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Dorktown: Please stop wasting Deshaun Watson’s greatness

A quarterback as great as Deshaun Watson has never played for a losing team. But in Houston, that’s what’s unfolding.

We can all agree that the Houston Texans have a terrific passing game.

Chart: Passer rating of every NFL team, 2020 season through Week 14. The Texans are #3 in the NFL.

The Texans sit in third, behind only Aaron Rodgers’ Packers and Patrick Mahomes’ Chiefs. One of Houston’s throws this season was a weird gimmick play, a short dump-off from wideout Randall Cobb that fell incomplete. The other 431 have been thrown by Deshaun Watson, a top-tier quarterback talent who’s piecing together the best statistics of his young career.

In the modern NFL, a team’s passing ability is so often what separates the serious contenders from everyone else. Used to be, a fearsome defense or gashing rushing attack could ferry you to the upper echelons, but this isn’t nearly as true these days.

Chart: Wins and passer rating of every NFL team, 2010-2020. A superior passer rating very clearly correlates with more winning.

You wanna get in the green? You wanna be a playoff team? You probably need a considerably above-average passing game. For good measure, you should try to jack your passer rating past 100. Do that and you’re virtually guaranteed to, at the bare minimum, come within spitting distance of the postseason.

This is what’s known as twisting the knife. Bloop!

Chart: Same chart as above, but with one dot highlighted. The 2020 Texans boast a passer rating of 110, far higher than any dot around it, yet are projected to finish with just five wins.

Aside from those winless 2017 Browns and their 61.4 passer rating, there is no lonelier dot on the map than that of this year’s Texans. Over the last decade and change, every other team with a passer rating this high finished with double-digit wins. Most finished (or are likely to finish) with 13 or more wins, which in many seasons is the best record in the NFL.

The Texans are on pace for FIVE. This shouldn’t be possible. A team quarterbacked by a generational talent, healthy and at the peak of his powers, should not go 5-11.

So far we’ve exclusively relied on passer rating as the standard by which we measure passing ability, so let’s switch it up to something a little more precise: adjusted net yards per pass attempt. Let’s also expand the scope to every quarterback season of the entire post-merger era, 1970-2020.

Chart: Pass attempts and adjusted net yards per pass attempt for every individual QB season, 1970-2020. Watson is on pace to complete a season that, in these respects, is among the best ever.

The leftmost highlighted dot in green is Deshaun Watson. The other highlighted to the right is Deshaun Watson if he maintains his current pace through the end of the season. This is already a spectacular season. If he keeps it up, one could absolutely make the argument that in terms of both quality and quantity, we’re looking at one of the, I don’t know, 10 or 20 greatest quarterback seasons ever? That’s fair to say, isn’t it?

Watson’s on track to start all 16 games, so let’s scoop up all such seasons that are even within his stratosphere and see how many games they won.

Chart: Wins of every quarterback to finish a season with an adjusted net yards per pass attempt of at least 7.0, min. 16 games started. Even if Watson finished 7-9, he’ll have the worst record ever for a quarterback so great.

Continuing to assume Watson maintains his ANY/A of 7.99, here are the four places he could possibly finish here: four, five, six, or seven wins. Having already lost nine games, the Texans have doomed him to a losing season. Suppose they somehow do run the table the rest of the way and finish with seven wins! He’d still be without peer.

Watson’s nearest neighbors in misery, hanging out there at eight wins and an ANY/A around 8.0, are 2004 Daunte Culpepper and 2008 Philip Rivers, two other tragically wasted seasons. Beyond that, every other quarterback of his caliber won 11 games. As before, the vast majority of them won 13.

It takes a hell of an anchor to sink a ship like this one.

Chart: 2020 teams with top-10 passing offenses, showing also their ranks in rushing offense, passing defense, and rushing defense. The Texans are #5 in passing offense, #32 in rushing offense, #24 in passing defense and #31 in rushing defense.

The best-passing offenses are typically supplemented by another department. Since these are ranked in terms of yardage, it’s natural that their rushing attacks wouldn’t be as strong, but they’re usually good, or at least decent, at stopping the pass or run on defense. The Texans and Lions (seen here as the No. 9 passing offense) are the only ones that sink like a sack of doorknobs in every other quadrant.

But the Texans are tragic in ways the Lions are not. You know who’s working the night shift, advancing the ball on the ground and accounting for roughly a third of Houston’s rushing yards? Deshaun Watson.

Chart: Rushing yards of every NFL team in 2020, sorted by quarterback rushing yards. Despite Watson rushing for more yards than the vast majority of quarterbacks, the Texans have the fewest rushing yards in the NFL.

The only quarterbacks who claim a higher percentage of their teams’ rushing yards are the Ravens’ Lamar Jackson and Cardinals’ Kyler Murray, both of whose teams are competing for playoff spots, are custom-built for their mobile QBs, and boast very formidable overall run games. The Texans, meanwhile, hold the fewest rushing yards in the NFL. In fairness, they call fewer runs than nearly every other team, but the fact remains that Watson is having to shoulder much of the load in this department as well.

Chart: Every 16-game QB season, 1970-2020, plotted by rushing yards and adjusted net yards per pass attempt. 2020 Deshaun Watson is pacing toward a combination of both that has only been surpassed by 1992 Steve Young.

Once again, this is Watson’s 16-game projection based on his pace through 13 games. But once again, we see the enormous amount he’s contributing to this season. Only one guy has thrown the ball with this level of excellence while running the ball for this many yards: 1992 Steve Young. Young went 14-2; In the event of a miracle Watson will go 7-9.

We’ve gotten this far without even mentioning two conditions so essential that they’ve defined the entire story of the 2020 Texans. The first is that prior to the season, they traded away Watson’s favorite target in DeAndre Hopkins, who might be the very best receiver in the NFL. It was one of the most lopsided deals in the modern history of American sports. Some of the best football writers working today tried to come up with some explanation as to why Houston would have agreed to such a horrendous trade, and like the Texans, they came up empty. I can only imagine how Watson must have taken it. It’s a crime that he, and we, have been robbed of a season that could have been even more spectacular.

The second is that the man responsible for the trade, head coach Bill O’Brien, was fired four games into the season. Watson has continued to deliver excellent performances week in and week out in spite of a degree of midseason upheaval that very few great quarterbacks ever have to deal with.

The popular line these days is to “save Deshaun Watson” or “free Deshaun Watson,” which I get, because we all want to see him enjoy the success he deserves. The guy is clearly unhappy about all the losing, but just as clearly, he wants this team to win. He wants to be in Houston, and he wants to turn it around. This season, in which a top-flight quarterback saw his realistic playoff hopes dashed four games in, has been an unprecedented one, and it’s hard to believe this will continue. They’ll start fresh next season, and a Deshaun Watson can only be held down for so long.

Regardless. Holy shit, Texans. How did you let this happen at all?

Previously on Dorktown: