What the Deshaun Watson Season-Ending Injury Means for the Browns, Bettors and More
Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images. Pictured: Browns QB Deshaun Watson, who suffered a season-ending injury in Week 10 as we break down what it means for bettors, the Browns, and the rest of the NFL.
Deshaun Watson suffered a broken bone in his throwing shoulder early in Sunday's win against the Ravens, and he will miss the rest of the season.
Watson finished the game and even led a game-winning drive, but the 6-3 Browns are now down to P.J. Walker and Dorian Thompson-Robinson at QB. The team will start fifth-round rookie Thompson-Robinson this Sunday against the Steelers.
Cleveland has the league's best defense by any real measure. Jim Schwartz's unit has been one of the stories of the season, a clear playoff and even Super Bowl-worthy defense. But the offense continues to be besieged by injuries. The Browns are now without Watson, RB Nick Chubb, and RT Jack Conklin for the season. Cleveland is 1-2 without Watson this season.
So how damaging is the Watson news for Cleveland in the immediate and long-term future? How should we bet the Browns going forward, and how do we play this Browns change at QB?
What the Deshaun Watson Injury Means for the Browns, Bettors and More
Browns Offensive Outlook Bleak Without Watson
Deshaun Watson has not played like himself for most of the season, looking far from the potential top-five quarterback Cleveland invested so heavily in.
It would be easy to shrug off this news as mostly inconsequential — but that would be a mistake.
Watson hasn't played like the franchise QB he was a few years back in Houston, but he hasn't been horrible either, and it's still a massive drop-off from Watson to the options remaining.
For the season, Watson ranks 19th in EPA + CPOE, a good all-in-one QB metric at RBSDM. That puts him right in between Derek Carr and Jordan Love, just below average among NFL starting quarterbacks. If you go by just EPA, Watson ranks 23rd, just behind Carr and Ryan Tannehill and ahead of Josh Dobbs and Jimmy Garoppolo.
That all sounds about right.
Watson's EPA per play on the season is -0.02, effectively neutral. He hasn't been a big value add to the Browns, but he's not hurting them either. Watson has been about the 20th best QB this year. When I do my quarterback rankings, 20th is usually where the game managers reside — guys like Carr, Tannehill, and Garoppolo. That's effectively the role Watson has played for the Browns this season. Not great, not what anyone hoped for, but still valuable and usually good enough with a defense this good. Watson also led all quarterbacks in the fourth-quarter EPA per play this season.
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Now let's look at the other two options on Cleveland's roster.
This season, 47 quarterbacks have tallied at least 40 plays. Dorian Thompson-Robinson ranks 43rd of 47 in EPA + CPOE. P.J. Walker ranks 46th. For reference, Giants QB Tommy DeVito sits right between them. By just EPA, Walker leaps all the way to 41st, while Thompson-Robinson sits dead last at -0.49 EPA per play.
Every two plays DTR has participated in this season, he's cost the Browns a point. Seems bad.
Watson was not good, but he was not terrible, and it turns out that's valuable, too. The metrics tell us Walker and Thompson-Robinson are pretty bad, perhaps average backups at best, and that's probably being kind.
Cleveland is effectively dropping from something like the No. 20 QB to the No. 50 QB the rest of the season.
This downgrades the Browns offense from 21st to 27th in my roster rankings matrix. Cleveland has already dropped from top 10 to start the season, thanks both to its injuries and lack of great play by Watson, but this now puts them in range of teams like the Raiders or Patriots.
There's one other team the Browns suddenly feel very similar to — the New York Jets.
Cleveland's Offense Is in Trouble, But the Team Still Has Hope
The Browns were supposed to be an elite rushing offense, but that's gone awry with Chubb injured and the offensive line struggling through injuries of its own. The hope was that Cleveland would pass the ball well, but that ship has sailed without Watson now, too. The offense is in big trouble.
That means the Browns are now like the Jets, another super elite defense that made a big swing for a franchise QB only to lose him for the season injured. You could argue these are the two best defenses in the entire league right now — but you could also argue that they're starting two of the three worst quarterbacks in the NFL too (thanks, Giants).
Cleveland is a better version of the Jets, though.
The Browns defense is better, which obviously matters when that's the strength and identity. The run defense, in particular, is much better. The offense is also probably better than New York's — because the Jets have an awful offensive line and that's still a relative strength for the Browns, even with the injuries.
There's one other big advantage the Browns have on the Jets: a head start.
Cleveland is 6-3 already, while the Jets are just 4-5. Those two extra wins mean everything in the tight AFC playoff race, and it's entirely possible that Watson saved the season by helping the Browns steal that win late over the Ravens Sunday.
