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Pondering Deshaun Watson’s Impact After Two-Year Layoff

Pondering Deshaun Watson’s Impact After Two-Year Layoff

It will have been 700 days since the former Texans quarterback played in an NFL game. Plus, answering your questions on the coaching futures of Sean Payton and Lovie Smith, Taylor Heinicke vs. Carson Wentz, the offensive prowess of Mike McDaniel and Kyle Shanahan and more.

Rough weekend for an Ohio State alum, but I still made it to the mailbox …

From Joe Kwan (@JoeKwan03683425): Do u think not playing for 2 years will affect Deshaun Watson? Is he gonna be the same as he was in 2020 or will he look like #BroncosCountry let's ride.

Joe, it’s a fair question. Watson will have gone 700 days between regular-season snaps when he breaks the huddle for the first time in Houston on Sunday. And there’s a parallel here that I think can help illustrate the challenge ahead for Watson.

After the 2000 college season, then Yankees owner George Steinbrenner backed up the Brinks truck to pry prized prospect Drew Henson from his football pursuits. To that point, Henson had juggled being a Michigan quarterback (for two years, famously, as Tom Brady’s backup, and a third as starter) and a minor-league third baseman. The terms of Henson’s six-year, $17 million deal with the Yankees—signed in March 2021—dictated he drop the two-sport shuttle and focus solely on baseball.

Watson returns to the field on Sunday against his former team after a nearly two-year layoff.

Ken Blaze/USA TODAY Sports

Henson had played well enough as a junior at Michigan to have some believing, at the time, that he could be the No. 1 pick in the 2002 draft—after his senior year in Ann Arbor—and that was part of what he was giving up in taking the deal with the Yankees. The Cowboys took a flier on him in ’03, using a sixth-round pick to grab his rights, and then, sure enough, the Yankees soured on a slumping Henson, and he retired from baseball in ’03.

So Dallas got Henson in 2004. But it didn't get the Henson who played for Michigan on New Year’s Day in ’01. It got a guy whose timing was off, whose mechanics weren’t the same and who wasn’t playing with near the rhythm he needed to execute. And even more difficult, where most rookies are doing all they can just to acclimate to the speed and violence of pro football, Henson was doing that and trying to get all those elements of his game back.

Now it won’t be as hard for Watson because he’s played four years in the NFL already. But it wouldn’t be shocking if there was a reacclimation period he needs to get himself up to speed playing NFL football. Which is why the next six weeks are important for the Browns, regardless of whether they can get themselves back in the AFC playoff race.

From Raul (@raulvibe): Reports of Sean Payton being interested in the Az Job if Kliff gets fired true?

Raul, there will be a lot of rumors connecting Sean Payton to jobs in the coming weeks. He’s been linked to the Chargers for a while now in league circles. There’s been speculation on the Broncos and Cardinals, too. And it sounds like geography (Payton likes California) and the presence of a quarterback to build around will be important.

The question really will be whether these teams are willing to pay up. Payton walked away from a five-year deal that was worth, all told, $80 million in New Orleans. He said no to a four-year, $100 million contract in Miami. So I really don’t think he’s going to go somewhere just because he likes the scenery and a bunch of the players. Whoever gets him is going to have to pony up to do it. Would the Chargers or Cardinals reverse their normal course and go the extra financial mile to get the right coach?

Let’s let the rest of the season play out, and then maybe we’ll find out.

From Anthony (@genXjabroni): Is McDaniel a better offensive mind then Shanahan? Who was helping who in years past?

Anthony, it’s a really good question because, obviously, Mike McDaniel has been really, really good through 12 weeks in Miami. And to make it even more interesting, here’s something I’ve pointed out a bunch over the past few years—McDaniel is actually the one assistant coach that Kyle Shanahan brought literally everywhere with him, from Houston to Washington to Cleveland to Atlanta to San Francisco.

The reason for that is the obvious and apparent one: He is incredibly smart and was a very important piece of building the run game, specifically, and the system in general that Shanahan has evolved from what his dad executed in Denver all those years ago. So in a lot of ways, it’s hard to separate, at least scheme-wise, Shanahan from McDaniel.

There’s also an interesting way to illustrate it, and that’s to explain how McDaniel’s unique role in San Francisco worked. Shanahan would entrust the run-game plan to McDaniel each week to the point where he’d let McDaniel disappear into his office on Monday and Tuesday to work over whatever the 49ers would do that week on the ground. He’d often come out with something that’d confound others in the building, but would make sense to everyone by the end of the week. And San Francisco’s run game became devastating.

