HOUSTON — Quarterback Deshaun Watson struggled in his first game back playing against his former team.
Returning from an 11-game suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy by committing sexual assault, as defined by the league, Watson failed to lead the Cleveland Browns on a touchdown drive Sunday against the Houston Texans.
Cleveland still defeated the league’s worst team 27-14 behind two defensive touchdowns and a punt-return score from Donovan Peoples-Jones — the first time in 33 years the Browns scored three non-offensive touchdowns in a game.
Watson completed 12 of 22 passes for 131 yards in his first regular-season game in exactly 700 days. He also threw an interception in the end zone that negated Cleveland’s best offensive scoring opportunity.
Although NRG Stadium was half-empty, Watson was loudly booed before every Browns snap throughout the game.
“They’re supposed to boo,” Watson said. “I’m a Cleveland Brown now, and we’re on the road, so they’re supposed to boo.”
Coach Kevin Stefanski said of Watson’s performance: “Obviously you’re missing a bunch of time. So you’ve got to get back in it. You’ve got to get this first one out of the way. But I know what the kid is capable of.”
The Browns traded for Watson in March, sending the Texans three first-round draft picks. Cleveland then signed Watson to a five-year deal worth $230 million guaranteed, the richest contract in NFL history.
Watson demanded a trade from the Texans after the 2020 season. He was then accused by more than two dozen women of sexual assault and other sexual misconduct during massage sessions before he sat out the entire 2021 season.
A few of those women had planned to attend Sunday’s game, according to their attorney Tony Buzbee, who had said he would be at the game with them.
Over the summer, Watson agreed to settle 23 of the 24 civil lawsuits against him. Two lawsuits against him remain outstanding, including one filed on Oct. 13. Two other women filed criminal complaints against Watson but did not sue him.
Watson wasn’t charged criminally. He has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and said people haven’t been interested in hearing his side of the story.
As part of the suspension settlement between the NFL and the NFL Players Association, Watson also had to pay a $5 million fine and participate in a treatment program.
On Thursday, speaking for the first time since August, Watson refused to answer any “non-football questions.”
After Sunday’s game, Watson was asked whether he had any remorse for the actions the league described as “predatory” and “egregious,” which led to his suspension. Once again, Watson declined to answer those questions.
“That’s something that, legal and clinical, we’ve answered before. And they don’t want me to address anything like that,” he said. “Of course, it was a tough situation. The suspension was tough. But at the same time, my main focus is just trying to be 1-0 as a football player today.
“I was just excited to be back on the field today. I did everything that I was asked and was required to do. I did all that. And I was able to play and be on the field today.”
Watson took a break during his pregame warm-up Sunday to sign autographs for fans, some wearing his No. 4 Browns or Texans jersey. Watson also posed for selfies and photographs with fans.
Sarah Flores, a Houston season-ticket holder who had her red Texans No. 4 jersey signed by Watson, said she believed Watson was “100%” innocent of the allegations made against him.
“Somebody as successful as he is would never go and jeopardize his career like that,” she said.
Outside the stadium in the parking lot, a Texans tailgate set up a mock massage table with a mannequin wearing Watson’s Texans jersey with a sign that said, “complimentary unlicensed massages!!! Now serving #4.”
Nearby, a fan was wearing an orange Browns shirt with “FREE WATSON” on the front and “ALL HE WANTED WAS A HAPPY ENDING” on the back. As the fan walked up to NRG Stadium, he led a “Here we go Brownies” chant alongside a pair of women wearing brown-colored Watson jerseys.
Inside, a Texans fan held up a sign that read: “I would rather be 1-9-1 than have Deshaun Watson as my quarterback.”
Stewart Mathieson, a Houston fan from Scotland who bought pregame sideline passes for this game, repurposed his blue Texans Watson jersey with the message “JUSTICE 4 WOMEN.” The front of the jersey had the words “BROWNS SHAME” stitched below the No. 4.
“Some of my Browns friends [in Scotland] have given up supporting the team because of Watson,” said Mathieson, who flew in for the game with his nephew, Christopher. “Am I going to boo him? Yeah, I’m going to boo him.”