Now that Deshaun Watson has announced that he wants very much to be a former Houston Texan—an Ex-an, if you must—we can all marvel at the likelihood (as in near-certitude) that he will be the big story of Super Bowl Week. This is a remarkable development when you consider the identities of the two quarterbacks actually playing the game, but since one was in the Super Bowl last year and the other one has been in 50 percent of all the others in this century, there really isn’t much meat left on those narrative bones. You’ve heard it all before, either through the mythmaking powers of the NFL or insurance ads.
No, this is Watson’s time because he is the first young under-contract quarterback star to try to force his way to freedom. Dak Prescott, the most appealing free agent, is just that—free—but Watson is the guy with all the touchpoints for a great story with legs, to wit:
1. Talent. We will not bore you with the numbers anymore; suffice to say that without him, the Texans would have lost more games in 2020 than they played.
2. His current employers are a gigantic bag of catsick, strategically, tactically and optically. The Texans are so poorly run that even the football arch-conservatives who hate athletes with options are rooting for Watson to tunnel his way out in broad daylight. The new hires, general manager Nick Caserio and head coach David Culley, are viewed mostly as examples of Lord-they-know-not-what-they-do because Cal McNair thinks Jack Easterby should have an office in his building instead of handing him a cardboard box and pointing him to a railroad siding.
3. Watson has to fetch fair value. He can’t just up and leave the way Prescott can. That means fantasy mopes can try to figure out how many imaginary people (draft choices), actual people (current players) and more specifically quarterbacks (Tagovailoa? Trubisky? Darnold?) he is actually worth on the open market. Nothing, you see, invigorates the average FM quite like rolling around in a pile of what they like to call “assets,” because for them no actual people exist in their cognitive gymnastics.
4. The teams most likely to meet Houston’s asking price. The New York Jets are a persistent model of failure but are still considered interesting (mostly by the haunted and the dead) and have six first- or second-round picks in the next two years. Miami has Tua and four of the first 50 picks in this draft, and even though Tagovailoa has hardly brushed the styrofoam packing peanuts off his shoulders as a player, it’s like the old Brian Burke line: “I don’t want to trade you, but if someone offers me 10 first-round picks, your ass is on the next train.” Jacksonville has the first pick but nobody thinks Trevor Lawrence is a better prospect than Watson is a proven player, not even Dabo Swinney. None of them are interesting on their face, but one of them will have to be—unless…
5. The Texans could keep Watson. Then you’ve got the old unhappy quarterback/dullwitted employers dynamic that sets chat shows to humming, between body language analyses, Twitter parsings, agent leaks, and all the other time-honored reportorial tools of the day. Next to that alone, this Super Bowl is a cavalcade of oft-told tales, limited access (the Buccaneers don’t have to leave their homes and the Chiefs aren’t supposed to arrive in Tampa until late next week) and more people covering it on Zoom than from the media headquarters. In a sport known for its ability to keep strangers away, this Super Bowl may as well be Hubble telescope photos.
6. The other teams with quarterback problems. They all imagine there’s a package they can offer McNeasterby and Watson, who has a no-trade clause, that will free them of their current situations. Almost all of them can’t come close, half of them shouldn’t even bother to call, but all of them have fan bases which must be jollied along and ultimately deceived, so those teams will do the dance anyway and worry about the public price of failure later.
In sum, Watson is a much better story than the Super Bowl because it involves all the things people come to sports for now—contracts, trades, draft choices, executives who can’t decide if the water is warmer in the stupid pool or the evil hot tub, and fantasy implications. Watson’s ruminations impact teams in 20 cities rather than two. And unlike the Texans, he doesn’t have to answer to the NFL’s disdain for newsmaking outside the auspices of the big game.
The drudgery of an absentee Super Bowl Week has thus been eliminated. Deshaun Watson has replaced the Lombardi Trophy as the graphic icon of the week, and frankly, not a moment too soon. May his fight for freedom be unending, and may the recriminations, rancor, dangers, and all-around bitterness of that fight be unconfined.