CLEVELAND — There was a small commotion among fans directly above the Browns tunnel at FirstEnergy Stadium on Sunday.
Videos and photos of a real, live skunk in the stands started making the rounds during the first half of Cleveland’s thrilling 23-17 overtime win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. For a while, the skunk was trapped under the metal stairs, before finally wriggling its way free and searching for food among Cleveland’s henchmen.
The jokes wrote themselves. But let’s be honest, at this point the skunk is a pretty apt metaphor for the Browns’ 2022 season. At the start of the year not many people expected to be here, with a 4-7 record as Deshaun Watson’s suspension ended. At the very least, most people expected to be closer to a . 500 record and to survive a lot in the divisional race.
But after all the mistakes this season, especially on defense and special teams, I sometimes felt like this team was trapped by the identity of waiting for Watson to come back.
Now, after this game against the Bucs and with his first 11 games wrapped up, it’s all about what the Browns will do once he wriggles through the final six.
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When the Browns made their controversial trade to Watson during the spring, everyone assumed he would miss some time given the league’s personal conduct policy and the amount of sexual misconduct allegations he faced.
But still, at the time, no one seemed to think he’d be 11 again when Cleveland traded him in March. But that was the hand Cleveland and Watson were dealt in the preseason, and now they must work to find a new identity over these last six games as the future hangs in the balance.
In many ways, this season has been disappointing. For the most part, Jacoby Brissett was serviceable, stepping in as the starter with Watson. On Sunday, he was 23 of 37 passing for 210 yards and one TD with one interception.
The biggest and most consistent issues have been special teams and defensive errors. Early on for Defensive Coordinator Joe Woods’ unit it was misleading coverage and miscommunication. Then as the year went on, the Browns were vulnerable to exploitation in the running game.
Watson won’t have a direct impact on any of these issues — and in that way, he’s not the fix — all that many would hope for, since he can’t play defense.
Of course, having a midfielder of his caliber with his ability to tackle, arm and make play with his feet can make life a lot easier for any team. The big play is always around the corner, so if you fall behind, it’s easier to crawl out of a hole.
The Browns’ playoff hopes may be diminishing each week, so the most important thing over the next six is figuring out how Watson fits into this system, how to call plays for him and what he needs to be successful here, all things considered. They surrendered to get it.
Throughout the season, Brown was trapped in the identity of Waiting Watson.
The waiting time is over. They’re about to screw up, for better or worse.
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