Deshaun Watson was here to save the 2017 NFL season. Aaron Rodgers was gone. Odell Beckham Jr. was, too. J.J. Watt barely got started, same with David Johnson and Eric Berry. Andrew Luck never played a game. And Julian Edelman’s injury seems so long ago that you’d be forgiven for forgetting that it ever happened.
Modern NFL careers are, to paraphrase former MLB commissioner Bart Giamatti’s take on baseball, designed to break your heart. As soon as someone breathtaking breaks onto the scene, you can start the clock on when the injury comes. When your sport is built on collisions, the reckoning almost always comes.
But this was supposed to be different. Not Watson. Damn you, 2017 NFL season. This wasn’t part of the deal.
The NFL needed Deshaun Watson, who tore his ACL on Thursday. He was incredibly fun and impossibly productive. A great passer and a great athlete, Watson single-handedly solved many of the league’s problems. There’s a general lack of star quarterbacks ready to fill the void left when the golden generation (Brady, Brees, etc.) departs; he is one. There hasn’t been much entertainment this season; he certainly brings that. There aren’t a lot of truly great teams this year; the Texans weren’t exactly there yet, but they looked like they were about to take off in the second half of the season. With the 28th-hardest remaining schedule, according to Football Outsiders, the Texans were poised to win and bring joy to the football universe.
Every time a game got boring, Watson found a way to throw a touchdown pass. If you were to introduce someone to football for the first time, you’d show them tape of Watson playing for the Texans. To put it bluntly, this sucks.
His six-start run, capped off by Houston’s 41-38 loss in Seattle on Sunday, will go down as one of the most thrilling stretches in recent memory. “He made plays that very few people in this league, including the top-tier guys, can make,” Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman said, before suggesting that Watson would be a top-five quarterback within a year. Come to think of it, he might have already been one. Among healthy starting quarterbacks, his 103 passer rating ranked fourth in the NFL.
Dabo Swinney, Watson’s head coach at Clemson, has compared him to Michael Jordan, and through half of a season, that didn’t seem like hyperbole. He was the first player in NFL history to throw four or more touchdowns in three separate games in the month of October and now he won’t get to see November. Only one quarterback in Texans history had thrown for more touchdowns in a season than Watson had in six starts. Watson now holds the record for most passing touchdown passes in the first seven games of a career with 19.
If you’re still looking for a silver lining for the 2017 season with Watson gone, Carson Wentz is fun, and Alex Smith and the Chiefs are interesting. But this injury feels like a dull ache that will last for the rest of the season. In a perfect world, Sunday’s Colts-Texans battle would’ve featured two of the league’s best young quarterbacks, Luck and Watson; instead, it will feature Tom Savage against Jacoby Brissett. This is like being promised a showing of Dunkirk, but once you sit down, a Kevin James movie starts playing on the screen. The Texans’ corresponding move for the Watson injury was to sign Matt McGloin. That seems to be the narrative of 2017: Out with the Watsons, in with the McGloins. The NFL built a league for quarterbacks, and crucially, it has no quarterbacks.
The Texans sit at 3-4, and now have to start Savage, so the Ravens, Broncos, Bengals, Jaguars, or Dolphins will likely grab the last remaining AFC wild-card spot in their place. (Remember, this team already lost Watt.) The Monday Night Football Ravens-Texans game on Nov. 27 just went from intriguing to unwatchable. Most injuries are a blow to just one team—the Ravens lose a stud offensive tackle like Marshal Yanda, and it hurts the Baltimore offense, sure. The Watson injury is the rare gut punch to an entire sport. Football needed Watson, and football is taking him away.
Watson will get better. Texans beat writers are reporting that he’s expected to make a recovery in time for next season, but the sport needed him now. He has a decade-plus career ahead of him and will likely become a superstar. Yet, his role as rookie phenom is over. So, too, is one of the last great parts of 2017.