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Deshaun Watson’s apology points to a settlement window that’s still open with regard to his NFL suspension

With words of contrition and headlines that are recycling old olive branches, it feels like Deshaun Watson recognizes the window for a suspension settlement could still be open with the NFL.

That’s what I’m taking away from this week, which featured two prominent developments in the disciplinary case chasing the Cleveland Browns quarterback.

First was a news story advancing the idea of ​​Watson being open to an eight-game suspension and a $5 million fine. This is actually an old settlement structure discussed by Watson’s camp and the NFL Players Association in late July, prior to the six-game suspension issued by independent arbitrator Sue L. Robinson on Aug. 1. The fact that it has surfaced weeks later looks like a signal flare that Watson is open to negotiating a deal as the league appeals his suspension.

Second was Watson taking a proactive step — whether you believe it’s legitimate or not — of apologizing to the women who have accused him of sexual assault. Again, regardless of whether it’s tactical or truthful, it makes an attempt at addressing something that has been irritating the NFL for months (not to mention also troubling Robinson in her written six-game suspension decision). The NFL wanted to hear Watson apologize. On Friday, before Cleveland’s preseason game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, he made an attempt that has been more expansive than any previous comments.

“Look, I want to say that I’m truly sorry to all of the women that I have impacted in this situation,” Watson said during an interview with the Browns’ in-house media team. “The decisions that I made in my life that put me in this position I would definitely like to have back, but I want to continue to move forward and grow and learn and show that I am a true person of character and I am going to keep pushing forward.”

The authenticity of that statement will surely be debated. But the timing of it is unquestionable. Despite Robinson having issued her suspension 11 days ago, and her determinations of facts in the case being beyond debate in the league’s appeal, the reality is that final arbitrator Peter C. Harvey went a full week without issuing a judgment on the only thing that he can now change: the final toll of Watson’s suspension.

Deshaun Watson's apology on Friday at least seemed to hint that he and his camp are aware that the NFL's designee Peter C. Harvey is taking his time to make a final suspension ruling — possibly to encourage a settlement.  (Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images)

Deshaun Watson’s apology Friday seemed to hint that he and his camp are aware that the NFL’s designee Peter C. Harvey is taking his time to make a final suspension ruling — possibly to encourage a settlement. (Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images)

That has been at least somewhat unusual to all the parties involved, simply because Harvey doesn’t need to do anywhere near the heavy lifting that Robinson did. He has two sets of briefs from both the NFL and the NFLPA, as well as testimony transcripts and a copy of the NFL’s investigation. He also has one other extremely important piece of information: the 16-page decision that lays out precisely how Robinson arrived at her six-game suspension, along with the exhibits and notes that took her to the conclusion.

Nobody is suggesting that Harvey’s decision needed to be fast, but the fact that it has been a full week with virtually no indication of a judgment suggests he’s repeating a step that Robinson took — taking his time with a decision to give Watson and the NFL one final chance at a settlement, and also time to think about the consequences of letting an arbitrator create a new disciplinary precedent that will linger for years.

It looks like this is all lingering for a reason. And Watson’s step towards an apology and leaked “news” of a possible settlement is suggestive that the break before the next decision won’t come without some last-ditch talks.

All of which brings us back to Robinson’s decision and the recent report of Watson being interested in an eight-game suspension and a $5 million fine. While that headline seemed like a recent development, it was actually part of private settlement discussions weeks ago.

Specifically in late July, prior to Robinson’s ruling. Days before that decision came down, the division between Watson and the NFLPA and the NFL was simple. The quarterback and his camp were focusing on a smaller suspension and fine in the area of ​​eight games and $3 million to $5 million. Conversely, the NFL had been spitballing a possible settlement in the range of 12 games and nearly $10 million.

Both sides dug in on those numbers, which culminated in neither making an “official” offer to the other. The result was a settlement never coming close to happening, despite the fact that neither party wanted to keep from dragging out a fight.

In hindsight, what both sides might have needed was a push. And they may have gotten it from Robinson, who was solidly critical of both parties in her decision. Robinson accepted that Watson’s behavior (as presented and defined by the NFL as “nonviolent sexual assault”) was predatory and problematic. She also blasted him for what she thought was a lack of remorse for his actions. On the other side, Robinson criticized the NFL for being a backward-looking entity that appeared to be making up disciplinary standards as it went along, while also selectively applying standards where it saw fit (carefully throwing shade at the behavior of some NFL team owners in the process).

The end result of that decision was both sides getting stung in a way that they didn’t like, along with Watson getting a six-game suspension that was almost certain to kick the process into an appeal. That delivered us to a reboot of sorts. Now Harvey is sitting where Robinson was a few weeks ago, weighing Watson’s behavior against a disciplinary standard the NFL likely should have set long ago, rather than created on the fly in this case. And in between it all sits the very relevant union argument that the league is picking and choosing who it investigates and punishes — with franchise owners seemingly coming up on the light end of the scale.

Robinson’s decision showcased that it wasn’t as cut and dried as most had thought. Harvey is probably staring at that same reality, albeit with the added pressure of having been chosen by the NFL to make this final ruling.

The easiest answer here is a compromise that doesn’t make either side completely happy, just as it was when Robinson was at the controls. The arbitrators may have changed, but the league-shaping gravity of their decision has not.

That’s why this settlement window is again being dragged along. And this time, it appears Watson is squarely inside it and ready to deal. The question now is whether the NFL is ready to join him there.