"Anybody that's been around him for a long time knows he doesn't have any fear. He has no fear."
-- Houston Texans head coach Bill O'Brien on quarterback Deshaun Watson.
While filming a commercial for a local grocery store last year in Houston, Texans All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and Watson -- who first met each other when the quarterback was still in high school -- were on set sitting at a table covered in food. In between takes, the Pro Bowl QB threw a piece of sushi at his No. 1 target. Hopkins proceeded to snatch the sushi out of the air with a pair of chopsticks. For real. No movie magic.
Now that's chemistry.
In 2020, one of the best quarterback-receiver duos in the NFL will no longer be wowing us each and every week. Over the past two seasons, no QB-WR tandem accounted for more touchdowns, and only Atlanta's Matt Ryan and Julio Jones combined for more total yards. Watson will be without Holmes -- forgive me ... Hopkins.
Gone are the hands that didn't drop a pass in 2018. Gone is the player who was consistently double-teamed but still somehow always open. Gone is the massive catch radius and the best sideline footwork in the game.
Only nine times in his NFL career has Watson dropped back and not had Hopkins as an option to throw to. This will be a different world for Watson. You're not going to find a warmer security blanket for a young quarterback than the one Nuk provided. Last season, Watson targeted Hopkins almost a third of the time -- 29 percent, to be exact.
Gone also is Hopkins' superstardom.
This is now, undisputedly, Watson's offense. He is the franchise. And Houston is now Watson's city.
With the sports world on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the trade of Hopkins to the Arizona Cardinals has been debated much longer than anyone would deem appropriate. What isn't up for debate is that Watson is now in the crosshairs of a defining moment in his young NFL career.
O'Brien publicly stated during his pre-draft conference call with the media last Thursday that this is the most talented and complete roster the Texans have had in the "Deshaun Watson era." So what will be the philosophy behind this "DWE" offense suddenly missing arguably the best receiver on the planet?
The system within the passing game won't be revamped, I'm told, but it now relies entirely on Watson to spread the football around equally between receivers, tight ends and running backs. Over the last few years, O'Brien used to openly admit that the Texans were trying to feed the ball to Hopkins as much as possible, and Watson had made similar comments. That mindset and that caliber of pass catcher are gone.
"I don't think you replace Hopkins," O'Brien said. "I think that every year is different. I think that this year's offense will be totally different than last year's offense or the year before. We feel really good about where we are offensively right now with our personnel and what we're going to be able to do."
Houston returns wide receivers Will Fuller, who is extremely talented but injury prone, and Kenny Stills. The Texans replaced Hopkins this offseason with the combination of Randall Cobb, the first true slot receiver O'Brien feels he's had in Houston, speedster Brandin Cooks, who understands the Texans' system from his time with the Patriots, and David Johnson, a running back Houston hopes can be the pass-catching threat he was in 2016 when he caught 80 balls.
"You've got some guys there that I think will show the fans -- and really everybody -- that we have a very diverse group of wide receivers that we're really excited about being able to get to work with."
For this style of distribution football to run through Watson, he has to be able to handle it mentally. In the past, O'Brien has raved about Watson's feel for the game and his gift to never make the same mistake twice. The fourth-year quarterback's ability to learn through trial and error is what sets him apart from other quarterbacks in the eyes of his head coach. So, too, is Watson's memory, which O'Brien calls "excellent." While watching the College Football Playoff semifinal between Clemson and Ohio State last season, Watson knew what plays his alma mater was running before the snap because he still remembers the Tigers' playbook like the back of his hand. So it's clear Watson appears to have the tools to operate this system and style.
"There's very few quarterbacks that you can call a play and you know that the play is going to have a real chance to be successful because of that quarterback, and he's one of those guys," O'Brien said during the playoffs in January. "It's not only because of his skill set, but it's because of his knowledge of the offense, his intelligence, his ability to get us into a good play from a bad play, his knowledge of defenses and his preparation."
Even if changes occur, Houston's system is still very similar to how the Patriots operate their dropback game. It's worth noting that in every season except for the short period where New England had Hall of Fame wide receiver Randy Moss, Tom Brady never truly had a No. 1 receiver who compared to Hopkins. I think people would say this scheme worked pretty well in New England. Those same people would say it worked because the Pats had Brady.
To my knowledge, the Texans are focused on being as precise as possible in how they operate with Watson completely in control. Everyone exactly where they're supposed to be, when they're supposed to be there. No freelancing in your routes. The emphasis this offseason, I'm told, is in the details of the passing game, and that it operates with everyone functioning as one cohesive unit. O'Brien believes this season, because of the current circumstances with social distancing, will be a veteran-driven one. Hence why Watson is now surrounded by a slew of vets at receiver, tight end and running back.
