A CASE FOR DESHAUN

Here's how the NFL could finally give Watson his props for carrying a bad team

Imagine what Houston's record would be without Watson.Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

When votes are counted for NFL's Most Valuable Player for 2020, it will come down to Aaron Rodgers of the 13-3 Green Bay Packers, Patrick Mahomes of the 14-2 Kansas City Chiefs and maybe Josh Allen of the 13-3 Buffalo Bills.

But except for the NFL history books, where does it say that the MVP has to play for a winning team? Because nobody was more indispensable to his team in 2020 than Deshaun Watson of our disappointing and frustrating, though strangely AFC South defending champs, Houston Texans, who finished their season Sunday with a disastrous 4-12 mark.

MVP from a 4-12 team? Hey, things can always get worse. Without Watson, it's possibly, probably likely, the Texans would have been 0-2020. While the team stumbled and bumbled, firing its coach and general manager and popular media director, promoted a shifty butt smoocher to executive vice-president, lost games on last-minute goal line fumbles, had its all-time star player publicly accuse his teammates of quitting, had a game delayed by lightning (surely a sign from above), losing its best receiver in a trade that made the Great Train Robbery look like an ATM withdrawal, and barely a running game or offensive line … Watson was nothing short of breathtaking.

Watson passed for 4,823 yards and 33 touchdowns with only seven interceptions. He completed 70 percent of his throws to butterfinger receivers. His quarterback rating is the stuff of Canton. He was the undisputed, durable team leader, playing all 16 games, often hobbling to the final gun. It's not easy to be spectacular and steady at the same time, but that was Watson in 2020, even when teammates, though by black magic, pulled defeat from the jaws of certain victory.

He wasn't just the face of the Houston Texans this year, he was their entire body of work.

Would the Texans have been more successful with Rodgers or Mahomes at quarterback? Hard to say. But just once wouldn't you love to watch Watson armed with the Packers and Chiefs' array of speed burner All-Pro receivers?

Forget the Texans' dismal record, the player who meant most to his team in 2020 was Deshaun Watson. "Meant most" … isn't that the same as most valuable? By every earthly standard, except those pesky ol' wins and losses, Watson was the NFL's most outstanding player in 2020, a thrill-a-minute, one-man, 3-ring circus.

But like Bruce Hornsby said, it's just the way it is - no NFL MVP has ever come from a team with a losing record. So count Watson out. However …

Two times, the league's Defensive Player of Year came from losing teams: Dick Butkus from the 1-13 Chicago Bears in1969, and Cortez Kennedy from the 2-14 Seattle Seahawks in 1992. How great was Butkus? He was named to the NFL's All-Decade Team for both the 1960s and 1970.

Here's one that would never happen today. In 1961, Paul Hornung won the Heisman Trophy despite his Notre Dame Fightin' Irish finishing 2-8. Of course, Hornung led the Irish in passing, rushing, scoring, kickoff returns, punt returns and punting that year. Presumably there were 10 other players on the field that year for Notre Dame. Hornung was named NFL league MVP a few years later for the Packers.

Only twice in NBA history has the MVP played for a losing team. They were Bob Pettit for the 33-39 St. Louis Hawks in 1955-56, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the 40-42 L.A. Lakers in 1975-76.

Baseball has been more open to recognizing greatness in the agony of defeat. Four players have won the MVP while toiling for losing teams: Ernie Banks with the Cubs, Cal Ripken for the Orioles, Mike Trout for the Angels and Andre Dawson with the Cubs. Trout did it most recently in 2016 and 2019. Banks did it twice, back-to-back in 1958-59. Dawson was the only one in history to be named MVP while playing for a cellar-dweller, the 1987 Cubs.

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The Astros suffered a heartbreaking loss to the Yankees Thursday. Composite image by Brandon Strange.

After an impressive two-game sweep of the NL-best Mets at home earlier in the week, the Astros took to the road to begin a four-game series with the league-best Yankees on Thursday night. To little surprise, the series started with a bang (no, not a trash can bang) in more ways than one, confirming that this series should be a must-watch this weekend.

New York's comeback proves no lead will be safe

Right from the get-go, the loud Yankee Stadium faithful had their chance to rain boos down on Jose Altuve before showing some pleasure as he led off the series by being hit by a pitch. They were quickly, though only temporarily, quieted as Altuve would come in to score two batters later on a three-run blast by Alex Bregman.

Three-run homers seemed to be a theme, as New York would get one of their own to tie the game off the bat of Giancarlo Stanton to tie the game, then Yordan Alvarez continued his dominant June by pushing the Astros back in front by three with another three-run bomb in the third, making it 6-3. That lead held through to the bottom of the ninth, where instead of holding it, Ryan Pressly issued two walks to set up the fourth homer of the game to tie things again before Aaron Judge would get a walk-off single to complete the impressive comeback.

Not only will we get to sit back and watch the slug-fest between Yordan and Judge this weekend, but it looks like with Alex Bregman swinging well again to round out the top of Houston's order, the Astros may be getting closer to their full power. So far in June, these two teams sit third and fourth in on-base percentage, with the Astros at .351 and the Yankees right behind at .350. That means we should continue to see scoring opportunities on both sides that can tilt momentum one way or the other as these lineups try to battle against the opposing pitcher.

How will the aces fare

Verlander vs. Judge, and Cole vs. Alvarez, need I say more? Although we won't see Justin Verlander go up against Gerrit Cole in the same game in this series (they should go head to head next Thursday, however), they will pitch on back-to-back days, with Houston's ace going Friday night and New York's on Saturday afternoon. Verlander is coming off his worst start of the year, a three and two-thirds inning outing where the White Sox put up seven runs, four earned, against him and knocked him out early to give him his third loss and increased his ERA from 1.94 to 2.30.

The last time he faced the Yankees was in the Bronx in the 2019 playoffs, in ALCS Game 5, where he went seven frames while allowing four runs, all on two homers in the first inning, which is all New York needed to grab the 4-1 victory to make it a 3-2 Houston lead in the series, which the Astros would go on to clinch in Game 6. So, with the double dose of bad taste in his mouth, it will be interesting to see if he can use that as the fuel to get back to the phenomenal form he's had this year or if the Yankees try to jump on him early like they did nearly three years ago.

Cole, meanwhile, is fresh off of two quality starts in a row against the Rays, where he allowed just one run on six hits with nineteen strikeouts over 13.1 innings of work. He's had his share of strife this season, though, including a seven-run shelling by the Twins earlier this month, along with a start in April where he couldn't make it through two innings against the Tigers. He's had success against his former club, most notably a complete-game shutout in Houston last July with twelve K's and holding the Astros to just three hits.

If the series opener was any indication, we are in for the treat of a playoff-caliber matchup, if not a potential ALCS preview that we may see in October. The Yankees showed why they have the best record and are the hottest team in baseball on Thursday night, but the Astros were only a good outing from their closer away from having a relatively lopsided win. The rivalry is real; the competition is close, and we get to enjoy the show.

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