HOUSTON — Watching Deshaun Watson move around the field, it’s easy for Houston Texans coach Bill O’Brien to sometimes forget his young quarterback is nine months recovered from knee surgery. During a training camp practice on a sunny morning in August, Watson runs around during team drills, eluding rushers and carving up the defense.
Watson hasn’t had an “aha” moment when he felt like he was officially back from his knee injury. And he’s happy about that.
“It felt normal,” Watson said of his return and jumping right back into practice. “It felt natural. It didn’t really bother me at all. I didn’t really think twice about it. I’m just kind of going out there and performing, playing and practicing.”
Deshaun Watson, who has torn the ACL in both knees during his football career, says he is back to full speed:
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Now healthy, Watson is focused on taking a step forward from his stellar rookie season, when he was on pace to put up historic stats and shatter the rookie record for passing touchdowns. When he tore his right ACL in early November, Watson had thrown for 1,699 yards with 19 touchdowns and eight interceptions. At the time, his 21 total touchdowns led the NFL.
While it’s of course impossible to know whether Watson would have continued at that incredible pace, it was clear to the coaches they were watching a special talent — one who is only just getting started.
Last season, O’Brien and his staff adjusted the game plan on the fly after bringing Watson in for then-starter Tom Savage at halftime of the season opener. Now they have had an offseason to build the playbook around their playmaker, with O’Brien calling the process a collaborative effort between him, the staff and Watson.
“It’s a lot of fun to coach a guy like Deshaun,” O’Brien said. “He soaks up the knowledge, but then he has his own ideas [and] his own creativity on what he sees on different packages that we do, which we really enjoy talking about those things. When you have a guy like Deshaun, you can be creative because of his skill set.
“He can do so many different things. It’s hard to label — he’s an excellent passer, obviously he’s got great athletic ability, he’s got a very unique way of playing the game, and so we have to design it around his strengths.”
ACL déjà vu
Watson spent much of his offseason at the team’s revamped workout facilities near NRG Stadium, pushing himself to recover from the noncontact injury he suffered in practice.
“It’s been long days, early mornings, late nights, tough times, mornings where I didn’t want to get up and drills that I didn’t want to do,” Watson said. “But I stuck through it.”
He got through the arduous rehab, in part because he’s been there before. In a practice at the end of November during his freshman season at Clemson, Watson tore the ACL in his left leg. He said going through the rehab in college — with a shorter recovery window before the beginning of the next season — helped him this time around.
“I understood the preparation and the work that I had to put in to kind of get back to where I’m at today and be able to perform like I was performing before,” Watson said. “Just the daily grinding and kind of taking it one speed at a time, one day at a time and just [trying to] move forward from there.”
When Clemson coach Dabo Swinney recalls the first time he saw Watson back on the field after he tore his ACL, he says he quickly became aware he wasn’t going to have to ease his quarterback into practice.
“I saw a player that went and took the field with no fear, and he was confident in his knee,” Swinney said. “And I’m sure he’ll be the same this year. He was ready to go. Literally. We had a really tough schedule right out of the gate and he was full speed. I saw it in camp early on. He wasn’t hesitant at all.”
And now, Watson says, “I don’t even think about [my knee].”
Watson isn’t going to let another torn ACL force him to modify how he plays.
“My game’s not changing,” he said. “Whatever you [saw] last year is going to be the same, if not better. I’ve dealt with adversity before, had injuries before. I didn’t let that slow me down. It just changed my attitude about the game.
“A lot of people would think that I’d come back hesitant, but I’m going to make sure I come back more forceful and with a stronger and more intense attitude.”
That was certainly the case at Clemson.
“He was ready to go come August, full speed,” Swinney said. “And then went on to play in two national championships and 30 straight games his sophomore and junior year[s].”
The Texans hope he has a similar comeback this season, leading them to where they’ve never been before: an AFC Championship Game.
Expanding the playbook
Of course, it’s easy to look at Watson’s numbers from last season and extrapolate his stats to historic numbers. But the truth is he made some mistakes, and the rest of the league has had time to study his film this offseason.
“My game’s not changing. Whatever you [saw] last year is going to be the same, if not better.”
Texans QB Deshaun Watson on what to expect from him this season
“He’s a mobile quarterback much like our quarterback [Marcus Mariota],” Tennessee Titans cornerback Logan Ryan said of Watson. “He’s able to make plays with his feet and extend plays. He’s one of the best in the league at doing that. You have to do your job a little longer and cover a little longer, because you never know where he might end up.”
Said O’Brien in March: “All these teams, especially in our division, have watched all those plays. They’re studying those things and we have to start from scratch and start building a new offense.”
But what does that mean exactly? According to backup quarterback Brandon Weeden, O’Brien’s playbook hasn’t changed that much since Watson took the reins. However, the Texans might be more aggressive in utilizing every aspect of O’Brien’s scheme now that Watson is more comfortable in his second year.
“It’s just finding what Deshaun [Watson]’s most comfortable with,” Weeden said. “And if you watch the games that Deshaun played in last year, you can really tell that they kind of tailored [the offense to] what he was comfortable with … kind of molding it that way.
“The guy’s so talented. He can make all the throws, he can do everything you need him to do in this offense.”
To make Watson more comfortable, the coaches studied his snaps from last season to see what they could add. And O’Brien said there were a lot of plays they didn’t get to use last season before Watson was injured. The Texans pulled ideas from several different offenses at the college and pro level, and O’Brien talked to Watson about plays he’d run in the past.
“It was really just a lot of influences coming from a lot of different places,” quarterbacks coach Sean Ryan said.
During spring workouts and organized team activities, the Texans were able to experiment, and as they get closer to the regular season, they are working to narrow down which plays will be in their plans.
