HOUSTON -- This summer, Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson found himself looking at Drew Brees’ stats. As he scrolled through the numbers from the 18 seasons the New Orleans Saints quarterback has played, he noticed the consistency Brees has displayed throughout his career.
“Seeing the amount of years he's had 5,000 yards, 5,000 yards, 5,000 yards, 4,000 yards and just constantly doing it repeatedly every year. It’s crazy to think ... that he's never had an MVP, which is very mind-blowing,” Watson said. “He's a guy that I look up to.”
Brees will be on the opposite sideline on Monday night in Houston's season opener at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, where Watson hopes he doesn't have to keep up with a vintage Brees performance against a revamped Texans defense.
Since Brees signed with the Saints in 2006, he has never had a season in which he threw for fewer than 4,334 yards. For comparison, in 16 games last season for the Texans, Watson threw for 4,165 yards. Watson threw 26 touchdown passes last season. Brees -- the NFL's all-time leader in passing yards -- has thrown fewer than 26 touchdowns only once in his 13 seasons in New Orleans.
For Houston to take a step forward this season after Watson's subpar performance in a playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts last January (29-of-49, 235 yards), there’s a good chance it will be because Watson puts up Brees-like numbers.
In adding left tackle Laremy Tunsil, wide receiver Kenny Stills and running backs Carlos Hyde and Duke Johnson, the Texans have improved the supporting cast surrounding Watson. He also lost receivers Will Fuller V and Keke Coutee for much of last season and was sacked an NFL-high 62 times. Stills should provide a proven veteran presence, and Tunsil will offer some much-needed protection.
But in making those additions, they had some subtractions on the other side of the line of scrimmage.
The Texans might have to win a few shootouts this year. By trading pass-rusher Jadeveon Clowney and losing secondary starters Tyrann Mathieu and Kareem Jackson to free agency, and Andre Hal to retirement, the defense has taken a step back on paper. No replacement was signed to replace Clowney, and safety Tashaun Gipson and cornerback Bradley Roby hope to fill the gaps left by Mathieu and Jackson.
For the first time in recent memory, and the Texans' history, Houston's biggest strength could be its offense. Watson already has showed he can have success in the passing game with All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins and Fuller, when he's healthy.
While Watson -- still just 23 years old -- has certainly carried the Texans on several occasions, the team didn't put too much on his shoulders in his first two seasons. He had three games in 2018 in which he attempted more than 40 passes and had a four-game stretch in which he averaged 300 yards passing early in the season, before Fuller tore an ACL.
In the middle of the season, there was a noticeable drop-off. In Weeks 6-12, Watson did not attempt more than 25 passes in a game, as the Texans depended on their defense and running game.
With running back Lamar Miller out for the season with a knee injury and the defense taking personnel hits, it’s likely that the Texans are going to have to really ride Watson this year to repeat as AFC South champions, especially if Johnson -- a proven pass-catcher -- gets the majority of the playing time in the backfield.
Houston's offense scored 30 or more points only four times last season. That number should increase in 2019, especially if Fuller and Coutee are able to stay healthy.
If Watson believes there is more pressure on him, he doesn’t show it. Texans coach Bill O’Brien said his quarterback is “calm,” and that steady demeanor allows him to take on additional responsibilities as the leader of this Texans offense.
“I never put pressure on myself,” Watson said. “This is football. Football is what I've been doing my whole life. The only difference is, of course, it’s the best athletes and I'm getting paid for it. But if I treat it just like I was in high school, where I'm just having fun, doing what I'm doing, preparing like I'm preparing and go out there and perform like I've been performing, then everything else is going to work out on its own.
“Pressure comes from when you're not prepared and you're not ready for those moments, and I feel like I've prepared throughout the week to be ready for those moments, so when they happen, I don't allow pressure to sink in.”