Jimmy Garoppolo trade is Cleveland Browns' last best hope of saving the season

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BEREA — Quarterback Deshaun Watson's 11-game suspension makes 2022 virtually a lost season for the Cleveland Browns, but that doesn't have to be the case.

General Manager Andrew Berry doesn't have to cling to his remaining salary cap space so he can roll it over to 2023 and watch another prime year for home-grown stars Myles Garrett, Nick Chubb, Denzel Ward and Joel Bitonio slip away.

This is not the NBA, where the rebuilding Cavs are intent on staying out of the luxury tax for at least another season. The Browns are a team built to win now, and that cannot be wasted.

The NFL is too fickle. With six full-time coaches and six GMs/top football executives in their 10 years, Browns owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam are too fickle. Who knows if Berry and/or coach Kevin Stefanski will be around in 2023, despite a built-in excuse if the team stumbles?

Texans QB Deshaun Watson (4) and San Francisco's Jimmy Garoppolo speak after a 2018 preseason game.
Texans QB Deshaun Watson (4) and San Francisco's Jimmy Garoppolo speak after a 2018 preseason game.

With Deshaun Watson uncertainty, the Cleveland Browns need to trade for San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo

Watson has settled 23 of 24 civil lawsuits for sexual misconduct or sexual assault during massage appointments after two Texas grand juries declined to indict him on criminal charges. But he must comply with his league-mandated professional evaluation by behavioral experts and follow their treatment program.

Competing in a loaded AFC, Berry shouldn't punt on 2022. He needs to trade for San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.

Why Jacoby Brissett won't work starting 11 games for the Cleveland Browns

The Browns cannot afford to leave the offense in the hands of Jacoby Brissett for 11 games. Compiling a 13-24 career record as a starter, Brissett has been impressive in the way he carries himself as a leader.  His teammates love him. But there’s a reason he’s been a career backup.

In practice, Brissett leaves much to be desired in terms of a deep passing game. It’s no longer a dink-and-dunk league. The Browns have arguably the best group of running backs in the NFL, but they need a deep threat to keep the defense honest.

That’s not the only reason the Browns need Garoppolo, coming off shoulder surgery as the 49ers hand the job to Trey Lance, selected third overall in 2021.

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The Browns can’t risk losing the locker room, with players possibly questioning their belief in Berry and Stefanski.

They can’t waste a prime season for Pro Bowlers Garrett, Chubb, Bitonio, Ward, Jadeveon Clowney and Jack Conklin. Clowney said he signed with the Browns in May because he wanted to play with former Texans teammate Watson.

They can't delude themselves into believing they can go to the playoffs with Brissett, Josh Dobbs and Josh Rosen.

Brissett, 29, won a Super Bowl with the New England Patriots in 2016, but has played in only one playoff game, that a three-point loss at Buffalo while with the Indianapolis Colts in the 2020 season.

The case for the Cleveland Browns trading for Jimmy Garoppolo

In the past three years, Garoppolo, 30, led the 49ers to two NFC Championships and a Super Bowl, a 31-20 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs after the 2019 season. Garoppolo is 5-2 as a postseason starter with a 74.1 rating. He won two Super Bowls with the New England Patriots as a backup in 2014 and 2016.

In eight seasons, Garoppolo has gone 33-14 with a 98.9 rating, throwing for 71 touchdowns with 38 interceptions and an 8.4 yards-per-attempt average. By comparison, Brissett’s career yards per attempt is 6.4.

Owners morally bereft:Haslams sully Cleveland Browns franchise with their blind faith in Deshaun Watson

Some have questioned Jimmy Garoppolo’s willingness to play hurt

Garoppolo’s willingness to play hurt has been questioned. That was raised in October, when retired tight end Martellus Bennett discussed the Patriots’ 2016 championship season on Devin and Jason McCourty’s “Double Coverage” podcast.

