The Thread: The Texans have Deshaun Watson... now what?

It was another heartbreaking Sunday for the star QB. Huge decisions loom in 2021 and Houston cannot screw this up. Here is Watson’s personal QB coach, Quincy Avery, on what the Texans must do.

Sunday should’ve been a game ripe with playoff implications for the Houston Texans. They had the rival Indianapolis Colts, at home, in December. They are a team with a star quarterback who’s only 25 years old, who’s already reached the playoffs twice, who has been one of the most dazzling players to watch this season.

Only, nobody on the national level has seen Deshaun Watson much at all this season outside of a Thanksgiving Day carving of the Lions.

Only, this game Sunday didn’t mean zilch because the season was lost long ago.

Watson was marvelous again. Watson calmly side-stepped a blitzing Darius Leonard to rifle the ball downfield to Keke Coutee for 64 yards. His running back missed the pick-up. Leonard, one of the league’s most ferocious linebackers, barreled in untouched. And Watson hardly flinched. Why would he? This is the kind of play he’s made look easy from Day 1. One play later, he sprinted in for a touchdown.

Then, down 26-20, Watson led a furious eight-play, 73-yard drive in the final 1 minute and 21 seconds. He steered the Texans all the way down to Indy’s two-yard line where he… fumbled. The snap was low, he couldn’t control it and the Texans lost. He took this one hard, too. Watson apparently stayed on the field for an extended period of time with a towel draped over his head.

It’s been that kind of season for one of true faces of this league. Statistically, you can put his numbers up against anybody (he’s second in yards and fourth in passer rating) yet here the Texans are at 4-8. Sunday was yet another reminder that the Texans absolutely have to get this right. Miraculously, they landed a legitimate star with the 12th overall pick in 2017. But what have they done around him since? Not a ton. The defense is full of holes. The Canton-special receiver (DeAndre Hopkins) was sent to Arizona. Bill O’Brien was canned. Soon, the Texans will need to hire a new general manager, new head coach and remake the roster around Watson.

It’s a fascinating dilemma.

Anybody who objectively loves this sport is hoping the Texans don’t botch this. The Texans have one of the best players in the NFL and they cannot screw this up.

To get a sense for what they should do next, I touched base with Quincy Avery. He’s been Watson’s personal coach since high school and meets with him weekly to meticulously dissect his game. Nobody on the planet has a better grasp of Watson’s spectacular gifts than Avery — we previously chatted for this story on Watson in August 2018 and this profile on Watson in October 2019 if you want to check those out.

Soon, the Texans will start to rebuild a franchise around Watson.

If the goal is to maximize their transcendent talent — and it’d be borderline crazy not to — what should the Texans do? Avery has some thoughts. Our brains are wired to think it’s best to hire a GM, first, and then allow that GM to hire a head coach. To Avery, that isn’t the best order of operations with a talent like Watson.

“I think they have to figure out who is the head coach who best fits Deshaun and the things he wants to do,” Avery says, “that sets him up to be successful both as a play-caller and as an organizational leader. And then from there, they should find a GM who can work around the things that the head coach wants to do. Find people who fit to that system. Not vice versa.”

Avery hears the Texans are instead leaning toward hiring the GM first.

A “poor decision,” he says, if you’re hoping to maximize Watson’s abilities.

“This has to be quarterback-centric. And GMs don’t think about things that way,” Avery says. “They think about team-building — X, Y, Z — and that’s important but Deshaun has shown he can play at the highest level no matter what the structure of the system around him is. Now, if he gets into system that really makes it about showing his greatness? Allowing him to be great? Then, I think you’ll see somebody who can carry the team to a championship level with that around him. You need a head coach who knows, ‘This is what we need for Deshaun to be successful.’ I think GMs look at it like — ‘Oh, draft picks,’ those sorts of things — not ‘How do we make the best player on our team better? And we win based on that.’”

Figuring out who really runs the show on teams can be tricky but, when you look around the NFL, some of the best quarterbacks are in systems where it sure appears the head coach is judge, jury and executioner. Andy Reid, above all, is the standard. He runs the show in Kansas City with his fingerprints all over personnel and the playbook.

Whoever takes over in Houston will have a rare set of gifts to work with at quarterback.

Avery commends OC Tim Kelly for opening things up more post-O’Brien, but he believes Watson has mostly excelled in spite of his offensive scheme since entering the NFL.

“The offense was set up for somebody like Tom Brady,” says Avery, referencing O’Brien’s time with Brady as an assistant 2007-2011. “It didn’t necessarily blend his amazing ability to run and escape out of the pocket but also be precise from within the pocket. He’s one of the few people who can do both things. You’re going to need a head coach who understands, ‘Let’s create an offense that truly requires a defense to defend 53 and a third (yards wide). Every single blade of grass on the field.’ A lot of the things that Mahomes can do as far as pushing the ball vertically and moving inside the pocket, those are the same things Deshaun does but the offense doesn’t create the same level of stress.

