With Deshaun Watson aboard, Kevin Stefanski doesn't rule out wholesale changes to offense
PALM BEACH, Fla. — Browns coach Kevin Stefanski realizes he must strike a balance this offseason between tailoring his offense to Deshaun Watson and preparing for life without the controversial quarterback.
When the Browns acquired Watson on March 18 in a blockbuster trade with the Houston Texans, Cleveland's brass knew bracing for the NFL to suspend Watson would come with the territory.
The Browns not only shook up the top of their quarterback depth chart by securing Watson to replace Baker Mayfield, but they also traded backup QB Case Keenum to the Buffalo Bills on March 19 and signed Jacoby Brissett to fill the role.
Two dozen women have accused Watson of sexual misconduct or sexual assault during massage appointments. He faces 22 active lawsuits stemming from the allegations, but two grand juries in Texas decided March 11 and Thursday that he wouldn't be criminally charged. Watson continued to deny all wrongdoing Friday during his introductory news conference with the Browns.
The franchise will use its 33rd starting quarterback since its rebirth in 1999 when it opens the 2022 season in September.
And that starting QB might be Brissett instead of Watson, who will likely be suspended for at least part of next season.
“It's something we've spoken about,” Stefanski said Monday morning during the NFL owners meetings at The Breakers Palm Beach resort. “Until we know that final answer, I'm speaking in hypotheticals right now.
“But we have to be ready for whatever decision is made potentially go to Jacoby for a portion of it or not. We'll wait and see what the league has, and we'll plan accordingly when it comes to practice and those type of things.”
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Stefanski said he hasn't received clarification from the NFL about when it'll render a decision on a suspension.
In the meantime, the Browns are eyeing the start of their voluntary offseason workout program April 19 at CrossCountry Mortgage Campus in Berea, and Stefanski said he expects Watson to be in attendance from the onset.
There will be plenty to sort out, particularly what Stefanski's offense will look like with Watson at the controls instead of Mayfield. The Browns are expected to trade Mayfield, but they're in a holding pattern right now as they seek another team to take on the former No. 1 overall draft pick's guaranteed salary of $18.858 million for the next season.
"I think everybody understands the situation," Stefanski said, "and we’re hoping that there’s closure to it at some point."
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How much will Cleveland Browns change their offense for Deshaun Watson?
When the Browns hired Stefanski as head coach in January 2020, he brought a system to Cleveland he learned from Gary Kubiak while they worked together in 2019 for the Minnesota Vikings. Its staples are play-action passing and a running game powered by outside zone blocking.
“As your roster evolves, you better evolve,” Stefanski said. “... When you're talking about the quarterback position, you better do what that player does best, and that's what we want to do, ultimately. I had a lot of really good conversations with Deshaun from a football perspective, with the coaches, and I think we have a good plan moving forward. But that'll be an evolution. I mean, that that'll be an evolution over the weeks, months.”
Will Stefanski go as far as essentially tossing his Kubiak-inspired scheme out the window?
“Ultimately, we want to run the 2022 Cleveland Browns offense, and whatever elements that has in it, we hope that we have enough in our offense where we can pivot week to week to certain elements,” Stefanski said. “But to say that we're going to wholesale change everything? We’ll see.”
Stefanski said the coaching staff has already begun a deep dive into what Watson did with the Texans, who had him operating mostly out of shotgun.
“There's some things that Deshaun has done in his career that we have done last couple years,” Stefanski said, “and there's a few other things that maybe we haven't featured that we want to do more of now that Deshaun is our quarterback and really match what we're doing to his skill set.
“[We'll be] putting together [on film] all the things he’s comfortable with, then sit down with him, with our coaches, and let him talk through why he’s comfortable because what we need to do is we need to understand the plays he has 500 reps on and he has rote memory about what to do on each one of those plays that maybe aren’t a huge part of our offense. If he’s comfortable with it, we want to make sure we transition that into our offense.”
