How the Houston Texans went from contender to reset after trading Deshaun Watson to the Cleveland Browns

How the Houston Texans went from contender to reset after trading Deshaun Watson to the Cleveland Browns

HOUSTON — In August 2019, the Houston Texans had four superstar players on their roster: Deshaun Watson, J.J. Watt, DeAndre Hopkins and Jadeveon Clowney.

Now, it’s been more than two years since Clowney was traded, and all four are gone. Clowney was the first to be traded, prior to the start of the 2019 season, and Watson was the last, going to the Cleveland Browns on Friday. Watson requested a trade this offseason before he was accused of sexual assault and inappropriate behavior in 23 civil lawsuits. One lawsuit was dropped and 22 are active.

Ten women filed criminal charges against Watson, including eight of the litigants in the civil cases. A grand jury in Texas on March 11 declined to indict Watson on criminal charges, signaling the end of criminal proceedings related to him in Harris County, where Houston is located.

The Texans, who won the AFC South four times in five seasons from 2015 to ’19, have won a total of eight games over the past two seasons. Watson was on the roster but inactive in 2021, with Tyrod Taylor and then Davis Mills starting at quarterback.

Deshaun Watson finally got his wish to be traded from the Texans. Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire

Houston traded up to No. 12 to draft Watson in 2017, and he was expected to be the face of the franchise for the foreseeable future. Watson has played four seasons (54 games), and his 104 passing touchdowns and 14,539 passing yards rank second in Texans franchise history behind Matt Schaub (124 touchdowns and 23,221 passing yards in 90 games).

How did we get here after the 10-6 Texans won the AFC South in 2019, and where did it all go wrong?

Jan. 28, 2020: Texans name coach Bill O’Brien as GM

After going through the 2020 season without a general manager, Texans CEO and chairman Cal McNair gave his coach, Bill O’Brien, the additional title. The year before, the Texans had fired GM Brian Gaine after 18 months. They failed in their attempt to hire New England Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio in 2019 after the Patriots filed tampering charges with the NFL.

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“Preparations are underway for the 2020 season, and I thought it was important to update titles, roles and responsibilities for Bill O’Brien and [executive vice president of football operations] Jack Easterby so they more accurately reflect the way we have been operating for the past eight months,” McNair said in a statement.

Just two years earlier, ESPN’s Seth Wickersham wrote, O’Brien had heard some in New England believed he could succeed Bill Belichick. At the time, O’Brien was in a power struggle with former Texans general manager Rick Smith over personnel decisions.

“In the end, though, the [Texans] chose O’Brien over Smith, giving the coach more control over football operations,” Wickersham wrote. “O’Brien later joked to a confidant that it was a somewhat empty victory. ‘I was trying to get fired,’ he said.”

March 16, 2020: Texans trade WR DeAndre Hopkins

O’Brien’s first major move as general manager sent shockwaves through the NFL. On the first day of free agency, the Texans traded three-time All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins to the Arizona Cardinals for running back David Johnson and a second-round pick. The Cardinals also received a fourth-round pick in 2020, and the Texans got a fourth-round pick in 2021.

Houston used that second-round pick, No. 40 overall, to draft defensive tackle Ross Blacklock, who played 23% of the Texans’ defensive snaps his rookie season and was not an impact addition to Houston’s defense.

Not long after the trade, O’Brien said he made the move because Hopkins “wanted a raise” with three years left on his contract.

“And we weren’t going to be able to go in that direction,” O’Brien said.

While Michael Irvin went on ESPN’s Get Up to say Hopkins told him he was traded because of “bad blood” between him and O’Brien, the wide receiver later tweeted the situation was “being blown way out of proportion.”

“I wasn’t expecting it,” Deshaun Watson said of DeAndre Hopkins being traded to Arizona. “But like I said, that’s just the way the business goes.” Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY Sports

Watson found out about the trade after a workout when his quarterbacks coach, Quincy Avery, saw the news on Twitter.

“Yo, did you know Hop just got traded?” Avery asked Watson. Avery posted to Twitter — and then quickly deleted — a video of Watson’s reaction.

“It was just, of course, out of the blue,” Watson said in August. “I wasn’t expecting it. But like I said, that’s just the way the business goes. That’s something that I have pretty much no control of. The organization had to do what they had to do, and D-Hop — he had to do what he had to do.”

Sept. 5, 2020: Watson signs contract extension

Just before the season, Watson and the Texans agreed to a four-year, $156 million contract extension.

That evening, during a videoconference with reporters, the quarterback was emotional as he discussed how happy he was to commit to the franchise and city.

“It’s just an amazing moment for me to be able to extend my career in a location, in a place, in a home, I would say, that my family loves, that I love,” Watson said. “I want to continue to dive into the community most of all and just continue to build my legacy, just build our legacy as a whole and do something that we’ve never done before.”

The extension made Watson the second-highest-paid player in the NFL at the time behind Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes.

Oct. 5, 2020: Texans fire O’Brien

After an 0-4 start to the season, McNair fired O’Brien and named Romeo Crennel the interim head coach. Easterby, who had been working closely with O’Brien, was named interim general manager.

November 2020: Watson and McNair discuss future of organization over dinner

In late November, McNair told ESPN he had dinner with Watson. McNair said he wanted to hear Watson’s opinions on who should be the next head coach, where Watson went on to share his viewpoint.

McNair told ESPN he welcomed Watson’s input, respected his opinion and wanted the star quarterback to be happy.

“They just put a lot of trust in me and what things [McNair] wants and what I want, and just as a whole, as an organization where we want to go forward from here,” Watson said in December 2020 when asked about the meeting with McNair. “We’ve got to make decisions and go from there. But, yeah, that was pretty much it. A lot of respect between me and Mr. McNair.”

Jan. 4, 2021: Watson asks for ‘culture shift’

In his end-of-season news conference after going 4-12, Watson was asked what leadership qualities he was looking for in the team’s next coach. Watson said the organization needs “a whole culture shift.”

“We just need new energy,” Watson said. “We need discipline, we need structure, we need a leader so we can follow that leader as players. That’s what we need. We’ve got to have the love of not just the game of football, because that’s what we do, but the love for people and the people in this organization. We’ve all got to be on the same page.”

Watson said he spoke to McNair the day before to discuss the open positions, expressing interest in offensive coordinator Tim Kelly returning in 2021. Watson credited Kelly, who called plays for the first time the prior season, with taking his “game to a whole ‘nother level.”

Jan. 7, 2021: Texans hire GM Nick Caserio

The Texans hired Caserio as the team’s fifth general manager — the fourth since Watson was drafted. Later that day, sources told ESPN’s Adam Schefter that Watson was unhappy with the process. Watson offered McNair input on several general manager candidates, but according to league sources, the Texans did not seriously consider any of them.

Deshaun Watson found through social media that the Texans had hired Nick Caserio as GM. Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

According to Schefter, Watson wanted the opportunity to meet with the finalists for general manager “so he could offer thoughts from a player standpoint.” Instead, Watson found out about the hire on social media, the same way he found out Hopkins had been traded.

After the Texans traded Hopkins, Schefter reported, Watson’s anger level was “a two. … This time, it’s a 10.”

Jan. 8, 2021: McNair says he hasn’t spoken to Watson

In Caserio’s introductory news conference, McNair said he hadn’t heard from Watson and hoped to speak with the quarterback after Watson returned from vacation in Mexico.

When asked about Watson and reports the QB might want to be traded, Caserio said, “He’s our quarterback.”

Jan. 17, 2021: Texans discuss life without Watson internally

A source told ESPN the Texans had internal conversations about possible trade partners and what their quarterback position would look like without Watson. Schefter reported multiple people in and around the organization believed Watson “has played his last snap with the team.”

Jan. 28, 2021: Sources say Watson requested trade

Schefter reported Watson requested a trade from the Texans “weeks ago.”

This report came the morning after Houston hired Ravens assistant head coach David Culley to be their head coach. Schefter reported the hire “has not and will not alter Watson’s thinking” and “the quarterback hasn’t spoken to” Caserio or Easterby.

