Quarterback is the ultimate supply-and-demand position in sports. There are 32 starting spots in the NFL, and at any time, there are maybe 25 quarterbacks completely qualified to take on every challenge inherent to the position at that level.
Maybe 25. In a good year.
So, it’s easy to understand why NFL teams draft quarterbacks higher than their collegiate talent and obvious potential might indicate, and why those players are rushed onto the field before they’re ready.
It happens all the time, and it can be a recipe for disaster—unless the team’s coaching staff adapts its game plans and schemes to what the quarterback can handle at that time, while gradually adding more to the playbook as the quarterback broadens his palette. That’s how the Panthers brought Cam Newton along. That’s what the Seahawks did with Russell Wilson, and it’s what Washington did with Robert Griffin III in his rookie season before everything fell apart.
In the 2017 draft, three teams—the Chicago Bears, Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans—traded up in the first round to get the quarterbacks they wanted. Of those three players, Deshaun Watson looks to the be the first to start for one obvious reason: The Texans don’t have another credible starting quarterback. The misbegotten one-year experiment with Brock Osweiler is a thing of the past, now that the franchise actually gave up draft capital to trade Osweiler to the Browns and get him the heck off their roster.
Last season, the Texans won the AFC South with a 9-7 record. They had one of the best defenses in the NFL, an above-average offensive line, a fine running game, and a receiving corps that has filled out nicely over the last couple of years. They had everything it took for a deep playoff run, except that their starting quarterback was a black hole of inefficiency. Per Football Outsiders’ opponent-adjusted efficiency metrics, only Jared Goff of the Rams was worse last year than Osweiler, and Goff had every excuse in the book. He was a rookie in a regressive offense with mostly subpar talent around him, thrown into the fire long before he was actually ready to perform at the professional level.
So the Texans jettisoned the worst veteran starting quarterback in the league, and with Watson on board with the 12th overall pick (acquired from the Browns, interestingly enough), head coach Bill O’Brien is left with the choice of an unproven veteran backup in Tom Savage, or Watson.
For now, It’s Savage’s job to lose. Selected in the fourth round of the 2014 draft, Savage got some starting time late last season when O'Brien finally tired of Osweiler's inefficiency, but in his career, Savage has completed 60.9 percent of his passes, with no touchdowns and one interception. It's easy to understand why the Texans were interested in Tony Romo's services before Romo retired, and the move up in the first round to take Watson indicates once again that Savage is most likely the backup in the situation.
The only question is when Watson will take over.
“As a rookie quarterback, it's a big jump,” O’Brien said of Watson’s progression after the pick was made, per Sarah Barshop of ESPN.com. “Tom is our starter and Deshaun will come in and he's going to work hard and we're going to teach him and feed him a lot of information and he'll work at it.”
Why would Watson not be ready to start for O’Brien, despite his obvious talent and collegiate accomplishments? Primarily, because at the NFL level, it’s an entirely different mental game.
“We start him with what we call the basic information section of the playbook,” O’Brien said recently. “How do we huddle? Where do you go in the huddle? If the Houston Texans are on this sideline, you’re on this side of the huddle. If you’re on this sideline, you’re on this side of the huddle. I mean, it’s that simple. It’s that detailed. Then it goes to how we call a play. What’s the verbiage of a play call? Obviously, our verbiage is a lot different than what he had at Clemson, and that’s the same for every rookie that is here relative to their college. It’s like learning a new language.”
During his pre-draft appearance on Gruden’s QB Camp, Gruden gave Watson more verbose play calls than he’d had at Clemson, and asked him to spit them out on the spot. Just because Watson had issues with stuff like “Trips Right 361 Y Stick X Individual” on the spot (which he did), doesn’t mean that he isn’t smart enough to handle the NFL. He’s shown everything a collegiate quarterback can. But he’s now going to deal with a different level of communication.
Gruden also showed Watson the “kill” concept, in which two plays are called, and it’s up to the quarterback to either stick with the first call, kill to the second call or do a dummy count, in which it looks like the play is changed, but it isn’t.
It's fascinating to watch Gruden tell Watson to visualize the formation as he was saying it, and the extent to which that helped Watson catch on. This is likely exactly what O’Brien and his staff are teaching Watson now.
Gruden said in the episode that this level of communication is Watson’s only real barrier between him and eventual NFL success. In many cases, the NFL has adapted to a faster-paced offense by simplifying the verbiage.
