Lighting up the night
Texans host unbeaten Chiefs on ‘SNF’
Deshaun Watson has electrified crowds, earned a significant amount of praise from his elders and dazzled with his rare elusiveness and poise.
The Texans’ quarterback plays with a calmness uncommon for any passer, let alone one who’s only 22 years old and entering his fifth NFL game. Watson is mastering the art of remaining unfazed by complicated defensive schemes, or being distracted by the sideshow of what accompanies being the man of the moment at football’s most important position.
Kareem Hunt is emerging as an artist at the jump cut move, shuffling his feet in rapid-fire fashion like pistons to leave tacklers grasping at air.
The Kansas City Chiefs’ rookie running back sensation is tough enough to lower the boom and punish linebackers, fast enough to run away from them and smart enough to decipher defenses intended to contain him.
Since fumbling on his first NFL carry, Hunt has practically been perfect and he leads the league in rushing yards for an undefeated team.
The two leading candidates for NFL Rookie of the Year honors collide Sunday night at NRG Stadium.
“They’re both doing a great job,” Texans star defensive end J.J. Watt said. “Obviously, it’s a very difficult league to play in, so when you can come in early and have as much success as they’ve had so far, I think it’s a testament to how hard they work, how talented they are and also, obviously, bright things are coming for the future.”
The Texans will try to ride the wave of Watson’s growing rise into one of the most exciting young players in the game. The Chiefs will counter with Hunt, a thirdround draft pick who entered the NFL with considerably less fanfare than Watson and has made an immediate impact as the replacement for Spencer Ware. Front and center
In a league always on the hunt for new talent, Watson and Hunt have gone from being on deck to being front and center right away.
“That’s how it is every year, there’s always someone different,” Texans veteran cornerback Johnathan Joseph said. “Deshaun is doing a great job for us and we’ve got his back. The Chiefs have a great scheme and a history of great running backs, and Hunt is picking up where they left off.
“The game, the field dimensions, the size of the ball, it doesn’t change. There are smarter guys and guys run a little faster here, but the game is going to be the same. You take your skill set from the collegiate level, you bring it up here and your confidence level should stay at a high level.”
Regardless of the stakes or difficulty of the opponent, both players keep contributing to their respective teams’ victories.
Although Watson and Hunt play different positions in their teams’ backfields, they share some common traits in terms of attitude, moves and confidence.
“It’s a tribute to both kids,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “They’re working their tails off, I’m sure. I’m not with Deshaun every day, but I know how he’s wired. My kid here, he works is tail off and is so diligent in all phases of the game, which is unique for a young guy. I appreciate Kareem’s attitude and diligence to learn the game. That’s what impresses me the most.” Smooth transition
At the quarter pole of the season, Watson and Hunt have emerged as two of the top rookies regardless of position.
A national championship game winner over Alabama in his final game at Clemson, Watson arrived in the NFL with high expectations as the 12th overall pick of the first round. Hunt was a relatively unheralded third-round draft pick from Toledo who caught NFL scouts’ eyes at the Senior Bowl all-star game.
“I think that these guys nowadays, a lot of these guys have played in such big — look, it’s probably more related to Deshaun than it is Hunt, but they’ve played well in college,” Texans coach Bill O’Brien said. “They’re coached well in college. Some of these guys, the stage isn’t too big for them.”
Watson accounted for five total touchdowns during a 57-14 victory he engineered over the Tennessee Titans a week ago and was named AFC Offensive Player of the Week. That accomplishment was the second-most scores in a game by a rookie in NFL history behind Chicago Bears legend Gale Sayers in 1965.
He also became the third rookie quarterback in NFL history to have four or more touchdown passes and one or more rushing scores, the first to do so since Minnesota Vikings quarterback Fran Tarkenton in 1961.
He’s the only rookie in NFL history to have seven or more passing touchdowns and two or more rushing touchdowns in the first four games of the season.
The Chiefs wound up drafting Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes in the first round, but they spent plenty of time with Watson during the draft process.
“We had a ton of respect for him and we had him in here and spent a lot of time with him and just thought he was going to be a really, really good football player,” Reid said. “And he’s doing just what we figured. He’s a good one.”
