The literal and figurative distance between the Texans and disgruntled star quarterback Deshaun Watson was on full display toward the end of practiceFriday morning.
Watson stood by himself in the end zone, a long pass away from his teammates while quarterbacks Tyrod Taylor, Davis Mills and Jeff Driskel completed practice. When Texans coach David Culley broke down the day’s work with the entire team, Watson stood on the outskirts of the assemblage.
Although this is obviously a strange and awkward time between the Pro Bowl passer and the Texans, given his standing trade request and “intentional” desire to never play for the team again and him reporting to training camp while facing 22 civil lawsuits alleging sexual assault and/or sexual misconduct, a Houston Police Department active investigation of 10 complaints and a parallel NFL personal conduct investigation, Watson remains a popular figure with his teammates They insist, including Taylor, the new QB1 as the replacement for Watson, that his presence isn’t a distraction.
The Texans’ players appear to be effectively and calmly compartmentalizing the situation, expressing support for Watson as a person while staying out of his unresolved business with management. They’re also embracing Taylor, 31, as their new leader and quarterback.
“Absolutely, me and Deshaun are friends,” said Taylor, who has the same private quarterbacks coach, Quincy Avery, as Watson. “ We've known each other for a number of years now. We've had conversations on the field, off the field, about football, about life. Everything has been a positive conversation, and it will continue to be that way.”
When asked if Watson’s ongoing presence at training camp is perhaps a distraction, Taylor replied: “No, it hasn’t.”
Taylor added “He’s part of the team. When we come out here, we’re all focused on working and getting better at every aspect. That’s different for every person.”
As complex and sensitive as this legal situation continues to be with no resolution in sight with settlement talks inactive between Watson, who has denied wrongdoing through his attorney, Rusty Hardin, and the plaintiffs’ attorney, Tony Buzbee, Watson remains a popular figure with teammates. Watson frequently talks with offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, wide receiver Brandin Cooks and Taylor at practice
“Deshaun, that's my guy, love him to death,” Texans defensive end Whitney Mercilus said. “Hate what's happened to him. Just bring it for him every day honestly. Man, everything will sort itself out. God got it. I know that for a fact. He's my guy at the end of the day.”
Signed to a one-year contract with a maximum value of $12.5 millionon March 16, Taylor is a mobile former Baltimore Ravens sixth-round draft pick from Virginia Tech with a calm demeanor and strong leadership qualities. If he’s feeling any stress in succeeding the NFL passing yardage leader from a year ago and one of the most dynamic players in the game, he certainly hasn’t shown it. If anything, Taylor exhibits a ton of poise.
“He's been around, he's been a starter, he's a consummate pro,” Texans coach David Culley said. “ I don't use that loosely. He's a consummate pro. He's the first guy in this building every morning.
“He's usually the last guy to leave, and that's every day. That's just who he is. You won't ever hear him a whole bunch talking about this or talking about that. He just goes about his business.”
Taylor lost his starting job last season when a Los Angeles Chargers team doctor accidentally punctured his lung while administering a pain-killing injection. That led to Justin Herbert replacing him and eventually emerging as the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.
As much as that hurt to lose that status, Taylor is reflective and upbeat in his perspective on what happened.
“I always say each year is a learning opportunity,” Taylor said. “Whether it's good or bad, you're able to in the offseason, you're able to reflect on the year previous and the years prior and working on how can you become a better player?
“How can you become a better student of the game? How can you be better overall? And reflect on all those things. I think the 10 years prior in professional football has definitely prepared me for the moment I have here, the opportunity I have here, but also the years of playing football as a youth.”
Taylor passed for 2,799 yards, 14 touchdowns and four interceptions and rushed for 427 yards and four scores in 2017 in Buffalo with Culley on Sean McDermott’s coaching staff.
Taylor is already making a strong impression on his new teammates.
“Really great guy: cool, calm, collected,” Mercilus said. “He is a great, great leader, especially what I've heard across the league and all that. Couldn't be a better guy just to take on that role right now, especially with everything going on.
Taylor has the third-lowest interception rate since 2011 with interceptions thrown on just 1.4 percent of his throws with 20 interceptions during a decade in the NFL. Taylor is a multidimensional passer who can beat defenses with his feet and his arm, rushing for 1,850 yards and 16 touchdowns and passing for 9,770 yards and 54 touchdowns.
“He’s been around the league, he’s a veteran,” Culley said. “He’s been there and he’s done that. He’s one of our guys right now, he’s been doing a nice job, he’s got a lot of experience.”
When Taylor initially joined the Texans, it wasn’t exactly clear how the offseason was going to unfold in terms of the Watson situation. However, Watson had already submitted a standing trade request this offseason due to displeasure with the organization after signing a $156 million contract extension last September and had privately told associates he had no intentions of ever playing another down for the Texans.
“I feel comfortable being on the field,” Taylor said. “ It's been a good three days. We've done a lot of good things on offense. We'll continue to keep working. Guys are eager. We’ve been able to compete at a high level the last three days."
Meanwhile, Watson 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.
No reconciliation with Watson is expected. For now, this uneasy situation will continue.
From the 2011 NFL draft, 12 quarterbacks were selected. That included Cam Newton, Andy Dalton, Taylor, Nathan Enderle, T.J. Yates, Ricky Stanzi, Ryan Mallett, Greg McElroy, Colin Kaepernick, Christian Ponder, Blaine Gabbert and Jake Locker.
From that group, only four are still playing: Taylor, Newton, Dalton and Gabbert.
And Taylor, through these unique, unprecedented circumstances, is now the Texans’ starting quarterback.
“It's a wonderful opportunity,” Taylor said. “ Every time I get a chance to lace up my cleats and play the game that I started playing when I was 5 years old is a blessing. I don't take any day for granted.
“I'm excited to be able to go out and lead the group, to be able to go out and continue to make plays. It’s a joyful feeling to be able to go out on the field and compete. That's what I look forward to each day.”
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.