12:40 PM ET
Sarah BarshopESPN Staff Writer
- Covered the Packers for ESPN Milwaukee
- Marquette University graduate
After the Houston Texans blew a 24-0 lead last January in an excruciating loss in the AFC divisional playoffs to the Kansas City Chiefs, quarterback Deshaun Watson was asked in the postgame news conference what could have been a difficult question.
“Do you think Bill O’Brien is the right coach to lead you guys?”
Some players might have voiced frustration. Watson didn’t hesitate.
“You might have doubt, but I don’t,” Watson said. “I love that man, and I’ll always play hard for that man. You all can say what you want to say in the media, but as long as I’m at quarterback, he’s cool with me. He’s got my heart, and he’s going to get my 110% every time I step on that field.”
For Texans coach O’Brien, who had general manager added to his duties a few weeks later, Watson’s words showed the strong relationship built over three seasons in Houston.
“Deshaun is a great player, an even better person and we want him here for a long time,” O’Brien said. “Any time you hear a player say that about you, it means a lot, but I feel the same way about him. … Obviously, we feel so strongly about him and the future of him in this offense, in this organization, and we want him here for a long time.”
The Texans put their money behind O’Brien’s words on Saturday, agreeing with Watson on a four-year, $160 million contract extension. The total value of the deal, to be signed later Saturday, is $177.54 million with nearly $111 million in guarantees, trailing only quarterback Patrick Mahomes‘ 12-year deal with the Kansas City Chiefs as the largest in NFL history.
The signing comes months after O’Brien turned heads across the league when he decided to trade the player closest to Watson on the Texans’ roster: three-time first-team All-Pro DeAndre Hopkins. Hopkins, who is now with the Arizona Cardinals, caught 219 regular-season passes from Watson in the past two seasons.
Like the postgame question, the trade was another test to Watson’s commitment to the franchise that drafted him. And again, Watson didn’t offer public criticism. It’s a testament to how the quarterback values relationships above many things in his life. It’s why he was so comfortable signing the new deal and similar to how he handled being one of the top recruits in the country coming out of Gainesville, Georgia.
“Football is what [Watson] does for a living,” said Auburn offensive coordinator Chad Morris, the former Clemson offensive coordinator who recruited Watson. “It’s not who he is. And I think when you look at his track record of who he is as a man and who he is as a person… that when he tells you he’s going to do something, he’s going to do it.
“When you get in his inner circle, it’s a bond like none other.”
Sticking to his commitment
Not long after he was hired at Clemson, Morris sat in his office watching video of potential recruits. It didn’t take long for the freshman quarterback from Gainesville High School to stand out.
“He stepped up and I mean, he let go of the ball and that ball jumped out of his hand,” Morris said. “I said, ‘Wow, this kid is just a freshman?’ And then I watched the second clip and the pocket kind of broke down around him and he extended plays with his feet. And I’m like ‘Holy cow, that’s really good for a freshman kid.’ But the one that really got me was the third clip. And the third clip was that he handed the ball off and he carried his fake out. And he carried it out like eight to 10 yards down the field. And I thought at that point, I’m like, ‘Wait a minute. A freshman. Man it’s hard to get anybody to carry their fakes out. But a freshman to do it?’
“‘Wow, this kid’s got something to him.'”
Morris offered Watson a scholarship at the end of his freshman year, the second player he offered after he left the University of Tulsa to become Clemson’s offensive coordinator.
That June, Watson went to football camp at Clemson and impressed.
Clemson’s recruiting coordinator/wide receivers coach Jeff Scott said the staff “could tell … he was going to have a chance to be one of the best quarterbacks in the country coming out of high school.” After Watson left the camp, Clemson made him an official offer.
“I was talking to Coach Scott, and Coach Scott said, has Deshaun been offered yet?” said Lyn Marsh, a coach from Watson’s high school team. “And I said, ‘No he hasn’t gotten offered yet.’ He said, ‘Well we’re going to be his first offer.’
“So he did that, and he called his mother, and the first thing his mother said is, ‘Can you commit now?’ She was pretty excited about it.”
The camp ended on a Friday, and the next day, Morris and his family were headed to the beach for a three-week vacation.
