Jones: Deshaun Watson isn’t the QB he once was, but he can still help the Browns

Helping to clear the grass at Pittsburgh’s Agrisure Stadium on Monday night, Deshaun Watson looked dazed and confused.

Steelers linebacker Alex Highsmith blasted him, knocking the ball and the Cleveland Browns’ second touchdown out of his grasp. As the Steelers and their 65,000-plus fans celebrated TJ Watt’s 16-yard fumble return for a touchdown — a play that put Pittsburgh up 26-22 against Cleveland with 6:58 to go — Watson tried to find answers. It is futile to recombine.

On the first play of the game, Highsmith returned a Watson interception 30 yards for a touchdown.

These weren’t the plays the Browns expected from Watson when they traded for him from the Houston Texans in 2022, then handed him a historic, fully guaranteed $230 million contract.

Watson, a three-time Pro Bowl selection, 2020 NFL passing leader and regular MVP candidate, should have the Browns as contenders. 2017 No. The 12th pick was supposed to end decades of angst, misery and quarterback turnovers.

But he was guilty of three turnovers Monday night, only the second time as a pro, and some truly unclutch plays. The player who once drew lofty predictions that he would become the NFL’s Michael Jordan looked a lot like Michael Scott in the warehouse pickup game “The Office.”

For the second week in a row, Watson failed to complete more than 56 percent of his passes. For the fifth time in Watson’s eight games with the Browns, he failed to complete better than 61 percent of his passes after posting just nine sub-60 percent passing games in 54 appearances for Houston. Watson’s passer ratings (67.3 in Week 1 and 70.3 in Week 2) rank among the lowest of his career.

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It’s only NFL Week 3 and at 1-1, the Browns aren’t on the brink of disaster. But a loss to the Steelers would be a little more difficult for Cleveland and its faithful. And watching Watson lose, the loss felt so bad, the problems surrounding the quarterback were so grave. On top of that, the Browns lost one of the best running backs in the league, Nick Chubb, to a brutal knee injury this season.

If the Browns aren’t careful, the season could quickly slip away. That’s why they need to reinvent Watson STAT.

No magic wand. Watson doesn’t have a time machine to jump in and get his mojo back. He should do it the old fashioned way. Watson needs a mental overhaul to give himself and the Browns the best chance at success.

He looked like a shell during last season’s six-game cameo, which came after a 700-day layoff following a dispute with the Texans, allegations of sexual assault and misconduct from two dozen women, and then an 11-game suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy.

He may not be his old self there. Those breath-taking, mind-blowing dramas seem to be long gone. However, those familiar with Watson’s game say his problems are not physical. He still has the explosiveness and quickness to break down collapsing pockets and stun defenders in the backfield as he drives toward daylight. Watson still has the arm strength and touch to carve up defenses.

All of these problems are in his head, say two NFL talent evaluators who have studied Watson. They see it in the way he hesitates in the pocket: second-guessing whether he should pull the trigger or duck and run, deciding too late as the pocket collapses around him. They see it at a random rate that Watson executes. He thinks more and tries harder.

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The second half of last season was rust and shaking off the cobwebs. Now Watson finds himself constrained by the weight of hungry fan expectations and the weight of that $230 million fully guaranteed contract.

Go deeper

The Browns desperately need Deshaun Watson to play like a franchise QB after the Nick Chubb injury.

It’s time to strip the quarterback of everything to recall all the lofty expectations from his time with the Texans and Clemson. However, the path to greatness begins with simplicity.

Forget the Watson deal. He definitely is. He will never live up to it, so he should stop trying. As is. The Browns can request a rebuild to help with cap space, but they’re not going to ask him to give back the money.

Forget the 2020 season in which he passed for 4,823 yards (301.4 per game). Such a feat was impressive, but expecting to throw for 300 yards every game was unrealistic.

Watson should take the following approach: win, plain and simple. If the QB ends up passing 100 yards and rushing 85 yards, so be it. Find a way. Stop holding the ball so long. Stop trying to be perfect. If you have nothing to play with your hands, use those feet. Or, throw it away and live to see another. But if Watson starts to run more, eventually the defense will start to figure it out and leave a hole downfield to exploit through the air.

Style points don’t matter. Final results will come.

He can’t even allow himself to think about the fact that his workload has increased due to Sub’s absence. Other serviceable backs are still on the roster, as well as talented wide receivers and tight ends. The Browns still have a strong offensive line.

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Watson and company opened the season against two formidable defenses in the Bengals and Steelers, but the road won’t be easy the next two weeks when they host the Titans and then the Ravens. Cleveland takes the early bye in Week 5, but then comes another dream matchup: San Francisco in Week 6.

Cleveland’s coaches didn’t ask Watson to be Superman. They want him to play within the system and then let his instincts take over when things break down. They knew he was capable of that. There have been enough flashes in the past eight games and practices to confirm those beliefs.

If Watson can do this, he will be a step up. He can’t go back to the way he was in Houston. Evolution is natural. But if he adapts to a similar, less handicapping mindset and focuses precisely on rep, play, practice, winning the game, he’ll have the Browns on his back before he knows it and be headed for contention.

(Photo: Cooper Neal/Getty Images)

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