Cleveland Browns brush off criticism over record-setting Deshaun Watson contract
PALM BEACH, Fla. — Cleveland Browns Chief Strategy Officer Paul DePodesta flashed back to his former life as a Major League Baseball executive and recalled driving toward Cleveland Heights when news broke about Gary Sheffield signing a record-setting contract.
“On the radio, I heard that Gary Sheffield was going to get paid $10 million a year, like AAV [average annual value], right? I mean, record-setting,” DePodesta said Tuesday during the NFL owners meetings at The Breakers Palm Beach resort. “The reality is those records get broken pretty much every year, and now again that was close to 25 years ago. You look back, and it's sort of quaint that that was a big deal that someone got to $10 million.”
DePodesta told the story because the Browns trading for Deshaun Watson on March 18 and giving the controversial quarterback a five-year contract worth $230 million fully guaranteed is among the hottest topics in the world of sports. The deal broke the previous record for guaranteed money in an NFL contract by $80 million.
“It's not that we don't take it lightly,” DePodesta said, “but I doubt it'll be a record for very long.”
Watson faces 22 active lawsuits from women accusing him of sexual misconduct or sexual assault during massage appointments, though two grand juries in Texas decided March 11 and Thursday he wouldn't be criminally charged. Watson has denied all wrongdoing.
After the first grand jury ruling, the Browns, Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers engaged in an intense competition for Watson, a three-time Pro Bowl selection in danger of being suspended by the league for part of next season.
The Browns ultimately prevailed in the sweepstakes, and it was a stunning twist because Watson had informed them on March 17 he wouldn't waive the no-trade clause in his contract to play for Cleveland.
“Andrew gets all the credit for not giving up,” Haslam said Tuesday. “Keep digging and keep digging. We had gotten some feedback that there was some heartache with the decision. I mean, think about it — 26 years old, you have four teams after you, everybody's pressuring you to make a decision and move on. I think that came into play.”
Haslam insisted it was Berry's decision to continue the pursuit.
“I know there’s a perception out there, but we don’t tell Andrew what to do,” Haslam said. “He brought [the idea of a fully guaranteed contract] to us and said, 'This is what I think would get it done.'”
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Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti isn't thrilled about the Watson deal.
"I'm trying to answer that when I had a reaction to it. And it's like, 'Damn, I wish they hadn't guaranteed the whole contract,'" Bisciotti said told Baltimore reporters Tuesday. "I don't know that he should've been the first guy to get a fully guaranteed contract. To me, that's something that is groundbreaking, and it'll make negotiations harder with others."
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Peter King wrote in his “Football Morning in America” column Jimmy and Dee Haslam were “not the most popular people” at the owners meetings.
“I heard lots of grumbling from those who think a) trading six picks for a player who may be found guilty of heinous offenses or b) signing Watson to the richest guaranteed contract in league history and giving him an $80-million raise 'stinks to high heaven,' as one team exec said. The Haslams had to know it was coming, and now that they’ve traded for and signed Watson, it’s not going away,” King wrote.
The Haslams said they didn't detect from their colleagues any of the feelings King described.
“I saw Peter King's story, and there may be people that don't want to say something to your face, but we've had great interactions with the owners like we always do,” Jimmy Haslam said. “So we've noticed no difference.”
“Yeah,” Dee Haslam added, “I haven't had anybody make any comments positive or negative.”
Berry brushed off the criticism, too.
“I don't know that that's anything that we can really worry about,” Berry said Tuesday. “We have enough to worry about with our own team and our own roster. We can't realistically make decisions with our competitors in mind. So that's not something that we've really given a lot thought to.”
On the other hand, Browns brass continued to stress how much consideration was given to Watson's off-field baggage.
Paul DePodesta defends Browns' research on Deshaun Watson
“This has been the most detailed and dogged potential acquisition of a player that I've ever witnessed,” DePodesta said. “I mean, now in 25-plus years across two different sports, I've never been a part of anything like it.
“As we got more and more information through all the steps that we took, all the diligence that we that we undertook, all the people we talked to and all the additional information we got and especially the perspectives we got from some of the different people involved or much more involved with him, ultimately got to the same place ... where we were really comfortable with the person.”
The Browns did not reach out to the 22 women suing Watson, their attorney, Tony Buzbee, told ESPN on March 20. Berry said Friday the Browns used independent investigators to research the allegations and were advised by attorneys against contacting the women out of concern it would interfere with a criminal investigation.
The Haslams are confident the Browns' research got to the bottom of the cases.
“It's a really important decision, which we acknowledge, right?” Jimmy Haslam said. “We come from the business world. You do deals and feel good about it, but it's got to prove out. And it'll be that way with Deshaun, but we feel good about it. You feel like you're playing a little defense that first time. OK, we've got to play a little defense there. We feel good about the person. Really good about the player. But it's got to prove out.”
Berry has described the research the Browns conducted on Watson as “a five-month odyssey,” but Jimmy Haslam said the Browns' meeting with the player March 15 in Houston was crucial.
“It really did take a lot of time to work through this,” Jimmy Haslam said. “We checked Deshaun out with all kinds of different people. But getting to meet him in person, obviously, seeing is believing. That made the difference. And that was on Tuesday the 15th. We were comfortable then with Andrew trying to go ahead and work it out. Then it was a roller coaster.
“We left there thinking we were very comfortable with the person, and then we thought to a person, [coach] Kevin [Stefanski], Andrew, Dee and myself felt like we had really good chemistry, and the feedback we got from his team was they felt good about us.”
Berry called the Watson trade “one of the most complicated situations I've dealt with in my career.”
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What's not as complex is determining Watson is an elite talent on the field.
“Very accurate. He can win from the pocket. He can win out of the pocket. He can throw off platforms. He's a very good decision maker,” Berry said. “He's also a quarterback who's able to create with his legs. Whether that's with the read-option game, whether that's making a play off schedule, whether that's buying time and throwing down the field, that's pretty unique and that's pretty hard to find.
“That obviously opens up the playbook for an offensive staff and offensive coordinator in terms of what a coaching staff can do with that skill set. It also makes it where you don't necessarily have to be perfect as a play caller. He can make a bad play good with his arm or his legs. That's something that was really exciting for all of us.
“We feel good about his mental makeup. Obviously, the last year has been difficult. He's not the first and he won't be the last athlete that goes through a difficult stretch, whether it's personally or professionally. But we do think he's in a good spot.”
“It's just Kevin's body of work,” Berry said when asked about his confidence in the coach's partnership with Watson. “He's very smart. He's creative. He's adaptable. I think over the past two years, he's done a really nice job of showing flexibility in some really challenging situations, whether it's injuries, COVID-related, you name it. He also has a really clear vision that we think aligns with Deshaun's strengths as a player. So we feel really good about him crafting and designing the offense that will maximize our starting quarterback's strengths.”
Those are essentially the reasons the Browns were willing to shatter a contractual record to secure Watson, no matter what anyone else thinks about it.