A behind-the-scenes look at Deshaun Watson’s 11-game suspension in an exclusive interview with his private QB coach Quincy Avery

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Quincy Avery, Deshaun Watson’s private quarterback coach and close friend since his high school days, has no idea what to expect when he ventures into Houston’s NRG Stadium on Sunday for Watson’s first game back from his 11-game suspension under the NFL’s personal conduct policy.

Ironically — or perhaps by design — Watson makes his return to the field in the place where he spent the first five years of his career, and where most of the 26 civil suits by massage therapists accusing him of sexual misconduct during appointments mostly in 2020, were filed.

But Avery — who coached Watson every day in Cleveland throughout suspension for alleged sexual misconduct — does know one thing: Watson, who hasn’t played in 700 days, will be ready for whatever comes.

“He’s as prepared as I think you could be,” Avery, who knows Watson as well as anyone in the QB’s life, told cleveland.com in a phone interview on Tuesday.

Even for a suite filled with his accusers? Their attorney Tony Buzbee, who filed 25 of the suits, had one dropped, had one pending and settled 23, told The Athletic’s Kalyn Kahler that he invited all 25 to join him in a luxury box and had about 10 takers. He said he’ll be there to welcome Watson back to Houston with “bells and whistles on” and that his accusers want him to know “you think you put us behind you, but we are still here.”

Buzbee later told Cleveland.com in an email that the accusers wanted to go to the game and he provided them with the opportunity.

“I think he’ll handle that fine,” Avery said. “They’re going to be in a suite a bunch of seats up. I don’t know what impact that really has on him. But whatever makes (Buzbee) happy.”

Avery knows Watson as well as anyone

Watson’s QB trainer since his Gainesville High days in Georgia, Avery knows better than anyone what makes Watson one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.

“It’s his ability to have composure in extremely stressful situations,” Avery, president of Quarterback Takeover in Atlanta, said. “Yes, he’s great at throwing the football. He’s great at being elusive. He does all of those things really, really well. But his ability to remain calm despite all the chaos going around him in an NFL game, or a college game, the National Championship — those are the things that I think separate him from everybody else.

That ability, Avery said, stems from Watson’s rough childhood in Gainesville and his ordeal as a sophomore in high school, when his mom Deann was diagnosed with Stage 5 tongue cancer and spent most of the year away from the family receiving treatment. Watson and his older brother Detrick helped raise the two younger siblings, with Watson working four jobs to help make ends meet, including one as a ballboy for the Falcons.

“You’re almost like the breadwinner and you’re out working, you get done working, then you go to practice and all of those things,” Avery said. He also understands — and he probably would say this — that football is not everything. He really cares about football, but he’s dealt with his mom’s cancer and those sorts of things. It gives you a perspective on life that a lot of people are absent from.”

Avery was first introduced to Watson at an Elite 11 regional high school quarterback camp in Atlanta run by former Browns quarterback Trent Dilfer. They hit it off immediately and went on to the Elite 11 finals in Oregon together.

“We’ve had a connection since then, spent a ton of time around him since high school and college, and have been there pretty much every step of the way throughout his NFL career,” Avery said.

They’re so close, Avery, 36, considers Watson, 27, like a younger brother.

“I talk to him multiple times throughout the week about football, about everything else,” Avery said.

Two years ago, they took a 45-day trip to about six or seven countries, including Italy, Austria, England, and Egypt, and are planning another for this offseason.

“It was a trip unlike any I’ve ever been on,” he said.

When the accusations against Watson mounted in 2021, Avery stood by his side.

“I trust him like I would trust my brother,” he said. “No matter what, he’s your friend and I have empathy for the situation, for everyone involved.”

Throughout the past 21 months of civil suits, depositions and meetings with NFL investigators, Avery has remained one of Watson’s closest confidantes as well as his coach.

“I’m always an ear to lean on,” he said. He can vent to me because — not that I can ever say that I’ve been through what he’s been through — but I can have empathy for the things he’s going through. He knows I’m not here to judge him.”

Avery trains Watson in Cleveland during his suspension

Having trained Watson year-round in Atlanta for the past decade, Avery was the right man for the job to coach him in Cleveland during his suspension, which included a league-mandated comprehensive treatment program for the misconduct.

“It was a lot of flying between Atlanta and Cleveland,” Avery said. “We always of course spent the offseasons together in Atlanta and spent a ton of time doing that, but this was different.”

Four days a week, they met at an undisclosed location and Watson threw to a group of four or five college receivers, whom Avery wasn’t a liberty to name. Watson, who took most of the first team reps throughout training camp, wasn’t able to communicate with his coaches during the ban, so they made do with what they had.

