This story appears in the Aug. 27, 2018, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
A larger-than-normal contingent of observers shuffled onto the Texans’ sidelines at a practice last November for a business-as-usual Thursday afternoon training session. The team had invited local members of all the military branches and their relatives, plus the families of players and staff. They could shake hands, collect autographs, get an inside peek at a playoff contender and, of particular interest that week, meet the rookie rocketing into the MVP race.
Four days earlier Deshaun Watson had thrown for 402 yards and scored four touchdowns against the Seahawks’ fearsome defense—on the road. The fact that his seventh straight Did-he-really-just-do-that? performance ended in a loss mattered little. No rookie had ever tossed 19 TD passes in his first seven games. It would turn out to be, arguably, the single best stretch by any NFL player, of any experience level, at any position, in all of 2017.
Earlier that morning the NFL had named Watson the AFC Offensive Player of the Month for October. Now the fans were tracking his every movement, training their cellphones on his throws, following him as he scooted around right end on a random play and fell to the turf without being touched.
While Watson left the field immediately, he told doctors there was no reason to worry; he’d just landed awkwardly, causing his right knee to lock up. He figured he’d be back to face the Colts on Sunday, if not for Friday’s practice. But not everyone shared his confidence. As coach Bill O’Brien left the field, his wife, Colleen, stopped him. “That didn’t look so good,” she said. “I don’t think it was,” he responded.
Actually it was worse. “Felt totally normal,” Watson says, seven months later. “Then we got the MRI back. Torn ACL.”
Watson called his family in Georgia, then his agent, then pivoted into . . . film study. He sat in his living room, knowing his cometlike first season was over, and went over that Sunday’s game plan again. Later that night he told his private QB coach, Quincy Avery, that as far as ACL tears go this was a clean one—no other ligament damage. Best-case scenario: He’d be back to full health in six months. The next morning, he reported back to 2 NRG Park, wondering if Tom Savage, the veteran he’d replaced at halftime of the season opener and who would now be taking over under center, needed any help.
From the beginning, Watson looked at his injury not as the saddest of setbacks but as yet another strange—but familiar—twist in his career. He had gone from the 12th-best high school football player (according to one ranking service) to the No. 12 pick in the NFL draft. He hadn’t been the opening day starter in his freshman year at Clemson or in his rookie season in Houston. Then he quickly took over both teams—only to have each of those campaigns end when he tore the same ligament, once on each leg.
Before the most recent surgery, a week after his fall, Watson joked to then Texans GM Rick Smith that he hoped history would repeat itself. He had, after all, gone 28–2 at Clemson after his return from shredding the ACL in his left knee, twice reaching the national championship game.
“I’ve been through this,” he told Smith. “I know what I gotta do.”
So about that Michael Jordan comparison?
The man who coached Watson and the Tigers to the 2016 national championship laughs. “I know, I know,” says Dabo Swinney. “I had trouble articulating what I think his greatness is.”
To be clear, Swinney is not apologizing. Yes, he was at the Senior Bowl in January 2017. And—hell, yes!—he told reporters that any team drafting someone other than Watson that spring was passing on the quarterbacking equivalent of MJ. However outrageous that sounds, Swinney stands by what he said. Even if it’s not exactly what he meant.
It’s just that Swinney knew Watson. After watching the QB play for the first time at Gainesville (Ga.) High, Tigers assistant coach Chad Morris called Swinney to say he’d discovered a young Vince Young . . . only better. Swinney knew that Watson had spent his early childhood in government housing, surrounded by gangs and drugs. That his mother raised six kids, worked three jobs and still volunteered for Habitat for Humanity (which later gifted the Watsons a house). That she beat tongue cancer. That the young man had written out his goals at Clemson—win the ACC title and the national championship, become a Heisman finalist, graduate in three years—and that he’d checked each of them off. He knew Watson was ready for anything.
Swinney did not know how to winnow all that into a sound bite, though, so he took the quarterback who’d forever changed his program and compared him with his own hero, Michael Jordan. As that quote went viral, spawning laughter and outrage, memes and a fair amount of mockery, Swinney called Watson to warn him: “I think I owe you an apology.”
The QB just laughed. “I knew exactly what Coach meant,” he says.
So did Smith, who had scouted the 6' 3", 215-pound Watson in person several times. At the national championship game in 2017, the Texans’ GM sat next to a woman who worked in the university’s football office. She wouldn’t stop raving, unprompted, about Watson’s character.
While other teams talked themselves out of one of the most successful players in college football—worrying that maybe Clemson’s spread offense wouldn’t translate to the NFL, citing Watson’s 17 interceptions as a junior—Smith played it cool, waiting until the week before the draft to bring the prospect in for a visit.
