The Wasted Excellence of Deshaun Watson

Troy Taormina – USA TODAY Sports

It has recently been reported that Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson requested a trade from the team. Needless to say, this is a pretty big deal — it’s not everyday that a 25-year-old elite quarterback is available for trade. In fact, I can’t think of an example of it happening at all. It’s unprecedented.

However, it makes more sense once you realize that the circumstances of Watson’s 2020 season were also unique in NFL history.

In his fourth year as a pro, Watson enjoyed his best single-season performance by a wide margin. He led the league with 4,823 passing yards, completed 70.2% of his passes, threw a career-high 33 touchdowns and a career-low 7 interceptions. His 8.22 ANY/A in 2020 was also the third-highest in the league, only behind MVP candidates Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes. His PFF grade was tied for the 2nd highest in the league this year. All things considered, one could easily argue that Watson was a top-3 quarterback in 2020. At worse, he was among the five best passers in the NFL.

Yet the Texans lost 12 games.

One could legitimately argue that a quarterback has never carried a team as hard as Deshaun Watson did in the 2020 regular season.

We can illustrate the huge gap between the 2020 Texans’ win percentage and the win percentage you’d expect based on Watson’s performance by computing a linear regression between win percentage and era-adjusted adjusted net yards per pass attempt (ANY/A+) for single-season passing performances since 1970.

The line of best fit clearly illustrates the moderate positive correlation between era-adjusted passing efficiency and team win percentage. If a team’s quarterback plays well, they’ll probably win games. Otherwise, they probably won’t. Also, league average ANY/A in any given season corresponds with an ANY/A+ of exactly 100. Thus, the best fit line hits 100 ANY/A+ at a win percentage of around 50% — average qb efficiency typically results in an average team. Makes sense.

However, a few points clearly don’t follow the trend. Notice the gold dot, representing Archie Manning’s 1980 season with the New Orleans Saints. Archie’s 5.39 ANY/A was the 9th best in the league — nothing particularly impressive, but certainly above average. Yet he finished with a 1-15 record as starter. Based on this linear regression, a quarterback with Archie’s 108 ANY/A+ in 1980 would be expected to have a 57.3% win percentage, or approximately nine wins in a 16 game season. In other words, the 1980 Saints won eight less games than expected based on the efficiency of their starting quarterback. That’s the largest negative difference in this dataset of 768 single-season performances.

Now, let’s take a look at the subject of this article. Based on this regression, a team whose quarterback had Watson’s era-adjusted efficiency in 2020 would be expected to win approximately 11 games. The Buccaneers won 11 games this regular season and they will play in Super Bowl LV seven days from now. Simply put, an eleven win team tends to be a pretty good team. Yet the 2020 Texans won just four games. This difference of negative seven wins is the second largest negative residual in the dataset behind only Archie Manning’s 1980 season.

Here’s another way to understand the extent of Watson’s carryjob in 2020. His ANY/A+ in 2020 was 125 (approximately 1.67 standard deviations above league average). No team in NFL history whose quarterback had an ANY/A+ of 110 or higher has ever had a win percentage as low as the Texans’ 20% win rate in 2020. And 125 is far better than 110 — it’s essentially the gap between Deshaun Watson and Baker Mayfield (11-5) or Phillip Rivers (11-4) this season. Not exactly a trivial difference. An ANY/A+ of 110 means the quarterback’s efficiency is not even a full standard deviation above league average. Yet no team with a quarterback in that tier in NFL history has ever performed worse than the 2020 Texans, who had a quarterback far better than 2020 Baker Mayfield or 2020 Phillip Rivers.

Of course, simply comparing era-adjusted passing efficiency doesn’t tell us the whole story. What if a quarterback is padding their efficiency down by 21 late in the fourth quarter? That doesn’t mean their team is letting them down. Thus, let’s eliminate garbage time stats and take a look at passing efficiency in a different way.

We will use a metric called EPA+CPOE, which is a composite metric consisting of Expected Points Added (EPA) and Completion Percentage Over Expectation (CPOE). It is the most predictive metric for future efficiency that we currently have access to.

In the 2020 season, Watson finished 3rd in EPA+CPOE behind Aaron Rodgers and Josh Allen. The top five was rounded out by Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilson. Pretty much exactly where you’d expect to see him.

Let’s remove plays in which the quarterback’s team had a win probability of less than five percent or greater than ninety-five percent. Watson’s EPA+CPOE index remains 3rd in the league. If we increase the threshold to a win probability between 10% and 90%, Watson is still 3rd.

So, why did the Texans fail to win more games? Well, their team defensive DVOA ranked 30th in the league. Their rush offensive DVOA ranked dead last in the NFL this season. Their special teams’ DVOA ranked a below average 20th in the league, which helped contribute to the Texans having the 2nd worst average starting field position in the league. Oh, and the team’s pass block win rate ranked 19th in the NFL.

Someone might argue that while Watson’s stats are great on paper, he doesn’t contribute to winning football and he’s just an “empty stats” player. Given that Watson went 11-5 in 2018 and 10-5 in 2019 as a starter (with a playoff win) and won the National Championship with Clemson, it’s fair to say that he’s certainly capable of leading a winning team. The rest of the squad just didn’t pull their weight in 2020.

So when JJ Watt told Deshaun Watson, “We wasted one of your years. I mean, we should have 11 wins,” he was telling the truth. It’s hard to blame Watson for wanting out.

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