HOUSTON -- As Deshaun Watson and J.J. Watt walked off the field at NRG Stadium for the final time in the 2020 season, the veteran defensive end apologized to the Houston Texans’ franchise quarterback.
“I’m sorry,” Watt told Watson, in a clip released Tuesday by NFL Films. “We wasted one of your years. I’m sorry.”
Coming into the season, the Texans knew taking the next step forward -- advancing to the AFC Championship Game for the first time in franchise history -- would require a step forward from Watson.
And, perhaps most frustrating for those in the Texans organization, Watson did make that jump. He reached career highs in every category and finished with the most passing yards in the NFL, although that title is mostly thanks to Patrick Mahomes sitting out the Chiefs’ regular-season finale.
Although Watt and the Texans believe they wasted a year of Watson’s excellence due to a defense that struggled, having a franchise quarterback under contract means this might not need to be a long-term rebuild for the organization. Watson became the first player to lead the NFL in passing yards with 12 or more losses since Jeff George for the Raiders in 1997, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
"I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again," Watt said. "When you have a quarterback in this league you have a chance, and there’s a damn good one in our locker room right here."
Watson finished the season with a completion percentage of 70.2% and his 4,823 passing yards is third in NFL history for most passing yards in a single season with a completion percentage of 70% or better. New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees has the other four seasons in the top five. In the season's final 11 weeks, he had 24 touchdowns and two interceptions, even as the Texans went 3-8 in those games.
Watson had that success in a season with a new playcaller, as former head coach Bill O’Brien handed over playcalling duties to offensive coordinator Tim Kelly during the offseason. O’Brien was then fired after four games.
“Of course [I’m proud of] all the individual stats, but just being able to accomplish the things I accomplished through a dysfunctional year, pretty much,” Watson said. “I think I’m pretty proud of that.”
Perhaps most impressive is Watson did this after losing reigning three-time All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins to a trade during the offseason and Will Fuller to a suspension before Week 13. Watson was able to lean on Brandin Cooks, who the Texans traded for in April, but otherwise he had a group of unproven young receivers and other playmakers: Keke Coutee, Chad Hansen, Steven Mitchell, tight ends Jordan Akins and Kahale Warring. He had veteran running backs David Johnson and Duke Johnson to throw to out of the backfield.
“Right now, I think everybody feels like that he’s a good passing quarterback, he’s a good scrambler, but I think that he can do it all, to tell you the truth,” interim head coach Romeo Crennel said. “He puts up big numbers. He put up big numbers when he had the good guys and he put up good numbers when he had the replacements. So, I think that’s a sign that he’s a good quarterback.”
As the Texans look forward to not wasting future seasons with Watson, it’s clear they see the urgency in making the right decisions at head coach in order to take advantage of Watson’s talent. Watson signed a huge contract extension before the 2020 season and the Texans have one more season before his contract starts counting more than $40 million against their salary cap, which will make it more difficult to build a good team around him.
When asked about what he’s looking for in a new head coach, Watson said the Texans “need a whole culture shift.”
“It just starts with the energy and just the foundation of this program,” Watson said. “There's no real foundation in view. Everyone sees it. Everyone knows that. Got to have a guy that can come in and stand strong, stand 10 toes down and, hey, this is the way it's going to go and this is the way we're going to win. That's what we need. It's kind of just up in the air right now.
"That's what I'm looking forward to, some disciplined responsibility and [someone with] good, fun energy that cares about winning championships and winning games, but at the same time is coming in to work each and every day regardless.”
Regardless of whom the Texans hire, it’s clear those in the building know that after seeing Watson play the best football of his career, despite all the challenges he had to deal with, the organization is in good hands going forward.
“You talk about a guy that just loves to perfect his craft,” Cooks said. “I think he's grown every single day, every single game, week in and week out. I mean, I just don't see no slowing down with a guy like him.”