In four seasons, the most difficult Deshaun Watson conversation has always been one of numbers.
Not the typical numbers to measure a player, which have been formidable for the Houston Texans quarterback: 121 total touchdowns (passing and rushing) against 39 turnovers (interceptions and fumbles); a 104.5 passer rating with a 67.8 percent completion rate; and three consecutive Pro Bowls in his past three seasons.
No, that’s the easy part of the Watson conversation. He is placed as one of the league’s top five quarterbacks and justified an extension making him the second-highest paid QB in the NFL, behind only Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes.
The hard part: That has been pretty much everything else defining the Texans franchise over the past four seasons.
Two primary owners. One head coach. One interim head coach. One future head coach still to be determined. One former team chaplain-turned-head of football operations. And lest we forget, an absurd four (four!) general managers in the past 37 months. There were also three different heads of Texans media relations — important community conduits for players — since 2016. And last but not least, a trail of aggrieved current or former Texans stars who have some sort of beef with the franchise. A group that includes multiple defining names that are not Deshaun Watson, including J.J. Watt, DeAndre Hopkins, Duane Brown and even Andre Johnson. When you add Watson to that group, it arguably comprises the top five players in team history.
Now take all of that into account and consider a question staked deeply into the center of the current Texans mess: Should Watson have the power to dictate the path of a coaching or general manager search?
Deshaun Watson vs. Texans has kickstarted an NFL-wide debate
This is a debate happening around the NFL right now, as the eyes of other players, coaches and general managers — not to mention virtually everyone else in the league — have been drawn toward Houston. Not only because it’s rare for a franchise to go sideways so quickly with its cornerstone quarterback, but also because the impasse strikes at the heart of a foundational belief that has shaped the league throughout its history. And that is this: No single player should have the power to direct the hirings of a franchise.
Not even a generational talent. And most especially not when it comes to the head coach and general manager positions, two jobs that should, in theory, be filled with hires designed to outlast everyone on the rosters they are managing and building.
The unraveling between Watson and the Texans appears to challenge that fundamental belief. And it is extending beyond the usual suspects, who have a natural bias toward keeping hiring power in the hands of management. It’s not just coaches or general managers who are wary of what Watson appears to be attempting to accomplish in Houston — it’s also the agents who have a stake in their own coaching or executive clients, or other star players who haven’t been able to swing any significant influence in the hiring process.
In a sense, it has created an undertow of Deshaun Watson vs. an entire NFL system that stubbornly refuses to become a player-driven power center. It’s a larger machine that doesn’t want to be confused with the NBA, where significant player influence over hirings and firings is part of the landscape when it comes to the most elite talent. LeBron James? He can hire and fire coaches and general managers. Tom Brady? He never came close to that kind of power with the New England Patriots.
That disparity is largely based on one NFL belief: No single player, even an elite quarterback, is valuable enough to dictate the leadership cast of a franchise. Even the best players are seen by ownership as short-term employees, and short-term employees aren’t given the power to choose long-term builders and managers.
All of which has made the Watson situation so fascinating. The stance he appears to be taking is arguably one of the biggest challenges we’ve ever seen to long-accepted NFL ideology. Something reportedly along the lines of: You agreed to make me part of the process of two major hires and didn’t follow through. And now the price to be paid is my unwillingness to play for you.
Why Watson’s stance is different from past stars’ power plays
Such a dramatic impasse isn’t new for the NFL, of course. Elite players have seethed at their franchise’s owners or coaches or general managers before. Brady wasn’t always happy in New England. Eventually, he left. Conversely, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers did a slow burn in the final years of Mike McCarthy. The franchise adjusted and Rodgers has remained a part of the plan.
But in neither of those situations with players like Brady and Rodgers did the players win the right to dictate a major hire. In some cases, they couldn’t even win internal arguments over some of the teammates they wanted retained. That begs the questions: Why should Watson be treated any differently? If Brady and Rodgers couldn’t call some shots, then what makes Watson think the Texans owe him anything?
It’s a worthy debate. It’s also one where Watson has considerable ammunition. In the case of Brady and Rodgers, the distinction is simple. When the points of contention arrived with the QBs, it was already after management had proven it could build lasting success without the input of an elite quarterback. Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft didn’t need Brady to tell them how to get it right in the latter stages of his time with the team. And in the case of the Packers and Rodgers, former general manager Ted Thompson drew a successful blueprint that his successor, Brian Gutekunst, learned to understand and trust.
Conversely, what has Watson witnessed in his four years in Houston other than a bad idea factory? He could argue that in the past four years, no other elite quarterback in the NFL has seen more dysfunction, drama and back-stabbing in one place. The four-year trainwreck at the general manager position alone is virtually unprecedented in NFL history. And that’s not even factoring in the level of distrust between former head coach Bill O’Brien and virtually all the important decision-makers Watson saw him work with, from Rick Smith to Brian Gaine to Jack Easterby.
Nor do those situations account for the important players who felt burned by the franchise either personally or professionally. Guys like Hopkins, who was one of Watson’s closest allies before he became oddly and awkwardly expendable. Or Duane Brown, who was the very first team leader who Watson saw cast aside as a rookie, over the veteran’s outspoken displeasure with how management handled the social justice motivations of Black players. Or even Andre Johnson, who was long gone by the time Watson arrived but remained respected by players who were well aware of how he felt his career was largely wasted by the team.
For Watson, that’s a lot to chew on. Then add in the wrinkle of the team allegedly not following through after telling Watson he would be consulted on general manager and coaching hires, and a whole other layer of distrust develops. At some point, NFL ideology gets thrown out the door and it’s easy to wonder how an elite quarterback wouldn’t expect to be involved, if only for his own peace of mind as he grapples with the chaos around him. That’s where Watson’s camp has a strong leg to stand on when it comes to the current impasse. If a player has seen nothing but catastrophic breakdowns in the managerial layer above him, why wouldn’t he want to inject himself rather than watch it all burn? And most especially when ownership has actually opened the door to him taking a part in the process?
Considering the totality of it, Watson has good reason to challenge the norms of how the NFL works. In his case and inside his franchise, those norms don’t seem to work. Management and ownership have been breaking everything it touches.
One of the people paying the price is the highly paid quarterback who doesn’t want to see his career wasted like so many others. Not to mention the rest of the roster, all of which is suffering from the same assembly line of failure in management and ownership, but largely powerless to do anything about it. In a way, Watson represents every Texans player right now.
As one longtime former member of Houston’s executive management texted Thursday night: “I think Watson speaks for so many people in that building that nave no voice. They never corrected the [Bill O’Brien] problems and now they have festered to a point that the first franchise quarterback since 1993 wants to leave town. You just can’t let that happen.”
It’s unclear if the Texans will indeed let it happen, through a decision that will speak to what they value more: maintaining the ideological power structure that they have mismanaged, or letting Watson become a junior partner in decisions from this point forward. And make no mistake, everyone in the NFL is watching.
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