Deshaun Watson believes his game will only go up after a shaky debut last Sunday in Houston.
The anticipation of returning to the NFL after 700 days off and an 11-game suspension to start the season is over for Watson. Any questions about how he'd throw in his first game since 2020, how he'll respond to taking hits and how he'll react to playing at NFL speed were answered.
Those answers, of course, suggested that Watson had plenty of rust to remove to elevate the offense. He completed 12 of his 22 passes for 131 yards, didn't score a touchdown and threw an interception in the end zone. His 53.4 passer rating was a career-low. Those numbers won't help the Browns win every game, even though they still managed to beat the one-win Texans, 27-14.
A win was always the most important thing the Browns needed in Watson's debut. Next on the list was Watson feeling comfortable operating an offense again, which he believes he achieved.
"I was able to get the feel of the game, the speed of the game, how defenses adjust and how we are going to be able to adjust," Watson said. "At the same time, it was my first time in a live action with (Head Coach) Kevin (Stefanski). He has to feel how I feel, I have to feel how he feels and we have to be able to work on the same page and see the same thing through the same lenses. It was fun to be out there."
Those nuances aren't always visible on TV, and what people did see were a few passes that landed short into the turf and some other throws that were too far behind or too far ahead of a receiver.
Watson chalked those errors up to technique and believes they can be corrected as he rekindles the muscle memory required to make throws from any part of the field.
"It was just more mechanics, just my base, my shoulder plane and my shoulder leverage and keeping that up high," Watson said as he mimicked his throwing shoulder motion. "It was just all fundamentals with that."
Offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt said the Browns expected to see that type of rust, regardless of how well he looked in practice. QBs don't face real pressure in practice and aren't allowed to be tackled, either, so Watson didn't have too many opportunities prior to Sunday to replicate juke moves and mobility against actual defenders that made him a well-rounded QB in his first four seasons.
"Not to get over analytical on mechanics, but we saw some rust there that's very natural, very expected," Van Pelt. said. "As hard as you work and no matter what you do to try to simulate game reps, it's really impossible. It's little things, from shortening the drop a little bit, not getting as deep in the pocket, keeping your feet under you and (staying) balanced are all things we've been working on this week."
During practices this week, Watson sprinted from one spot of the practice field to another as the Browns worked through individual drills. The extra hustle is designed to help his conditioning and practice what it's like to lead a huddle after a play that required him to go on a prolonged run
"Just mind, body and everything — get my conditioning going, wearing pads, running and being able to move — because in practice and training camp, I didn't really scramble much," he said. "In the live action, being able to have the scramble, come back and do another play, call the play in the huddle, operate and sometimes hand it off and sometimes do a pass play, I have to make sure that my conditioning is up. Any way I can just try to improve that, that's what I'm going to do."
Every area of Watson's game is being looked at, and he feels he's making improvements.
Now, it's a matter of showing them Sunday in a big divisional game in Cincinnati.
Check out photos of players and coaches working to prepare for the teams regular season game against the Cincinnati Bengals
Darden provides possible relief for DPJ
The Browns claimed WR Jaelon Darden on Wednesday after he was placed on waivers by the Buccaneers. A second-year veteran, Darden has primarily been a kick and punt returner, two positions that might not have appeared as "needs" for the Browns with Donovan Peoples-Jones — who was named AFC Special Teams Player of the Week after a 76-yard touchdown return last Sunday — and Jerome Ford handling return duties well in recent games.
Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said Darden will mainly serve as a backup option for Peoples-Jones on punt returns and cited Peoples-Jones' high usage in the offense as a starting receiver.
"We're always looking to improve the roster," Priefer said. "(Executive Vice President of Football Operations and General Manager) Andrew (Berry), (Head Coach) Kevin (Stefanski) and I, we talked about that. Any time you have a player with Jaelon's ability, you are always looking to improve the roster. That has nothing to do obviously with Donovan. Donovan is doing a great job. I'm not looking to swap anybody out.
"Donovan plays a lot of offense. He plays darn near every snap on offense. At some point, he's going to get tired. At some point, he's going to need a break. Jaelon provides that ability to be a really good dual returner for us, if need be."
Bitonio WPMOY nomination 'pretty special'
Joel Bitonio was the Browns’ nominee for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, which is one of the NFL's most prestigious honors and recognizes one member from each of the NFL's 32 clubs for their exceptional performance on the field and their dedication to the community.
"It was pretty special," he said. "It's one of those things you see guys win the award for the team every year, and they do a lot of good things in the community. The Browns and Browns Give Back do a great job of encouraging guys to get out in the community. To see that award over the years and finally get it myself, it is pretty special. My mom was here. I knew she was here but then they kind of left and surprised me and let me know I won it. That was pretty special. It is a very cool honor. I was extremely honored to be it for the Browns."