“If they pass on Deshaun Watson, they’re passing on Michael Jordan.”
That comment came from Watson’s college coach, Dabo Swinney, during the lead up to this year’s draft. Being projected as the ‘Michael Jordan’ of anything is probably setting the bar at unreachable heights, but Watson was known throughout his college career for a single trait he shared with His Airness, winning. In his two seasons as full-time starter at Clemson, the team compiled a 28-2 record. One of those losses was the 2016 championship against college football’s juggernaut, the Alabama Crimson Tide. But a year later he found redemption in a finals rematch against Nick Saban’s powerhouse, pulling out the victory in what became in an instant classic. However, that didn’t negate the question marks that surrounded Watson heading into his pro career, many of which pointed towards a difficult transition. But now, Watson is just three starts into his young career, and the Clemson product is already proving his coach right.
Watson’s first start came in a prime-time matchup, where he stole the show with a jaw-dropping 49-yard touchdown run. He followed that up by putting up 33 points against a Bill Belichek led defense, going down to the wire with Tom Brady, who, by the way, is playing at as high of a level as he ever has. It would have been fair to write the ‘Deshaun Watson is going to be a star’ piece after that performance, but I wanted to see how he followed it up in a defining divisional matchup against Marcus Mariota and the Tennessee Titans. If there were questions about his ability to thrive against quality NFL defenses, they were answered definitively by the time the clock struck zero. It was a three hour dismantling of a divisional rival, whom many predicted to beat the Texans for first place. Watson totalled over 300 yards and five touchdowns in a 57-14 shellacking. Sound like rookie numbers to you? Me neither.
“Watson totalled over 300 yards and five touchdowns in a 57-14 shellacking. Sound like rookie numbers to you? Me neither.”
If we can agree that Watson has the ‘it’ factor everyone looks for in a quarterback, and his skills continue to shine at the pro level, the question becomes: how far can the Texans go? In the 21st century we have seen a bevy of quarterbacks, even the elite, fail in their rookie seasons due to being thrown into poor situations, or simply taking time to adjust. Once in awhile, however, there is the right combination of maturity and skillset in the quarterback, paired with an established supporting cast. Think Ben Roethlisberger in 2004, Joe Flacco in 2008, Russell Wilson in 2012, or, most recently, Dak Prescott last season. All these quarterbacks have since become super bowl winners (Prescott not included, as he has only played one season), but they also share the common thread of being the missing piece on already elite teams as rookies.
Roethlisberger and Flacco joined star-studded defenses with the likes of Ed Reed, Troy Polamalu, Ray Lewis and Joey Porter, among others. All it took was competence at the quarterback position for the Steelers to finish 15-1 and make the divisional round, and for the Ravens to win a pair of playoff games with a rookie at the helm. Russell Wilson, similar to Watson, entered training camp as the backup in his rookie season with the Seahawks, but blossomed after earning the job. He was surrounded by the early stages of the Legion of Boom and the league’s best run game, led by Marshawn Lynch. Dak Prescott may not have had a menacing defense as the others did, but the 2016 Dallas Cowboys offensive line is on the short list for greatest of all time. Adding Ezekiel Elliott to run behind those hogs didn’t hurt either, and it took a last second field goal to keep Dak and the Cowboys from the NFC championship game. It’s hard to win in the NFL with a rookie quarterback, but there have been enough cases in recent history to believe in Deshaun Watson and the Houston Texans.
How does this Texans team compare to the others I mentioned? Let’s start by remembering the common preseason refrain in Houston is usually something along the lines of, ‘if only they had a quarterback’. Their defense, led by arguably the best defensive player since Lawrence Taylor, is the reason the Texans have hovered around the playoffs the last few seasons, despite not having much of an offense to speak of. JJ Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus are enough to cause a week’s worth of sleepless nights for opposing coaches. Last year with Brock Osweiler, yes, Brock Osweiler running the offense, and without Watt, the Texans won a playoff game and gave the Patriots all they could handle in the divisional round. This is a defense that has the potential to win the AFC South on its own, and they aren’t short of skilled players up front. Deandre Hopkins, Will Fuller, Lamar Miller and D’Onta Foreman will continue to lessen the amount of responsibility placed on the rookie’s shoulders.
Calling Super Bowl for the Texans may still be a stretch, but expect Deshaun Watson to lead them to an AFC South title and be the team Patriots fans fear most, come January.