Two weeks in, Cleveland’s once promising season already feels to be teetering. The Browns lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers, 26-22. But more critically, they lost their best offensive player, All-Pro running back Nick Chubb, to a "significant" injury to his left knee in the second quarter.
Chubb, as wide receiver Amari Cooper put it, was the engine of Cleveland’s offense; other teammates called Chubb the heart and soul of the organization. Those got ripped out when he had to be carted off the field after a Minkah Fitzpatrick hit near the Steelers' goal line. Late Monday night, coach Kevin Stefanski confirmed Chubb will miss the rest of the season.
Injuries are part of football. Injuries can be overcome. But for the Browns to have any hope of overcoming this one, they’ll need their $230 million quarterback to begin living up to his contract.
That could still happen. There’s just nothing to suggest it will.
In now his eighth game with the Browns, Watson struggled mightily when Cleveland needed him most. He threw a pick-six to Steelers linebacker Alex Highsmith on the game’s very first play. In the fourth quarter, he held on to the ball as Highsmith came crashing in from his blindside to bat the ball loose, allowing T.J. Watt to scoop up the fumble and race in for what proved to be the game-winning touchdown.
Watson finished 22-of-40 for 235 yards and an interception. He was sacked six times and posted a Total QBR of 16.5.
Tight end Harrison Bryant should’ve pulled in the pass on the opening play. But like so many of Watson’s passes since he returned from last year’s 11-game suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy after he was accused by more than two dozen women of sexual assault and sexual misconduct, the throw was off-target. Left tackle Jedrick Wills should’ve gotten his hands in the way of Highsmith. But like so many of Watson’s dropbacks, he held on to the ball, inviting a negative play.
The Browns still had a chance for a game-winning drive. But Watson’s fourth-down pass, like so many others, sailed out of bounds.
“Still coming along,” said Watson, when asked how he thought he played in the loss. “I feel like tonight it was s---ty. Some plays we capitalized and did good. But as far as my part, it’s not good enough. That’s on me. I gotta give [Bryant] a better ball. The forced fumble for a touchdown for them, you can say this guy [Wills] can do this, but I gotta protect the ball.
“You’re not going to put it on anyone else, you’re going to put it on me. I can take the full thing. I can take the criticism. And I’m going to do that.”
With Chubb out, it’s squarely on Watson now.
And the Browns can’t wait anymore for him to come along.
Through two games, Watson has been off-target (overthrows or underthrows) more than any other quarterback in the league with a miss rate of 27.6%. That’s worse than rookies Anthony Richardson (21.7%) and Bryce Young (21.9%). That’s also worse than Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett (22.2%) and far than the New York Jets' Zach Wilson (14.0%).
Watson’s QBR is 30th (29.3), only ahead of Chicago’s Justin Fields (22.2) and Pickett (18.8).
Over the last eight games dating back to Watson’s return in Week 13 last season, Watson is next-to-last in EPA (expected points added) per dropback (-21.5), ahead of only Fields.
Monday night, Stefanski declined to criticize Watson directly, and shifted blame back to himself and the entire offense.
“There were some throws he wants back and there’s some playcalls I want back,” he said, when asked how Watson played. “Really, just not good enough as a team.”
The Browns defense, however, was good enough for Cleveland to beat Pittsburgh. Cooper, who played through a groin injury and still came through with a series of tough catches, was good enough. Chubb was more than good enough -- 64 yards on 10 carries -- before the injury.
Watson, who has yet to play one game at the level of a franchise quarterback, was not close to good enough.
And without Chubb, him being just good won’t be enough for the Browns to remain a legitimate contender in the AFC North.
Watson said he addressed the team after the loss, telling them he would “do better.”
Anything less, and another Browns season will slowly slip away.