On April 22, 2021, the Browns were all the buzz.
Baker Mayfield guided the team to an 11-5 finish, good enough for a playoff berth.
Their run was cut (just barely) short by the Kansas City Chiefs and the heroics of Patrick Mahomes, who went on to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.
Flash forward one year and that buzz has turned into noise.
And rightfully so.
Deshaun Watson (and the entire Browns organization) faces judgment this season from three courts: the court of law, the court of Commissioner Goodell, and the court of public opinion.
That’s because this team has mortgaged its future for an individual facing 22 civil allegations of sexual assault and harassment.
There are two ways this goes down:
1) Deshaun Watson receives either no sentence or a light suspension (he shouldn’t) by the NFL and, despite over a year off, finds his form to lead the Browns to the playoffs.
2) Deshaun Watson is handed a season-long (or more) suspension and extends his time away from football another year or more.
In scenario one, Watson plays, but at what cost?
One can expect the Browns to carry the stink of this trade from pregame number one until the end of the season, no matter where it ends.
In scenario two, Watson doesn’t play.
In a league where quarterback play makes or breaks a team, a no-Watson season means the Browns are once again searching for a QB.
Sorry folks, Baker Mayfield isn’t coming through the door anytime soon.
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) April 19, 2022
In addition to Watson, the Browns’ QB room is rounded out by Jacoby Brissett and Josh Dobbs.
That’s not exactly the kind of talent that strikes fear into hearts across the line of scrimmage.
Oh…and they don’t have a first-round draft pick this year.
Or next year.
Or the year after that.
Eat your heart out Sonny Weaver, Jr.
Speaking of quarterbacks, the schedule isn’t going to be a walk in the park for this defense, either.
This season, the Browns will face the following quarterbacks: Joe Burrow (x2), Lamar Jackson (x2), Tom Brady, Justin Herbert, Josh Allen, and Tua Tagovailoa (who could be terrible, but worth a mention now that he’s teamed up with Tyreek Hill).
That’s eight weeks against some of the top talent under center in the league.
With the Super Bowl runners-up Bengals the betting favorite to win the division and Ravens second up, the Browns might be hoping for a wild card spot.
But oh wait!
This offseason saw the most seismic shift in talent, with an influx of stars moving to an already loaded AFC.
Players departing the NFC for the AFC already this offseason include Russell Wilson, Davante Adams, Amari Cooper, Khalil Mack, Chandler Jones, Von Miller, Robert Woods, La’el Collins, Randy Gregory & Marcus Williams.
The exodus from the AFC to the NFC has been much less notable.
— Field Yates (@FieldYates) March 20, 2022
It’s not just the Bengals and Ravens (and don’t sleep on Mike Tomlin) that the Browns have to worry about.
It’s the Denver Broncos with Russell Wilson under center.
Or Khalil Mack trading the Windy City for a volt of LA sun.
These were already fringe playoff teams before the AFC arms race.
It’s hard to imagine this team suddenly returning to the postseason this year.
That’s partially a knock against the team itself; their addition of Amari Cooper is admirable, but it’s probably not enough to keep pace with the rest of the AFC.
The competition is fierce, and the weight of Deshaun Watson’s presence will likely become a burden for the team to bear.
In a year from now, we may be asking if all of this was worth it.
With challenges on multiple fronts, it may be a long season.