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Deshaun Watson is struggling. What can the Browns do to fix it?

Deshaun Watson’s tape looks nothing like the $230 million QB he was supposed to be

Cleveland Browns v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

Deshaun Watson was supposed to be the final piece to the puzzle. The answer at quarterback for an organization that has been seeking that solution for generations.

But while the Cleveland Browns are 1-1 this season, it would be difficult to find a Browns fan with any confidence in the team this morning.

Certainly, some of that has to do with the brutal injury suffered by running back Nick Chubb. Losing one of the league’s premier talents — at any position — is a bitter pill to swallow. However, Chubb’s injury brings into clear focus a current problem with the Cleveland offense.

The passing game.

Through two games the passing offense has looked anything but crisp in Cleveland, and the numbers paint an unsparing picture. At the moment Watson has an Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt of just 3.90, which ranks the quarterback 26th among qualified passers, and behind quarterbacks such as Mac Jones, Desmond Ridder, Sam Howell, C.J. Stroud, and Joshua Dobbs.

While that is just this season, when you step back and look at Watson’s production since the Browns acquired him, the picture gets worse:

Is it a problem of rust? A quarterback still getting acclimated to a new offense? That scheme itself? Poor execution?

Or is it something worse?

Is the answer: “all of the above?”

That is the way it seems after just two games. There are moments where Watson is late with reads and throws, which could be due to the long layoff and/or the process of learning a new offense. Take, for example, this incompletion against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 1:

This is a 3rd and 9 against the Bengals, and the Browns run a Sticks concept, tasking three receivers with running curl routes right at the first down marker. Cincinnati drops into a Cover 2 zone on this play, and Watson is deciding between Elijah Moore — who is running the curl route over the middle — and Amari Cooper’s curl route on the right side of the field.

Both routes are open. There is a window to hit either one, but Watson seems unable to make up his mind. He looks at Cooper, and then to Moore, and eventually makes a late throw to Cooper, which falls short.

Time for the punt team.

Now, conditions in Cleveland during Week 1 were not ideal for throwing the football, so some of Watson’s Week 1 struggles could be attributed to the weather.

Conditions were better in Pittsburgh Monday night, but we saw more of the same. A quarterback late with his decisions, not trusting what he is seeing, and not taking advantage of opportunities in the passing game.

Take this crossing route to Cooper:

Cleveland comes out in 22 personnel — two tight ends, two wide receivers, and a running back — and the bigger personnel group sees Pittsburgh stay with base personnel. But then Kevin Stefanski spreads the formation, putting Watson in the shotgun in an empty alignment. This is putting Watson on familiar ground. During his days in Houston with the Texans, this is often where you saw Watson at his best: With the defense spread out, able to decipher things presnap, move defenders underneath with his eyes, and create opportunities in the passing game.

Here, Watson has a chance to hit Cooper on an in-breaking route. But the read and throw are a step late, and Minkah Fitzpatrick is able to break on the ball and prevent the completion. Instead of anticipating Cooper’s break and getting the ball out on time, Watson waits to see him cut and come open, and that delay leads to a missed opportunity.

For example, if Watson gets the ball out here, when he finishes his drop, this is likely a completion:

If you look at the state of play right now, Watson is looking at the route, Cooper is cutting into an open void, and Fitzpatrick is still waiting to see where the receiver breaks. If the ball is coming out now, this is likely a completion.

Instead, here is when Watson starts his delivery:

It’s a split-second difference. But in the NFL, split-seconds matter.

There is also the matter of trying to blend where Watson has been at his best — spread formations, empty formations, and attacking to space — with how Stefanski’s offense has operated in the past, using bigger personnel groups, condensed formations, and attacking with timing and rhythm. Finding a way to blend those approaches was always going to be part of this process, and that process is ongoing.

But there is a difficulty in operating a timing-and-rhythm offense when the quarterback is still getting acclimated to that system. When throws are a step late, it can lead to missed opportunities. The Cooper play above is one, but consider this throw from Monday night:

This is a timing-and-rhythm out route from the right hashmark to the right sideline. Watson knows this is where he wants to go with the football, and the timing is good, but the timing from Joey Porter Jr. is better. Look at the ground the rookie cornerback makes up breaking on this throw:

You would expect this throw to be completed, but the pass falls to the turf. Perhaps this is just a great play from a talented rookie CB.

Perhaps the throw just needs to get there quicker.

Now, even with the struggles in the passing game, there are still moments where Browns fans can see the potential in Watson, and this offense. Take this completion to Cooper from the start of the second quarter:

The Browns go with a five-man protection scheme here, giving Chubb a free release to the right on a wheel route. Watson does a good job of looking frontside to the three-receiver concept, before getting his eyes backside to Cooper on the in-breaking route. The timing is better, the velocity is what you want to see, and the Browns get a fresh set of downs as a result.

This could be a window into getting this passing game going: Spread things out as much as possible, through both formation and scheme, and let Watson be a facilitator. Lean into this strength of his game.

Back-shoulder throws are also an area where the Browns’ passing game has had success this season. Watson and Cooper seem to have chemistry — a prerequisite for these plays — and the two connected on one such throw late in the first quarter, and on this critical one to start the fourth:

This is a very good play, at a very big moment in the game. The timing is great, the placement is great, and the execution from both players is what you want to see.

Now, you cannot build an NFL offense entirely out of back-shoulder throws, but this is a start.

There was also this play from Monday night, where Watson did a good job of spotting the slot pressure and replacing the blitz with the football, leading to a solid gain.

However, the Browns have Super Bowl aspirations, and what they have seen from their passing game through two contests is not what they were hoping for. They were hoping for explosive plays, not solid gains.

Perhaps context can explain some of the issues: Watson is still acclimating to the offense, Stefanski is still learning where Watson is at his best, they played in difficult conditions in Week 1, and played a very good defense in Week 2.

Context certainly matters.

But so do results, and so too do the financial implications. The Browns have to make this work because under his deal they are likely tied to Watson through the 2025 season.

Making matters worse for the Browns? Their next three games do not offer much relief. With games against the Tennessee Titans, and Baltimore Ravens, and the San Francisco 49ers, Cleveland is facing three very tough defenses.

Browns fans looking for the silver lining can take heart that after this stretch, Cleveland will have been tested on the offensive side of the ball, and will hopefully have some answers to what plagues them. Watson is just one part of the story, and while there is room for improvement, there have also been flashes of what this offense could be in his hands.

But whether we see more of those moments, or not, is a huge question for this team.