Entering the 2020 NFL season, it’s abundantly clear that the entire Texans team will heavily rely on star quarterback Deshaun Watson. 2017 was Watson’s rookie year, curtailed by an ACL tear. 2018 was the year DW4 proved he could be a star. 2019 was the year he solidified himself among the NFL’s elite by consistently carrying his team to victory. He is the franchise player that Houston has been searching for since 2002. Now, in Year 4, Deshaun Watson is entering the campaign as the clear leader of his team. He is the Houston Texans and, as such, will be the inflection point of this teams’ abilities.
On its face, this doesn’t appear to be such a frightening prospect. A great quarterback is obviously going to be the largest factor of a team’s performance. But having the star quarterback be the only exceptional part of your team is a dangerous and nerve wracking game to play. At any moment in time, the nucleus of the team can get injured, splitting the core of the entire organization and ending the season at the same time. Thankfully, Watson removed all doubt that he can stay healthy by playing through two straight seasons where he absorbed 40+ sacks. He can take plenty of hits, but, as Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady have shown us, a near immaculate record of health can be shattered in the blink of an eye.
This everlasting uneasiness that turns into stomach wrenching fear every time Watson gets his bell rung led me to wonder: How have the past several teams that have lost their franchise quarterback to injury fared, and what was the leading cause of the subsequent success/failure? Were most of these teams really dead in the water once their captain fell? How do they compare to each other? Taking a look back at a few of the most recent quarterback tragedies that occurred in the 2017 season and beyond (don’t want this list getting too prolific or depressing) will not only give us a glance into how a Watson-less Texans would play out, but also give me a chance to prepare in the event of our own franchise tragedy.
When creating this
eulogy list, I decided on organizing each team into four tiers, based on performance post-starter sidelining:
Tier 4: The yuck teams. These are teams that you’d avoid watching at all costs and wonder how they can win a single football game with a backup like that. Time to bury the season and move on.
Tier 3: The questionable teams. These sorts are by no means good, but are not bottom of the barrel like Tier 4 teams. Pretty much the spitting image of mediocrity.
Tier 2: Teams that could have been good if a few more things would’ve broken their way. These guys could have done some damage if their backup was just a bit better. This is the home of what I like to call the only ifs.
Tier 1: The fortunate souls that escaped with little to no drop-off in proficiency when resorting to their QB2. These teams either already invested heavily in the backup position, or got lucky enough to find a quarterback that played beyond his billing.
I should first note that I will not be remembering teams that replaced their bruised “starter” with inaugural first or second round quarterbacks that are expected to be calling shots very soon. As such, Tyrod Taylor’s demotion via Baker Mayfield due to injury during the 2018 season, Joe Flacco losing his job to Lamar Jackson/Brandon Allen/Drew Lock while hurt, and Case Keenum/Colt McCoy being usurped by Dwayne Haskins are not on this list. The teams I thought were most applicable to Houston’s potential nightmare are ones that had an established starter at QB and intentionally designed an offense to suit that QB’s playing style. Meaning that when they had to resort to a backup for a significant portion of the season, something usually only occurring when resting the starters, only the worst has come to fruition.
With formalities out of the way, why not start this macabre tour of despair:
Tier 4: The Sanctum of Sacrilege
Welcome to where the most rotten rest, and hey! our first stop is right at home, the 2017 Houston Texans! After a 3-3 start and the untimely end to Watson’s rookie year, the team completely cratered to a 4-12 record. Without their starting quarterback and star defensive end J.J. Watt, the Texans shattered against any opposition. The defense melted as even mediocre teams sliced through. The offense, led by quarterbacks Tom Savage and then T.J. Yates, was as inert as the defense wished it could be. Relying entirely on the life support of DeAndre Hopkins and Lamar Miller, the post-Watson Texans could only pull a single victory out of their tattered pockets.
If you ask Texans fans, the only team that deserves suffering like this is the next team up—the Indianapolis Colts! Without Andrew Luck and scarcely an offensive line, the 2017 Colts couldn’t be saved by an acceptable performance by newly
burdened acquired Jacoby Brissett. While his efforts were admirable, the winds had already whispered the demise of the 2017 Colts.
This land of woe also accommodates the 2018 49ers and 2019 Lions, both of which achieved a top three draft pick after losing their quarterbacks and sacrificing the season. While both Nick Mullens and Jeff Driskel/David Blough turned some heads, none could exhume themselves from the grave dug by the football gods. All these clubs share the trait of having truly nightmarish defenses, and all immediately invested heavily both in free agency and the draft the following offseason to unearth that side of the ball.
Despite their 7-9 record, the 2018 Redskins are also located in this sacrilegious sanctum. After the disastrous injury to Alex Smith, the offense could do nothing but collapse, winning only one game after a 6-3 start.
