There’s a chance Deshaun Watson still plays for the Texans this year
It’s no surprise that Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson didn’t show up for OTAs and still wants a trade. The 22 lawsuits pending against him haven’t changed his desire to continue his career with a new team.
It would be a surprise if Watson ever wears a Texans helmet again. It would be a surprise if he ever plays in a game for the Texans again. There’s still one way that can happen, however.
If the 22 cases aren’t resolved before the start of training camp (and if the criminal investigation is closed without indictment), Watson will have to make a guess as to whether the league will place him on the Commissioner Exempt list. If he believes there’s a real chance it will happen (and there is), he’ll show up for camp.
He’ll show up because the end result will be the same as if he holds out -- he won’t be playing for the Texans. On paid leave, however, he gets his full salary of more than $10 million for 2021, and he faces no fines, forfeitures, or other consequences. If he sits out all of 2021 without showing up, the total cost will be upwards of $20 million.
So if he shows up expecting to be placed on paid leave and isn’t, he’s stuck. He’s on the Texans. He’ll have to practice and play, unless he opts to “hold in,” deliberately providing minimal effort and/or refusing to practice or play based on embellished, exaggerated, and/or fabricated injuries. Alternatively, the Texans could trade him at that point to a team that is willing to give Houston what it wants while also accepting the possibility that, even if Watson isn’t immediately placed on paid leave, future information emerging during depositions that can start as of September 13 may cause the league to change its mind.
The league also could change its mind based simply on media or fan blowback to the decision not to place him on paid leave. While the league presumably would need to point to some objective proof that shows changed circumstances justifying delayed action in order to pass the smell test, the Personal Conduct Policy gives the league the ability to do whatever it wants.
The lingering risk of a pivot by 345 Park Avenue could make it hard to trade Watson, making it more likely that Watson will play for the Texans in 2021.
Fueling that likelihood is the reality that, while the Collective Bargaining Agreement creates an easy path for players to not show up for the starting of training camp (although it’s not cheap for him to hold out), it’s very difficult to leave once a player has arrived. At that point, the team can send the player a letter giving him five days to return and, if he doesn’t, the team can place him on the Reserve/Left Squad list. If that happens, the player can play for no one in 2021, and the team will be able to pursue financial relief from the player, while also not paying him a salary.
Thus, if the cases are still looming in two months, Watson very well may decide to report for camp. (I currently believe he will.) If he’s not placed on paid leave and not promptly traded he’ll be a Texan once again, even though it’s clear he has no desire to be.