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The Risk and Reward of Deshaun Watson

By: Andy Cooper

Using STATS X-Info and Research to describe how Deshaun Watson’s electric – and sometimes erratic – play affects the Houston Texans’ offense

Deshaun Watson’s name didn’t occupy national headlines leading up to or during Week 7. No praise, no staggering statistical line unusual for a rookie quarterback, no gushing praise that’s become the norm during his brief NFL career.

Watson finally gave the rest of the NFL a break. And he finally got one of his own – in the form of a Houston Texans bye. That’s seemingly the only thing keep Watson from continuing his rise to NFL stardom.

Watson has becoming the new face of the Texans with J.J. Watt suffering a season-ending injury, putting him at a total of eight games played over the last two years. But can Watson’s electric play help the Texans reach the playoffs for a third straight season?

It didn’t take long for Watson to get an opportunity to show his potential, replacing starter Tom Savage to begin the second half of the season opener. Watson promptly led a 14-play, 75-yard march on his first drive and finished it with a touchdown pass – the first of his NFL co-leading 15 TD tosses. Two other players in league history have thrown for 15 touchdowns in their first six games – Redskins Super Bowl winner Mark Rypien and Hall of Famer Kurt Warner. Five of Watson’s came in a Week 5 loss to Kansas City, and STATS Research shows that made Watson the third-youngest player ever (22 years, 24 days) behind Matthew Stafford and Jameis Winston to throw for five TDs in a game.

None of this seems to shock coach Bill O’Brien and the Texans, who traded up to select Watson with the 12th pick and in doing so parted with their 2018 first-round selection. The two-time Heisman Trophy finalist entered the draft with a long list of accolades, including becoming the only player in FBS history to throw for 4,000 yards and rush for 1,000 in one season, accomplishing the feat in 2015 before leading Clemson to the national title the following year.

Choosing Watson – and deciding to play him almost immediately – has changed the direction of Houston’s offense and the mentality of O’Brien, who did not hire an offensive coordinator this season and calls all of the Texans’ plays. According to STATS X-Info data, Houston threw the ball 65.9 percent of the time last season with the statuesque Brock Osweiler, who finished with only 30 rushing attempts, very few of which were designed.

Watson already has run 28 times and is second behind Cam Newton among NFL quarterbacks with 202 rushing yards, the sixth-most for a QB through his first six games since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. He’d need to average 4.6 rushes over his final 10 games to break David Carr’s team record of 73 set in 2004 after averaging 5.2 in the five games he’s started. Watson’s versatility stands as the main reason Houston is throwing the ball more than 10 percent less than last year (55.6 percent) and why the Texans rank fifth in the NFL in percentage of runs designed for the quarterback at 7.5, according to STATS X-Info.

And there’s little reason to contain Watson to the pocket when he’s capable of things like this.

Watson’s unique skill set has helped open up the Texans’ offense. Watson leads the NFL in touchdown pass percentage at 8.6 when no one else has cracked 7 percent, he’s tied for eighth with 15 explosive pass plays (25+ yards) and ninth with 24 big plays (20+ pass, 10+ run). However, Watson ranked fourth and sixth in those categories, respectively, heading into his bye week.

Watson’s play has contributed to Houston having 21 explosive plays – after finishing with 37 all of last season – and ranking seventh with a 49 successful play percentage this year. The Texans also have improved from -11 to +5 in toxic differential, which is the sum of turnover differential and explosive play differential.

But with all that success will come some growing pains, and there’s no doubt Watson has made and will continue to make mistakes. He’s thrown five picks, his 2.9 interception percentage is 10th-highest in the league and he’s lost a fumble. Watson tossed 32 interceptions in 38 games at Clemson and still is capable of highly questionable decisions, as seen here against New England in Week 3.

Watson stared down DeAndre Hopkins immediately following the faked handoff, then threw a designed deep ball short when pressed with the rush. Instead of moving up into the pocket away from the defender, Watson tossed an errant pass that he wasn’t able to step into and it went for a pick. Plays like this will happen every so often, and some harsher criticisms could come later with Watson being a victim of his instant success.

Watson’s thrilling plays have outweighed any disappointment so far, though, and his offensive supporting cast of Hopkins, Will Fuller V and Lamar Miller have helped along the way. Now Watson has to take this success to date and run with it – sometimes literally – if the Texans are to succeed as they expect.