NFL, Deshaun Watson settlement remains possible, but still not likely

Six days ago, the hearing regarding potential discipline for Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson ended. Five days from now, the two sides will submit written paperwork to Judge Sue L. Robinson arguing their respective positions. In the interim, a negotiated compromise can be reached. In theory.

Arguments have been made as to the wisdom of a settlement. And it would make sense. Legal disputes become finalized without a formal ruling all the time. The best outcome results in both sides being a little pissed off at the final decision. But it eliminates the prospect of one side ending up extremely pissed off over the clear and conclusive loss.

The problem for the league is P.R. The NFL, and specifically Commissioner Roger Goodell, can’t afford to be perceived as being too lenient with Watson, despite the potential flaws in the case that was presented to Judge Robinson. That’s why the league wants a minimum suspension of one year, and why the limited updates from the three days of the hearing consisted of largely of reminders that, yes, the league still wants him to be suspended for at least a year.

How could the league sell the idea of something less than that? It wouldn’t be easy. Although plenty of cases like this are indeed resolved by agreement, the mere suggestion from the week before the hearing began that Watson could be actively involved in the determination of his suspension drew confusion and criticism. Even if the league leaks its reasoning to reporters who will present it to the public without skepticism or Goodell conducts a press conference explaining it without the usual stream of non-answers, it will be hard for the league to sell something like a four-game or six-game or even eight-game suspension.

For now.

A settlement could make much more sense for the NFL after Judge Robinson announces a decision. As long as she imposes any discipline whatsoever, the league can appeal to Goodell, who would have final say. He could, if he wanted, impose a full-season suspension, or longer. It becomes much easier for the league to negotiate with Watson once someone other than the league issues a decision as to whether the Personal Conduct Policy was violated and the punishment that should ensue.

Let’s say Judge Robinson suspends Watson four games. That’s her decision, one that ideally will be communicated through a carefully-written decision that will be understandable to anyone who is inclined to believe at first blush that the discipline isn’t sufficient. Then, with Goodell holding the hammer that would allow him to increase the punishment to a full year, the settlement talks could happen — and a suspension that ends up being longer than the one Judge Robinson imposed would be viewed as the league pushing successfully to get a stronger punishment.

Some would say that, with Goodell holding all the cards if/when Judge Robinson imposes any discipline at all on Watson, why should he do anything less than use the full extent of his power? That would avoid the possibility, slim as it may be, of losing in court. If it ever gets to that point.

The league isn’t in the habit of going easy on players, especially not after the Ray Rice fiasco of 2014. This is the first case handled under a process aimed at minimizing Goodell’s influence. And his influence is indeed minimized, until the time comes for an appeal.

Someone from the league floated last week the idea of the NFL not appealing at all, if Judge Robinson suspends Watson for six or eight games. Maybe, if she suspends him for something less than that, the league would appeal the case and accept six or eight games as a negotiated compromise. Maybe there’s a way to use the fact that Watson missed all of 2021 as time served, since he absolutely would have been traded to another team and would have played the full season if the 24 civil lawsuits and 10 criminal complaints hadn’t been pending.

He’d have to give up the $10 million in salary that he made for not playing last year, if a full season of de facto paid leave becomes an after-the-fact suspension. Maybe he’d do it, if it meant getting on the field sooner than later. If the choice comes down to risking a suspension on appeal for all of 2022 or giving up his 2021 pay while missing four or six or eight games in 2022, maybe he would do it.

Regardless, it will become easier for the league to sell something like that to the media and the fans after Judge Robinson issues a ruling that explains, from the perspective of a true outsider, why the Personal Conduct Policy as applied to the facts of the case possibly don’t justify anything close to what the league wants. At that point, it would make plenty of sense for the two sides to work something out, especially since the league could choose to hold firm. To suspend him for a year. And then to take their chances in court.

The biggest risk the league assumes by waiting for Judge Robinson’s decision is that, if she imposes no discipline at all, there’s nothing that can be done at that point. The NFL will have lost conclusively, and Watson will be completely free to suit up for Week One.

They could still settle all of it at any time. Again, without Judge Robinson’s decision, it would be very difficult for the league to avoid creating the impression that it didn’t go far enough in punishing Watson.