BEREA, Ohio (AP) — One year later, everything seems different, changed for Deshaun Watson.
A short, suspended season behind him, Watson doesn't feel the same weight of uncertainty or scrutiny that defined his arrival in Cleveland and trailed him throughout all of 2022 with the Browns.
"Honestly," he said Tuesday. "It's night and day."
This is something of a fresh start for Watson, who was banned for 11 games last season after the NFL ruled he violated its personal conduct policy when two dozen women accused the quarterback of sexual assault and harassment during massage therapy sessions while he played for Houston.
Watson played in just six games for the Browns, hardly the return they were hoping for when the team gave the 27-year-old a controversial, fully guaranteed $230 million contract. Watson rarely showed glimpses of his former Pro Bowl self while going 3-3 as the Browns staggered to a 7-10 finish.
Rewind to this time a year ago, when Watson's future was uncertain — at best.
There seemed to be a daily legal development involving him. The Browns didn't know whether he'd even be eligible to play, and many of Cleveland's die-hard fans were torn about supporting a player with a questionable reputation.
"Just kind of a whirlwind," Watson said.
Looking back, Watson, who has settled 23 of 25 civil lawsuits in Texas, said the experience shaped him for the better.
"It was my first time up here with everything going on," said Watson, who played in Cleveland with the Texans. "But all that is in the past. I'm looking to move forward with my life and my career and just being able to really plant myself in this community, in this city and then also in this organization for a very, very long time and win a whole bunch of games."
That's the plan, and as the Browns began their voluntary offseason program this week, Watson expressed optimism about what he and his teammates can accomplish in 2023.
He's spent much of the offseason working out near outside Houston with Cleveland's wide receivers, including the newly acquired Elijah Moore and Marquise Goodwin, both of whom give the Browns a needed deep speed threat.
Since returning to Cleveland, Watson spent extra time with coach Kevin Stefanski and discussing how to best utilize his talents and blend them into an offense that never hit its full stride with him behind center.
Stefanski, who has had to navigate around the pandemic and Watson's situation during his first three seasons with the Browns, believes last year's tumult can help.
"For Deshaun, to have that season under his belt and those experiences and be able to learn from everything that's happened last year into the past, I think he'll be a better player for it," Stefanski said. "I think we'll all be better for everything we've been through."
As he's done in the past, Watson deferred any questions about pending civil lawsuits to "my legal team."
"My main focus is continue to grow as a individual, as a person and then just continue to grow as a football player," he said. "And if I continue to do that and look forward and look at all the positive things around me, then I know things can continue to be blessings that surround me."
GARRETT'S PRO BOWL INJURY
Myles Garrett is no fan of the Pro Bowl and its revamped format.
Cleveland's star defensive e nd dislocated a big toe whi le scaling an obstacle course wall in Las Vegas in February. Garrett was racing Carolina's Brian Burns when he hurt his toe going over the first wall.
"Hit my foot and my foot goes numb," Garrett said. "I'm like, ‘Oh damn, I just broke my toe,' and I'm thinking, ‘Damn, Browns Twitter's going to go crazy right now.'"
Garrett said the toe was popped back into place and he didn't need surgery. However, he said the injury is still "nagging" him.
As for the decision to try and spice up the Pro Bowl, Garrett said the league needs to go back to the drawing board.
"It's the run-away-from-the-cops obstacle course," Garrett said. "Jumping over a wall or fence and ducking under a table. Doesn't make sense to me. They're looking for new things to do and new activities and obstacles to try and I have to say, that wasn't it."
NOTES: WR Amari Cooper revealed he underwent core muscle surgery in February. Cooper finished his first season with Cleveland despite playing in pain over the final month. Cooper said he's where he's supposed to be in his recovery. ... Stefanski said DT Perrion Winfrey, who was arrested last week on domestic assault charges, remains on the roster. Stefanski would not disclose whether Winfrey was in attendance.