The Falcons didn’t get Deshaun Watson. They were lucky

Cleveland Browns general manager Andrew Berry (left), new quarterback Deshaun Watson (center) and coach Kevin Stefanski pose for a photo during a news conference at the NFL team's training facility March 25 in Berea, Ohio. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)

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Cleveland Browns general manager Andrew Berry (left), new quarterback Deshaun Watson (center) and coach Kevin Stefanski pose for a photo during a news conference at the NFL team's training facility March 25 in Berea, Ohio. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)

The Falcons entered full rebuild mode because they sought to acquire Deshaun Watson. They failed, but their incumbent quarterback saw cause to rethink his career path. The Falcons accommodated by sending Matt Ryan to Indianapolis for a third-round draft pick.

The Falcons’ quarterback this fall figures to be Marcus Mariota, who arrived via trade with the Raiders, or Desmond Ridder, drafted in Round 3. There’s no assurance either will lift this club within hailing distance of .500, but at least there’s a succession plan in place. The plan doesn’t include Watson. Imagine if it did.

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Jenny Vrentas of The New York Times reported Tuesday that Watson, who faces lawsuits from 24 massage therapists regarding allegations of sexual assault and harassment, “booked appointments with at least 66 different women in 17 months. A few of those additional women, speaking publicly for the first time, described experiences that undercut Watson’s insistence that he was only seeking professional massage therapy.”

After a Houston-based grand jury chose not to bring charges against Watson, four NFL teams – Atlanta, Carolina, Cleveland and New Orleans – made hasty pitches to the quarterback, who didn’t play last season. Before any lawsuits were filed, he’d asked the Texans to trade him.

For a few hours, the Falcons believed they were poised to land Watson, who’s from Gainesville, Ga., just up the road from Flowery Branch. Then the Browns, believed to have been eliminated from contention, signed him to the biggest guaranteed contract in NFL history – $230 million over five seasons.

The Times story suggests the Texans enabled – “knowingly or not” – his “conduct” by providing “the venue … used for some of the appointments” and “furnish(ing) him with a nondisclosure agreement after a woman who is now suing him threated online to expose his behavior.” It also suggests he received favorable treatment from Harris County prosecutors. Watson didn’t testify before the grand jury; his lawyers instead offered “a slide presentation.”

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Watson faces no criminal charges. It’s possible nothing will come of the 24 lawsuits. The story, however, isn’t going away. Watson’s attorney, Rusty Hardin, created a new wave of headlines last week by claiming a massage session that leads to sexual activity – he used a two-word euphemism – is “not a crime.”

If/when Watson speaks to the media again, he’ll be asked why it was necessary to contact 66 different massage therapists over 17 months. The Texans will be asked if it’s standard practice for their director of security to leave an NDA in a player’s locker for future use. The Browns will be asked about the wisdom of sinking a goodly chunk of their future – $230M plus three first-round draft picks spent in the trade with Houston – into a player facing multiple lawsuits.

The Falcons might be asked if, in the clearer light of hindsight, their rushed pursuit of Watson was such a great idea, but Watson isn’t on their depth chart or their payroll. They’ve always thought highly of him – as a teenager, he served as a Falcons’ ball boy – as have the folks in Gainesville and Clemson. And they did need a new quarterback, and Watson is a three-time Pro Bowler.

The Falcons were lucky. This organization should know all too well what it’s like when your highest-profile player becomes known for something other than playing football. The rise and fall of Michael Vick is the greatest cautionary tale in franchise history. There is, we stipulate, a difference: Vick pled guilty to federal charges of dogfighting. That said, Vick had been a Falcon for six seasons when he was indicted. The Browns landed Watson knowing 22 of the 24 lawsuits were pending.

On the day of the trade, Browns owners Jim and Dee Haslam, general manager Andrew Berry and coach Kevin Stefanski released statements. The Haslams described the team’s due diligence re: Watson as “tremendous.” Berry and Stefanski deemed it “extensive.”

Hmm. The Harris County grand jury declined to charge Watson on March 11. The Browns agreed to acquire him seven days later.

If they hadn’t, some other team – maybe the Falcons – would have. But there has long been belief that Watson will face some sort of suspension when the NFL concludes its investigation. His new contract anticipates as much. His base salary for this season is $1.035 million. His salary for the four seasons thereafter is $46 million per annum.

Early guesses held that Watson might be docked eight games. In the wake of the Times story, it would be no shock if he’s suspended for the 2022 season. Again, he has been charged with no crime. Neither has Trevor Bauer, whom MLB suspended for two years for violating the league’s policy against domestic violence.