Deshaun Watson is one of the most accomplished and revered college football players in recent history. As a true freshman, Watson stepped into the starting quarterback position for a rising Clemson team. His freshman season was sadly cut short due to injury, but in the few games he did play, the talent was as clear as day. Watson was set to be one of college football’s premier players.
Upon Watson’s return in 2015, he took over the college football circuit. The true sophomore made a run at the Heisman trophy and the National Championship. Alabama ultimately defeated Watson for both awards as Derrick Henry won the Heisman and Alabama eked out a victory over Clemson in the National Championship, but Watson’s 2015 season solidified him as a star.
2016 had to be Watson’s year. He had built up a legend around himself throughout his first two seasons and it was safe to assume that Watson was not going to return for his senior season, seeing as a good junior season would surely make him a top pick in the NFL draft. To the surprise of many, himself included, Watson did not get off to an ideal start in 2016. Watson opened the season with a rough game against a mediocre Auburn team, only to follow up that performance with a troubling game against Troy. Watson just didn’t look like himself.
Following the Troy game, Watson spoke about what was going on with himself and the rest of the Clemson offense. Watson identified two primary issues for Clemson’s struggles: not having fun and not being in sync. Watson, who has proven to be a self aware and accountable player, elaborated on the expectations he set for himself and how that held him back from just having fun on the field. He wasn’t playing the way he knows how to play. In addition, Watson admitted that the offense wasn’t operating as crisply as it needed to or as it had in the past.
This was a critical development for Watson in 2016. Of course, Watson and the rest of the Clemson offense did not immediately flip the switch following this press conference. Watson still looked to not be totally himself throughout the Georgia Tech and Louisville games that followed the Troy game. Watson’s awareness and willingness to troubleshoot foreshadowed an awakening that would soon occur, though.
Watson was himself again by the North Carolina State game, which was nearly halfway through Clemson’s regular season. Watson’s revival took longer than it should have, but he got there and never looked back once he did. Clemson went ballistic once Watson returned to form. Unfortunately for Watson, the string of inconsistent outings to start the season left a sour taste in many analysts’ mouths. Watson is stuck with the baggage from those games. To a degree, that is fair, but treating each separate game that a quarterback plays as an entirely individual entity is misguided.
A quarterback’s film catalog for a given season is like a book. The prologue and opening few chapters are necessary for understanding the remainder of the story. What may seem problematic in Chapter Two may be dissolved and made sense of by Chapter 10. A quarterback’s season needs to be thought of as a cumulative effort, not a collection of 12-14 individual performances. (This goes for all players, but I won’t pretend to be as well versed about positions that aren’t quarterback.)
Watson’s Louisville game is often highlighted as a point of criticism. The criticism is warranted; Watson did not play his best football against Louisville in 2016. The conundrum with the Louisville game is that most of what made Watson’s performance an unflattering one were issues that Watson cleaned up as the season went on.
Watson’s read and Mike Williams’ separation allowed this play to work, but Watson’s throw left more to be desired. He left the ball on the receiver’s back shoulder instead of leading him into the open area and away from the defender. This is the type of ball placement that will work less often in the pros than it did in college.
Watson gets lazy here. His feet and shoulders do not get aligned in a way that allows him to open his hips smoothly and drive on the throw. As a result, Waston wasn’t able to bring his weight forward. He slightly favored his back heel until he was ready to throw, but he did not bring that weight all the way forward so as to generate torque and properly follow through on his throwing motion. Watson was cutting corners with his mechanics, and it disrupted his torque and release point, ultimately resulting in the pass being left a bit inside. It’s not a disastrous throw, but Watson toed the line of error too closely on this one.
Earlier in the game, however, Watson did make a disastrous throw on the exact same route. Watson lost his footing during the fake exchange to the running back and chose to not reset himself. Throughout the entirety of the play, Watson had his shoulders opened away from the target and had his feet hopping every which way. Watson in no way prepared himself to make this throw. When he tried to make this throw work, the ball left his hands without much velocity or control. The ball ended up being placed dangerously behind the wide receiver and a Louisville defender was able to undercut the throw for an interception. This kind of process is inexcusable from Watson.
These two plays failed to be executed to their full potential because Watson’s footwork and overall mechanics were lacking. Until the North Carolina State game, Watson displayed those types of inconsistencies on a number of different routes and concepts. It was odd to see from Watson, who the country had seen be better before. Watson was lights out when he got it together, though.
This is from Watson’s game versus Florida State, well after the Louisville game. Whereas Watson could not manage proper mechanics from a clean pocket in the plays from the Louisville game, Watson shows great mechanics from a compromised position on this play. It’s not a perfect throw, but ball placement can be evaluated with a longer leash when a quarterback is under pressure.
Watson’s mechanics on this play are about as good as they could be from this spot. Two Florida State defenders quickly generate pressure as one crashes through the B-gap and another loops around the edge through the C-gap. Watson is not given much time to make this play work, but he sees his target and makes a move in the pocket to put himself in position to throw the ball.
As Watson moves up in the pocket, he turns his shoulders toward his target and puts his feet in a position that allow him to get his hips around without any trouble. To be able to execute all three of those movements at once is tough and displays what Watson is truly capable of in terms of mechanics. Due to Watson’s swift adjustment and clean throwing motion, he was able to stick the throw. Few college quarterbacks make that adjustment and throw under that sort of pressure.
Again, here is Watson (against Ohio State in a playoff game) adjusting his shoulders and feet to make a throw from a compressed pocket. Watson comes off of his reads to the left side of the field, redirects his shoulders to the target area, steps into his throwing motion and delivers a strike. This is clinical.
While it is not the same exact play concept that Watson struggled with in the Louisville game, it is the same route to the same wide receiver (Williams). Watson proved that, in fact, he could step into this throw properly and lead his receiver toward easy yards after the catch. Throughout the second half of the 2016 season, including the post season circuit, Watson made this throw consistently to both sides of the field and washed away concerns of him being able to complete this pass.
After having seen both versions of Deshaun Watson in 2016, it is then down to an evaluator to determine which side of Watson is more representative of who he is. This question is different for every player, but in the case of Watson, the “good” is more representative than the “bad.” Watson has consistently shown good mechanics, adjustments and decisions since his freshman year in 2014. He is allowed to have a spurt of play that is not his best–all quarterbacks are subject to that.
With that in mind, Watson’s odd start to the 2016 season should be less of an overall concern and more of a reminder that sometimes players are not going to be at their best. Look at Tennesee Titans and former Oregon Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota this season. He got off to a rocky start during his sophomore campaign in the NFL before tearing up a slew of different defenses for the remainder of the season. Mariota’s poor play wasn’t indicative of him being a bad quarterback, it was simply a reminder that nobody is always at their best, especially young quarterbacks.
Deshaun Watson is not without faults. He can be overzealous with his reads, he is often too quick to bail from the pocket and his accuracy down the field is mediocre. All of those things show up in every game, more or less. Inconsistent mechanics and shoddy intermediate placement, however, mostly haunted Watson during the early parts of the season and went away during the home stretch.
If Watson’s 2016 season were to be watched out of order, Watson’s inconsistencies in mechanics and intermediate placement would not make as much sense compared to if his 2016 season were to be watched chronologically. Progression/regression over the course of a season is normal and happens to all quarterbacks at some point or another for a myriad of different reasons. Watson is not a victim of overall regression, but was rather a victim of the moment. Deshaun Watson’s evaluation should not be heavily burdened by things that he had proven to be good at before and cleaned up by the midway point in the season.