Browns without Deshaun Watson for 11 games: Why Jacoby Brissett is built for this

CLEVELAND, Ohio — On Aug. 30th, the day Deshaun Watson had to clear out his locker, say goodbye to his teammates and begin his 11-game suspension, Jacoby Brissett noticed something different about him.

“It was the first day I saw him smile,” Brissett told Cleveland.com last week in one-on-one sitdown. “It was like ‘I’m glad I get to move past this’ and ‘this too shall pass’ and an ‘I shall overcome this’ type of thing. He smiled and I was like, ‘man, I’m glad that happened for you. You look happy.’”

Up to that point, Brissett, who will hold the spot for Watson until he comes back Dec. 4 in Houston, had watched him carry the burden of his off-the-field issues on his shoulders like a set of weights.

Accused by about 30 massage therapists of sexual misconduct during appointments when he was with the Texans in 2020 and 2021, Watson has been suspended by the NFL for 11 games under its personal conduct policy, fined $5 million and ordered to undergo treatment for what the league has deemed a disturbing pattern of behavior. He’s also settled civil suits with 23 of 24 plaintiffs and faces a trial for the 24th, Lauren Baxley, after March 1st.

“For sure it’s been weighing on him,” Brissett said. “Like I tell him, ‘you don’t want this situation to define you, but the way you handle it, let it help tell your story.’”

Brissett, 29, watched Watson come to work every day and behave as though he wasn’t embroiled in the biggest controversy by a player in NFL history.

“He didn’t just show up every day, he worked really hard,” Brissett said. “And then he had to go face it every day when he got on his phone or turned on the T.V.”

Blocking out the noise

Brissett recalled one day during camp when Watson and teammates were at the facility “and they were just beating him up on T.V. and he’s just sitting there just working out. And I’m like, ‘dude, I’m about to go turn the TV off. Like, I don’t want to see this. I don’t want you to see this.’”

Watson continued lifting and never said a word.

“That speaks to him as a professional,” Brissett said. “Good, bad or indifferent, you just show up to work and you try to do more good than you do bad.”

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When Watson vacated the Browns facility that day, unable to walk back in until midway through his suspension Oct. 10 when he can attend team meetings and weight workouts, he had no special words of wisdom for Brissett, who will try to keep the talent-laden Browns in the playoff hunt until their three-time Pro Bowl QB gets back.

“You don’t have to explain everything or say everything,” Brissett said. “I was like ‘man, go relax and go clear your head’ and he was like ‘yeah, same to you, go relax.’ Because I don’t think he’s taking it as time off. He’s still getting mentally ready. He hasn’t played in a year or more or whatever. He was like, ‘I’ll be ready to go whenever I can get going again.’”

Business as usual

That the team carried on like usual was a testament to Watson, Brissett, Kevin Stefanski and other leaders. Stefanski had worked hard since the beginning of the offseason program to establish Watson as the clearcut QB1 to ensure a smooth reintegration. The Browns, who traded a net of five draft picks including three first-rounders to the Texans for Watson on March 18th, never dreampt it would be 11 games, but knew they’d have a Part A and Part B to the season, and planned accordingly.

Drafted No. 12 overall in 2017 by the Texans after they traded up with Cleveland for the pick, Watson got most of the first-team reps until late in training camp, and started the preseason opener in Jacksonville. All of that, coupled with Watson hosting his offensive teammates on a posh trip to the Bahamas for workouts and team bonding, helped him build up leadership chips and chemistry for what the Browns hope will be a playoff run down the stretch.

“There’s a lot of outside noise right now,” Brissett said. “I feel like that’s all the time with the Browns. But Kevin does a good job of saying ‘we’re about the Cleveland Browns. We can’t be about what stories are being written or said about somebody. We protect the team.’ We’ve got a lot of guys that have bought into that and we don’t take it lightly.”

More than a teammate

Brissett spent his first five months with Watson trying to be a good teammate, drawing on all of the knowledge he’s gained since the Patriots drafted him in the third round out of NC State in 2016.

“I use the term ‘good friend’ loosely because you become a good friend,” he said. “You can’t just say ‘oh, I’m a good friend because I’m here for you.’ So I’ve tried to become a good friend to him, and I’ve also gone out there and competed hard against him in football to keep that competitive fire in him as well.

“It’s not like, ‘I’m just here just holding off for you.’ I don’t think he’d like that.’”

Brissett, who’s been thrown into the fire as a starter multiple times during his six-year career including twice in Indy when Andrew Luck was either hurt or retired, wouldn’t have liked that either, behaving like he was just the opening act or the seat warmer.

“It’s my upbringing and my personality,” he said. “My knowledge of myself and how my journey has gone has kind of built me for these situations. And I don’t shy away from them. Even when Deshaun was here, I was competing against Deshaun. I want to be better than you too. It’s not like I’m just here for the ride. I want to I want to push myself. I want to see what my ceiling is. I want to see how far I can take myself.”

“I am the starting quarterback of the Cleveland Browns”

When Brissett, who’s gone 14-23 as a starter, was asked if he must approach the job like he’s the fulltime starter, he stated emphatically and unequivocally, “yes, because I am. I am the starting quarterback of the Cleveland Browns.”

Viewing it through an 11-game prism won’t cut it for him.

