Four Downs: Texans 14, Jets 21

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

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One thing that remains a trademark of the Easterby Texans is that it would be really easy for them to fade out of our memories during lost seasons, but they can’t help themselves. They have to find a way to do some real amateur psychology stuff, they have to find a way to embarrass themselves, they have to resist any urge to be normal.

Today’s idiotic thing was the surprise deactivation of one of their defensive leaders before the game for reasons that will be handled SO internally.

With Justin Reid sitting, the Texans could muster only one pick of a clearly dying-to-get-picked Zach Wilson. And, as it turns out, when the Texans don’t get five turnovers a week, it’s a lot harder for them to go home with a happy win. On the bright side, at least we got someone from management to explain a position they hold on TV for once — that’s as accountable as the team has ever been! And it’s just as incoherent as they usually come across:

OK, listen up Texans front office that obviously reads this. (They won’t, that would involve them having to care about anything anybody thinks outside of the building.) Nobody suspends more players before a game randomly than you. Desmond King, Zach Cunningham, now Reid. Aaron Wilson was tasked to defend this with saying it’s “maintaining consistency in how he handles individual player situations.” Well, OK, but if the consistency is something that nobody actually agrees with or understands, and literally nobody else in the NFL operates like this, what good is it doing?

The No. 1 thing the Houston Texans do not understand — something I bring up over and over again — is that none of the people who want them to do well understand what exactly they are doing here. They want to win, so they’re not tanking, but they’re willing to bench their best safety before a winnable game over some weird argument? And whenever they are questioned about it, they can’t say anything to defend it beyond it being a policy and something they deal with inside the building. They go out of their way to tell us over and over again that they don’t care what we think. Well, what happens when you don’t care about the fans? They don’t care about you.

I will be honest with you — I’ve felt for a while that Reid’s days in Houston were numbered. I don’t say this out of any kind of inside thoughts about how he feels so much as reading the room of the public statements he’s given (paraphrasing: we’ll see how things go when free agency starts) and noting how little David Culley felt they missed him after the Panthers game. So rather than trade him, they’ve kept him, and rather than draft of develop young players to turn to, they’ve got nobody but old veteran safeties. So there’s almost not even a point to benching him from a team perspective. It’s a perfect microcosm of how this Texans organizational-wide philosophy of never focusing on anything but the current day is just self-destructive at its core.

They created a team so bad that they could lose to the Jets, and they created a team that, outside of Jon Greenard and a few nice finds, has no future but rounding up some other highly-drafted young players to drown in culture as they lose to the future Jets. All while continuing to offer no real explanation about why they think what they’re doing is working beyond “we know the process.”

1) How do you go an entire half without scoring on the worst defense by DVOA in the NFL?

The Texans gained 45 offensive yards after halftime. The Jets were not only 32nd in the NFL in defensive DVOA (here for those that don’t know what that means), but they were 32nd by almost 10%! No other team in the NFL is playing the kind of terrible defensive football that the Jets are right now. They’d given up 31 or more points in four of their last five games, including three games of more than 45!

The Texans saw this and … they started crafting a legacy of runs to nowhere while they were losing and passes that had no prayer.

One thing I posted earlier today on Twitter was that the Texans have generally been pretty good on the first drive of the game and, by extension, the first quarter. The Texans have a -6.7% DVOA in the first quarter as an offense. That is 17th in the NFL, just about an average offense. The other three quarters? 32nd, 31st, and 30th, respectively.

And so it was again as the Texans ran for 38 of their 96 rushing yards on their first drive. Take out Tyrod Taylor’s 30-yard scramble, which isn’t a designed run, and they wind up with 16 carries for 28 yards over the course of the rest of the game. This against a run defense that gave up 260 rushing yards to the Colts on Thursday Night Football. The Texans are incredibly consistent at this since the Miami game: They can run the ball on their first drive, for some reason. And then for the rest of the game, they can’t.

It would seem very clear to me that the Texans lean overtly conservative after their first drive. Their entire plan is to have a lead and then, after that, run the ball and hope their opponent gets bored of playing football. 2-9 demonstrates the efficacy of this strategy better than I can in words. Even their big plays come on third-and-long because they’ve set them up with ghastly second-down runs that everyone in the building can see coming.

You can’t continually play as conservative as the Texans have and make it work for you. You need the defense to at least respect you. And when even the worst defense in the NFL is just so in-sync with what’s coming that your good third-down plays require feats like this to pull off:

…the entire point of the conservativism no longer becomes about being smart, but just spinning gears. Until the next drive. Until the next game. Until the next season.

2) The Jets coached ballsier than the Texans did and it paid off

The Texans found themselves in a great spot as the fourth quarter started when Zach Wilson went three-and-out on three horrific pass plays, one of which was nearly picked by Terrance Mitchell. They followed that up with a 29-yard punt to the Houston 37.

The Texans attempted to run twice in a row to start that series, down four with about 11 minutes left. They got zero yards. On third down, they went past the sticks to Danny Amendola and couldn’t pick it up. If the Texans had any concept that they could go for it, they might have considered just getting what they could on the Jets on third down. Instead, they trotted out Fairbairn for a field-goal attempt that he, of course, missed. Fairbairn is now 15-of-25 for his career on kicks beyond 50 yards. A 55-yarder would have been a career-best for him. Maybe he’s not good at that and the Texans can stop pretending that he is? No? OK, well business as usual then. (This exact scenario played out in the Patriots loss, too, by the way.)

