The Neverending Heat-Check of a Rookie QB

For Deshaun Watson, DeShone Kizer, Mitch Trubisky and Patrick Mahomes, that 24/7 job-interview life ain't easy. As B/R Mag discovered, it's actually this hard.
photo of Tyler Dunne Tyler Dunne @TyDunne NFL Features WriterOctober 13, 2017

There's a smooth certainty to how Deshaun Watson thinks, speaks, moves. The world witnessed this Sunday night against the Kansas City Chiefs. He nimbly sidesteps pass-rushers, spins 360 degrees out of impossible traffic jams, resets and rifles the ball with ease. You hear it with his ever-calming tone when he's behind the mic. Friends say they can even sense it in text messages.

The fate of the Houston Texans—present and future—now rests on his shoulders, and yet all he exudes is calm. It's always been that way.

He didn't panic before his winning touchdown pass against Alabama in the title game of last season's College Football Playoff. No, he told one of his father figures afterward there was zero doubt in his mind Clemson would score when the play call came in.

"I was at peace," Watson told Jack Waldrip, who first connected with Watson through a friend at the local Boys & Girls Club. "I knew we were about to win.'"

A few months later, the Browns passed on him—twice!—in the NFL draft. The Jets passed on him, and the Bills passed on him, and it seemed like the entire NFL must've been in a coma every Saturday the previous fall. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney wanted to punch a hole through the wall. Mom was sad for her boy. Waldrip was "stunned." Yet Watson hardly reacted to any of the 11 players picked before finally his name was called. He was the one easing everyone else's minds. Why stress? He knew he was a bad man who'd shine anywhere, anytime, and is now making any team that had a chance to pick him and passed on the opportunity pay for its sin.

He wants to show them what everyone in Houston already knows. That Deshaun Watson doesn't just change your offense. He changes your franchise. "That's the impact this guy has," Swinney tells B/R Mag.

Watson was selected 12th overall by the Texans in the 2017 NFL draft.
Watson was selected 12th overall by the Texans in the 2017 NFL draft.(Getty Images)

It's what every team dreams of when it selects a quarterback in the draft. It's also what every rookie quarterback dreams of when he's drafted.

But not every quarterback or team will see those dreams realized. The vast majority won't. Swinney warned NFL teams, publicly, that passing on Watson in the draft was the equivalent of passing on Michael Jordan, but teams have heard that type of hype before.

We see this annually. Some teams are terrified to take a quarterback. Others reach. Some teams hurl handpicked saviors into the fire, only to see those saviors burn in the flames of tire-fire rosters. Some teams wait. The science is inexact.

Quarterbacks don't get to choose their destination, either. They're forced to play the hand they're dealt, be it pocket aces or a deuce to seven.

So, after four teams took four quarterbacks early in this year's NFL draft, B/R Mag hit the road over the course of three weeks, from Foxborough to Cleveland to Houston, to get some answers:

Is Watson truly special? Are the Browns ruining DeShone Kizer? Is Patrick Mahomes impatient on the bench in Kansas City? And based on his first start Monday night, is Mitchell Trubisky truly ready to play for the Bears after only 13 college starts?

Before the draft, Swinney's voice cut deepest through all the noise. "When you talk about Michael Jordan," Swinney says, "when you talk about Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, when you talk about Kobe Bryant, when you talk about people like that, they transcend the sport. Jerry Rice. These are highly talented and skilled people. But there's a lot of highly talented and skilled people. It's all the stuff you don't see that makes them who they are. Because very few people have that drive, that will to prepare, that will to win, this mental capacity. The toughness. It's just rare."

So, while Mahomes waits, and Trubisky starts, and Kizer starts only to get benched, here's Watson, expected to lead a Super Bowl contender, one that's suddenly 2-3 and has lost defensive linemen J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus for the season.

No pressure, guys.

Foxborough, Massachusetts, Sept. 24, Gillette Stadium

Patriot players take a knee, thousands of fans boo, Deshaun Watson takes the field and those thousands boo again. Then, for three straight hours, the Texans rookie incinerates any concern you ever had about him.

Against the defending champs. Against the best head coach in NFL history.

Matching the best player in NFL history drive for drive.

Watson played well in the Texans' loss to Tom Brady and the Patriots.
Watson played well in the Texans' loss to Tom Brady and the Patriots.(Getty Images)

Oh, Watson doesn't have an NFL arm? Scrambling left, he plants, flips his torso and a split second before getting clobbered blindly heaves a pass to Ryan Griffin for 35 yards. Later that drive, he reads that safety Devin McCourty is overplaying Griffin on his flag route and, no sweat, missiles the ball toward Griffin's other shoulder instead of lobbing a fade. Touchdown.

