Few fans, no traffic, boos and cheers, offensive themes: what it was like to cover Deshaun Watson’s return to the field

HOUSTON — It looked like 700 days since Deshaun Watson had played in an NFL football game.

There’s no way around it. Cleveland’s 27-14 win over the Texans – Watson’s former team – was odd. And the reality is, it’s not surprising, because no one knew what to expect when Watson returned from his 11-game suspension for breaching the league’s personal conduct guidelines, a suspension that came after allegations of sexual misconduct at massage therapy appointments.

The Browns’ offensive drive chart on Sunday ran as follows: punt, fumble, interception, safety, punt, punt, end of the half, punt, punt, field goal, punt, field goal

For most of the afternoon, the rust that everyone had been talking about for the past week was evident. Many of Watson’s throws were low. There were misinterpretations, too, including his interception in the first quarter when he thought he saw a wide-open Amari Cooper in the end zone before Houston DB’s Jalen Pitre read the throw and picked it up.

Overall, I thought Kevin Stefanski was somewhat conservative calling games and wasn’t overdoing it using the Browns’ shiny new toy. I still believe the timing, rhythm and chemistry with Watson’s teammates will take time to develop. Again, 700 days is a long time not to play NFL football.

The Browns, on the other hand, got their touchdowns in unlikely places: defense and special teams.

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There was the Donovan Peoples-Jones 76-yard punt return for a score, Denzel Ward’s fumble recovery for a score, and the Tony Fields II interception for a score. All odd, all unexpected, but given the circumstances of this game, it’s not surprising that pretty much everything was unusual.

Watson, of course, came to Cleveland with a tarnished reputation from Houston. He has been accused by over two dozen women of sexual misconduct at massage appointments and sat out all last season after a trade request and when those allegations came true. He was faced with 26 civil lawsuits, 23 of which were settled, two of which are pending and one lawsuit was dropped shortly after it was filed.

No one knew what kind of reception Watson would get when he returned to the city where the allegations first emerged, where he had been drafted and where he began his career.

But in the end, much like the product in the box, I don’t think it’s what many expected.

The initial vibe upon arrival in Houston: Almost everyone here is excited about the Texans, who went into this game 1-9-1 and went 8-25 combined the previous two seasons. Everyone from the Uber driver to the waiter shared similar thoughts with me: Mainly that Texans were so bad that most didn’t really pay attention to what was happening that weekend.

And it was obvious they were right considering the stadium was half full, lack of traffic and ample parking around NRG Stadium. If I had to guess, at least 40% of those in attendance at NRG were dressed in brown and orange.

While people had negative words for Watson, the vibe I got here was that they’re relieved the saga is behind them. The Browns were booed when Watson took the field and at the start of most of their drives. But before the game, Watson was greeted with cheers and autograph requests.

There were no protests outside the stadium and it was not apparent if or where in the stadium plaintiffs’ attorney Tony Buzbee had a suite of Watson’s accusers. Buzbee, who filed 25 of the 26 civil suits against Watson, invited all 25 accusers to join him in a luxury box, and about 10 agreed to attend. Buzbee said Watson’s accusers wanted him to know: “You think you’ve put us behind you, but we’re still here.”

But during the game, perhaps the most notable aspect of this crowd was the lack of fans in the stands. Aside from the boos and a handful of signs, we could make out two from the press box, one that read “No Means No” and another that read “Shame on #4.” That was pretty much the extent of the pushback, meaning Watson got off pretty easy in terms of fan base reaction in his former homeland.

Fans went in droves after Fields returned for a touchdown earlier in the fourth quarter.

Given the circumstances, Watson’s return to the field was unexpected and disappointing.

It’s unclear what exactly lies ahead, but I certainly expect more backlash from fans when the Browns head out to a division rival in Cincinnati next week. But now that the return is out of the way, I still think there’s really no telling where Watson and this Browns team will go.

The moral of this Browns season and the Watson saga is simple, nothing is predictable.

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