Deep Dive Week 14: Deshaun Watson and the pursuit of excellence

Charles Rex Arbogast – AP Photo

While watching The Herd with Colin Cowherd yesterday (what can I say, I must have been really, really bored), I heard a discussion worthy of a second listen when former Cardinals QB Carson Palmer was guesting on the show. The rather hyperbolic phrase I’m referring to is Palmer saying that Deshaun Watson “is the most enticing employee to work with right now”, which got me thinking: is that true?

Well, to try and explain why I think Watson deserves such a debate, it’s probably best to start with a little background: some tales of the past, some reminiscing over Bill O’Brien’s magical time as Head Coach and General Manager.

It all begins back in the far-away time of 2017, when we could all go outside, shop without a mask and fans could go and boo their various horrible franchises in person. (Bengals, I’m looking at you).

The Texans made the correct decision to draft Clemson QB extraordinaire Deshaun Watson with the 12th overall pick, swinging on a player that had not only killed the giants of Alabama in a National Championship, but had thrown for over 10,000 yards, scored a total of 116 touchdowns and all with a completion percentage of 67.4% during his three years as a Tiger.

While this was happening, however – and in a seemingly direct attempt to subvert the best efforts of Watson over the next two years – the Texans were busy trading left tackle Duane Brown to the Seattle Seahawks as he attempted to negotiate a new deal with some guaranteed money in it.

The decision resulted in a rough couple of years for Watson, as it became clear that any success he was looking for under O’Brien was all going to have to come from him. His rookie year ended after just seven games because of an ACL tear, but he returned in 2018 to carry his Texans to a sensational 11-5 record.

And when I say he carried them, I mean it. In 16 games in 2018, behind a poor offensive line, Watson was sacked a mammoth 62 times in regular season football. That’s nearly four a game and if that isn’t enough to explain, here’s some more useful context. The 3-13 Arizona Cardinals only gave up 52 that year – 10 less, with a porous line and a sensational triple header of Josh Rosen, Mike Glennon and Sam Bradford under centre – oh, what a combination.

Over the next two years, O’Brien would make Watson’s job significantly easier with a number of great value for money trades.

Oh wait, sorry I misspoke, let me try again.

Over the next two years, O’Brien would make Watson’s job significantly harder with a number of terrible value for money trades.

Brett Coomer via the Houston Chronicle

First of all, they replaced the ‘too expensive’ Duane Brown with Laremy Tunsil, who cost them a pair of first round picks, a second round pick and is currently averaging over $22 million a year in cap space in this deal. Duane Brown, on the other hand, is averaging just $12 million in his four-year deal, and don’t think they’ve got a ton of extra production out of all that extra cash spent. Brown and Tunsil have both given up fewer than five sacks since the start of 2019.

Add to this potent mixture the DeAndre Hopkins trade before this season, and suddenly Watson’s task appears all the more impossible, and O’Brien’s firing looks all the more reasonable.

Hopkins, arguably the best receiver in the league, averaged 1,228 yards per season and recorded 55 touchdowns in his seven years in Houston with his huge catch radius. But he was traded away for a second round pick and a David Johnson contract that was well above what anyone could consider to be of value.

Then, just to add a bit of salt into those raw wounds, the second round pick from that deal was used to pick up Brandin Cooks, who costs nearly $13 million a year and has failed to stay healthy off the back of a 2019 season where he managed just 583 yards in 14 games.

(Oh and psst, then the Rams used that pick to grab Van Jefferson from Florida, who as the college boys will tell you, is a really solid receiver and much cheaper.)

So then, here we are in 2020. Romeo Crennel now leads the Texans following O’Brien’s sacking in Week 4 and despite all the obstacles in his path, Watson is continuing to prove that he is a stonewall, undoubted, unrelentingly brilliant quarterback.

With his favourite weapon gone, Randell Cobb out since November with a toe injury, Will Fuller suspended for the final six games for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drugs policy and Cooks in and out through injury, many would have expected Watson to be putting up his worst season yet.

Instead, Watson has managed to pass for 3,761 yards already, just 404 behind his regular season best, with three games to go, and he’s done so at an all-time high completion rate of 68.9%. That’s good enough for fifth best in the league.

Following Week 14, Pro Football Focus has Watson ranked third overall behind only Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers with a grade of 91.0; that’s some esteemed company and behind two men who have far more complete rosters on both sides of the ball.

The stats continue to get better for Watson the deeper you dig. Not only is he on track for his best touchdown to interception ratio, currently at 25-6, but he is doing so with the largest yards per attempt of any signal caller in the entire NFL: 8.7 yards.

Now, I’m sure someone out there is probably questioning the timing of this article coming off the back of a disappointing clattering at the hands of the often-disappointing Chicago Bears by 36-7. That would be a fair question, despite Watson still dragging out 219 yards, one touchdown and no picks.

My answer to such a query as this, however, is simply this video from the game on Sunday, which nicely encapsulates everything I’ve been trying to explain:

If conceding 36 points to the Bears’ rather anaemic offence wasn’t bad enough, it’s not like Watson is getting much help at all with starting position, time of possession or scoreline from his defence either.

Not only is the Texans’ unit giving up more total yards than anybody else outside of Jacksonville, with 5,286 in 13 games, but they also don’t know how to turn the ball over – and that’s coming from a Dallas Cowboys fan.

According to Pro Football Reference, just 5.8% of the drives that the defence has competed in have ended in a turnover. For reference, the second worst team, the Denver Broncos, are at least managing 7.3%. In 2019, the lowest-ranked team in this category was the Raiders and even they managed to force 8.4% of their drives to end as turnovers.nIn conclusion, this Texans defence is really not helping any one’s case, especially not Watson and the offence..

So then, after that little stumble through recent NFL history for one of the league’s most poorly run teams, one thing should be now apparent to any struggling Texans fans still left reading this: that there’s hope.

Despite all the issues and all the problems, as long as Deshaun Watson is suiting up, there will always be a chance. With Bill O’Brien gone, and a whole host of young, talented college co-ordinators foaming at the mouth to get Watson into their scheme, it should be possible to still get a few more prime years out of the best quarterback in Texans history.

Hopefully.

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