Week 17. It was a lifetime ago. Deshaun Watson led a game-tying field goal drive against the Tennessee Titans, suturing the score to 38-38 and setting up overtime.
18 seconds left. Three timeouts. One play. 52 yards to A.J. Brown up the seam, splitting two safeties, already in field goal range. Get it where Sam Sloman likes it. He cranks a 37 yard game winning field goal to prevent the AFC South Championship Coors Light from turning into urine. The Texans settle down at 4-12, finishing 2-8 in one-score games, losing the games they won just a year ago.
After that loss, Deshaun Watson sat down at the podium and discussed the culture change that needed to take place at NRG Park from top to bottom.
Deshaun Watson on what he's looking for in new leadership: "It just starts with the energy and the foundation of this program ... there's no real foundation, everyone see it, everyone know that ... it's kinda just up in the air right now, so that's what I'm looking forward to." pic.twitter.com/an8KMhTQ0s— Rivers McCown (@riversmccown) January 4, 2021
From this moment on, the reality binding the Houston Texans has unraveled. The Texans were a team with a star, a top five franchise quarterback, and nothing else. The skill position group is expensive and needs to be adjusted. The offensive line, despite significant investment in both dollars and draft picks, was atrocious once again, so the Texans must hope for internal development and improvement. The defense is devoid of talent and empty; Bill O’Brien allowed top talent to seep from it, their draft picks failed to develop, and free agency money went to the offense instead.
But at least there was Deshaun. The sun at the center of this franchise. The entirety of the organization. As long as Deshaun is here, the Texans are always at worst a year away from being a playoff team again.
Now a supernova is imminent. According to all he reports and rumors, which is a list too extensive to document, Cal McNair told Watson he would have a say in Houston’s general manager and head coaching search, only to ignore him entirely, as Cal, an empty vessel, filled up by Jack Easterby’s insidious spirit, named Nick Caserio as the general manager and ensured Easterby’s unknown role with the organization would continue. No one knows if Caserio will be a good general manager or not, but the optics of how he was hired are ridiculous. Daddy loves you lots.
Shortly after the Texans suddenly hired Caserio, reports and rumors of Watson being unhappy with the Texans leaked. That he’s discussed asking for a trade. Cryptic tweets. Mexican vacations. A long developing head coaching search that didn’t originally include Eric Bieniemy but now includes Eric Bienemy and still hasn’t concluded. Watson having an issue with Cal McNair himself, and the head coaching hire reportedly not being able to change how he feels. Watson wants out. There’s no turning back. The core has collapsed.
What is true and what isn’t true is impossible to tell. As we’ve learned before, there’s some kernel of truth in any rumor pushed out there. It’s undeniable that Watson is unhappy. The extent of misery and the exact source of it is unknown.
The Watson saga isn’t new. It’s an extension of everything that has occurred in the local football business operation since Houston tried, and failed, to sneak Caserio into town to become their general manager back in June of 2019. The instability, turmoil, drama, all of it has been pervading from the Texans since that failure.
During that time, Watson, as the star and core of the franchise, watched all of it occur. He watched Jadeveon Clowney get traded for belly button lint and prospects after Houston waffled on the decision about whether to re-sign him and failed to maximize their value in trade for Clowney. Deshaun saw Houston give up its top future draft capital for Laremy Tunsil, only to find itself in the position they’re in—a bad team rebuilding on the fly without two top 36 picks. Watson witnessed DeAndre Hopkins get traded for an old, expensive, and crappy running back. Throughout it all, Watson said nothing. He kept his mouth shut. He was at a two during O’Brien’s entire reign of disaster.
