NFL

Their Quarterback Got Injured. This NFL Team Got Better.

Author: Andrew Beaton Source: WSJ:
January 2, 2024 at 06:23
Joe Flacco has Browns fans dreaming of their first Lombardi Trophy. NICK CAMMETT/GETTY IMAGES
Joe Flacco has Browns fans dreaming of their first Lombardi Trophy. NICK CAMMETT/GETTY IMAGES

In a season rife with injuries, the Cleveland Browns lost starter Deshaun Watson and their season looked doomed. Then they signed Joe Flacco and emerged as a Super Bowl contender.

When Aaron Rodgers tore his Achilles tendon on his first drive as quarterback of the New York Jets, it wasn’t simply another catastrophe for a woebegone franchise. It also served as a grim omen for the rest of the NFL. 

Over the course of the rest of the 2023 season, star quarterbacks that franchises had invested fortunes in continued to go down and to not get back up again. When the likes of the Cincinnati Bengals’ Joe Burrow and the Minnesota Vikings’ Kirk Cousins suffered season-ending injuries, their teams’ Super Bowl hopes plummeted instantaneously. 

But one team has defied this unfortunate trend and emerged as an even stronger contender. Even more improbably, that same team has one of the league’s most miserable histories at quarterback. 

The Cleveland Browns enter the final week of the season having already secured a playoff berth with one of the best records in the entire league. That’s because when they lost Deshaun Watson, the quarterback who they had bet their future on, they found a replacement off the scrap heap who has turned into one of the most unlikely sensations in NFL history. 

Joe Flacco, a 38-year-old who once won a title but whose career appeared finished, has Browns fans dreaming of their first Lombardi Trophy. 

One way of understanding the playoff picture a week away from the start of the postseason is by looking at which teams have managed to keep their quarterbacks upright. The Baltimore Ravens, who clinched the No. 1 seed in the AFC by blowing out the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, rose to the top because Lamar Jackson finally stayed healthy into December. Even the reigning-champion Kansas City Chiefs, who have looked uncharacteristically shaky, won their division and have a shot to win it all because Patrick Mahomes has played every game. The top of the standings this year is essentially a list of teams with healthy passers.  

The Browns are a glaring exception. And what makes that especially remarkable is that they invested more than any team in NFL history in a quarterback—only to improve when he went down. 

“You think you’re coming into a good situation with a good team and there’s a possibility for this,” Flacco said recently, “but you never quite know.”

When Cleveland traded for Watson from the Houston Texans in 2022, the blockbuster move was especially jarring because of the circumstances. Watson had just sat out the entire 2021 season while he wanted to be traded. At the same time, numerous women had sued him and accused him of sexual misconduct during massage therapy sessions. 

But that controversy wasn’t reflected in the extraordinary price the Browns paid to acquire him. Leaping at the rare opportunity to acquire a star quarterback still in his 20s, Cleveland dealt three first-round picks as part of a package to Houston—and then followed that up by giving Watson a groundbreaking contract worth a fully guaranteed $230 million over five years. 
 

New York Jets quarterback Trevor Siemian greets Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson. PHOTO: SCOTT GALVIN/REUTERS
New York Jets quarterback Trevor Siemian greets Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson. PHOTO: SCOTT GALVIN/REUTERS
 

It didn’t take long for that to go wrong. The allegations against Watson resulted in an 11-game suspension to start last season, and by the time he returned to the field, he looked rusty and ineffective.

This season, Watson’s performance hardly resembled his heyday, but it was good enough for a club with arguably the best defense in the NFL. In the five games in which he took most of the snaps, Cleveland went 4-1.

Then Watson suffered a season-ending shoulder surgery, leaving the Browns to turn to Dorian Thompson-Robinson, a rookie they had selected in the fourth round of the draft. It quickly became clear he wasn’t the answer. He tossed four interceptions before throwing for a touchdown, and it was apparent that the team needed someone else to keep the offense afloat. 

It was an unexpected twist when the Browns turned to Flacco after he spent most of the season on his couch, seemingly headed toward retirement. But what Flacco has done ever since taking over makes something else even more surprising: that nobody else had brought him in. 

Flacco, who was under center for the Baltimore Ravens for the majority of his career, spent the past few seasons mostly as a backup for the New York Jets. But the Jets never re-signed him, even after Rodgers got hurt, and instead let a season that began with title hopes unravel behind poor quarterback play. 

The Jets were hardly the only team whose fortunes were torpedoed by a hurt quarterback. This was a season when more than a billion dollars of passers were sidelined by injuries—and it has shaped the playoff race. The Los Angeles Chargers turned in a disappointing season while Justin Herbert played through a finger injury, before another finger injury ruled him out for the year. The Bengals’ hopes plunged when Burrow required wrist surgery, and they were officially eliminated from the playoffs Sunday when they lost to Kansas City
 

Browns wide receiver Elijah Moore, right, celebrates with tight end David Njoku. PHOTO: SCOTT GALVIN/REUTERS
Browns wide receiver Elijah Moore, right, celebrates with tight end David Njoku. PHOTO: SCOTT GALVIN/REUTERS


The Browns, though, are headed to the postseason despite losing Watson. And they are beginning to look more dangerous with Flacco under center than they did before he arrived. 

Cleveland has now won four straight games, including Thursday night’s 37-20 shellacking of the Jets, while Flacco has played like a gunslinger capable of beating any team in the postseason. In Flacco’s five starts, he has averaged 323 passing yards and thrown for 13 touchdowns. While his aggressiveness has produced eight interceptions, he has also shown his veteran savviness with a league-low sack rate. 

“He’s doing a nice job of playing within himself and playing within the scheme and all those type of things,” Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said, “but he’s also making plays,” 

It’s a rare feeling for a franchise that has often felt cursed, particularly at the quarterback position. But that script flipped entirely this season—because another quarterback calamity prompted them to sign Flacco. 

 

 

Write to Andrew Beaton at andrew.beaton@wsj.com

Appeared in the January 2, 2024, print edition as 'This NFL Team Got Better After Losing Its Star QB'.

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