HOUSTON — Deshaun Watson is still on the roster. My flimsy paper roster wilted in the noon-in-Texas sun and crumpled further in the mid-practice rain, but Watson’s No. 4 remained in its place at the top of the sheet listing the team’s 78 active players, sandwiched between No. 3, defensive back Cornell Armstrong, and No. 5, his replacement, Tyrod Taylor.
Despite 22 women suing him for sexual misconduct during massage appointments, investigations by the NFL and Houston police, and reports of a local grand jury looking at if there is enough evidence for criminal charges, as well as FBI involvement, Watson remains a member of Houston’s active roster.
Watson himself never came outside Wednesday to work on any of the team’s three practice fields, though he’d been working on a side field the day before. Without his presence anywhere, it almost felt like a normal Texans training camp day.
With a new head coach and general manager, the Texans have experienced what must be the biggest roster overhaul in pro football this year. That means 59 percent of this team doesn’t personally know Watson as their quarterback. Does that make it more or less weird to see the disgraced star work out on his own on a side field, with neither team nor player acknowledging the most uncomfortable quarterback situation in the league?
“I would say it was weird the first two weeks,” said Justin Reid, a four-year veteran at safety. “But a lot of the guys that have come in, guys have relationships. The NFL is a small circle. There are only so many guys, a lot of these guys have been teammates before. … With the coaching change everything is so new and different and, because everything is different, it’s normal. It’s all that everyone knows.”
Team periods took place on the field farthest to the left of the player’s entrance from the facility. This required reporters, including myself, to angle ourselves horizontally to the sideline, so we could keep a view of the entrance in our peripheral vision. While Taylor worked on his connection to Brandin Cooks, we would glance over our shoulders periodically, eyes scanning that entrance for any movement. On Tuesday, Watson didn’t come out with the rest of his teammates at the start of practice. He waited until the fifth period of work to go out with his trainer to the side field.
At the beginning of training camp, when it was even less clear what Watson was doing here, first-year head coach David Culley did not want to discuss the quarterback who was sometimes showing up at practice but not participating in any team periods. “Nothing’s changed,” he said several times during the second week of training camp, when Watson was absent from practice.
But since then, a lot has changed. News broke earlier this month that grand jury subpoenas were being sent out, two women who sued Watson spoke to Sports Illustrated about their issues with the NFL’s investigation, and lawyers for the women and Watson both confirmed that the FBI is also looking into what happened. Watson hasn’t played in either of the Texans preseason games, and the final roster cutdown day is quickly approaching. At the start of training camp, the NFL released a statement saying there were “no restrictions” on Watson’s participation in team activities. When the SI story published, the NFL told ESPN’s Kimberley A. Martin that there is “no change to [Watson’s] status as the investigations by the Houston Police Department and the league continue.”
Culley wasn’t available to reporters on Wednesday, so I asked three members of the team, two assistant coaches and one player, how the head coach had explained Watson’s role to the team. They were also reluctant to reveal any actual information.
Reid: “What we really focus on and what he tells us is control the controls. At the end of the day, no matter what we think or what we do, we have nothing to do with that. We can’t control the outcome, we can’t make an effect on it, so if he’s here, that’s great, if he’s not here, we are going to play with what we have anyways. So the message has just been to stay at work and focus on your group and position group and go out and play the best ball you can play. “
Miles Smith, linebackers coach: “As a position coach or a coordinator, whoever you are, we all have to stay in our lane doing our job, and as a LB coach, all my attention goes to the nine players that we have right now and if I start paying attention to anything that is going on, then it is going to adversely affect our linebackers. Quite frankly, I don’t really—I have no idea what goes on with it because I am just worried about our nine linebackers, now if something happens with one of the LBs, then I probably will know what is going on. So I really don’t know.”
Andy Bischoff, tight ends coach: “Whether it is Deshaun or anyone else, [the message is] today we are going to coach the men that are available to be coached. And let’s focus on those people and let’s coach them the best we can today and tomorrow, if we have a different roster, slightly, we will coach those guys the best we can that day. And by keeping those distractions out of the conversation, it doesn’t matter if it’s the QB position, the TE position, whatever position, if you keep it positive and keep it focused on who is there and available, that’s all you have to worry about. Then you don’t have that drag and that weight lifted on us. Maybe it is out there somewhere, but we aren’t feeling that drag. We are just coaching the people that are here and enjoying each day.”
So Culley hasn’t specifically addressed Watson’s role and situation?
“He’s addressed it, but it’s so much less addressed than you might think it is,” Bischoff said. “It’s just as addressed if No. 54 wasn’t out there tomorrow, or No. 83 wasn’t out there tomorrow, or whatever.”
So he just reads off No. 4 in the same list as the guys who are injured?
“No, it’s not even—it hasn’t been addressed unless it needs to be addressed, and it’s certainly not addressed on a daily basis,” he said.
OK then. So Culley does address Watson’s status, but not very specifically, and not every day. Great.
Both Bischoff and Smith are new to the Texans staff this year, and both said none of their players have asked them any questions about what Watson is doing or what the team expects from him.
“Honestly, not one single time,” Smith said. “We all have a job to do, and especially during training camp, we don’t have time to deal with anything else.”
“They don’t [ask],” Bischoff said. “I think they understand it’s complex. I think they are all grown men who understand that this business is hard and they are all supporting him in their own way, especially those that have a relationship with him. All I know about Deshaun is every day I see him he has a smile on his face, and he is a nice young man to talk to. But our guys have been wonderful to him in their own way and whether it is him or anybody else, we have good teammates around here.”
Chalk it up to NFL tunnel vision, or a fear of asking too many questions when you really just need a paycheck and health insurance, but these Texans will hardly acknowledge there’s anything weird going on here. Smith said he didn’t even know Watson wasn’t at practice on Wednesday.
“I literally have no idea about any of this,” he said. “He could have been here the other day, and I don’t know. You are telling me new information honestly.”
Last Tuesday, Culley gave his most detailed answers about Watson, after the quarterback didn’t practice the day before, but his response still left a long list of questions in its wake.
“Deshaun is here,” Culley told reporters. “Again, every day he’s here, he comes in, and he works. He does what we ask him to do and he’s here every day and he’s doing fine.”
Is he injured, one reporter asked.
“No, he’s not injured,” Culley said. “Each day, we come up each day and we have a thing for him, and he got done what he needed to get done in practice.”
Is there a reason why he didn’t practice, Culley was asked.
“He got his work done yesterday, he just didn’t get it done out here,” he said. “We had a little bit different schedule. He’s doing fine. He is doing everything just like he has from day one.”
If Watson is doing what he’s asked, then what specifically is he being asked to do? Does that mean he is not being asked to play? I asked the next best person to Culley, Pep Hamilton, the man in charge of coaching the quarterback group, which still includes Watson.
“That’s a Coach Culley question,” he said.
Culley’s coaching identity is clearly big on the team-first idea. Reid described the Culley culture as “expressing yourself, but still being about the team. Expressing yourself where you can take it back to the team and not trying to be the Hollywood individual.” During my interview with Smith, he corrected himself after using the personal pronoun when referring to the linebacker group.
“My linebackers—excuse me, our linebackers,” he said.
But whether the Texans want Watson there or not, Watson is still a part of this team. He’s got a contract, and he’s on the roster. Texans coaches and leadership can not talk about it all they want, but it doesn’t change the situation: Their starting quarterback is being sued by 22 women who all say he committed sexual misconduct during massages, and he’s being investigated by police, and the FBI is involved. No amount of institutional silence can make that go away.