The release of the 2022 Cleveland Browns schedule illustrates the league's lack of comfort with quarterback Deshaun Watson's ongoing lawsuits. The bare minimum amount of prime time games combined with at least 13 games in the 1 o'clock time slot allows the NFL to limit the amount of time that network partners will be forced to discuss Watson's situation.
Yes, the NFL has the ability to flex games and depending on how the Browns fare as well as how fans react to Watson, network partners may feel better about putting the Browns in a premium time slot later in the season. Still, given the subject matter and potential to turn viewers away, that looks unlikely from here.
In the one o'clock slot, networks can dedicate a journalist who is equipped to take the care necessary in discussing the story once and then move on. They are also taped to make sure they are done with the level of care and professionalism required.
For prime time games involving the Browns, there are 90-minutes to two hours of pregame to fill and Watson's situation is going to come up live. Not only can it be uncomfortable for fans watching, especially if they have children watching, but it's an incredibly delicate situation for networks and on-air talent. One cringeworthy comment that goes viral is all it takes to produce a ton of bad press networks and the league would rather avoid.
But maybe ESPN's Adam Schefter can handle it with the same level of grace and civility he so often does with his Twitter account on live TV when he's more interested in an opportunity to catch a five-yard soft toss from Steve Young as the show goes to break. The networks employ any number of former athletes with strong opinions that could cause a stir.
The Browns are scheduled to be on Thursday Night Football week three against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Monday Night Football against the Cincinnati Bengals in week eight. Both games are in Cleveland, which is smart, because with talent on location, it reduces the chances of opposing fans being picked up on microphones weighing in with their own thoughts on Watson.
Don't expect the Browns to complain as they benefit from this arrangement as well. They are thrilled to have Watson as it could allow them to win the Super Bowl, but flying under the radar this season is ideal under the circumstances. The Browns don't need hype. They just need to win football games and qualify for the postseason. The rest of that time they would avoid as many slings and arrows as possible.
Nevertheless, it's the latest indication that the Watson situation and resulting fallout aren't going away in the near future.