The two barely worked on this play in practice.

"He's got to know that I'd be ready for that," Griffin says. "And I was."

Oh, Watson wasn't strong enough to survive in the pocket? With five minutes left, he tears through one…two…three…four near sacks and finds running back D'Onta Foreman for 31 yards.

"As I saw him weave out of the tackles, I was like Wow," Foreman says, "but I was also like, Get open! Even if he's tripped up, you have to try to get open because at any moment he'll step out of it and find you—boom, you have a big play."

Players are mesmerized. Watson looks so at ease flicking away these 300-pounders.

"To him," Foreman says, "it's nothing."

“That’s the impact this guy has,’’ Clemson coach Dabo Swinney says of Watson's ability  to transform a franchise.
“That’s the impact this guy has,’’ Clemson coach Dabo Swinney says of Watson's ability to transform a franchise.(Getty Images)

Of course, the Texans eventually lose. Tom Brady, who was already at Michigan the day Watson was born, Sept. 14, 1995, is a hero again. Yet inside the Patriots locker room, stall to stall, it's clear that while the Texans lost this battle, they're gaining momentum along the way.

Franchises wander aimlessly in the woods for decades searching for quarterbacks. Today, a star is born. One cornerback, Malcolm Butler, calls Watson an "up-and-coming Cam Newton." The other cornerback, Stephon Gilmore, calls Watson "more agile and faster" than the Carolina Panthers' QB, a former MVP and the all-time NFL leader in QB touchdown runs.

Those defensive linemen who couldn't bring him down are still mystified.

"All of the scrambling quarterbacks," vet Alan Branch says, "it's hard to compare them because they all have different escape routes, moves. Some of them are really good looking downfield as they're doing that. Others just know how to work a pocket. He's a little bit of all of them."

Rookie Deatrich Wise puts it best: "He holds his future in his hands."

Indeed, he does.

If only it was this clear for Kizer.

Sept. 28, Berea, Ohio, Browns practice facility

This is what a roster under sledgehammer reconstruction resembles. What's left after the offseason wreckage are 21-year-olds, space-filling veterans and blissful ignorance.

But on this day, at least, there is hope. Even at 0-3, several Browns players insist this team can make the playoffs. Their beam of light—be it realistic or hallucination—is the latest Chosen One here on the shores of Lake Erie: DeShone Kizer.

Tight end David Njoku calls him a "beast." Center JC Tretter meets with Kizer three times a week to plot protections. He wants to take as much off Kizer's plate mentally as he can.

The ball fires off Kizer's hand, he says. The poise…steely.

The Kizer who reported to training camp, Tretter adds, was totally different than the player he saw in minicamp. He wasn't timid. He ripped through play calls. He was "demonstrative."

Several of his Browns teammates see Kizer as the potential answer to the team's longstanding issues at quarterback.
Several of his Browns teammates see Kizer as the potential answer to the team's longstanding issues at quarterback.(Getty Images)

So why not throw him into the snaps that matter? Only so much is learned in a film room. It's one thing to philosophize in a lecture hall, and quite another to get your hands dirty in the real world. As wide receiver Rashard Higgins puts it, defenders try to "rip your jugular out" on Sundays, and Kizer is gaining the jugular-ripping reps Trubisky and Mahomes are not. Through it all, Higgins sees someone who's "laid-back," who's "goofy" but will absolutely lock in.

This is a leader who's sniping at teammates for plodding through 11-on-11 reps and making everyone huddle again when only 10 players line up at practice. That's what wide receiver Bug Howard loves. His perspective is rare: He caught passes from Trubisky at UNC in college and is now on the Browns practice squad. He knows going 52nd overall is driving Kizer, that he's trying to "show the world 'I should've been The Guy.'"

And the receiver who believes Trubisky will be on an Aaron Rodgers level in five years isn't shy with Kizer. "I think he knows the talent he has but really can't see what he can be," Howard says. "He's figuring it out."

Wide receiver Kasen Williams sees the quarterback showing up in this building at 6 a.m. By 7, the two of them are breaking down film. They dissect that week's opponent. They identify their own mistakes. Kizer tells him where to sit versus certain zones, how he wants curl routes run, etc. So much goes into the quarterback-receiver relationship, and they're starting, literally, from scratch. One week prior, Williams cut his route at 12 yards when it should've been 10 and Kizer threw a pick.

