McFeely: Former Bison Watson drops chance at dream start to NFL career
Packers call first play to receiver, but he muffs sure touchdown pass from Aaron Rodgers as Green Bay loses to Vikings
MINNEAPOLIS — The story Sunday in downtown Minneapolis was Justin Jefferson. He went Randy Moss circa 1998 on the Green Bay Packers. Super Bowl, home boy? Dream big, Minnesota.
Jefferson was the toast of the Minnesota Vikings and the rocking party that was U.S. Bank Stadium.
Deep in the bowels of that building, it was a different vibe for Christian Watson . He was surrounded by a couple of dozen reporters and cameras in a quiet visitors' locker room, asked to explain messing up the first snap of his NFL career.
Watson, the former North Dakota State star and a valuable second-round draft choice of the Packers, opened his professional life by dropping a pass from quarterback Aaron Rodgers that would've been an easy 75-yard touchdown.
He went viral for all the wrong reasons.
"That's just a play that I know I've got to make 100% of the time," Watson said. "It's a play I know I'm capable of making. I just got to, you know, put that in the past and move on."
You want the play that set the tone for Green Bay's afternoon? Draw a circle around that one. The Vikings buried the Packers 23-7, with Jefferson and his quarterback Kirk Cousins running circles around Rodgers and his passel of receivers.
Stephen King couldn't come up with a nastier way for a receiver to start an NFL career.
The Packers drew up a play for Watson, called it on the first snap of the season, he got open ... and bungled it.
"It's tough. Obviously, I missed the first one. You don't know how many more you're going to have," Watson said. "I mean, you're assuming there's going to be a lot more. Obviously, it's the first one. Obviously it was tough. But like I said, it's a play that I know I can make. So I'm just going to go forward knowing that, I've made that play 100 times in the past and I'm gonna make it next time it comes my way."
But the first time? Oof.
"You gotta make those plays," Rodgers said.
The Vikings scored a touchdown on their first possession, with Cousins and Jefferson leading a surgical drive.
When the Packers took over, Rodgers dropped back on the first play, set his feet and unleashed a deep pass down the right side.
Watson was streaking wide open, having juked Minnesota cornerback Patrick Peterson into Stearns County. Watson had a four-yard lead on Peterson, his long strides chewing up the green turf just like they did at the Fargodome or Towson or Youngstown State.
The ball descended out of the air beneath the ceiling of the stadium, perfectly delivered. Gift-wrapped. All Watson had to do was catch it and glide into the end zone unmolested. There could not have been a more auspicious start to Watson's NFL career.
It was a dream.
Watson extended his arms, the spiraling ball fell for a soft landing — and everything went sideways.
Somewhere, John Madden was saying that.
Instead of nestling into Watson's mitts, the ball clanked between them and tumbled harmlessly to the turf. Still going full speed, Watson slapped his helmet with both hands in exasperation.
How could I drop that?
It could have been — no, make that should have been — a 75-yard walk-in touchdown on Watson's first play from scrimmage in an NFL game.
The dream turned into a nightmare.
"It's a play I'm going to make 99 times out of 100. I make it 100 out of 100 if it weren't for today," Watson said. "It's just a play that I know I can make. Going forward, I'm going to make that play every single time. I understand that. I know what I'm capable of. And I know what the standard is, and I'm going to uphold that from here on out."
Rodgers scowled at the time, understandably, but after the game preached patience.
"You knew there was going to be growing pains," he said. "This is real football. It counts. It's difficult. There's nerves. I thought Christian ran a great route to start the game. We talked about it during the week. 'Do you want to start off with a bomb shot?' I said, yeah. What the hell. Why not? The kid can really fly, we'll give him a chance."
Packers head coach Matt LeFleur said he decided two days ago that the season's first play would be a deep shot to Watson.
"I just wanted to showcase his speed, and he certainly ran pretty fast on that play. We've just got to finish the play," LeFleur said.
Other than an end-around that gained 7 yards in the first half, Watson might as well have been on a milk carton the rest of the game. He was not targeted again until the fourth quarter, when he made a 9-yard reception from Rodgers his first NFL catch. Watson caught a 25-yard pass from Jordan Love on the game's final play. The definition of a garbage-time catch.
"We gotta have patience with those guys. They're young. They haven't been in the fire," Rodgers said. "The patience will be thinner as the season goes on. The expectations will be higher. We'll keep them accountable, but it's going to happen. There's going to be drops. You hate to see it on the first play, but there's going to be drops during the season."
True. But there's only one first time and Watson missed it.