CHARLOTTE, N.C. – When his first game in an NFL uniform had wrapped, Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson was sliding his way across the field when a grinning face appeared from the crowd. Reaching for Watson’s hand, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton wasn’t letting the rookie leave without a little slap of approval.
“It was just all love and support,” Watson said of the encounter. “There was some other stuff, but … ”
Watson smiled and stopped from sharing too much.
“Just love and support,” he said.
That will be a familiar theme the day after Watson’s first start. Lots of love. But also some support that he may push Tom Savage for the starting job in the next few weeks. At the very least, he appears to be on his way to earning at least a look with the first-team offense at some point.
Any presumption of Watson’s rise to starter is still premature after one game against the Panthers’ second-string preseason defense. But by all accounts, it was a very respectable debut. Watson finished with 203 total yards and a 15-yard rushing touchdown that flashed every bit of his playmaking abilities as a star at Clemson. But perhaps most important, Watson had zero turnovers and never really put the football in jeopardy, even throwing it away on a handful of occasions rather than forcing a mistake.
At least somewhat surprisingly, this all came in more than two quarters of work, with the Texans stretching Watson’s debut into the fourth quarter in a game that ended in a 27-17 Panthers victory.
“You always have a plan going in,” Texans coach Bill O’Brien said. “I just felt like three series was good for Tom [Savage]. I wanted to get Deshaun a lot of playing time in his first pro game. That’s kind of how it worked out.”
The extended work will translate into plenty of reps to break down for Watson in his film session, which is what he needs as he works to chase Savage on the depth chart. O’Brien declined to rate the performance until after that film work is complete, but the Texans’ staff will certainly end up seeing a mixed bag of (mostly) good, (some) bad, and no shortage of tweaking before facing the New England Patriots in their second preseason game.
In many ways, Watson was typical for a rookie quarterback in his first outing: sailing balls high, throwing behind receivers and occasionally overextending plays to the detriment of his offensive line. Some of the work ahead is mechanical in nature – mostly the footwork grind that plagues almost all young NFL passers. And there might be some work to do with the skill position players around Watson as well, after he repeatedly showed an ability to improvise when plays broke down, leaving receivers to adapt to unscripted moments.
But that’s the exciting part of Watson that was on display against the Panthers. Like his college days, he showed an ability to create plays against Carolina, which is a wrinkle that Savage has yet to really offer to the Texans.
“He’s a smart player,” O’Brien said. “He’s an instinctive player. First game out there, I thought he did some good things. It’s a big jump, you know? A big jump from college to the NFL and I thought he handled it pretty well. [There are] probably a couple things that we could have done differently. He could have played a little bit better on certain plays. But overall I thought he handled himself pretty well for the first time out.”
It was enough for a little love from the coaching staff. And in the next few weeks, maybe some added support for Watson’s climb to the top of the depth chart.
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