BEREA, Ohio — Just a few hours after the HBO Real Sports special aired that featured interviews with two of the 22 women who have filed civil lawsuits against Deshaun Watson alleging a range of sexual misconduct, the Browns' new quarterback was on the practice fields for OTAs Wednesday.
Dealing with distractions
While the lawsuits are still ongoing, as is the NFL's investigation into Watson, the quarterback was hard at work and the team is adamant about keeping Watson's legal issues separate from the facilities.
"I think Deshaun, like all of our guys, are professionals and when they’re here, we have a job to do. And we try very hard to block out and leave outside outside and make sure that we’re focusing on the day-to-day tasks at hand when it comes to football," said head coach Kevin Stefanski after Wednesday's practice session.
The aforementioned HBO special had been talked about by the team but it wasn't something they watched when it aired Tuesday evening, as several of them confessed.
“I honestly haven’t seen it, a lot of people said it was a video or something I haven't seen it but from the locker room he comes in here, he blocks out all the outside noise and my relationship with him right now is fine," said cornerback Greg Newsome II. "He's been great, like I said, a great leader, he’s going to help this team win and I can't really comment on the video last night because I wasn’t able to watch it."
Stefanski also said he didn't watch the show but read reports of what the episode consisted of. The coach reiterated what has been said of the Browns decision to bring Watson into the organization, but also acknowledged that as Watson's legal proceedings move forward, it will obviously be a topic of discussion.
"We did a lot of work on that as we’ve talked about. We did a lot of work on Deshaun the person and the legal proceedings... so I won’t comment much further than that," Stefanski said. "But we understand with respect to that, we’re going to be dealing with [that] as these proceedings go on."
Meanwhile, veteran linebacker Anthony Walker said that Watson has been focused on football while around the team and has been keeping his outside issues separate.
"I think he does a good job coming in every day and leaving outside, outside, and coming in and focusing on football while he’s here," Walker said. "I can’t speak on anything else, but I know when he’s here, he’s locked in and happy to be back on the field and we’re happy to have him as our quarterback. He’s confident, looks good throwing the ball and I know what he does on game day.”
And his teammates are not particularly keen on digging into the legal proceedings either.
"I don’t think that’s any of our business. His job in here is to play football not to tell us about his personal matters," Newsome said. "He leaves those outside and he handles those with his family and then when he comes in this building we’re all about the work.”
Shaking off the rust
While Watson deals with the lawsuits against him off the field, he's also having to manage on the field performance as well. With his last game played in January 2021, it's been quite a while since Waston was under center.
On Wednesday, he continued working to shake off the rust. Throughout the open practice session, Watson looked like the elite quarterback the team was so willing to give the mega-$230 million guaranteed contract to. His motions looked natural, his passes were on target and strong. While they were just in helmets, no pads, it was the first look at Watson as the new offensive leader of the Browns.
After practice, Stefanski noted that Watson had "another good day" after saying that he had also been "sharp yesterday." But said while Watson is shaking off the rust, he's not the only one.
"I think he’s doing that. I think anytime you’re practicing you’re doing that, but certainly game speed and those type of things, that’s something that will come in preseason games. But I definitely think it’s for all of these guys, they’re shaking off an element of rust just from that break," Stefanski said.
Running back Nick Chubb, who notoriously doesn't have much to say and sticks to letting his work on the field speak for him, did comment on Watson's impact so far on the team.
“He’s been great. The throws he makes are incredible. He’s definitely a special player. I can’t wait to work with him," Chubb said. “He’s a great guy to be around. We all love him. He’s a natural leader. He’s been here since OTAs started. He took his own trip. I think those things bring in trust and bonding for our team.”
Chubb added that Watson's skillset that he's already witnessed early into offseason workouts is something that will bolster the offense because “he can create big plays. He’s a playmaker, so he’ll be able to do anything and everything on the field and be more electric.”
The admiration Chubb has for Watson shouldn't be conflated with his relationship with quarterback Baker Mayfield, who as expected was not at OTAs as he continues waiting to be dealt to a new team.
“Me and Baker came in together, so we’ve always been close. That won’t change at all. He’ll still be one of my best friends. He’s a great person overall, so those things won’t change at all,” Chubb said. "I know Baker. His attitude, his intensity, wherever he goes. It’ll be on. He’ll be ready.”
A different image
While Watson's legal proceedings are very much still in front of him, the image of his past is something he would like to recover in some way. Having been known for his philanthropic efforts and involvement in the community, Watson said at his introductory press conference that giving back here in Northeast Ohio was something he desires to do, but not until it felt right for everyone.
On Wednesday, a small hint of those words was observed as Watson joined other teammates after practice, meeting with members of the military who had been invited to watch the session.
Taking pictures and signing autographs, Watson—alongside Chubb, Walker, John Johnson III, Kareem Hunt, Donovan Peoples-Jones, Jacoby Brissett and others—got a taste for getting back in the community through the interactions with the service members.
Some other #Browns players who met with military members today included John Johnson III, Nick Chubb. Kareem Hunt, Donovan Peoples-Jones, Amari Cooper, Greedy Williams and Jacoby Brissett. pic.twitter.com/KWmvcbk3NE— Camryn Justice (@camijustice) May 25, 2022
The military action wasn't the only gesture Watson made after practice—interrupting Walker's press conference briefly to give him a gift. Watson walked over and handed his teammate an off-white box before the two hugged and Watson went back into the facilities.
It wasn't any old box, however. Inside the box lay a new Rolex watch—a thank you from Watson to Walker for a number swap. Walker had worn No. 4 last season, but upon Watson's arrival, Walker gave up the number and switched to No. 5.
"Deshaun said he was coming to Cleveland, I text him 10 seconds later and said, ‘Welcome to Cleveland, No. 4," Walker said. "That was it.”
Walker's generosity did not go unacknowledged, and Watson made sure to return the favor.
Wednesday's gift exchange came after Watson paid for a team trip to the Bahamas last weekend leading into this week of OTAs, taking a majority of the offense. Receivers to running backs to offensive linemen and other quarterbacks—to a tropical paradise, bonding while also getting some football work in as well.
As Watson looks to rebuild his image, he's adamant about clearing his name and fighting the lawsuits against him. While he maintains his innocence of any maleficence, the fact of the matter remains there are still 22 open lawsuits against him making that difficult, as well as the looming threat of suspension from the league.
A timeline for any resolution in the league's investigation is not available but NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said Tuesday that their investigation into Watson is nearing the end.
So for now, Watson will keep working, to separate the legal proceedings from his work, to further create chemistry with his teammates and the tall task of regaining the trust of the community while proving his innocence. Only time will tell how well he will be able to accomplish his many goals.
Camryn Justice is a reporter at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Twitter @camijustice.
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