A stationary safety lined up deep in the secondary to provide a scout-team presence as the offense locked in its alignment toward the end of the Texans’ first day of training camp.
It was an unusual moment during a highly unusual day in franchise and NFL history: watching one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the game relegated to a fourth-stringer practice role and wearing a No. 23 jersey temporarily on defense instead of his trademark No. 4.
This is the awkward reality, though, for embattled Pro Bowl quarterback Deshaun Watson and the Texans. This unenviable, unprecedented situation has been triggered by several complicated factors:
Watson’s standing trade request with no deal imminent, according to league sources, his 22 unresolved civil lawsuits alleging sexual assault and/or sexual misconduct, 10 complaints filed with the Houston Police Department in an active investigation, the NFL continuing to monitor the legal imbroglio and opting to not place him on the commissioner-exempt list and his decision to report to camp rather than be placed on the reserve-did not report list, avoiding $50,000 daily fines.
Greeted in a friendly manner by teammates, Watson was primarily limited to individual drills. One of his most active moments was carrying the football and protecting it during a ball-security drill. Watson did what was asked for him contractually, but he didn’t appear anywhere near as engaged as he normally does as he took his place outside a full-team huddle instead of his customary spot in the middle of the team.
As unusual as this hold-in is and as much as the three-time Pro Bowl passer dominated conversations and headlines at practice, Texans general manager Nick Caserio was steadfast in his opinion that this doesn’t qualify as a distraction
“I'd say just generally speaking, society, there's probably a lot of noise on an external basis,” Caserio said. “I think one of the things that we've been consistent about is trying to focus in on what goes on in our building and the things that we can control, which is our effort, which is our attitude, which is our meeting, which is preparing for practice. There’s going to be things externally that are said or noise as you've referenced but again it's not our job to get caught up in that. I would not be doing my job if I was worried about some of those things.
“I don't want to speak for anybody else, but it really hasn't been a distraction. We don't think it will be a distraction. Again, I think our staff and players have done a great job of focusing on the things that are germane and relevant to them which is their individual performance and individual job. It really has not been a distraction.”
Minutes after Caserio, Watson walked into the team's training room. Shortly afterward, he was on the practice field with his teammates wearing a red jersey over a hooded sweatshirt and throwing passes.
His teammates, including wide receiver Brandin Cooks and safety A.J. Moore, declined to discuss Watson in any detail.
“I don’t really want to speak too much about it because it's not my situation to talk about, but it's good to see him out here,” running back David Johnson said.
Watson is "intentional," according to sources, in not wanting to play for the AFC South franchise that signed him to a blockbuster $156 million contract extension a year ago, is drawing interest from multiple NFL teams who are conducting their due diligence on potential trade scenarios. The Texans want three first-round draft picks in exchange for Watson.
The Philadelphia Eagles, Miami Dolphins and the Denver Broncos are among the potential landing destinations for Watson.
Meanwhile, Watson remains in professional limbo.
“It has not been a distraction at all,” Texans coach David Culley said. “He’s been very professional about everything, just like all the guys that have been here. It's just been business as usual.”
Caserio declined to say if Watson has reiterated his trade request. He really didn’t need to be informed that was the case, though.
“I'm not going to comment on what's been communicated or what conversations we've had,” Caserio said. “I think that's more of a private, out of respect to everybody involved. I think the most important thing is to keep it between ourselves.”
Watson took and passed the Texans’ conditioning test. He is in optimal condition after training this offseason with Billy Voltaire, a former Texans and Broncos strength and conditioning coach and performance therapy specialist, and weighs roughly 218 pounds.
“I'd say we've had conversations,” Caserio said of his interactions with Watson. “I'm not going to get into the nature of those conversations. Again, he's here. He's been in meetings, he went through the conditioning test. We're going to take it one day at a time and do what we feel is best on a day-to-day basis.”
Going forward, Culley didn’t indicate how the Texans will proceed with Watson’s workload at practice. He referred to this time as a ramp-up time for Watson after skipping the entire offseason program and organized team activities. The last thing the Texans or Watson want is an injury affecting his already complex trade value.
“We want to make sure during this ramp-up period that nothing happens,” Culley said. “Guys throw too much, guys’ arms get sore, and we want to make sure none of those things happen.”
Culley expressed no concern about having Watson practicing taking away any snaps from quarterbacks Tyrod Taylor, the starter, rookie Davis Mills and Jeff Driskel.
“If we feel like we need to give him more reps, we’ll give him more reps,” Culley said.
No reconciliation with Watson is expected. For now, this uneasy situation will continue.
“I know there's been a lot of speculation about what the Texans will do about a lot of different scenarios and quite frankly, a lot of it is speculation,” Caserio said. I'm not going to comment about rumors, about what we have done, what we're going to do, what the plan is. That’s not what I’m going to do.
“That's not my responsibility. The reason I was brought here by the McNair family is to do what's best for the Houston Texans organization on a day-to-day basis and that's my responsibility to ownership, that’s my responsibility to the players and that’s my responsibility to the coaching staff.”
Aaron Wilson has covered the NFL for 20 seasons, including the Texans, Baltimore Ravens, Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars. He has previously written for The Houston Chronicle and The Baltimore Sun. He’s on Twitter: @AaronWilson_NFL and Instagram: @aaronwilson7128.