The return to some semblance of sports normalcy has not been without its well documented hiccups. Just ask, Rob Manfred, commissioner of Major League Baseball, who's spent most of the last week praying for negative COVID-19 tests to come back from teams that have brushed up against the Marlins and the Cardinals in any way, shape or form.
The road back has had its bumps, but there was something calming about getting back to back press conferences from Deshaun Watson and J.J. Watt on Saturday morning. Football, in some form, will return. We will see for how long, hopefully a full season through the Super Bowl, but for now, Saturday was about getting an update from the Texans' two best players on just how strange the ramp-up period has been, and how (hopefully) safe the players are being kept.
Here are the four most important things to come out of those two Zoom conference calls with the media on Saturday morning, two from Watson, two from Watt (with my comments preceded by "SP" below each one):
QUESTION for WATSON: What do you need to see from the Texans organization to want to commit to a long-term contract extension?
WATSON: “I’m here. I love this organization. I love the McNair family. I love the coaching staff. I love the coaches. I love the players. I love the city. I love the fanbase. Right now, my main focus is continuing to be a Houston Texan and making sure that I’m bringing everything I can and doing everything I can to bring this city and this organization its first championship. So, that’s my main focus. Right now, I’m a Houston Texan and the future is going to tell itself but I’m locked in on being a Texan.”
SP: I guess I should be clear about one thing here — Deshaun was asked no fewer than three questions about the DeAndre Hopkins trade, and his answer was the same every time. It was some form of "I still love Hop, it's a business, I'm excited for the season." I get the sense that Deshaun feels the Hopkins trade is the same dead horse many fans and media do, at this point. Watson's contractual situation is far more relevant. This was the second question of the presser about that topic, and the sense I get from Watson is that the two sides know the parameters of what each is looking for, and, combined with Bill O'Brien's very positive public statements about Watson on Friday, I am guessing the two sides will arrive at SOME sort of extension before the 2020 season gets here.
QUESTION for WATSON: Do you see any notable differences with Offensive Coordinator / Quarterbacks Coach Tim Kelly as a play-caller in comparison to Head Coach and General Manager Bill O’Brien? Also, will you have the same freedom under him as you did under Coach O’Brien?
WATSON: “I had a lot of freedom with Coach O’Brien, too. He gave me a lot of freedom and we talked a lot of times, but being the head coach and the OC, there were times where we couldn’t meet as much as we wanted to. But I feel like with Tim, I get to see Tim and that’s the only person that I’m meeting with, besides T.J. Yates. Being able to have that everyday conversation, every meeting conversation with Tim, and being on the same page and seeing eye-to-eye definitely is going to take us a long way. Tim has been doing a great job of putting together different game plans and scripts and making sure that I’m prepared for each and every game. I can tell that he wants to take that to a whole other level. With us starting camp and the meetings and the conversations and the leeway he’s throwing out there whenever we step on the field, has been great.”
SP: One of the biggest sources of criticism for Bill O'Brien has been his inability to architect and call an elite offense during his time with Watson as quarterback. Other than Watson's first six starts his rookie year, where he caught fire incorporating a lot of Clemson-style elements into the offense, the Texans have hovered somewhere around the back end of the top half of the league in most offensive categories. Certainly, they've languished in an area not commensurate with the level of QB they have. Enter Tim Kelly, the former tight ends coach and second year offensive coordinator. Kelly takes over full play calling duties from O'Brien this year, and according to Watson, seems to be the sole voice that the quarterback will collaborate with on game plans. That level of consistency, not to mention the possible creativity that Kelly COULD bring, should make for some very intriguing early weeks of the season, as the Texans try to incorporate several new offensive weapons. This, we know — with their five of their first seven games against offenses that were top ten in DVOA in 2019, this team will need LOTS of points to win games early on.
QUESTION for WATT: Has the struggles the MLB has faced given any concern as to what the NFL is trying to do?
WATT: “It’s certainly interesting to watch. Watching it and trying to figure out what you can learn from it and how you can make sure that you don’t have a situation like that where one team has 14, 15 guys and then you’re having to cancel a whole bunch of games. I think that there’s no question we’re watching it and trying to make sure that we don’t follow in that same pathway. But, like I said earlier, any time you’re in a situation where you’re not in a full bubble, there is going to be that inherent risk. It’s not going to be 100 percent guaranteed to be safe. You’re putting a lot of trust in the guys to make sure they’re doing the right things and to make sure they are handling themselves right outside of the building. You’re also trusting the testing process and trusting the fact that you are playing a contact sport where you’re literally rubbing up against people all game long, all practice long. It’s just a matter of understanding, and that’s why we have the opt-out and that’s why we make sure everybody knows fully what the risks are going into it because, like I said, there is some risk. It is not 100 percent fail proof.”
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SP: Of all the storylines for the Texans (and really every NFL team) in training camp, the most important has nothing to do with game planning, roster moves, or possible trades and contact extensions. How these teams handle the coronavirus pandemic is really that truly matters, because if it's handled poorly, there won't be a season. To that end, Watt plays an almost immeasurable role in helping hold his younger teammates accountable and stressing the importance of wearing masks, social distancing, and going straight home from the stadium every day. I asked former Texan offensive lineman Wade Smith about this on my radio show, and he said that he could envision this being something where the position groups each had one veteran leader who served as almost a mob capo — they're in charge of holding "their crew" accountable in making sure they behave properly.
QUESTION for WATT: Have you approached the season any differently this year given the pandemic or any special protocols you have put in place?
WATT: “I would say not specifically to COVID for my own personal risk but I would say that the quarantine situation has given me literally nothing to do but work out every day. There’s nothing else you can do. You can’t go out, you can’t go to the movies, you can’t go to eat, so the workout program for me this offseason has been awesome because I’ve had a full offseason to do my workouts exactly how I need to do them. I’ve been able to focus on my nutrition every single day. I’ve counted every single calorie the whole way and basically tried to fully transform my body from the beginning of the offseason until now. It truly has been one of the best off seasons from a workout standpoint that I’ve ever had and I’m very, very pleased about it. My body feels as good as it’s felt since probably 2014, 2015, somewhere around there. I’m really looking forward to getting into camp and just getting to work.”
SP: It's wild to think that, in a majority of the seasons that he has shared with Bill O'Brien, J.J. Watt didn't finish the season healthy. Only in O'Brien's first season (2014, where Watt was MVP runner up to Aaron Rodgers) and fifth season (2018, Watt was first team All Pro) did Watt begin and end a season healthy. In 2015 (torn core muscles in playoff loss), 2016 (double back surgery), 2017 (tibial plateau fracture), and 2019 (pectoral muscle tear, returned for playoffs), Watt dealt with some serious stuff. Through the years, Watt has reportedly adapted his workouts to his age and stage of his career, and with the Texans needing 16 games out of him more than any other time in the O'Brien Era, Watt proclaiming his best health since his near MVP season has to be music to every Texan fan's ears.