Houston Texans on collision course with painful reminder of train wreck past

Deshaun Watson returns to NRG on Dec. 4. Photo by Nick Cammett/Getty Images.

The Deshaun Watson Traveling Salvation Show, scheduled to premiere in Houston on Dec. 4, has officially begun rehearsals.

The scandal-ridden former Houston Texans star was cleared to join the Cleveland Browns for full team practices this week at the Browns training facility in Berea, Ohio. He is expected to be Cleveland’s starting quarterback when the Browns take on the Texans at NRG Stadium.

When Watson takes the field that it day it will be nearly two years since he last played an NFL game in a Texans uniform losing to the Cincinnati Bengals on Dec. 27, 2020.

Watson sat out the Texans’ entire 2021 schedule after more than two dozen women filed civil lawsuits accusing him of sexual assault and misconduct. Two grand juries failed to indict him on criminal charges, and Watson has settled most of the civil suits out of court. The Texans traded Watson to Cleveland for a basket of draft picks in March, 2022. Cleveland tore up Watson’s old contract with the Texans and rewarded him with a new five-year, fully guaranteed deal worth $230 million. It was reported that Watson recently purchased a $5.4 million, 17,000 square-foot mansion in Cleveland’s ritzy Hunting Valley neighborhood.

The NFL initially suspended Watson for the first six games of the 2022 season and later tacked on five more games when the punishment wasn’t deemed sufficient.

Watson joined the Browns for their practice on Wednesday and will continue to fully participate in team activities and meetings before his Dec. 4 debut against the Texans. Watson shared QB1 snaps with seat-filler Jacoby Brissett. Watson did not speak to the media other than commenting before the game that it was chilly.

While he is back in the NFL’s good graces, two civil suits and plenty of football-related questions linger. After being sidelined for nearly two seasons, will he be able to regain his All-Pro form? For inspiration he could look to the Astros Justin Verlander who made only one pitching start in 2020-21 due to Tommy John surgery, came back in 2022, and was just named the American League’s Cy Young Award winner.

Verlander didn’t have to face the scorn of fans which surely will rain down on Watson. In addition to being suspended, Watson was fined $5 million, the largest penalty ever handed a player in NFL history. He also had to accept counseling and agree to use only team-approved massage therapists.

Will Watson take the field against the Texans super amped in revenge mode? Or will nerves and rust get the better of him? The quarterback and the Texans did not part on the best of terms. It will be interesting how Houston fans (and Browns supporters) greet Watson. On one hand, Watson demanded a trade from the Texans in 2021 and all the negative publicity and lurid details of his alleged sexual misconduct didn’t win him any popularity points. Many of his sponsors withdrew their support. He became an NFL outcast.

On the other hand, Watson was by far the most successful and productive offensive player in Texans history. He generally was an admired hero, talented superstar and squeaky-clean role model before 2021. In 2020, he threw for an NFL-leading 4,823 yards including 33 touchdowns, only seven interceptions and a shimmering quarterback rating of 112.4 for an otherwise dreadful Texans team that finished 4-12.

The Cleveland game probably will draw the biggest crowd to NRG Stadium this season. NFL schedule-makers couldn’t have done a better job of manufacturing curiosity and drama for a regular-season game between two lackluster and struggling teams. The Browns currently stand at 3-6 and will be underdogs against the 6-3 Bills and 5-5 Buccaneers before coming to Houston. The Texans are 1-7-1, the worst record in the NFL. The Texans will face the 5-5 Commanders and 7-3 Dolphins prior to their reunion with Watson.

While the Texans laughably announce their attendance at 67,000 (due to the NFL method of counting tickets sold, not butts in seats), a realistic estimate of NRG Stadium crowds is around 25,000 fans. Judging from cheers when the visiting team scores, there isn’t a whole lot of home field advantage at NRG Stadium. A big topic on Houston sports talk radio is, will the Texans fire head coach Lovie Smith after the season? If they do, the next man up will be the team’s fourth different head coach in four seasons. That’s got to be some sort of record for godawful futility.

