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Deshaun Watson struggles on return to NFL action after 11-game suspension following sexual misconduct allegations

<i>Eric Gay/AP</i><br/>Watson runs onto the field with his team for the game against the Texans.
AP
Eric Gay/AP
Watson runs onto the field with his team for the game against the Texans.

By Ben Morse, CNN

Deshaun Watson struggled on his return to NFL action on Sunday after serving an 11-game suspension following sexual misconduct allegations.

In what was his first action in exactly 700 days, Watson showed signs of rust, despite the Cleveland Browns beating the quarterback’s former team, the Houston Texans, 27-14.

Many of his passes were off target, and the 27-year-old Watson threw a poor interception in the endzone in the first half as he misread the defense.

After the victory, Watson admitted his long absence played a factor in his poor play on Sunday.

“However long I’ve been out, I felt every single one of those days,” he said.

Sunday’s game was Watson’s first meaningful NFL action in two years. He didn’t play during the 2021 season after demanding a trade from the Texans.

Before his suspension, 24 civil lawsuits were filed on behalf of women alleging Watson sexually harassed or assaulted them during private massage appointments during his time with the Texans. Watson denied wrongdoing in those cases, and 23 of the lawsuits were settled confidentially. Two grand juries declined to charge Watson criminally.

Even with dozens of sexual misconduct allegations, the Browns traded three first-round picks with the Texans for Watson, then signed him to a five-year, fully guaranteed $230 million contract, the most guaranteed money in NFL history.

In August, just months after being traded, the NFL and the NFL Players Association agreed to suspend him for 11 regular season games without pay and fined him $5 million.

Watson violated the NFL’s personal conduct policy in private meetings with massage therapists while he was with the Texans, according to the initial ruling by Sue L. Robinson, a judge jointly appointed by the NFL and the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) to decide on Watson’s punishment.

Watson’s “pattern of conduct is more egregious than any before reviewed by the NFL,” Robinson said in her ruling, adding that Watson’s “lack of expressed remorse” was a factor in the discipline that she chose.

Less than two months after settling the lawsuits, a new civil suit was filed by another woman in October, alleging that Watson pressured her into sexual activity during a professional massage session.

Despite the new lawsuit, the NFL said his status would remain “unchanged.”

Watson has repeatedly denied the allegations against him and said he has no regrets about any of his actions. He spoke to the media for the first time on Thursday since returning from suspension, declining to answer any non-football questions that were asked.

Watson had been practicing full-time with the Browns since November 14 and had been allowed inside team facilities and to meet with team staff since October 10, according to the team.

His arrival to the field at NRG Stadium was met with boos and cheers from the crowd in attendance.

The lawyer representing Watson’s accusers told CNN before the game that around 10 of the more than two dozen women who accused Watson of sexual misconduct were expected to attend the game in Houston.

Throughout the first half, Watson’s every touch was jeered by the crowd, and every mistake he made was met with loud cheers.

Watson struggled throughout the victory, as he and the offense relied on touchdowns from the defense and special teams — the Browns scored their three touchdowns on a punt return, an interception return and a fumble return.

Watson finished 12-of-22 passing for 131 yards and an interception.

Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski said afterwards that it’s all about getting game time for Watson at the moment.

“First game back, so you’ve got to work through it,” Stefanski said in a press conference. “Got to get some game reps. Got to get this first one out of the way.”

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CNN’s Alaa Elassar contributed to this report.

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