At its conclusion, the NFL regular season seems like a minuscule spat of time. It’s sixteen games across four months. That’s it. Yet throughout the road to the playoffs, fat segments of differentiation arise as each team tosses its 53 players around. For Deshaun Watson, the 2018 season was peculiar, one filled with twists and turns. Watson ended the year with 4,165 passing yards, 26 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions. He was sacked 62 times.
Watson started the year in Bill O’Brien’s spread shotgun passing offense. It’s an offense that has never consistently worked since O’Brien arrived in Houston, battered by blitz-heavy defensive attacks. After the Texans began the season 0-3, however, the super cool offense Houston ran in 2017 when Watson was elevated to the starting lineup was back. There was play action. There were jet sweeps. Watson was used as a runner. The ball was pushed downfield. Watson looked like 2017 Deshaun Watson, not this stranger recovering from an ACL tear.
Then Watson was blasted by the Bills and Cowboys. His lungs turned from pink to purple and deflated in his chest. He was forced to take a bus to Jacksonville to play the Jaguars. He threw too many interceptions by taking eff-it chances to force plays that weren’t there. Because of this, O’Brien reeled his quarterback back in. Against opponents that featured run-heavy offenses, Houston won close games led by a run defense that aided its offense’s scoring production. Watson turned into a wrinkled man cosplaying in a dugout during this time.
Once the Texans’ schedule no longer featured teams that had to run the ball to win, a bad secondary that was hidden for so long was exposed. The Texans played the Colts, a team that could actually throw the football. Andrew Luck threw for 399 yards. T.Y. Hilton had 199 receiving yards; the Texans couldn’t cover him, let alone Zach Pascal. Then Sam Darnold had success throwing to Robbie Anderson. Then Nick Foles put 30 points and 462 passing yards on Houston. As a result, Houston finished the final quarter of its regular season 2-2 and lost the two seed—and a bye in the first round of the NFL Playoffs—in the process
During this tough time, something funny happened. Watson was no longer stuck doing just enough. The Texans leaned on him to win games because of what he could do, instead of just with him. Without a real second wide receiver in the wake of season-ending injuries to Will Fuller and Demaryius Thomas, without Lamar Miller for two games, behind leaky pass protection, Watson completed 103 of his 141 pass attempts (73%) for 1,134 yards, 5 touchdowns, and 0 interceptions. He averaged 8 yards an attempt. He also picked up 176 rushing yards, 13 first downs on the ground, and 3 rushing touchdowns, all while Houston’s running backs averaged 2.39 yards a carry. The Texans’ defense could no longer hold teams to the 17.8 points a game they allowed during their nine game win streak. Houston needed Watson, and he delivered.
The monumental change came in the frequency Watson threw the ball downfield. During Houston’s winning streak, he played games against Washington where he threw one deep attempt. Against the Cowboys, despite that game going to overtime, and the Broncos, he threw only three attempts downfield. The most he attempted in a game was five against the Bills and Dolphins. Contrast that with his play against the Eagles, where Watson threw nine downfield passes. In the last four weeks of the regular season, Watson completed 13 of his 21 attempts (61.9%) downfield, threw 3 touchdowns, and averaged 17.9 yards an attempt.