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Deshaun Watson without Bill O’Brien: Texans QB on a tear since Houston’s coaching change

Deshaun Watson’s 2020 season beginnings weren’t pretty. He spent a lot of time on the ground and not a lot of time dominating defenses like he’d proven capable of. Since Bill O’Brien’s departure, though, things are looking up for the Texans’ franchise quarterback.

Sometimes, it’s not as simple as a cause and effect. Watson doesn’t appear to have changed his approach much as a player since an 0-4 start that saw O’Brien dismissed. But for whatever reason, Houston (3-7) enters a Thanksgiving game against the Lions (4-6) having won two of its last games and with its 25-year old star playing at the top of his game once again.

Watson’s early-season struggles may not have all been O’Brien’s fault, but they definitely happened. We’ve broken down just how much better things have gotten for Watson since O’Brien left and why that may be.

Deshaun Watson stats 2020

Let’s start with Watson’s overall 2020 stats across the Texans’ first 10 games:

  • Passing yards: 2,883
  • Completion percentage: 68.93%
  • Passing touchdowns: 20
  • Interceptions: 5

Those stats are more jarring when we break it down to the pre-O’Brien firing stats and the post-O’Brien firing stats:

  • Passing yards pre-firing: 1,092 (273.0 per game)
  • Passing yards post-firing: 1,791 (298.5 per game)
  • Completion percentage pre-firing: 65.63%
  • Completion percentage post-firing: 70.95%
  • Passing touchdowns pre-firing: 6 (1.5 per game)
  • Passing touchdowns post-firing: 14 (2.33 per game)
  • Interceptions pre-firing: 3 (0.75 per game)
  • Interceptions post-firing: 2 (0.33 per game)

Why Deshaun Watson is playing well post-Bill O’Brien

The first thing to acknowledge here is the big change Watson was dealing with at the start of the season: There wasn’t DeAndre Hopkins to throw to anymore after he’d been traded to Arizona for David Johnson. With no preseason games, there was always going to be an adjustment period for Watson with Hopkins out and Johnson/Brandin Cooks in.

Early in the season, Watson was getting limited protection from his offensive line. Across the first four games, he was sacked 16 times (four per game). Since then, it’s been 10 sacks in six games, less than two per contest. It seems that’s where a lot of the woes have been solved. The percentage of snaps Watson has been pressured on has dropped a ton, per Football Reference

What’s tougher to determine is who’s responsible for what action. For what it’s worth, O’Brien already wasn’t calling plays in Houston this season (that duty fell to offensive coordinator Tim Kelly, who’s still in place, although O’Brien got more involved the week before his firing). Watson’s intended air yards, a way to see how far down the field he’s trying to pass, haven’t really shifted since O’Brien left, so it doesn’t appear to be some huge philosophical shift.

This might not be so much about the Watson dynamic with O’Brien as it’s about the whole Houston team. Sometimes it takes some house-cleaning to freshen things up. The Texans were 0-4 and likely everywhere they looked could find something about their head coach being on the hot seat. Matters weren’t helped by reported conflict between star defender J.J. Watt and O’Brien. Maybe all Houston needed was a new start.

Whatever the reason, Watson’s play after O’Brien’s departure is encouraging. Texans owner Cal McNair reportedly met with Watson in regards to who Houston’s next coach should be. The Texans know their future is in Watson’s hands, and they not only need to keep him but keep him playing well. In his last six games, the ones since O’Brien left town, Watson has been kept upright and played much better. No matter who comes next, that’s an important development in Houston. 

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