“I wouldn’t say he’s trying to change something that wasn’t broken, but he’s just saying that we were very simple last year,” Watson said of O’Brien. “And with me being in the system for a whole year and having an offseason, there’s a lot more that we can do with the offense than we did last year.”
O’Brien has been hoping to do more with his offense since he took over as head coach in 2014, but before Watson, he didn’t have a quarterback who could execute. O’Brien is entering his fifth year in Houston, and after Watson starts the season opener, he will have had five different quarterbacks open the season. In the past four seasons, nine different quarterbacks have started a game for the Texans.
O’Brien hopes that trend stops with Watson, and developing an identity on offense is a big part of making sure his quarterback is successful.
“As you go through training camp, [O’Brien] gets a feel for, what really are we?” Ryan said. “What are we good at? What’s our identity? And I think the longer you go into camp, the more you kind of figure that out.”
So what exactly can the Texans do to take advantage of those strengths? Last season, the Texans expertly utilized pre-snap motion and post-snap misdirection.
“[The Texans used] different backfield looks that opposing defenses weren’t accustomed to seeing compared to when Tom Savage was under center for Houston,” ESPN analyst Matt Bowen said. “And really it’s a lot of shotgun, a lot of pistol … it’s almost like an offset I [formation] out of the pistol. A lot of two-back looks and even some three-back looks.
“All that does is it grabs the attention of the defense. It forces your eyes as a defender to wander a little bit. And now … you’re just saying, ‘What’s going on? Why is the wide receiver motioning into the backfield? What are they doing?’ And a lot of it was window dressing to create throwing lanes for him down the field.”
There’s a rhyme and reason behind every motion and shift, whether it’s getting an additional player to the point of attack or exploiting a weakness in the defense. That’s something Watson believes gives him an advantage.
“OB [O’Brien] and the staff do a great job of just kind of switching things up, putting different looks for the defense to kind of think about to try to get them in a bind and put us in the right position,” Watson said. “So, everything we do on offense, every misdirection, every indicator that we have, is for a reason — to see what the defense is in and make sure we’re in the right play.”
Last season Watson was deadly on play-action passes. Despite playing in only seven games, he led the NFL with 11 touchdowns off play-action. The two who tied for second with 10 touchdowns off play-action — Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins — each played a full 16-game season. According to Pro Football Focus, Watson saw a 8.8 percent jump in completion percentage when using play-action, which also led the NFL.
Two reasons for Watson’s play-action success were his mobility and the personnel around him, because what receivers DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller and Bruce Ellington do before the snap helps elevate the play-action running game.
“What I would do if I were Bill O’Brien is expand even more on the misdirection,” Bowen said. “Add more jet sweeps. They run a little bit of jet. But add more jet to get more eyes going the wrong way. Expand on your play-action game.”
The Texans would not ask Watson to carry the ball as much as he did at Clemson because of the toll it would take on his body — he ran the ball 207 times as a sophomore and 165 as a junior — but sprinkling in a few quarterback-designed runs and jet sweeps has helped Watson set up the play-action.
“When they motion that wide receiver into the backfield, they can run with an old-school triple option,” Bowen said. “They give Deshaun Watson time to go into the quarterback mechanics of the play-action to set his feet … to knowing where that window’s going to be and delivering the football on time.
“There are small details they’re doing to expand on the modern pro passing game and cater more to Deshaun Watson. I think it was awesome coaching. I give a lot of credit to Bill O’Brien and his staff for installing that so quickly and recognizing how to tailor the game around Deshaun and how to use the weapons in the game plan to facilitate even more production.”
It’s easy to watch a training camp practice and be impressed by the way Watson looks in team drills, especially given his injury history. But the truth is, until he plays in a real game again — and he’ll get a big one to start as the Texans open the season on the road on Sept. 9 against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots (1 p.m. ET, CBS) — it will be hard to know if Watson can pick up where he left off a year ago.
O’Brien has often talked about the important jump players need to make between Year 1 and Year 2, after their first NFL offseason. For Watson, a major focus has been his knowledge of opposing defenses. The hope, Watson said, is the knowledge will “slow down the game” and allow him to figure out what is coming when the ball is snapped, leading to quicker decisions.
Watson took a big step forward after his freshman season at Clemson. He began his sophomore year as the starting quarterback and completed 67.8 percent of his passes for 4,109 yards with 35 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Swinney thinks he can do it again.
“He’ll be just physically even more prepared for the NFL than he was last year,” Swinney said. “I think that will be a big jump. And then just the fact that he’s been there and done it and it’s not the first time for him, I think just his confidence will be even higher and his awareness of what’s coming and what he has to do to get ready week in and week out … because again, it was his first year last year going through the NFL calendar and that journey.”
O’Brien smiles when he’s asked if he gets excited thinking about just how good Watson and this offense can be in 2018 if the group can stay healthy. He and Watson have made it clear the success the young quarterback had a year ago has no bearing on what they are working toward now — “Every year is different,” O’Brien likes to say — but if Watson can continue to build upon his rookie season, he could put on a show every week.
“Now he can see what he can do and what he can’t,” Bowen said. “And that’s a lot of the growing process at the position. I don’t want to say it’s trial and error, but you find out what you can and cannot do. The throws you can and cannot make. The throws you need to adjust, or the pocket you need to attack. … He will take those proper steps to correct these mistakes going into Year 2.
“You’re not really pro-ready as a rookie. And some guys have phenomenal rookie years. … But this year he’s going to be more mature and his overall football awareness is going to rise dramatically, in my opinion. That’s a great thing to have. If I was his coach, I’d be extremely excited to watch him play this year and watch him compete.”