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Falcons won’t see Deshaun Watson in Week 4 after 6-game suspension

On Watson, Browns vs. Falcons, and Calvin Ridley.

Atlanta Falcons v Houston Texans Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

After wooing Deshaun Watson and attempting to trade for him this offseason, Atlanta was ultimately outbid by the Cleveland Browns. That led them to Marcus Mariota, their presumptive Week 1 starter, and a likely matchup between Mariota and Watson in Week 4 when the Falcons face off against the Browns. That would have been a good game, if awkward for a Falcons team that has tried to downplay their interest in Watson since missing out on getting him.

A suspension for Watson was looming in the background this entire time, however. Teams eager to acquire the star quarterback were willing to overlook the awful allegations he was facing in the interest of getting him, but a league repeatedly lambasted for not treating violence against women and families with the appropriate gravity was never going to allow Watson to take the field on Week 1. There were dozens of criminal and civil cases against Watson—he has now settled all but one of the 24 civil suits—alleging a pattern of harassing and abusive behavior against massage therapists, and a league obsessed with optics had to be seen as coming down hard on someone who was accused of being a serial predator.

We now have that suspension, and we know two things after Watson was suspended for six games. The first is that Watson will not be facing the Falcons, as his six-game suspension won’t have him back on the field for Week 4 against Atlanta. The second is that this saga is probably not over.

No Watson in Week 4

We’ll make this quick because it speaks for itself. The Browns are one of the better teams in the AFC, and figure to be improved with Watson under center. Atlanta will thus be facing at least a slightly weakened Cleveland squad, making one matchup in their grueling seven game opening stretch a bit easier. You’re still going to hear the Falcons’ pursuit of Watson mentioned a lot on the broadcast and in the week leading up to the game, but right now it appears Jacoby Brissett will be leading the Browns against Mariota and Atlanta that week.

The NFL has a decision to make

The NFLPA has already signaled it will not appeal the decision, because six games is probably fewer than they originally expected after the league pushed for a year and the players’ association reportedly worked to get no suspension at all. The NFL and NFLPA appointed Sue Robinson, a retired federal judge, as an independent disciplinary officer to handle situations exactly like this.

The league has not said it will abide by the decision, and now has to decide whether to uphold Robinson’s judgement and independence or work to hand down a longer suspension. I genuinely have no idea which way they’re going to go, but as several observers have noted, it’s a question with some pretty big implications.

If the league abides by Robinson’s decision, both sides will have signaled they trust Robinson and this independent process will likely become the norm. If not, Watson could be suspended anywhere from eight games to a full season by the league, pending inevitable appeals from the NFLPA and a sizable controversy sure to come, and the entire process that took many weeks to play out is blown up forever. If the independent process becomes something that the league can bulldoze past whenever it wants to, obviously any decisions handed down become something that looks more advisory in nature than final.

The league may still be tempted to take that risk, because the public and media heat is going to be significant. Watson and his representation, not to mention the teams that pursued him, have repeatedly made things worse in public comments by underscoring the seriousness of the allegations levied by dozens of women and the seeming lack of regard for those allegations, and six games feels awfully lightweight in that context. When things like Watson being forced to get massage therapy from club therapists are reportedly part of the decision, it’s only going to increase the sense that great wrongs happened, making the punishment not feel fit for the alleged crimes.

If the expected blowback to the decision is fierce enough, Roger Goodell may well hand down a harsher punishment, and so we don’t yet know if this is just another chapter or the epilogue for Watson.

Where does this leave Calvin Ridley?

Angry, I’d guess.

The reality is that Ridley’s year-long suspension was not appealed and is unlikely to be reduced. It’s easy to draw a line between the magnitude of throwing a few thousand bucks at an NFL game versus a couple of dozen serious allegations of sexual harassment and assault and consider the punishments for those wildly unbalanced, as I think most of us do, but the NFL is unlikely to be moved to leniency.

There are a couple of reasons for that. The first is that the league is loathe to reduce suspensions, because it’s a sign of weakness or an erroneous process, and this is a league that likes to be seen as infallible even if we all are very aware they are not. The second is that Ridley’s gambling on games is seen as an attack on the integrity of the game, however small potatoes the wagers may have been and even knowing that Ridley was not playing when he made them, and he and his representation elected not to appeal. The league knows Watson getting six games and Ridley getting a full season looks like a joke when you compare the two side-by-side, but they view Ridley’s suspension as appropriate and a warning to other players who might be tempted to wager on NFL games. If anything, they’ll work to step up Watson’s punishment rather than reduce Ridley’s.

Fans and players alike will continue to stump for Ridley, as they should, but chances are we still won’t see him until 2023. The working expectation is that he’ll be playing for another team by then.

There are still likely weeks if not months of headlines to go here, between the NFL’s big decision and Watson’s ongoing civil and legal troubles, but we do know that it’s likely to be Jacoby Brissett or a to-be-acquired player under center for Cleveland when the Falcons face that team in Week 4. That’s tidy enough from the Falcons’ side, but Watson’s saga is neither tidy nor over.