"Mind your P's and Q's."
It's a phrase that stresses paying attention to even the tiniest of details, but its origin is unclear. One theory dates to the days of the earliest printing presses, where the letters "p" and "q" could easily be mistaken when setting type.
Another theory holds that the phrase was coined by old-time bartenders who were keeping an eye on inebriated patrons – counting the "pints" and "quarts" they had been served.
For Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Dekoda Watson, the phrase – one he uses often to describe his practice and preparation habits – may as well stand for "pass rush" and "Quincy."
That's because the Bucs may find themselves relying heavily on Watson's ability as a stand-up pass-rusher – just one of his many versatile skills – to deal with fellow linebacker Quincy Black's potential absence due to an ankle injury. Black was listed as doubtful on Friday's injury report, so it appears likely that Watson will be making his second career start on Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons.
Although Watson has served primarily as a special teams standout in his young career, this attention to detail has him ready to step in if needed.
"You've got to look at yourself as a starter even though you're a backup or second in the lineup," Watson said. "You just want to make sure you're on your P's and Q's and ready to go whenever it's time to.
"One thing that we really key on is, if you're a backup you need to be as ready as a starter. I'm glad we have that type of philosophy and when somebody goes down, we step up. I don't want to be the type of person that when you go in, you're a missing link, or really a second-string or backup. I want to be considered a starter. That's just our job and what we've got to do."
Even finding himself listed as high as second on an NFL depth chart was never a guarantee for Watson. He had a productive collegiate career at Florida State but waited all the way until the seventh round of the 2010 NFL Draft before getting the call from the Bucs.
"I thought it was going to go higher than I did, but at the same time it was a blessing in disguise," Watson said. "It keeps me humble, it keeps me hungry, and I look at it as an opportunity. You've got to go in there and have a mindset. I went in the seventh round, but at the same time, I'm going to show them that they got a great pick no matter what. That's what I'm going to continue to do."
The Bucs eventually realized that not only did they have a fast, athletic linebacker on their hands, but one that also had a knack for getting to the quarterback. Watson has revealed himself to be a very skilled stand-up rusher (he tallied 2.5 sacks in the preseason), and the Bucs have used him in this role in a special defensive package called "Redskin."
Watson himself is even unsure exactly how his coaches discovered his pass-rushing abilities but says he's excited about the possibility of getting more chances to put them to use.
"I'm guessing they saw me probably on punt block, exploding off the ball, or when I had to go in on the two's when Redskin was first created and I had to go in after Quincy," Watson said. "I guess they respected that and noticed my ability at that particular time. Then when Quincy got hurt in the Atlanta game [last season], I actually started rushing like that and that was when my opportunity came around."
Regardless of how or when it became apparent just how versatile he can be, Watson says he's glad his diverse skill set may have given him a window of opportunity to see more extensive playing time. Head Coach Raheem Morris had already taken to playing Watson fairly extensively in the Redskin package even before he was needed as a starter.
"I think it's phenomenal in the simple fact that it's allowed me to play," Watson said. "That's all I want. Especially in this league, you've got to play. If you're going to stay on the team, you've got to play. You've got to be able to contribute. So my versatility, I'm very blessed when it comes down to coming off the edge, being fast and explosive off the ball, and things like that. So I'm going to continue to take advantage of it."
Should Black be out on Sunday, Watson may find himself in unfamiliar territory – playing a large amount of defensive snaps against division rival Atlanta on Sunday rather than contributing mainly on special teams. But Watson says working hard in practice, in the meeting room, and in film study – coupled with a similarly young and hungry cadre of fellow linebackers around him – has created the perfect atmosphere for continued improvement, and a level of readiness at every spot on the depth chart.
"It's great, competition-wise, and I think that's great for our linebacker corps that we have," Watson said. "We're young, and it's a lot of guys that are trying to fight for a position, so you've constantly got to be on your P's and Q's because anybody could take your position at any time.
"For me it's just being consistent, being consistent and continuing to make plays, and becoming a better student of the game. If I can understand the game better, it'll make me more comfortable and make my confidence build up and I'll be able to run a lot faster than I am now. That's what I'm looking for.
And as the rival Falcons come to town, the stage couldn't be bigger for Watson's potential burst onto the scene as the Bucs try to avenge two losses to Atlanta last season. It will all come down to one, simple thing, Watson says. Actually, make that two things – those old "P's" and "Q's."
"They're a great team," Watson said. "Obviously as you can see from our previous games we've got to be fundamentally sound in everything we do, special teams, offense, defense. We've just got to make sure everybody is on their P's and Q's and contributes the right way."