The eye of the Deshaun Watson storm remains over the Texans

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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We’ve gone a while on this blog without having to talk about Deshaun Watson. I didn’t miss the subject matter, but it remains the most important thing about the Texans right now. Trading him remains their only way to accumulate real assets in a rebuild that forecasts to be a slog. He is the only part of the Texans franchise that matters to most NFL fans. Without the two sides being stuck with each other, the entire plane from a national perspective would just be “Brandin Cooks sure is underrated!” fantasy spins and “Davis Mills had better stats than some of his rookie counterparts, curious!” takes. The only Watson public comment we’ve had since March was:

Aaron Wilson dropped an enormous article on Pro Football Network about the situation this weekend, and it’s with this article that I’m beginning to crystallize the thought that had crossed my mind earlier this week: This might be a longer haul situation than anybody wants it to be.

The rhetoric both sides have used so far doesn’t paint a picture of a situation that’s getting solved any time soon

The tea leaves from Wilson’s enormous article are that the Dolphins are dead as a Deshaun Watson destination between Brian Flores being fired and Stephen Ross’ ownership suddenly becoming imperiled. The national media has tried to paint some dots about teams with quarterback situations that need fixing around Watson, but none of them have really stuck to this point. Watson’s own camp is talking about clearing Watson’s name first. It’s always been imperative that he solidify that ahead of a trade — the story that he would have been a Dolphin if all cases could have been settled at the deadline remains true in my eyes. But now that it has dragged on past a full NFL season, I think acquiring teams are getting more skeptical about the situation being settled in a timely fashion. Don’t look past this quote from the Wilson article:

Even if the civil cases get settled, there’s still plenty of other investigations ongoing. There’s a lot out here that could spook an acquiring team, from the potential discipline from the NFL to the potential of literally being charged with a crime. It doesn’t paint a pretty picture. So let’s go back to what the Texans have said when asked about it:

The openness that Lovie talked about the situation with is welcome, but being hopeful that the situation will get resolved points me more towards the idea that they don’t really know when they’re going to be able to trade him. The Texans would be stone-faced on discussing it if they already knew exactly where he’d get traded to, I’m sure. But other than wanting a resolution as soon as possible, it sure feels like it’s out of their hands. To me there’s no doubt that the Texans intend to trade him the first time they get an offer that measures up and that Watson is willing to accept. They want the cloud over the franchise to go away, and want it to be someone else’s problem. But they also can’t just release a player who has as much perceived value as Watson does. Lovie added to this in Football Morning in America with this quote, which to me feels like it’s about Watson rather than about one of the rookie quarterbacks:

Based on my limited sample of him as a head coach, Lovie’s an optimism salesman. He knows how much it would be worth to the fanbase to have a player like Watson in the fold. But I think he also has to throw this out there because, well, there’s a lot of uncertainty that remains.

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The stubbornness of Deshaun Watson has been at the center of this situation for a long time

I don’t mean that in a snarky way, either. I have been pretty soft on Watson on these pages. That comes from a few different places:

1) I don’t think Watson is altogether in the wrong that Cal McNair and Jack Easterby are running the team in a disastrous manner that would prevent him from winning.
2) While what he’s accused of is heinous, and it sure seems likely to have merit given 22 accusations, he remains accused rather than convicted.
3) At my heart I believe in redemption for everybody. There remains a lot of time for him to redeem himself. I understand this is not a particularly popular take in today’s climate, and especially so when his stubbornness is at least partially preventing the Texans from moving on. But time heals a lot. People don’t really talk about Michael Vick as a dog murderer these days. Ben Roethlisberger had a large share of people upset at him this past season — and fair enough, I’m one of them if only for the fawning sendoffs — but you have to note that he did reform who he was in a more positive way after his sexual assault allegations.

What I’ve been more willing to say is: Deshaun Watson quit on his team. Whether that matters to you or not is a personal opinion, but I can guarantee you other NFL teams believe it matters. And whenever Watson has been given an option to pursue what he wants, he has not compromised in any way.

