DENVER — When Deshaun Watson dug in his heels this offseason, making it known he did not want to play another down for the Houston Texans, many saw it as posturing.
I know better. I covered the Rockies for 15 years. And I watched Nolan Arenado, a player of Watson's ilk, strong-arm his way out of town after his trust evaporated — in the winter of 2020, Arenado told me GM Jeff Bridich lied to him about key issues — with the front office and ownership.
Watson has shown no signs of backing down. He feels betrayed and acts ready to move on. General manager Nick Caserio, to this point, has refused to take calls on Watson. There have been reports of unanswered voice mails. However, the Texans appear to be softening their stance, slowly embracing the reality that Watson is not bluffing.
First-time head coach David Culley provided a hint of this during his appearance on The Huddle & Flow podcast with NFL Network's Jim Trotter and Steve Wyche when asked if Watson would be the team's starter in Week 1 of the 2021 season.
"He is our starting quarterback as of right now," Culley said. "Things happen between now and then. We'll see what happens."
Wednesday, longtime Houston Chronicle Hall of Fame writer John McLain, who has covered the Oilers and Texans for four decades, tweeted, "The Texans haven’t said they’re not trading Watson since January. I expect him to be traded."
Two months ago, McLain said there was no way Houston would deal the quarterback.
It appears there is an eyelid twitch in this stare down.
Tuesday, The Athletic's Michael Lombardi said on The Rich Eisen Show that Watson's preferred destinations were Denver and San Francisco. I cannot confirm that. I have been told repeatedly by sources that Watson has not ruled out the Broncos. This takes on added importance when considering Watson has a no-trade clause and can steer where he goes.
The Broncos had a top recruiting coordinator in strong safety Kareem Jackson. Jackson played with Watson in Houston, and the two remain friends. However, the Broncos declined Jackson's contract option Tuesday. Jackson told Denver7 the possibility of returning to Denver "is not entirely closed," though it is unlikely. It also means any help with Watson is on pause.
So is there another connection? As the Broncos wade through the shrinking veteran quarterback market — Mitchell Trubisky, Alex Smith, Gardner Minshew and Nick Foles remain as potential competition for Drew Lock — I spent some time digging on the internet. Twitter hates everything. We know this. But sometimes an internet search can produce a rabbit hole of fun.
After several entries, I struck on something. Did you know that Broncos linebacker Alexander Johnson and Watson were high school teammates? They both prepped at Gainesville High School in Georgia.
"Yes sir!" Johnson texted me on Wednesday.
Their paths overlapped in the 2010 season. Johnson served as the senior star linebacker and quarterback — more on that later — and Watson received a baptism by blowtorch, starting as a true freshman. The Red Elephants got hot, went on a run, but failed to win the state title. Watson led Gainesville to its first crown in 2012 as he became the state's all-time passing yardage leader.
The Red Elephants were salty in 2010. Watson finished with 17 touchdowns and seven interceptions passing. Johnson took pressure off, used in Wildcat formations and striking fear into defenders with his 235-pound frame.
In one rivalry game, Johnson rushed for 192 yards and three touchdowns. Johnson posted 173 tackles, 29 for a loss, eight forced fumbles, six sacks and two interceptions in his senior campaign. He was a eye-opening linebacker.
So impressed was his versatility, former Tennessee coach Derek Dooley promised to keep Johnson involved with the offense as a way to keep Florida from reversing Johnson's commitment. Presto, Johnson scored from the Wildcat formation against Kentucky in his sophomore year.
In the NFL, Johnson and Watson faced off in 2019. Ironically, it served as arguably Lock's best game as he completed 22 of 27 passes for 309 yards and three touchdowns in the upset. Watson connected on 28 of 50 passes for one touchdown and two picks.
Jackson, meanwhile, played his best game as a Bronco, taking it personally after the Texans made no attempt to keep him in free agency the previous season. He delivered 11 tackles, a 70-yard touchdown on a lateral and a crushing hit on DeAndre Hopkins.
What would it take to for the Broncos to land Watson, who might not become available until the eve of the draft in April?
It starts with three first-round picks, and likely a promising young player and another pick. Broncos general manager George Paton indicated he will be involved in every deal -- his phone never stops buzzing because of his wide array of league contacts and relationships -- and aggressive if necessary. Any pursuit of Watson would not preclude the addition of a veteran as a quarterback could be thrown overboard if necessary.
I fully expect the Broncos to be nimble and interested if Watson becomes available.
The acquisition price would sting. But, Watson represents a unicorn. He is a three-time Pro Bowler and will be 25 years old when next season starts. He is a franchise quarterback. The Broncos have had 10 starters -- counting Phillip Lindsay vs. the Saints -- since Peyton Manning retired.
For me, Watson represents a top five quarterback and an annual MVP candidate. While the Texans went 4-12 last season because they employed one of the worst defense's in two decades, Watson threw for 4,823 yards, 33 touchdowns and seven interceptions. In his career, he boasts 104 touchdowns and 36 interceptions and 1,677 rushing yards with 17 scores.
An off-field matter arose Tuesday with Watson tweeting that he looks forward to clearing his name after attorney Tony Buzbee filed a lawsuit against the quarterback, alleging indecent conduct with a woman during a massage at her home in March 2020, according to ESPN. Watson responded, saying he rejected a "baseless six-figure settlement" and aims to "clear my name, and I look forward to doing that."
Even before Tuesday, Watson's days with the Texans appeared numbered.
Obviously, Jackson is no longer the reason for Watson to come to Denver, if it comes down to that. I did not ask Johnson if he would recruit, since it puts him in a difficult position. But it would be wrong to say Watson would no longer know anyone in Denver if the Broncos land him.
There will be another elephant in the room. A Red Elephant.