“My God, Houston’s so lucky. By next year, he’s going to be a top-five quarterback in this league, and that includes the two big dogs [Brady and Rodgers].”
—All-Pro Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, last Sunday, after Texans QB Deshaun Watson put up 38 points on the vaunted Seattle defense
Some stories, regardless of your perspective, regardless who you root for if you root for any team at all, slap you in the face. They hurt. That happened Thursday afternoon. No matter whether you care about the NFL or the Houston Texans or sports at all, the news that broke shortly before 5 p.m. Eastern Time was crushing.
With Houston still aglow over winning its first World Series title in Astros history less than a day earlier, the city got sober in a hurry Thursday afternoon: Texans rookie phenom quarterback Deshaun Watson tore his anterior cruciate ligament at practice. He’ll be placed on injured reserve and prepare for season-ending surgery.
“Everyone’s just sick,” said the longtime Houston football writer, John McClain, late Thursday afternoon. “Sick. Obliterated. Crushed. You come off the emotional high of the Astros winning the World Series, and the city’s celebrating like crazy. Now there’s a pall over the city. No one can believe it.”
The injury, first reported by NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, happened in a non-contact drill at a normal Thursday practice session for the Texans at their complex across the street from NRG Stadium. It came on a running play.
Watson might be the most exciting rookie in recent NFL history. Picked 12th in the draft last April by the Texans after a starry career at Clemson, he began the season as the backup to Tom Savage but replaced him in relief in Week 1. Coach Bill O’Brien named Watson the starter in Week 2, a narrow victory over Cincinnati. In a Week 3 duel with Tom Brady at New England, Watson put up numbers that no rookie ever had, with a charisma few rookies had ever shown.
Watson led the Texans to 33 points at New England, a franchise-record 57 versus Tennessee, 34 against unbeaten Kansas City, 33 against Cleveland … and then, in Seattle on Sunday, 38 against football’s best defense over the last half-decade. Watson threw 19 touchdown passes in his first seven games, an NFL record. Meanwhile, Watson was also impressing people with his charity and maturity. He donated his paycheck from his first NFL game to three lunch ladies in the Texans’ cafeteria whose homes were badly damaged in the Hurricane Harvey flooding. In a tribute to former Houston Oilers legend Warren Moon, he wore a Moon number one Oilers jersey to a home game in October.
Watson’s arm strength, mobility and precocious pickup of the vast Houston playbook impressed veterans and coaches alike. In training camp, coach Bill O’Brien raved about how he’d text quizzes to Watson during their time off before camp, and Watson aced each little quiz.
Sunday in Seattle was the finest hour of his young NFL career. He dueled Russell Wilson in perhaps the best game of the season. Twice the Texans fell behind in the fourth quarter, and Watson responded with 71- and 75-yard drives against the famed Seattle secondary to put the Texans ahead. Russell Wilson ended up driving Seattle to victory, but the Seahawks were agog over Watson’s performance.
About two hours after the game, I spoke to Richard Sherman by phone. For some reference here, Sherman is a respectful opponent but not always quick to praise. He’s never given Tom Brady gushing due. But he was so effusive in his plaudits for Watson that I had to text him back to be sure I had his quotes exactly right. They were correct. Such as what he said he told Watson when he embraced him after the game on the field in Seattle.
This is what Sherman said he told the rookie: “You played the best game any quarterback has ever played against us, and we’ve played all the legends. I respect how you hung in there and kept battling and battling.”
The core of the Seahawks defense has been together since 2012, and it has played Brady and Aaron Rodgers a combined eight times … and Sherman thought the sixth start of Watson’s career was better than any by Rodgers or Favre.
Truly, Deshaun Watson was the best part of the first half of this NFL season. In all ways.
Now they’ll have to adapt, painfully. In a year of living dangerously in the NFL, a year of unprecedented big-star injuries (Andrew Luck, Aaron Rodgers, J.J. Watt, Odell Beckham Jr., Joe Thomas, Jason Peters, Eric Berry), the loss of this rising and humble star hit Houston, and the league, very hard.
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