You know you are a Texans fan when your team is up by forty and you think to yourself, “Hold on, there are still eight minutes left in this game.”
So a friend put it Sunday late in the Texans’ 57-14 shellacking of the Tennessee Titans.
Superlatives abounded, as they outpaced their 52-point total from the previous three games combined, even including a 33-point outburst against New England last week.
While the Oilers once hung 58 on the Browns, this was the highest point total ever amassed by the Texans, and it also outpaced the run-and-gun Houston Gamblers of the short-lived USFL — future NFL Hall of Famer Jim Kelly once led that team to a 54-7 drubbing over the Jacksonville Bulls. The Texans’ offensive performance also shattered records for both margin of victory and number of touchdowns in a game.
Five of those seven TDs came courtesy of rookie DeShaun Watson, who tossed four and ran for another. No rookie has pulled that off since Fran Tarkenton, way back in 1961, nine years before the AFL-NFL merger. Per ESPN Stats & Information, Watson’s 98.1 Total QBR ranks second among rookies since the Worldwide Leader started recording that data point in 2006.
But enough with the dry stats. More importantly, for the first time in franchise history, this Texans offense is fun to watch.
This isn’t to say they haven’t been successful in the past. Before poor Matt Schaub lost his dang mind, Gary Kubiak’s play-action, roll-out, short-pass attack was effective, if tedious. You appreciated it the way you might admire the workings of a Swiss timepiece, tick-tocking down the field via 12-yard outs to Andre Johnson setting up seven-yard Arian Foster scampers off-tackle.
Once that all emphatically imploded, Texans fans were treated to Bill O’Brien/Rick Smith’s clown car of mediocre-to-bad quarterbacks culminating in the handing of the keys to towering stiffs Ryan Mallett (6’7”) and Brock Osweiler (6’6”). Why were the Texans seemingly the last franchise in pro football to buy into the myth that tall, immobile quarterbacks were the way to go? For every one Joe Flacco — at 6’6”, the tallest signal-caller to ever win a Super Bowl, and hardly the most illustrious to do so — there are three Mike Glennons, Dan McGwires and JaMarcus Russells. And sadly, two of them were named Brock Osweiler and Ryan Mallett—in addition to Mallett’s overabundance of verticality, is also a knucklehead.
Glory be, those days are gone now. DeShaun Watson, at a mere 6’3”, offers something Houston fans have never seen in deep steel blue and battle red: a mobile, accurate, thrilling quarterback with a calm demeanor and a contagious will to win—not to mention a generosity that can bring a tear to your eye. With each passing week, the Watson-led attack seems a threat to score with every possession: no third down is too long to convert, no hole is too deep for Watson to claw his way out.
As ESPN’s Sarah Barshop pointed out, in Watson’s last five starts dating back to college, all he’s done is beat teams coached by Urban Meyer and Nick Saban, ran 49 yards for his team’s only touchdown in the Texans 13-9 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, left his defense in position to defeat the reigning Super Bowl champions on their own field, and then put on one of the greatest performances by any rookie quarterback in NFL history.
There is just something about him. “Clemsoning” was once synonymous for Watson’s alma mater’s knack for squandering undefeated seasons with an unexpected loss against an inferior team. Watson rendered Clemsoning meaningless with his title win over favored Alabama, and his presence is having a similar effect on a sad-sack franchise.
He has infected not just his teammates with those intangibles but even his coach. O’Brien, for the first time ever, junked his complex, button-down playbook that required precise execution from players who simply could not deliver in favor of one that played to the strengths of a guy with transcendent talent.
Watson does not need to stand tall in a clean pocket — when his mediocre-at-best line breaks down, he can scoot free and demoralize a defense with a first down on the ground. He can run the option, and did on Sunday to the tune of two touchdowns, one on a pitch and another on his own two feet. The chemistry he’s developed with wide receiver and fellow Clemson grad DeAndre Hopkins already looks as if it was years and not mere games in the making, and with speedy-if-dropsy Will Fuller stretching the field, and the running back tandem of Lamar Miller and D’Onta Foreman dishing out backfield power and finesse, Houston’s offense is more than adequate for a deep playoff run, and getting exponentially better every week.
