The Texans superstar can diagram a play at a moment’s notice, he’s taken up chess to calm his mind in the huddle and he just might be the NFL’s best QB—if his team can keep him standing.
For a fleeting moment, unprompted at NRG Stadium, Deshaun Watson is transported back in time.
He’s eight years old again.
He’s reliving exactly when he fell in love with football, when the sport’s joy and wonder consumed him and, damn, what an awesome feeling this is.
First, a jolt of adrenaline sent him sprinting across the street from his Harrison Square apartment in Gainesville, Georgia. With the 50 cents he had somehow managed to pinch together through the course of that week, he’d run into the convenience store to buy the local newspaper. He’d then instantly tear apart that paper like a present on Christmas morning, ripping away everything but the sports section. Not to read up on any NFL or college teams, no. Watson was obsessed with the high school football in the area—all of it.
That’s where he found his heroes.
He’d go to as many games as he could in his pocket of Georgia and read about the ones he couldn’t. Then, he’d recreate their offenses every way possible. With a handful of marbles on the living room floor. Outside, chucking the ball into the air and catching it himself. And then, on PlayStation’s NCAA Football, Watson recreated 25 high school teams: LaGrange, Cairo, Gainesville, North Hall, he can still recite them all. Watson didn’t just create teams, either; he’d create the players on those teams. Right down to every minute detail, even one linebacker’s neck roll. Any names those newspapers didn’t provide, he’d Google. Years later, he can still spit out a half-dozen names that 0.001 percent of readers would recognize with Favre- and Emmitt-like awe.
Because Watson could not get enough of the X’s and O’s.
He was enamored by the nuance of each offense, from Gainesville’s spread to East Hall’s Pro I to North Hall’s Wing T to Cairo’s aerial attack. On PlayStation, he found himself always playing as those North Hall Trojans because the Trojans had those famed badass twins, the Wolf Brothers. “Beasts!” Watson says. North Hall’s O-line from high school down to the peewee team he played had “big country white dudes,” and they all ran that unstoppable Wing T.
“I could draw it up for you now.”
Hand him a sheet of paper and he’s in his glory. He meticulously diagrams the Wing T.
“You had a quarterback, you had a fullback, you have the halfback, you have the tight end,” says Watson, speaking rapidly, “the one receiver right here, the receiver here and you have another tight end. You’d say, ‘Set…hut!’ and he’d go here. He’d pull. He’d come here. He’d cut it. These guys would block down. Boom, boom. He’d come out. It was weird how they used to do it. They were so good.”
Watson pops off his chair inside this narrow room and steps back into that three-point stance because he needs to show you, too.
“Set…hut!” he shouts.
It’s impossible to tell that Watson is 48 hours removed from one of the most infuriating losses of his career, one in which he was thoroughly smacked around by the Panthers. But get Watson going on X’s and O’s, and he cannot stop. Yes, he has a life outside of football. There’s fashion. There’s chess. He’ll listen to hip-hop and R&B. He likes honey on his steak. (Take that, Mahomes.) But he is always, always, pulled back to the X’s and O’s. Hence, Watson’s detailed sermon at the lectern immediately after that loss and the hourlong workout he put in with his private QB coach, Quincy Avery, immediately after that sermon.
The man is superhuman. We know that.
But his wiring is far more complex than anyone realizes.
Already, he knows how he wants to be remembered.
“A guy that was a servant leader, who loved the game of football, who respected the game of football, who led the path for other quarterbacks to fulfill their dreams and do what they want to do. Their way. And to be one of the best to ever do it.”
But what if he never gets the chance? At age 24, Watson has endured a lifetime of pain. In Year 1, he tore his ACL. In Year 2, he suffered a broken rib and a collapsed lung. In Year 3, he bruised his back in the opener and has now been sacked 102 times in 29 career starts. This all after a slew of injuries in high school and college. Texans czar Bill O’Brien reacted accordingly at the 11th hour, a week before the 2019 season began, by gutting his draft capital for veterans to help his QB. Now.
Funny thing is, while everyone else panics about his health, his future, his state of mind, Watson has been calm as ever. He’s been meeting with Kobe Bryant and Justin Verlander and doing everything in his power to deliver on exactly what he says.