Tier 3: The Enclave of Disappointment
Four teams have the misfortune of recently discovering themselves in the catacombs of mediocrity: the 2017 Dolphins, 2018 Dolphins, 2018 Bengals, and 2019 Jaguars. The 2017 Dolphins’ attempt of a football season is better described as an acceptance of defeat. Upon hearing the news of Tannehill’s season ending knee surgery, the Dolphins announced to the world, “We actually don’t care” by signing Jay Cutler and digging their grave before the season had even truly begun. A 4-2 start may have been a surprise, but Cutler kept his promise of inadequacy and delivered a retirement tour record of 6-10. The 2018 Bengals, as if smited by the football gods for maintaining a pulse 10 games in with a 5-5 record, saw their guide through the trenches, Andy Dalton, broken and replaced with Jeff Driskel. After this changing of the guard, the Bengals succumbed to a final record of 6-10.
The Dolphins of the same season, spurred to life under a now healthy Ryan Tannehill, were prepared for a dramatic return to their 2016 playoff form. But even though Tannehill had rung the bell of healthiness, the football gods turned a deaf ear (a trend we’ll see later on). Tannehill misses several games in 2018 because of nagging injuries, and the Dolphins have to rely on the legend of [NAME REDACTED] to keep the season afloat. While the Dolphins hung in there until December (with the aid of a small miracle), the abyss of backup mediocrity was inescapable.
The 2019 Jaguars were a bit harder to read with their backup, Gardner Minshew, straddling the line between starting caliber and backup worthy. A defense in bloodcurdling, execrable recession certainly doesn’t help, and just like that, the Jaguars went from a spunky 4-4 to a lifeless 6-10. Ouch. A rookie sixth round QB outdueling the starter is impressive, but not enough to deliver them from a top 10 pick.
The 2019 Jets were also considered for burial at this site, but quarterback Sam Darnold only missed three games when stricken with mono, meaning their 7-9 record was not entirely a result of the backup abyss.
Tier 2: The Chambers of Only Ifs
Here lie the teams that clearly suffered without their quarterback, but did not wilt upon his exit. Hey, it looks like the Colts are joining us again, this time in 2019 attire, accented in hues of shattered dreams. This past year’s incarnation of a Colts team was intended to have Andrew Luck at the helm. Having rung the bell of full recovery, Luck was prepared to make a Super Bowl push, but the football gods sought revenge via abrupt ankle injury and unexpected
burial retirement, ushering Jacoby Brissett back into the saddle for another disappointing season. This time around, the Colts’ offense and defense was better manned, leading to an impressive 5-2 start. More quarterback injuries and a declining offense in the second half of the season led to a downward spiral into the 7-9 doldrums. While the bell was rung, the 2019 Colts were not heard.
This teir is where a lot of the more competent teams show up, like the 2017 Packers, 2019 Steelers, and 2019 Panthers. All of these teams concluded their season at 7-9 or 8-8, many of them would have embraced a playoff berth if only they had received more consistent quarterback play. The 2017 Packers were a decent team with the facade of greatness under the cloak of Aaron Rodgers. The 2019 Panthers were able to ride the Christian McCaffrey train until it stalled against juggernaut opponents, to which they responded with the unsettled rolling of a passing offense and an exhausted defense. The Steelers had one of the most stingy defenses in modern history, coupled with quarterbacking so abhorrent and ruinous that full burial was delayed until the final games of the season. All of these teams could have been playoff caliber if only they had a quarterback that was just good enough to keep them in games. If only. This leads us to the final tier of recent backup stricken teams: the good ones.
Tier 1: The Walking Dead
In this tier rest the few teams that escaped the clutches of the ever growing abyss of backup quarterback mediocrity. Those that were struck by the silver bullet of NFL seasons yet lived to tell the tale to bewildered postseason opponents. The 2017 Vikings, 2017 Eagles, 2018 Eagles, and 2019 Saints are the four teams in the past three years to thrive when QB2s reported for duty. Although I considered removing the 2019 Saints since Teddy Bridgewater only started five games, going undefeated off the bench under the near-unheard of circumstances of replacing the impenetrable Drew Brees is something to be commended. The 2017 Eagles won a Super Bowl and achieved their complete conquest of the league thanks to the heroics of backup Nick Foles. In 2018, Foles again revived Philly’s season once thought to be halfway underground, winning a playoff game to boot. At that point, a sizable margin of the sports world believed Foles to be much more than just a backup, and the Jaguars took the poison. Upon Foles’ arrival in Jacksonville, so ended his resistance to backup mediocrity, and now, the abyss calls once again.
The 2017 Vikings found their hopes of success kicking with glee when Case Keenum of all people took over indefinitely injured Sam Bradford and shot life into the teams’ remains. His steady play, coupled with the league’s best defense that year, launched the team to a 13-3 record and a NFC Championship appearance (although I’m being a bit generous when I say appearance). Keenum is known by many Texans fans as a harbinger of mortem, but in Minnesota had exchanged his dark mantle for a more lively purple ensemble. Keenum all of the sudden was a literal miracle worker. Like Foles, Keenum’s stunningly effective play was a revelation, but once that ability was fully acknowledged through a fat contract offered by a gullible team, the veneer disappeared.