While Watson’s re-entry into NFL society will draw unprecedented national attention to a regular season Texans game, the game isn’t fritzing out the local box office, at least not yet. Tickets on the secondary market are available for as low as $35. That is better than this week’s home game against the Commanders, tickets can be had for a bargain basement $19, though you’ll be sitting in the metaphoric attic.

It isn’t just that the Texans are losing, it appears that fans have stopped caring. It’s certainly not a money issue. Taylor Swift is coming to Houston for concerts on three consecutive nights next April at 71,000-seat NRG Stadium. All the presale tickets on Ticketmaster are gone. Ticket sales to the general public go on sale Friday. The cheapest tickets currently available on the secondary market are in the $400 to $600 range, while one capitalist already is asking $30,000 for two tickets down front. That’s 30 thou … each.

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The Texans host the Steelers at NRG this Sunday. Composite Getty Image.

What: Texans vs. Steelers

When: 10/1 12pm CST kickoff

Where: Houston, TX NRG Stadium

TV/Radio: KHOU-TV, KILT-Radio

Betting Lines: Steelers -2.5 (-120), O/U 42 (-110) *As of this writing

The Watt Brother Bowl takes place on Sunday. I'm calling it that because the Texans are honoring their all-time great J.J. while they're playing his younger brother and current hell raising edge rusher for the Steelers T.J. The Steelers have won four of the last five matchups vs. the Texans by an average score of 28-17. The biggest difference is that the Steelers have a second year starter at quarterback in Kenny Pickett, and the Texans have a rookie in C.J. Stroud. When you look at the two quarterbacks, both organizations have full faith in each guy. Both teams have tried to build a defense to help their young signal callers. Both are still trying to surround their franchise guys with weapons.

When the Steelers have the ball: Here's a game where Will Anderson Jr can make headway as a proven EDGE. Stacking consistent performances together and helping your team win games by making winning plays. It helps that Pickett has tiny hands. This was a knock on him during draft season last year. Hand size for a quarterback impacts grip. That can not only impact accuracy, but it could make it easier to strip the ball from him.

While he doesn't have the weapons to torch this defense, Pickett does hand the ball off to Najee Harris who's more than capable. Averaging only 67 yards rushing as a team can't be taken lightly. Denzel Perryman is expected to miss the game Sunday, so hopefully that won't help jumpstart the Steelers' run game. The Texans defense will have to key in on the run, given that they average giving up 117 a game on the ground. Those aforementioned weapons may not be scary, but the injuries to the defensive backs has hurt. Tavierre Thomas is expected to miss the game recovering from hand surgery. Jimmie Ward coming back last week showed what happens when they have a top safety back there, especially when the pass rush is turning up. Hopefully, the Texans can capitalize again this week, with safety Jalen Pitre expected to return to action.

When the Texans have the ball: Good luck stopping Tank Dell and Stroud! These guys have already established themselves as a formidable duo three games into their careers. A great way to get that connection going is to pound the rock. The Steelers are giving up over 150 yards on the ground per game so far this season. That's also a good way to keep T.J. at bay while J.J. watches. With Laremy Tunsil and Josh Jones both expected to miss the game, here are the offensive line starters: Austin Deculus, Kendrick Green, Jarrett Patterson, Shaq Mason, and George Fant.

Making the younger Watt brother slow down a bit instead of going balls to the wall after Stroud because a run could be coming will help the pass game tremendously. Stroud will have to continue to make quick decisions, but even quicker this game. I wouldn't be surprised to see his first pick of his career here, given the pressure he's most likely to be under. Especially when your offensive line starters were mostly all backups to begin this season.

Outcome: I failed to place a money line bet on the Texans last week because the game started and the live bet wasn't as profitable. I wanted to take a chance on them given their recent record against the Jags. Looking at their last five vs. the Steelers, one would say why make that bet this week? It's because I believe in Stroud more than I believe in Pickett. While T.J. Watt is a different kind of monster, Will Anderson Jr is on his way to becoming something special. Texans win/cover, and hit the over, but barely: Texans 24, Steelers 20.

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