To be the best ever.
Family was in town, but family time is not an option after a game like this.
After Watson misfired on two critical deep balls in that 16-10 loss to the Panthers, all visitors knew he was in no mood to kick it. Those who flew in for the game flew back home because Watson couldn’t leave the stadium—let alone laugh or joke or even sleep—until he completely cleansed the toxins from his system.
First, at his postgame presser, Watson went viral. Not that he intended to. This was merely a “teaching lesson,” he says, an opportunity to explain the “chess match” within a game. Where his eyes track and why. How he’s taking in information pre-snap, mid-play, post-play. Why it’s “a whole different perspective” on the field when a 310-pounder with sub-5.0 speed is barreling down on you. Simply, Watson wanted to put everyone in his shoes, adding that he believes fantasy football’s explosion has further diminished his profession as nothing but a game when in reality, it’s his life. His livelihood.
His hope was to explain exactly what he was thinking so everyone was further educated. Not patronized with a word salad of platitudes. Tell him that we don’t know s–t in the media, and he laughs and says everyone should be able to learn what’s really happening on the field.
“We don’t go into anyone else’s workspace—like people on social media talking bad about us—saying, ‘You’re doing this and you need to correct this,'” Watson says. “So it’s more so, ‘Let’s put you in our shoes. Because if we switched positions for a day, can you handle this pressure? Can you handle this?'”
Seconds after the presser, he asked a Texans official to contact Avery to get him to the stadium. Avery has worked with Watson since his junior year of high school and typically flies into Houston every Sunday, gives Watson his notes to study, leads him through a swim workout Monday and watches film with him on Tuesday. This day, however, Watson wanted Avery here ASAP because he was consumed by a disgusted “achy feel.” A “very, very … hard feeling,” he says.
Deshaun Watson explains Carolina’s defense in 66 seconds. pic.twitter.com/8Fn4OAKHk3
— Rivers McCown (@riversmccown) September 29, 2019
So Watson rewatched every single snap of a game he had just played in, then hit the field.
Avery wasn’t even sure if this was the best thing for Watson but didn’t ask questions.
Watson grabbed his cleats and a couple footballs and worked on the exact post route he missed from the same yard line for an hour. The clock ticked past 8 p.m. The diagnosis? He was moving a tick too much on those throws. He could’ve “gotten on base” better, Avery says. The throw to Will Fuller was six inches from a touchdown, from a win.
“Time waits for no man,” Watson says. “I have to correct that now.”
The next game, Watson completed 28 of 33 passes for 426 yards with five touchdowns and no picks against Atlanta. His deep ball? Sublime. His cleats? Sent to Canton. The game after that, he outgunned Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City.
To Watson, leadership is simple. “Being able to take ownership,” he says, of “not just the offense—the whole team.” And Watson chucking deep balls after a loss in September was only one minor (albeit very public) look into his endless obsession with perfection, one that included sitting down with Kobe Bryant for an hourlong one-on-one when the NBA legend visited the team in August. Watson grew up idolizing LeBron James, but after this, he is unquestionably a Kobe guy now.
“His mindset, the way he thinks, it changes everything,” Watson says.
They talked life, talked finances and kept coming back to that “Mamba” mentality. Those close to the QB rarely hear him curse. Kobe? Not so much. Yet the F-bombs and bombast and midgame death stares always distracted the world from Kobe’s true intent through his 20-year career, an intent that’s really sticking with Watson.
“Trying to achieve greatness is life or death to him,” Watson says. “It was him not allowing anything or anybody to stop him achieve that greatness. He wanted to win everything. He would compete with everyone. He would have to be an assh–e to people to get the full greatness out of them. So a lot of people say he wasn’t a great teammate, but in reality, he really was because he wanted the greatness out of each and every person on the team. From a guy who’s never on the court. From a coach that don’t say a word. He wanted everybody to be great. And if everybody can be great? You can win a lot of championships.”
Watson has 52 teammates instead of 14, but he’s still trying to bring this Kobe effect to the Texans locker room. His way. He’s learning who prefers a one-on-one setting and who can take getting yelled at in front of everyone. Some people enjoy getting called out. That brings out the best in them.
