The 2017 NFL season got a little darker when Houston Texans rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson suffered an ACL tear last fall. At the time, Watson had taken the league by storm.
He completed 61.8 percent of his passes for 1,699 yards, 19 touchdowns, and eight interceptions in seven games. Watson had the Texans offense running on all cylinders with 16 touchdown passes in the four games prior to his injury. Then the ACL tore, and the Texans’ hopes for the season fell apart. It was all over for Houston by the time Watson underwent surgery on November 8th, 2017.
One year later, Watson has led his team to a 10-4 record and a two-game lead in the AFC South heading into Week 16. The Texans have not been dominant, but they have overcome an 0-3 start to put themselves in the driver’s seat in the division and possibly for a bye.
Watson has been the lead cog of the Texans’ resurgence. He’s completed 291 of 430 passes for 3,592 yards and 24 touchdowns with nine interceptions. Watson’s completion percentage is up 5.9% from 2017, and his interception percentage has improved from 3.9% to 2.1%.
Watson’s body isn’t fully recovered from the injury. Other numbers on his stat line show that he isn’t quite back yet. He’s throwing fewer touchdowns per game, despite featuring a more talented receiving corps than last year. His QBR rating has actually dropped dramatically from 83.6 to 61.0. Watson has also taken 52 sacks in his first 14 games, a slightly higher average than he took last year.
However, it’s his leadership that has pushed the Texans into first place. His steady hand and composure have served as an example for his teammates on both sides of the football.
Watson knows how to win. He did it throughout his years at Clemson, and now he’s at it again in Houston. A franchise quarterback is supposed to be that guy whose very presence inspires confidence. That’s what Watson does.
Two months ago, I would have argued that the Texans had no chance at a deep run into the playoffs. It takes time to fully recover from a torn ACL, and it showed. Watson wasn’t moving well in the pocket, and he didn’t seem as confident. The offense featured some serious talent, but it lacked cohesiveness.
Meanwhile, the Kansas City Chiefs, Los Angeles Chargers,and the New England Patriots rose to the top of the AFC. Both teams feature healthy franchise quarterbacks and excellent coaches. The Texans’ 0-3 start threatened to bury them far behind their rivals before they got into the heart of the season.
Now the Texans rank 10th in total defense (341.5 yards per game (YPG) and fifth against the run (91.3 YPG). Houston is giving up 19.6 points per game, good for fourth in the league. The Texans’ strong defense provides Watson with enough support to overcome some of the offensive deficiencies the team is still working through.
The offense continues to improve as well. Houston has climbed all the way to 14th overall in total offense. The biggest surprise has been the performance of the running game.
Running back Lamar Miller is producing the best season of his career with 917 yards for 4.8 yards per carry (YPC). He’s on tap to surpass his career high in rushing yards exactly when the Texans need it.
Oh, and Watson’s repaired ACL is acclimating more more and more every week. He’s more of a to run now than at any point in the season. Overall, the Texans rank sixth in the NFL with 130.4 YPG.
Together, the defense and the Texans’ running game provide Watson with the support needed to take his team into the postseason.
Wide receiver questions remain
The Texans have one deficiency right now: wide receiver. Will Fuller’s torn ACL took away Watson’s No. 2 receiver. Only two other active receivers have more than 20 receptions this season (DeAndre Hopkins and Keke Coutee).
Enter newly acquired Demaryius Thomas. Houston traded for the four-time Pro Bowler on October 30. He has yet to stand out for the Texans after six games, but his targets have increased in his last four outings. Thomas is the key. He’s lost a step in the last four years, but Thomas is still more than capable of causing matchup problems as the No. 2 wide receiver.
Few quarterbacks command respect like Watson does. He’s got a stout defense and a top running game behind him. The Chiefs and Patriots both have their flaws, and the Texans’ strengths match up well with those flaws.
It comes down to the passing game. If Watson, Thomas, and Hopkins can form a solid rapport, the Texans suddenly move from being a playoff team to a Super Bowl contender. Watson has all of the physical and leadership attributes needed to make this happen, despite just now rounding back into form.
Come February, we may be talking about Watson leading his team into the Super Bowl, not the Patriots, Chiefs, or Chargers.