Smith agreed with Houston’s quarterbacks coach, Sean Ryan, who calls that position the most “overscrutinized, overanalyzed in sports,” and so he strategically sat back and let other teams talk themselves into North Carolina’s Mitchell Trubisky and Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes, based on what they might do, overlooking what Watson had already done. (“I quit trying to figure out the NFL draft a long time ago,” Swinney says. “Just blows my mind.”)
Not that Smith dismissed Watson’s flaws. “Sometimes he’d throw that thing and hit the Gatorade cooler,” Smith says. But he also believed any accuracy issues were outweighed by simple stats like his 90 TDs and 38–5 record. So he arranged a dinner on April 18 at the swanky Steak 48 restaurant in Houston, reserving a banquet table for Texans coaches and a few other potential draftees in town, as well as a smaller setup in back so he could pull Watson aside for a quick Godfather-style one-on-one.
Smith explained to Watson the expectations awaiting him should he, by some miracle, fall to the Texans at No. 25. Houston had a top five passing and scoring D, with stars in J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney. They had an All-Pro receiver in DeAndre Hopkins and had scared the Patriots that winter in a playoff game that might have gone the Texans’ way if not for some special teams gaffes and, well, Brock Osweiler.
Unless anyone was counting Matt Schaub (they weren’t) the last transformative NFL passer in Houston was Warren Moon, another reserved superstar, who had left town after the 1993 season. Twenty-five years later—a span covering two franchises, a 10-year gap without a team, an expansion draft, then David Carr and Ryan Fitzpatrick and Osweiler—Houstonians were still waiting.
At Steak 48, Watson crushed a playbook-sized rib-eye and his own seafood tower. Then he called Morris. The Texans, he said, seemed perfect. He wanted to play there. But he also guessed he wouldn’t last past the Browns at No. 12.
The next day Watson visited Houston’s facility. He met with O’Brien, went over the offense and at one point even winked at the coach while diagramming a play on the whiteboard. (“Kind of killed it,” Watson says.) Then he lunched in the cafeteria, where other visiting players, and even some veteran Texans, gravitated to his table. “I’ve never really seen that before,” says O’Brien.
On the day of the draft Smith tried and failed to move up into the top 10. When the Chiefs snagged Mahomes with the 10th pick, the GM went to the phones again, figuring Watson would be the next passer selected. The QB, meanwhile, sat with Morris and Swinney in the green room in Philadelphia, fiddling with his phone while his old coaches stewed, Swinney asking no one in particular, “What are these people thinking?” Watson, Morris offered, was “going to get a lot of GMs fired.”
Smith finally traded the No. 25 choice plus a first-rounder in 2018 to Cleveland. All these months later, he doesn’t equivocate in justifying the price: Watson, he says, was “the single most exciting pick” in Texans history. “If I was going to miss on a guy. I would miss on this guy.”
Swinney went on a Houston radio station and predicted Watson would win a Super Bowl “sooner rather than later.” History would repeat; the QB would overcome any lingering doubts. He stands by that prediction, he says, before pausing, weighing what he wants to say next. Then he makes the same comparison that prompted all that ridicule in the first place: “Look. A lot of teams passed on Michael Jordan.”
Watson announced himself at his first rookie minicamp with a ball launched toward wideout Chris Thompson, a throw so deep and high and pure that the reactions to it can sound apocryphal: heads snapping back in wonder, eyes bugging out and so on. Afterward, Ryan asked Watson what the quarterback had noticed in the defense when he cocked back and unloaded. “I saw a flat-footed safety,” Watson replied, “and I wasn’t going to let him play that way.” He adds now, “Honestly, it was just another throw.”
No surprise, the same thing happened at Clemson in 2014: first scrimmage, hot route, deep throw, touchdown. Still, both Watson’s college and NFL coaches chose another quarterback to start their respective season openers, meaning that even those closest to Watson, on some level, had doubted him.
The Tigers’ staff had planned to play the freshman on the third series of their opener, at Georgia, in his home state, with all his family in the stands. Watson came in, recognized the one blitz his coaches had most worried about, checked the protection and led the team down the field. First drive, first touchdown. Two weeks later he outperformed starter Cole Stoudt and took the job. The next Saturday, against North Carolina, Watson threw for 435 yards and a school-record six touchdowns.
Three years later, O’Brien opened with Savage at home against the Jaguars, but he turned to Watson at halftime, down 19–0. On his first drive Watson led Houston to its only TD, on a four-yard pass to Hopkins. Afterward, Watson told Avery, “I’m the guy moving forward.” Same as it ever was.
Months before that game, in the summer of 2017, Watson had attended a fund-raising event in Charlotte, where he spent an hour with Moon and Cam Newton. The Panthers’ quarterback, Moon recalls, did most of the talking: He detailed what Watson could expect as a rookie, how the game is faster, the pressure higher and the rewards greater—if all falls right. It was almost funny, Moon says now, looking back at how right everything then fell.
