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In late September, when the proposition of acquiring Deshaun Watson continued to linger inside the Miami Dolphins, it became clear to the Houston Texans and the quarterback’s legal camp that Dolphins owner Stephen Ross wasn’t getting a piece of clarity that he wanted.
Watson’s 22 civil lawsuits alleging sexual misconduct were sitting in the Harris County District Court system with virtually no movement to speak of, while there was no guidance available regarding a potential grand jury investigation into some of those claims. Both of these realities made Ross wary of a deal, particularly one that involved Houston’s asking price of three first-round draft picks and two second-round selections.
The message to Watson’s camp and the Texans was clear: If a trade was going to get consummated, the quarterback needed to resolve the civil suits that were pending against him. And to Watson’s camp, that meant a global settlement of all 22 complaints needed to take place. It's something that Watson’s advisers felt amounted to an admission of guilt, likely being enough to trigger the league’s automatic six-game suspension for first-time offenders of the personal conduct policy’s clause on sexual assault.
This has been a significant holdup in the ebbing and flowing of the Watson trade talks for almost a month. The Dolphins — and by extension, the Texans — have wanted Watson to pursue a settlement so that all the parties could move forward with clarity. But Watson and some in his camp have remained against it, staunchly adamant of his innocence and ready to take that argument into court.
If a trade doesn’t get finalized and Watson remains on the Texans' roster after Tuesday, this will be the primary reason why it happened.
Ross and the Dolphins aren’t willing to give the Texans a full-price bounty for Watson without some protections or clarity, and Houston isn’t willing to take less than it wants and refuses to structure some “give-back” elements if Watson runs into a legal buzzsaw.
This has come up in some recent reporting, with longtime Houston Chronicle beat writer John McClain laying out some of these Ross reservations. While the specificity of Ross’ involvement is new, the reticence is not. This has been going on all the way back to this past summer, when Miami was among several teams showing Watson interest but all wanting either clarity on his legal future or protections against it.
As Yahoo Sports reported in late August, the Dolphins were the frontrunners for Watson. That never changed. No matter how many times other teams were thrown into the mix over the past two weeks, Miami was always ahead of everyone else. And it was for one simple reason: As we reported in August and as it always remained through today, Watson never relented on waiving his no-trade clause for any other team. He created the inside track for Miami long ago and never let anyone else into the running.
So what has been really happening over the past couple weeks? Well, let’s break down the quartet of teams that showed interest this summer.
The Denver Broncos: They were out of it by late August and the pursuit was never reignited. That includes the past two weeks.
That leaves us with the Carolina Panthers and Dolphins. Carolina’s interest was very much at the top of the organization, with team owner David Tepper being the driving force behind it. But Tepper also understood the lay of the land and wasn’t going to be reckless about the rebuild of his team. And when it came down to it, stacking up nearly $54 million in quarterback salary in 2022 — which was how much guaranteed money the Panthers would owe Watson and Sam Darnold — was fraught with difficulty, especially given the Panthers would have to match Miami’s outlay of draft picks and that Tepper also wanted Watson’s legal battles put behind him. This was also all a practice in conjecture since the quarterback hadn’t even agreed to lift his no-trade clause for Carolina.
This is how we’ve come to where it all stands today. It's the exact place it stood in August, with Watson focused on Miami and the Dolphins wanting protection. The same type of protection it wanted in the summer, when it was thought the Texans would give up something at the negotiating table. Either they would take fewer picks or they would give up some de-escalators that were tied to a potential Watson suspension.
Nothing has changed. Someone is going to have to blink here. Someone is going to have to compromise on their ask. Either the Texans accept fewer assets or offer more protection, or the Dolphins relent on needing some kind of shield against potential future Watson litigation.
This is also where Watson can enter the chat. He can appease what the Dolphins want and spend the next five days trying to find a settlement in his 22 civil suits. And then he can take whatever punishment that ultimately triggers with the NFL’s personal conduct policy, also knowing that the league should still step in again if criminal charges are levied down the line.
Or he can dig in legally and prepare for a fight which is what he has been doing since the allegations surfaced in March. Taking that track now means his near future will be settling in to a very specific locale after Tuesday’s trade deadline, one that is in Houston and off the field, while Miami and the rest of the NFL moves on without him.