But with the car already packed for the drive, Morris found out Watson’s basketball team was coming to Clemson for a camp that weekend.
“And I’m like, ‘OK, I’ve got a decision here to make,'” Morris said. “Do I start my vacation now, or do I postpone my vacation and wait on this kid to come back to Clemson? So that’s what I did. I was sitting in the gym on the first row when he walks back in for basketball camp. And I’m sitting there. And of course, we embrace, and all of that.”
Moments like that that made Watson’s relationship with Morris grow quickly, and it made Watson realize Clemson was the right place for him.
“[Morris] did a great job of moving from just the recruit-coach relationship to truly a mentor and very, very close kind of player-coach relationship,” Scott said. “And usually those relationships don’t take that next step until the young man is on your campus. But just because the way that coach Morris recruited him and to be honest, the way Deshaun opened up and allowed coach Morris to recruit him, it was almost a player-coach relationship, even when Deshaun was still in high school.”
When Watson was in 10th grade, his mom was diagnosed with tongue cancer. Morris and head coach Dabo Swinney, as well as the rest of what Watson refers to as his Clemson family, made themselves available to him during that hard time. It helped forge a stronger bond.
“I just just think he felt love whenever he would go up [to Clemson] and just being around coach Morris,” said Michael Perry, Watson’s offensive coordinator at Gainesville High School. Clemson gave Watson every chance to visit, whether it was for basketball games or basketball camps. Marsh brought Watson to many Clemson football games, from his sophomore to senior years of high school.
“The Clemson family, they were behind me through everything,” Watson said. “Once I received that offer and I committed to them after my freshman, going into my sophomore year, it was family. It was a ‘once you’re in, you can’t get out.’ It was one of those feelings where I didn’t want to get out.”
Swinney doesn’t usually like early commitments because he prefers to wait until they are ready to make a decision, rather than have players commit and decommit. He once compared a commitment to marriage. “You can date if you’re not married, but if you’re committed to somebody, you’re committed 100 percent,” Swinney once expressed to Watson.
With Watson, it was different.
“Because Deshaun had come up to so many games and we could tell that he really loved Clemson and he really enjoyed the coaching staff and was developing really good relationships,” said Scott, who took over as Clemson’s offensive coordinator after Morris, “Coach Swinney was very happy to accept his commitment. … He felt like Deshaun was very serious and sincere.
“And that was really before Deshaun took off to become, really over the next year and a half … he went from being just a good young prospect that some people knew about, to being in some rankings, the No. 1 quarterback in the country. And he never wavered.”
Several times when Watson was at Clemson for football games with Marsh, Scott took the pair into the recruiting room.
“He showed him, look, we’re not recruiting another quarterback the year that you come in,” Marsh said. “We’re that committed to you.”
Watson committed in February of his sophomore year. He did take one visit to Auburn, a place Morris, now the offensive coordinator at Auburn, said Watson had “a sincere interest” in.
“After his trip to Auburn,” Morris said, “I remember coach Swinney being straight with him and saying, ‘Look, we’re committed to you. If you’re not committed to us, then we’ve got to look around.'”
“I told them, once we talked, it was nothing that I changed in my recruitment,” Watson said. “I just wanted to go somewhere that weekend and go somewhere different. That’s what I did. I enjoyed that time at Auburn and I still committed to Clemson.”
Fulfilling a promise, on a torn ACL
Long after Watson had committed to Clemson, Marsh had a request.
“Deshaun, you’ve got to make me a promise,” Marsh told Watson. “He said, ‘What’s that?’ I said, ‘You’ve got to promise while you’re at Clemson you’re never going to lose to South Carolina. He said, ‘You can bet on it.’ He said, ‘I will never lose to South Carolina.'”
That promise, one he later made to Swinney and the Clemson coaching staff as well, was tested early in Watson’s college career. Nearing the end of his freshman season, he injured his knee against Georgia State. Less than a week later, Watson tore his ACL in practice. Two games later on the schedule: Clemson’s regular-season finale against South Carolina. Clemson had not won the Palmetto Bowl in five years.
And so, after being assured by the Clemson medical staff that his injury couldn’t get worse, and clearing it with his mom, Watson played in the game with a torn ACL.