That’s why Shanahan’s hire of Chris Foerster in 2021 was so forward-thinking—Shanahan knew that he needed someone with that sort of deep knowledge of his run game in-house to combat the potential loss of McDaniel. Foerster, who was with the Shanahans in Washington, initially was named line coach and then, once McDaniel left, took the Dolphins coach’s old role of run-game coordinator.

Anyway, I’d say McDaniel and Shanahan are peers when it comes to offensive knowhow.

It's been a rough first season for Smith at the helm of the Texans, who are 1-9-1.

Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY Sports

From BryceSZN (@TexansUK99): Will Lovie Smith be one and done, the writing seems to be on the wall and will they let Caserio pick the new coach or will he go too

From Dr. Barrett (@TheCoreyBarrett): Will Lovie Smith be fired?

A bunch of Lovie Smith questions this week, and I think we’re trending now toward there being a change after the season. The Smith hire was a little weird from the start. He’s older, of course, and has no real connection to GM Nick Caserio. He also has very little, if any, system crossover with Caserio. And I do think all of that has shown in a team that’s had minimal spark or promise 12 weeks into the season.

Is Smith responsible for all that? Of course not. Everyone shoulders some of the blame. But the question here is more complicated than that. It concerns whether, whenever you get your long-term quarterback in the building (now that we know Davis Mills isn’t the guy), you want Smith charged with leading his development. It also includes the business element of all this, and all those empty seats signaling a serious apathy hitting the fan base.

This, to be sure, was never a one-year rebuild. That said, signs of progress are important as Caserio looks to his third year in charge, when his job could well be on the line. Does he want to tie a season with those sorts of stakes to Lovie? We’ll see.

But, yeah, I think if things don’t improve, he’s probably gone.

From Joey Texas (@TheTXGuy): Do Texans go qb at 1?

Joey, presuming they have the first pick, and they hold a game-and-a-half “lead” in that race, I’m not sure there’s going to be one worth taking there. The best one, in my opinion, and the opinion of a lot of evaluators, is Alabama’s Bryce Young. But he is small. Not just short (6'0"). Small (194 pounds). And you have to be comfortable with that. Kentucky’s Will Levis regressed after losing offensive coordinator Liam Coen this year (his new OC, Rich Scangarello, just got fired). Meanwhile, Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud has sort of flat-lined, with problems this year the same as last year.

So I think the questions with those three are very real, and it’s going to be whose problems you see as most workable. Can you manage Young’s height deficiency, or will it prevent you from doing what you want to do? Can you develop the raw Levis like Coen did and get him back on track, or was 2021 more smoke and mirrors? Can you get Stroud playing better when things go awry around him, or is he just a 7-on-7 quarterback?

And then, if you’re going to use the first pick on a guy, the larger question is this—is he good enough to compete against Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Joe Burrow, Lamar Jackson, Justin Herbert and Trevor Lawrence in the AFC? Because that really is what this is about, and if you take a guy first at quarterback, that’s probably the last shot you’re getting there, if you’re Caserio.

All of it’s complicated, and even more so with the prospect of Caleb Williams and Drake Maye continuing their ascents and entering the 2024 draft.

From Bill (@Sports_nut55): Why were you so salty about Michigan fans celebrating on Saturday as if you don’t try to rub everything in michigan fans face every chance you get?

I was upset, for sure, but that’s the way it should be. Ohio State played undisciplined ball and got beat because of it—whether it’s missing a tackle on one long touchdown, slipping on another, head-butting someone or falling apart late. That needs to be addressed and is correctable. Too good a collection of players in Columbus to let something like that happen in a conference game.

Congrats to Michigan on the win.

From Cory Dale (@mtraiders1973): What will you cry about when the Wolverines kick the Buckeyes ass in AA next year?

Nothing, if Ohio State plays to its potential. That happens, and there won’t be a problem. Just like there wasn’t one for 20 years.

The Commanders own the final playoff spot with Heinicke filling in for an injured Wentz.

Denny Medley/USA TODAY Sports

From david henise (@dhenise52): Washington has won despite the lousy play by Heinicke. It’s obvious the OL improvement has given the ground game a boost. At 7–5—with Carson Wentz at QB and hopefully Young back—can they make a run? It’s sad seeing three solid WRs going to waste

David, I’m with you on the run game. It hasn’t gotten enough attention, but Ron Rivera’s built the kind of physically imposing offense he had in Carolina, with a two-back rotation and a very real edge. From the MAQB yesterday, here are their rushing totals over the last seven games: 128, 166, 96, 137, 152, 153, 176. It’s good for a lot of people to get there, from Brian Robinson and Antonio Gibson to the line to coordinator Scott Turner.

