 2 offensive line.

Going back to the spring — when Watson often worked not just with the starters but also took some of the No. 2 reps — the Browns have rotated running backs and wide receivers on almost every play but have closely scripted the quarterback reps. After starting camp with light jog-through sessions, lengthier practices over the last few days have included increased reps in team drills for perceived No. 3 quarterback Josh Dobbs. Josh Rosen, signed just ahead of the opening of camp, has only seen limited competitive reps in the team’s two most recent practices.

Brissett and Browns coach Kevin Stefanski have publicly discussed “a plan” for dividing quarterback reps and preparing Brissett to play early in the season. But not much has changed on the practice field, and neither Brissett nor Stefanski has shared anything about how much Brissett’s workload with the No. 1 offense might increase in the coming days and weeks.

The Browns signed Brissett the day after they made the Watson trade. The 29-year-old is a veteran of three teams, 60 NFL games and 37 starts, including five last year in two separate stints as an injury replacement for the Dolphins. The Colts started 5-2 in 2019 under Brissett following the surprise retirement of Andrew Luck before injuries — including one to Brissett — played a significant role in derailing the season. Brissett is 14-23 as a starter, completing 60 percent of his passes, and has generally done a good job of avoiding turnovers (he has 36 career touchdown passes versus 17 interceptions and a career interception rate of 1.4 percent).

The on-field impact of the appeal

The Browns had just completed their seventh full-squad practice of training camp Wednesday when news broke that the NFL had filed its appeal. Only one of those practices has been in full pads, and most have been around 75 minutes in length and designed — by league rule and the team’s own injury-maintenance plans — to keep the players fresh and limit soft-tissue injuries.

It would be unfair to make any kind of judgment on the state of the passing game based on a few practices and limited opportunities, but the defense has clearly outperformed the offense in most competitive drills early in camp. Watson’s talent is obvious to anyone who’s seen a practice, but completions of more than 5 or 6 yards downfield have been few with the other quarterbacks running the show. Brissett has been next in the quarterback line for the Browns. But I believe he has always been seen as a temporary solution. A yearlong suspension would mean that plan is completely out the window, and it would not be a total surprise to see the franchise pursue Jimmy Garoppolo or another outside option.

Garoppolo has been medically cleared following March shoulder surgery, but he’s only working out on his own after the 49ers decided to go with second-year player Trey Lance at quarterback. Garoppolo is under contract for 2022 at $24.2 million. The 49ers have to trade or cut Garoppolo before the start of the season to avoid that contract becoming fully guaranteed, so it’s almost certain that any team trading for Garoppolo would end up getting the 30-year-old quarterback at a salary less than his current one.

The Browns at this point must brace for Watson to miss all — or at least much — of the 2022 season, so while there are few realistic quarterback options at this point, the team’s decision-makers must talk through every potential scenario and outcome.

Personnel matters 

The Browns are built to run the ball and to let the power-run game drive the offense. The NFL’s deepest running back stable is led by Nick Chubb, who runs behind an experienced and well-paid offensive line. The Browns hope to open things up once Watson gets settled, but Stefanski likes to utilize play-action and misdirection in both the run and pass games to free up his best players. Even if Watson can’t play, the Browns are expecting a busy and productive season from wide receiver Amari Cooper, who was acquired in a trade six days before the deal for Watson.

This is the first time since the 2007 and 2008 seasons that the Browns have had the same head coach and general manager for at least three consecutive seasons. Stefanski has coordinator continuity, too, as offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt and defensive coordinator Joe Woods are each beginning their third seasons. Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer has been in his role since 2019.

The Browns return more proven talent than they’ve had at any previous time in the team’s new era, and the combination of a quarterback upgrade and the defense’s growth last season could add up to the Browns being legitimate AFC contenders. But if Watson can’t play for most (or all) of the season, it’s hard to see the team generating enough offense to crack the playoffs.

The defense brings back nine starters and almost all of its key contributors from a unit that played its best at the end of last season. The 2021 Browns finished the season No. 11 in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA rankings and were second in yards per play allowed at 5.0. The Browns finished tied for 10th in the league in sacks with 49 as super-freak Myles Garrett set a single-season franchise record with 16 sacks.

In the spring, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney said Watson was the primary reason he chose to sign a one-year deal to return to Cleveland. Clowney and Watson were teammates in Houston, and this is the first time since 2017 and 2018 in Houston that Clowney has played for the same team in consecutive seasons.

The Browns’ aggressive and expensive offseason that started with trades (and reworked deals) for Watson and Cooper also included new contracts for Clowney, Pro Bowl cornerback Denzel Ward and tight end David Njoku. With the performances of 2021 rookies Greg Newsome II at cornerback and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah at linebacker last season plus top safeties John Johnson III and Grant Delpit returning, high expectations for the defense seem realistic. Garrett is a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate, and Ward has emerged as one of the league’s best at his premium position.

The state of the roster isn’t such that 2022 is a total trophy-or-bust year for the Browns, and the Watson trade was never made with just one year in mind. But the Browns’ ceiling is significantly lower with Brissett (or someone other than Watson) at the game’s most important position, and the franchise backloaded its new deals this offseason to create salary-cap room now and significant rollover for 2023, when the cap is expected to rise significantly.

Players who are currently eligible for unrestricted free agency after the 2022 season include Clowney, running back Kareem Hunt, right tackle Jack Conklin, cornerback Greedy Williams, linebackers Anthony Walker and Sione Takitaki, defensive tackle Taven Bryan, safety Ronnie Harrison and all three quarterbacks outside of Watson.

The Browns’ next practice is Friday. They have four more practices scheduled ahead of their Aug. 12 preseason opener in Jacksonville. Based on the light practices to this point and how Stefanski structured training camp last year, arguably the most important on-field days of camp come in two weeks when the Eagles visit for two days (Aug. 18 and 19) of joint practices.

(Photo: Ken Blaze / USA Today)

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