In no other sport are the important victories more consolidated among a handful of blue bloods than college football, which makes Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney’s run with Deshaun Watson at quarterback the more remarkable. Together, the two of them went 34-4 in games Watson started, lost to Alabama in one scintillating national title game and knocked off Alabama in another the following postseason.
The two went to the mountaintop together, so when Deshaun Watson was drafted by the Houston Texans last April, I wasn’t surprised when Swinney gushed about his three-year starter to me on my radio show. “You can’t measure what [Deshaun] has,” said Swinney. “This guy is an unbelievable winner. What he has you just can’t coach it. He has this mindset and this poise that, well, you know it when you see it and it’s hard to describe, but he’s got it. And now Houston’s got it. I can’t wait to see them hold that trophy up because it’s coming. Get ready for it, it’s coming.”
“Wait, what?” I thought. “Is he saying what I think he is saying? Hell, promising what I think he is promising?” One question later, Swinney doubled down on his star pupil.
“Yeah, I think Houston just won a Super Bowl,” said Swinney, matter of factly. “I don’t know if it’s this year, next year or the next but it’s coming.”
Houston’s reaction — mine, my cohost’s, our listeners’ — ranged anywhere from muted enthusiasm to admitted eye rolling. Sure, Swinney and Watson had shared that magical, victorious trophy embrace at the collegiate level, but did this guy realize this is the Lombardi Trophy he is promising? Moreover, did he realize that he was promising it to a sports-scarred city who’d employed more quarterbacks than stadium workers over the last three years?
Yet, now here we are, five starts into Deshaun Watson’s NFL career, a starting gig he seized 30 minutes into his rookie season — 30 minutes too late, if you ask every Texan fan — and the Texans rookie quarterback has done something perhaps more remarkable than slaying Nick Saban and Alabama.
He’s made this city forget about the mile-long list of signal calling scrubs that have come and gone since 2014. Miraculously, Deshaun Watson has even made us all able to laugh about the 12-month debacle that was Brock Osweiler’s existence here. Yeah, maybe this Dabo Swinney fella knew what he was talking about.
Amazingly, in a year’s time, the Texans have gone from a cautionary tale in overspending on a free agent quarterback to a case study in the transformative power of a transcendent rookie quarterback. Remarkably, it was just a year ago last week that Texan fans had actually reached at least a tepid comfort with Osweiler as their quarterback, after he led the Texans to a 26-23 comeback victory in overtime against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 6.
However, over the next three months, Brock Osweiler would single handedly turn this acceptance into a vomit-inducing rejection. For every back-breaking interception, and there were many, Osweiler had a story, and every story led to completely vapid, unfulfilled promises from the quarterback that things would get fixed. After a benching in Week 15, and a shouting match with Bill O’Brien in the locker room in Week 17, the writing was on the wall. Osweiler had to go, so Texans general manager Rick Smith traded him to Cleveland along with the Texans’ 2018 second round pick, just so someone else would pay Osweiler’s $16 million guaranteed salary for 2017. Yes, Osweiler was so pathetic that he was traded with a draft pick, not for a draft pick.
Fortunately, Smith had a plan to dig out from Brock Bottom, an expensive plan, but ultimately a franchise-altering plan. As mentioned earlier, the Texans used their 2018 second round pick to essentially pay Cleveland to take Osweiler off their hands, but it’s their 2018 first round pick that would land their long-term fix, as Smith traded that pick, once again with Cleveland, to move up to the twelfth overall spot in the 2017 NFL Draft to take Watson.
O’Brien knew from the first time he met Watson that the rookie had elite traits. “I knew pretty early on that this guy was a special young man and a good football player,” O’Brien said. “From the time I met him at the combine, just getting to know him here, watching him operate around here, he is what you see.”
What we’ve seen is perhaps the most meteoric rise of a rookie quarterback in league history. Since taking over at halftime of the Jacksonville game in Week 1, Watson has thrown a league-high 15 touchdown passes, matching Osweiler’s total for the entire 2016 season. He has three games with three or more touchdown passes, making him the only rookie in league history to do that in his first six games.
