A lesson for QB Deshaun Watson: Where exactly to stand in an NFL huddle

Charles Robinson
NFL columnist

HOUSTON – Deshaun Watson was still manning the podium in pre-draft campaign mode. Saying all the right things. Talking about working hard in his first days as a Houston Texan. Remaining soft-spoken and aligning his compass with actions over words. Above all else, he kept the conversation focused on learning, not achieving.

“It’s going to take the hard work and the grind,” Watson said on Saturday, in between work during the Texans’ rookie minicamp. “You can expect a lot of stuff and want to be great and want to be successful, especially early, but it’s a process. It’s not going to happen overnight.”

This is pretty standard cue-card reading for rookie quarterbacks, particularly in May minicamps. But given the circumstances that got Watson into a Texans uniform in the first place, slow and steady is probably the right place to start. The reality is that Watson is expected to eventually be the ninth quarterback to start a game under head coach Bill O’Brien. Considering O’Brien is entering his fourth season, that isn’t a great stat.

So, yeah. How this whole Deshaun Watson thing progresses is of vital importance to this regime. If that means starting out with a workmanlike yawn in May, it’s probably not the worst approach.

The Texans traded up in the draft to land QB Deshaun Watson. (AP)

After watching the Brock Oswelier era scuttled in a matter of months, it’s fair to suspect there is a methodology in gently putting this next quarterback out to sea. Expect the Texans to be as measured and deliberate as possible about Watson’s timeline. Given hindsight, the situation screams for it. To the point where despite skeptical media opinion, Tom Savage may indeed be the starting quarterback for Houston when the season begins. Partially because the staff and front office sees some short-term reliability in him, and partially because Watson might be the last chance this regime gets to secure a cornerstone quarterback.

Watson’s spotlight will be drastically different than the one that hovered over Osweiler a year ago. As it should be, considering Osweiler arrived with a heap of starting quarterback money and inescapable expectations. Lest we forget, this time last May, Osweiler was already shaping his own commercial campaigns for local Houston businesses. He was an instant celebrity. And when offseason practices began, there was no shortage of gushing. Even Texans wideout DeAndre Hopkins called him a “pro’s pro” and a “natural leader” who “demands the best out of everybody.” Ten months later, the only thing being demanded was the second-round pick that the Cleveland Browns required to take Osweiler and his bloated salary off Houston’s roster.

Again, hindsight: A temperate downshift in quarterback expectations seems appropriate for the month of May.

That’s not to say the Texans are downplaying their hopes for Watson. It’s simply a different kind of conversation. One that flows out of Watson arriving with a clean NFL slate, modest quarterback money and someone above him on the depth chart. Unlike Osweiler, whose paycheck anointed him a chosen status, Watson has the luxury of some patient cover for at least the next few months. Maybe that all changes when the games start. But for now, the design for him is simple.

“Show up every day and get better,” O’Brien said. “Simple as that. Every single day, improve on the things that you need to improve on – every single day. There’s always going to be something, whether it’s a playcall or footwork or some type of decision at the line of scrimmage … or answered a question wrong in the meeting or whatever it is – let’s fix that. Let’s get better every single day. It’s a progress league.”

Head coach Bill O’Brien had eight quarterbacks start for him in the three seasons he has led the Houston Texans. (AP)

What that means for Watson now is the most basic of essentials. Learn the playbook. Become acquainted with teammates. Watch Savage work. Figure out how to stand in the proper place in the huddle (yes, this was an actual lesson this weekend). And of course, recite the verbiage of the offense and how to call a play, which is probably the most common shared staple of rookie quarterback learning every single spring.

“It’s a whole different terminology,” Watson said. “It’s like learning Spanish if you don’t know Spanish. You’ve got to flip everything you’ve learned before and turn the page and learn something brand new.”

Watson gaining that familiarity is also acutely important for O’Brien, who will be taking a commanding seat in all facets of the offense this season after the departure (“mutual parting”) of offensive coordinator George Godsey in January. That makes Watson a revelation of sorts. For the first time in his career, O’Brien has a first-round quarterback to mold from Day 1 in his offense. Not a veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick or Brock Osweiler, who need reprogramming. And not a mid or late-round rookie who fit snugly under “project” status. In Watson, he has a proven first-round winner with a wealth of upside. And he has full control to take that talent wherever he wants.

[Related: Watson bought his mom a car for her birthday]

“I’ve been probably doing more coaching myself in the last four or five weeks than I’ve done in the three years that I’ve been here,” O’Brien said. “I’m really involved with the offense. I’m having a lot of fun. Relative to this rookie camp right here – whether it’s the quarterback, who I’m spending a lot of time with, or any other position – you have to figure out the ways that they learn.”

So that’s how this latest effort begins. With less spotlight and expectation. Hopeful, yes. But also a little more subdued than things were a year ago. The quarterback questions are still there, but the demands of instant gratification have been drawn back a bit.

It’s May. Deshaun Watson just arrived. Learning overachieving is an acceptable storyline. Especially after last season’s flop. Patience and perspective reign.

For now.

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