While he was destroying the franchise, O’Brien never produced an offense that maximized Watson’s skill set, aside from those six hot weeks during Watson’s rookie year in 2017. Watson was brainwashed into thinking three yards on first down is a successful play. Converted into believing Carlos Hyde runs that defenses craved would set up later and easier downfield throws. We’d all watch helplessly as the Texans kicked a field goal on 4th and 1 at Kansas City’s 13-yard line because the Texans didn’t have a play ready, but then failed on a fake punt on their own side of the field and saw a 24-0 lead evaporate in last year’s Divisional Round playoff game. Afterwards, instead of expressing concern or disgust with how the Texans’ season ended, Watson had the following to say:
Deshaun Watson defended Bill O'Brien: "You might have doubt, but there's no doubt. I love that man, I'm gonna play hard for that man. Y'all can say whatever y'all wanna say through all the media and all the writing, but as long as I'm at quarterback he's cool with me." pic.twitter.com/QgbWZ2EmoA— Rivers McCown (@riversmccown) January 13, 2020
The organizational structure in Houston hasn’t really changed in the span of a year. 2019 was the same as 2020. It was Bill O’Brien linking arms with Jack Easterby and running the football team. Watson had no problems with the coaching staff, organizational structure, or culture when Houston blew a 24 point lead in the NFL Playoffs because of the decisions O’Brien and Easterby made. He had zero problems with the coaching staff, organizational structure, or culture when he signed a four-year, $156 million contract extension with $73.16 million guaranteed last fall, ensuring he’d receive another monstrous extension at his age-30 peak.
Those new riches were followed by an 0-4 start. A 4-12 season. Now, Watson is unhappy, even though everything is nearly identical to what it was five months ago. 2020’s 4-12 season was a direct result of continuous atrocious decisions, including the same coaching staff, organizational structure, and culture. Watson spent the previous two seasons playing under the same people and within the same culture. Over that stretch of time, Watson had numerous opportunities to speak up about the path of the team, to make his voice heard, to let the people running the operation know the disdain he had for it. Yet he remained quiet the entire time, at least publicly. The only thing that changed between 2019 and 2020 was the win-loss record. Everything else was the same.
That means one of two things happened. One possibility is that Watson merely played the good soldier. Decided not to be a distraction while all this developed. If that was the case, he should have waited a year to sign that enormous extension. There’s no reason to remain locked into a place you can’t stand or doubt. To those who say he had to protect himself, it’s unlikely a season-ending injury would affect Watson’s future ability to sign a big deal after the 2020 season, based on his age, previous performance, and talent.
The other and more likely possibility is that the firing of O’Brien led to a vacuum of power at the top that was filled by Jack Easterby. Rather than hire someone who knows football, like a Vice President of Pro Player Personnel or a head of scouting, Cal McNair went with a charlatan chaplain. Yet even before the mistake of promoting Easterby occurred, O’Brien was having arguments with J.J. Watt and retaking playcalling duties from Tim Kelly. The team was listless and unprepared to play. Besides, Easterby isn’t a new figure. Easterby has been here for almost two years. The Houston Texans weren’t a fun place to play football before Easterby stumbled up to the general manager role.
These problems have been there the entire time. During the whole ride, Watson stuck with the franchise, kept quiet, and now, suddenly, as the team tries to turn the corner and build around him with an actual general manager, he reportedly wants out.
Watson has every right to want to play somewhere else, and I don’t blame him for it. The team is hilariously built. Expensive, bloated, and hideous, without the third overall and what will probably be the 35th overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft thanks to the Tunsil trade. The team is over the cap and will be forced to make tough decisions. Easterby is still around, forcing you to grab his hands in prayer. This is an organization that will have to hit on nearly all of its decisions just to have the chance to fight for a postseason spot in 2021, even with Watson playing at a MVP level. It’s also a team that’s probably two years away from being Super Bowl competitive. It’s a terrible spot for a franchise quarterback who wants to win to be.
As the Watson rumor mill continues to churn, as everyone sloshes around to the newest pull and push of the internet’s tide, don’t forget that Deshaun Watson signed up for this. The problems that are here now are the same ones that were here when he signed that extension. The failures and distractions are still the same. What’s happened over the last four weeks is no different than the previous two years.
The Texans completely failed Deshaun Watson. They wasted his rookie contract. They lack the draft capital, talent, and cap space, to immediately assemble a Super Bowl caliber team around him. Watson is in a terrible situation, but it’s the same situation that he chose to continue to play in, and it’s a situation he himself partly let occur by not speaking up while the walls tumbled down around him.