Even with mediocre-to-bad QB play, the Browns could easily be 8-1. They lost 26-22 to Pittsburgh in a game in which the Steelers scored two defensive touchdowns, and they lost 24-20 to Seattle and led in the final minute. Only one game was out of reach — notably, the one previous Thompson-Robinson start, against Baltimore.
The Browns host the Steelers this week. Cleveland was favored at -4 to -4.5 before Sunday's games but is down to -1.5 as of Wednesday's news. The Browns are still favored, against a fellow 6-3 team vying for the playoffs. It's clear that books don't think Cleveland should be left for dead.
The upcoming Browns schedule is daunting:
- at Broncos
- at Rams
- at Texans
- at Bengals
Every team on that list except the Bears is still in the playoff hunt. That's the only "easy" win on the schedule for Cleveland, but there's also only one game where the Browns would expect to be heavy underdogs, the finale in Cincinnati. Cleveland's elite defense gives them a real chance the entire way.
Aaron Schatz and FTN projected the Browns at 11.0 wins before the Watson news, which would've made the Browns the top wildcard team. I project Cleveland at 3.5 wins from that remaining schedule, putting the Browns at 9.5 wins to end the season. That would put the Browns as close to a coin flip for the 7-seed and final AFC wildcard spot — with the Bengals, the team Cleveland ends the season against.
The Browns remain favorites to make the playoffs. They're anywhere from -167 (BetRivers) to -190 (DraftKings), implying anywhere from a 63 to 66% chance to make the playoffs. Cleveland is anywhere from +137 (BetRivers) to +175 (DraftKings) to miss the postseason, implying a 36 to 42% chance.
That feels a bit optimistic in the brutal AFC. It's tough to bet either side confidently without knowing much about their new rookie QB, but that +175 to miss looks pretty spicy to me.
The Browns are not dead — but how do we bet them going forward, and what's the ripple effect fallout for the rest of the AFC?
How the Watson News Impacts the Rest of the AFC, and How to Bet It
A look at that Browns schedule above makes it pretty obvious that a worse Cleveland squad will have ripple effects around the league. But I think there are two teams helped most by the Browns news and two others hurt the most.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are the most obvious winner.
The Steelers get to face the rookie Thompson-Robinson in only his second start without much time to prep, and that game has massive playoff implications for both sides. PFF has the Steelers at 60% to make the playoffs, but that increases to 78% with a win versus 46% in a loss. That's a massive 33% swing in playoff odds on this one game alone, and the Browns face the same leverage at 83% in a win and 50% in a loss.
If you like the Steelers against Cleveland this week, their -120 odds to make the playoffs look awfully juicy. Likewise, if you think the Browns lose as slight favorites, that +175 to miss the postseason looks good.
The other big winner is the Bengals, who may have just gotten a season-saving lifeline.
The Bengals are outside the playoffs looking in right now, and by the odds, they're the first team out. If the Browns do fall out of the playoff race and leave a spot up for grabs, Cincinnati is in best position to claim it. The Bengals, remember, are the one team on Cleveland's schedule that should become huge favorites now in a Browns game.
There's a reasonable chance the Week 18 finale in Cincinnati becomes a de facto playoff game. Would you rather have a fifth-round rookie starting a road playoff game, or Joe Burrow?
The Ravens are losers, by extension. Baltimore is the one team in the division that doesn't get to play the worsened Browns down the stretch — though, remember, they already got their Thompson-Robinson game. Anything that helps the Steelers and Bengals also hurts the Ravens, by definition.
Or does it?
I've been trumpeting Baltimore's futures odds for a month in my weekly Power Rankings column. The Ravens continue to be underpriced as division favorites because the rest of the division keeps winning. But Baltimore's biggest division threat was the Browns, now likely a non-threat. The greater possibility of facing the Bengals in the playoffs isn't great, but in the short term, this may actually help the Ravens.
FTN has Baltimore as a 56% division favorite, with the Browns up next at 25%. With this news, I'd boost the Ravens to 60 or 65%. Baltimore is -110 to -120 to win the division.
I loved the Ravens at -110 (Caesars) to win the AFC North before, and I love it even more now.
For the record, FTN had the Bengals at 4.1% to win the division before the news. Cincinnati is 0-2 in the division and likely would have to win in Baltimore Thursday night, then win its final three division games too. I can't recommend it, but the Bengals are +440 (PointsBet) to win the division if you must.
So if the Ravens aren't losers, and the Bengals and Steelers are helped — and really, even teams like the Texans, Jets, and Broncos are helped too, getting an easier upcoming game as fringe playoff contenders — then who's the biggest loser outside of Cleveland?
That would be the Buffalo Bills.
They get nothing good out of this news, while almost every AFC playoff contender gets helped by it.
As if poor Bills fans needed even more bad news this week.