But there was still joy to be found in the NFL in between those pockets of turbulence. One of last season’s bright spots was just how much of a delight Tony Romo was in his transition to the broadcast booth. Each week he telegraphed plays before they happened, as if he were in possession of the Eye of Agamotto. He gave us insight into safety blitzes, man coverage, and the impenetrable mind of Bill Belichick. He was comfortable watching an inscrutable play unfold and charmingly providing an “ooooh, ehhhh, pffffftttt?” narration. Above all, he was clearly having a blast, and that combination of expertise and enthusiasm made listening to him a treat — even, most impressively, for Thursday Night Football games.
Another highlight was more tantalizing, and more fleeting: the debut of Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson. In his six starts, he was electric and quickly found himself on pace to shatter the NFL rookie touchdown record. Then, cruelly, an ACL tear robbed him of his rightful heir to the Offensive Rookie of the Year throne. But the promise he showed — and the history he made in that brief time — was enough for us to breathlessly count down the days until we can watch him on a football field again.
Now imagine we didn’t get a chance to see either a year ago. It could have happened, if Romo hadn’t decided to retire last April.
Romo was one of the biggest free agents on the market after he got Wally Pipped by Dak Prescott. The Cowboys ended up releasing their longtime quarterback, who seemed destined to sign with a team in desperate need of veteran help under center, like the Broncos or the Texans. Romo later revealed that Houston was the team that interested him the most. Instead, he chose to set a new standard of what retired NFL players could be as on-air football analysts (no pressure, Jason Witten).
But what if ... dramatic pause ... he hadn’t?
Tony Romo would have started right away for the Texans, but they still could have drafted Deshaun Watson
If Romo had signed with the Texans, it’s certainly possible they wouldn’t have wanted to give up so much draft capital to trade up to get Watson. But let’s look at why the 2017 national championship hero still would’ve been worth parting with a future first-round pick:
- Romo would have been 36 going on 37, like an older, less mellifluous Liesl von Trapp. His latest injury was a broken bone in his back, less than three years after he underwent surgery for a herniated disk. He hadn’t been healthy for a full season since 2012 and had only played in five games in the previous two seasons.
- The only reason Houston isn’t saddled with the “worst QB luck” label is that the Browns exist. Matt Schaub had a couple of good seasons — and a legitimately great one — but was also injured in 2011 in what could’ve been and should’ve been a special year for the team. From 2014-16, the Texans started eight different quarterbacks, due to injuries and general Osweilerian incompetence.
- Speaking of, they were fresh off the Brock Osweiler fiasco, an era that can be aptly summed up with one play:
So the last thing the Texans needed was to swing and miss badly on a free agent quarterback without any insurance.
4. Their other quarterback was Tom Savage, whose ceiling is “break in case of an emergency.”
5. Unless this is revisionist history, the organization went gaga over Watson during the pre-draft process.
“Deshaun’s got a presence about him that the best ones have,” Rick Smith, general manager at the time, told the Houston Chronicle.
So let’s say that in this scenario, the Texans still trade up and draft Watson and can be patient with him. In reality, they started Savage in Week 1, even though Watson was clearly a special talent. That leaves no doubt that Romo, who would’ve been an expensive addition and had a decade of starting experience, would’ve been under center in the season opener.
From there, we have a few different paths this alternate universe could’ve taken.
Scenario 1: Romo would remain the starting quarterback, if he stayed healthy
There’s no guarantee that Romo, football old and with all that injury toll on his body, would have been able to bounce back. But we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. He’s got a chip on his shoulder, ready to prove he’s not washed yet. Maybe he’s not the same guy who completed almost 70 percent of his passes in 2014, but he can still sling it. Perhaps he even found that ol’ Dez-like chemistry with DeAndre Hopkins, who might be part alien considering the receiving numbers he’s put up each season despite a revolving door of coat racks throwing him the ball.
The Texans probably aren’t any better than they were before Watson got hurt, though.
Their wins with Watson — over the Bengals, Titans, and Browns — would probably have been wins under Romo. The losses — against the Jaguars in Week 1 and then the Patriots, Chiefs, and Seahawks in Watson’s starts — would likely still have been losses. Watson played some of his best football in those defeats, but a mix of puzzling play-calling and shoddy defense cost the Texans a couple of wins.
Romo wouldn’t have been able to fix everything either, especially their tough schedule, a weak secondary, and the injuries to defensive playmakers like J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus. But it’s those losses after Watson’s injury that Romo could have helped make up for.
In their last nine games, the Texans beat the Cardinals and no one else. By the final month, they were forced to start T.J. Yates when Savage suffered a scary concussion and ended the season on a six-game losing streak. They finished with a 4-12 record.
If Romo had been playing, healthy and effective, Houston could still be hanging around in the playoff race in early November. From there, 3-5 more wins seems doable, in addition to their real one against the Cardinals. The most likely candidates for those extra victories: the Colts (twice), 49ers, and maybe the Ravens and Titans (again). Topping the playoff-bound Rams, Jaguars, and Steelers would’ve been much more difficult.
A 9-7 finish isn’t plausible, but it’d still be possible. In this example, it means they would have to beat the Ravens and Titans, who both would’ve dropped to 8-8. The Titans would then fall out of the playoff picture, setting up a three-way tie between the Texans, Bills, and Chargers for two wild card spots. Houston would lose out on the strength of victory tiebreaker, but it would change the AFC picture by setting up a Wild Card Round matchups between the Chargers and Jaguars, and the Bills and Chiefs. (The Patriots would inevitably still win the AFC, however.)
The more feasible result is that the 7-9 or 8-8 Texans miss out on the playoffs and maybe spoil the Titans’ season. As long as Romo doesn’t get injured, then Watson might only ever take the field for mop-up duty.
Or maybe Watson gets hurt before getting an opportunity to do even that.
Scenario 2: Watson could have still torn his ACL in practice
There’s a chance that Watson was always going to get hurt. His ACL injury came in practice, and no one even touched him. He just tripped on the grass, something seemingly so innocuous cheating him out of the rest of the season.
If the same thing happened before he ever got to sniff the field — or before he got any serious playing time — then he’s not future superstar Deshaun Watson. He’s an unknown. Or worse, he’s a costly first-round pick who might be injury prone.
In that case, Houston would feel pretty good about going into 2018 with Romo.
Scenario 3: Romo gets hurt and Watson takes over
Poor Romo, who would be feeling some intense déjà vu if this hypothetical took place. Let’s imagine that early in the season Romo goes down with an injury, Watson comes on in relief and then he plays as well as he did in real life. The team wouldn’t be able to turn back now.
If Watson still tears his ACL, the Texans could go back to Romo, if he’s healthy again. (If not, Houston’s quarterback situation is the same thing that actually happened, but there’s no need for us to relive those two months of Savage-Yates.)
Then the big offseason question in Houston becomes: do the Texans keep Romo and ease Watson back from his injury? Or do they follow in the Cowboys’ footsteps and cut ties with Romo and embrace the future?
At that point, we could be back to where we were an offseason ago: Romo decides he’s had enough and retires to join the broadcast world. A team in Texas has its young, franchise quarterback that it’s understandably excited about.
In the end, everyone is where they should be. Romo deciding to retire instead of continuing his football career in Houston worked out best for him — and selfishly, for us too. And the Texans can, for the first time in a while, feel confident about who they have as their starting quarterback heading into a new season.