Deshaun Watson suspended six games: NFL issues ruling on Browns QB on personal conduct policy

Months after trading six draft picks and committing a fully guaranteed $230 million to land Deshaun Watson from the Texans, the Browns have lost their star quarterback for the first six games of the 2022 season, CBS Sports NFL Insider Josina Anderson reports. Former federal judge Sue L. Robinson decided Monday to suspend Watson for six weeks after hearing testimony regarding the former Pro Bowler’s alleged off-court conduct. The QB this offseason has faced civil lawsuits from 24 different women accusing him of sexual assault or misconduct.

Under this suspension, Watson will miss the following games to start Cleveland’s season: at the Panthers, against the Jets, against the Steelers, at the Falcons, against the Chargers, against the Patriots. His first game back will be on October 23 when the Browns visit the Ravens in Week 7.

Watson’s suspension comes after multiple reports indicated the NFL would seek at least a season-long ban for the QB, who recently reached confidential settlements for 20 of 24 lawsuits. It is the toughest discipline in the league imposed on a QB since Michael Vick was banned indefinitely in 2009, before serving a nearly two-year prison sentence.

Two different Texas grand juries declined to file criminal charges against Watson, who was accused of committing a pattern of sexual abuse during dozens of private massage therapy sessions. Watson himself has publicly denied any wrongdoing, claiming through his lawyer that some sessions led to consensual activity. But the NFL has determined in its own investigation that the former Clemson star seriously violated its personal conduct policy. In Robinson’s decision, she also ruled that Watson should get all of his massage therapy from the club’s therapists, according to NFL Network.

It’s not the first time the league has suspended a QB over sexual assault allegations that didn’t lead to criminal charges, with Jameis Winston and Ben Roethlisberger serving multiple-game suspensions in 2018 and 2010, respectively. The main difference in Watson’s case was the large number of accusers, with The New York Times statement in June that Watson sought out sexual activity while booking at least 66 different massage therapists over a 17-month period while playing for the Texans.

The Browns aggressively recruited and acquired Watson in March as he still faced 22 pending misconduct lawsuits, and just days after the first grand jury declined to press charges. They signed the former first-round pick to a record, fully guaranteed, five-year, $230 million extension as part of the trade, making the 26-year-old QB one of the best players paid from the NFL. General manager Andrew Berry and coach Kevin Stefanski have repeatedly defended the character of Watson since the trade, citing their own investigation into the QB’s off-court history.

Watson’s lucrative Browns contract was also structured in such a way that planned a major suspension, with almost all of his 2022 salary in the form of a signing bonus. Under the suspension, Watson will lose $333,333 in salary.

In the meantime, the biggest impact of Watson’s suspension is on the field, where the Browns will be without their most prized polarizing addition in years. Cleveland effectively dumped former No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield, its starter since 2018, by recruiting and rewarding Watson. Mayfield was then traded to the Carolina Panthers. Now the Browns, seemingly built to struggle now thanks to star power on both sides of the ball, are poised to hand the offense to backup journeyman Jacoby Brissett, signed this offseason to replace Case Keenum. It’s also possible that Cleveland will seek outside help, possibly via trade, with the 49ers’ Jimmy Garoppolo being the most notable option in the market.

Watson was widely regarded as one of the best young QBs in the NFL before his alleged off-field transgressions caused him to miss the entire 2021 season, when he was effectively on paid leave from the Texans while seeking a trade. He helped Houston earn a pair of game-winning records from 2017 to 2020, throwing a career-high 33 touchdowns in his final season on the court.

Watson has the power to appeal his suspension, but the NFLPA said in a statement the day before the decision that it would not. They also implored the NFL not to appeal either. Any appeal would ultimately be decided by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, which would apparently make it unlikely that he could significantly reduce his sentence. (Goodell previously reduced Roethlisberger and Vick’s suspensions after in-person meetings, but Watson’s case has a different breadth.) The NFLPA could also sue the NFL for unfair discipline in light of some team owners (that’s i.e. Daniel Snyder of the COs) who would have received lighter penalties for the sexual assault charges, but in the past prosecutions for suspensions have been found to only delay, not significantly reduce or reverse, the discipline of the NFL.

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