No other rookie quarterback has done it more than once in his first six games. He’s already won an AFC Offensive Player of the Week Award, and as of week seven, he was a 10 to 1 shot to win the NFL’s MVP Award, fourth best odds of any player in the league.
However, those accomplishments, while impressive, are mere data compared to the emotional equity Watson’s brought to the building, to his teammates and to this city. Watson’s versatility and athleticism has coaxed out a creative side to Bill O’Brien’s play calling and decision making that has essentially restored the “QB guru” reputation with which the head coach arrived three years ago.
“It’s definitely been fun.” O’Brien said, when asked about drawing up plays to take advantage of Watson’s unique skills. “It’s been a collaborative effort with the offensive staff. Deshaun’s done a good job, every time you look at him, you say ‘He’s a rookie, but he’s a smart guy.’ He’s intelligent, he has a great memory. He’s able to retain things that happened in the first quarter to help us succeed in the fourth quarter. It’s been a lot of fun to coach him.”
There was a time not all that long ago that losing J.J. Watt for the season would have been considered the worst non-hurricane natural disaster in the city of Houston. Yet with Watt (and outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus) going out for the season injured in Week 5, the presence and poise of Watson still brings hope, enough hope for Houstonians to pack the stadium every Sunday and enough hope in the wagering community that the Texans are still favored to win the AFC South.
“I’m just a confident person, regardless of what other people say,” Watson said, smiling. “At this level and with this game, you have to be confident. If you don’t have any confidence in yourself, you will get exposed or you won’t be able to play to your potential. Just trust in me and let me do it and see what I got.”
Above and beyond all of the Watson-generated moments that have led to the Texans going from literally the least productive to the most productive offense in the NFL in less than a year’s time, it’s surreal to consider that, in both the short-term and long-term, the Houston Texans may have gone from the worst quarterback situation in the league to the most envious.
That aging group of quarterbacks drafted before 2005, guys like Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, Carson Palmer and Ben Roethlisberger, are finally showing their age. Many of the young lions that were supposed to be the next generation can’t stay healthy. Marcus Mariota and Derek Carr finished last season on injured reserve, and have already missed games this season. Andrew Luck hasn’t played a down. Aaron Rodgers, no young lion, but perhaps the best quarterback in football, is now done for the year with a broken collarbone.
So with all that said, if you ask yourself “Which teams have a starting quarterback that can win them a game right now, can win them a game in this post season, can win them a game in five years, and can win them a game in ten years?” How many teams have quarterbacks that check all of those boxes? Because the teams who can, by definition, have the best quarterback situations in the league, and make no mistake, Deshaun Watson checks all of those boxes for the Houston Texans.
The list of teams that join the Texans on that list is not long — certainly, Philadelphia with Carson Wentz, Dallas with Dak Prescott, Seattle with Russell Wilson, and depending on how you feel about Jimmy Garoppolo eventually taking over for Tom Brady, maybe New England. It’s a short list, and amazingly, after 15 seasons, the Texans are on it.
Thus far, the Deshaun Watson Experience has taken the city to a higher place. His acquisition, arrival and ascent is the nexus of desperation, guts, and creativity. The Brock Osweiler debacle forced Rick Smith out of his comfort zone, trading up in the first round of the draft, something he’d never done before as a GM, to finally solve this franchise’s quarterback crisis. Similarly, Deshaun Watson’s other worldly skill set forced O’Brien out of his perceived coaching comfort zone, eschewing the normal “pocket passer” stuff for a playbook that looks a lot more like Clemson’s than New England’s, with a ton of shotgun and zone read concepts.
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In some weird karmic way, maybe the football gods made us endure Brock Osweiler for a year, so we would appreciate the arrival of Deshaun Watson even more, and maybe that Dabo Swinney guy wasn’t that crazy, after all.
“The reason I play football is because I love the game, I love the sport, I love the friendships and everything that comes with it,” Watson said. “But at the same time, just giving people – not just for the city I play for and the teams that I played for before, but just people all around the world, just to be able to give them hope and courage to be able to fulfill their dreams. You can do it by having fun, and you don’t have to listen to what all the naysayers are saying. You just go out there, have fun and do it at a high level, and you can impact the world.”
Or, at the very least, a city desperately in need of an impact.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/SeanCablinasian or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.