GLENDALE, Ariz. — The losing quarterback walked with a winner’s gait. Alabama ended the biggest night of Deshaun Watson’s football career with a 45–40 win in the College Football Playoff national championship game, but Watson was the best player on the field. He threw for 405 yards and four touchdowns, ran for 73 yards, and walked away with the confidence of somebody who knows what he just did and knows he can do it again.
There were no tears. There was disappointment, sure, but no hint of frustration, no indication he had let a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity slip away, because Deshaun Watson does not believe that. He carries himself like a star, and not just a college football star—a star like Kobe Bryant or LeBron James.
Watson walked to the locker room, and later he walked past Crimson Tide players as they celebrated in a stadium tunnel and he didn’t flinch, and when he got to his press conference, he said the most amazing, least surprising thing:
“I love my teammates, love my brothers, and you’ll see us in Tampa next year.”
That’s where the 2017 national title game will be held, and Watson said it like a fact: Our school is in South Carolina, the sun rises in the East, our team wears orange and you’ll see us in Tampa next year. Maybe Watson is right about next season. But Alabama was the most deserving team for this one.
The winning quarterback carried a loser’s burden. Until Monday night, Jake Coker had been defined by what he was not. First, at Florida State, he was not Jameis Winston. Coker lost the quarterback competition; Winston won the national title. Coker transferred to Alabama, where he was not able to beat out Blake Sims.
Coker went to the same Mobile, Ala., high school as former Crimson Tide star AJ McCarron, but he was clearly not McCarron, either. McCarron won national championships. Coker had not.
“I felt like, you can win a bunch of games at Alabama, you can win an SEC championship … it’s kind of expected,” Coker said afterward. “I felt like, if we didn’t win this game, we wouldn’t illustrate who we are as a team.”
Did he feel relieved, as much as happy?
“Big time,” he said. “It’s kind of expected to do great things each year at Alabama. We should be at the top, close to the top, every year.”
That is the monster that Nick Saban has built. Last year’s SEC championship and playoff semifinal loss was considered a failure. Other schools would have held a parade.
And yet, on this night, the Crimson Tide did not look like a dominant team. Very good, sure. But you could reasonably wonder: If the teams played 10 times, would Alabama win more than five? The Crimson Tide needed a blocked field goal, a surprise onside kick and a 95-yard kickoff return to win. But in a way, that tells you what made this Alabama group so special.
Of Saban’s four national championship teams, this may have been the most resourceful. The Crimson Tide bludgeoned opponents with sledgehammer running back Derrick Henry. The defensive front dominated the line of scrimmage. Coker threw for 335 yards and two touchdowns on Monday, and Bama needed all of it.
Coker is not as gifted as Watson, or even McCarron, but when Alabama needed big plays, he made them. He threw two deep touchdown passes to tight end O.J. Howard. On third-and-two from the Clemson six-yard line late in the fourth quarter, with the Tide leading 38–33, Coker scrambled for three yards. If he doesn’t make that play, who knows what happens?
Yes, if they played 10 more times, the Tigers might win five, maybe more … but see, they don’t play 10 more times. That is the point. Alabama found out last year against Ohio State: There are no second chances in a playoff. Coker probably won’t get another chance, period. He had one, and he seized it.
“I can’t tell you how much it means to me to win it for the people of Alabama,” Coker said. “I know what it means to be one of those people, one of those guys going nuts in front of the TV.”
In the postgame locker room, Crimson Tide players who didn’t even play a snap were looking for cigar cutters so they could enjoy a celebratory smoke. Henry took off his jersey and answered questions with confetti stuck to his chest and arm, as though it were part of his skin. Every Alabama season seems to begin with a trophy, and the question is whether the Crimson Tide will drop it.
The championships all blur together in the public’s mind, and it isn't right. Each one is an incredible achievement. Each one is a product of years of work, commitment and belief. And each one presents different challenges.
Saban did not try that onside kick on a whim. He did it because, like his close friend Bill Belichick, he believes you can do something unconventional if you plan it, practice it and execute it at the right time. He did a masterful back-to-back coaching job in this playoff—first with his brilliant game plan against Michigan State, and then against Clemson, the best team the Crimson Tide faced all year.
This was not the 2013 title game, when Alabama could have had an off night and still beaten Notre Dame. The Tigers had NFL prospects all over the field and a seminal talent at quarterback. As Crimson Tide offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin said: “Any time you have a quarterback like that, it doesn’t matter what else is going on. That guy is going to touch the ball on every snap. We had our hands full today.”
Kiffin was USC’s offensive coordinator when Texas’s Vince Young put on one of the best title-game performances in the sport’s history a decade ago. He admitted to having some Young flashbacks as he watched Watson attempt a two-point conversion: “When he went running to the right there in the fourth quarter, I go, ‘Oh boy. That was exactly Vince’s spot where Vince scored that last touchdown.’ It was kind of eerie, scary, how the game was going at that time.”
Derrick Henry will probably turn pro this month. His final carry was fitting: One yard, all power, to give Alabama a two-score lead.
On the Clemson sideline, players hung their heads in defeat. It was over. Anybody could see that. But Deshaun Watson is not anybody. He led the Tigers on one last touchdown drive, giving them one last, improbable chance to recover an onside kick and throw a Hail Mary and … well, it was improbable for a reason. Bama recovered the kick. But the drive said something else about Watson. As long as there were plays to be made, he would make them.
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When the game ended, and the Crimson Tide celebrated and the confetti stuck to Henry, Watson accepted a hug from Atlanta Falcons receiver Roddy White. For years, Watson would show up to Falcons practices and throw balls to receivers in drills. He would be a ball boy for home games. And he would talk.
“He always wanted to be a Tiger,” White said. “He said they would win a national championship.”
When did he first say that?
“He might have been in eighth grade.”
White told Watson he would be back next year. Watson didn’t need to hear it. This was Alabama’s night. Bama has had a lot of nights like this. You get the feeling Deshaun Watson will, too.