Watson has passed for 811 yards and seven touchdowns, rushing for 148 yards and two scores. He’s on pace to finish the season with 3,244 yards, 28 touchdowns and 16 interceptions, 592 rushing yards and eight touchdowns.
Watson is known for his study habits, building a reputation as an extremely hard worker. He’s intelligent, respectful to his teammates and fun to watch.
“My opinion from day one when he came in here, he’s been very serious about what he’s done,” Texans quarterbacks coach Sean Ryan said. He’s been a mature guy, kind of beyond his years in my mind. He never acted like a rookie in terms of how he approached his job. To me, he came in professional, serious and I think certainly that’s been a big part of his maturation and how he’s handled things.
“He’s made rookie mistakes on the field, don’t get me wrong, and we know he will and we’re working to get better with that every week, every day. But the way he approaches his job and the seriousness that he takes it with, it’s impressive.”
Watson does it all with a low-key personality. There’s no hiding his confidence, though. ‘It’s in my DNA’
Arriving for games in tailored tuxedos, Watson is drawing high marks for his style on and off the field.
“I just be me,” Watson said. “It’s in my DNA. That’s how I was raised, so that’s all I know. Regardless of the success and the failure that you have, always stay level headed and just be the Deshaun Watson I’ve always been. I don’t do anything outside the lines to try to stay grounded. It’s just something in me.”
Watson is young, but he commands respect from much older players. They gravitate toward him on the field and in the locker room.
“He’s a great leader,” Texans cornerback Kareem Jackson said. “I don’t think you can teach someone to be a leader. You just have to naturally have that, and I think he naturally has that. He’s doing some great things right now. He’ll continue to lead us and we’ll continue to be behind him 100 percent.”
Drafted 86th overall, Hunt was the sixth running back selected in the spring. He was the first running back picked that wasn’t from a Power 5 conference.
Hunt leads the NFL with 502 rushing yards, gaining at least 100 yards in three of four games. He’s on pace to finish the season with 2,008 rushing yards. Hunt leads the NFL with 372 rushing yards in the second half of games. That’s more than any other player has gained overall this year.
“When you look at Hunt run, I mean, he’s built low to the ground,” O’Brien said. “He’s a very, very physically tough guy to tackle. He’s fast, he’s a stretch-cut runner, he does a great job of pressing the line of scrimmage and has really good vision.
“He’s a very, very difficult back to tackle. If you let this guy get into the secondary, he’s got that Maurice Jones-Drew-type of quality where it’s hard to tackle him. He’s got a big lower body and he’s a strong, strong player. It’s a challenge and he’s done a great job.”
Hunt has forced 25 missed tackles this season, ranking first in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus.
With four consecutive games of at least 100 yards from scrimmage to start his career, Hunt joined an exclusive fraternity as the only other players to do so are Billy Sims, LaDainian Tomlinson and Adrian Peterson. His 659 total yards from scrimmage ranks second to Sims in NFL history.
None of this comes as a surprise to Texans offensive guard Greg Mancz. He blocked for Hunt at Toledo.
“My job was to try to open up holes for him, and he made us look good, so I’m thankful for that,” Mancz said. “I’m really happy for him. I’ve always known he was a good back. This week, he’s not on the good side.”
Hunt already has scored three touchdowns of 50 yards or longer. He has four plays of 50 yards or longer, more than any running back has generated in a full season since Peterson back in 2012. On a fast pace
Hunt is a versatile player who also excels as a receiver, catching all 13 passes thrown to him for 157 yards and two scores.
He’s averaging a staggering 7.4 yards per run. Who’s done better than that in their team’s first four games of the season? Only Hall of Fame runner Jim Brown.
“He’s looking to run you over, that’s what I like about him as a running back,” Texans Pro Bowl outside linebacker-defensive end Jadeveon Clowney said. “He’s got good vision. You better bring your ‘A ‘game against him and be ready to hit.”
As good as Hunt is, an admittedly biased Clowney wouldn’t trade Watson for anybody.
“What I see is great players having great seasons so far,” he said. “I think ours is better than theirs.”
Deshaun Watson, left, accounted for five touchdowns last weekend, the secondmost TDs in an NFL game by a rookie behind only Chicago’s Gale Sayers in 1965.
The Chiefs’ Kareem Hunt, right, leads the NFL with 502 rushing yards and has reached 100 yards rushing in three of four games.