Let’s start with the assumption that Deshaun Watson can play quarterback at an elite level, but does that mean he can play at that level for Kevin Stefanski and the Browns?
This is not a slam dunk because he played for a brilliant offensive mind in Bill O’Brien, who has the reputation of being able to draw up an offense that can play to the talents of quarterbacks ranging from Tom Brady to Brock Osweiler and still score touchdowns.
Watson had never played for another coach in the pros prior to coming to Cleveland. Stefanski, on the other hand, was also brilliant but known for a more focused formula: run-heavy, ball control, with extra blockers, suitable for a game-manager quarterback like Case Keenum or Baker Mayfield.
Stefanski’s style, in theory, allowed the team to invest in tight ends and fullbacks instead of costly speed demon wide receivers, and thus was very salary-cap-friendly, allowing the team to spend its resources on defense. Of course, this assumes that they make wise investments, rather than signing players like Austin Hooper, who will draw a $7.5 million cap charge in 2023 even though he does not play for them any longer. It’s not automatic.
All that is out the window with the signing of Watson, a premier quarterback who comes with a premier price tag and can best be paired with pricey wide receivers. Let’s not go crazy questioning Watson. He can play quarterback. But in the NFL, there is only a hair’s breadth difference between a top-five quarterback and an average quarterback. Who belongs in the top five anyway?
Look at top-salaried quarterbacks. Although we are pretty sure Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen are worth what they are getting, quarterbacks such as Ryan Tannehill, Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers, Carson Wentz, Kyler Murray, Russell Wilson, and Derek Carr are more controversial values. It’s a fair question to ask whether Watson truly is a perennial top-five quarterback as his paycheck suggests, or whether he might be a capable player, who, like most quarterbacks, is about as good as the players around him.
So what were the attributes that allowed him to work with Bill O’Brien so well that he was able to pass for 269 yards per game and throw for 104 TDs versus only 36 INTs in Houston?
Why Deshaun Watson was successful in Houston
Watson himself breaks down the Houston offense in an interview with Kurt Warner and Brian Baldinger in NFL Films. You can link to it here: Deshaun Watson Chalkboard session with Warner and Baldinger.
Never fear, Watson is a highly intelligent quarterback who makes complex reads and progressions. However, he’s not necessarily reading defensive backs and coverages, but starting with defensive linemen and linebackers. The Texans’ play begins with a handoff, which Watson pulls back at the last instant to turn into a passing play (the run-pass option). He then has a choice of throwing to a running back or shifting his focus downfield to a wide receiver. In many cases, the play is designed so that at least one receiving target is in the same field of view.
This is neither good nor bad, but it’s not the same as the reads made by Baker Mayfield or Kirk Cousins in Stefanski’s offense, or Aaron Rodgers in Alex Van Pelt’s Green Bay Packers offense. Those quarterbacks were making multiple reads downfield, with the proverbial “head on a swivel” seeking to split the seam in a zone.
Incidentally, in that 2019 season, Watson’s backfield was populated by ex-Browns Duke Johnson and Carlos Hyde, who combined for 1,932 yards from scrimmage. Both were thought to be washed up with the Browns, but flourished under coach O’Brien.
This is kind of worrisome. The presumption is that the credit for Watson’s success belongs exclusively to the player and not to the coach. That’s what we thought about brilliant Russell Wilson and dumb old coach Pete Carroll of the Seahawks, who was holding Russ back.
If only Carroll were out of the way, Russ would win Super Bowl after Super Bowl. Remember that narrative?
Maybe, just maybe, we got that wrong and Carroll might deserve just a little credit for Wilson’s success in Seattle. Similarly, the assumption is that O’Brien was just a hood ornament in Houston, who had nothing to do with Deshaun’s success there. But that might not be exactly true.