Watson's been a full-time starter for just two years, but he has the fourth-highest career passer rating in the Super Bowl era (101.0). He's clearly still not Brady. No one is. But that doesn't mean he can't play the part. All signs point to his ability to handle the mental challenges. We've witnessed him as a pocket-style passer. He can do it. The Texans also don't want him to lose the element of streetball that Watson's rare talent allows. They trust his instincts, which they love. They also believe Watson can wear both hats.
Cornerback Johnathan Joseph is a former first-round pick and a 14-year veteran who spent the last nine seasons in Houston. He's seen and prepared for a lot of quarterbacks over the years. Joseph told me last week that he first noticed Watson was special during the 2018 season's training camp in West Virginia. Remember, Watson had torn his ACL eight months prior and had just seven career NFL games on his resume.
"Probably training camp up there at the Greenbrier," Joseph said over the phone from his home in Houston. "Me, Kevin Johnson and Kareem (Jackson) were talking and we were just sitting back in awe. I've seen a lot of quarterbacks and you know a lot of black quarterbacks get the stigma, maybe not just black quarterbacks -- I'll say the athletic quarterbacks get that stigma about them that they can't sit in the pocket and throw. Deshaun was just putting on a show. Just throwing these 20-yard darts. I'm just talking about picking us apart. I was telling everybody, 'Y'all wrong. Everybody thinks this kid wants to run the ball. Man, he's going to sit back in the pocket and pick you apart like Tom Brady.' That was amazing to me, to sit back and watch him at that age and watch him throw. He was able to sit back in the pocket and let the play progress and then just sit there and put that ball on a rope. That's special."
Inject O'Brien with truth serum, ask him which NFL quarterback he'd take if everyone were available, and I truly believe he'd say Watson. That's how much OB loves his QB. He sees an exceedingly bright future for one of the most exciting young stars in the NFL. A 24-year-old signal-caller who can execute from the pocket, while still making plays that not only wow you, but show you things you've never seen before. Getting kicked in the eye while scrambling and still throwing a touchdown pass blind. Winning a wild-card game by getting sandwiched between two defenders, spinning out of a would-be sack and throwing the game-clinching pass in overtime.
The fact is, if Patrick Mahomes -- who was drafted just two spots ahead of Watson -- wasn't on a path right now to become the biggest name in all of sports, Watson would be a star more widely discussed in the national headlines of the NFL. The Texans are putting more on him in order for them to succeed, but we need to make it clear: Watson is already very good.
"He's just amazing," longtime quarterback whisperer and Bucs head coach Bruce Arians said last season before playing the Texans. "He's one of my favorite players. Everything that he can do that's designed, but then when he gets into backyard football, he's the best there is, I think, right now, he and Russell Wilson, when they start creating stuff. He's a magical player."
Watson has abilities you can't teach and a moxie that every organization is trying to find. During a recent conversation with an NFC offensive coordinator about the quarterbacks in the 2020 draft, Watson's name came up as barometer. He had scouted Watson coming out of college and said that the quarterback's mentality and ability took Clemson, a very good college program, to a completely different level. He said generational players do that.
"That trait is what we're all looking for," he said.
For the Texans to succeed, that might be what we're going to have to see from Watson moving forward. Accomplishing what he did in the collegiate ranks at the professional level. Putting the Texans' offense on his back and taking an organization that has four playoff wins as a franchise to another level. Of course all eyes in 2020 will be on O'Brien. As general manager, he has built the roster -- and his role as head coach, obviously, is instrumental in how this roster is prepared and plays on the field. But whether the Texans actually win or lose between the lines largely falls on Watson's shoulders now. If you've ever talked to him, you don't doubt for a moment he's up for the challenge. Probably motivated by it.
"When you've been around sports long enough to know when you're out of a game, or maybe not entirely out of the game, but it's not good," Joseph said. "Say you're in the third quarter and you're down 17 points. Some people would think, 'Damn. This a tall task to come up out.' Deshaun is never thinking like that. He's mad. He's like, 'Give me the ball. I'm trying to make something happen.' You can just sense it and it rubs off on people. He's got that natural thing. When something is going on, anything chaotic, you can count on him to make something happen."
When Houston straps on the pads, whenever that may be, we'll see if everything O'Brien has envisioned puts a better overall team on the field. The Texans believe all the research and analytics shows you need layers and layers of really good players to win in January. Not just a few superstars. The Texans may be right or they may be wrong. But it appears they are set up for one superstar to run the show and make it all work.
Watson was compared to Michael Jordan by his college coach. Watson's current head coach essentially traded away Scottie Pippen. Michael never won a championship without Scottie. We'll see if Watson can without Hopkins.