SEATTLE -- The loudest, brashest member of the "Legion of Boom" strode across the CenturyLink Field turf Sunday afternoon and came face-to-face with a rookie quarterback sporting a limp in his gait, and Richard Sherman's eyes got wide with excitement.
Here was Deshaun Watson, whose steely play had helped steady the Houston Texans after a long, surreal weekend's worth of strife and soul-searching -- and this was Sherman's chance to deliver a message. As the two players walked side by side during the changeover between the third and fourth quarters of Sunday's spirited clash between the Texans and Seattle Seahawks, the veteran cornerback offered his young opponent some incongruous words of encouragement.
"He was limping because he had hurt his ankle, but you could see the poise and the fight in the kid," Sherman recalled more than an hour after clinching the Seahawks' 41-38 victory with his second interception of the game. "I told him, 'Just keep fighting, man. You're a great player. And I respect your fight. I respect your grind. I respect how prepared you were.'
"He said, 'Yeah, I appreciate it, man. I look up to you.' It was a cool moment. And it was a special game."
The game was special on many levels; first and foremost, because it was the most entertaining three hours of football the 2017 season has thus far had to offer. It also showcased a dazzling duel between a highly accomplished quarterback, Russell Wilson, who built upon a revelatory rookie season and blossomed into one of the league's elite players, and a current rookie who appears to be blazing a similar path. And it featured redemptive performances by players on both sides of the field, most notably Texans receiver DeAndre Hopkins (who was so upset by comments from owner Bob McNair at a recent league meeting that he skipped practice last Friday) and Seahawks tight end Jimmy Graham (whose name was discussed in trade talks, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported).
Given that for many interested observers, the game was considered must-see-TV even before the opening kickoff, it had major letdown potential. Instead, it let millions of football fans in on a secret that has become alarmingly apparent in NFL circles: Watson, the former Clemson star who went 12th overall in the 2017 draft, isn't just good for a rookie. Six starts into his pro career, he's good, period -- and seemingly on the road to being great.
Then Clowney, whose active afternoon included a sack, a forced fumble and two tackles for loss, went a step further: "I don't think Russell's better than him. Why I say that is that Russell can't see over the line. He's gotta get outside and create space to get the ball downfield. Deshaun, he can beat you with his legs, with his arm, or however he needs to beat you."
In fairness, as awesome as Watson was on Sunday, it was the 5-foot-11-with-boots-on Wilson who (at least figuratively) stood taller.
In completing 26 of 41 passes for a franchise-record 452 yards and four touchdowns -- including an 18-yard game-winner to Graham with 21 seconds remaining, capping off his 23rd career game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime -- Wilson looked MVP-worthy. The Seahawks (5-2) moved into a first-place tie with the Rams, a team they defeated three weeks earlier in Los Angeles, and appear capable of making a run at a third Super Bowl appearance in five seasons.
Watson, meanwhile, connected on 19 of 30 passes for 402 yards and four scores while gaining 67 yards on eight carries. He did throw three interceptions, including a first-quarter miscue that three-time All-Pro safety Earl Thomas took 78 yards to the house, tying the game at 7 with 10:08 left in the first quarter. Yet in showing a Wilsonesque ability to extend plays and deliver pinpoint throws under duress, and displaying the poise that carried Clemson to a national championship upset of Alabama last January (after a near-miss the previous year), Watson left a strong impression on his opponents, and left the Texans (3-4) feeling confident that they can mount a charge back to the postseason in November and December.
The Seahawks' defense, after all, isn't used to being shredded by anyone, let alone a rookie absorbing the wrath of 69,025 screaming fans in one of the sporting world's most menacing environments.
"He was magical," Sherman said long after the game, in an otherwise-empty locker room. "It didn't matter if the friggin' '85 Bears were out there today. I mean, that quarterback, he was on point, he was executing, he was doing what he needed to do to get his offense down the field."
In other words -- he looked suspiciously like Wilson 2.0.
"I guess we got a taste of how it would feel to play against that guy," Sherman continued, laughing.
Not so fun?
"Yeah, I see that," Sherman said. "They were dueling, man. [Watson] made plays down the stretch, but so did Russell. Russell matched his every play with an equal or greater play, and that's what you appreciate. He just does what he does. And Russell's not ready to give those rings away quite yet."
