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WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. — Deshaun Watson is both behind Tom Savage and light years ahead. For while Savage clearly has a better grasp of the Houston Texans offense at this moment, Watson clearly has the It Factor that so many quarterbacks never achieve. (Here’s looking at you, Kirk Cousins).
No one’s getting Watson’s name wrong. He’s arguably recognized almost more than even J.J. Watt in his college football mad region that’s hosting the Texans training camp. This is Nick Saban country (the Alabama coach is a West Virginia native) and Watson’s last-second gut punch that yanked another national championship away from the stern one looms large. Even on days when Watson makes mistakes (and I witnessed a two interception training camp day that had some yelling out, “Rook!”) his talent jumps off the field.
The zip on his throws. The quickness of his take-off-from-the-pocket darts (even at an at-best, no-pads half speed). More importantly, his teammates already clearly believe in him.
“His ability,” linebacker Whitney Mercilus quickly shoots back when asked what stands out to him about the franchise savior in wait. “You’ve seen it out there on the field. Him being able to run, make some of those throws out there. It’s impressive… his arm. Also, his composure as well is very impressive for just a rookie.”
Even O’Brien himself is getting into the act, giving Watson the kind of praise he’s given few players ever this early in training camp. Especially a first-year player.
“Deshaun, for a rookie, is really way ahead of any rookie quarterback I’ve been around,” O’Brien says after the sixth practice of training camp on Tuesday. This jaw dropper of a soundbite comes virtually unprompted. When O’Brien delivers it, the coach is responding to a question on the offense that’s as general as could be.
O’Brien clearly wants to say something about Watson. Could he be laying some early groundwork to set up pulling a Pete Carroll later and naming a rookie as the unexpected starter coming out of the preseason? (See Russell Wilson in 2012, who was way more of an out of left field selection than Watson would be.)
It’s nice that Houston’s ultimate NFL guru John McClain has taken it upon himself to be Tom Savage’s one-man cheerleading squad. It’s neat that McClain keeps insisting that Tom Savage will be the starter all season barring injury, but it’s not all that realistic. It certainly doesn’t give O’Brien’s own quarterback handling history or Watson’s playing time history enough weight. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney once didn’t think he’d start a first-year player at quarterback either. Watson changed Swinney’s beliefs — and he’ll change O’Brien too.
The Texans didn’t boldly trade up to draft a game-changing quarterback talent to put their Super Bowl visions in Savage’s capable, but unremarkable hands. Will Fuller breaking his collarbone in Wednesday’s practice, and removing his game-changing speed from the equation for months and maybe all of 2017, hurts both quarterbacks. But it doesn’t change the overriding truths.
O’Brien — the best coach the Texans franchise has ever had — is not playing for tomorrow. Not with all those questions about what he wants to do in the future still swirling around in the shadows. Do you really think O’Brien wants to consider leaving Houston without knowing what he truly has or doesn’t have in Watson?
And do you believe Bob McNair, the Texans’ 80-year-old, cancer survivor owner, wants to play for a far-off, best-chance future? McNair is flattered by the statue they want to build of him. But he yearns for a Super Bowl ring. The clock’s ticking toward the Deshaun Watson era.
“I’m just playing my role, and, like I said before, when my opportunity comes I’m going to take advantage of it,” Watson said in his one media session of camp so far.
DeShaun Watson Changes the Rules
The Savior spoke on the third day of Texans training camp. Everyone knows O’Brien customarily likes his rookies to be seen and not heard, and only heard in cliches when that talking sin’s unavoidable (just ask Doctor Clowney about that). But these rules clearly seem to be a little relaxed for Watson already.
You do not mute the future of face of your franchise.
Watson’s Texans No. 4 is already the fifth-best selling jersey in the entire NFL. Watson ranks behind only new Oakland Raiders running back force Marshawn Lynch, some guy named Tom Brady and two Dallas Cowboys (Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott) in the entire league.
This isn’t just empty popularity. Watson earned it by being the type of college football star that the sport seldom sees (he’s Tim Tebow and Vince Young big with pro talent). His teammates already respect him in ways that it takes many quarterbacks years to earn. With quarterbacks it sometimes is simple.
Deshaun Watson is The Man — and the Texans need one.
Tom Savage is a caretaker. Deshaun Watson’s a rising star. Do you really think the choice will be that difficult in the end?
The ground work’s already being laid. If you just listen.