Midway through October 2017, the Texans sat at 3-3 going into the bye. They’d already lost All-Pro J.J. Watt for another season. However, the Texans Superstars and the emergence of quarterback Deshaun Watson, who was having a breakout rookie year, gave them the hope of a future beyond being an occasional playoff team from a weak division — a future where they could be a true contender.
Watson lasted only one more game in 2017, a narrow shootout defeat in Seattle, before bowing out for the season himself with a torn ACL suffered in practice. Houston went 1-8 the rest of the way to finish an abysmal 4-12 in a year when the team decidedly lost the war of injury attrition that is life in the NFL. That head coach Bill O’Brien had three winning seasons to start his career with the Texans is likely what saved him, at least for another year.
That year has come, Watt and Watson have returned, yet the early returns have been discouraging to say the least. Few would begrudge Houston for suffering a one-score loss in Gillette Stadium to start the season, though that’s the kind of win that has always eluded Houston in its campaign for respectability.
Sunday’s loss in Tennessee is considerably harder to swallow, especially since the Titans came into the game also at 0-1, and they were starting backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert and missing two offensive tackles. New Titans head coach Mike Vrabel, fresh off the Texans staff where he spent the last four years, went to the bag of tricks early, getting the Titans on the board with a fake punt that resulted in a 66-yard touchdown pass thrown by safety Kevin Byard.
Watson put up good numbers in a losing effort on Sunday, throwing for more than 300 yards while posting two touchdowns and one pick. On the final play of the game, however, he showed an unfortunate and untimely lack of awareness, connecting with DeAndre Hopkins on a 31-yard completion down the middle of the field that would have gotten Houston in position for a game-tying field goal. The only problem was that the Texans had no timeouts remaining, so the final 17 seconds ticked off before they could spike the ball.
It’s important to remember that Watson, even in his second season, has only eight total starts in the NFL. In that span, he has 21 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Projecting that out to a full 16-game season, that’s an incredible stat line. And yet, because of bad injury luck and weird context, he now is in danger of presiding over two lost seasons for the Texans.
It’s obviously not much Watson’s fault, and one mental mistake doesn’t undo his endless promise. What’s more, quarterbacks returning from an ACL tear take at least one full season to return to the physical form they had before the injury, if they ever get it back at all.
If that’s the worst Watson can do while rehabbing that injury, then it’s not a huge loss. Still, unless the Texans turn it around in a hurry, Watson will likely be suiting up in 2019 taking play calls from an entirely new coaching staff. Unfortunately, because the team is showing an early tendency to fall behind early in games, Watson is going to need to be near-perfect for that to happen unless a lot changes in a hurry.
Week 3 offers the Texans their home opener against a team struggling just as much as them: the New York Giants. Given how poorly New York’s offense has run in its first two games, you’d think the Texans should find a way not to fall into an early hole. And within their division, the Jaguars look good so far and the Colts are flirting with respectability again now that Andrew Luck is back, so there’s little room for error the rest of the way. Watson says he’s not panicking. That’s surely what’s best for a young quarterback. The coaching staff, however, better develop some urgency if it wants to even make it to the end of the regular season.