“Basically, his knee brace was his ACL today, ” Swinney told reporters after the game, when he made the announcement.
Watson threw for two touchdowns and ran for two more in the 35-17 victory.
“I was an assistant coach at the time, and I did not even know until after the game,” Scott said. “So he went out there and chose to play because he wanted to end the streak that South Carolina had beaten Clemson five years in a row and he knew that with him playing we’d have a lot better chance, so he went out and played on basically one leg and we had the first win over South Carolina in five years. And then a week later he had his ACL surgery.”
Watson started a new streak. Clemson hasn’t lost many games since he took over as starting quarterback in 2014. And the Tigers have won the Palmetto Bowl six years in a row.
A shocking trade
Watson had just finished a workout in March when he found out that O’Brien had traded Hopkins to the Cardinals.
Watson’s trainer Quincy Avery looked at his phone, shocked.
“Yo, did you know Hop just got traded?” Watson’s longtime personal coach asked. Avery posted — and then quickly deleted — a video of Watson’s reaction to Twitter.
“It was just, of course, out of the blue,” Watson said. “I wasn’t expecting it. But like I said, that’s just the way the business goes. That’s something that I have pretty much no control of. The organization had to do what they had to do, and D-Hop — he had to do what he had to do.”
“It caught him off guard a bit,” Avery said. “He was shocked. I think he was disappointed. I think anybody would be disappointed. When the best receiver in the NFL, or one of the best receivers in the NFL, gets traded away … so that was … It was like a whirlwind of emotion that happened really quickly.”
But however Watson felt, he never criticized the organization or O’Brien for the move.
“That’s their business and that’s their lane,” Watson said. “I’m not going to step out of my lane and get in that. But I know that me and Hop have a great relationship. I know that me and OB have a great relationship. But that’s something that I can’t play both sides in. I’m just going to sit in the middle and watch it from afar. That’s their business and I’m not going to get into it.”
And despite the changes and challenges of the past year, Watson hasn’t strayed from that mindset.
“Honestly, I’ve never seen Deshaun say a bad thing about anybody, so I wouldn’t expect him to start with the Texans and Bill O’Brien,” Avery said. “Deshaun gets frustrated like everybody else, but he’s not … he won’t publicly say anything bad about anybody, no matter what you say about him.”
Ryan Clark and Mike Greenberg debate whether Deshaun Watson would have as much success and as many accolades as Patrick Mahomes if he played for the Chiefs.
With O’Brien, there’s mutual trust
Watson stood up for O’Brien after the loss in Kansas City, but it wasn’t the first time he’d done that. While on injured reserve after tearing his ACL as a rookie in 2018, the Texans were nearing the end of a season where they finished 4-12. In mid-December after one of those losses, O’Brien told reporters he wanted to be back in Houston the following year. That day, Watson tweeted, “& I want OB with me!”
Less than a month later, the Texans gave O’Brien a contract extension. During Super Bowl week, Watson told the Houston Chronicle the tweets supporting O’Brien weren’t for the media, but rather “me expressing how I feel about him.”
“That shows how much I care about coach O’Brien and what I believe we can do together,” Watson told the Chronicle. “… It’s good to have OB back. We have a great relationship, and we’re going to continue to grow it.”
That relationship has been built on trust and sweat. Watson “works hard every day,” O’Brien says, and the fact the quarterback feels the same way about his head coach is perhaps one of the reasons there is so much respect between them.
“I feel like I don’t think that people understand the work ethic that he puts in, the time that he puts in to watch film and try to make sure this organization is at the top of its game,” Watson said of O’Brien. “He’s probably the hardest worker in this building, in this organization. He’s not going to stop until he’s a champion. That’s what I like about him.”
Now, in his fourth NFL season, Watson has shown an ultimate commitment to O’Brien and the Texans by agreeing to the extension on Saturday, now tied to the franchise who traded up to draft him for five more years.
“That says everything you need to know about him,” Morris said. “That tells about his loyalty, him as a person. It is truly, deeply embedded in him. When you meet his family and understand what he’s had to go through. He’s excited to leave a legacy. As he left his legacy at Clemson, he’s excited to put his legacy and leave his legacy with the Texans.”