This Boston Globe piece by Greg A. Bedard from 2012 detailed how the New England Patriots, who have one of the most advanced offenses anyone’s ever seen, started to cut words out of their play calls because they wanted to run more no-huddle plays, and set the defense on edge. As Bedard wrote, “Flip right, double-X jet, 36 counter, naked waggle, X-7, X-quarter” might become “39 Crack Blow.”
O’Brien was on the Patriots’ staff from 2007 through 2011 before he left to become the head coach at Penn State, so he’s more than familiar with the simplification paradigm. It doesn’t take care of the fact that Watson will now have to keep different levels of calls in his head for any possible situation, but the extent to which O’Brien and his staff are able to meet Watson halfway will accelerate the process by which he’s able to become a credible NFL starter.
As I wrote in March, Watson is clearly more than a one-read prefab option quarterback. But let's examine a few more plays that could provide insight into his professional transition.
Clemson’s offense was absolutely gobsmacked by Alabama’s defense through the first quarter-and-a-half in the College Football Playoff National Championship. The Crimson Tide got easy pressure with four linemen, allowing the linebackers and defensive backs to hang back and undercut Watson’s short passes. Pro Football Focus lists Alabama’s defense with seven sacks, five quarterback hits and 16 quarterback hurries in the game, and frankly, I’m surprised the numbers weren’t bigger. For the most part, if Watson wasn’t throwing a quick pass, he was getting his butt kicked at some point in the play.
Which makes Clemson’s comeback from a 24-14 deficit to a 35-31 win all the more remarkable, and Watson’s ability to stay composed despite all that pressure made the difference.
"You know, I never got the sense that he was rattled," said Alabama defensive lineman Jonathan Allen, who was taken 17th overall in the 2017 draft by Washington, per the Associated Press (h/t ESPN.com). Watson completed 36 of 56 passes for 420 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions against the college defense that most resembles, in personnel and scheme, what he will face in the NFL.
Still, it wasn’t until halfway through the second quarter that the Tigers were really able to do anything, which makes this 26-yard pass to Jorden Leggett (No. 16) with 7:03 left in the first half perhaps his most impressive play of the day. Here, Watson stays composed in the pocket, looks the deep safety off to his left with a couple steps to sell the fake, and makes a well-timed throw to his target just out of the reach of linebacker Reuben Foster (No. 10). In an NFL where quarterbacks face open windows that are much smaller than in college, this play is encouraging.
I also liked this 19-yard pass to Hunter Renfrow with 54 seconds left in the first half. Watson is under pressure from the back of the pocket on both sides, so he has to step up and match the timing of his throw to Renfrow’s out route the boundary. It seems like a simple thing, but considering the pressure Watson faced throughout the game, the way he was able to constantly reset his internal clock was impressive. Watson played a bit too fast in the pocket at times, but this is an example of what Allen was talking about—he just didn’t get rattled.
Speaking of pressure, here’s Watson’s 24-yard touchdown pass to Renfrow with 7:10 left in the third quarter. Renfrow does a lot of work after the catch out of a drag route, but it’s Watson who stays composed in the pocket against a six-man blitz. Given the level of protection he generally got throughout this game, a lot of college quarterbacks would have either dumped the ball off or bailed out of the pocket, especially against the patience it takes to wait for a longer-developing route.
The more I watch Watson, the more I like the way he’s already got a strong pocket presence, and it’s something that can be developed over time.
That’s not to say that Watson’s game is perfect and completely NFL-ready just yet. Though he’s not the one-read quarterback some think he is, there were a couple times in the Alabama game when he clearly missed linebackers dropping into coverage. Here, with 48 seconds left in the first half, linebacker Rashaan Evans (No. 32) drops back into intermediate coverage, and Watson targets Renfrow over the middle. But it’s clear from the low trajectory of the pass that Watson is throwing the ball unaware that Evans is in perfect position to deflect the ball—which he does.
If O’Brien starts Watson in his first NFL season, what will that look like? Watson potentially gives the Texans' coaching staff the ability to do all kinds of things they never could have with Osweiler, and those things don’t fit Savage’s game. Savage doesn't have that kind of mobility. With Watson, Houston can run various option looks with running backs and receivers moving in and out of the backfield. Run-pass options, a current craze in the NFL, which give the quarterback the immediate option to take the ball or throw it based on the defense, would be ideal for Watson’s game, because he ran so many iterations of them in college.
O’Brien will have to keep it somewhat simple at first, but that is not a knock on Watson. It's an acknowledgement of the reality that most quarterbacks face a learning curve when they hit the NFL. But in Watson’s case, there’s enough to go with in the short term, and enough to build on over time, to start him sooner than later.