It also plays to the strength of the team, which is a defense that’s playing really well, and brings us to the two returning players that you mentioned.

As far as Heinicke, he has limitations, but it’s important to have a player you can count on to make plays when it matters most. And I dug up some interesting numbers on that. Playing from behind with less than four minutes left, Wentz’s QB rating this year is 83.6 while Heinicke’s is 118.8. And Wentz’s rating when trailing, period, is 89.5 while Heinicke’s is 100.8.

On third down, Wentz is better than Heinicke in passer rating, 87.7–61.2. However, Heinicke’s stats actually jump in third-and-long—he has a 109.7 rating in third-and-7-to-9 and an 83.2 rating in third-and-10-plus (Wentz is 118.8 and 66.9 in those categories). So if you add all this up, and the belief the locker room has in Heinicke, you can see why Rivera would want to roll with what’s been working, at least for now. Rivera told me himself that this would be week-to-week, and it makes sense he’d handle it that way, given how the team’s playing.

As for Young, I think it’s important to pay the proper respect to the injury he’s returning from, which was a very complicated one. The Commanders have mostly regarded it like this: Anything Young could give them in 2022 would be a bonus. And until last week, it looked like it might be tough for him to get back this year. Still, they viewed his continued work as worth the roster spot, which is why they activated him. And then, he had a really nice breakthrough at practice last week. So I’d say Washington is cautiously optimistic now.

Obviously, if he can help, that’d be huge.

From Chris 'Evo' Evans (@chrisevoevans): Any chance of an international game making its way to Cardiff? The stadium being in the heart of the city would make for a brilliant atmosphere, perhaps rivalling Munich?

From Gabo Tamayo (@gabotamayo): Are there any plans for football games in Mexico outside of Mexico City?

I love it, guys. Happy to see there’s this sort of interest in football in those parts of the world. On Mexico, I think the NFL’s next city would be Monterrey. It’s 138 miles from the U.S. border. It has a stadium that’s less than a decade old. There’s significant NFL interest. As for the potential for a game in Cardiff, my guess—and this is just a guess—is that it might be behind a couple of other cities in the U.K.

And that brings me to the overriding point I want to make here, which is that I still think the NFL would go to other countries before branching out within single countries (the exception being Germany, with both Frankfurt and Munich in that mix). So I’d think the league will next look in Spain (Madrid) or Brazil (Rio de Janeiro) before going outside of London and Mexico City in those countries.

From Brad Ottley (@bradottley): What are the chances the Steelers finish 4–2? Seems unlikely they’ll finish above .500.

Brad, at first, I thought there was no way. Then, I looked. Here’s the rest of the schedule:

• at Falcons

• Ravens

• at Panthers

• Raiders

• at Ravens

• Browns

The Steelers are favored to win in Atlanta this weekend. They’ll be favored in Carolina. That’s two wins. Then you have the Raiders and Browns at home, and, to me, the question is whether both are still in playoff contention or eliminated by then. Also, if the Raiders are out of it on Christmas weekend, is it possible Derek Carr, who has a massive injury guarantee on his contract, is sitting?

If they could somehow sweep those four, you’re at 4–2. And a split with the Ravens gets you over .500. Based on Kenny Pickett’s progress, I think it’s possible. Improbable, but possible.

From Tomer (@Shimshon89): Do you think Seattle will pick a QB if the pick they get from Denver is top 5?

Tomer, I think they find a way to keep Geno Smith, and Geno becomes their Alex Smith for the time being. What does that mean? Well, Alex Smith’s presence in Kansas City kept the Chiefs from having to draft a young quarterback unless they really loved the guy. So they passed in four consecutive years, then pounced in trading up for Patrick Mahomes in Year 5.

That’s relevant here, of course, because it sure looks like the Seahawks will be in position to draft a quarterback with the Broncos’ pick. But what if they don’t love Young, Stroud or Levis? What if they want to punt to 2024? Having Smith as their long-term stopgap would facilitate that. And you’d think that by March they’d have a handle on the quarterbacks in the draft, and if they don’t like the guys at the top, they could offer Smith a deal with the promise that he would be the guy in ’23 (If they do like one of them, well, then go get him).

Anyway, I think all of that leaves Seattle in a pretty nice spot in Year 1, post–Russell Wilson.

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