BEREA, Ohio — The six-game suspension Sue L. Robinson issued to Deshaun Watson earlier this week never felt like it was on solid footing given the NFL’s right to appeal the decision, but there was at least the illusion of certainty for about 55 hours when the Browns knew Watson would miss the first six games of the 2022 season.
Then the NFL used its appeal power and the illusion went up in smoke.
The Browns are back to the uncertainty they have felt about their franchise quarterback since he chose them back in March, unsure of when he’ll take the field for them this season, if he takes the field at all.
The collectively bargained disciplinary process added a jointly appointed disciplinary officer to the fold to initially hear the case and rule, but also created an appeals process where, if the NFLPA or the league appeals a suspension, the appeal is heard by either Roger Goodell or his designate.
The system might not be rigged, but it doesn’t exactly favor the accused.
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Robinson’s report from the initial hearing, despite what many viewed as a light punishment, was damning to Watson, finding the NFL was able to prove he violated three provisions of the league’s personal conduct policy: sexual assault; conduct that poses a genuine danger to the safety and well-being of another person; and conduct that undermines or puts at risk the integrity of the NFL.
Had you read the report before you knew the outcome, it would have been easy to conclude the league was going to get its desired punishment of an indefinite suspension of at least a year. Robinson, however, zagged in her conclusion, issuing a six-game suspension and stating the NFL was “attempting to impose a more dramatic shift in its culture without the benefit of fair notice to — and consistency of consequence for — those in the NFL subject to the Policy.”
She called her suspension “the most significant punishment ever imposed on an NFL player for allegations of non-violent sexual conduct” and called Watson’s pattern of conduct “more egregious than any reviewed before by the NFL.”
It’s hard to believe the NFL would appeal this suspension if it believed only one or two games would be added, considering the potential threat of a trip to federal court if they win the appeal.
The league is once again seeking an indefinite suspension of at least a year and, while it might not get it, it’s not impossible to see the number of games raised just enough to turn the Browns’ season on its head.
And, strangely enough, if they do get a significant increase or the indefinite suspension they seek, the Browns could still see their quarterback on the field Week 1 if the NFLPA takes this to court and an injunction is issued. Tom Brady played an entire season after his initial suspension for “Deflategate” was overturned by a federal judge. His suspension of him was reinstated on appeal in the federal court system the following offseason when he missed four games to start the 2016 season.
The collectively bargained appeals process, for what it’s worth, ends with the line, “The Commissioner or his designee will issue a written decision that will constitute full, final and complete disposition of the dispute and will be binding upon the player(s), Club(s) and the parties to this Agreement.”
So it’s hard to know what the NFLPA has to stand on regarding a document their membership approved a little over two years ago. Smarter legal minds than the one writing this column can weigh in on that.
It doesn’t change the fact we are back into the great unknown when it comes to the most important position for the Browns and the stakes on the field are high. Watson’s presence vaults them to Super Bowl contention. His absence from him leaves them fighting just to earn a wild card.
They didn’t sign Watson to a five-year, $230 million fully guaranteed contract with just 2022 in mind and the 26-year-old Watson has said he wants to spend his career here, so there is a long game to consider. But it’s also worth noting he hasn’t played a real football game since Jan. 3, 2021, the last time he’s likely even taken a hit.
If anyone can do it, it’s Watson, who looks like he hasn’t taken a day off in a decade, but coming back from nearly two missed seasons and playing at an elite level is nearly unprecedented.
See? More uncertainty.
The Browns have no room to complain about it, either. This is what they decided to take on when they got on a plane and flew to Houston to meet with Watson. It’s what they decided to take on when they came back with the contract they did to entice him to rethink his decision to eliminate them and it’s what they decided to take on when they shipped three first-round picks and more to Houston to bring him here .
It’s what a desperate team does when its roster is ready to win save for the position that impacts winning the most.
They knew there would be awkward press conferences and a potential suspension, even if the possibility of a full year didn’t seem likely. It would all be worth it to them for the talent they were acquiring, 24 civil lawsuits or not.
They are staring down the uncertainty of whether this will be a lost season or a speed bump, whether they will prepare Jacoby Brissett to start a handful games or consider finding a bridge option in free agency or the trade market to get them through the season.
They don’t know if they are staring at the possibility of another year in the primes of Myles Garrett, Nick Chubb, Denzel Ward and others falling by the wayside without having a real shot to win a Super Bowl, like they would have with Watson .
The certainty they had after Monday morning’s ruling was never real, but the absolute uncertainty that returned on Wednesday is — and they brought it upon themselves.
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Read Sue L. Robinson’s 16-page ruling here