CLEVELAND (AP) — Through sheer luck, some questionable officiating and a strong defense, the Cleveland Browns have somehow survived without their franchise quarterback for the past month.
The Arizona Cardinals haven't been nearly as fortunate.
As the teams get ready to play Sunday, there are few definitive answers about the quarterback situations for the Cardinals (1-7) or Browns (4-3).
Arizona is awaiting Kyler Murray's return from a knee injury that prematurely ended his 2022 season while Cleveland hopes that Deshaun Watson's sore shoulder won't turn a promising season into another painful one.
On Friday, Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said Watson will make just his second start in five weeks. The 28-year-old looked stronger and more confident while practicing three straight days. He and the Browns think he's ready.
“He had a really good Wednesday, really good Thursday, really good Friday,” Stefanski said. "He’s comfortable, and he looks good.”
Only one thing is certain: the Cardinals will have a new quarterback this week after trading Joshua Dobbs, who coincidentally spent last season and most of training camp with the Browns, to the Minnesota Vikings on Tuesday.
Dobbs' departure after starting Arizona's first eight games is either a precursor to Murray coming back for the first time since tearing his ACL on Dec. 12 or the Cardinals getting a look at rookie Clayton Tune, a fifth-round pick from Houston who has thrown just one pass in his NFL career — on a fake punt.
Murray, who is 2-0 against the Browns, was a full participant in practice this week, and by all accounts the dynamic two-time Pro Bowler looked ready. But first-year coach Jonathan Gannon wouldn't commit to Murray playing, and with Arizona's season going nowhere, there's no reason to rush.
Also, the fact that it's a road game against the NFL's top-ranked defense might sway Gannon into keeping Murray on the shelf another week.
“We’ve got to make sure we’re doing the best thing for the team and the best thing for Kyler,” Gannon said Friday. "That’s how he plays into it. But he’ll have a big part in saying to me, to us, ‘Hey, I’m ready to go, I want to play football.’ And we’re still working toward that.
“He knows he needs to do certain things and keep stacking good days, keep getting reps, playing the position to be ready to play.”
It could be Tune's turn. The Cardinals have been impressed by the young QB and expect him to perform.
"He’s going to go in there, if he’s in there, and let it rip,” Gannon said.
That's exactly what the Browns are hoping from Watson, who will start after being on the field for just 12 total plays since straining his right rotator cuff on Sept. 24. He missed three starts, most of a fourth game and his absence has only fueled criticism that Cleveland made a huge mistake in trading for him in the first place.
There's urgency for Watson to get back on the field.
After playing the Cardinals, the Browns, who eked out wins over San Francisco (the 49ers missed a last-second field goal) and Indianapolis (the Colts got wronged by the refs) with Watson on the sideline, have consecutive games against AFC North rivals Baltimore and Pittsburgh.
Watson said those matchups have no bearing on his return. It's all about how his shoulder feels, if he's able to throw with velocity and being able to perform at his best.
“Of course, I want to play,” Watson said Thursday. “But as long as we’re all on the same page as a player, as a staff and an organization, then I think whatever’s best for the team, the best for the future of this team is definitely what we need to be heading to.”
While Arizona has lost five straight and went 0-for-October, the Browns aren't overlooking the Cardinals.
Their record is deceiving.
“They’ve only not been ahead in one game," said wide receiver Amari Cooper. “So they’re very competitive, and you can see that from the defense. They’re making plays all over the field, keeping the team in the game. So it’s going to present a challenge to us for sure. We know that it’s going to be a dog fight.”
Browns rookie receiver Cedric Tillman has been conspicuously absent from Cleveland's game plan.
That may be about to change.
The third-round pick is expected to have a larger role following the trade of Donovan Peoples-Jones. Tillman has just one catch for 5 yards, and has only been active once since Oct. 1, but the Browns want to see what's he got.
“Big body, big target,” said offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt. "Brings a lot in the run game as far as a force blocker and then can make plays, contested plays, high point the ball. He’ll definitely be more involved.”
Gannon's a Cleveland native, but he's not making too much of this homecoming.
Asked if this game in his hometown had special meaning, Gannon fell back on a coaching cliche.
"It’s the most important one because it’s the next one,” he said.
Surely, though, he must be excited to see some friends and family.
“I told them don’t bug me,” he said.
Gannon has planned a trip for the Cardinals to Saint Ignatius High School, his alma mater, for a walk-through.
“It’ll be cool,” he said. "It’ll be a little chilly out, but it’s a really good facility. Our guys will enjoy it.”
An avalanche of injuries early in the season meant that Arizona’s secondary was a big weakness for a few weeks.
These days, it might be the team’s biggest strength.
The starting safeties — two-time All-Pro Budda Baker and Jalen Thompson — have returned from hamstring ailments while rookie cornerback Garrett Williams has also given the team a boost after returning from an ACL tear during his final college season.
Arizona’s secondary had a solid day against Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson last week, holding the 2019 MVP to a season-low 157 yards passing.
“I think we played the coverages the right way, we made some plays out there and we were in the right spots for the most part,” Gannon said. “It’s a good trio back there of three really high-quality players and the more they play with each other the better they’ll get.”
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