In response, teammates universally praise Watson’s willingness to approach everyone on the team, like safety Justin Reid, who says Watson recently explained to him after practice how he could’ve disguised a coverage better, could’ve created a better trap, to confuse him if he was across the line of scrimmage.
“We all believe in him immensely,” Reid says. “I don’t know how much people think he knows ball, but he knows ball.”
Indeed, the manner in which Watson talks to anyone one-on-one is the exact opposite of so many stars in any pro sports league. So many view all relationships in life through one prism only: How does this person help me? If the answer is “very little,” then that person is ignored and often cast aside entirely. That’s never been Watson. Dozens who’ve known him swear that if Watson is speaking to you, he prioritizes you, because he wants to make a real difference in peoples’ lives. From donating his first game check to three Texans cafeteria workers whose homes were demolished by Hurricane Harvey to creating his own foundation earlier this month, the stories are legendary. Twelve years after ex-pro Warrick Dunn helped give Watson’s family a home, Watson wants to pay it forward. Avery outright dares anyone to find anybody with a bad word to say about Watson.
Then, last month, one heart-to-heart conversation with Texans executive vice president of team development Jack Easterby sharpened Watson’s approach even more. Easterby, the ex-Patriots character coach, stressed the importance of ranking your priorities in different environments.
Oh, Watson’s always been calm. As he stepped to the line against Alabama in the 2017 national championship, he knew, right then, he was about to throw a touchdown.
Yet Easterby’s words still resonated.
“Like in this interview, my priority right now is being able to communicate with you,” Watson says. “So that’s No. 1. It’s not checking my phone, being on Instagram. Or ‘I need to work out.’ When I’m in the locker room or when I’m in the weight room, I’m focused on working out and getting the best out of my craft, my body. And when I get into the meeting room, it’s about retaining as much information as I can to relate to everyone else on the team, to get on the practice field. While I’m in the stadium, I’m in this environment. It’s football. Then, it’s family.
“People don’t know how to rank those. If I was sitting here thinking about the loss in Carolina, we wouldn’t be having a good conversation.”
If this sounds simple, he assures it’s not.
Too many people, he believes, let problems subconsciously spill from one environment into another, and it poisons their psyche. He cannot have that. No, he needs to constantly challenge his mind. Needs to stay on this one-way quest for knowledge.
Which is why Watson has also become so close to Astros pitcher Justin Verlander. The two eat dinner and watch film together regularly as Watson picks the brain of the surefire Hall of Famer with 3,193 career strikeouts and 239 career wins. To Watson, greatness is no accident. He wants to know what the 36-year-old Verlander is thinking in very specific moments:
Pregame: How he enters a state of mind.
The strategy behind a pitch: If he’s facing a left-handed batter crowding the plate, how exactly Verlander angles a pitch. If he’s facing a batter who’s red-hot, how Verlander baits that batter into blooping a hit to left, where the pitcher shifted everyone to easily throw that batter out.
When he’s struggling: How Verlander cools himself down to refocus.
When he’s striking everyone out: How he remains steady.
Calm is a must for all pitchers, and all quarterbacks. An ability to slow your heart rate down to a crawl when everyone else’s is spiking out of control. Because, Watson has learned, this also “keeps everyone else calm.” Your teammates. Your coaches. Everyone takes their cue from you. Watson isn’t sure where his demeanor comes from.
“It just happens,” he says. “I just be chilling. At times, I get frustrated and upset and might get too happy, but at the same time, I just find my way back to that comfort zone. I’m at peace.”
Dissecting his own mindset to this degree has taken Watson to another level since his ‘Bama moment, so he keeps pushing. Keeps evolving.
This past offseason, he fell in love with chess through a performance coach Avery knows named Seth Makowsky. Watson “nerded out,” Avery says. His first session went on, and on, and on. For three hours, Watson sat amazed at how the pieces moved together, how one affected the other. Suddenly, he was incorporating random chess breaks into his throwing workouts to train his brain. All the chess, Avery explains, helps Watson eliminate wasted thoughts. Now, when he’s watching film, Watson subconsciously cuts out the fluff with his mind, steering only to what matters.
