The Deshaun Watson era has arrived in Cleveland, and judging by what his teammates have seen in his two weeks of practice, he should be ready for his first start Sunday in Houston.
Watson was officially returned to the Browns' active roster Monday after serving an 11-game suspension for violating the league's personal conduct policy. He'll start for the Browns next Sunday in Houston against the Texans and will be reacclimated with the first team offense in practice this week.
From CB M.J. Emerson Jr., Watson's arm has looked crisp even though he's worked with the scout team, which practices against the first team defense.
"He threw a fade on me, and it was like — I can't really explain it," Emerson said Monday. "It was like an overhead, back-shoulder fade that only the receiver could catch. It was out of bounds and a receiver had to throw both his arms over his shoulder to catch the ball. And I had no chance to make that play … That was a great throw."
The Browns believe Watson will be able to step in and deliver those types of throws in their remaining six games as they look to make a push toward the playoffs. That job will still be tough even with Watson back due to the 4-7 record the Browns accumulated in the first 11 games, but hope is still high among players that a strong finish is ahead after they defeated the Buccaneers in overtime in Week 12.
Now, they have a three-time Pro Bowl QB stepping in to provide a boost to the offense.
"I have seen it and seen some of the things that he can do," WR Donovan Peoples-Jones said. "It's amazing. I'm definitely excited to play with him and excited to continue to keep winning and keep our win streak up."
Head coach Kevin Stefanski believes Watson should have a smooth transition into the starting role because of that practice work. He's also been able to work out with the team's training staff, attend meetings and meet individually with coaches since Oct. 10.
"Next step is obviously being out there taking all of the first team reps," head coach Kevin Stefanski said. "He's been doing a nice job getting the defense ready with the scout team reps that he's gotten. I think he's done a nice job with his time away physically, staying sharp and mentally staying sharp, so I think he'll be ready to roll."
Watson also spent extensive time working with the first team offense during offseason workouts and training camp, reps that Stefanski also believes have carried over well to practice and kept him ready for his debut.
"We spent a lot of time together, and Deshaun spent a lot of time together with his teammates," Stefanski said. "We mentioned at the time, I still believe those are banked reps, so to speak. It's something where Deshaun has spent a lot of time with his teammates. I think they have all enjoyed having him back and being a part of the team. I think they're excited for him and this next step."
Check out photos of the Browns against the Buccaneers in Week 12
Praise for Schwartz
Stefanski commended second-year vet Anthony Schwartz for the multiple ways he helped the Browns take care of business against the Buccaneers.
No play was bigger, of course, than his 31-yard touchdown run on the opening drive. Schwartz, a 2021 third-round pick, also contributed as a gunner on special teams with his second tackle in the last two weeks and had one catch for 17 yards.
"I'm glad you asked about Anthony because I'm really proud of him," Stefanski said. "I thought he had a really nice game yesterday. He helped us win, scoring early there on the reverse and then, like you mentioned, on special teams he is doing a great job as our gunner. Making some huge plays for us in a field position game where we needed those plays, we needed that yardage in that game.
"Anthony played at a very high level. We have a ton of confidence in him and I think he will continue to help this team win."
The Browns celebrate after a win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on November 27, 2022 at FirstEnergy Stadium.
Solid special teams
The Browns might've found a spark they've long been looking for this season at both returner positions.
RB Jerome Ford and WR Donovan Peoples-Jones both ignited the Browns' special teams game with a few big returns. Ford, a rookie 5th-round pick, had two kick returns for 67 yards, including a 44-yard return in the second quarter, and has come on strong as a kick returner since coming off injured reserve in Week 10 — he's totaled seven returns in the three games since and averaged an excellent 30.1 yards per return.
Peoples-Jones, meanwhile, saw a season-high five punt returns Sunday and totaled 75 return yards, including a 29-yard return. It was the best punt return performance of his three-year career.
"I thought our special teams were outstanding yesterday, and we didn't on offense do enough with some of that field position, but it was a field position game," Stefanski said. "I mentioned it yesterday, it was body blows. It was not a game that was going to be up and down the field. All of the extra return yardage and then you have to punt, it does turn into a field position game. All of it mattered."