Deshaun Watson: Scouting Clutchness

Photo: © Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

With 4:16 left in an overtime period against the Buffalo Bills in the opening game of the 2019 season playoffs, Deshaun Watson dropped back and did this.

Of course, that play was only possible because of a 19-3 scoring run that earned the Houston Texans the extra period. That scoring run began with this.

And continued with this.

I hope you're picking up what I'm putting down: Watson had himself a game last night against the Bills.

As with all premiere performances, it was received with sufficient awe from NFL fans everywhere. It takes special effort or particular grumpiness to watch Watson play and not end up rooting for him. If your favorite team hasn't been on the receiving end of some of his historic performances, you're de facto a Watson fan; all it takes is a few drives of beholding his toughness, his poise, his leadership and you're in.

But while Watson's game-winning effort was treated with deference, it did not receive surprise — and rightfully so. When Watson played for Clemson, he authored similarly dominant performances in similarly critical situations. Watson is famously remembered for the end of game sprint-out touchdown to Hunter Renfrow in the 2016 national championship game, which gave Clemson its first championship in 35 years.

That immortal Clemson touchdown holds more weight than the first play — the sack-survival and scramble to set up the game-winning field goal in a wild card game as a home favorite — but both do similar work. They highlight just how impossibly cool Watson is in critical end-of-game moments, and overshadow just how well he plays late in games to get himself to those particular circumstances. Watson was unstoppable in the fourth quarter of that 2015 championship game against Alabama, losing the game if only because he couldn't get one more possession. In the fourth quarter of the 2016 championship, Clemson eventually won with Watson throwing for 120 yards and two touchdowns; and running down to the 1-yard to set up a go-ahead dive from running back Wayne Gallman to boot.

After these big-stage performances, Watson garnered the reputation of being one of college football's greatest leaders and most poised passers. From Kyle Crabbs' 2017 scouting portfolio:

Poise: Has a knack for big plays and capable of standing in against pressure to wait and deliver throws as coming open. Will force some throws, conversely. Ability to keep eyes down the field and avoid the rush is strong and one of best traits.

Houston general manager Rick Smith, speaking to Sports Illustrated after the 2017 draft, mentioned the Alabama title game as a key moment when scouting the quarterback of the future.

“It’s in the heat of the moment, the enormity of the moment, they have to go down and score,” Smith explained from his office. “And just his presence, his confidence, his poise, the way that he handled himself in that situation, in that moment, it was very impressive. … That’s why I go to those games—you can see how they respond to adversity, how they react to their teammates, how they react to their coaches, different situations during the game.

“I saw just tremendous poise and confidence in him. And obviously, he went and performed in one of the all-time great games you’ll ever see. He functioned in a very competitive and highly charged environment with a lot of poise and execution.”

The issue with scouting poise and confidence is that it's highly situational. Many poised college QBs have stepped into the NFL and floundered as pass rushes quicken, stadiums grow louder, decisions mean more and the clock doesn't stop for a breather after every first down. Being clutch is 9/10ths being in the right situation at the right time, and only the remaining nth is what you do when you get there. Too often, chasing the player who's big enough for the big moments leaves you looking foolish. But Watson seems impossibly suited to the moments that collapse everyone else. 

He now has 11 game-winning drives, which leads the league over the last two years, and threw the game winner against the Oakland Raiders this year after getting kicked in the eye. He's now 3-0 in overtime.

Can you scout clutchness? And what about the opposite? Oregon’s Justin Herbert caught some heat in scouting circles for his repeated failure to show up in big games. But a comeback win against Washington this year and strong performances in a Pac-12 title game against Utah and Rose Bowl against Wisconsin are working to assuage these concerns. Gamesmanship may be something we contrive in our mental representation of players; something that encourages us when we find ourselves in those supercharged dwindling minutes of a close NFL game. It's tough to measure, and accordingly tougher to prove it exists.

But if any player has it consistently, it's Watson — and we saw it in college. Even if it cannot be replicated in scouting seasons to come, it is delightful to watch The Guy at Clemson become The Same Guy in Houston when his team needed it most.