Now the Houston Texans coach hopes Watson can do the same on Thursday night against the Cincinnati Bengals, knowing that his team's playoff aspirations and its future at quarterback could rely on how Watson develops in his first NFL season.
O'Brien understands the challenges of playing a rookie quarterback -- he said all through the offseason, even before the Texans gave up two first-round picks to trade up and draft Watson, how difficult it is to start at quarterback as a rookie -- and he elected to go with Savage as the starter entering the regular season. Savage's agent blasted the Texans on Wednesday for benching Savage after just one half, saying Savage earned the starting job during training camp and that pulling him after just 31 plays was unfair.
Ideally for the Texans, Savage would have started all season and the team would have won while Watson had the year to study and learn the playbook and adjust to the NFL. Instead, by playing him in the second half on Sunday, O'Brien sped up Watson's development and made it very difficult to go back to Savage.
O'Brien said he hopes he will be able to stick with whoever starts Thursday -- and it is expected to be Watson -- going forward.
The quarterback carousel in Houston is nothing new -- wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins has now caught passes from 10 QBs in the five years he has been with the team -- and the Texans are hoping that Watson will be their first franchise quarterback.
For that plan to work, though, it will require Watson to play well. Even if the defense can rebound from its uncharacteristic performance on Sunday against Jacksonville, the Texans found out last season that the No. 1-ranked defense could not get them far in the playoffs without a competent offense and quarterback. Wins are important in the short term for a team with playoff expectations, but the Texans need to see Watson's improvement week-to-week.
Quarterbacks coach Sean Ryan praised Watson's ability to make plays, but said he knows there will be a learning curve for the rookie this season.
"He's a playmaker with good instincts, and he's young," Ryan said. "He's going to make some mistakes, and it's on us to keep working with him and minimize his mistakes and get rid of them, not repeat them, and keep moving forward with him. But he's shown what he's shown from Day 1, I thought."
The Texans do have several holes -- the biggest one the offensive line -- and by trading quarterback Brock Osweiler in March and trading up to draft Watson, general manager Rick Smith mortgaged the future on Watson being the eventual face of the franchise. Now they have to protect him, and his receivers must play better as well. While Savage was 7-of-13 on Sunday, four of the incompletions hit the intended target's hands, which can't happen if the quarterback is under constant pressure.
Watson had some ups and downs in his debut, going 12-for-23 with a touchdown pass, interception and fumble in the 29-7 loss. But the Texans felt he showed a glimpse of what he can do.
"He did some good things [in] his first NFL start," Hopkins said. "Him and I have some things we need to work on to improve, but I think we did some good things out there."