Jan. 29, 2021: Culley says he took coaching job knowing Watson was QB

In his introductory news conference, then-coach David Culley was asked whether he was aware Watson had requested a trade during his interview process and, if so, whether that played a role in his decision to take the position.

“He’s the quarterback of the Houston Texans, and that’s all that I was concerned about,” Culley said. “That’s all I knew and whatever was being said about what he wanted to do or didn’t want to do. All I know is this: … He is a Houston Texan. And I wanted to be a Houston Texan. And the reason I’m in this position today is because I knew he’s going to be a Houston Texan. The outside stuff that was being said was irrelevant to me.”

Feb. 10, 2021: Team president Jamey Rootes resigns

Rootes, who had been with the organization for more than 20 years, resigned because he did not like the direction the Texans were going, sources told ESPN. Rootes also felt his input on the GM hire was not valued or counted, sources said.

Rootes’ resignation was just the latest change in the front office for the Texans. The week before, the Texans fired director of football administration Kevin Krajcovic, equipment manager Mike Parson and vice president of football operations Doug West.

Feb. 12, 2021: Texans release DE J.J. Watt

After 10 seasons in Houston, pass-rusher J.J. Watt asked the McNair family to release him with one year remaining on his contract. Watt, the face of the franchise, was the best player in the team’s 19-season history.

The Texans looked like they had the bookend pass-rushers in Jadeveon Clowney and J.J. Watt who would lead them to multiple Super Bowls. Juan DeLeon/Icon Sportswire

During the season, Watt said his focus was on winning a Super Bowl and that he was not interested in going through a “rebuild.” It was clear this Texans team would not be a Super Bowl contender in 2021.

Watt signed with the Cardinals and injured his shoulder in a Week 7 game against the Texans. In the week leading up to the Texans game, Watt acknowledged one of the reasons he didn’t want to stay in Houston was because he saw what the near future might look like.

Feb. 19, 2021: Watson spoke with Culley

Watson met with Culley via videoconference, speaking with the Houston coach for the first time, sources told ESPN’s Dan Graziano. In that meeting, Watson told Culley he wanted to be traded and had no intention of playing another snap for the Texans.

March 11, 2021: Culley reiterates stance on Watson

Culley’s pre-free-agency news conference was dominated by questions about Watson, and the coach doubled down on Houston’s commitment to its quarterback.

Deshaun Watson told new coach David Culley he had no intention of playing another snap for the Texans. Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle via AP

“He’s a Houston Texan,” Culley said. “Again, I know that I feel like the commitment we’ve made to him, I feel like that same commitment will be there with us also moving forward.”

March 16, 2021: Texans agree to a one-year deal with QB Tyrod Taylor

In Culley’s news conference, he said the Texans didn’t have a contingency plan if Watson failed to report to training camp.

But less than a week later, Houston agreed to a deal with journeyman Tyrod Taylor. Houston had a backup quarterback at worst and an experienced veteran available to start if needed.

March 16, 2021: First lawsuit filed against Watson

The first of 23 lawsuits — one was later dropped — was filed against Watson. A massage therapist in Houston said in her lawsuit Watson touched her with his penis during a massage.

In a tweet posted by Watson that night, he wrote that he rejected “a baseless six-figure settlement demand” and this is “about clearing my name, and I look forward to doing that.”

At the time of his statement, Watson said he had not seen the lawsuit.

The following morning, the Texans released a statement saying the social media post was the first they had heard of the incident.

“We take accusations of this nature that involve anyone within the Houston Texans organization seriously,” the team said in the statement. “We will await further information before making any additional statements on this incident.”

Over the next month, 22 more lawsuits were filed against Watson, accusing him of sexual assault and inappropriate behavior. One lawsuit was eventually dropped, at least for now, after a judge ruled that the lawsuits couldn’t be filed under the name Jane Doe and the plaintiffs were required to have their names attached.

April 30, 2021: Texans draft QB Davis Mills

Houston didn’t have a first- or second-round draft pick after including them, along with a 2020 first-round pick, in a trade for left tackle Laremy Tunsil, so with their first selection, the Texans drafted quarterback Davis Mills in the third round.

