Benjamin Watson’s wife, Kirsten, keeps a scrapbook of everything written about her husband’s career.
Two, actually. She put together the first after Watson’s six years in New England, and she’s working on a second now, with the help of a company that can find articles from all over the country — even in places and publications nobody else would think to look.
Kirsten may have to add a few pages to the back of the book to fit everything from Watson’s remarkable 2015 season.
Watson, the second-oldest tight end in the league behind San Diego’s Antonio Gates, turned in career bests in receptions (74) and yards (825) and tied his career high in touchdowns (six) for a Saints offense that didn’t miss a beat in its first season without Jimmy Graham.
Watson’s numbers surprised just about everybody.
“For me, I didn’t expect to personally have this type of season,” he said.
Watson has largely chalked up his career year to opportunity.
With Graham gone, Watson emerged as the primary tight end target for a passing offense that finished first in the league. By virtue of earning that spot in training camp, Watson ensured he would get plenty of chances during the regular season.
“I think it’s a credit to No. 9 delivering the football. He makes all of us better,” Watson said of quarterback Drew Brees. “When you’re playing with a quarterback like that, it’s exciting to play offense. You know you’re going to have a chance to get the ball.”
Watson was selling his season a bit short. Before Graham arrived in New Orleans, the Saints offense had a track record of finding ways for veteran tight ends to be productive, but Jeremy Shockey, Billy Miller and David Thomas never approached the numbers Watson put up this season. None of those tight ends caught more than 50 passes in a season with New Orleans.
And Watson did it while playing with a receiver tandem, Brandin Cooks and Willie Snead, that came within a deep out of both players breaking the 1,000-yard barrier.
“For a guy who’s in his 12th season at the tight end position to really have a career year, I think it just speaks to everything about him — from the type of person he is, the type of teammate he is, his work habits, his approach, his leadership ability,” Brees said. “There is not a guy that is more respected in our locker room than Benjamin Watson, and I’m so happy for the season he had.”
Perhaps Watson has been capable of a season like this all along.
For the first time in half a decade, he found himself with a favorable draw. In Cleveland, Watson was partly a victim of the Browns’ revolving door at quarterback. In his first two years in New Orleans, Watson handled the dirty work as a blocker while Graham, almost exclusively a pass-catcher, occupied the headliner’s role in the offense.
When the Saints saw what Watson was capable of doing in summer practices and into training camp, New Orleans started to see that Watson could still be a weapon in the passing game.
“We’ve seen tight ends play well into their 30s because they understand leverage, and they’re smart, and they’ve got great hands, and they’ve got real good change of direction,” coach Sean Payton said.
But Watson, who has kept himself in incredible shape, was more than just a cagey veteran.
Watson still possesses elite athleticism, a trait proven on the acrobatic touchdown catch he made against Atlanta in the season finale. Working against Falcons free safety Charles Godfrey, Watson beat the defensive back by a step, leaped, snatched the ball out of the air and landed with his knee in bounds.
The play was so acrobatic that even Watson thought he had landed out of bounds.
In truth, that athleticism was something he showed all season. Watson is still fast enough to test teams vertically down the seam, and he has the kind of leaping ability that gives him a chance to make contested catches against younger defensive backs.
“He is the most complete tight end in the league, in my opinion,” Brees said. “His value to this team is immeasurable.”
Watson isn’t the type to acknowledge his own ability. He just knows it’s special to have that kind of season in the same year where he turned 35, long past the point when most NFL players have to think about hanging up their cleats.
“I know, just from being in the locker room, that there aren’t many of us around,” Watson said. “Once you get past 32, it starts to dwindle a bit, but I’m fortunate. I’m fortunate and I’m blessed, and I’m thankful for this season.”
Now, the only question is what Watson will do next.
Watson, who will be a free agent this offseason, has a decision to make. An emerging national voice on the subject of race, parenthood and other matters more important than football, Watson has built enough clout off the field that he would have plenty of options if he decides it’s time to retire.
Near the end of the season, though, Watson said he planned to keep playing if he had the opportunity, whether it’s in New Orleans or elsewhere.
“We’ve thought about the possibilities of if we’re going to have an opportunity to come here, if we’re going to have an opportunity to go somewhere else, if I have to play the waiting game or what,” Watson said. “The thing I’ve learned is you can worry yourself to death about all these possibilities; let’s just wait and see what’s going to happen.”
After the way Watson played in 2015, he shouldn’t have anything to worry about.