It would have been possible to settle cases to make his move work initially, before trenches were dug in. But he hasn’t done this. In fact, recall that all but four of the cases could have been settled to make the move to the Dolphins work, right? But none of those cases were actually settled. It would have been, in some ways, a PR victory to have “only” four cases remaining. And he made no real movement towards settling the cases until a deal was in place. I don’t know who is talking to him, who is moving the levers here — I’m simply not that deeply embedded in the Watson camp — but it was extremely obvious from the start that a long-drawn out legal battle would be brutal for his career. But for him, as he says, it’s about clearing his name. I don’t know that his name will ever be cleared at this point without a full-flung trial that he wins, and such a trial is not going to get him on the field any sooner. The perception amongst the fans and media has already taken hold.

Source: Pro Football Talk

Watson has used his no-trade clause to drive the forces of his market. He reportedly denied to waive it for the Eagles. He did … whatever this was in legalese … to the Panthers. If he wanted a fresh start to his career, I think it’s possible that one could have materialized without the Dolphins had he been more open to it. Instead we heard things like the Panthers wanting to meet with Watson but being unable to do so. I think if Watson wanted to talk to the Panthers, he could have found a way to make that happen through a back channel. My belief is that the only team he could have been traded to from March to November was the Dolphins because that’s the only team he would accept.

Finally, with it becoming extremely likely that a trade wasn’t happening in August, Watson could have recanted and tried to play this season for the Texans. I don’t think a situation like that would have been “normal” or “healthy” for anybody. It would have forced the NFL to take a stance on him, and might have cost him money as compared to the extremely kind “you’re on the roster and we’re paying you but you’re obviously not playing wink wink nod” scenario the Texans came up with. But he could have continued to showcase his talents and kept himself in the minds of decision makers, and getting any kind of NFL clarity on his status probably would have helped him be moved this offseason. I guess you can say he’d be risking injury, but outside of literally the worst-case scenario, I don’t think any injury he suffered was likely to drive down his price much. I think he might have done more damage to his ultimate price sitting out than he would have getting hurt.

Watson has had many opportunities to “hedge,” so to speak, on the lawsuits, the Texans, and with his no-trade clause. There have been opportunities to settle for less. He hasn’t taken any of them that we know of. I’m not saying this to judge the decisions, but note that his stubbornness has not done anything to help the situation he wants resolved get a real resolution. I think if you truth serumed Watson’s camp, they’d tell you that they wish they could go back in time and settle the cases before this became Operation Shutdown. But now, they simply are where they are.

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So, what do the Texans do? Who actually wants Watson at this point?

I don’t know that there’s a lot the Texans can do besides lowering their asking price for Watson. There are three reasons for this:

1) We’ve seen no indications that Watson plans to waive the no-trade clause for just anybody at this point, meaning as good as a Panthers or Broncos fit looks on paper (I know that Jonathan Albright reports that the Broncos aren’t interested), we have no idea if they’ll actually be in the pool of available teams.
2) The scenario where Watson is on the roster this year, getting paid $35 million in guaranteed money, is much worse than it was in 2021. The Texans could try to get him commish-exempted this year, but that creates bad blood in a situation that has to this point been fairly congenial to this point.
3) If Watson really isn’t interested in providing teams while he’s working on the legal situation, the Texans can’t magically “make” a team appear that Watson will accept a trade to.

When I posed this as a poll question and even kept it at two first-round picks, it turns out a lot of you were not happy about that concept:

The flow of time has not been kind to the Texans, who already lost Nick Caserio’s first head coach — a guy who said that Deshaun Watson would be a Texan emphatically in his presser! — and desperately need some of what Watson can return to sell a rebuild. At the same time, we have this line from the Wilson piece:

Those are two nos, to go along with the Dolphins and Giants nos earlier in the piece, and two teams that Watson has so far refused to waive the no-trade clause for. Now, obviously, things can change in a hurry in the NFL. It only takes the whiff of someone potentially losing their job to fuel desperation. But it’s hard to see much of a market for Watson without everything settled, and it’s hard to see everything settled in a way that will make trading for Watson risk-free, be it criminally or from the NFL.