Much of it was luck of the draw, but all four of these teams designed their offense heavily around appealing to the backup’s strengths, and all of them—excluding the 2018 Eagles—had top ranked defenses with top ranked interception counts. These teams proved that if you either shell out the cash or get lucky enough to find a quality backup and lay trust in his ability by retooling the offense, it can outright save the season.
This is where the graveyard of teams troubled with backups ends. Where does this leave our Houston Texans? Where would they end up buried if the abyss were to set its sights on us?
What We Have Now: The Epitaph of A.J. McCarron
Currently, if the sky were to fall on Deshaun Watson, our interim passer would be A.J. McCarron, who recently inked a one year, $4 million deal to remain in Houston for another season. A.J. McCarron has been a backup in the NFL since leaving Alabama and has had the opportunity to start only five games in his professional career. But, while short of supply, McCarron has proven himself a vital asset. McCarron conducted an impressive performance while filling in for an injured Andy Dalton at the bitter end of the Bengals’ 2015 season, stamping a 2-1 record and nearly winning the Wild Card game against the Steelers (if only Vontaze Burfict hadn’t attempted to decapitate Antonio Brown).
In fact, McCarron impressed so many in his brief stint of playtime in Cincinnati that the Browns nearly packaged a second and third round pick for him at the 2017 trade deadline. Although, as a signature Browns’ move is sure to accompany ineptitude, this trade fell through. Marvin Lewis explained in dumbfounded fashion, “Never heard of a trade getting derailed by lack of paperwork.”
After a dead trade, McCarron bounced around the league as a player seen by many as a potential starter, perhaps resistant to the backup woes. Briefly visited Buffalo, got traded to be the Raiders second stringer, cut in 2019 to save $5 million, and since then been a Houston Texan.
Since adorned in our colors, McCarron has only started one game, the finale to the 2019 season when Deshaun Watson rested for the NFL Playoffs. He, again, played acceptably (56.8% Cmp, 225 Yds, 1 Int).
Similar to Case Keenum, McCarron isn’t going to resuscitate any team with his heroics, but he’s probably not going to cause any sort of cataclysmic event with his shortcomings. He’ll likely play as well as the sum of the team’s parts. Unfortunately for the Texans, we do not have a top ranked defense that can nearly carry a team to the promised land like the 2017 Vikings did. If the Vikings’ D was a well-oiled machine of turnover differential, the 2020 Texans’ defense is a factory of depressants with some potential given heavy tuning. It will only be able to soften the burden to a mild degree for McCarron, meaning this team would hang around in many games, but would eventually get absorbed by the encroaching maw of backup woes and ultimately lose several vital contests. This would likely prepare the 2020 Texans for burial in either Tier 2 or even Tier 3 if McCarron plays worse than his 2015 form. Although overlord Bill O’Brien has displayed talent in the art of masquerading milquetoast quarterbacks into starters, I couldn’t see this team with this schedule scrounging up more than 6 or 7 wins without its franchise player. Pray to the football gods that Deshaun Watson doesn’t take a weird hit or twist his ankle.
But, there has to be another option, right?
Gazing Into the Abyss
Right now, the best free agent options left (or the only ones worth considering for this exercise) at quarterback are Drew Stanton and Colin Kaepernick, with potential trade options being Colt McCoy and Case Keenum. The only quarterback here that could even serviceably replace the Watson-shaped hole is Kaepernick, a proven dual-threat with deep-passing ability. Kaepernick is hard to even consider an option due to being practically exiled for protesting police brutality, not to mention he hasn’t played a down in the league since 2016. Unless Houston were to make a move, the best option left is... yes… the re-acquisition of Case Keenum. At this point, if we’re deciding between Keenum and McCarron, the winds have already whispered the death of a season.
Note: Keenum actually signed a 3 year, $18 million contract with the Browns in March, and McCoy signed a 1 year, $2.25 million deal with the Giants. Originally, based on some outdated information I was using from Spotrac’s free agent QB listing, I thought both of these players were still free agents. This article has been edited to reflected their present availability as trade targets.
The bus stops here! The tour of modern quarterback pain and suffering has come to an end, and I am sadly no more at ease than I was at the beginning. We’re now only more aware of how exceedingly vital Deshaun Watson is to the success of this team. Of course, you never plan to lose your elite signal caller, and it’d be ridiculous not to design your offense around their specific strengths. As those that have gazed into the abyss of backup mediocrity will tell you, you’re only ever as good as your second string quarterback.
What do you think? Can the Texans would survive with A.J. McCarron under center? Or do you believe we’d drown in mediocrity faster than the 2017 season? Let us know in the comments below!
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