BEREA, Ohio — Deshaun Watson entered NRG Stadium in Houston last Sunday with a lot on his plate—returning to the field after nearly two years away; making his debut from an 11-game suspension with his new team while facing his old one; and navigating the energy of fans who used to cheer him on, many of whom instead booing him and waiving signs of opposition as they stood in the crowd.
The pressure to perform wasn't what Watson attributes to a shaky first game against the Texans, which saw him throw 12-for-22 for just 131 yards with an interception to boot. Many of his passes were thrown to the ground as the quarterback struggled to showcase the accuracy his teammates raved about prior to his first game back. Known for his ability to be mobile as well as sling the ball, he also got a taste of what it was like to move out of the pocket and have to work on his feet. For Watson, the struggles were more about the feel of the game.
“Not so much nerves, it's just trying to feel the game. I haven't played in a while, so being able to go out there into live action and do a game plan with guys coming after me and trying to get the ball," Watson said. "Just trying to settle in as much as I can and just try to do what I need to do to make sure that the offense is operating to help the team win.”
This week, with the Cincinnati Bengals next on the schedule, Watson is trying to do what he can to continue his growth. Game reps will simply have to come with time, but in terms of the game speed, well, Watson has found a way to work on that this week.
Work on scrambling? Sprint from drill to drill at practice. Timing? Focusing on placing the ball uniquely for his receivers. Poise? Connecting with his offensive line to create trust in his protection when they hit the field on game day.
"It was just mostly just being able to adjust. Like I said before, just really just the conditioning level, being able to go out there and operate, see things like I've been seeing it before and then get on the same page with the whole offensive staff of what we want to do for the game plan to execute," Watson explained.
Watson was self-aware of his disappointing outing in Houston but there was more than just getting up to speed physically. It was balancing the emotions of his return as well.
Watson's 11-game suspension was issued for violating the NFL's Personal Conduct Policy after numerous allegations of sexual misconduct and subsequent lawsuits were filed against him from dozens of women in Houston. Though he's maintained his innocence even through the settlements he's reached with the women, some have remained steadfast in getting justice by not going away. Some even attended the game in Houston with their attorney.
The perception of Watson in Houston and around the sports world has drastically changed over the past two years, going from a hero in Houston to a polarizing figure.
That is something that no one could overlook, not even Watson.
"Last week, it was a lot. The anticipation to just be back on the field, the anticipation of going back to my former team, the anticipation of playing against former teammates and being in front of a crowd that used to cheer for me at the time. So all that stuff was definitely, it was a lot," Watson said. "I'm human so I definitely have things running through my mind and through my just soul in general. But I'm glad that's out the way and I'm glad we got to win and I'm just trying to look forward to this week."
Even Watson's teammates understood that and perhaps even expected it.
"It’s emotional. We always talk about revenge games for guys going back to teams they played in the past. That’s a whole other aspect of it, too. That’s where his career was. That’s where he started. He had tons of people there and stuff like that. It’s a distraction as well," said offensive lineman Joel Bitonio. "It’s all a part of shaking off the rust. We have a lot of confidence in him and his ability to bounce back and grow from week to week.”
That confidence is shared by Watson's coaching staff as well.
Offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt said before the Texans game that he expected Watson to show signs of rust, but took a light-hearted approach when asked if it was as bad as he planned for.
"I wasn't really sure the level of rust," Van Pelt laughed. "He got better as the game went on. He really made some good plays, did some great things with his legs, avoided pressure, threw some really nice balls at times—and then other times it didn't come out of his hand the way he wanted to. So you see what it looks like when it's all pretty and it looks right and I think that's what we'll start to see more of moving forward."
And Watson, he's balancing the work to improve physically and mentally this week. The weight of last week's game, and the magnitude and external pressure it exuded, off his shoulders. His defense and special teams helped carry that weight last week—now it's time for Watson to help shoulder the load. While the hope is that he can do that right away against the Bengals, that might not be the reality. But he believes that soon enough he'll shake off the rust and get back to the elite quarterback that the Browns spent $230 million to bring to the team and put them in the top tier of NFL teams.
"Just playing football, just being out there, just playing football, doing what I'm doing, just finding myself — all of that stuff's got to come back and like I said last week, I don't know when it's going to come back. I don't know if it was going to be last week, this week," Watson said. "My job is to just keep getting better and when it clicks it, it clicks and everyone will feel that. So like I said, just keep improving, keep trying to do my best to make sure that the team is up and up to the challenge and trying to score points and win games."
Camryn Justice is a reporter at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Twitter @camijustice.
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