Mills, who played three seasons at Stanford, was the first quarterback taken by the team since it drafted Watson 12th overall in 2017.

After Mills was drafted, the quarterback was asked what he knew about Watson’s current situation.

“Not much about it, obviously,” Mills said. “The only thing I can control is how I handle myself.”

In 13 games, including 11 starts, Mills completed 66.88% of his passes for 2,664 yards with 16 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

July 25, 2021: Watson reports to camp

Watson chose to report to training camp rather than being fined $50,000 for every day he missed.

July 26, 2021: An update on the lawsuits

The day after Watson reported to training camp, his lawyer, Rusty Hardin, told ESPN that 10 women had filed complaints with the Houston Police Department about the quarterback. Two of the women, Hardin said, had not filed lawsuits against Watson.

Aug. 18, 2021: The FBI is involved

After the women’s attorney, Tony Buzbee, said in an interview Watson was being investigated by the FBI, Hardin held a news conference. Hardin said the FBI was investigating the allegations and that Watson had spoken to them. He also said one of the plaintiffs was being investigated for alleged extortion. Buzbee later denied those claims.

Hardin also responded to a report that a grand jury had begun sending out subpoenas, but he said he wasn’t aware whether a grand jury was hearing evidence. Hardin also said grand juries in Texas are a normal part of the investigative process when prosecutors are dealing with felony cases.

Oct. 22, 2021: Trade rumors ramp up

In the two weeks before the trade deadline, the trade rumors began to heat up again, this time centered on the Miami Dolphins.

On Oct. 22, Dolphins head coach Brian Flores reiterated his support for quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.

“I don’t really get into rumors — Tua is our quarterback,” Flores said when asked about a potential trade for Watson. “We’re happy with the quarterback, our quarterback situation. I’ll leave it at that, which I’ve said multiple times.”

Nov. 2, 2021: Trade deadline passes

The Dolphins did their due diligence on Watson and talked to the Texans about a trade, but they did not trade for Watson at the deadline. Later, Hardin told reporters that Miami owner Stephen Ross insisted “all 22 cases had to be settled before he would trade for [Watson].”

Jan. 13, 2022: Texans fire Culley

Less than a year after hiring him, Caserio fired Culley. In Culley’s lone season as Texans head coach, Houston went 4-13. Caserio cited “philosophical differences over the long-term direction and vision for our program moving forward.”

Feb. 7, 2022: Texans hire Lovie Smith

The Texans replaced Culley by promoting Smith from defensive coordinator. Smith was Caserio’s second coaching hire in less than a year.

Speaking at the NFL combine, Smith said he has “no idea” if Watson will be on the team’s roster next season, but that he thinks both parties will eventually “benefit from the situation.” He also said the team was hoping for “a prompt resolution” to Watson’s situation.

March 2, 2022: Dolphins “shut door” on Watson

Dolphins general manager Chris Grier said “the door is shut on Deshaun” as Miami continues to build around Tagovailoa. In January, New York Giants co-owner John Mara also ruled the team out as a destination for Watson.

March 11, 2022: Grand jury declines to indict Watson

A Harris County, Texas, grand jury declined to indict Watson after hearing more than six hours of evidence on nine criminal complaints.

Watson spoke to reporters for the first time since before the first lawsuit was filed, saying, “Today is definitely a big day.”

“I’m just going to keep fighting to rebuild my name and rebuild my appearance in the community,” Watson said. “And on the legal side handle what we need to handle. But also ready to get on the field, and prep for that.”

Earlier in the day, Watson sat for his first two depositions for the lawsuits, but because the criminal investigation had not concluded at the time, Watson invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

March 18, 2022: Watson is traded to the Browns

On Friday, the Texans traded Watson to the Cleveland Browns for five draft picks, including three first-rounders.

The day before, Schefter reported that the Browns were notified that they were out of the running to land the quarterback.

The Browns plan to give Watson a new five-year, $230 million contract, sources told Schefter. He would receive $184 million over the first four years of his new contract — a $48 million raise over what he was scheduled to make under his current contract. The full $230 million is guaranteed, sources said, setting a record for highest guarantee given to an NFL player.

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