Deshaun Watson Houdini act wows Wembley crowd as ‘elite’ tag begins to stick

In the Houston Texans first game in the NFL International Series, quarterback Deshaun Watson led his team to a comfortable 26-3 win over London regulars Jacksonville. Josh Edwards was there to see the action unfold and makes the case for Watson’s ‘elite’ QB status.

Deshaun Watson

Though not a ‘prime time’ game (kicking off at 9.30am EST), there were no competing television fixtures, and as Americans guzzled their OJ and coffee and chowed down on their croissants and pancakes, Watson put in a vintage performance, cementing claims that he is now deserving of the ‘elite’ tag. On the day he was 22-of-28 for 201 yards and two scores through the air. Characteristically, Watson also rushed for 37 yards on 7 attempts. In the game in London he was sacked only once, despite facing one of the better defensive fronts in football, did not fumble, and threw no picks.

After the game wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, when asked about Watson’s MVP credentials, talked glowingly of Watson and how his play speaks for itself:

Watson’s journey to this point has been unique. He was a college phenom, riding Clemson’s wave of resurgence and ultimately captaining the ship as the school won its first national title in 35 years. Either way, under head coach Dabo Swinney, who compared Watson to Michael Jordan in terms of his potential for superstardom, Watson broke state records in passing yards, total yards and touchdowns. Drafted 12th overall by Houston, his season ending ACL injury in his rookie campaign prematurely ended a record setting stretch in which he threw for more touchdowns (19) than any newcomer through seven games in NFL history.

Watson is sacked a lot, and that is both his biggest criticism and the Texans biggest concern for his future success. In 2018 he went down 63 times, the most since Jon Kitna in 2006 with the Lions. In his career the total is now 106 and counting. Last season head coach Bill O’Brien was quoted as saying:

“We’ve got to figure that out. He’s getting hit too much. It’s taking us forever to figure it out, but we’ll keep trying.”

One of the solutions has been to shore up an offensive line oft unfairly maligned but ultimately the primary reason why Watson spends so much time on the deck. Houston traded a king’s ransom for Dolphins left tackle Laremy Tunsil as part of a blockbuster which also saw the Texans adding another weapon for Watson in the passing game in the form of speedster Kenny Stills. O’Brien has waxed lyrical about Tunsil since his inclusion in the Texans starting lineup:

“I think that Laremy has added a lot to our locker room, our offensive line. He’s played really well in run and pass, just a really good guy. He’s the same guy every day, got a great demeanour, smart player. I think that was a very good trade for us.”

It’s not all on the offensive line and the scheme as detractors are quick to point out. Watson has a habit of holding on to the ball too long in the fashion of a performer elongating the trick, waiting for the ideal moment for the reveal. His modus operandi in college was to make things happen in spite of pressure, plays breaking down and the potential for turnovers. However, in the NFL this style is exponentially more dangerous given the speed of play and ingenuity of defenses. Watson has openly admitted that he needs to check the ball down more, something he was unafraid to do against the Jaguars on Sunday. His style is evolving too though, highlighted by the fact that since Week 4 he has only been sacked seven time in five games compared to 16 times in the first four.

Like a great trickster turning water into wine, Watson is continually finding ways to turn negative plays and likely sacks into completions and gains. He did so multiple times on Sunday, much to the delight and awe of a comparatively raucous Wembley crowd, buoyed by a strong travelling contingent of Texans. On one occasion when he was in the grasp of Yannick Ngakoue he somehow managed to get the ball to running back Carlos Hyde for an unlikely first down. Minshew mania had its moment in the sun, with plenty of moustaches and headbands on show, but the neutrals soon became enamoured by Watson’s escapability.

Comparisons are ultimately facile but unavoidable nevertheless, forming the basis of considerable debate. Watson is not a rushing quarterback in the mould of Lamar Jackson, nor is he a free-wheeling Aaron Rodgers protege either. He is arguably more balanced than either, whilst not as talented a passer as Rodgers or a runner as Jackson. A more apt like-for-like might be Russell Wilson, though Watson’s physical presence is greater and his elusiveness, though improving, is not yet at Wilson’s level. In college, scouts compared him to Titan quarterback Marcus Mariota more than any other pro-signal caller.

The Clemson product’s maturity and willingness to engage in intelligible football debate post-game is endearing. Ala ‘Magicians Secrets Revealed’, he is more than comfortable describing how and why things turn out the way they do. Far from being ostracised by the players’ community for this candour, Watson is universally praised. After losing to Carolina in Week 4, the Athletic’s Aaron Weiss asked Watson about “the coverage they were playing” and Watson described, in layman’s detail, what he was seeing on the field. It was constructive and refreshing, especially after a loss in which Watson, by his own admission, was not up to scratch. Take note Mr Mayfield, and Mr Minshew, whose 10 second press conference was symptomatic of his frustrations on the day (Two picks and a fumble).

After the game on Sunday, Watson was asked by Daniel Gorelov (Founder, The Touchdown), about how it felt to give fans an insight into the workings of a quarterback’s mind. His response spoke volumes about his self-efficacy:

“Yeah, I mean, it’s just really just kind of putting everyone in what we’re seeing as a football player. Because on TV looking at it live everything is kind of slow motion, but when you’re on the field you have a lot of things going on at once. A lot of process, a lot of information that you have to process before the play is even snapped. And then while the play is snapping really got to know something that the defense is trying to do on a fly motion, you know, while grown men are coming at you and trying to sack you. So, yeah, I mean, it was just kind of a teaching moment for myself and also the reporter that — I think he might be in here, but the reporter that asked that question. That was the only thing, that was it. Not so much of going at him at a disrespectful way, just kind of communicating and having a conversation.”

Deshaun Watson

Asked about his ability to make plays off-script, Watson said he’d been doing it as long as he could remember:

“I’ve done it so much I honestly can’t even do it [remember the first time]. If you go to my hometown and ask people about it, they’re going to bring up peewee football when I was 9, 8, 7 years old, all the way through high school. I mean, they have been seeing it for from 7 years old to 18 years old. Everyone back home that’s been watching me for a long time, it’s normal for them but everyone else is kind of picking up on it now.”

With Russell Wilson’s continued MVP level play in Seattle taking centre stage in the ‘who is QB1 this season’ debates, Watson and the Texans, in a weak AFC South, have an opportunity to fly under the radar. Should Houston be able to shore up a defensive line now bereft of JJ Watt, and should Watson be able to limit the hits he’s become so accustomed at taking, there’s a chance we’ll get to see him play deep into the playoffs. The league will be all the better for it.

One line from Sunday stands out in particular. When asked what the limits are to his magic tricks, Watson responded:

“There’s no limits on that.”

There’s no trick of the mind here. Watson is elite, and we should enjoy being under his spell.

Joshua Edwards

CFB & NFL Analyst

JOSH IS A CFB SPECIALIST, LONG SUFFERING RESKINS FAN AND BUDDING HISTORIAN OF THE GAME BASED IN LONDON. CHECK OUT HIS ARTICLES HERE AND FOLLOW HIM @JOSHWA_1990 ON TWITTER.

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Steve Flynn–USA TODAY Sports, Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports & Josh Edwards (The Touchdown)