At times on Sunday, it seemed as though Watson was hell-bent on seizing them. He and his teammates were clearly a galvanized bunch, having been jolted Friday by the ESPN report quoting McNair, at a league meeting addressing the controversy over continued anthem protests by players across the NFL, as having told fellow owners and league executives, "We can't have the inmates running the prison."
Later that day veteran left tackle Duane Brown, who'd recently returned from a seven-week contract holdout, told reporters the Texans had considered walking out in response. Two players, Hopkins and rookie running back D'Onta Foreman, ended up going home and missing practice. Texans coach Bill O'Brien referred to Hopkins' absence as a "personal day." (On Sunday, a Texans source said Hopkins would not be fined because the receiver's absence had been "excused" by O'Brien.)
McNair twice issued statements of apology, the second time insisting that he was referring to NFL executives -- rather than the protesting players -- when he used the expression. He also apologized in a meeting with Texans players that Brown, following Sunday's game, told reporters had gone "not too well" from his perspective. McNair did not attend Sunday's game; a team source said that even before the controversy, the owner had not planned to come to Seattle.
O'Brien, meanwhile, told his players during an emotional Saturday night meeting that he was behind them "100 percent." His overarching message, according to a source who was in the meeting: "Play for each other. Play together. Play your f------ asses off."
Previously in 2017, none of the Texans' players had knelt for the national anthem. On Sunday, all but 10 of them took a knee, with a reported 36 players participating in the protest, including Watson. It wasn't necessarily a one-off, either. When I asked Clowney if he thought the issue had been resolved following Sunday's protest, he answered, "Nah, I'm not gonna say that, man ... No. It's not."
Said Brown, confirming a report that the Texans' players had considered removing the decals from their helmets: "We thought about it. I didn't know if it was legal or not. Obviously, with everything that happened Friday, we wanted to make some sort of demonstrative statement. In the end, we chose (to kneel). And once that was over, we locked in."
And the key to it all was Watson, from the 59-yard touchdown pass he delivered to Will Fuller on the game's first drive to the short screen that Hopkins (eight catches, 224 yards) turned into a 72-yard, go-ahead score with 4:49 left in the game.
"I'm not that surprised," Hopkins said of Watson's emergence. "I saw him make some throws this offseason that I haven't seen a quarterback make in a long time, especially not on my team. There are times when I'm like, This guy can't be a rookie. S---, the sky's the limit with this guy."
Said Brown: "Man, he's special. I just had to sit back and just laugh a couple of times at some of the plays he made. Just his poise ... This is as hostile an environment as there is. When he makes a mistake, he moves on."
In other words, he's emulating Wilson, whose one major miscue -- an errant throw that Texans cornerback Marcus Williams picked off at his own 6-yard line with 2:49 remaining and the Seahawks trailing 38-34 -- was erased by the four-play, 80-yard drive that the quarterback engineered on the Seahawks' next possession.
Wilson spread the ball to eight different receivers, including one -- his starting tight end -- who *really *needed the targets. Both of Wilson's fourth-quarter touchdown passes went to Graham, whose slump-busting performance came in the wake of coach Pete Carroll's pregame denial that the tight end was on the trading block.
Brown, for one, bought the Watson/Wilson comparison: "Yep, absolutely ... same winner's mentality. They find a way to make plays. To see him do this as a rookie, it's crazy. It was a fun game to be part of."
After it ended, Wilson and Watson had a brief, mutually supportive conversation on the field, and each man praised the other in his postgame press conference.
Watson: "I'm a big supporter of [Wilson] and I love his game and just the person he is. He's a mobile quarterback that makes good decisions. Very good on the run, makes smart decisions, and he's a leader. He's passionate about winning and he's going to compete."
Wilson: "I think [Watson] is a phenomenal football player. You can't get much better than how he is playing right now. I think he showed a lot of grit, a lot of toughness, a lot of great plays. He's been a special player for a long time. I love watching great guys play."
A similar sentiment compelled Sherman, who has forged a reputation as a prickly antagonist on Sundays, to go against type and show some love to Watson as they switched sides following the completion of the third quarter.
"It was a cool conversation," Sherman recalled. "He was great on film ... and much better in person. Our guys were pressuring him, and they were hitting him, and he was not relenting. He was not relenting. That's what you gotta respect about him. He was fighting, no matter what."
And even though Wilson won this round, it's abundantly clear that Watson will be back to fight another day.