- They’ve lost Brian Cushing, J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilus, Duane Brown and now their rookie phenom QB, Deshaun Watson. The Texans are talking resilience, but can any team survive such a series of blows?
Breno Giacomini is 32 years old and in his 10th NFL season, so he has perspective, and that’s important to understand when he says what he felt in his very first team meeting as a Texan, back in April.
“Right when I got here, the way coach wants this team to be, we want to be the toughest team, we want to work the hardest—from Day One I could tell this team was going to be a little bit different,” Giacomini said. “Just the way Coach [Bill O’Brien] approaches it, the way he is, the way we reflect him on the field, and just the way these guys go to work, it’s something different here.”
Now more than ever, it’ll need to be.
On its own the freak ACL injury suffered by rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson during Houston’s Thursday practice—on a simple run play that the Texans have drilled dozens of time—is a very big deal, given the way Watson has become such an immense part of the Texans’ persona since he became the starter in Week 2. But for the defending AFC South champs it’s not just that. It’s been the entirety of the last two months:
• Three-time All-Pro tackle Duane Brown, the team’s longest-tenured player, carried his holdout six games into the season, making it the longest such sit-out by a player since the new CBA went into affect in 2011.
• On Sept. 13, two days after the opener, linebacker Brian Cushing, the team’s second longest-tenured player, was suspended for 10 games for violating the league performing enhancing substance policy.
• On Oct. 8, three-time NFL defensive player of the year J.J. Watt suffered a tibial plateau fracture, and All-Pro edge rusher Whitney Mercilus tore his pectoral muscle. Both injuries were season-enders.
• On Oct. 27, ESPN published a magazine story that cited sources quoting Texans owner Bob McNair as saying, at the league’s fall meeting, that “we can’t have the inmates running the prison.” All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins left the facility and skipped practice later in the day in response, and the team held an emotionally-charged meeting to address McNair’s comments.
• On Tuesday, the Texans traded Brown to the Seahawks, with Seattle corner Jeremy Lane coming back in exchange, along with a 2019 second-round pick. But Lane failed his physical and the deal had to be reworked. At Browns’ left tackle spot, the Texans plan to use veteran Chris Clark, who started during Brown’s holdout.
Late on Thursday night, after the Watson injury, O’Brien texted to reiterated the confidence he has in his guys to handle all of it: “This is a very resilient bunch of guys. They care about each other, and they will battle.”
But this would be a lot for anyone to deal with. Maybe the one thing that would give O’Brien, and the guys he’s coaching, the wherewithal to absorb the latest blow (and it’s a big one) is that they were knocked around the ring pretty good through eight weeks and remained standing for last weekend’s classic in Seattle.
The tough part now will be replacing the spark that Watson clearly gave a team that won with defense last year (even without Watt) but had to do it with offense through the last month or so—the Texans have averaged 39 points a game in going 3-2 over that stretch.
“It’s not wrong to think that, I don’t disagree with you,” Giacomini said, regarding the difficulty in replacing Watson. “But we lost J.J., we lost Whitney, and the guys stepped up. We lose Deshaun, and you’re right. That kid, he’s a special player. He’s going to be great for the league, he’s going to be great for the Texans. He’s a little Russell Wilson/Michael Vick mixture, and add his touch and you’ve got Deshaun Watson. He’s going to be a special player. I truly believe that, but I also believe in the depth and the work we’ve put in since April.”
For now, by depth, Giacomini means Tom Savage, and there’s no doubt the Texans will have to change, as they did for Watson, to accommodate their new/old quarterback. In Week 1, Savage took six sacks in 31 snaps before being benched, so it’s clear that there’s more to manage than just the difference in playing style between the two signal-callers.
That said, the Texans did find a way last year to rank No. 1 in the NFL in total defense, and slow down the Patriots (temporarily) in the divisional playoff, after Watt went out for the season in Week 3. So they’ve dealt with losing stars of the highest order.
The question then becomes not just about replacing Watson, but whether or not the list above finally gets the best of the team. The players vow it won’t. We’ll see.
“That can happen, if you’re going to let it wear you out, if you’re going to keep thinking about it,” Giacomini said. “With us, we go to work, man—it’s on to the next play. That’s the way I live, that’s the way I try to communicate with these guys. Listen, he got hurt, we’re gonna have to figure out a way. We have different schemes, we have different things we can do.
“Obviously, I’m gonna pray for him to get better, and not just him, but all these guys. But you gotta move on and I feel like we’ve already done that.”
He then pointed to Thursday. When Watson retreated to the building to get his knee checked, the veteran explained, “We just continued practice.”
And that’s the idea now. The Texans already have been through a lot. They’ve got no choice but to keep going.
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