By Bucky Brooks
FOX Sports NFL Analyst
The NFL has reached an agreement with Deshaun Watson that will result in the three-time Pro Bowler serving an 11-game suspension and paying a $5 million fine after he was accused by 25 women of sexual misconduct during massage sessions.
The lengthy suspension will keep Watson on the sidelines until a Week 13 matchup against his former team, the Houston Texans. Without their franchise quarterback for the bulk of the season, the Browns will need to readjust their plans to remain a playoff contender with a roster that looks like it is Super Bowl-caliber with good quarterback play.
Head coach Kevin Stefanski and his staff will need to create a plan that enables the Browns to remain competitive with their QB1 on the sidelines. Moreover, the one-time NFL Coach of the Year will need to huddle up with general manager Andrew Berry to determine the best way to navigate a path to the playoffs.
Watson suspended 11 games, fined $5M
Emmanuel Acho, Joy Taylor and Ric Bucher react to the NFL and NFLPA’s settlement on disciplinary action for Browns QB Deshaun Watson.
Do the Browns have a path to winning without Watson?
The Browns have one of the most talented rosters in football, with blue-chip talent at each of the marquee spots.
From Myles Garrett to Jadeveon Clowney, Denzel Ward to Amari Cooper, to the backfield of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt and a talented quintet of blockers at the line of scrimmage, the Browns are built like a heavyweight contender. With so much talent around him, fill-in QB Jacoby Brissett simply needs to manage games while making a few timely throws that keep the offense on schedule.
Despite an upside-down career record (14-23 as a starter), the seventh-year pro is more than capable of playing winning football in the right situation. Brissett has completed more than 60% of his passes with a 2:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio (36 touchdowns; 17 interceptions), which suggests he is efficient and effective as a passer. Although his pedestrian passer rating leaves something to be desired, the veteran has never been surrounded by a supporting cast that can alleviate some pressure on him to carry the offense.
With a punishing running game and a stingy defense behind him, Brissett simply needs to avoid turnovers and egregious errors to chalk up wins in Cleveland. Skeptics will suggest that the veteran is not good enough to get it done, but the Browns’ ability to play complementary football with a five-star lineup around a “game manager” could keep this team competitive until their starting quarterback returns.
Should the Browns pursue Jimmy Garoppolo?
Given the lengthy suspension of Watson, the Browns’ front office and coaching staff must compare and contrast Brissett to the quarterbacks available on the market as free agents or as trade targets. Garoppolo is the best available option, as he’s a proven winner with Super Bowl experience.
Although I do not see the veteran as a high-end starter, it is hard to dispute his 31-14 record and playoff success in San Francisco. With the Browns looking for a long-term sub at the quarterback position, Garoppolo’s familiarity with the system as a five-year starter under Kyle Shanahan is certainly intriguing to a coaching staff that wants to feature the “stretch-bootleg” combination as the foundation of its offense.
That said, a potential trade for Garoppolo hinges on money and trade compensation. The Browns cannot pay nearly $25 million to a long-term sub who will not be with the team next season. While Garoppolo’s experience and Super Bowl pedigree would certainly help the Browns play winning football, I do not believe that he’s significantly better than Brissett when money factors into the equation.
Will Browns trade for Jimmy Garoppolo?
The Browns were reportedly “considering acquiring Garoppolo” if Deshaun Watson’s six-game suspension was increased. Colin Cowherd reacts to the Jimmy G rumors.
Garoppolo is an oft-injured turnover machine who exhibits questionable judgment outside the pocket. Perhaps he can avoid the injury bug and rein in some “hero” throws that frequently lead to interceptions, but it is hard for a quarterback to change his style and approach at this stage of his career.
With Brissett better suited to play mistake-free football from the pocket, the Browns should hold off on pursuing Garoppolo until he is free and clear from the 49ers. At that point, he might be willing to take a bargain-basement deal to join a team with Super Bowl aspirations.
Which players become the Browns’ X factor in Watson’s absence?
It is hard to replace a franchise quarterback, but the Browns have enough blue-chip players to chalk up wins without No. 4 on the field. It might require Stefanski to play more smash-mouth football than he wants, but the Browns’ recipe for success revolves around their running game and defense.
Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt must play like the best 1-2 punch in football, with each runner displaying “take over the game” potential as interchangeable workhorses. If the Browns are able to consistently run the ball at will, it will enable Stefanski to take advantage of the single-high safety looks that opponents will live in as they attempt to slow down the running game.
In addition, the run-heavy approach will enable the Browns to control the tempo while utilizing a slow-down game plan that reduces the total number of possessions in games. Although a ball-control approach is meaningless without putting points on the board, the combination of utilizing a slower pace with a run-centric game plan puts an inordinate amount of pressure on opponents to score points in a hurry.
Given the premier pass rushers and cover corners who dot the Browns’ roster, the opportunity to play against quarterbacks forced to chase points should result in more turnovers and splash plays from a unit that will turn up the pressure under defensive coordinator Joe Woods.
If the defense can keep the score down while creating more scoring opportunities for a run-heavy offense that wants to pick up “three yards and a cloud of dust,” the Browns might be good enough to survive an extended absence from their franchise quarterback.
Bucky Brooks is an NFL analyst for FOX Sports and regularly appears on “Speak For Yourself.” He also breaks down the game for NFL Network and is a cohost of the “Moving the Sticks” podcast.
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