Deshaun Watson injury puts Browns in awkward position, with plenty of questions to answer

This time, Kevin Stefanski eliminated doubt earlier in the week.

The Cleveland Browns head coach announced Wednesday afternoon that backup quarterback P.J. Walker will start against the Seattle Seahawks as Deshaun Watson rehabilitates his shoulder.

“With what happened in the game, landing on his shoulder, there’s residual swelling that’s affecting his throwing,” Stefanski said. “It’s the best thing for him to rest this week.”

The message seems simple — injured player missing game — and yet it contrasts how the Browns have handled Watson’s availability in two prior games this year.

Ahead of an Oct. 1 loss to the Baltimore Ravens, Watson was not ruled out until after a pregame throwing test. Last week, in the Browns’ narrow victory against the Indianapolis Colts, Watson managed five pass attempts before Walker replaced him. Watson wouldn’t return to the field, but he also wasn’t ruled out as he stood on the sideline.

Questions surfaced about Watson’s desire to play, Stefanski’s handling of an increasingly strange situation, and the clarity of communication between player and coach.

Such questions are natural given the atypical circumstances surrounding the Browns’ acquisition of Watson and the historic $230 million fully guaranteed contract they awarded him. Any investment as lucrative as this will garner additional scrutiny.

So as the Browns move forward, they ask themselves a slew of questions: How is Watson’s health impacting his production? How should the pocket-emptying investment impact risk tolerance? Does a playoff-caliber defense rush or ease the timeline of his return? And what lessons should Cleveland learn from predecessor Baker Mayfield playing through a lingering injury?

Yahoo Sports reached out to members of the Browns and league sources who have navigated similar quarterback decision-making via team and agent channels to better understand what’s at play.

Is Deshaun Watson injured, hurt or both?

Watson’s health is an important starting premise: The Browns do not consider him healthy.

NFL machismo culture often distinguishes between pain and injury, but one team source said on condition of anonymity: “I do think he’s actually injured.”

“Physical discomfort,” the source added, is impacting Watson’s ability to throw.

That element seemed to be misconstrued earlier in October when Stefanski said he trusted Watson’s assessment of his ability. Some wondered: Did that mean Watson was physically able but not mentally confident enough to produce? Another read says Watson wanted to play but the coaches needed to save him from himself, and save the team from playing with a player unable to protect himself from further injury much less execute the style of play that increases their chance of winning.

Deshaun Watson's health status has prompted more questions than answers so far this season. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
Deshaun Watson's health status has prompted more questions than answers so far this season. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

Watson’s off-schedule plays, athleticism and powerful arm helped power his three Pro Bowl seasons in Houston.

Even if Watson has no structural damage and doesn’t need surgery, swelling from what ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported is a strain of the subscapularis within the rotator cuff can trigger pain and weakness. Regaining strength and velocity, Schefter added, are the next steps on Watson’s road back to his baseline production.

Watson completed just one of five attempts Sunday. He was off-target on early short passes to running backs Jerome Ford and Kareem Hunt, then intercepted on a deep right throw to receiver Marquise Goodwin. His lone 5-yard completion wasn’t enough to convert a third-and-11, and then a third-and-7 pass he did send to a deep target … was caught by the Colts, Watson staying on his back after a defender hit his shoulder and his head slammed the ground. The interception was called back, but Watson, to the field, was not.

As one team source put it: You don’t want to field a player who is wounded.

Much less one on whom the team’s future depends so heavily.

“It wouldn’t be smart to ignore how much you’ve invested in him,” the source said, “to put him out there to possibly get more injured.”

But do the Browns want to maximize Watson’s current availability to expedite return on their investment or do they want to preserve their investment for the future?

And is that future later this year or beginning next?

What the Browns face next in navigating Watson’s health

A longtime agent who represents NFL quarterbacks said they often advise their clients that “it never pays to play through an injury.”

“I’m not saying don’t play through bumps and bruises,” the agent told Yahoo Sports on condition of anonymity. “But I am saying there's a time when you’re going to be injured and the tape you put up is not very good and it will cost you financially. Deshaun doesn’t have to worry about that. So Deshaun could have two reactions: ‘I don't need to play because I’m protected by this contract’ or ‘Hey, I’m protected by this contract, I can push through it and if something happens, maybe I miss the rest of the year and have surgery but I’m going to be fine because I have three more years fully guaranteed.’"

Watson’s inclination seemed to be to play as much as he could, and more than his coaches thought he could, whether because he believed he could mind-over-matter the injury or because he wanted to validate the investment he received.

The agent believed a team like the Browns, on the other hand, is motivated to play Watson … as long as he can throw well enough.

It seems, right now, that Watson cannot.

The Browns watched Mayfield gut through a tear and fracture in 2021 that he said was “preventing his rotator cuff from firing.” The Browns’ scoring offense slipped from 14th to 20th while Mayfield’s passer rating dipped from 95.9 to 83.1. Browns brass learned that it’s their job, front office and coaching staff alike, to step in and let capacity to perform at or near typical level guide playing time rather than mental toughness and pain tolerance. Stefanski acted on that principle in pulling Watson last game.

How long will sufficient rehabilitation take? The Browns will need to determine what threshold Watson’s value outweighs the risk. If edge rusher Myles Garrett and Cleveland’s defense can continue wrecking games without Watson’s help, that should buy him time. Garrett won AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors after compiling nine tackles, two sacks, a forced fumble and a blocked field goal in the 39-38 win. Browns kicker Dustin Hopkins won AFC Special Teams Player of the Week for the 15 points he stacked in making all four of his field-goal attempts and all three extra points.

At 4-2, the Browns next face NFC opponents in the Seattle Seahawks (4-2) and Arizona Cardinals (1-6) before a pair of division games.

AFC games matter more. Postseason games matter more. While competing in a division where every team is at least .500 complicates the playoff race, a healthy late-season Watson should take priority over a healthy midseason one.

A minor bright side is the Browns are getting to see how playoff-ready their defense and special teams are, including two weeks ago when they handed the 49ers their first loss of the season.

They’ll keep appreciating that as Watson rehabilitates. And they’ll hope that Walker, with a full week of practice, will fare better than he has so far. The Browns won both games he played, but he has completed just 50% of pass attempts for 370 yards, no touchdowns and three interceptions. His passer rating is 48.2.

Right now, Watson’s health might keep him from doing any better.

“I can’t tell you how much time Deshaun has spent trying to get back but we’ll continue to make the smart decisions for our football team and for him,” Stefanski said. “He wants to play very badly. He also knows that rehab is the decision this week. He’s going to do everything he can.”