Watson had three days to prepare for his first NFL start, against the Bengals on Thursday Night Football, on his 22nd birthday. The Texans went into that game without a single healthy tight end; they played backup tackles instead, severely limiting their passing attack. And Cincinnati shut Watson down—except for when he evaded three rushers, slipped through a pocket of four Keystone Kops defenders downfield and scooted into the end zone for a 49-yard score in the second quarter that proved the difference in a 13–9 win. It wasn’t the prettiest performance (Sometimes he’d throw that thing and hit the Gatorade cooler) but Watson had scratched out a win. “Things like this just kind of happen,” he says.
As things continued to happen—300 yards and two scores against the Patriots; four passing touchdowns and another on foot in a rout of the Titans; five TD throws against the Chiefs, three against the Browns, and then that game in Seattle—those closest to him pondered why anyone seemed surprised. He was doing what he’d always done. To him, it was to be expected. In fact, he crammed so many exploits into such a short stretch that O’Brien feels it necessary to temper expectations for 2018. “Look,” he says, “he’s only played seven games. We can do something here with this guy—but I don’t want to crown anyone just yet.”
There’s plenty to consider crowning: the rookie-record 19 touchdowns to begin 2017, the 81.5 QBR and 7.5 yards per rush, each better than any passer with seven starts. Mike Devlin, Houston’s offensive line coach, says Watson even improved that unit, with his mobility and decisiveness limiting sacks. “I knew I could do it,” Watson says. “The Texans knew I could do it—that’s why they drafted me. And teams that didn’t know, they’re aware now. They had their opportunities.”
That Houston finished 4–12, winning just one of the 10 games that Watson didn’t start, is very much beside the point. They survived a hurricane as well as a rash of injuries, to players like Watson, Watt and Mercilus. Last season will be remembered as the year the franchise finally found its quarterback, a man who donated his first game check to three stadium employees displaced by Hurricane Harvey.
O’Brien ran into Swinney last spring at Clemson. “Boy, is he special or what?” the Texans’ coach said to the guy who’d compared Houston’s quarterback with Michael Jordan.
This time, Swinney just nodded.
The passers who have defined this generation of football—Brady, Brees, Rodgers—are closer to the ends of their careers than to the beginnings, meaning there are a few coveted Face of the NFL spots to be seized. Avery thinks his trainee is poised to do just that. “He’s going to win MVP, win a Super Bowl and change a franchise,” he says. “Why? Because he said he will. It’s like when he said he’d never lose to South Carolina in college [in 2014]—then he beat them on a torn ACL. He was like, ‘I said I’m never going to lose to them!’ ” (About that: Watson went down on Nov. 15 that year, missed one game, then strapped on a brace and ran for two TDs in beating the Gamecocks. Then he had surgery.)
On this notion of succeeding Brady and the rest, Watson is a bit more tempered: “I wouldn’t say all that this soon.” This soon.
Same for O’Brien. He and his staff know that Year 2 can be the most difficult for NFL quarterbacks. Defenses, for starters, have more game tape, allowing them to tailor their schemes. (That’s one place Watson’s injury actually helps him: He’s put fewer snaps on film.) But the Texans also know, already, that their QB can play at an MVP level. They know teammates are drawn to him (as are sports celebs, such as LeBron James and Aaron Judge, who have praised the way Watson plays). They know he rehabbed ahead of schedule, returned in time for limited spring practices and was cleared fully before training camp. What’s possible? In a word, Ryan says: anything.
Moon, meanwhile, sees some of himself in Watson—in the big arm, restrained demeanor and status as Houston’s football savior. “Fans have been waiting for so long there—waiting for another franchise, then for a quarterback,” says the Hall of Famer. “He can put them on top.”
It’s June in Houston. Watson is doing a photo shoot, posing in a locker room, then outside in front of a green Dumpster on a typically humid afternoon. The heat seems to bother him more than any of these expectations. Same as it ever was. Stadium workers pass by and thank him for the magical stretch last season. Watson narrows his glare and the photographer asks for “more eyes.”
Afterward, the QB thanks the guy behind the camera, his staff and what seems like everyone around the stadium. He then pivots into next season, into the Texans’ facility, where at the doorway one of those workers is carting rubble toward a Dumpster and drops a long, skinny lightbulb at Watson’s feet. It shatters, the sound echoing off the walls. Everyone gasps as Watson recognizes the danger and jumps backward, cleats clanking on the concrete.
Ultimately it’s nothing, just a minor scare, and there’s a collective sigh of relief for the franchise quarterback the Texans have been waiting for, who’s ready again for history to repeat.