Do the emotions in Deshaun Watson’s holdout outweigh the incentives?

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

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What was supposed to be a standoff this offseason between Deshaun Watson and Texans management instead was quickly drowned by several lawsuits alleging assault by Watson. At first it appeared that the Texans would dig in and pretend that Watson was going to be a part of the club long-term.

Not only were the Texans saying stuff like this publicly, but they flat-out refused to engage any of the trade talk that hit them from other teams.

Later, as the reverberations of Watson’s many lawsuits began to compile, the Texans backpedaled pretty fiercely on this stance. The Houston Chronicle’s John McClain has put out there to all who are willing to listen that Watson’s request will be granted when a real return can be had, and would have been moved by the draft if that was plausible. Cal McNair put out a lengthy statement on the Watson situation:

It is evident that both sides are tired of each other to some extent. Watson’s been done with the Texans mentally since the hiring of Nick Caserio, and the Texans now treat every inquiry about the status of Watson like saying his name out loud is illegal:

However, what I’m here to do today is posit an idea around this obvious mess: The incentives speak louder than the emotions of the situation. I’m not saying I’ve cracked the code, and I’m in no way reporting that Watson is showing up. However, if you explore the situation a little more thoroughly, it becomes clear that the two sides might need each other more than they have let on. Let’s start by laying out the situation as a whole:

As long as the lawsuits remain unsettled, Watson will not be traded for what he is worth

This sounds obvious, mostly because it is obvious. The Texans can trade Watson today for a bad return, but that is going to be an extremely poor look for a front office that has been deservedly pillaged the last few offseasons. If they get ripped off for one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, this team may not ever recover. Watson is the only real chip this team has at the moment to buy into a better future, one way or another.

And yes, I know that typing this is just a free license to get a bunch of “hurr hurr have you seen their last few trades,” yeah, I get it. I’m not saying there’s no chance. But this is so high-profile that the scrutiny on the Texans if they bungled a return on this trade would be unbearable and might be the breaking point between the fans and the organization.

The lawsuits themselves seem unlikely to settle any time soon

The court systems are backed up even worse than they usually would be because of COVID, the date we have right now is February. A June posting from Tony Buzbee posited that there will be no settlement any time soon. Rusty Hardin, Watson’s attorney, has downplayed the possibility of a settlement from the start. They seem very intent on proving Watson’s innocence in the court of law unless there are certain public provisions provided in a settlement that paint Watson in a good light.

Barring a major change of heart from either side, it seems almost impossible that this will be cleared up this offseason. If you consider how easily court dates can get thrown further down the docket, and how long these things can drag out, that February date in no way seems to lay out a clean path to Watson’s legal status getting cleared next offseason. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t, maybe it will clear up just enough to make teams feel more comfortable with the public perception of trading for him. I’m not a fortune teller. What we can glean from right now, though, is that it’s unlikely that any movement will happen before February.

Watson going on a commissioner-exempt list or getting suspended might be a good way for the sides to not have to deal with each other, but it’s not good for Watson’s legacy

Try to remember the old Deshaun Watson, the one we knew before these lawsuits took over all public perception of him. He spoke willingly and freely about the greatness that he was trying to pursue, from talking about bringing championships to Houston to improving every day on the football field.

This Watson is going to have to carry whatever happens to him as part of his legacy forever. Does he have time to re-write the perceptions that come out of this? Assuming that what turns up isn’t just sadistic, probably. America loves a good redemption story and — let’s be honest — hasn’t met a wildly successful person who they won’t downplay allegations against. But losing this season, losing the statistical compilation, losing the money … none of those things are good for him. His whole brand up until this offseason was clean. Being placed on a list and codifying that he did something bad isn’t something that he’ll look back on and be happy about either.

Because the truth about these lists in the NFL’s arbitrary justice system is that they’re not easy to get off of. They move just as glacially slow as the court system. As of June 20th, they hadn’t even interviewed Watson. That was more than three months after the actual allegations started to surface. A major tenor of the Watson coverage has been about how the NFL has done a disservice to the Texans by not tipping their hand on how this will play out, and it’s one I would mostly agree with. But at the same time, do we really expect anything different from the NFL at this point? This has been an issue time and time again. It was an issue during Ray Rice’s case. The NFL also can’t just magically understand the facts of the situation without due process. When they pretend to assume they can, bad things usually happen.

The Texans may not have a lot of kind words to say about the situation Watson has created, but without him they are entirely pointless in 2021

They don’t have many young players. They don’t have many stars without Watson. I wrote about how bad the situation is for season tickets and how little faith this team’s fanbase has with it. They are not favored to win a single one of their games by Vegas. This is obviously anecdotal — and the people who do this do not cover themselves in glory in my experience — but Watson gets defended a lot harder by fans than the leadership of this team does.

