The NFL's Deshaun Watson Problem
By Ben Spaeth
Photo: NBC News – Source
After the 2019-2020 NFL season, huge narratives were brewing about the Texans. They had just made it to the divisional round of the playoffs after beating Josh Allen and the Bills in a overtime thriller. To set up the game winning field goal, Deshaun Watson spun out of two tackles and got off a check down pass to Taiwan Jones who ran the ball all the way to the 10 yard line. This was the game that would cement Deshaun Watson as one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. Three years later and everything has changed.
After the Texans breakout 2019-20 season, the head coach/general manager Bill O’Brien made what has been described as one of the worst trades in NFL history. O’Brien traded DeAndre Hopkins, who many believed was the best wide receiver in the league and had just come off a season where he dropped zero passes, for David Johnson, a washed up running back who was great a few years ago. For comparison, Tyreek Hill is one of the best wide receivers in the NFL right now and he just got traded to the Dolphins. The Dolphins gave the Kansas City Chiefs 5 of their draft picks for Tyreek Hill including a first round draft pick in this upcoming draft. The only pick the Texans got for DeAndre Hopkins was a fourth round pick, but they gave their other fourth round pick to the Cardinals as a part of the trade, so they basically just swapped fourth round picks.
Of course Deshaun must not have been too happy with his team trading his number one target, but he still played the entire 2020-21 season without complaint. The Texans roster was terrible and the team ended up missing the playoffs after going 4-12. Bill O’Brien was promptly fired only four games into the season. Deshaun had a great year though and even led the league in passing yards despite not having his number one target and lackluster supporting cast. After the disappointment of the 2020-21 season though, it was clear the Texans were in rebuild mode. They had no draft capital after an errant trade for tackle Laremy Tunsil that cost the Texans two first round picks. The Texans also had just cut JJ Watt who had been the face of the dysfunctional franchise for nearly a decade. The Texans were going nowhere and Deshaun knew it. After the season ended Deshaun requested a trade.
In the offseason following the 2020-21 season, 22 women who worked at a massage parlor in Houston would file civil suits against Deshaun Watson and alleged that Watson had sexually assaulted them. Because the cases were ongoing, the NFL never officially suspended Deshaun Watson. However, no team would touch Watson because of the pending legal investigations. Meaning that the Texans couldn’t trade Deshaun. No team was going to give up significant draft capital for a guy that might be in jail before the season even starts. The Texans weren’t going to cut Deshaun though. He was too valuable to cut and too risky to trade. Despite being on the commissioner's exempt list, the Texan’s chose to bench Watson for the entirety of this past season.
Only 9 of the 22 accusations ended up making it to a criminal grand jury. Two grand juries have now failed to indict Watson on any criminal charges, but the 22 civil suits are still pending. Specific details about the accusations have been hard to find, but I’m sure they’ll come out as Watson’s legal battles continue.
Here’s where everything gets messed up and makes you realize the NFL has no morals. As soon as teams heard that Deshaun couldn’t be charged criminally, they started foaming at the mouth to try and trade for him. The Texans got an influx of messages from the Browns, Saints, Falcons, and Colts all requesting meetings with Deshaun Watson. The Texans told each team that they had to present a trade offer to them if they wanted a meeting with Deshaun. This obviously upset starters Matt Ryan and Baker Mayfield who were the quarterbacks on the Falcons and Browns as they were finding out that their team would rather have a guy that may not even play this next season than them. After a week of rumors and terrible Adam Schefter tweets, the news finally came that Deshaun Watson was going to be traded to the Cleveland Browns. In return the Texans got three first round picks. This is the second time in the history of the NFL that a single player has been traded for three first round picks. The first time weirdly enough was when the Cowboys traded Herschel Walker to the Vikings. If that name sounds familiar it's because Herschel Walker is actually running for senate right now in Georgia and has been backed by Donald Trump. He made headlines recently when he said that he doesn’t believe that humans could have evolved from monkeys.
Not only did the Browns trade for Deshaun Watson though, they actually signed him to an extension. Deshaun’s new contract is a 5 year $230 million fully guaranteed deal. Fully guaranteed deals are very uncommon in the NFL. Unlike baseball where every contract is fully guaranteed, in the NFL teams will often put incentives inside contracts. Meaning if a player will often have to get a certain number of yards or touchdowns to get all the money in their contract. Another thing about non-guaranteed contracts is that if you’re cut on a non-guaranteed contract, the rest of your salary is voided. On guaranteed contracts, even if a player retires, teams are still required to pay the money. Quarterback contracts have been shifting into the fully guaranteed space for a few years now, but it's still absurd to see someone who’s in as much legal turmoil as Deshaun Watson get a fully guaranteed contract. He got 10 million for each suit against him and then some.
The NFL has signaled that a suspension is likely coming for Deshaun Watson and that they are just waiting to see how the legal side will pan out. However, the suspension being rumored is only 6 games. Keep in mind, Calvin Ridley who was out last year for mental health reasons bet $1,500 at an NFL sponsored sportsbook and was suspended the entire season. I get that rules are rules, but the punishment should at least fit the crime. It seems like there is a level of indifference about what players do off the field as long as they’re great on the field. As much as the NFL loves to tout the charity work of their players, it at times feels like they are more than happy to sweep the negative press under the rug. For instance, Tyreek Hill, the wide receiver I mentioned earlier, has gotten in trouble with the law on a couple different occasions yet both instances are rarely brought up when talking about the wide receiver. The first of which was when he was arrested in college for choking and punching his pregnant girlfriend. The second time was a child abuse investigation which didn’t charge Hill criminally, but the transcript of a call with the mother of Tyreek Hill’s child was released and it is a chilling read. Tyreek Hill was never suspended for any games by the NFL. I’d also like to add that the Dolphins just gave Tyreek Hill a massive $120 million dollar contract.
The list of active NFL players who’ve had serious legal trouble goes on and on. I don’t know if the NFL will ever start taking what players do off the field seriously. What’s terrible about all of this is that players that don’t have the same star power as Tyreek Hill or Deshaun Watson have been cut from teams for way less. The NFL’s most talented players need to be held to the same account as every other player.