Maybe Deshaun Watson has had enough of the Houston Texans. Enough losing, enough playoff meltdowns, enough dumb trades, enough physical beatdowns. Maybe it’s as simple as that.
He may see J.J. Watt as a cautionary tale, a great player who wasted his best years on losing teams, and Watson doesn’t want to go down the same road. If Watson finally is convinced that the executives running the Texans just don’t know what they’re doing, who could blame him? Amid reports the quarterback is upset that Texans CEO Cal McNair left him out of the loop while searching for a new general manager, speculation has swirled about Watson’s future with the franchise. ESPN insider Chris Mortensen reported over the weekend that reports of Watson’s “unhappiness” with the organization are “accurate” and that the Miami Dolphins could be his preferred destination.
Sources say Watson could play hardball with Texans about a trade. His new $156 million contract includes a no-trade clause but informed speculation from a source is that he would consider the @MiamiDolphins in which Tua Tagovailoa and additional compensation goes to Houston.
— Chris Mortensen (@mortreport) January 10, 2021
Let’s push pause for a moment to make two important points:
First, Watson should not be traded. Not now. Not ever. Even with all the colossally dumb things the Texans have done through the years, this would be dumb on a nearly incomprehensible level. Watson is one of the NFL’s five best quarterbacks. He’s 25 years old. He’s that leader every other franchise is trying to acquire in terms of talent and presence. Players like Deshaun Watson can change the direction of a franchise, when given a chance. And as long as the Texans have a franchise quarterback, they have credibility and hope.
Now, about fixing what’s wrong. That’s on McNair. Whether Watson’s current dissatisfaction is no more than a monumentally poor miscommunication does not matter. It has to be rectified, and McNair had better not wait, because whatever fire is there now can grow quickly into an inferno if the Texans’ most important player feels ignored or disrespected.
Some of you may be wondering why Watson—an employee of the Houston Texans—has the nerve to think he should be included in hiring his boss. For starters, McNair told him he would have input on the decision. At least that’s the way Watson thinks the conversation went, according to reports. Also, Watson should have input. He’s not just another player; he’s the starting quarterback.
And in the NFL, that’s a unique role that often blurs lines between workers and bosses and who wields more power within a franchise. Quarterbacks—we’re talking about quarterbacks as good as Deshaun Watson—are unlike other players in both their responsibilities and their stature. They are among the smartest and toughest players on their teams. Even at a time when we understand the long-term consequences of collisions on the human body, quarterbacks are judged in part by their willingness to remain in the pocket and deliver a throw while ignoring the teeth-rattling hit that’s coming.
Watson and Watt are the public faces of the Texans. Both are also spokesmen, ambassadors, representatives of the organization. But Watt does not have the same responsibilities as quarterbacks, who are among the first to arrive at the team’s practice complex and the last to leave. (I know this from having watched, briefly, Troy Aikman stroll out of the Cowboys’ facility at 8 or 9 almost every night during his time in Dallas. He would be back at 6 or 7 most mornings, although I’m a less reliable witness on that.) Almost everything that happens on an NFL team circles through the quarterback in some way.
McNair’s defense is that in conversations with Watson about what characteristics mattered most in a prospective general manager, McNair had come to understand what the quarterback wanted and he was certain that Watson would love the new guy, Nick Caserio. That may be true. By all accounts, the Texans have hired a competent, innovative executive who spent twelve years helping stir the New England Patriots’ special sauce. Caserio understands how winning organizations are constructed. He also understands that the three most important people in New England’s six Super Bowl victories were team owner Robert Kraft, general manager and coach Bill Belichick, and quarterback Tom Brady.
While Brady led the Tampa Bay Bucs to the playoffs this year, in his first season away from New England, the Pats missed the postseason for the second time in eighteen seasons. The nonplayoff seasons, in 2008 and 2020, had one thing in common: a starting quarterback not named Tom Brady. (He was injured in 2008 and off to Tampa in 2020.)
But as far as Deshaun Watson is concerned, all of that is beside the point. His gripe with the Texans isn’t about money, either. Watson’s new $156 million contract guarantees him riches beyond almost anyone’s comprehension. And with his financial future secure, Watson’s primary concern becomes winning, and whether he thinks that can happen in Houston.
Caserio may have a hard time earning back Watson’s trust in the franchise, because Caserio’s predecessor, Bill O’Brien (who was also coach), made two trades that will hamstring the franchise’s short-term ability to improve. The Texans don’t have first- or second-round picks in the upcoming NFL draft, thanks to a lopsided deal that brought veteran tackle Laremy Tunsil and wide receiver Kenny Stills to Houston. Come April 29, that first-rounder will be the third overall on draft day. Also gone is wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins in a swap O’Brien made to acquire veteran running back David Johnson. Neither trade panned out, and O’Brien was fired last October, after an 0-4 start.
Now, Caserio will not just be hiring a new coach and trying to fix the NFL’s third-worst defense with limited draft picks. He’ll also have to hope McNair can repair relations with a quarterback who has been hit too often and seldom had enough offensive weapons to thrive. Despite that, Watson led the NFL this season with 4,823 passing yards.
In a perfect world, Watson’s best days should be ahead of him. But he has taken much punishment on the field. Watson was sacked 155 times over the last three seasons—more than any other player—and defenders have been credited with 133 “quarterback hits” on him in the same span.
Those tackles take a toll. For now, Watson is young, right at the beginning of his athletic prime. He recovers quickly and he’s fearless in delivering the ball down the field and ignoring the almost weekly beatings he absorbs from defenders. But unless the Texans do a better job of protecting their quarterback, excessive wear and tear could shorten Watson’s time at the peak of his abilities.
It’s impossible to know if Watson’s mind can be changed. Let’s face it—if he’s committed to playing elsewhere next season, then he will probably end up playing elsewhere. Whatever was said or not said between McNair and Watson before, McNair has got to do everything in his power to make it right. He has to look Watson in the eye and tell him what he means to the franchise. He has to make sure Caserio outlines a vision that steers the franchise back toward respectability.
The new general manager’s reputation is that of an engaging, serious professional who may be able to solve the Texans’ personnel problems. Caserio has to convince Watson that he understands that great NFL teams begin with dominance in three areas: quarterback, and the offensive and defensive lines. Perhaps most of all, Caserio has to convince Watson that Houston’s new general manager will truly be in charge, which would be a change from recent seasons in which a variety of front office figures jousted over decision-making power and influence, while O’Brien turned out to be unsuccessful at both coaching and roster construction.
If there’s a way out of this mess, it begins here. The Texans are one season removed from back-to-back playoff appearances. Neither postseason run ended well, but ask anyone connected to the franchise if they’d rather go 4–12 than lose to the Kansas City Chiefs in an AFC Divisional round playoff game. Watson is good enough to lead the team past early-round postseason exits, but he needs the McNair, Caserio, and a still to-be-named coaching staff to do their parts, too.
The word in NFL circles is that the Texans will trade J.J. Watt and give him a chance to finish his career on a winning note. That’s a day no Houston fan wants to see. First, though, the Texans have to convince Deshaun Watson that his career and legacy are in capable hands at NRG Stadium.