“They have two of the fastest receivers in the league. Defenses should be stressed out in terms of ‘How are we going to defend these guys?’ and they haven’t done that to a good enough level. But Deshaun has those tools. He can see things early and get the ball out when you bring pressure. And then if you give him time — if you bring three guys like the Patriots just did — he’s shown the ability to pick you apart. Like, let’s figure out a system that blends those things together.”

Watson hasn’t been in a system that accentuates those gifts. Making this Priority No. 1 in Houston would seem to be wise.

Avery believes this 2020 season has been Watson’s best to date and that, oddly enough, the Texans trading Hopkins might’ve been the best thing for the quarterback. That sounds insane, of course. Hopkins has 10,067 yards and 60 touchdowns since 2013. Hopkins is the one who hauled in that Hail Mary for the Cardinals between three defenders. But the day that infamous trade went down — March 16, 2020 — Avery had a feeling this would actually help Watson. He knew losing Hopkins would force the QB to evolve. To grow.

Watson would no longer be able to default to chucking it up to Hopkins whenever he was in trouble.

Says Avery: “Just not having that safety blanket available to him where he can fall back on, ‘Ahhh, if I don’t do this right, I can just get it to Hop. I can just make a throw to Hop and put him in a situation where he can make a tough contested catch.’ He’s had to be so diligent and so consistent with not only his footwork but his reads and pre-snap knowledge and his study throughout the week going into a game. When you have to be that dialed in each and every week and be precise in all the things that you do, it creates a situation where there’s nothing to fall back on. The onus is on you.”

We’ve seen this before, too. When Brett Favre lost Sterling Sharpe, he won three straight MVPs.

The result here? Watson has completed 68.8 percent of his passes for 3,542 yards, 24 touchdowns, only six picks with a 110 passer rating, 331 rushing yards and three more scores. If the Texans were 8-4 instead of 4-8, Avery knows Watson would be an MVP front-runner right there with Mahomes which is why he says Watson would “undoubtedly” be on Mahomes’ level with the right head coach pulling the strings.

“If you put Deshaun in Kansas City and Patrick with the Texans,” Avery adds, “I think the Kansas City Chiefs would be just as good.”

Which leads us to the obvious question: Should the Houston Texans’ next head coach be Eric Bieniemy? He has been Reid’s offensive coordinator in Kansas City the last three seasons. He is part of the best offense in football. Part of Mahomes’ success. Granted, you never know who is responsible for what behind the scenes. Matt Nagy was Reid’s OC before Bieniemy. Nagy supposedly helped Mahomes develop in his redshirt rookie season. Now, Nagy’s hot seat in Chicago is sizzling after the Bears fell to 5-7 on Sunday. His offense ranks 30th in the NFL.

Avery concedes that it’s difficult to gauge how much of an impact Bieniemy has had on KC’s juggernaut offense.

But…

“Here’s what you do know about Eric Bienemy,” he begins. “You know he’s a great communicator. You know guys around the franchise really, really love him. And you know that the way he gives Patrick Mahomes information allows him to be more successful. So, I don’t know what plays he’s calling and what plays he isn’t. But I also think he has a good enough understanding of the things they did in Kansas City where he can get somebody from that family to come in with him to help develop the Texans in order to take some of the creativity that we’ve seen other teams use to be successful.”

Maybe that’s a Kevin O’Connell-type, he adds. O’Connell has been Sean McVay’s offensive coordinator in Los Angeles this season. Avery loves how the Rams utilize their weaponry in creative ways.

All in all, we’ve seen teams botch this opportunity before. Just look at those Colts that Houston faced yesterday.

The Colts hit the jackpot in 2012. Right when they lost Peyton Manning to a neck injury just so happened to be the same year Andrew Luck would become available. Luck was considered one of the best draft prospects in NFL history, and then Colts GM Ryan Grigson failed to build a competent offensive line. Luck was pressured on 1,111 dropbacks in 70 games under the GM’s watch and the resulting injuries led to his shockingly early retirement.

From 2012 to 2015, Grigson drafted three total offensive linemen before Round 7 and Luck paid the price.

Sometimes, football isn’t that difficult.

The Texans need to a strong offensive line. Inking Laremy Tunsil long-term helps.

The Texans must also open up the offense. Empowering a creative head coach just might do the trick.

Nobody will outwork Watson, that’s for certain. In our chat a year ago, I was blown away by how Watson attacks the game. He eats, sleeps, breathes it. He’s still meeting up with Avery during the season to constantly tweak his game. He’s obsessed with the details. And he is now committed to Houston, too, after signing a four-year, $156 million deal in September. With so many issues in Houston, it’s fair to wonder why Watson would re-sign but, as Avery chuckles, “I couldn’t say no to that.”

