By Jason Keidel
In the athletic world of watches and dashes and tape measures, we have all the metrics to measure the physical.
But how do you measure the rest? The intangibles, like heart and desire? How much of what makes a great athlete is talent versus temerity?
Deshaun Watson, coming out of college, seemed to have that elusive “it” — that immeasurable but wholly tangible thing that makes big players do big things in big games. We saw it when he led Clemson against Alabama — twice — in the NCAA national championship game, shredding a defense rife with NFL studs, led by perhaps the greatest coach in college football history. Whenever the moment demanded his best, Watson summoned an amalgam of strength, speed, and equanimity that makes him perfect for iconic games and iconic moments.
But wait until he plays the best, we heard. Watson will see that the NFL is hardly the ACC or even SEC. For every Peyton Manning, we’ve seen a Ryan Leaf and Johnny Manziel and JaMarcus Russell. Watson’s NFL baptism would surely be a painful one.
There’s already some serious physical and statistical proof that Watson can run with the grownups. Including the epic 41-38 shootout between the Texans and Seahawks yesterday — during which Watson tossed four touchdown passes against the famed “Legion of Boom” — Watson has now thrown 19 TD passes in his first 7 games, surpassing Kurt Warner for the most in NFL history.
Watson also just became the first rookie NFL QB to throw three touchdown passes in four straight games. And while most quarterbacks quietly shiver at the prospect of playing Seattle’s defense, Watson handled Seahawks with a veteran’s wisdom and precision.
Many of us who liked Watson were afraid to fall in love, because so many college QBs can’t adjust to the frenzied violence of the NFL, and fall into the chasm between Saturdays and Sundays. Almost every pro football player says there’s no way to prepare for the leap in speed and savagery they see during their rookie seasons.
Yet some can. Some players play at every level, from Pop Warner to pro football, with the same, low-key regularity that made them a star at every stop. Some aren’t moved by the moment, but rather embrace it. Whatever Watson becomes, it’s clear he’s neither intimidated or inadequately prepared for life on Sunday.
A shame the Texans couldn’t keep the lead Watson so adeptly grabbed for them, in Seattle, in the fourth quarter. With a precious few minutes left, the Texans had the ball on their own 25, on third down, with about four yards to go for the first down, and a chance to salt the game away. Texans head coach Bill O’Brien, perhaps still not sold on Watson, called a running play for Lamar Miller, who was tackled after two yards.
So another player who was overlooked, Russell Wilson, led the Seahawks down the field for the winning touchdown. It’s not the first time Wilson turned the improbable into the mundane, and it won’t be the last. But if not for O’Brien’s play call — which Watson dutifully executed but clearly disliked — perhaps last night would have been a kind of coronation for Watson, like the one he just had at Clemson in January.
Had O’Brien watched Watson’s film against Alabama, he would have known that Watson would likely have picked up those four yards, either by arm or by feet, both of which are the best on the team. Big player. Big moment. As the CBS crew calling the game said at the time, you don’t think about plays as much as players in those situations. You want the pigskin in the hands of your best player.
And with J.J. Watt on the shelf, Deshaun Watson is the best player on the Houston Texans. He’s also the runaway Rookie of the Year. And, eventually, we will see him for what he is: a star.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.