Deshaun Watson’s situation with the Texans could make the NFL more like the NBA

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John Crumpler
·7 min read
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Arian Foster made waves when he finally spoke on Deshaun Watson and his current disgruntled situation with the Houston Texans. Specifically, he said that, “if they’re smart, they’ll bend to his will.”

“If I’m the organization, I bend to his will. There’s no way you don’t. He’s a generational quarterback. You never had a quarterback like him. You’re not going to have a quarterback like him in the next who knows how many decades. You bend to his will. What do you need to keep you here? What would keep you here? What do you want? What do you need?”

This is a situation that isn’t new or even unusual in the sport’s landscape, however it is one that is totally unprecedented in the NFL. The NFL does not bend to player’s wills, it just doesn’t happen. We have seen LeBron James and other NBA superstars totally dictate their franchises general manager and head coaching hires, free agent signings, and even draft picks.

Yes, the Miami Heat did draft Shabazz Napier. LeBron left anyways.

The NBA and the NFL are similar in that superstar players are the fastest way to relevancy. It is not a situation akin to Major League Baseball where the Los Angeles Angels who can employ a generational talent [Mike Trout] and consistently fail to compete for championships. Star basketball and football players, specifically star quarterbacks in the NFL, offer an immediate recipe for success and relevancy in their respective leagues.

NFL player autonomy and the modern idea of “player autonomy” began in earnest in 1993. Before then, the NFL relied on a “reserve” system where players were obligated to play for the team’s that drafted them until they retired or were traded. Even after forfeiting the reserve system, mechanisms such as the “franchise tag,” which forces a player to re-sign for one year, were invented to allow the owners to stay in control.

Meanwhile, the NBA has a storied history of stars getting their way. The history of basketball is full of player’s forcing trades or signing in bigger markets to better satisfy their wishes. Kevin Garnett, Shaquille O’Neal and a myriad of other stars come to mind with the biggest being James. The former 2003 first-round pick has now won a championship with three different franchises, changed the face of the league in 2010 when he spurned the Cleveland Cavaliers, who drafted him, to sign in Miami with fellow All-Stars Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh.

However, despite their similar impact in terms of championship necessity, NFL players and quarterbacks have never had the agency that NBA players have had. Their contracts contain less guaranteed money, their owners take in a larger percentage of profit, and their Player’s Association is considered the weakest in American sports. The recently negotiated CBA, which will allow Houston to hypothetically fine Watson indefinitely should he choose to withhold his services, is still an albatross against the players despite making necessary steps forward.

Todd McFall is an Assistant Teaching Professor of Economics at Wake Forest University and a frequently cited sports economist. His work frequently focuses on NCAA governance issues, however he joined the TexansWire to discuss this seemingly unprecedented situation in the context of history and the NFL Player’s Association.

“The NFLPA is by far the weakest union in North American professional sport,” McFall said. “The personnel system the league has designed, with hard salary caps and franchise tags, makes it really difficult for a player to pull off the moves Watson is attempting.”

Now, at a similar crossroads as LeBron in 2010, Watson may be changing the course of the NFL. It has been no secret that Watson is not happy with ownership, the presence of executive vice president of football operations Jack Easterby in the front office, and the entire process that went into hiring Nick Caserio as the new general manager. This is not to mention the sham of an interview process Eric Bieniemy has received, and the subsequent hiring of David Culley.

On Thursday, the inevitable finally happened and Watson requested a trade from the Houston Texans.

This all comes after Watson simply asked to have a voice in the decision making of the front office to represent the locker room. There was no claim that he should get to make the hire, but rather a request to make his voice heard and a subsequent guarantee from the owner that he would be involved in the process. Things have come a LONG way from 2017.

Spurned from even being allowed to give input, Watson now stands at the precipice of totally re-writing how the NFL functions. Historically star quarterbacks have played their entire career with one franchise until they’re too old and retire or are “replaced” by the team against their wishes. Peyton Manning only left Indianapolis because they wanted to draft Andrew Luck. Brett Favre left Green Bay because the Packers wanted to start Aaron Rodgers. Tom Brady is the only significant “free agent” superstar quarterback that comes to mind and he didn’t use this ability until he was 43 years old.

McFall likened the situation to Kyrie Irving who, disgruntled with LeBron after the 2017 season, forced his way off of the previously Eastern Conference champion Cavaliers. To those expecting Watson to land a trade, proceed with caution.

“Let’s be clear, the lack of strength the NFLPA has relative to the owners makes this very different than Kyrie Irving forcing his way out of Cleveland,” said McFall. “When players want out of an NFL deal, they generally have to stop playing for a considerable amount of time, maybe even retire, and find their way back to the league. Watson’s demands have little precedent in the NFL, which speaks to how little leverage the NFLPA has in negotiations and how good Watson believes himself to be.”

“How good Watson perceives himself to be” may be a perfect anecdote for this situation. Watson is indeed a stud, a bona fide top three quarterback in the league, and he’s aware of this. A 25-year-old franchise quarterback deciding to forge his own path, even if it means changing teams, is absolutely unprecedented in the NFL. It is a challenge that owners have never faced before and something that McNair may hear about from his peers before any trade is made.

Should the Texans trade Watson, they set a new precedent in the NFL. One that places star quarterbacks at the top of the pyramid rather than below owner, general manager, and coach as the hierarchy has traditionally stood.

Quarterbacks have long been considered short-term employees like any other player. Replaceable. Regardless of their importance to winning, they have not been allowed to dictate free agent signings or, much less, the hiring of a general manager or owner. As an example look at how long it took Rodgers to oust longtime coach Mike McCarthy to upgrade to Matt LeFleur.

Should Watson be granted his trade to Miami, New York, or any other non-Kansas City team in the NFL, the narrative suddenly shifts. Keep your quarterback happy, no matter what, or he can ask to leave.

This is why we suddenly stand at a potentially historical moment. Will McNair grant Watson’s wish and change the NFL landscape for his fellow owners? Does he bend dramatically in an attempt to accommodate Watson and fire the maligned Easterby? Or, as is the historical NFL precedent, does the owner hold his ground? Despite certainly creating a cancer in the franchise, McNair can do this. He is the CEO, Chairman, and son of the late founder of the team.

McNair could simply decide to let Watson holdout or trade him. NFL franchises have always considered themselves greater than one player, look at how New England treated Tom Brady, and maybe McNair thinks the Texans can survive without him.

Precedent tells us this won’t workout for Watson and the team finds a way to placate the star. However, as the saying goes, “That’s why we watch the games.” Time will reveal if Watson takes the NFL to the NBA.