With the right organizational foundation, that towel won’t be draped around Watson’s head next season.

Massive decisions with massive ramifications await.

On to the rest of what we learned Sunday…

The Cleveland Browns are for real

At first glance, this turnaround does not make any sense. The Browns had Baker Mayfield and Nick Chubb and Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry last year, didn’t they? The star power existed then. And this season, they actually lost Beckham to a torn ACL in October. What in the name of Spergon Wynn is going on? How does a team catapult from the most disappointing 6-10 in NFL history to 9-3 and thinking Super Bowl? Outside of adding one Busch Light-pounding, elbow-dislocating hammerhead, what really changed?

The short answer: Everything.  

It was met with 1/1,000th of the fanfare but, personnel-wise, the Browns improved drastically. They signed tackle Jack Conklin to a three-year, $42 million deal. They added another tackle, Jedrick Wills Jr., in the first round of the draft. They made it abundantly clear that the plan, in 2020, would be to run to daylight. And above all, Kevin Stefanski took over as head coach. The longtime Vikings assistant has been a revelation — you can almost see why Mike Zimmer blocked him from interviewing for jobs years past. On Sunday, the Browns turned the game of the day into a rout by racing to a 38-7 halftime lead, withstood a Titans rally and eventually won, 41-35.

Mayfield was exceptional. The 2018 first overall pick completed 25 of 33 passes for 334 yards and four touchdowns. He would’ve had five in the first half, too, if not for a drop on the first drive.

When he’s cooking, few quarterbacks in the league are better.

The Browns figured Tennessee would be expecting the run — they do lead the NFL in rushing — so they came out throwing.

And that is the Stefanski difference. Before the game, I checked in with one source in Cleveland who couldn’t stress enough just how sharp Stefanski is. He’s a coach who does whatever it takes to win a specific game. He’s not stubborn. He’s not beholden to some philosophy week-in and week-out, and he’s known for making brilliant adjustments. Many coaches don’t realize, for example, that they better change up their run concepts if a team’s taking something away. He does. He adjusts.

Many coaches can beautifully script their first 15 plays. Mike McCarthy, in Green Bay, sure could. Beyond that? Oh boy. When McCarthy would have to be strategic and realize what the defense is taking away? Those Packers teams often reverted to Aaron Rodgers Bailout Mode. As one source on that Packers team once put to me, McCarthy “would just pray and hope Aaron could get us out of it.”

This is not the case with Stefanski in Cleveland.

He is renowned as an “intuitive” coach, too. He can tell when it’s your day. If Chubb’s in a groove, he keeps feeding Chubb. If he sees that the defense is off, Stefanski knows to melt the clock on offense.

As this Browns source puts, it’s pretty simple “but sometimes, the simplest things are what people don’t notice.”

Cleveland sure hasn’t missed OBJ, either. It’s foolish to say the Browns are better without a talent like him but, with OBJ, there was a natural desire to force him the ball. Mayfield could just chuck it up to him — like this throw against the Colts — and Beckham would make a certifiably insane catch. The absence of Beckham has forced the Browns to run more, helped Mayfield play more disciplined (like Watson above) and it’s true you don’t necessarily need an elite wide receiver to win it all.

You could easily make the case that the last team to win a Super Bowl whose wide receiver was its best player on offense was the 49ers in 1994. And even that team had Steve Young at quarterback.

As one top personnel exec put it, look at the Chiefs.

“The Chiefs wouldn’t be historically good without Tyreek Hill,” he said. “They’d still be pretty good. When you have an elite receiver and an elite quarterback, that’s when you get history. But you have an elite quarterback and just good receivers, that dude is still going to throw 40 touchdowns.”

The Browns have a formula and that formula is working.

They Might Be Giants

If the playoffs started today, the New York Giants would host the Seattle Seahawks.

And if the playoffs started today, the New York Giants would wallop the Seattle Seahawks.

It’s crazy. It’s true. What a signature win for Joe Judge in his first year as the Giants head coach. Russell Wilson hasn’t been this flustered all season. The Giants defense, coordinated by Patrick Graham, was in his grill all game. The NFC East has been such a mess this season that it’s been easy to gloss over the Giants. They’re 5-7 but five of those losses were by a touchdown or less.

The Giants started 0-5, stuck together, and are now peaking at the perfect time.

This defense is for real and there’s talent everywhere. Up front, Leonard Williams is everything we thought he’d be when he was drafted by the Jets sixth overall in 2015. He had 2.5 sacks Sunday, including one on a late T/E stunt that helped ice the win. On the back end, James Bradberry has been one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL and worth every penny of his three-year, $45.3 million contract. Bradberry has 16 pass break-ups with three picks this season. DK Metcalf was kept in check. (Side note: It feels like yesterday Bradberry and I were hanging out for a week up to his first NFL game. He’s come a long way from that night in Denver.)