Running back Duke Johnson could be the kid's best friend as someone who's always open underneath defenses. Then again, Johnson laughs and says he hasn't beaten that into Kizer's head yet. Probably because older receivers—cough, Kenny Britt, cough—keep saying "Gimmie! Gimmie! Gimmie! I'm open! I'm open!" he says.

Johnson knows how difficult Kizer's life is, 24/7, right now.

“He’s got a lot of confidence,” offensive tackle Joe Thomas says of DeShone Kizer, “and we’ve got a lot of confidence in him.”
“He’s got a lot of confidence,” offensive tackle Joe Thomas says of DeShone Kizer, “and we’ve got a lot of confidence in him.”(Getty Images)

"He's been drafted as The Guy who's going to start the turnaround," Johnson says. "Week in and week out, he has a lot of pressure on him."

Johnson thinks it's best for quarterbacks—all players, really—to see others screw up first.

To wait.

"He doesn't have the luxury of sitting behind somebody and waiting and learning," Johnson says. "That's tough for him because he doesn't get to see somebody else go out there and mess up. It's him who's doing the messing up.

"He has to learn on the fly and just figure it out as he goes."

Five years from now? Kizer can be great, Johnson assures, even with this distinct disadvantage.

But right now? Yeah, right now, good luck.

Oct. 1, at FirstEnergy Stadium, Browns vs. Bengals

Moments after Watson accounts for his fifth touchdown of the day against Tennessee 1,300 miles away—tying the NFL rookie record—Kizer faces a 4th-and-9.

One Bengal (Carl Lawson) goes low, one (Carlos Dunlap) goes high, and Kizer is bodyslammed with WWE authority. It's 31-zip. His back is covered in a grass stain. What remains of him, physically and emotionally, trots to the sideline. Kizer isn't thrilled about it, but one drive later coach Hue Jackson yanks him.

Again, he had no help this day.

Britt, the team's $32.5 million receiver, played like a 32-cent receiver. He single-handedly killed three drives with one false start, one trip out of a break and a dropped pass that was picked. Other receivers couldn't get open. The offensive line was more sieve than strength. One Tretter snap sailed over Kizer's head. The defense? Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton resembled Hall of Famer Joe Montana. Kizer? Bad habits he had at Notre Dame only got worse.

On second thought, yeah, Johnson was right.

Other than bruises to his muscles and pride, what was gained? Probably only the revenue at Club 46 in the bowels of the stadium. At this bar adjacent to the tunnel, about 75 patrons numb the pain of 18 losses in 19 games with Leinenkugel and Budweiser and cocktails and wine. A savior appears out of the nearby locker room in the form of chiseled 6'4", 272-pound Myles Garrett. He stops to sign an autograph for one fan's son and strides to the exit.

“He’s been drafted as The Guy who’s going to start the turnaround,” running back Duke Johnson says. “Week in and week out, he has a lot of pressure on him.”
“He’s been drafted as The Guy who’s going to start the turnaround,” running back Duke Johnson says. “Week in and week out, he has a lot of pressure on him.”(Getty Images)

This is the herculean talent the Browns chose over all quarterbacks.

Walk into the Browns locker room, right past the words "Expect to Win" painted on a wall, and it is morgue quiet. The only audible sounds are the zipping of bags, the detaping of ankles, one soft cough, one loud expletive from the showers and equipment managers gently loading duffel bags of shoulder pads onto two large crates. All hope from a couple of days prior feels drained.

When one media relations official hands Kizer a packet of the game's statistics, he hands it back. An icy glare across his face, Kizer strolls his roller bag through the locker room, into the interview room and slips into "execute" and "maximize opportunity" autopilot. The theme: How in the hell do you keep your confidence?

"You learn from the good," Kizer says. "You learn from the bad. You continue to try to improve. The message I live by is that every day is a new opportunity to get better."

No, he repeats, his confidence is not shaken.

Back inside the locker room, dead serious, Williams asserts this team doesn't have 0-4 talent. No, there's "winning-record talent" in here. Eliminate drops, he adds, and Kizer would've looked like one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.

That's the unfortunate variable, of course.

All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones ain't walking through that door.

"Like it or not," Williams says, "we're the ones he's riding with. So it's about us building the confidence in him and continuing to grow it."

