WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va .— There was no knee brace. There was no noticeable limp. The Deshaun Watson who scampered around the Houston Texans’ practice field Wednesday at The Greenbrier resort looked very much like the eye-catching quarterback who became an instant NFL star last season as a rookie, running the football with aplomb and zipping passes on time and on target to his receivers.
It was, of course, only early August, more than a month until the on-field events begin to matter, and the defensive players who were on the field at this point meant Watson no harm. But on this day, at least, it was easy to envision Watson making a seamless and productive return from the torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee that cut short his dazzling rookie season, and leading the Texans back into playoff contention in the suddenly formidable AFC South.
“I don’t even think about it,” Watson said of his surgically repaired knee following practice. “When I’m on the field, I’m locked in, focused on my job. I try to have a positive play and try to get points on the board.”
Watson, the former Clemson standout taken 12th overall by the Texans in last year’s NFL draft, was well on his way to being the NFL’s offensive rookie of the year last season before suffering his injury during a November practice. In a 2017 NFL season filled with notable injuries, including those to fellow quarterbacks Carson Wentz of Philadelphia and Aaron Rodgers of Green Bay, Watson’s was about as deflating as any because he had established himself so quickly as one of the league’s most electrifying players.
He inexplicably began the season on the bench but quickly took over as the Texans’ starter in Week 2. He threw for 1,699 yards and 19 touchdowns in his seven games. His passer rating of 103.0 would have been the league’s third best, behind only Kansas City’s Alex Smith and Drew Brees of New Orleans, if he’d had enough passing attempts to qualify. He had a five-touchdown game against the Chiefs and was coming off a 402-yard passing performance at Seattle when he got hurt.
Now the issue is whether he can come back and do it again — and whether his knee will allow it to happen so soon. It is not Watson’s first experience with this sort of thing. He rebounded from a torn left ACL as a freshman at Clemson to lead the school to a national championship and consecutive title game appearances against Alabama.
“Just kind of just the same way I’m doing with this one: I was back by the first day of training camp and was able to participate in everything and all the drills,” Watson said. “We didn’t even look back. We just kind of went forward. … We didn’t even think about the knee. … It’s not an issue now. It wasn’t an issue back then, either.”
That experience perhaps has served Watson well in this return.
“I’m very pleased with how he goes about his business every day,” Texans Coach Bill O’Brien said Wednesday. “He’s really attacked that rehab to put himself in position to be able to be out here and practice. I think having, unfortunately, done it before, he had a real good understanding of the timetable for the rehab to be able to be ready to practice. And he’s gone out here and been able to do everything we’ve asked him to do. … I think we do a good job of monitoring his reps and guys are doing a good job of not getting near him on the pass rush and things like that. But he’s been full-go.”
In Watson’s second NFL training camp, there is no doubt that this Texans’ offense now belongs to him.
“We studied his snaps from last year and looked at some things that maybe we could add to those things,” O’Brien said. “And, again, because of when he was injured, there were many things that we didn’t run. There were a lot of things that we really didn’t get to. So it’s not like we had to reinvent the wheel with any of those things. We’ve been able to, like I said, look at a lot of things in OTAs and then kind of drill down on it here in training camp. Today was a back and forth with the defense. But overall I think these guys have been really receptive to what we’re trying to do.”
Watson has less than half a season of NFL starting experience. But he said even that relatively modest amount of seasoning helps immensely.
“I understand what the defense is doing,” Watson said. “I understand what we want to do on the offensive side and what Coach O’Brien wants to do. So when I have that knowledge and continue to gain experience each and every day and seeing different looks, it slows down the game and it helps us on offense to get a positive play and make sure we’re in the right play.”
The Texans, after a 4-12 season, need Watson to be very good in a division that includes the Jacksonville Jaguars, who reached last season’s AFC championship game, and the Tennessee Titans, who reached a conference semifinal before losing at New England. Even the Indianapolis Colts have renewed hopes as quarterback Andrew Luck returns after missing all of last season following shoulder surgery.
Watson excelled as both a runner and a passer as a rookie. He ran for 269 yards in seven games. He said he won’t change his approach in Year 2, even with the injury.
“The only difference is I’m more knowledgeable than I was last year, which is a good thing,” Watson said. “Outside of that, I’m gonna do what I do and continue to do that. There’s no reason to change it. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. So what I’ve done before has got me to the position I am today. I’m just gonna build on it and keep crafting it.”
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