BEREA, Ohio — Deshaun Watson felt blindsided by the injury — as did the Browns.
After finally playing like an elite quarterback, Watson was told Tuesday night by doctors that a hard hit that he shook off on Sunday ended his second season in Cleveland just as it was taking off.
As he wrestled with his emotions on Wednesday, Watson fought to find the words to convey his feelings.
“It's very tough,” Watson said following a 10-second pause to gather himself. "Hurt about it.”
Watson will undergo season-ending surgery to repair a displaced fracture in his right shoulder, an injury that is not only a personal setback to the 28-year-old but a potentially devastating blow to the Browns, who have managed to stay in contention and now face more uncertainty.
Once again, they don't have a franchise quarterback.
Watson, who came to Cleveland in a controversial trade from Houston last year and received a fully guaranteed $230 million contract, got hurt at some point in the first half of the Browns' 33-31 win at Baltimore. He's not sure when it happened and the team can't pinpoint the contact.
But although Watson knew something was wrong, he stayed on the field while also dealing with a sprained ankle and completed 14 of 14 passes in the second half as Cleveland rallied for one its biggest wins in recent memory.
Less than 48 hours later, any afterglow from the win was darkened as doctors told Watson his glenoid was fractured and his season is over after six games. He threw for 1,115 yards with seven touchdown passes and four interceptions.
“I’m still in disbelief," he said. ”Just trying to process all the information. I felt like we were turning a corner to really make a run and still believe we still will with the guys in this locker room. I just wanted to physically be a part of it.
"It’s tough to try to wrap everything around my head right now.”
Browns general manage Andrew Berry said the fracture is not related to the strained rotator cuff that Watson sustained earlier this season and kept him off the field for almost four full games.
Led by one of the league's best defenses, the Browns (6-3) are off to one of their best starts in two decades and are chasing a playoff spot. While they've been dealing with adversity since Week 1, not having Watson is by far their biggest obstacle.
Still, Berry exuded confidence the Browns can withstand losing Watson.
“Our focus is on looking at the opportunity in front of us,” he said. “Pity does us no good.”
Coach Kevin Stefanski said rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson will start Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers (6-3) in a key AFC North matchup.
It will be the second start for Thompson-Robinson, a fifth-round pick from UCLA who made an emergency start on Oct. 1 against Baltimore when Watson was ruled out just before kickoff with a shoulder strain.
Thompson-Robinson had a rough pro debut, completing 19 of 36 passes for 121 yards while throwing three interceptions in a 28-3 loss. He'll now get all the first-team reps before facing Pittsburgh's defense and Stefanski is confident Thompson-Robinson will fare better.
“Every week you’re trying to just make the best decisions you can for your team,” Stefanski said. “I want to give him a week where he knows he’s a starter, he gets a full week of preparation. ... Young players need exposure. You get better in practice. Sometimes you get better through games.”
Thompson-Robinson will speak to reporters on Thursday.
Stefanski's other option was P.J. Walker, who started two games and came off the bench in another for Watson. Walker went 2-1 but had six turnovers in three games, throwing a late interception that led to a loss in Seattle.
“He’s still a guy that we’re counting on,” Stefanski said. "He’s done a great job in the meeting room on the practice field. He has to be ready to go at a moment’s notice. Just felt like this was the right decision for the team right now.”
Watson also suffered a high left ankle sprain in Sunday's win — his best performance since coming to Cleveland — but arrived at the team's facility on Monday for treatment not thinking there was any major issue with his shoulder.
The Browns are planning to schedule Watson's surgery for next week and he'll then face a lengthy recovery.
It also means he'll have yet another long playoff and more missed playing time.
Watson sat out 2021 after asking the Houston Texans for a trade, and then after arriving in Cleveland, he served an 11-game NFL suspension following allegations of sexual assault and harassment from more than two dozen women for his behavior during massage therapy sessions.
Watson, who went 700 days between starts before returning last season, has played just 12 of 26 possible games since joining the Browns — and he's going to miss at least seven more.
The Browns were criticized for fully guaranteeing Watson's contract, and the team is still on the hook for three more seasons with major salary cap implications in the future.
It's premature to know how much Watson will be affected by the shoulder injury, but the team is optimistic he'll be ready for the start of 2024.
“We feel good about Deshaun,” Berry said. “We see how talented he is. We could see it since he returned from his last injury, the level that he's able to play. He’s smart. He’s physically tough. He’s mentally tough. He's the leader of the team.”
While that might be the team's public stance, there's little doubt Berry will be looking for other alternatives. He indicated the team will soon sign a third quarterback, it just remains to be seen if that will be a backup or maybe a veteran starter.
Thompson-Robinson's performance this week could dictate which direction this season — and the QB situation — goes.