BEREA, Ohio — The Browns have broken their silence.
Two days after acquiring three-time Pro Bowl quarterback Deshaun Watson from the Houston Texans, the team officially confirmed the deal with multiple statements Sunday morning. Owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam, general manager Andrew Berry, and head coach Kevin Stefanski all lauded Watson's abilities as a player, but also acknowledged the anger some fans are feeling about the trade in the wake of numerous sexual misconduct allegations against the QB.
"We spent a tremendous amount of time exploring and investigating the opportunity to trade for Deshaun Watson," the Haslams wrote. "We are acutely aware and empathetic to the highly personal sentiments expressed about this decision. Our team's comprehensive evaluation process was of utmost importance due to the sensitive nature of his situation and the complex factors involved."
On the field, Watson is widely believed to be one of the best signal-callers in the game, with 14,539 passing yards and 104 touchdowns since arriving in the league in 2017. The 26-year-old requested a trade last year as the Texans began to fall apart, but before such a move could be completed, more than 20 women publicly made accusations against him ranging from harassment to sexual assault. Much of the alleged misconduct occurred at various massage parlors around the Houston area.
Watson has denied the allegations against him, but did not take the field at all in 2021 due to both the legal investigation as well as the Texans not wanting to hurt his trade value with a potential injury. Earlier this month, a grand jury declined to file criminal charges against Watson, but civil litigation remains pending, and experts warn that even a lack of a criminal indictment does not necessarily constitute as a full exoneration in cases of this nature.
These concerns were evident as the Browns and several other teams sought to acquire the quarterback, and when the deal was announced on Friday, fan reaction in Cleveland was split among those who feel Watson can help the team win and those who felt like the club ignored his off-field behavior. However, following a "straightforward dialogue" with Watson and his camp during the process, the Haslams say they are "confident" about bringing him to Northeast Ohio.
"He was humble, sincere, and candid," the owners said. "In our conversations, Deshaun detailed his commitment to leading our team; he understands and embraces the hard work needed to build his name both in the community and on the field. Those in-depth conversations, the extensive evaluation process, his dedication to being a great teammate and devotion to helping others within the NFL, within the community, and through his charitable initiatives provided the foundation for us to pursue Deshaun."
Berry echoed those sentiments in a statement of his own, saying the organization performed "extensive investigative, legal and reference work over the past several months" in order to make an informed decision. In regards to Watson's on-field talents, the GM seems to believe the Browns have made a definite upgrade at QB.
"Deshaun has been among the very best at the position and he understands the work needed to re-establish himself on and off the field in Cleveland," Berry said. "We are confident that he will make positive contributions to our team and community as we support his return to football."
However, attorney Tony Buzbee, who is representing the 22 women accusing Watson, tells ESPN's John Barr neither the Browns nor any other teams reached out to him or any of his clients to discuss the case. The NFL has previously spoke to some clients as it continues to investigate Watson's conduct.
Both Berry and the Haslams referenced Watson as the team's "starting quarterback," which brings an end to the Baker Mayfield era in Cleveland. In four years as QB1, the former No. 1 overall pick led the Browns to their first playoff victory since 1994, but was also dogged by inconsistent play as well as limiting injuries in 2021. Mayfield reportedly requested a trade as the Browns made their overtures to Watson, but as of this moment he is still on the active roster.
Even though he has not been criminally charged, the possibility remains that Watson could face a lengthy suspension from the NFL. In apparent preparation for that scenario, Cleveland has signed Jacoby Brissett to be its backup quarterback, while trading former No. 2 Case Keenum to the Buffalo Bills.
The Browns have not yet said if they will hold a press conference to further discuss the move, but if they do, it's clear the questions will not just be about football. For now, the front office and coaching staff seem united in their belief that their own research on Watson and his past will suffice, and that he can help the team reach the next level.
"We understand the concerns and questions that exist but are confident in the extensive work Andrew and his staff have done to feel confident about him joining our organization," Stefanski said. It was important for us to meet with Deshaun in person as part of our team's evaluation process, we had a candid conversation regarding his approach to coming into our organization and community. I'm looking forward to the opportunity to coach Deshaun, he is ready to put in the hard work needed to help our team improve and make a positive impact in our community."