CLEVELAND, Ohio — Kevin Stefanski was asked on Wednesday if it was frustrating spending his post-practice press conferences answering questions about the latest developments regarding Deshaun Watson.
“I would not characterize it that way,” the Browns head coach said. “I do understand that you have a job to do, so I am just going to provide as much information as I can, when I can.”
The information he does provide is sparse. Generally, he respectfully swats the questions away with a stock answer about letting the process play out.
This is the life of an NFL head coach. The only member of a team’s leadership group required to speak to the media on a near-daily basis during the season and at regular intervals in the offseason, the coach is the messenger for all things across the organization, not just what happens on the field. It has been a strength of Stefanski not to speak out of turn or make a big story even bigger, something many of his predecessors couldn’t manage.
This, however, is different from a disgruntled wide receiver or the faltering performance of a former No. 1 pick at quarterback. It’s incredibly complicated with a fan base divided over their team’s decision and recent developments have left some questioning if the team’s investigation was as thorough as advertised.
It might be time to hear from someone other than Stefanski, someone more familiar with the ins and outs of the investigation or at least more involved going back to its beginnings during the regular season.
This situation is hanging over the Browns’ every move at this point and it’s one they willingly took on when they acquired and extended Watson in March. The story has continued to run, with each new practice — or even charity golf outing — being preceded by another bit of news.
Two weeks ago, it was an HBO interview with two of Watson’s accusers. Last week, it was a 23rd lawsuit and, on Monday, just as Stefanski was stepping to the podium at the team’s golf event, a 24th. Wednesday came the day after a damning piece from New York Times reporter Jenny Vrentas linked Watson to 66 massage therapists over 17 months.
Then, after everything was over on Wednesday, Tony Buzbee, the attorney for the plaintiffs against Watson, announced he is adding the Houston Texans as defendants.
Stefanski has been left to answer — or give non-answers — to each incident. Watson was last available to the media during his introductory press conference on March 25. It’s unknown if Watson will speak during mandatory minicamp next week. If he doesn’t, we won’t hear from him again — in a team setting at least — until training camp.
GM Andrew Berry and Chief Strategy Officer Paul DePodesta last spoke during the draft. The Haslams spoke to a small group of reporters at the league meetings in March and to a larger group via Zoom a week prior.
Eight of the first nine questions in Stefanski’s Wednesday press conference were specifically about Watson’s situation and each one was justified. There were more throughout his more than 10-minute session. A reporter left the scrum and approached Watson as he walked off the field. Watson, politely, declined to comment.
Watson, for his part, has been participating in voluntary workouts with the team since they began. He appears to have ingratiated himself with his teammates so far.
“Once he comes to work it’s about work,” safety John Johnson III said.
Still, it was hard not to feel, at least from the outside, the haze of what was laid out in the New York Times hanging over the practice field. While there is certainly a segment of the fanbase which would prefer to only read or hear about a growing connection between Watson and his top target, Amari Cooper — and there were some plays between the two on Wednesday — it all felt a little empty in light of even more uncomfortable accusations.
The most likely outcome remains what has always been the most likely outcome — Watson will serve a suspension, even if it’s a long one — and will return and play at a high level.
The worst case, doomsday scenarios still seem far off and not plausible, at least not yet.
The last three weeks of OTAs, however, have reminded everyone this is not something that will simply go away. It will hang over everything the team does and, from a football standpoint, they will have to navigate each distraction. Stefanski will get plenty of work out of his standard answer when questioned about it. The Browns should offer more voices before they break for the summer.
This is what they signed up for, to deal with what they knew through their investigation and what they learn through things like Tuesday’s report. They did it because a player like Watson rarely becomes available.
The supremely talented quarterback, his accusations and any new developments, are now theirs to own. There will be — and have been — days when it feels like the only thing that matters is what Watson is able to do on the field. There will be others, like Wednesday, when what happens on the field feels irrelevant.
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