After months of coachspeak and preparation, Bill O’Brien chunked his entire gameplan out the window at halftime of the Texans’ first game of the season when he threw rookie Deshaun Watson to the wolves against the Jaguars to start the second half.
Starter Tom Savage had a season debut to forget, going 7-13 for 62 yards, losing two fumbles and being sacked six times. Savage was certainly the victim of a comedy of errors by an offensive line missing its best player and trotting out four sticks in the mud plus a rookie center.
That said, Savage’s own lack of mobility and indecisiveness was the root of several issues. Those two traits are not ideal for a quarterback, but behind a bad offensive line, disaster is imminent. Facing a talented Jaguars defensive line, six first half sacks plus a scoop and score and another fumble plus just 79 total yards of offense plus five drives lasting three plays or less plus two of those going for negative yards certainly counts as disastrous.
Enter Deshaun Watson. O’Brien explained that his decision to go with Watson to start the second half was to give the offense a spark, and Watson certainly delivered in his first drive. The roar of the crowd as Watson entered the huddle was nearly as loud as when JJ Watt exited the tunnel waving a Texas flag.
Watson’s mobility immediately put the Jags on their heels a little bit. The first play out of the half was a shotgun handoff to Lamar Miller to the right side of the line. The threat of Watson taking off in the other direction on a zone read kept the Jaguars defense from selling out on the run and resulted in a seven yard gain, the best run of the game so far from Houston.
Watson’s confidence was evident immediately. Facing his first-ever third down, Watson spread the field wide and made a quick read, seeing DeAndre Hopkins matched up one-on-one with Jaguars’ corner Jalen Ramsey with no help at the second level. Trusting Hopkins to win the battle at the line of scrimmage, Watson squeezed a pass through a tight window on a quick slant with a linebacker running out to the flat for a first down.
Watson continued to feed Hopkins with targets, seven of 12 total on Watson’s first drive. He made plays with his feet, like a nine-yard scamper avoiding pressure on a first down, with his arm, like a sideline throw to Hopkins for a first down, and with both, like his across the body throw to Fiedorowicz on a bootleg for a ten-yard gain.
The play-action fake pop pass to Hopkins for the score was a thing of beauty. Hopkins did an excellent job selling the run with his slow gathering, mimicking a run block, before bursting into the open field. Watson sold the run well himself with an extended hunch with the play fake while keeping his eyes up. The pass to Hopkins was simple and easy, the way the play was supposed to be run.
But even on his first drive, Watson was lucky to say the least. A third-and-20 from the Jaguars’ 30-yard-line went from an incomplete pass to a first down on a questionable roughing the passer call against Jacksonville lineman Yannick Ngakoue. He also forced a throw into coverage towards Bruce Ellington that was intercepted in the end zone by Myles Jack before being overturned due to a correct penalty on Dante Fowler for illegal use of hands.
Over the rest of the game, Watson was sacked four times, lost a fumble and threw an interception, although he did well on the pick to chase down Tashaun Gipson and tackle him at the Texans 27-yard-line. His final stats left something to be desired—12-23 passing for 102 yards with a touchdown, interception, fumble lost and 16 yards rushing.
Watson looked out of sync with his receivers on multiple occasions, most noticeably on the interception thrown Stephen Anderson’s direction, when Anderson appeared to read the coverage one way and Watson another. There were other occasions when Anderson and Hopkins weren’t even looking for a ball headed right towards them. But after a summer spent with a different quarterback throwing them passes, miscommunication is to be expected to some degree, and more practice will help remedy those problems.
More than anything else, Watson looked composed. He was active at the line of scrimmage, audibling out of plays and calling out Mike linebackers. Jacksonville attempted several blitzes to make Watson uncomfortable, and most of the time, he still go the ball out on schedule. This wasn’t a deer in the headlights performance; this looked like a guy with potential but not preparation going out and playing ball.
Watson’s NFL debut was far from perfect, even below average based on his QBR of 39.6. But it could have been worse; look at some of the names below him on that list! Tom Brady! Russell Wilson! Andy Dalton! Tom Savage! Not to get carried away, of course. Watson is talented, and he certainly showed promise and flashes, but whether or not Deshaun Watson truly is an NFL-caliber quarterback will become clearer with more time, both in practice and during games.
Watson is expected to make his first start Thursday night against the Cincinnati Bengals.