Deshaun Watson allegations discussed in meeting with Cleveland Browns
The Browns talked football when they met with Watson on March 15 in Houston during the sweepstakes for the three-time Pro Bowl selection's services.
“It was really showing him who was on our roster, who we have,” Stefanski said, “and then certain schematics that we featured previously and then really going through the tape of what he had and showing him some of the things that he's done that work.”
But Stefanski insisted he also spent time asking Watson tough questions about the allegations he faces.
“I won't get into all the specifics, but I will tell you that's an important meeting to get face to face for the first time and ask those questions and understand the person,” Stefanski said. “So I think it's an important step in that process was getting is front of him and finding out what he was about.”
Despite Watson's off-field baggage, the Browns traded six picks for him, including a first-round choice in each of the next three drafts, and signed him to a five-year contract worth an NFL-record $230 million fully guaranteed.
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Stefanski declined to provide details, but he discussed the decision with people inside and outside of the Browns organization. He consulted his father and longtime NBA executive Ed Stefanski. He indicated he also spoke with chief of staff/assistant wide receivers coach Callie Brownson and other women who work for the Browns.
“We want people to be involved, and I wanted to do way more listening than talking in those discussions and understand where everybody was,” Stefanski said. “It's hard and complicated and not easy, but I think it was my job and our job to listen. It's my job to continue to listen and continue to have that dialogue with all of our staff, particularly our women.
“I've tried, we've tried to be so understanding of everybody's viewpoint on this because it's really, really, really important. I want to just make sure that I'm available in our building to everyone to talk through because it's not something that was taken lightly. It's just too important. I wanted to make sure that everybody understood that this is something that took weeks, months, weeks of gathering information, of discussions and conversations. It's not something we could take lightly.”
Kevin Stefanski knows his relationship with Deshaun Watson will be crucial
On Friday, General Manager Andrew Berry described the research the Browns conducted on Watson in the buildup to the trade as “a five-month odyssey.” The comments indicate the early stages of the front office's due diligence on Watson began in October. Stefanski said he didn't become a major part of the agenda until after the Jan. 9 season finale.
“Until we're out of the season, I don't really get involved in those type of things,” said Stefanski, who announced earlier this month he will continue to call the offense's plays in 2022. “Obviously, once the season's unfolded, then we start talking about our plan moving forward. That's when I get looped in. But I was trying to get a first down back then [in the fall].”
Moving the chains became more difficult than it should have been for the Browns because their passing game fell apart last season. Mayfield suffered a completely torn labrum in his left, non-throwing shoulder in Week 2, struggled throughout the vast majority of the year and had surgery Jan. 19. His relationship with Stefanski also soured, with Mayfield publicly criticizing the coach's play calling twice last season.
It's worth noting Watson wasn't happy in Houston, even before the first lawsuit had been filed against him in March 2021. He asked for a trade in January 2021 after signing a four-year, $156 million extension with the Texans in September 2020. He also informed the Browns on March 17 he would not waive his no-trade clause for them, only to reverse course the next day and choose Cleveland over the Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers.
“I don't have a concern about that,” Stefanski said. “We talked about a lot of things. Not to get into the specifics of everything that happened with him in Houston, but we talked about a lot of things.”
Stefanski is confident he and his assistants can maximize Watson's talent, even though the partnership with Mayfield imploded.
“I think so much of that is the relationship between the play caller and the quarterback and making sure that you are aligned and seeing the game similarly, and that's where we just have to get to work,” Stefanski said, speaking about Watson. “When the guys are back in in April, we have a lot of ground to cover. And I know that he will put in the work to do that.”
At the same time, Brissett needs to gear up to start the season opener in case a suspension sidelines Watson.
“We just wanted to add a good player at the backup quarterback position,” Stefanski said. “[Brissett has] been through it, has started a lot of football games. He’s really a smart young man. Just getting to know him when they brought him in throughout the process, and I think we got a really good one there.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.