Which leads to plays like his absolute laser of a 37-yard touchdown to Kenny Stills with 43 seconds left in Week 1 at New Orleans.
At a coffee shop in Houston, Avery dismisses the viral press conference clip after the Carolina loss as elementary, as child’s play. This play versus this blitz was chess at its finest. New Orleans hadn’t run that specific pressure all game, but Watson remembered seeing it twice—twice!—on film from last season. So Watson knew, based on the Saints’ even front, that the safety showing blitz to his left was coming in hot, unblocked, and the safety showing blitz to his right was going to bail to deep center. All he needed to do was shimmy toward the right to buy time and, checkmate, he’d hit Stills up the seam for six.
It ended up being all for naught when the Saints came back to win. So there was Watson the next morning in his kitchen with Avery, literally breaking down the second step of his dropback for a full 20 minutes.
His mind’s never been sharper.
Another legacy-defining moment is coming.
If, you know, he’s even standing upright by then.
The bus ride was a secret even to those closest to Watson. After suffering a broken rib and a collapsed lung last season, Watson wasn’t able to fly with the Texans to Jacksonville. A drastic change in air pressure 35,000 feet off the ground could’ve been catastrophic, so off Watson went to play the most violent game on earth via bus.
Watson FaceTimed with Avery midway through that 872-mile road trip, and Avery was confused.
“Why aren’t you…”
“Oh, I had to ride a bus to the game because of my rib,” Watson answered.
“You don’t think you could’ve told anybody about that?”
This is the norm. Watson is chillingly nonchalant in listing off all injuries he’s played through: torn ACLs, collapsed lung, broken rib, broken hand. That back bruise in Week 1? No big deal. He claims to be very healthy…right now. Never mind the fact that a string of injuries eerily similar to this hijacked the career of the quarterback who beat Watson in the playoffs last year. A quarterback who was also considered transcendent, who also fell in love with football just like that eight-year-old Watson sprinting to buy a newspaper: Andrew Luck.
Luck shocked the sports world back in August by retiring at age 29, and it had nothing to do with performance or preparation. Rather, sheer punishment. Like the punishment Watson took two days before his chat with B/R, the eight hits and six sacks against Carolina. So it only seems logical to wonder what Watson thought when Luck told this vicious sport, “Thanks, but no thanks.” He was surprised, but not shocked. He had hung out with Luck at the Pro Bowl and could sense the Colts quarterback was “feeling a certain type of way.”
Watson says he respects Luck’s decision but insists he is not concerned about his own health. He knows how long he’ll play.
“Until I can’t,” he says. “Until I can’t walk. As long as the NFL wants me in it, and I can play and I’m healthy to go, that’s how long I’m going to play.”
There’s a silence in the room.
He stares at you. He lets those words bake.
Ask this, incredulously, and he does not back down. Instead, he tells the tale of playing through a torn ACL as a Clemson freshman because the doctors said playing was an option and the fire burning inside of him was overwhelming. The Tigers had lost five straight to South Carolina so, to him, it was no debate. He threw for two scores and ran for two more, and Clemson won. Dating back to bloody all-tackle pickup games in the streets as a kid, Watson has always attacked the game with a “defensive mentality.” Into high school, several ACC schools even offered him scholarships to play safety.
“I’ve always had that attitude,” he says, “to hit people.”
And the hit he’s most proud of wasn’t the result of an interception, as folklore goes in Gainesville, Georgia. In fact, he completed the pass to a teammate on an out route versus Buford High School. The ball was jarred loose. A safety picked it up and took off. He saw Watson coming, licked his chops, lowered a shoulder to blast through the QB and…
Watson loudly smacks his hands together.
“…I grabbed him. Scooped him. Body-slammed him on his head. Boom! Right on his head!”
Does this sound like someone ultra-concerned about his health?
On Monday morning, when most QBs ache and limp and groan after what’s essentially a three-hour car wreck, Watson never shows a blip of exasperation, never even complains about his blocking. To Avery, to anyone. Which is why Avery cannot see Watson ever walking away with any football left on the table because, he says, it’s in Watson’s “fiber” to compete. Watson needs to wake up every day asking himself, “Who am I competing against?” and “What am I trying to be the best at?”
