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Deshaun Watson's Impressive Start Leaves Bill O'Brien No More Excuses

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterAugust 3, 2017

Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson (4) during the team's organized team activity at its NFL football training facility Wednesday, May 31, 2017, in Houston. (AP Photo/Bob Levey)
Bob Levey/Associated Press

The quarterback competition in Texans camp is so quiet, all you can hear is the gushing.

"Deshaun is ahead of any rookie quarterback I've ever been around," Texans head coach Bill O'Brien told reporters Tuesday.

John McClain @McClain_on_NFL

I covered Warren Moon from from Day 1 for 10 years. At his 3rd practice, Watson reminds me of Moon n his first camp in 1984. So smooth!

"I don't really know how to articulate what I know about him," Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said in mid-July, via ESPN's Sarah Barshop. "... All those great ones, the Michael Jordans, the Steph Currys, the LeBron Jameses, the Joe Montanas, the Tom Bradys ... there's a uniqueness to them. There's something to them. Yes, you can see talent. But there's this other stuff that you cannot see until you really get around it every day. And that's what he's got."

Swinney would call an incoming freshman the next Alexander the Great if he thought it would improve Clemson's recruiting profile. But O'Brien throws compliments around like cinder blocks, and McClain doesn't invoke the name of Warren Moon unless he's duly impressed.

Deshaun Watson has the goods, so O'Brien and the Texans are just pantomiming a quarterback competition in camp. That's why all is quiet in the West Virginia mountains where the Texans are posted up this summer.

If the Texans were engaged in an actual competition, like the Broncos' battle between Paxton Lynch and Trevor Siemian, your Twitter feed would flood with all-points bulletins after every three-yard pass in a seven-on-seven drill. (Mine would, anyway.) Instead, you almost need to dive into the dark web just to verify that Tom Savage is still alive.

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Savage is indeed alive and, technically, he remains the Texans' No. 1 quarterback. He also has drawn some praise of his own in the first week of camp.

"Tom's had a really good training camp," O'Brien said on the same day as his "way ahead" comment about Watson.

But at the start of training camp, with coaches singing the praises of every player on the 90-man roster, it's important to read between the lines of compliments. Savage, with his 92 career passes, zero touchdowns and substantial injury history, represents the lowest possible bar for a rookie quarterback to clear. Savage isn't the bicycle; he's the training wheels.

O'Brien and the Texans cannot afford a no-holds-barred battle between Watson and a perennial third-stringer. They need Watson in the huddle for the season opener. All of the pressure in this "battle" lies with neither Savage nor Watson, but with the quarterback guru who has never actually guru'd a quarterback.

As impressive as O'Brien's praise of Watson sounded, it also underscored how O'Brien hasn't coached many rookie quarterbacks. O'Brien's cavalcade thus far consists of Savage in Houston and Kevin O'Connell, Zac Robinson and Ryan Mallett in New England. O'Brien-coached rookie signal-callers have combined to throw seven career NFL touchdowns, all of which were by Mallett.

Elise Amendola/Associated Press

O'Brien's credentials as a quarterback whisperer consist mostly of transforming Tom Brady from a Hall of Famer into a slightly older Hall of Famer from 2009-10 and coaxing a stellar freshman season from Christian Hackenberg at Penn State in 2013 when everyone assumed that Penn State would be fielding a glorified intramural team for the next two to three decades. Since then, the coach famous for once yelling at Brady on the sideline has burned through a lot of quarterbacks and an equal amount of quarterback drama:

  • In 2014, O'Brien broke camp with Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback, but the Texans traded for Mallett at the end of August. Mallett replaced Fitzpatrick after Houston went into the bye week with a 4-5 record, only to get injured after a pair of starts. Fitzpatrick returned and proceeded to break his leg in Week 15. Savage entered the fray but promptly suffered a knee injury, which forced professional long reliever Case Keenum to finish the year.
  • In 2015, Brian Hoyer beat Mallett for the starting job in camp. O'Brien then benched Hoyer for Mallett during the season opener before turning back to Hoyer after Mallett went 1-3 as a starter. Mallett went rogue and began missing meetings and flights, earning his release. Hoyer enjoyed a hot streak before suffering a concussion and giving way to T.J. Yates and Brandon Weeden. Hoyer then returned to throw four interceptions in a shutout playoff loss.
  • In 2016, Brock Osweiler arrived as the answer at quarterback, with Hoyer unceremoniously released a few weeks later. You know how that turned out. O'Brien benched Osweiler for Savage in December but was forced to switch back when Savage suffered a concussion. The Texans essentially paid the Browns with a second-round pick this offseason to haul Osweiler away like he was an old sofa.

After the Mallett and Osweiler fiascos, Pro Football Talk painted a picture of the Texans quarterback room that made Glengarry Glen Ross look like a self-esteem seminar. O'Brien has some ingrained bad habits: He changes his mind quickly at quarterback, grows attached to pet-project types like Mallett (and Savage), ruffles feathers when he shuffles quarterbacks and inevitably gets stuck reinserting quarterbacks he previously benched/alienated/possibly fought with.

The Texans went 9-7 through all of the quarterback upheaval each of the last three seasons, which means they probably left a 12-4 season or two on the table if only they had stability and competence at quarterback. O'Brien has deflected blame for the quarterback woes, but while all of the Texans experiments look silly now, they all made sense at the time. Mallett was the Jimmy Garoppolo of 2014, reuniting with the coach who "groomed" him. Hoyer also had a Patriots pedigree. Osweiler was the prize of last year's free-agent class. Even Savage earned some first-round notice before the 2014 draft.

So all eyes, both within the organization and outside of it, are on how Watson is handled. O'Brien cannot afford another failure at quarterback. For once in his career, he must actually develop a quarterback instead of embroiling him in a soap-operatic saga.

Bob Levey/Associated Press

O'Brien could justify starting Savage over Watson based on NFL experience, knowledge of the offense and all of the usual start-the-journeyman justifications. But he already did that with Fitzpatrick and Hoyer, both of whom were far superior journeymen to Savage, before suddenly lurching in a different decision when the season started. And if Savage proves to be nothing more than a mediocre caretaker after four years in O'Brien's system, that will not reflect well on O'Brien.

At least Watson's growing pains come with a built-in rookie excuse. And the Texans, with a potentially devastating defense and loaded skill position corps (despite the Wednesday loss of Will Fuller to a collarbone injury, per McClain), are built to win games while a rookie learns on the job.

Everybody wins if O'Brien plays this quarterback "competition" just right. Watson gets to enjoy a Dak Prescott-esque season. The Texans get a deep playoff run. Savage? He'll be Mike Glennon in free agency next year, cashing in on his four-year tutorial and an old scouting report, even if he never plays a down...especially if he never plays a down.

But if O'Brien hems, haws, scowls and shuffles his way through the season at quarterback, with more mind changes and mind games, he'll be written off as just another Patriots assistant trying in vain to prove he can manufacture his own personal Tom Brady.

So it's good that the Texans are going about their business deep in the Appalachians, where national hype can barely penetrate. Savage gets the nominal first-team reps, while Watson receives the attention and praise. O'Brien gets to keep up appearances that he is carefully coming to a conclusion. Ultimately, there is only one conclusion he can come to.

All is quiet at Texans camp. Too quiet? Not really. For a rookie on the fast track and a coach who can't afford any more self-sabotage, quiet is good.

       

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier. 

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