HOUSTON — At 9:26 a.m. Wednesday, the man who doesn’t want to play for the Houston Texans — and whom the Houston Texans don’t want to play for them — jogged onto the practice field wearing a team-issued hoodie and team-issued pants, and no one seemed to care.
There were no fans present to boo or cheer Deshaun Watson, and if his teammates or coaches were delighted or disturbed by his presence, as he remains in both legal and football limbo with 22 pending lawsuits against him accusing him of sexual misconduct, this was neither the setting nor the time, of course, to make those feelings known. He has repeatedly denied all the claims against him.
This was a holy day on the N.F.L. calendar, the first day of training camp, when franchises are duty-bound to savor the return of football, and to peddle optimism and discuss The Team, not address off-field matters.
“I felt the buzz,” said Coach David Culley, who was hired in January.
Even if the Texans didn’t notice the cognitive dissonance between reality and the optimism they were propagating, it was striking.
The players are excited. The team is excited. The organization is excited. Everyone is excited, including Watson, who has a standing request to be traded to another team. He spent most of the second half of practice Wednesday doing things that quarterbacks of his caliber — he last year led the league in passing — generally do at this time of year.
Donning a No. 23 red no-contact jersey over his usual No. 4, he played scout-team defense, lining up as a safety in two-deep coverage. He caught a swing pass out of the backfield. He stood with his hands behind his back, or folded across his chest, as the Texans’ other three quarterbacks — Tyrod Taylor, Jeff Driskel and Davis Mills — participated in 11-on-11 drills.
“He’s been just like everybody else,” Culley said, referring to Watson. “He’s been strictly a pro in everything that we do.”
Deploying Watson in these roles is all part of the Texans’ plan, Culley said. This is training camp, and Watson needs to learn a new offense that he will likely never operate. These summer practices are just a ramp-up period, and the Texans don’t want to get into a situation where he overexerts himself, which is thoughtful on their part. He did, after all, tear a knee ligament in practice in 2017, and another freak injury could burden the Texans with his $10.54 million contract. These are similar drills to what Watson was doing then, but it’s not like players ever get hurt twice. Not when they don’t want to play for the team, and the team doesn’t want them, either.
“Guys throw too much, guys’ arms get sore,” Culley said. “And we want to make sure none of those things happen.”
The Texans did not immediately comply with Watson’s trade request several months ago, and then in March and April came the deluge of lawsuits: 23 in all (22 are active). According to ESPN, at least 10 criminal complaints have been filed with the Houston Police Department. The lawsuits and complaints accused Watson of a pattern of lewd behavior with women hired to provide personal services, such as massages.
As the cases mounted, he didn’t attend the Texans’ off-season program. Watson’s only apparent incentive for reporting to the team Wednesday was so that he didn’t get fined $50,000 for missing days. Once the Texans’ franchise quarterback, he didn’t take first- or second- or third-team reps.
Watson was not made available to the news media Wednesday.
“It really hasn’t been a distraction,” said Nick Caserio, the team’s general manager, “and I don’t think it will be a distraction.”
“It was no surprise,” Culley said of Watson’s decision to report, “so just business as usual.”
That’s what everyone in football allowed Wednesday to be, a normal day. The N.F.L. hasn’t placed Watson on the commissioner’s exempt list, a paid suspension for players being investigated by the league for conduct violations. So he joined the quarterbacks in the front row of the stretching period, and he ran through ball security drills, and he bent on one knee, helmet on the ground, his hoodie pulled tight, with no one around him. The N.F.L. has not yet interviewed many relevant parties in the civil cases, and as the league continues to investigate Watson, it has permitted him to participate unrestricted in all club activities.
“Every team is dealing with different things, obviously, around the league,” Caserio said, “so we’re no different.”
Not at all, which explains why some players were so happy to discuss Watson’s situation.
“I’m not answering those questions,” receiver Brandin Cooks said.
“I don’t want to really speak much on it because it’s not my situation,” running back David Johnson said.
“We’re excited to have him, but it’s up to the team and the coaches,” safety A.J. Moore said.
The Texans are respectful of everybody and everything that’s involved, but they will do what’s in the best interest of their organization, because that is what Caserio said the franchise would do. All the Texans can do, really, is control their effort and their attitude and their preparation — not much beyond that. There’s nothing else the Texans could have said or done Wednesday, because a misstep might affect Watson’s trade value, and it’s pretty safe to assume that victims of sexual assault would agree that’s the most important thing.
“Institutions replicate themselves,” said René Redwood, a consultant for inclusion and equality who has advised the league on issues of race and abuse. “A body in motion will remain in motion until disturbed by an outside force.”
The Texans open the season Sept. 12 against Jacksonville, and it’s impossible, just impossible, to predict whether Watson will be the team’s starter that day. Houston has six weeks to figure out what’s best for the team after a first day of training camp that wasn’t at all weird or awkward or unsettling in the least.
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