Deshaun Watson ultimately wasn’t charged by a grand jury in Texas over allegations that he sexually assaulted more than 20 massage therapists. And the 24 lawsuits against him are still to be determined in court.
But Watson and the Browns look to be in big trouble. The New York Times’s reporting on the lawsuits, which found that Watson visited 66 massage therapists over 17 months, provided vivid details of the allegations against Watson and revealed him as a deviant who used his power and celebrity to prey on women.
Nobody comes out of this looking good. Watson could be forced to sit out yet another season. The Browns look horrible for embracing Watson and still might need to find a quarterback for this year. The Texans are now getting dragged into the lawsuit and could be found at least partially liable. And Watson may find himself in more hot water thanks to the 24th lawsuit that was filed this past week.
A look at the various angles, which should dominate the NFL news cycle throughout the summer:
▪ Even if the lawsuits come out in favor of Watson, the NFL still has to come down hard. Ezekiel Elliott was suspended for six games for a sexual assault allegation that didn’t result in charges. Ben Roethlisberger got six games and had it reduced to four despite no charges on multiple sexual assault allegations.
Watson engaged in repeated activity over a year and a half that, even if it’s not found to be illegal, certainly presents a damning picture of him as a predator.
A year-long suspension seems within the realm of possibility. The NFL has to go harder than the six games given to Elliott in 2017.
One slight difference this time: Roger Goodell no longer hands out the initial discipline. As part of the 2020 collective bargaining agreement, the punishment will be decided by someone jointly appointed by the NFL and the NFL Players Association. In this case, it will be former federal judge Sue L. Robinson. The NFL will propose a punishment, and Robinson will determine if it is appropriate.
But if there is an appeal, Goodell will hear it, and his decision will be final.
▪ The Browns may be without Watson for some or all of 2022, but there should be no tears shed for Jimmy Haslam’s team. It was shameful enough when the Browns traded three first-round picks for Watson despite these allegations hovering over him. But the contract they gave Watson shields him from any sort of financial accountability.
Not only is every penny of the five-year, $230 million contract fully guaranteed — setting an NFL record for the length and total of a guarantee — but the Browns truly protected Watson from financial repercussions of a suspension.
His salary this year is $46 million, but $44.965 million of it comes in the form of a signing bonus, which would not get touched if he is suspended.
The only money Watson would lose is whatever gets taken out of his measly $1.035 million base salary. If it’s an eight-week suspension, Watson would lose $460,000 (8/18ths of $1.035 million). If it’s a year-long suspension, the contract might even get tolled, so he would still get the full contract, but it would just be pushed back by a year.
Watson’s alleged actions are dirty enough. But Haslam and the Browns look gross, too.
▪ Watson isn’t totally in the clear with his money, though. The boilerplate NFL contract has language stating that any suspension under the personal conduct policy could result in the voiding of guarantees. But Watson’s contract, a copy of which was obtained by the Globe, naturally accounts for that.
The Browns essentially agreed that they wouldn’t void Watson’s guarantees so long as he told them everything about the lawsuits up front.
All five paragraphs concerning voids for his guaranteed salary — a paragraph each for 2022 through 2026 — contain this phrase: “ … excluding the specific facts disclosed to Club in writing.” The paragraph concerning his signing bonus also states that the Browns won’t attempt to recoup his signing bonus if Watson is suspended for games during the 2022 or 2023 NFL league years pertaining to “matters disclosed to Club in writing.”
But when a 24th lawsuit was filed against Watson, his attorney, Rusty Hardin, responded, “Our legal team has not had time to investigate this new filing and had not heard her name until today.”
If this lawsuit contains new allegations that Watson did not disclose to the Browns before signing his contract, it could be what they need to wiggle out from this mess.
▪ Tony Buzbee, the plaintiffs’ attorney, said he is going to amend the lawsuit to include the Texans. Per the New York Times, there is no evidence the team explicitly knew what Watson was doing, but it provided him with a membership at a swanky club, set up the rooms for him, and a team security official left nondisclosure agreements in Watson’s locker when told that Watson was having trouble with a woman on social media. The Texans may not have known, but they may have been willingly sticking their head in the sand.