We’ll have more on the Giants this week at Go Long, so stay tuned, but here’s what veteran DB Logan Ryan had to say about Judge, the first-year coach:

“He’s a great coach. Not a good coach. He is a great coach. He is the right man for the job. Extremely tough, extremely fair. And he knows how to adapt. I think this year has been about being able to adapt with virtual meetings, not being able to practice. He knows when to pat us on the back and when to push us farther. I think he’s just done a great of leading, inspiring, teaching and, honestly, adapting with the teams we’re going up against. With gameplans. With the roster. And with the schedule. This year is about being able to adapt. And America has learned that with COVID. It’s about being able to get off your routine. Things may not go as planned. Don’t make any excuses. What happens if this happens? What happens if that happens? I think Joe Judge has done a great job with that.”

Judge, a Patriots assistant from 2012-2019, brought a new level of discipline to the Giants.

Watch one of his press conferences and you might think he’s setting players up for “Bull in the Ring” hitting drills every Wednesday.

As Ryan explains, Judge has struck a healthy balance to keep this team afloat when it sure looked lost at 0-5.

“Joe’s done a great job,” he says, “of balancing a really hardcore Bull in the Ring-type training camp and still saying, ‘We’re pretty beat up. We had an emotional loss. Let’s have a walkthrough on Wednesday and we’ll have our best game that week. He has the ability to know what the team needs in the moment and I feel like a great coach has a pulse on his team. Joe Judge has a great pulse on this team.”

New York hosts the reeling 6-6 Arizona Cardinals next.

No-huddle

  • Hopefully you’ve watched the Las Vegas Raiders’ touchdown to beat the Jets by now. DC Gregg Williams played Cover 0 — he sent the house with everybody in man-to-man coverage and no safety help — and Derek Carr hit Henry Ruggs for a 46-yard touchdown. Instantly, we all assumed this was a team obviously tanking for Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence. But as ESPN’s Dan Orlovsky pointed out, this is how Williams has played Hail Marys in the past. That doesn’t make it right of course and one player himself wasn’t afraid to say how he felt.

    Safety Marcus Maye ripped his own coach.

    “That situation, just has to be a better call,” he said. “We gotta execute, but you gotta help us out at the same time and just being in a better call at that spot.”

    The Jets are a disaster.

  • Taysom Hill started again for the Saints. Against the red-hot Falcons, he threw for 232 yards, ran for 83 yards, scored two touchdowns and, I’ll be a son of a gun, the good folks on Twitter weren’t mocking him. Funny how that works. The Saints are 10-2 and in line to secure homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. Maybe Sean Payton knew what he was doing all along.

  • The Patriots slaughtered the Chargers, 45-0, to even their record to 6-6. We know Bill Belichick-coached teams always peak this time of year. I’m not going to declare them a Super Bowl contender or anything yet but, wow, could Belichick play the Grinch this month. The Patriots have the Rams, Dolphins and Bills up next. Nobody wants to play them right now.

  • If you get the chance, check out wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling and left tackle David Bakhtiari on Aaron Jones’ game-clinching, 77-yard touchdown against the Eagles. MVS hustles to get the key block that springs the touchdown and Bakhtiari is a 311-pound man beating his running back to the end zone.

    There’s a toughness to this year’s Packers’ team, and it starts with Matt LaFleur who was quick to praise Valdes-Scantling afterward.

    “Here’s a guy, I know we targeted him a couple times,” LaFleur said at his presser. “We were trying to draw some stuff up for him to get downfield but he had no catches. But what did you see on that 75-yard run? You saw a guy that was battling his butt off making key blocks down the field. And that is the epitome of team. And that’s what I want us to be all about.”

  • The Miami Dolphins are 8-4. Who in their right mind expected this when they were getting blasted 59-10 by the Ravens, 43-0 by the Patriots, 31-6 by the Cowboys and 31-10 by the Chargers in September of last season?

  • It wasn’t pretty. In fact, it was pretty foul. But the Minnesota Vikings are 6-6 after beating the Jaguars in overtime. If the playoffs started today — (sorry, I hate that phrasing, too) — they’d play at Green Bay. And, remember, the Vikings beat Green Bay in Green Bay not too long ago. A lot has changed since then with the Vikings opening things up on offense, too. Specifically, Justin Jefferson is breaking out more than this front office could’ve ever hoped for. Jefferson is now just the fifth wide receiver in the Super Bowl era to top 1,000 receiving yards in 12 games. The others? Beckham, Anquan Boldin, Marques Colston and Randy Moss.

That’s all for this morn. We’ll be back Wednesday with a profile.

Enjoy Bills/49ers tonight.

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