It was not just a pleasure to watch, but the team was having a blast too.
What a difference a few weeks can make. Think back to the season opener: With Tom Savage eating sacks behind an awful offensive line and Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles eviscerating the no-name Texan secondary, it looked like another long and dreary season at NRG Stadium. Could this bunch even make the playoffs out of the weak-but-improving AFC South?
There was a groundswell among the fans to sign Brandon Weeden, of all people, to quarterback the team: the thinking was that he was a slight upgrade over Savage and could take a pounding while Watson sharpened his game in practice and the team put together some semblance of a professional offensive line to protect him.
General manager Rick Smith — every Texans fan’s favorite scapegoat — was still routinely flayed by fans on the Internet and radio call-in shows for drafting inconsistent-at-best guard Xavier Su’a-Filo ahead of Raiders quarterback Derek Carr a few years back. (Who is now injured again, for what it’s worth.)
Nobody’s coveting Carr in Houston — not anymore. For once, it’s fans in other cities lamenting what might have been.
There’s Cleveland: Did the Browns blow it by passing on Deshaun Watson? asked Cleveland.com. Short answer, yes, yes they did, even after Watson’s college coach Dabo Swinney warned them that to do so was to pass on Michael Jordan. Instead, the Browns are rolling with rookie QB DeShone Kizer, whose 0-4 won-loss record comes with three touchdown passes against eight interceptions and an NFL-worst 50.9 QB rating.
There’s Chicago: how are they feeling about handing over $45 million to Mike Glennon in the offseason and drafting Mitchell Trubisky ten slots ahead of Watson in this year’s draft? Trubisky defines “unknown quantity”: he has started 13 college games since 2013. At the University of North Carolina, he couldn’t beat out some guy named Marquise Williams until Williams graduated last year. Oh well, the Bears liked his “measurables,” even if his NCAA resume was vanishingly thin on actual accomplishments. We’ll see what he’s made of this weekend, as Trubisky makes his first NFL start: Chicago has already benched Glennon, their Mallet-ish, Osweiler-esque too-tall $45 million bust. (Texans fans can appreciate the misery – it’s uncannily similar to the Mallett-Osweiler era.)
But back to the Texans, where Watson isn’t the only rookie turning heads. Somewhat lost amid all of Watson’s much-deserved ballyhoo, there’s the Cinderella story of linebacker Dylan Cole, whose college career was as obscure as Watson’s was renowned. Last year, Cole was laboring away for the Missouri State Bears in a stadium that has a capacity—17,500—smaller than some Texas high schools. Although his chiseled physique and athleticism impressed scouts in the spring, every team passed on Cole through all three days of the NFL draft. Rick Smith invited Cole to camp as a street free agent, and Cole hustled his way on to the roster. In his first game — that dismal loss to the Jags — Cole was one of the few Texans to impress on defense, almost getting to Bortles for a sack in garbage time. Days after that, veteran starter Brian Cushing was suspended for PED use for the second time, and in his absence Cole has stepped up his game dramatically. All he did Sunday was lead the team in tackles, register his first sack, and run in an interception for a touchdown. “It’s exciting, but it’s hard to wrap my brain around it that I actually get this opportunity,” Cole told the Houston Chronicle after the game.
It’s not just Cole—Texans fans are feeling incredulous, too. Are these really the same guys that opened the season so horrifically? Did Rick Smith actually draft the right guys and find a diamond in the rough in one single off-season? Is Houston really one of the most exciting teams in the NFL, and could they even contend for the city’s first Super Bowl?
Yeah, the Titans lambasting was only one game, and this merciless league has a way of taming even the most promising young players. Ask Vince Young, Johnny Manziel, or Colin Kaepernick.
And while no rookie has ever led his team to a Super Bowl, Dak Prescott came reasonably close last year, and Russell Wilson won it all in his second season, and neither of those guys have Watson’s winning resume. Again, in less than a year, he defeated two of college football’s most legendary coaches and came within seconds of taking down the NFL’s best on his home field.
Long shot? Sure.
At any rate, if the Texans keep this up, there may come a day when even Houston’s traumatized football fans can feel secure with forty-point fourth-quarter leads.