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Browns might want to have a Plan B
Football-wise, a hefty suspension for Deshaun Watson could leave the Browns in quite the pickle. They accounted for Watson being suspended for, say, six to eight games by signing Jacoby Brissett this offseason. But if Watson is suspended for the season, the Browns might want to look for another quarterback. The Browns want to contend in 2022, and Brissett, 14-23 career as a starter, is just a backup and spot starter.
The Browns do have another quarterback still on the roster, but it’s hard to imagine them turning to Baker Mayfield. They could force Mayfield to honor his contract, which pays him $18.8 million guaranteed. But that relationship has been nuked beyond repair, and the Browns can’t bring that type of dysfunction back to their locker room.
The answer, interestingly, might be in the Bay Area. Jimmy Garoppolo’s $24 million salary isn’t cheap, but if Watson is suspended, Garoppolo is the only quarterback available who could keep the Browns on the path to the playoffs. Plus, it’s just a one-year commitment, since Garoppolo would be a free agent after the season.
The Browns could help the 49ers, too, by sending Mayfield to San Francisco to be Trey Lance’s backup. The 49ers, who have Super Bowl aspirations, have a paper-thin QB depth chart of Lance, Nate Sudfeld, and Brock Purdy. Mayfield would be a significant and, in my view, a necessary upgrade, in case Lance isn’t quite ready for prime time or has to miss a few games over a 17-game season. The 49ers also might be able to squeeze a draft pick out of the Browns, or get the Browns to pay some of Mayfield’s salary.
The 49ers have a few reasons not to do it. Mayfield’s salary is certainly expensive, and the Niners may not want a backup quarterback making nearly nine times as much as the starter (Lance makes $2.21 million this year). The 49ers seem to want to save some cash this season to prepare for extensions for Deebo Samuel and Nick Bosa, and dumping Garoppolo at some point (even releasing him) saves them $24 million in cash. Mayfield also has the type of brash personality that could make it tough for him to accept a role behind Lance.
But the 49ers could easily look at the Garoppolo-Mayfield swap as saving $6 million. And Mayfield may want to go to San Francisco. Outside of maybe Seattle and Carolina, starting opportunities don’t exist. Of all the teams on which to be a backup QB, the 49ers offer a pretty good path to get playing time, behind the young, inexperienced Lance.
The Browns may need a starter, the 49ers may need a quality backup, and both teams have contracts they need to shed. A swap involving Garoppolo for Mayfield could be the answer.
Super Bowl win pays off for Rams
The Rams won their second Super Bowl this February, but their first in Los Angeles and their first under mega-billionaire owner Stan Kroenke. Everyone is getting rewarded handsomely.
Coach Sean McVay got a fat new contract to keep him away from television, though the terms are not known. General manager Les Snead has gotten or will get a nice raise, too.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford got a new three-year deal worth $120 million, including $61.5 million this year. He was scheduled to make $23 million.
Defensive tackle Aaron Donald became the first non-quarterback in NFL history to get $30 million per year when he signed a new deal this past week worth a reported $95 million over three years. Donald’s $31.7 million average is more than $10 million more than the next defensive tackle (DeForest Buckner and Leonard Williams at $21 million). Donald was scheduled to make $55 million over three years.
Triple Crown-winning receiver Cooper Kupp got a handsome raise this past week with a new three-year deal worth a reported $80 million. He was scheduled to make $29.5 million the next two years.
Plus, left tackle Joe Noteboom got $25 million guaranteed over two years, free agent receiver Allen Robinson got $30 million guaranteed over two years, linebacker Bobby Wagner got $17 million guaranteed over two years, and they still want Odell Beckham back, too.
Sale of Broncos not a fair fight
With the Broncos finally on the market this offseason, Roger Goodell said at the Super Bowl that “we would love to see a diverse owner of the team … and we will certainly encourage that as the process goes along.” The Jaguars’ Shad Khan is the only non-white owner among the 31.
In the end, the Broncos were sold this past week to a white man — Rob Walton of Walmart fame, for a record $4.65 billion, more than double the sale price of the Panthers in 2018 ($2.275 billion). It probably wasn’t much of a fair fight. Walton is worth approximately $60 billion, and he is Kroenke’s brother-in-law.