While obviously I’m hoping for a resolution that favors the Texans more than this, my instincts are just screaming at me right now that the three first-round picks offer from the Dolphins is going to be the best offer the Texans will see. And — to be clear — it is no fault of their own that they couldn’t take that offer given it was contingent on settlements. I don’t think Nick Caserio deserves blame for not being able to work with this situation. He would have looked like a witch if he got a Watson trade settled before allegations popped up, but I think that’s an unfair standard to hold him to.

I think lowering the price for Watson would be an admission that the Texans just need to be done with this whole situation. I think this team’s remaining fans would eventually come to grips with that after griping about the trade. This isn’t DeAndre Hopkins in 2020 or Matthew Stafford in 2021, where the entire NFL market should be open and interested at the very least — you need a team willing to deal with the baggage that Watson brings. It’s not an easy sell!

At this point I think the Panthers are the team that has the most known interest. They are the right combination of desperate and willing to deal. That comes with a few buts. One is that the longer the Watson courtroom battle carries on, the longer the Panthers have to shift eyes elsewhere. And then, as we saw with Flores and Ross in Miami, regimes can topple quickly. What if Matt Rhule doesn’t make it past Week 11 while Watson is suspended? Is that a situation Watson wants to potentially interject himself into? Would Philadelphia re-engage? Would Washington or Tampa engage? Would Watson be willing to join any of those places? I think the price could be a significant issue for some of these teams to meet.

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What happens if Watson is still here in August?

As I’ve said, things can change quickly. But I don’t think anything is currently pointing towards them changing quickly. We are blessed with a lot of law scholars in the Texansphere and one of the best is Mike Meltser, who covered Monday’s hearing:

A deeper thread of Mike’s coverage on the hearing can be found here. It is, broadly speaking, good news for the Watson camp that they expect to hear a decision from the Harris County District Attorney’s Office on the criminal aspect of this case by April 1st. (Well, it is good news if there are no criminal charges out of that, anyway.) They also pushed Watson’s deposition date to after April 1st. My opinion: Courtroom delays do not help the Texans or Watson, and yet the system around our legal system currently creates a lot of delays. For instance, some of the delay in this case is from Watson’s attorney, Rusty Hardin, not being available again until March 7th. It would not surprise me at all if portions of this continued to be delayed, including the criminal aspect, because that is the overarching theme of things right now.

The Texans are in the eye of the storm. They can implore Watson to consider playing, but it seems like they’ve decided that’s not in the best interests of the football team. (Or, more accurately, the football team’s image.) The new timeline of the course would seem to encourage settlement, but Watson hasn’t exactly seemed interested in settling unless it is a pre-requisite to him finding a new team.

Is Watson sitting out a second consecutive season going to help his value? I find that hard to believe. NFL teams have short memories and most of them, already, hate holding on to players they perceive to be injury risks. Uncertainty is hard to tolerate in this business. This is obviously an extremely special situation, but outside of Vick, how many guys have essentially quit football for multiple years and come back? And how many of those guys were worth first-round picks? Vick was released.

I continue to believe there is only a very tiny chance of Watson ever suiting up for the Texans again, because at this point I think both sides are firmly dug in. When you tie your timeline to our court system, you are anchored to uncertainty. The best-case scenario for Texans fans is probably something like: it is announced early that no criminal charges are coming, the Panthers are willing to meet the three first-round picks and change cost, Watson considers this enough to waive the NTC and settle the cases, and Carolina has to deal with the fallout of the NFL personal conduct policy. But just listing all of that out, it feels like a lot has to go right for that to happen. There are a lot of pitfalls here. I have internally begun setting the bar lower and hoping I am pleasantly surprised, which has been a good rule for Texans fandom so far. There are a lot of possible futures here and many of them are not quite this kind to the organization.

The end game feels so far away right now. We’re all just waiting for that moment the eye passes, and motion returns to the situation.

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