Adds Avery, “Everybody around him probably worries about it a lot more than he does.”
Hit after hit, injury after injury, feeds the sobering reality that someone should protect Watson from Watson.
Call it panic. Call it being proactive. Watson’s health was absolutely on the mind of Bill O’Brien in trading for tackle Laremy Tunsil, receiver Kenny Stills and running backs Carlos Hyde and Duke Johnson during the preseason. “A big factor,” O’Brien admits. Even though, of course, the moves come with colossal risk. The Texans not only lost valuable picks, but they could lose the players themselves. Tunsil could always choose to not re-sign with Houston after the 2020 season, and letting the tackle walk at this point—after you coughed up two first-rounders and a second for him—would be a fireable offense. Tunsil will strut into that negotiation with virtually all the leverage.
To O’Brien, it was worth it. Watson needed help. Fast. So the gruff, curt head coach doesn’t give a damn that he was mocked and chastised by media and fans alike who viewed this all as a coach who seized power in the front office only to abuse that power by mortgaging his team’s future.
“Nothing against you,” O’Brien says, “but your opinion, to me, I don’t give a s–t. I need to do what’s best for the team.”
That is, clearly, to win now. Schematically, he tries to win with a blend of the deep ball and Watson’s ability to improvise…even as Watson is sacked 3.5 times per game. Mahomes in the Chiefs‘ rhythm ‘n’ flow offense? He’s at 1.6 sacks per game.
Yet Watson never bemoans the reality that he does not have a cushy offensive setup like Mahomes. Instead, he lights up at the mere mention of O’Brien, replaying his predraft visit to Houston with the glow of a Tinder date that led to marriage. There O’Brien was, at the board, teaching him Gun Trips Right 64 Special H Sneak and how to run the play against different defenses. O’Brien’s staff then left the room for 15 minutes, returned and erased the board. Not only did Watson teach it back, but he also flipped it. He intentionally drew the play up to the opposite side O’Brien had taught.
Then, he smirked at O’Brien.
“He looked at me,” Watson recalls, “and said, ‘Did you f—–g smirk at me?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I did.’ They all started laughing.”
Says O’Brien, “The intelligence and the memory and the poise. It’s not easy to come into a room as a young quarterback who hasn’t played pro football and you’re in the room with the head coach and an offensive staff of an NFL team.”
It was love at first sight. And it’s still love. O’Brien reels off all the ways Watson reminds him of Tom Brady, whom he worked with for five seasons: “Passion for the game, preparation for the game, the way that they think the game.” Granted, O’Brien and Brady routinely blew up at each other—probably, he reasons, because they’re both Irish. Watson is more of a “calming presence.”
Personality-wise, the two balance each other perfectly.
Finding a balance on the field is another story.
As O’Brien deadpans, it’s not like anybody here wants Watson to take hits, but Watson has a style of play that is “very unique” and that he is “very competitive.” So hits are inevitable. O’Brien blamed his O-line for only one of those six sacks against Carolina. (Translation: His QB needs to throw it away.) Such is the elusive fine line between giving up on a play and creating.
In truth, O’Brien has no clue if that balance even exists.
“I’ll be honest with you,” O’Brien says. “I don’t know. I think it’s more up to him. You point it out to him, and he knows how long he can hold on to the ball. And he knows how the play is designed. So I think as he gets more and more experience, he’ll learn over time that he probably has to get rid of it a little quicker. At times.”
Ultimately, Watson needs that ball in his hands. It’s how he creates, how he jukes, spins, dances and ducks before rifling a 50-yard spiral on a rope a split second before getting suplexed into the turf. This innate feel, this sixth-sense ability to resuscitate a play over and over again before pulling your heart out is once-in-a-generation.
As Avery says, “You want him to be him.”
Adds Reid: “I know part of him kind of likes it. He kind of likes that contact. It makes him feel in the moment.”
Watson enjoys being both hitter and hittee but does make a point to knock on a wooden table and say he’s been blessed that defensive players seem to respect him as a person and a player in how they hit him. An interesting theory for sure, but Watson believes all of these fire-breathing pass-rushers annihilating other QBs more wrap him up and pull off than outright clobber him.