“I think he knows the talent he has but really can’t see what he can be,” wide receiver Bug Howard says. “He’s figuring it out.”
“I think he knows the talent he has but really can’t see what he can be,” wide receiver Bug Howard says. “He’s figuring it out.”(Getty Images)

The ones he's riding with have his back, too. Linebacker Christian Kirksey knows Clevelanders are all expecting Kizer to play perfect because he's The Guy but repeats everyone else needs to make plays. Britt labels him "tough," repeatedly, adding that Kizer will never stop fighting. And poor Joe Thomas, the future Hall of Fame tackle who's blocked for 20 starting quarterbacks over 10,000-plus consecutive snaps, miraculously maintains a smile.

Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn and Colt McCoy and Johnny Manziel.

Can he detect anything inside Kizer, anything at all, that suggests he's different?

"He's got a lot of confidence," Thomas says, "and we've got a lot of confidence in him."

The Browns will host the Jets a week later.

At halftime, Kizer will be benched.

NRG Stadium, Oct. 5 and 6, Texans locker room pre-practice

The Texans are thinking Super Bowl, baby.

The expectation is for Watson to do what Texans QBs Matt Schaub and Brian Hoyer and Ryan Fitzpatrick and Brock Osweiler before him could not: tear down those laughable "AFC South Champions" banners in the stadium and raise one that actually matters. Whereas Johnson's voice was laced with a hint of despair, Foreman relaxes in his locker with a sparkle in his eyes.

"I'm like Dabo," he says. "It's hard to put your finger on it. You just know he's special."

All belief in Watson began in that 'Bama win, grew when the Texans saw him in person and became downright contagious when he replaced Tom Savage under center. Watson never screams into a megaphone. Instead, Foreman sees his quarterback in the weight room. DeAndre Hopkins sees his quarterback choosing to stay in on a night off.

"Honestly, I think he can,'' receiver Bruce Ellington says about Watson's ability to become a transcendent star.
"Honestly, I think he can,'' receiver Bruce Ellington says about Watson's ability to become a transcendent star.(Getty Images)

And that playing style alone—knee-buckling tacklers, gunslingin' across his body—naturally rallies.

"It's something he has," Foreman says. "It's something he came in with. Certain stuff you have is built from you growing up playing football and understanding the type of player you are at a young age. … You never can see a switch in him. Even if the game's close, it's nothing. He's always the same person. The moment is never too big for him. He just plays. He's confident in the throws he makes. He's confident breaking tackles. When you're that confident, you can accept whatever comes at you."

What a revelation for this defense. Forever overworked, Mercilus laughs and says defensive players can now chill on top of a Gatorade jug longer when the offense is on the field.

Houston is finished with caretakers at QB. It has a playmaker.

The bar for rookie quarterbacks is typically low—not so here. Moral victories won't cut it.

"A contending team. Of course, it's going to be much different than Cleveland," Mercilus says. "Coming in here, it could be difficult, but he's way ahead of the curve. You can see that, honestly. We saw it in camp. He's made it look easy as far as learning."

The result is a kid having the time of his life. During practices, when a play call sounds like a certain song, receiver Bruce Ellington will often belt the lyrics and the two break into dance. Sure enough, two days later, an hour before Sunday's NBC showdown against the Chiefs, it looks like Watson's prepping for a college intramural game. He bounces on his toes for 20-plus seconds with the entire offense soon circling him to do the same.

“Coming in here, it could be difficult, but he’s way ahead of the curve," Texans defensive lineman Whitney Mercilus says of Watson.
“Coming in here, it could be difficult, but he’s way ahead of the curve," Texans defensive lineman Whitney Mercilus says of Watson.(Getty Images)

Watson makes a point to talk to everybody on the roster, Ellington says. He literally wants to be friends with "everybody." Sporting a black Air Jordan tank top, Ellington doesn't hold back.

MJ? Watson?

Hell yes, Watson can be the Michael Jordan of the NFL.

"Honestly, I think he can," he says. "The way he leads this team and calls plays in the huddle and goes out there and gets the job done? I think he can be."

Oct. 8, Texans vs. Chiefs, Sunday Night Football

At 9:34 p.m. CT, it becomes official. Watt has suffered a tibial plateau fracture in his left leg. His 2017 season is over.

At 9:38 p.m., it is 4th-and-inches and Watson pumps left, rolls right, hits Will Fuller for a touchdown and immediately returns to the steel bench on the sideline to study the drive on a tablet.

The Texans lose, 42-34, but the Michael moments continue.

He escapes a suffocating pocket with a full spin, and Waldrip's words from a few days prior echo: He just sees things other people don't see. No other quarterback reverses field like this; no other quarterback dares.

When an unblocked, 307-pound Rakeem Nunez-Roches barrels down, Watson casually steps to his side, reloads and unloads a 48-yard touchdown to Fuller. Like it's nothing. Like it's expected. Like that text he sent to Swinney a week prior: This is what I'm supposed to do.