Walton is on top of the letterhead, and the day-to-day owners will be his daughter, Carrie Walton Penner, and her husband, WalMart chairman Greg Penner.
But the Broncos did at least include a diverse partner in the ownership group in Mellody Hobson, a Black woman who is the chair of the board at Starbucks, a director at JPMorgan Chase, and the CEO of Ariel Investments. She also is the wife of filmmaker George Lucas.
“Mellody Hobson is a business icon,” tweeted Commanders president Jason Wright, the first Black president in NFL history. “This is exciting for the entire league.”
Peyton Manning, who didn’t choose sides in the sale process, will also be looking for an advisory role with the team.
The Broncos haven’t made the playoffs in six seasons, their worst drought since the 1970s. But now they have Russell Wilson and a deep-pocketed owner.
Minor sticking points to two deals
As of Friday, 30 of 32 first-round picks have signed their rookie contracts. The deals are fairly straightforward, as the compensation is spelled out by a formula in the collective bargaining agreement. But there are a couple of minor points to negotiate, and they may be holding up the last two unsigned players, Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett (No. 20) and Patriots guard Cole Strange (No. 29).
With Pickett, who will sign a four-year deal worth $14 million fully guaranteed, there’s really only one issue possible, the structure of the payments. The standard rookie contract entails a signing bonus and four years of base salary. But several players now negotiate for large roster bonuses at the beginning of training camp, and minimum salaries. The money is equal, but the players get more up front. However, the Steelers have never agreed to that structure for first-round picks.
For Strange, there are two additional issues. One is that the Patriots don’t have the salary-cap space to sign him now. As of Friday, they had $507,383 in cap space, and will need to free up another $1 million to sign him to his four-year deal worth about $12.3 million. But that’s only a minor hindrance.
Another issue might be the guarantee in the fourth year of the contract. Last year, only the top 28 draft picks got the entire 100 percent guarantee on their four-year contracts. The 29th pick, Packers cornerback Eric Stokes, only got a 96 percent guarantee in the fourth year, leaving his overall contract at 99.5 percent guaranteed.
It’s certainly possible that Strange and the Patriots are headbutting over that 0.5 percent. The 29th pick was the dividing line last year, but Strange now has precedent on his side. This year, picks 27, 28, 30, 31, and 32 got the full, 100 percent guarantee.
It wouldn’t be a fight over actual money, just a fight over whether to guarantee the final $100,000 on a $12.3 million deal.
The NFL is expanding its international footprint swiftly. The league will host its first regular-season game in Germany this fall, and now is heading into Ghana for a week of clinics and activities starting June 21. Players such as the Seahawks’ Uchenna Nwosu, Colts’ Kwity Paye, and former Giants Osi Umenyiora and Mathias Kiwanuka will be on the trip. The league also awarded the Ghana market to the Eagles this spring when parsing out the new international markets (including Brazil, Australia, Spain and China) … Strange decision by Commanders coach Ron Rivera to fine Jack Del Rio $100,000 on Friday for his comparison of the Jan. 6 insurrection (calling it a “dustup”) and the police protests of 2020. Del Rio’s comments were ignorant and misguided, but the fine is a half-measure that doesn’t really accomplish anything. Rivera should have let Del Rio be, and let him deal with the public blowback, or just fired Del Rio, who is a decidedly average and replaceable coach. Del Rio is lucky to still have his job, and it’s hard to see how a majority-Black locker room will respect him and his uninformed, race-baiting views. “And you wonder why that team wasn’t disciplined last year,” Brian Mitchell, a member of the team’s Ring of Honor, said on 106.7-FM this past week. “Because your damn leader that’s leading your defense is not disciplined.” … More fascinating details on Tom Brady and the Dolphins, the biggest story that never was this offseason. Dave Hyde of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported that the Dolphins were ready to offer a first-round pick to the Saints for Sean Payton, then sign him to a five-year, $100 million deal to make him the second-highest-paid coach behind Bill Belichick. The Dolphins were then going to offer a second-round pick to the Buccaneers for Brady, after Brady had already joined the Dolphins’ front office, of course. “It was pretty much done for us to come,” said one assistant coach who was going to be hired. But Brian Flores’s unexpected lawsuit wrecked everything.
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.