“We had a really good idea of ​​some of the things the Browns were doing on offense,” he said. “He had kept all of the playbooks from the offseason programs and all of those things. We’d watch the games together to make sure we were working on the things they were implementing.”

The quintet of receivers enabled Watson to run whatever personnel groupings and plays they saw during the games.

“The receivers did a fantastic job,” Avery said.

When Watson returned to practice on Nov. 16 — after being permitted to attend meetings and conditioning since Oct. 10 — he had the offense and terminology down pat.

“We did a lot in terms of staying breast of that playbook,” Avery said. Then it was really helpful when he could go back in the facility and go to the meetings and being able to bring that out to the practice. We could give him things like identifications and making the same checks that he’d make in practice. He took advantage of every opportunity he had to prepare for the game.”

The QBs stay connected

It also helped that the Browns quarterbacks — Jacoby Brissett, Joshua Dobbs and Kellen Mond — maintained a text chain with Watson throughout his suspension to help him feel connected. Following the strict rules of the ban, they weren’t allowed to discuss the upcoming game or strategy, but the camaraderie was invaluable. Watson and Dobbs, who had waived Monday to make room for Watson but could return, had worked together with Avery in Atlanta since high school and were already very close.

“Josh and Deshaun have probably trained together on the field more times than any two NFL quarterbacks in the NFL, so they have a really good relationship,” he said. “That made it very, very seamless.”

Brissett became fast friends with Watson and a big part of his support system.

“Jacoby is the salt of the earth,” Avery said. Such a good guy. He’s so funny. He’s someone that you really enjoy being around. He meant it when he said he knew what he signed up for. He’s played his role in the situation better than anyone could have imagined.”

Avery, who’s worked with many NFL quarterbacks and currently trains Seattle’s Geno Smith (6-5 record) and Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts (10-1, current NFC Offensive Player of the Week), shared his intel on Watson’s skillset with the Browns coaches before the season.

“I talked to them like I talk to most staffs of guys I work with,” he said. “They have a really good idea and understanding of the things that the Deshaun does well and the things he’s really comfortable with and I think that makes it really cool to have a coaching staff that’s that open to communication and dialogue.”

Stefanski’s scheme is ideal for Watson

The more Avery coached Watson in Kevin Stefanski’s scheme, the more he could imagine the possibilities.

“Kevin does as good of a job as anyone in terms of marrying the play action game and the run game, and you’ve got Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, so that stresses the defense. Deshaun is going to make it even easier for them to run the ball because of things he can with his legs and the stress he creates on the defensive ends. They can’t crash down the same way. I think this offense is tailor-made for Deshaun’s skillset.”

In addition, Avery believes this is the most talented roster Watson has ever played with in the NFL. He led the Texans to the playoffs twice, going 1-2, but never had a supporting cast like this.

“Between the running game and the offensive line, and the receivers, I’m super excited to see what this looks like,” Avery said. “Him playing with a team this talented, I’ve honestly never seen it before.”

Avery doesn’t think it will take Watson long to knock off the rust. The last time he played, in 2020, he led the NFL with 4,823 yards and finished second only to Aaron Rodgers with a 112.4 rating. He threw 33 touchdown passes against only seven interceptions.

I don’t think his ability to throw the ball or any of those things you’ll see any amount of rust,” he said. “It’s just going to be getting used to playing in an NFL game again with a bunch of NFL guys. I think people forget, during his rookie season he was hurt pretty early on in that season (with a torn ACL) and missed a significant amount of time. When he came back, people were quickly reminded that he was one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.”

Watson returned in 2018 to go 11-5 and lead the Texans to the playoffs, where they lost in the wild card round to the Colts.

“He tore an ACL in college and he tore an ACL in the NFL,” Avery said. “He’s spent significant time away from teams and each time he’s returned, he’s been better than before.”

More ready than ever

Having thrown with him more than ever before over the past three months, he knows he’s ready to roll.

“I know that he’s throwing the football now as well as he ever has, and he’s had a good amount of time to practice a lot of things that they’re gonna be doing in the Cleveland offense — things that he wasn’t accustomed to practicing or didn’t do a ton prior to his time in Cleveland. I think he’s going to be even more prepared now than he would’ve if he had stepped on the field Week 7 or whatever that was originally supposed to be.”

Avery said Watson has also “watched a ton of film, like way more film than I think anybody can imagine.” I think that that greater advanced knowledge is going to definitely help him out throughout the season.”

In addition to Avery’s grueling training sessions, Watson met all the terms and conditions of his treatment program, as set forth by a third-party provider. A league source said the NFL has been happy with this progress, and counseling will be ongoing.

“I didn’t ask him any questions about that part,” Avery said.

But he seems to have embraced it.

“Maybe he’s just compartmentalizing or whatever,” Avery said. But he’s done a good job from my experience.

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