A CASE FOR DESHAUN

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

Deshaun Watson
Imagine what Houston's record would be without Watson.Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images
Throwback Thursday: Texans history so so in Thursday games

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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Astros on the hunt. Composite Getty Image.

With the Astros' surge from 10 games out of first place to within two games of Seattle, catching and going past the Mariners has naturally become the top objective. It's no given to happen but it's right there. In the final series ahead of the All-Star break, while the Mariners are in the midst of four games with the lowly Angels, the last two World Series champions renew (un)pleasantries at Minute Maid Park.

The Astros enter the weekend five games ahead of the Rangers. They lead the season series with the reigning champs four wins to three. While the Astros can't quite finish off the Arlingtonians by sweeping them in this three game set, shoving them eight games back (even further back of Seattle and the current Wild Card teams) and clinching the tiebreaker would seem close to a death blow. Taking two out of three would be fine for the Astros. If the Rangers win the series, they are clearly still in the American League West and Wild Card races coming out of the All-Star break.

Last year the Rangers had the best offense in the AL. So far in 2024 they rank a mediocre eighth in runs per game. Nathaniel Lowe is the lone Ranger (get it?!?) regular playing as well as he did last season. Corey Seager has been fine but not at the MVP runner-up level of last year. Marcus Semien is notably down, as is 2023 ALCS Astros-obliterater Adolis Garcia. Stud 2023 rookie Josh Jung has been out with a broken wrist since ex-Astro Phil Maton hit him with a pitch in the fourth game of this season, though fill-in third baseman Josh Smith has been the Rangers' best player. 21-year-old late season phenom Evan Carter largely stunk the first two months this season and has been out since late May with a back injury. Repeating is hard, never harder than it is now. Hence no Major League Baseball has done it since the Yankees won three straight World Series 1998-2000.

Chasing down the Division at a crazy clip

From the abyss of their 7-19 start, the Astros sweep over the Marlins clinched a winning record at the break with them at 49-44. Heading into the Texas matchup the Astros have won at a .627 clip since they were 7-19. A full season of .627 ball wins 101 games. If the Astros win at a .627 rate the rest of the way they'll finish with 92 wins, almost certainly enough to secure a postseason slot and likely enough to win the West. Expecting .627 the rest of the way is ambitious.

With it fairly clear that Lance McCullers is highly unlikely to contribute anything after his latest recovery setback, and Luis Garcia a major question mark, what Justin Verlander has left in 2024 grows more important. With the way the Astros often dissemble or poorly forecast when discussing injuries, for all we know Verlander could be cooked. Inside three weeks to the trade deadline, General Manager Dana Brown can't be thinking a back end of the rotation comprised of Spencer Arrighetti and Jake Bloss should be good enough. The Astros have 66 games to play after the All-Star break, including separate stretches with games on 18 and 16 consecutive days.

All-Star MIAs

Viewership for Tuesday's All-Star game at Globe Life Field in Arlington will be pretty, pretty, pretty low in Houston. One, All-Star Game ratings are pitiful every year compared to where they used to be. Two, the Astros could be down to zero representatives at Tuesday's showcase. Kyle Tucker was rightfully named a reserve but had no shot at playing as he continues the loooong recovery from a bone bruise (or worse) suffered June 3. Being named an All-Star for a ninth time was enough for Jose Altuve. He opts out of spending unnecessary time in Texas Rangers territory citing a sore wrist. This despite Altuve playing four games in a row since sitting out the day after he was plunked and highly likely to play in all three games versus the Rangers this weekend. Yordan Alvarez exiting Wednesday's rout of the Marlins with hip discomfort and then missing Thursday's game seem clear reasons for him to skip, though he has indicated thus far he intends to take part. Yordan is the most essential lineup component to the Astros' hopes of making an eighth straight playoff appearance.

Ronel Blanco should have made the American League squad on performance, but pretty obviously his 10 game illegal substance use suspension was held against him. As it works out, Blanco will pitch Sunday in the last game before the break which would render him unavailable for the All-Star Game anyway. Blanco is eligible to pitch, but given the career high-shattering innings workload Blanco is headed for, no way the Astros want him on the mound Tuesday. Just last year the Astros kept Framber Valdez from pitching in the game.

While waiting, and waiting, and waiting on Tucker's return, the Astros have also been waiting on Chas McCormick to get back to something even faintly resembling the hitter he was last year. McCormick routinely looks lost at the plate. He has four hits (all singles) in his last 32 at bats with his season OPS pitiful at .572. During the break the Astros should seriously weigh sending McCormick to AAA Sugar Land and giving Pedro Leon a try in a job share with Joey Loperfido.

*Catch our weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week generally goes up Monday afternoon (second part released Tuesday) via The SportsMap HOU YouTube channel or listen to episodes in their entirety at Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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