Watson apologized Friday “to all the women I have impacted” after being accused by two dozen women of sexual misconduct during massage therapy sessions.
Potentially facing a year-long suspension, Watson publicly expressed remorse and contrition for the first time since he was accused of sexually harassing or assaulting the women during therapy sessions in 2020 and 2021.
He spoke before the team’s exhibition opener, a 24-13 victory at Jacksonville (0-2) in which Watson was roundly booed during three series of work. Fans in one end zone could be heard chanting vulgarities at Watson during his first drive.
The three-time Pro Bowler completed 1 of 5 passes for 7 yards in his first game action since Jan. 3, 2021, with Houston.
“I think he probably wants some throws back," Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said. "Obviously playing football for the first time in a while, I thought it was important for him to get out there with his teammates in this scheme. I’m sure he had the butterflies and the jitters early. But I think he understands what he’s working through.”
Watson managed no first downs and 7 yards while playing without receiver Amari Cooper, running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, and offensive linemen Joel Bitonio and Jack Conklin. Starting center Nick Harris, who is replacing NFLPA president and salary-cap casualty JC Tretter, went down on the second play with a right knee injury.
Harris will have tests Saturday to determine the extent of his injury, Stefanski said.
Cleveland trailed 13-0 when Watson’s night ended. He spent much of the second half sitting on a cooler on the sideline and chewing gum. If he made any strides, they came before kickoff.
“Look, I want to say that I’m truly sorry to all of the women that I have impacted in this situation,” Watson said in the pregame interview. “The decisions that I made in my life that put me in this position I would definitely like to have back, but I want to continue to move forward and grow and learn and show that I am a true person of character and I am going to keep pushing forward.”
The team declined to make Watson available after the game.
Watson, who denied any wrongdoing while settling 23 of 24 civil lawsuits, is still facing league discipline. The NFL is appealing independent arbiter Sue L. Robinson’s six-game suspension. The retired federal judge concluded Watson violated the league’s personal conduct policy with “egregious” and “predatory” behavior. As part of her ruling, Robinson noted Watson’s lack of remorse.
The appeal is now with Peter C. Harvey, a former New Jersey attorney general appointed by commissioner Roger Goodell. In the meantime, Watson can practice and play. Stefanski said he wanted to get Watson preseason action despite the looming suspension.
“It’s been something that we’ve been talking about the last few months, weeks, just trying to figure out what the best path forward was for — not just for our quarterbacks — but for the entire team," he said.
Watson jogged into TIAA Bank Field with a security guard at his side and later stopped to sign autographs following warmups. No protests against Watson were found outside the stadium, although several cars could be seen sporting unsavory messages ripping the embattled quarterback.
Jacksonville played most of its starters and looked considerably better than it did in the Hall of Fame game last week in Canton, Ohio.
Jaguars running back Travis Etienne played for the first time since suffering a foot injury last preseason and ran for 23 yards. He also had a 10-yard reception that set up a field goal.
The Jaguars scored on each of their first three possessions, significant signs of progress as new coach Doug Pederson leads another rebuild in Jacksonville.
PLAY OF THE GAME
Browns rookie Martin Emerson had the play of the game, ripping a pass from Jaguars receiver Jeff Cotton and taking it 74 yards the other way for a touchdown and a 14-13 lead in the second quarter. It was another moment for Emerson, a third-round draft pick who is pushing for playing time in a backfield that includes Denzel Ward, Greg Newsome and Greedy Williams.
Browns rookie running back Jerome Ford, a fifth-round pick from Cincinnati, had a standout night despite a late fumble. Ford ran for 57 yards and a touchdown and caught four passes for 46 yards and a score.
Ford is giving Cleveland another option in a crowded — and talented — backfield. Chubb and Hunt sat out, leaving D’Ernest Johnson to start. But Johnson fumbled on the second series, and Ford took over from there.
Browns host Philadelphia on Aug. 21.
Jaguars host Pittsburgh on Aug. 20.
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