Watson drama overshadows Garrett heroics, Browns’ win


INDIANAPOLIS — Myles Garrett delivered one of the greatest individual performances in Cleveland Browns history. Dustin Hopkins nailed three field goals from 50-plus yards out. And PJ Walker orchestrated a game-winning drive for a second straight week.

The Cleveland Browns scraped together another stunning victory Sunday, this time taking out the Indianapolis Colts 39-38 on running back Kareem Hunt’s fourth-and-goal touchdown plunge from the 1-yard line in the final seconds.

These Browns somehow are 4-2.

And yet, the murky-as-ever, seemingly never-ending Deshaun Watson saga overshadowed it all.

In his anticipated return from a three-week absence due to a rotator cuff strain in his throwing shoulder, Cleveland’s quarterback didn’t make it past the first quarter.

He completed 1 of 5 passes for 5 yards and nearly threw a second interception while being knocked to the ground with 3:03 remaining (replay overturned the pick).

Watson, who fell backwards and appeared to bang the back of his head on the turf, didn’t immediately get up. And coach Kevin Stefanski never put him back in the game, opting to go with backup quarterback Walker the rest of the way.

“I’m always going to be protective of our players, especially at the quarterback position,” Stefanski said Monday. “Just felt like the right thing in that moment was to hold him out of that game.”

Going into the game, the Browns said that Watson’s shoulder was healthy enough for him to play. However, the first time a Colts defender knocked Watson to the ground, Stefanski kept him out for good.

The Browns announced that Watson passed the concussion protocol, but the team never gave an injury designation for his absence during the game.

Afterward, Stefanski admitted he would’ve put Watson back in the game had Walker been injured.

“With Deshaun, with all of our players,” Stefanski said, “we’ll always make great decisions in the team’s best interest.”

Stefanski determined that Walker gave the Browns the best chance Sunday.

But is not playing a franchise quarterback — even one ailing — a sustainable winning strategy for a team talented enough to hold realistic Super Bowl aspirations this season?

Garrett is now the betting favorite to capture his first NFL Defensive Player of the Year award after his latest dominant performance.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Garrett became the first player this millennium to finish a single game with two sacks, two forced fumbles and a blocked field goal — in which he hurdled the Colts’ offensive line to bat down the kick. Those three Herculean plays directly resulted in 17 points, aiding a Browns offense that has been a shell of what the franchise envisioned when it traded for Watson and signed him to a record $230 million fully guaranteed contract last year.

Cleveland’s defense is still No. 1 in efficiency, despite giving up a few big plays in Indy. Thanks largely to Hopkins’ clutch kicking, the Browns are No. 2 in special teams efficiency. But Cleveland is just 31st in offensive efficiency.

The offense hasn’t been good in three-plus games without Watson. But it has also been bad with him.

After Sunday, the Browns are collectively dead last in the NFL in QBR (33.9), completion percentage over expected (minus-6.9%) and passer rating (61.0).

Walker is last in Total QBR (25.0). Watson is last in passing EPA (2.5). As a result, Cleveland possesses the league’s worst quarterback play. That’s not a model for playoff success, even with Garrett and his talented cohorts wrecking opposing offenses.

On Monday, Stefanski would not say whether the team is considering putting Watson on injured reserve, which would give him a minimum of four games to get right physically and mentally. But the fact that Stefanski wouldn’t shoot down the idea suggests it’s an option moving forward.

With average quarterback play, these Browns might be a legitimate Super Bowl contender. The defense has been that good. But the Browns haven’t had anything close to average quarterback play. And for now, Cleveland is left to barely scraping by.

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