That year, Garoppolo started Weeks 1-2 while Tom Brady was serving a four-game suspension for Deflategate. Garoppolo injured his non-throwing shoulder in Week 2, and Brissett took over. Bennett said right before the Week 4 game against the Buffalo Bills, Garoppolo elected to sit out, forcing rookie Brissett into the lineup with torn thumb ligaments. The Bills won.

Watson suspension lengthened:Cleveland Browns' Deshaun Watson, NFL reach settlement to extend suspension to 11 games

“You can't win with a b---- for a quarterback, first of all,” Bennett told the McCourtys in reference to Garoppolo. “That was the whole thing with him: He didn't want to come out and do anything because his agent was trying to protect his body or some s--- like that. Which, I can't fault him for that. But like, you should have made that decision on Thursday.”

The Patriots won 14 of their next 15 games, so Bennett’s comments might sound more like entertaining podcast chatter than an attack on Garoppolo. But retired Patriots receiver Julian Edelman, the ex-Kent State quarterback, backed up Bennett last month on an episode of the “I AM ATHLETE” podcast.

“A lot of guys got mad at it. I’m not going to lie, I got mad about it,” Edelman said in the podcast video posted on Twitter by Dov Kleiman. "I sacrificed my body all day long. I was taking shots for this, numbing up that, ribs, broken ribs, shoulders, Grade 3 hanging on by limbs just to play. I can understand why Marty [Bennett] thinks like that.”

With his career on the line in 2022, Garoppolo will need to show more toughness. But he remains the Browns last best option.

San Francisco 49ers' Jimmy Garoppolo celebrates after an NFC divisional playoff NFL football game Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022, in Green Bay, Wis.
San Francisco 49ers' Jimmy Garoppolo celebrates after an NFC divisional playoff NFL football game Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022, in Green Bay, Wis.

Garoppolo is coming off March 8 surgery to repair a torn capsule in his right throwing shoulder. He's working out on his own and hasn't been given a playbook in San Francisco as the 49ers seek a trade partner.

How Jimmy Garoppolo could fit in with the Cleveland Browns

If a ramp-up in his workload is needed and the Browns can't get him ready for the Sept. 11 opener at the Carolina Panthers and a matchup against former Browns No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield, that's not a sticking point. The Browns’ first four games — also at home against the New York Jets and Pittsburgh Steelers and at Atlanta — are the easiest stretch of the schedule. Stefanski could cut back the offensive plan or go with Brissett if necessary for a game or two until Garoppolo is ready. The Browns will need Garoppolo for the stretch starting on Oct. 9, when the Los Angeles Chargers visit.

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In the final year of his contract, Garoppolo carries a $24.2 million base salary that becomes guaranteed in Week 1. Berry might rather play hardball and wait for the 49ers to release Garoppolo. But for the Browns to make the playoffs, Berry can't afford to wait. Garoppolo needs to learn the offense.

It's only a stopgap measure, but a necessary one.

Berry could try to convince Garoppolo to agree to a restructured contract or talk the 49ers into paying part of his salary, as the Browns did when trading Mayfield to the Panthers. The Browns took on about $10.5 million of the $18.858 million due Mayfield in the final year of his contract, with the Panthers paying him about $5 million and Mayfield taking about a $3.5 million pay cut.

Should another team suffer a quarterback injury, the Browns might be forced to compete for his services. The New York Jets nearly entered the picture, but quarterback Zach Wilson's arthroscopic surgery on his right knee Tuesday revealed only a torn meniscus.

The Haslams handed their franchise to a quarterback who has offered only weak apologies — one in a statement Thursday, the other to the Browns television network crew member Aditi Kinkhabwala ahead of Friday's preseason game in Jacksonville — for what former federal judge Sue L. Robinson deemed his "egregious" and predatory behavior. Again on Thursday, Watson maintained his innocence, refusing to accept he did anything wrong.

It might take $24.2 million to wade through the morass the Haslams have created and save the season.

Marla Ridenour can be reached at mridenour@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.

This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Cleveland Browns need Jimmy Garoppolo after Deshaun Watson suspension