“No, because 11 games aren’t promised,” he said. “As of today, I am the starting quarterback of the Cleveland Browns.”

Universally described as “funny” by his teammates, Brissett believes he was hand-picked by GM Andrew Berry to help navigate the Browns through the turbulent Watson waters because of his gregariousness, his history as a replacement QB, and his compatibility with Watson.

“I definitely think it was intentional to the point where Andrew did his homework,” Brissett said. “Obviously I spent most of my time at Indy, and he has some history there (seven seasons in their personnel department). I think the people in Indy were like, ‘there would be no better person.’”

Brissett also believes he had the blessing of Watson, for whom the Browns wanted refuge amid the storm. When they first arrived for Organized Team Activities, the two QBs compared notes on how they both landed in Cleveland, with Brissett acknowledging he signed a one-year deal here (worth $4.65 million) for the chance to start during Watson’s suspension. For his part, Watson admitted that he talked to Berry about Brissett and felt comfortable sharing a QB room with him, and the starting job for 2022.

“It’s not like he signed off me, but it was like ‘okay, it’s Jacoby’s turn,’” Brissett.

Brissett had another advocate in Cleveland

Brissett, 29, already had a huge fan in the Browns building in linebacker Anthony Walker, one of his best friends from their four seasons together in Indianapolis, including some of Brissett’s bleakest hours.

“I told him in the offseason, ‘there’s nobody I’d rather this happen to you than you because I know you can handle it,’” Walker told cleveland.com.

Walker remembers Brissett showing up on the Colts’ doorstep on Sept. 2, 2017 as a ticked off second-year player who had just been traded by the Patriots because of Luck’s shoulder injury.

“I had one of the best games of my career — 4 TDs and almost 350 yards,” Brissett said. “It was preseason, but it’s still an NFL game and I got traded the next day. I got on the plane and I was like ‘what the (expletive) just happened? I don’t even know where Indy is.’ I felt like I was being punished.”

The introductory scowl didn’t go unnoticed by Walker, then a rookie, who asked Brissett “why the animosity?”

“He said ‘man, you hated it here. Like, you hated us,’” Brissett recalled.

Brissett, who had started games in New England as a rookie the year before, explained that leaving New England, where he had just won a Super Bowl, was a gut punch. He also had to leave Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, arguably the two best at their jobs in the history of the game.

“He came from stability to a team that was rebuilding and had a whole makeover coming,” Walker said. “The culture and teamwork were different.”

Good Fellas unite

Instilling some of the Patriots Way, Brissett started coming in early to work out, and Walker and others followed.

“Then we started having dinners,” Walker said. “We called it the Good Fellas dinners where just a couple of team leaders met up every week and talked about the team and the things we needed to do to improve the next week and all that stuff,” he said.

Brissett went 4-11 as a starter that season, but learned lessons about leadership, attitude and friendship that helped shape who he is today.

“Jacoby has always been one to set the standard of what you need in the locker room, whether it’s offense, defense or special teams,” Walker said. “He’s a solid, all-around guy that understands what it takes to win, and obviously, a big part of that comes from him being in New England.”

How the Browns can win with Brissett

Another rough patch

But Brissett hit another low point in 2019 after Luck abruptly retired because of an ankle injury two weeks before the season. Brissett guided the team to a 5-2 start, but then the wheels came off, largely because of injuries to him and others. Brissett went 2-6 down the stretch, and the once steamrolling Colts finished 7-9.

“I remember sitting on the plane on the way home from the last game and I was like ‘I’m glad this this is over,’” Brissett said. “I was mentally done, and I had thoughts of retiring. I’ve had all types of thoughts. It definitely got dark that year, for sure.”

Walker was by his side every step of the way.

“They name you the starting quarterback, and you want to perform well and getting hurt that doesn’t help the situation,’’ Walker said. “Then you lose pretty much all your playmakers on the team in a two, three-week span, which kind of sucks. Defensively, we didn’t really help the situation. Obviously we were dealing with our own injuries too. But to start so fast and finish the way we did, it definitely hurt a lot of us.”

Brissett, who went 2-3 last season in Miami last season in relief of Tua Tagovailoa, shouldered the blame for the Colts’ collapse.

“I didn’t want him to take that burden on his own,” Walker said. “But that’s what you want in your leader, your quarterback.”

Brissett can empathize

Brissett’s struggles enabled him to be there this summer for Watson and for a struggling young player like receiver Anthony Schwartz, who dropped multiple passes in the preseason games and must regain his confidence.

“I just think he needs more people in his corner right now than ever,” Brissett said. “I’ve been there before.”

In Cleveland, Brissett is surrounded by the best defense he’s ever had, an excellent offensive line, two of the best running backs in the game, and one of the league’s best receivers in Amari Cooper.

“I’ve never really looked at it like I’ve never had a true opportunity,” Brissett said. “Whatever cards I get, I’m going to play them, and I let my teammates kind of tell my story for me. No matter if things worked out in my favor or not, when you talk to the teammates around me, they’re like, ‘we want Jacoby’ or when they speak of me, I’ve got a good reference sheet, I guess.”

Walker is one of those teammates who’s watched Brissett be the person same every day, in good times and bad, except for that initial frown.

“Jacoby is getting another opportunity and I’m part of his team again,” Walker said. “We’re trying to rewrite the chapter with a better ending.”

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