This star-crossed NFL season lost one of its leading characters Thursday when Deshaun Watsontore his right ACL at Texans practice. For this injury to come days after Watson lit up the Seattle sky with 38 points and hours after the Astros brought Houston a World Series championship feels too cruel. The Football Gods are in a particularly merciless mood in 2017.
In the span of a month, J.J. Watt, Odell Beckham Jr., Aaron Rodgers and Watson have all suffered serious injuries. Andrew Luck, who has not played since undergoing shoulder surgery in January, was officially ruled out for the season Thursday. Perhaps the best running back in the league, David Johnson, was lost before that. Watson's breakout game in New England back in Week 3 was a shot of caffeine for a Texans franchise that has spent its history looking for a quarterback to love. His four games after the loss to the Patriots, cresting with one of the games of the year in Seattle in Week 8, showed that something special was happening.
Watson's 19 touchdowns led the NFL and broke Kurt Warner's record for the most touchdown passes in a player's first seven NFL games. On Thursday, hours before the world learned Watson had been hurt on a non-contact play at practice, he was named the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Month and the AFC's Offensive Player of the Month. Texans coach Bill O'Brien came out of the team's Week 7 bye week showcasing a dazzling array of plays using different pre-snap action, play-action fakes and misdirection plays that made one of the great defenses of this century spin out of control. Watson's uncanny ball-handling and deep passing did the rest.
Watson threw a bucket of ice on all the pre-draft hot takes that claimed Clemson's offense had no correlation to a "pro-style" attack. The Texans averaged an ACC-like 39 points per game over the last five games, while using many of Clemson's concepts. There's no telling what Watson and O'Brien could have accomplished over the rest of the season, which is the shame here. We didn't get a chance to find out.
Fourth-year pro Tom Savage will step back into the starting role that he held during his cameo appearance in the season opener, although it's hard to imagine the Texans remaining competitive in the AFC South beyond this week's game against the similarly forlorn Indianapolis Colts. Watson had done an incredible job covering up some of the Texans' struggles. The weak pass protection was mitigated by all the misdirection and a lack of pure drop-back passing snaps. Savage, on the other hand, is as "pro-style" as it gets, with a big arm and little mobility. After being dazzled by Watson for a month, watching Savage could feel like taking a trip to the Texans' quarterbacking past.
The team's defense, which has understandably not been the same since losing Watt and pass rusher Whitney Mercilus for the season, was not as exposed with Watson scoring so much. The emergence of second-year receiver Will Fuller as more of a complete player this season, as well as DeAndre Hopkins' dominance, figure to be obscured with Watson gone. Their success was directly tied to Watson's aggression and the advantageous matchups he helped create. Look no further than Fuller's 59-yard touchdown in Seattle, when all-world Seahawks safety Earl Thomas reacted to a creative play-action fake by Watson, allowing Fuller to get behind him. The play call is one thing. It's another for Watson to casually move in the pocket to avoid a pass rusher and deliver a strike on the money that traveled over 60 yards in the air.
Despite the team's 3-4 record, the Texans were ranked as the No. 8 team in the NFL in overall efficiency by Football Outsiders and felt like a strong playoff contender with Watson, considering they're facing the fifth-easiest remaining schedule in football. Now O'Brien would do well to get this team to six or seven wins. The AFC South looks like a two-team race between the Jaguars and the Titans, a pair of organizations that have combined for one division title since 2002.
This season is all but lost for the Texans, but it should not be seen as a loss. With apologies to Matt Schaub, the Texans spent 15 straight years in quarterback purgatory, searching for a player who could be the difference between winning and losing on Sundays in January. General manager Rick Smith and O'Brien found that quarterback in April, with their bold trade up for Watson in the 2017 NFL Draft.
This is not the first setback for Watson, who tore his left ACL as a freshman at Clemson in 2014. He returned from that injury to become one of the great collegiate quarterbacks of this decade.
"I talked to Deshaun late this afternoon, and we are disappointed," Watson's college coach, Dabo Swinney, said Thursday. "But he is a person who has had some setbacks in his life and has always come back stronger. Since he went through the rehab before, he knows what he takes. ... I have no doubt he will come back from this. He has the resolve. His work ethic and drive are incredible."
Before this latest disappointing turn in an NFL season full of them, Watson stuffed an entire season's worth of greatness into a short stretch. He gave us something to look forward to.