A note to Deshaun Watson, who hopefully found a way to spend Sunday night after the Texans’ 19–16 overtime win against the Cowboys completely submerged in a bath of ice water and liquid Advil: It doesn’t have to be this way.
Of everything we saw during Sunday’s drummed-up faux-rivalry matchup between Houston and Dallas, it was not the situational execution that was most chilling—even though the Texans’ second unsuccessful, shotgun-addled attempt at scoring from the one-yard line was especially memorable.
It was the feeling of watching a game in constant mid-wince that became largely intolerable. Watson—who completed 33 of 44 passes for 377 yards, one touchdown and one interception—already had bad ribs coming into the game. Contrary to those who believe NFL players heal like Madden counterparts on a static injury timeline, that’s probably an ailment that won’t completely go away this season. And yet, here he is, escaping toward the pylon, lowering his shoulder and closing his eyes like a boxer getting punched in the chin as Jeff Heath delivers a helmet-to-helmet hit. That was about the third time in the first half Watson hopped up smiling after what looked like a high-speed car wreck.
In the second half, Houston added some designed runs to the mix. There’s nothing like watching Randy Gregory elbow drop your most important offensive player, then waiting for two of his teammates to peel him off the turf. He doesn’t get enough of that behind an ever-changing offensive line during regular in-pocket passing plays.
We acknowledge that Bill O’Brien’s job is not easy. Watson’s mobility is an incredible asset, and O’Brien would be roasted mercilessly for not maximizing the talent around him if he ran the same type of bubble-wrapped, quick-strike quarterback offense that has helped Eli Manning juice a few more years out of his career. He would be subjected endlessly to the type of broad, uninformed questions he seems to dislike more than anything in this business: Bill, have you, uh, tried to maybe do more of that option, zone read stuff with Deshaun? But Watson is not Cam Newton. It would be difficult to imagine him taking the same level of trauma and gliding through the year unscathed. Seeing Watson continually pop in and out of the collapsible medical tent has to be the kind of wake-up call this collected group of talented football minds needs.
Sure, some will say that you play to win at all costs, that Watson knows what he signed up for, that football is for tough guys. But this is not an argument about toughness vs. finesse. This game, and this particular complaint about the usage of Watson is not some burning harbinger of larger societal change. It’s simply the backdrop to the following thread of facts: Watson provides the team with the best chance of winning each week, the AFC South remains incredibly wide open after five weeks and the Texans have a slew of winnable games coming down the pike. Having Watson healthy and available for those games would be a positive.
Maybe it’s as simple as a reminder to slide, or a heart-to-heart conversation, acknowledging that Watson is an incredible competitor, and that he puts his neck on the line unlike many of the quarterbacks. Maybe it’s as grueling as a few sleepless weeks at the facility designing something a little more risk-averse.
Either way, wouldn’t the end product be worth it if Watson sticks around for all 16 games in 2018?