The ones that do clobber him, that do break a rib or tear a ligament, never shake his psyche, either. Why? It’s because to Watson, football pales in comparison to the toughness he’s seen in his mother, Deann Watson, who was diagnosed with tongue cancer and fought through chemotherapy and radiation and having a section of her tongue removed.
That’s real pain. Real trauma. While most people cannot decipher what Deann is saying today, her son always can.
She’s at every home game. They speak daily.
“Anything I’m dealing with,” Watson says, “she’s dealt with a lot worse. And she’s dealt with it the right way, the humbling way and a respectful way. So I can do the same thing with whatever I’m dealing with.
“She is my rock. She is my peace. Anything I’m dealing with, I just go to her.”
Deann always wanted her son to succeed and fail on his own. She was no helicopter parent when Deshaun was literally helicoptering in HS and college. And yet, still, whenever she talks to Deshaun on game day, somewhere between “Good morning” and “I love you,” she has one minor request.
Be the best you can be. Make sure everybody is on the same page. Protect the ball.
And make sure you get down.
About that steak.
It’s true that Watson douses his in a layer of honey. Before you gag and question why an elite NFL quarterback cannot just savor a steak’s natural juices, hear him out. He, too, thought this combination sounded vile at first. At Clemson, the night before a game at Florida State, Watson joined the defensive linemen for New York strip steak, saw them pouring honey on theirs and asked what in the heck they were doing.
Future Raiders first-round pick Clelin Ferrell—”a country boy,” as Watson calls him—explained to Watson that this was a hidden secret, that a tinge of this sweetness makes a steak just right.
He tried it. He was hooked.
So, sure, he has interests outside of football. Even though he’s terrified of heights, he loves roller coasters. The pure adrenaline rush lures him back to Six Flags every time he’s back in Georgia. He’s religious and was actually baptized in Israel’s Jordan River last offseason. He’ll watch the occasional The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air or Martin rerun, but he’s never watched a second of Game of Thrones or one episode of any TV show the rest of the world has been binging at any given moment the last decade.
Because there’s always one more game to watch on film.
One more throw to correct.
One more hour of chess that’ll get him using a part of his brain he didn’t know existed.
Now, eight-year-old kids are zigging and zagging a pixelated No. 4 on their video games. They’re letting their imaginations run wild like Watson did then. And, really, Watson’s imagination has not wavered. He still has his wonder for football. To him, there’s nothing to “overcome” in Year 3. There is no “challenge.” The goal for Watson is clear: elevate his game to a new level and “bring everyone with me.” He sparked a culture change at Clemson and believes he’ll do it again. Here.
He doesn’t hesitate when asked if he views himself as the best quarterback in football.
“For sure,” he says. “All that. You’ve got to. You respect other people, of course, the greatness of all the older guys. But as one of the young guys in the league? For sure.”
That means…quick math…Watson would put himself ahead of last year’s NFL MVP, Mahomes. He’s trained with him since college. He knows his game.
“So I don’t get caught up in his hype or what he’s doing now,” Watson says, “because my time’s going to come.”
That time may be here.
Against the Chiefs last weekend, down one with six minutes to go, Watson could’ve easily thrown the ball away. It was 2nd-and-goal. There was no need for a free solo act at the goal line. No need to take on an unblocked, 6’3″, 260-pound Frank Clark. Whatever. Watson planted left, cut upfield, spun, took the hit, scored a touchdown. If he’s thinking any other way—if he’s worrying about his health like everyone else—he doesn’t slam that gas pedal.
When Watson got the ball back, on a 4th-and-3, with Arrowhead even louder than before and an unblocked 6’4″, 261-pound Alex Okafor storming in, Watson prioritized this moment above all else, eliminated all wasted thoughts and coolly hit DeAndre Hopkins to ice the win. Knocked to his butt, he sat up and held up a No. 1 with his right hand.
His eye black was a tad smeared. His tongue stuck halfway out. His joy remained undeterred.
Deshaun Watson is having a lot of fun playing football.
Maybe we should all just kick back and enjoy the show, too.
Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.