HOUSTON — Exactly 700 days had passed since Deshaun Watson last represented an N.F.L. franchise in a regular-season game and, on Sunday, very little was the same since his last start.
Watson took the field at NRG Stadium, home of the Houston Texans, the team for which he’d played his entire professional career. Only this time, Watson was the starting quarterback for the Cleveland Browns.
And while Watson and his new team, the franchise that committed a guaranteed $230 million to him in March, spent the week trying to shift the focus to football, the significance of this meeting of two losing teams was not the game itself or the result, a 27-14 Browns win.
Rather, Sunday marked the return of a star quarterback to the N.F.L.’s regular-season stage for the first time since January 2021, an appearance one of the more than two dozen women who said Watson assaulted or harassed them in massage appointments called “incredibly painful.”
The game marked the end of the 11-game suspension the league issued Watson as punishment for violating its personal conduct policy. The penalty was the result of those accusations and the much scrutinized N.F.L. disciplinary process that followed.
Watson, 28, steadfastly denied the accusations against him, most recently on Aug. 18, the day he and the N.F.L. agreed to the terms of his discipline: an 11-game suspension, a $5 million fine and required participation in a behavioral evaluation and treatment program as a condition of his reinstatement. An N.F.L. spokesman said the jointly selected treatment provider informed the league and the players’ union that Watson had “made strides” but instructed him not to talk about his treatment publicly.
Watson was met with a chorus of boos when he stepped to the line of scrimmage to take his first snap, just moments after Texans quarterback Kyle Allen threw an interception on the first play from scrimmage. The play was at first called an incomplete pass meant for tight end Teagan Quitoriano, but, after a review, the ball was ruled to have been picked off by Browns safety John Johnson. The review meant fans’ boos lingered and built as Watson took the field with 14 minutes 54 seconds remaining in the first quarter.
There was no way of knowing if the boos were the result of Watson’s acrimonious split from the Texans after sitting out the 2021 season following a trade demand. Or if they came from attendees voicing their displeasure over the extensive accusations of sexual misconduct. Or both.
What was clear immediately was Watson’s unfamiliarity with commanding an N.F.L. offense, as he missed throws and threw an end zone interception in a game in which the Browns’ defensive and special teams units scored all three of Cleveland’s touchdowns. Watson completed 12 of 22 passes for 131 yards, with no touchdowns and a 53.4 passer rating, not a showing that recalled the Pro Bowl-level performances Watson was accustomed to having before his two-year absence from the game.