CLEVELAND — There is still a timing issue between the head coach and quarterback, still a “communication” breakdown, to reference the word Deshaun Watson used last week in explaining the problems with the Browns’ offense through two weeks.
Watson and Browns coach Kevin Stefanski still can’t get lined up. Watson went high to celebrate his 43-yard touchdown heave to Amari Cooper in the fourth quarter Sunday, while Stefanski stayed low. The opportunity for a pretty sweet chest bump between player and coach disintegrated into a clunky incompletion, another missed opportunity.
“I thought he was going to jump with me, but he said his Achilles and knees are not where they’re supposed to be,” Watson joked. “I thought he played safety in college, so I thought he had some ups.”
Watson finally earned the chance to joke and laugh and perhaps even breathe a little bit. His performance in the Browns’ commanding 27-3 win over the Titans was his best in a Cleveland jersey and the first time he really resembled the franchise quarterback worthy of the war chest of cash and draft picks the Browns paid for him.
Watson completed 27 of 33 passes for 289 yards and two touchdowns. He would’ve had his first 300-yard day in Cleveland if not for an awful call in the second quarter when an official ruled Amari Cooper stepped out of bounds following a deep sideline catch. Cooper never actually stepped out, costing Watson at least another 15-20 passing yards and perhaps taking another touchdown away from the offense.
Turns out, they didn’t need it. Watson was every bit the quarterback the Browns craved in their first game without Nick Chubb. This is all Watson’s offense now, even if nobody can explain what exactly it will look like in a post-Chubb world.
I asked a few of the offensive players after the game if they knew where this goes now with Chubb gone for the year. I got a lot of shoulder shrugs. It’s fair to believe not even the coaches and players know exactly how and where it goes from here.
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) September 24, 2023
Jerome Ford is quick and elusive, but he doesn’t have Chubb’s sheer strength. Part of Chubb’s greatness was turning a 2-yard run into a 4-yard gain, or turning what should be second-and-12 on a tackle for loss into second-and-9. All of those little gains always added up by the fourth quarter. That part is gone now.
The Browns continue to try and crowbar Elijah Moore into the backfield while shopping for new tires for Kareem Hunt. Whether either is really successful in those roles remains to be seen. What we all can agree on is Watson controls everything from here on out. There were more empty sets than usual on Sunday and maybe eventually that will progress to more up-tempo, no-huddle looks where Watson seems to thrive.
Watson was so precise on Sunday that his CPOE was 19.2, the highest mark of any quarterback in the league this year. Without getting too nerdy, CPOE is completion percentage over expected, which measures how much higher or lower a quarterback’s completion percentage is compared to the standard given the types of passes attempted. Down and distance, field position, air yards, pass location and whether the quarterback is hit on the play are just a few of the multitude of factors that go into the stat. Deep shots down the sideline almost feel like extra credit to the formula and Watson was rewarded with a few of those on Sunday.
CPOE is better with more data and using it for single games is dangerous, but Watson’s number was so incredible that it’s worth noting. Even Tua Tagovailoa, whose Dolphins hung 70 points on Denver, “only” finished with a CPOE of 16.5 — the second-highest mark this season.
Watson completed a couple of terrific throws to start the fourth quarter Monday night at Pittsburgh, but those vanished in the postgame autopsy once the Browns fumbled the game away. The Titans statistically have one of the worst secondaries in the league and gifted the Browns a handful of blown coverages again Sunday, but there were also terrific throws when Watson threw guys open and completed at least one pass to Donovan Peoples-Jones when he was blanketed in coverage and not even open.
Most importantly, Watson kept his emotions collared. He was fined more than $35,000 by the league after he was flagged for a pair of personal foul face-mask penalties in the loss to Pittsburgh. He took a beating in the media and on social media all week for his lousy play and responded by throwing more blocks on the website formerly known as Twitter than Jed Wills has made at left tackle all year.
Browns fans took delight in screen-grabbing the notifications that Watson had blocked them. I hated how thin-skinned the old quarterback was in Cleveland and Watson looks to be the same way. At least this time, Watson excelled on the field. He was far more poised Sunday than he was in Pittsburgh, in part because the Browns were never really threatened.
It’s early, and stiffer tests are looming, but Cleveland’s defense is playing at a championship-caliber level. The Titans didn’t break 100 yards of offense Sunday, and Cleveland’s defense has yet to allow a touchdown in two home games. The only touchdown Cleveland’s defense has allowed in three games was a 71-yard touchdown to George Pickens on a coverage bust. That’s it.
Myles Garrett has more help up front now than ever before and the secondary is swarming. If the defense can continue to play at this level, the Browns can qualify for the playoffs as long as the offense doesn’t screw it up.
More is expected of Watson than “just don’t screw it up,” of course, but given where this thing started through his first eight games in a Cleveland jersey, the Browns just needed Watson to give them something to feel good about, some sort of reason for hope. An offense that was gasping for air six days ago is starting to breathe again.
Nobody can say everything is fixed today, but there is at least the first shred of evidence that Deshaun Watson can one day be consistently great again. It’s still in there, somewhere.
(Top photo: Jason Miller / Getty Images)