April 17, 2024

BEREA, Ohio — The Cleveland Browns are without their franchise quarterback again. And the AFC North division race got another jolt.

On Wednesday, the Browns announced Deshaun Watson will undergo season-ending surgery to repair a fracture in his throwing shoulder. An MRI performed Monday revealed Watson had a displaced fracture to the glenoid in his right shoulder. Team doctors determined Watson needed immediate surgery to avoid further structural damage.

“I’m still in disbelief. I’m still trying to process all the information,” Watson said Wednesday. “I felt like we were turning a corner to really make a run and still believe we still will with the guys in this locker room. I just wanted to physically be a part of it. … It’s tough to try to wrap everything around my head right now.”

Watson’s season is over. But Cleveland’s season is not.

The Browns play the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS) in another key AFC North matchup with playoff implications on the line.

Breaking down what Watson’s injury means for the Browns — this year and beyond — and how it could impact the entire AFC playoff picture over the second half of the season:

Where do the Browns go from here at QB?

The Browns are turning back to rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson as their starter.

The fifth-round pick out of UCLA started Week 4 against the Baltimore Ravens while Watson was dealing with the rotator cuff strain. Thompson-Robinson struggled in that debut. He completed 19 of 36 passes for 121 yards, threw three interceptions and took four sacks, as the Ravens rolled 28-3.

Thompson-Robinson, however, didn’t know for sure he would be starting that game until a couple hours before kickoff. Watson had indicated all week that he would be playing until a pregame warmup determined he wouldn’t.

“I want to give him a week where he knows he’s the starter and gets a full week of prep,” Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said.

Prior to the Ravens debacle, Thompson-Robinson was a standout in training camp and in Cleveland’s preseason games. So much so that the Browns felt comfortable enough trading away Joshua Dobbs to Arizona (a move they must regret now, given the way Dobbs has played for the Cardinals and Minnesota Vikings) and initially declaring Thompson-Robinson their No. 2 QB behind Watson.

After the loss to the Ravens, the Browns started PJ Walker, who went 2-1 as the primary quarterback while Watson sat during the first shoulder injury. Walker led the Browns on winning drives against the San Francisco 49ers and Indianapolis Colts. But Walker also threw a late interception that helped the Seattle Seahawks come back to defeat Cleveland.

Walker ranks 43rd with a QBR of 24.4; Thompson-Robinson is 42nd with a QBR of 26.4. But the Browns are hoping that Thompson-Robinson’s upside will pay off as he gets more experience.

“He’s very athletic, he can make plays,” Stefanski said. “He has a very good understanding of what we do in our offense. He’s a young player that will continue to get better.”


What does this mean for the Browns’ season?

It definitely lowers Cleveland’s ceiling.

Watson was coming off arguably his best performance in a Browns uniform. Pushing through the shoulder injury and a high left ankle sprain, he completed all 14 of his passes in the second half against the Ravens. He also led the Browns on a winning field goal drive to defeat Baltimore 33-31.

“Kept on trying to tell y’all once he hits his stride, he’s going to be back to his previous ways,” Browns All-Pro defensive end Myles Garrett said of Watson shortly after the Ravens win. “We’re just seeing a glimpse into what he can be and who he is.”

The Browns were optimistic Watson was beginning to rekindle the form he had with the Houston Texans in 2020, when he led the NFL with 4,823 passing yards. The first-down plays he made in the fourth quarter in Baltimore, both running and passing, were especially galvanizing. Now, the Browns will have to move forward with a rookie passer instead.

Watson’s injury doesn’t mean Cleveland’s playoff hopes are toast. Led by Garrett, Cleveland has one of the NFL’s best defenses. The Browns’ offense also has plenty of experience adapting to injuries, having already lost right tackle Jack Conklin (knee) and All-Pro running back Nick Chubb (knee) for the year. As the 49ers learned, the Browns can still win games without Watson.

But with the way Watson was beginning to play, the Browns were starting to look like legitimate Super Bowl contenders. With a rookie quarterback, it’s difficult to see how that will remain the case.


After a second straight disappointing season, what is Watson’s future with the Browns?

The Browns have no option but to move forward with Watson as their starting quarterback.

Watson is under contract for three more seasons with $138 million left on the five-year, $230 million fully guaranteed deal he signed after being traded to the Browns in March 2022.

Watson’s dead cap hit in 2024 is $200.9 million. That drops to $139.9 million in 2025 and $72.9 million in 2026.

In other words, Watson isn’t going anywhere.

But now, he’ll be working his way back from surgery to his throwing shoulder. On top of that, he’ll be coming back having missed 39 games over the past three seasons. Watson sat out the 2021 season after demanding a trade from the Texans. And last year in Cleveland, he served an 11-game suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy following accusations from more than two dozen women of sexual assault and sexual misconduct during massage sessions.

Watson said Wednesday he’s “very confident” he’ll be able to rebound and become the quarterback he believes he still can be.

Watson now has an even longer road to get there. Browns owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam have already paid him $92 million, with little to show for it.


Should the Browns consider signing or drafting a QB in the offseason?

The Browns will almost assuredly head into next season with Watson and Thompson-Robinson in their quarterback room.

If Thompson-Robinson plays well, the Browns will likely feel confident with him as their backup next year. If he struggles, Cleveland will have to consider other quarterback options, whether in free agency or in the draft.

It’s too early to say what that plan could look like. But general manager Andrew Berry said Wednesday the Browns will be signing a third quarterback to the roster in the short term.


How will this affect the AFC North and AFC playoff picture?

Let’s start with the Browns. This is a major blow to their postseason hopes, but it doesn’t take them out of the race. In fact, FPI puts their chances at 63% to get in (down from 80%). Cleveland is 6-3 and in the No. 6 seed as things stand, despite having a team QBR of 37 so far this year (Watson had a QBR of 45). Thompson-Robinson has thrown just 37 regular-season passes, and he had a 26.4 QBR in his lone start. If he improves and brings that up near Watson’s level, Cleveland can still be a playoff team, particularly with its head start in the standings and with its elite defense.

Where this really hurts Cleveland’s projections is performance in the postseason. FPI gave the Browns a 15% chance to reach the AFC Championship Game prior to Watson’s injury, and that is down to 6% now. The hits to their probabilities of reaching and winning the Super Bowl are even more severe.

The biggest winners here are probably the Steelers, Bengals and Texans — all teams whose playoff chances are between 30% and 60% and who play the Browns before the end of the season. Not only do they face a lower threat from Cleveland for a wild-card and/or division-winner spot, they also now have an easier game on their schedule. In terms of playoff percentages, it’s only a few points for each, but a little boost still helps. The Ravens are winners, too: Their playoff spot is basically secured, but the division isn’t, and the Browns were the biggest threat in the AFC North. No longer: The Steelers now have the second-highest chances to win the division (19%) after Baltimore (56%, up from 50%). — Seth Walder

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