On list of people who badly need Deshaun Watson to have a big 2023, start with Browns ownership

PHOENIX — By the end of the NFL owners meetings this week, seemingly anyone with a stake in Deshaun Watson’s pro football future had pointed to some kind of light at the end of a seemingly never-ending tunnel.

Head coach Kevin Stefanski talked about giving Watson more control of the offense and the work he will do with teammates in Houston this offseason. General manager Andrew Berry expressed optimism about chemistry with teammates, talent additions on offense and continuity with the coaching staff and scheme. And finally, after a long spate of silence, team owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam talked about the contract.

In the pantheon of infamous NFL business decisions, the signing of Watson’s fully guaranteed, five-year $230 million deal has thrust the Haslams into remarkably dubious territory in their ownership ranks. It obliterate the league’s collective tradition of never forking over such a titanically one-sided deal to a player, and it created a ripple that would be felt almost instantaneously among the league’s decision-makers. That’s a big deal. This wasn’t Al Davis or Jerry Jones suing the league, or even Bob Irsay moving his franchise in the middle of the night. Those were events with fallouts that took years — if not decades — to fully recognize. That Watson contract? It began changing trajectories and pissing off the league’s ownership class almost immediately.

Baltimore vice president Ozzie Newsome said as much earlier in March, when he admitted publicly that Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti had pointed at the Watson deal as a problem creator in the cratering Lamar Jackson contract talks. That was followed by Colts owner Jim Irsay putting a finer point on it at the league's owners meetings, telling reporters, "I do not believe in fully guaranteed contracts" while referencing that very same Jackson negotiation. And none of this begins to address what franchise owners are saying about the Watson deal away from the cameras and microphones, which could be best described as a symphony of middle fingers aimed in the direction of the Browns.

This is all important because it’s suggestive of an ecosystem that is staring a hole into the back (and front and side) of the Haslams. They did a deal that became a disruptor in the Jackson talks. The question now is how many other franchises face that same fate. And there is no shortage of test cases on the horizon, from the Philadelphia Eagles and Jalen Hurts, to the Cincinnati Bengals with Joe Burrow, to the Los Angeles Chargers and Jacksonville Jaguars with Justin Herbert and Trevor Lawrence coming down the extension pipeline. The Watson contract will penetrate some aspect of all those extension talks.

For that reason, Watson’s rebound in 2023 is as important for the Haslams as it is for Stefanski or Berry or Browns chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta. As much as Watson’s performance next season potentially weighs on the job security of some in the rank and file in the organization, it means exponentially more to the Haslams being able to save face with the rest of the NFL’s club owners. After all, the Browns owners potentially warped a significant part of the business model. It’s going to be important that they have something to show for it — quickly.

Why? We’ll get to that in a moment. First, it’s worth noting what Jimmy Haslam told a group of Browns beat reporters about the Watson contract during the owners meetings.

“Every team, every business, has to look and do what they think is in the best interest of their team,” Haslam said. “We did what we thought was in the best interest of our team. We still feel that way.”

It was the response you’d expect, of course. The contract is already done. There’s no going back. The only path forward is through the deal, with the hope that Watson reverts to his previous Pro Bowl form and delivers the kind of postseason success that has long eluded the franchise. It's the kind of outcome that would give Haslam the opportunity to turn to his peers and say, “This is why I had to do it. This is the payoff that was worth the public relations hit and challenging the way we do elite quarterback deals.”

It’s unlikely any team owners will be blowing kisses in Haslam’s direction in the event of a turnaround by Watson, but at least they’d have something to explain the gamble. Because Watson’s 2022 slate certainly wasn’t it. Quite the opposite. And the longer there’s an absence of football evidence, the worse Haslam is going to look among a growing number of franchise owners who will be knife-fighting through their quarterback extensions.

That matters for the Haslams. If you’re going to maximize profit as an ownership group, you need to maintain powerful friendships in the billionaires club and have some influence to wield when needed. It might come in handy for the Browns in the coming years, since there are some significant stadium decisions coming in the future. The team’s home, FirstEnergy Stadium, needs to make steep renovations on the horizon and the Browns’ lease with the city is slated for expiration in 2028.

That stadium is a key piece of the Haslam’s plans for a massive development in the surrounding area and lakefront. There’s a chance a brand new stadium is in play — something that would likely entail some league influence and securing hundreds of millions of dollars in sweetheart loans from the NFL. With that new stadium (or even a massively renovated one) the Haslams would be angling for a Super Bowl bid.

See where this is going? These are all key components to remaking the Browns into a franchise that is not just competently run, but structurally and financially near the front of the NFL pack. That kind of thing is extremely lucrative, offering to take the Browns out of the bottom-third of franchise values and potentially add billions of dollars to the net worth of the Haslams.

That’s a lot on the line. It has plenty to do with how Watson plays in the coming years, and how that performance translates into success on the field. Cleveland’s head coach and general manager need it. But not more than the Haslams, who have their reputation among fellow team owners and the zeros in their bank account wrapped up in this.