HOUSTON -- When Clemson coach Dabo Swinney looks back at his team's national championship victory over Alabama in January, QB Deshaun Watson's ability to stay calm stands out.
Watson’s confidence is nothing new to Swinney, who saw it time and time again at Clemson. Swinney points to Clemson’s final drive in the national championship game against Alabama. With 2 minutes and 7 seconds left, Alabama scored to take a 31-28 lead.
“He didn’t flinch,” Swinney said. “Two minutes to go, and he gathers his teammates up and we’re fixing to go out there, and he says, 'Let’s go be legendary, boys.’
“And just as cool, calm, just like, no big deal. And that’s how he executed the drive.”
Not much has changed in the nine months since that championship game, as Houston Texans coach Bill O’Brien saw before Watson played in Week 1.
“I asked him, ‘Are you nervous?’ He goes, ‘No, I don’t get nervous.’ And I see that,” said O'Brien.
The transition from college to the NFL is always challenging, especially for a rookie quarterback, but Watson’s experience in big ACC contests and two national championship games has given him the confidence to be ready to take on the Super Bowl champion Patriots in a tough road environment.
In the 2015 and 2016 seasons, Watson started seven games overall against pregame top-10 opponents, the most in the FBS. In those seven starts, he was 6-1, completing 61 percent of his passes with 19 touchdowns, nine interceptions and a Total QBR of 86.9.
“Anybody that’s played in the type of games that he’s had to play in -- look, it’s different, obviously. It’s the National Football League. But he’s played in some national championship games. He’s played in big games relative to the ACC in college,” O’Brien said. “Just the environment, dealing with the noise, dealing with the big-game environment, I think that’s important.”
'He never changes'
The first time O’Brien met Watson, the coach was struck by the quarterback's poise. At the NFL scouting combine in March, Watson sat down in a small hotel room surrounded by O’Brien, general manager Rick Smith and other members of the Texans organization who play a part in the draft evaluation process.
“It’s a tough environment, and I thought he handled himself really well,” O’Brien said. “I’ve never seen a change in his personality, if that makes sense. He’s the same guy every day. He’s calm, he’s got a really good demeanor about him.
“But he never changes. He’s flatlined. He’s not up and down. What you see every day is what you see out on the field.”
Watson said he’s always “been that type of person,” and credits his confidence not only to the success he’s had but to the way he was raised by his mom.
“My mom [made] sure that we knew right from [wrong] and how to handle different situations,” Watson said. “Then, just my experiences throughout middle school, high school and college that kind of built me up to this point now.”
Watson’s confidence is apparent on and off the field, such as in the way he dresses -- before his first NFL start on Thursday night in Cincinnati, Watson walked into Paul Brown Stadium wearing a tuxedo, a bow tie and black Christian Louboutin shoes. “I thought it was pretty fresh,” nose tackle D.J. Reader said. “He was looking fancy out there.”
Then there's the way he dances on the field before practice. After he ran for a touchdown in a Texans preseason game against the Patriots, he broke out the Milly Rock dance, saying his teammates thought it was “pretty swaggy and pretty fun to do.”
“He’s got a lot of confidence. He’s got that swagger that some quarterbacks have,” running back Lamar Miller said. “And that’s what you need for your quarterback.”
Reader said he and other players appreciate that attitude, and it rubs off on those around him.
“He just brings this confidence that you really can’t explain,” Swinney said. “But when you’re around him, and I think it’s that way around all great ones, they’re magnetic, and there’s a confidence that oozes out of them that gets into everybody else.
"And all of a sudden you have this comfort that, man, I’m getting to play with this guy. You just know you’ve got a chance to win every time you step out on the field.”
Calm under pressure
Sunday’s game against the Patriots (1-1) is not close to a national championship game, but a big game nonetheless for the Texans (1-1). Houston has lost six straight games to the Patriots, including a divisional-round playoff loss in January.
"... when you're around him, and I think it's that way around all great ones, they're magnetic, and there's a confidence that oozes out of them that gets into everybody else." Dabo Swinney on Deshaun Watson
Texans quarterbacks coach Sean Ryan said he saw Watson improve in-game in the Texans' Week 2 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals. The most impressive part of Watson’s performance, Ryan said, was the way he was able to communicate calmly before and during the game.
“He’s able to just really communicate with you, just what he’s thinking, what he expects from a defense based on what we’ve told him going into it, how he feels he would react to certain plays,” Ryan said. “There’s a lot of calm communication coming from the guy, and it was both pregame and, like I said, more importantly, and more impressively, it was in between series as the game’s going on.
“Whether it was a good series or not, he was able to come over and explain what he saw, what happened, and be able to look at the pictures and get it right, and come up with a solution when there were problems moving forward. So I just thought those were some examples of him being calm all the way through.”
That skill isn't necessarily typical for a rookie, but Ryan said he wasn’t surprised at all.
“Based on how [Watson] has acted since he’s shown here after the draft until now, [his ability to stay calm] didn’t shock me. And he’s been on huge stages, as we know," Ryan said. "He’s been in the biggest situations you can be in as a college player, which obviously has prepared him. So it didn’t shock me, but it’s been impressive to me since the time he got here.”