Former Texans QB Deshaun Watson back in Houston playing for Cleveland

Aside from battling the Houston Texans and some fans who are likely to taunt him, Deshaun Watson may have another not-so-visible opponent in his first NFL regular-season game in nearly two years.

Rust. 700 days worth of it.

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Watson will make his long-awaited debut Sunday for the Cleveland Browns after serving an 11-game league suspension for alleged sexual misconduct, and it’s not clear how he’ll play after the long layoff.

His last regular-season game was Jan. 3, 2021, before his relationship with the team that drafted him crumbled, before he demanded the Texans trade him and before two dozen women accused him of lewd behavior during massages. He has denied the accusations, and settled lawsuits.

Watson’s return could be spectacular, shaky, or something in between.

"Going back to playing quarterback after two years is tough," Browns cornerback Greg Newsome II said. "Obviously he’s been working out and things like that, but it’s so much different getting out there and actually getting those live reps.

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We will have to see Sunday, honestly," Watson said this week in his first comments since August. "It might take time or it might not take time."

Watson likened his return to "riding a bike." But he might need training wheels back on for a bit.

His readiness is a legitimate concern, heightened by his rough outing in Cleveland’s exhibition opener in August. But Browns defensive end Jadeveon Clowney watched his teammate ramp up his activity over the past few weeks, and is confident Watson will look like himself.

However, if the NFL had its way, Deshaun Watson wouldn’t be playing this week or anytime this year.

The league wanted to suspend Watson for at least one season over sexual misconduct allegations but settled for 11 games after an independent arbiter initially gave him a six-game ban.

Watson, who has been accused by more than two dozen women of sexual harassment and assault during massage therapy sessions, makes his debut for the Cleveland Browns on Sunday facing his former team in Houston.

There won’t be any hype videos promoting his return. Nobody outside the Browns organization is welcoming him back with open arms.

Watson declined to answer any questions regarding his suspension when he spoke to the media Thursday for the first time since his settlement agreement with the league was reached in August. Previously, Watson maintained he didn’t harass or force himself on any women. Two grand juries in Texas declined to indict him over the allegations.

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No comments now won’t make the issue go away, however.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell called Watson’s behavior "egregious" and "predatory." Time doesn’t change that perception.

The league sent a clear message with Watson’s punishment that it won’t tolerate mistreatment of women. The NFL has long vowed to be tougher on players accused of violence against women following fallout from Ray Rice’s case in 2014.'

Watson’s penalty is the new standard.

A major part of the settlement agreement between the league and the NFL Players Association, in addition to the length of suspension and $5 million fine, was the requirement for Watson to be evaluated by behavioral experts and follow their treatment program.

"My goal is not just to punish people, but it’s to give them opportunity and services so that they can be a better human being going forward," said Rita Smith, a senior adviser to the NFL hired in 2014 to help shape the league’s policy on domestic abuse and sexual assault.

In October, Goodell said Watson has "followed all of the terms of the agreement." Smith said she’s uncertain how much information the league has about Watson’s counseling sessions because of HIPAA regulations.

Smith, the former executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, believes Watson should continue those sessions beyond his return to the league.

"For someone who was alleged to have behaved inappropriately with as many people as he did, in my experience of over 40 years in domestic violence and sexual assault, 12 weeks wouldn’t be enough," Smith told the AP. "And, the reality is that his public statements have been conflictual at best, so it doesn’t seem to indicate a clear understanding of the impact that he might have had on other people and that he might have some responsibility to change his behavior.

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"Until I see that, I would not think that the sessions had been successful because he needs to move to that place, at least to say: ‘It appears that I have been behaving in a way that makes other people uncomfortable.’ If he could even get to that place, that would be helpful. To just out and out say I didn’t do anything wrong, it’s just not reflective of what the reality is for most people who encountered him."

The Browns overlooked Watson’s off-field troubles and not only traded a slew of draft picks for him but gave him a fully guaranteed $235 million contract. The ramifications of that deal could have a lasting impact on the NFL.

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Several owners weren’t pleased with the Browns for giving Watson that contract, and no player has received a fully guaranteed deal since that one. The NFLPA filed a grievance in October, claiming teams have colluded to avoid giving players fully guaranteed contracts.

From another standpoint, Smith views the contract as another indication that the NFL needs a "culture change."

She’s confident the league office has the right intentions regarding matters of domestic violence and sexual abuse, but her concern surrounds the owners.

"My experience has been mostly with the social responsibility (department) and with the Commissioner himself, and I believe they are very committed to getting this right," Smith said. "I also believe the league understands that the conflicting factor within the league structure is that there are owners who want to win, and they will overlook certain behaviors if they think that they can get a player to produce and help them get to that level.


"For me, if you take a player who has these kinds of issues, take them with the responsibility to help them be better. The NFL and NFL teams have enormous resources they can provide to people that they bring into their fold to help them be better, to do better, to achieve, to be successful beyond the game. And that, for me, is what I’m hoping that not just the NFL, because I think they’re moving in that direction, but that the owners will get to a place where they see the players and the people that work for them as opportunities to help make all of us better, to improve not just our skillset at work, but then at home and in the community."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.