Seconds later, Usher's "Yeah!" booms on the speakers, and when the videoboard shows a fan with a gigantic cutout of Watson's face, this crowd of 71,835 that was literally in tears when Watt went down suddenly roars.

Watson and the Texans managed to power on against the Chiefs despite losing J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus to season-ending injuries.
Watson and the Texans managed to power on against the Chiefs despite losing J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus to season-ending injuries.(Getty Images)

Watson refuses to quit. With no shot to win, down 42-26, Watson thinks big picture. He whistles a ball 60 yards in the air to Stephen Anderson, kills the clock, throws a touchdown on the game's final play and converts a two-pointer. While embracing center Nick Martin, Watson surely knows these are the moments that will make him a leader.

Watt is out for the year. Mercilus, too, after he suffered a torn pectoral muscle.

This is Watson's team.

Teammates vow he's ready for that reality. The Texans are uber-protective of Watson, limiting his interviews to brief podium sessions, but he sounds ready.

What's Watson still working on? Easy. "Leadership. On and off the field."

Oct. 8, Texans vs. Chiefs, Sunday Night Football

Around the bend, jammed inside the visitor's locker room, nobody's talking to Patrick Mahomes as the Chiefs locker room clears out. He's stuck behind Alex Smith. When one local television reporter waits to interview Mahomes, a team official cuts in to ask, "You know he didn't play, right?"

Ouch. Mahomes can hear you, man.

After that camera leaves, Mahomes admits this is a "weird deal." He wants to play. Yet he also says nobody on the sideline is more pumped than him after touchdowns.

Although Mahomes wants to be on the field, he realizes he needs to be patient.
Although Mahomes wants to be on the field, he realizes he needs to be patient.(Getty Images)

"As a competitor," he says, "you want to play, but you know where the team is right now with the guy who is the leader of this team playing quarterback. You just have to wait and be patient."

So he marvels at Smith. Mahomes is the first to label Smith an MVP candidate. He says that if he ever does get his shot, all he wants to do is be efficient and move the offense up and down the field.

And, well, he also can't help but marvel at that player chosen two picks after him.

"He looks to me exactly as he did at Clemson," Mahomes says. "Just a guy who's going to go out there, make plays and no moment's too big for him."

Oct. 9, Bears vs. Vikings, Monday Night Football

The next night, Mitchell Trubisky gets his first start against the Vikings, and his arm strength alone revives a downtrodden fanbase.

Right here is a trait quarterbacks of all ages lack: Trubisky zips the ball with high velocity and pinpoint accuracy while on the run. For most of the contest, you'd never guess the guy started only 13 games in college. He hits tight end Zach Miller for a 20-yard touchdown, ties the game with a run himself on a trick play for the conversion and puts the Bears in position to win late.

Mitchell Trubisky made his first start as quarterback against the Minnesota Vikings on Monday Night Football.
Mitchell Trubisky made his first start as quarterback against the Minnesota Vikings on Monday Night Football.(Getty Images)

You could almost hear the narration. Trubisky has the ball at his own 10-yard line with two minutes and 32 seconds to go. This is the birth of a legend.

Until he does resemble an inexperienced quarterback.

Trubisky scrambles again, throws behind Miller, the ball's intercepted and Chicago loses, 20-17. His play injects hope into a franchise that hasn't had a Pro Bowl QB since 1985. But, much like Kizer, Trubisky is also throwing to receivers off the scrap heap. There'll be more growing pains.

Oct. 8, Texans vs. Chiefs, Sunday Night Football

In a pair of bright necklaces, blinding-silver shoes and a shirt that reads "Measure of my dreams," Watson exits the NRG Stadium a loser, again, despite another five touchdowns. He's been must-see TV every Sunday, but now comes the hard part.

Winning.

Swinney isn't worried one bit.

"His ceiling," Swinney assures, "is unlimited."

“He holds his future in his hands,” Patriots rookie Deatrich Wise says of Watson.
“He holds his future in his hands,” Patriots rookie Deatrich Wise says of Watson.(Getty Images)

Because Swinney still cannot make sense of all this. He calls Watson's fall in the draft one of the most baffling things he's been a part of in his life. "There's nothing he lacks," he adds blankly. Whatever Watson accomplishes this year, Swinney promises, will pale in comparison to what he does in 2018 and 2019 and beyond—he won't stop working.

That player leaving the stadium after another bittersweet loss? That's not merely a rising star.

"He can be," Swinney says, "as good as we've seen."


Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.

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