Youmans: Browns' big gamble on Watson could turn into historic bust

June 28, 2022 08:18 PM
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When making important decisions, it’s always wise to consider the worst-case scenario. When trading for Deshaun Watson and signing the tremendously talented-but-troubled quarterback to an unprecedented contract in March, Cleveland Browns executives were only dreaming big and not realistically weighing risk and reward.

Answer this question before making any futures wager: What could go wrong?

The Browns bet their future on Watson, seemingly blindly, and a lot is going wrong with the gamble. A blockbuster deal that was celebrated in Cleveland three months ago is already looking like a bust and possibly one of the worst decisions in NFL history.

“This is a guy who, when everything was right, is probably a top-five quarterback in the league,” Westgate SuperBook director John Murray said. “This is a Super Bowl-level team with Watson at quarterback, so it’s a very unique situation.”

It’s an ugly public-relations situation for the NFL and the Browns, who could be waiting a long time before seeing Watson starting at quarterback. The betting market is basically counting Cleveland out for the 2022 season even before a Watson suspension is announced.

Following a storm of sexual misconduct allegations and more than 20 civil lawsuits from massage therapists against Watson, the NFL is recommending the quarterback be sacked by an indefinite suspension of at least one year, according to multiple media reports. Watson’s hearing with a former federal judge who serves as an independent disciplinary officer began Tuesday, with a ruling on punishment expected soon. If the league gets its way, the NFL Players Association will likely appeal. The odds are stacked against Watson.

“I don’t see how they don’t suspend him for the year, but it’s a deeper issue with the union,” said VSiN analyst Michael Lombardi, a former NFL executive who was the Browns’ general manager from 2013 to 2014.

While the legal wrangling continues and the situation worsens for Watson, bookmakers have been adjusting or taking down all numbers related to the Browns. At the SuperBook, Cleveland’s odds to win the Super Bowl have soared from 16-1 to 60-1.

“As time went on, it became obvious Watson was going to get suspended, but just how much?” said Ed Salmons, the SuperBook’s top NFL oddsmaker. “There’s no money on the Browns because people don’t know what to do, so it’s 60-1 and climbing.”

If anything, sharp money is only showing against the Browns. Circa Sports opened Cleveland as a -150 favorite to make the playoffs, but oddsmaker Chris Bennett said he started taking money on the “No” side of the prop at 130 and the money has not stopped.

“We have moved the number several times, and I moved it to -210 because the market is so negative on the Browns,” said Bennett, who currently offers Cleveland at -235 to miss the playoffs.

While the Browns’ regular-season win total remains posted at Circa, where the number is 8.5 (Under -120), the SuperBook recently took down its win total of 9.5.

In late May, the SuperBook posted point spreads on every game of the NFL season, with Cleveland favored in 11 of its 17 games. All games involving the Browns were taken off the board in recent days. When the lines are reposted, the Browns figure to be underdogs in a majority of their games.

What many expected would be a six- or eight-game suspension for Watson now appears more likely to be a season-long ban. It’s doubtful the Browns can repair their broken relationship with Baker Mayfield, a four-year starter and former No. 1 overall pick who wants to be traded, so Jacoby Brissett is the likely Week 1 starter. I like Brissett as a backup and occasional starter, but if he’s the guy for 17 games, Cleveland’s best-case scenario might be nine wins.

At the SuperBook, the Browns are listed as the third choice in the AFC North at 270, behind the Ravens ( 160) and Bengals ( 180) and ahead of the Steelers (14-1).

“At this point, I would have to say no, Cleveland is not a playoff team,” Murray said.

Salmons admits to being more bullish on the Browns than the SuperBook’s other oddsmakers.

“Mayfield could end up being their QB this year,” Salmons said. “Who knows? The Browns have a much easier schedule this year. It’s a solid team that runs the heck out of the ball. There’s still a ton of talent on that team, and I do like the coach.”

Lombardi said he would bet against the Browns being a playoff team, but the quarterback dilemma is not the sole reason.

“It was not a good Cleveland defense by any means last year; their defense couldn’t get off the field on third down,” Lombardi said. “The only reason the Browns got Watson is because they agreed to the deal.”

It was an absurd deal at the time and it’s headed in the direction of a disaster for Cleveland owner Jimmy Haslam, general manager Andrew Berry and coach Kevin Stefanski. The team’s investigation into Watson’s behavior was nowhere near thorough enough, and a high price is being paid for the mistake. The Browns traded three first-round draft picks and more to Houston to acquire Watson, who signed a guaranteed five-year, $230 million deal that included a $44 million bonus that’s already in his bank account. 

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has dropped the ball on many of his disciplinary decisions in the past, and this time he wants to make a clear statement by sidelining Watson, who sat out all of the 2021 season, for another year. After two years away from the field and packing all sorts of emotional baggage, would he be the same QB?

It’s conceivable Watson could return and someday lead the team to a title, but that seems like a long shot at the moment. All things considered, it will be Super Bowl or bust for the Browns, who must be feeling buyer’s remorse.

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