Deshaun Watson signed autographs for Texans and Browns fans and posed for selfies before his first game in 700 days in a familiar place.
Once the game started, it was overwhelming boos for Watson.
Watson heard jeers before taking each snap throughout the first half in his first game Sunday since returning from an 11-game suspension for sexual misconduct. Watson’s debut with Cleveland came against Houston, where he was a three-time Pro Bowl pick in four seasons.
After an interception gave the Browns their first possession at their 43, Watson threw a pair of incomplete passes. He spun away from a sack on third down, and fans cheered when his throw to David Bell hit the ground.
Watson’s first completed pass on his third attempt resulted in a turnover when Anthony Schwartz fumbled after a 12-yard gain. Watson later drove the Browns to Houston’s 11 before throwing an interception in the end zone.
Watson looked rusty after the nearly two-year layoff, completing 8 of 14 passes for 96 yards and a pick. But the Browns took a 7-5 lead into halftime following a 76-yard punt return for a score by Donovan Peoples-Jones.
Watson had several supporters in the stands before the game, while a group of the women who accused him of sexual harassment and assault during massages also planned to attend the game.
One fan walked into NRG Stadium wearing a derogatory shirt in Browns colors that includes text saying “I need a massage.” He was joined by a fan wearing Watson’s No. 4 Browns jersey.
Fans in the parking lot set up a fake massage table with a mannequin wearing a red Texans jersey and a towel.
The few fans in their seats when Watson and the Browns jogged onto the field about an hour before kickoff booed.
Watson sat out the 2021 season after demanding a trade from Houston. After two grand juries in Texas declined to indict him over the allegations, the Browns traded several draft picks to get Watson and then signed him to a fully guaranteed $235 million contract.
After warming up, Watson signed jerseys for fans behind the end zone. An 18-year-old man from East Texas got Watson’s autograph on his Browns jersey. A couple from Houston wearing Texans jerseys also got Watson’s signature on their jerseys.
“We don’t really know what happened and everyone deserves a second chance,” said Sherry Holden, explaining her support.
Several Browns fans said they were uncomfortable rooting for Watson.
“I’m cheering for the jersey and the team but it’s hard to accept him as my quarterback,” said Brandon Collins, who traveled from Ohio for the game.
The NFL wanted to suspend Watson for at least one season but settled for 11 games after an independent arbiter initially gave him a six-game ban. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell pointed to former U.S. District Judge Sue Robinson calling Watson’s behavior “egregious” and “predatory” in seeking the full suspension.
Watson also was fined $5 million and required to undergo professional counseling and therapy. Watson has maintained his innocence but also apologized to the women he impacted.
The Browns went 4-7 with veteran Jacoby Brissett filling in for Watson. The Texans are 1-9-1.