Let’s imagine a scenario where Watson plays 17 games for the Texans in 2021. It sounds incredibly unlikely, but follow me for a second. The Colts are anchored to Carson Wentz. The Jaguars were worse than the Texans in 2020. The Titans spent a lot to try to overhaul their bad defense and have put a ton of tread on Derrick Henry’s tires over the past two years. You can absolutely make an argument that a better defense than the Texans played in 2021 and Watson gives them a puncher’s chance at a playoff spot. The media perception appears to be that the Titans are the easy No. 1 team in the division — and maybe that winds up being true, I’m not totally off-board on that — but there are seven playoff spots. Just having the 2020 version of Deshaun Watson is a big enough step towards one that it doesn’t matter how bad the rest of the roster is.

And this team desperately needs that kind of goodwill right now. You think if they don’t go 9-8 there won’t be some spillover benefits for the McNair/Easterby/Caserio club? Think again. There will absolutely be people willing to re-write Caserio’s offseason as something along the lines of “we knew we had Deshaun all along.” Fans will show up for games with playoff odds and all of the sudden there will be truthers coming out of the woodwork to yell at people for being “reactionary” or “negative” for assuming the worst of the team after last year. That is the great cycle of fandom. There’ll be some people who are out on the Texans for associating with somebody who allegedly did what Watson did, but a) allegedly does not mean “it happened” and b) they very much do not speak for the rank and file.

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Now, is this me saying or reporting that Watson is coming to training camp? Again, and in bold because I don’t want to read a bunch of aggregator accounts telling me what I’m reporting: No.

I can’t tell you that I believe that’s happening. But if you examine not what the sides actually want but the situation that has been dealt to both of them, I think there’s a certain method to the madness of the two of them coming to an uneasy compromise. The Texans would probably like to trade Watson, and Watson would like to leave. But until the cases are settled or resolved, he has no trade value. In talking to people to put together an idea for how bad the return would have to be for him to get dealt now, I think we might be talking about a single first-round pick, or maybe a 1 and a 2. That’s a non-starter for the Texans.

So would Watson playing for the Texans this year be weird? Would it be awkward in pressers and as he rolled his eyes at David Culley? Would it be awkward for him to be interviewed? Probably a little bit. But this entire year is going to be forcibly awkward either way. Watson’s only direct way of raising his trade value is by balling out, and while it may not logically matter, the recency bias of him rolling over some defenses would be a welcome emotional change to the current news cycle around him. I think he absolutely has the bigger emotional block here, and to be fair I would understand and not blame him if he didn’t show up. But, simply put, I think you look at this situation from a 30,000-foot view, there’s more upside in him playing than him sitting. Statistics, money, trade value potentially intersecting with emotion. Maybe he gets suspended and maybe he doesn’t — really hard to say how the d20 from the NFL Arbitrary Punishment Council will go — but either way it would seem he has more to gain than to lose. If he gets hurt, barring something catastrophic, it’s really no different than sitting out the year anyway. Dak Prescott just got a massive contract following a devastating injury, and Watson is in that stratosphere of player.

For the Texans, any sort of trade to a place Watson would actually want to go before camp would create a situation where those draft picks would automatically become less valuable by virtue of that team having Watson. They could try to sell Watson on their culture face-to-face, which is something they’ve wanted since January anyway. And, well, would their draft picks become less valuable with Watson games? Sure. Does that matter to them? I don’t think so. The emphasis they’ve put on youth on the roster is non-existent. I think they’d be thrilled to not have to think about that.

Emotions overrule logic often in today’s world. The language that reports of Watson’s thinking have showcased — him not ever wanting to set foot in the building again, etc. — is extremely emotionally charged. But the way the stasis has settled in, his options at this point may be to lose a year of his career or play nice until the circumstances resolve. Maybe the distrust of Easterby and McNair is simply too deep to be overcome, and again, there is no judgment from me if that’s the case. But assuming nothing is changing on the settlement front, and if it was Watson would probably know it before we would, it would be idiotic for the Texans to trade him right now and no amount of rabble-rousing, leaks, or holdout is going to change that.

In the absence of the viability of a trade, what’s the best lemonade that can be made out of the situation that Watson has created? That’s the question that the Texans and Watson’s camp have to be asking themselves. And I think there’s a pretty strong argument for both sides that the answer is to patch this up, maybe with a good-faith guarantee that Watson will be traded once all this is over if he still wants to be traded, and get back to the table in 2022 after Watson’s legal status is on solid ground.

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