The Jets take over and, up four, they never give the ball back until there’s 3:34 left in the game. They convert twice on two fourth-and-short looks.

The Jets don’t actually punch it in, because they found an offensive holding penalty on first-and-goal at the Texans 8 — yes, that happens to other teams too — but they held the ball for 6:20 of game time and got a much easier field goal for their beleaguered kicker.

The Texans instead wind up going for fourth-and-2 at their own 39 after this disastrous third-down play call:

They asked Taylor about this after the game and he said (paraphrasing) that it was about trying to get one first down before they go into hurry-up mode. Did the Texans think they were winning? Why would you ever run the ball here? It was just a patently “we don’t trust this passing game” play call. And, well, they were paid with what they deserved after being stuffed on fourth down on a quick throw to Nico Collins.

3) Why is a 2-8 team trying to hurt David Johnson for no reason?

A story told through Aaron Wilson’s Twitter timeline:

David Johnson got three touches from the 7:31 mark in the second half and limped off the field each and every time he touched the ball. He’s turning 30 years old in a few weeks. He’s not playing great football — though to be fair to him, anyone who leaves this offensive system immediately starts playing much better. (See: Ingram, Lindsay.) His backup, Royce Freeman, is no great shakes but is 25 and could conceivably masquerade as cheap depth next year if they evaluate him positively. The team is 2-8.

What is the point of doing this to David Johnson? What did he do to deserve this? Why does this team insist on trying to create something out of him when — let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and say that he’s better than he’s showed on raw talent — the Texans simply have no idea how to make him play well? Who is this good for beyond his therapist? Who asked for it? Why do we have to pretend this is working? I just don’t get anything about the way this has played out in either of the last two seasons. Let it go, Jack. Don’t injure the guy for no reason.

4) The new-look offensive line felt like a panic move and it played out that way

With Lane Taylor activated for the Texans, they moved Tytus Howard to left tackle for the first time ever in a game situation, then asked him to play it. How did that go?

Taylor wound up taking five sacks — his second five-sack game in three weeks — and the Jets weren’t exactly sending the house on all of these.

The Texans, to be fair, lost Justin McCray mid-game and had to reintegrate Max Scharping again. But it sure seems like this is all just shuffling deck chairs at this point. Charlie Heck gave up one of his own:

I am starting to wonder when or if the fanbase will turn on Tytus Howard. It’s not his fault in my view that he’s been jerked around all over the place and hasn’t settled at one spot. It’s not his fault that the line is bad. But he’s not playing well, and the fanbase sure turned on Lonnie Johnson fast in the same basic situation.

At this point, the Texans have a defense that isn’t actively destroying my will to live every time they take the field. They’re more scrappy than good, but they set out to win the turnover battle and they sell out for loose balls. They could have come up with a few more turnovers in this game with a little luck here or there. They’re not going to stop the run well against every front and they’re going to get picked on because they’re too conservative. But they do what it says on the label and what Lovie Smith has preached the moment he’s walked through the door: turnovers.

What about the offense is going well? Who holds the ultimate accountability for that?

Ah, I see accountability hits different for players versus coaches in this culture. What a useful culture it is!

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Four Downs: Texans 22, Titans 13

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

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My Football Feeling in this win was severely challenged because it felt very much like a pyrrhic victory. I understand that just saying that out loud with no context is like dropping a grenade on the ground and then running away, which is why I didn’t say it on Twitter. But let me try to unravel the way I feel as I do so I can get yelled at for more justifiable reasons:

The Titans are 18th in DVOA, barely above average at 0.7% coming into today. They had won their last two games in rather improbable fashion. They were outgained 4.6 yards per play to 6.1 yards per play by the Saints, and won that game because the Saints had the only turnover in a tight game, a fumble on a kickoff recovered deep in NO territory by Tennessee. Tennessee were similarly outgained 4.7 yards per play to 3.5 yards per play by the Rams in a game where the Titans had a pick-six and another turnover deep in Rams territory, and one where the Rams also committed 12 penalties for 115 yards. It would not be a stretch to say that Tennessee’s record versus their underlying statistical profile is one of the major sticking points between analytics and win/loss records this season.

And so what happens when you beat a team that is 8-2 is that it invigorates a lot of good feelings. All wins do that, but now you get to point to this one as a guiding star that things are back on the right track. I’m not all that sure that’s true. The run game remained a disaster after all the good things said about only “running plays that work” out of the bye. The Texans went three-and-out six consecutive times to end the game, pausing only to kick a field goal after one of Desmond King’s picks set them up deep in Tennessee territory.

The team was outgained 420 yards to 190, and on a per-play basis, 3.1 to 5.3. Every Titans drive ended in Houston territory except a three-and-out on their third drive, King’s second pick, and the end of game run.

It is a hell of a relief to win an NFL game, and I’m extremely happy for the players and the coaches because eight in a row is True Disaster hours. But nothing that happened today jumps out at me as easily repeatable or anything to get excited about as dominating a top-notch opponent. The Texans got five turnovers that an average Titans group — one that didn’t have Derrick Henry, Julio Jones, or A.J. Brown for most of the game — didn’t get. They used those to win.

Let me throw aside the tanking thing for a minute, because I bet that’s where you thought I was going when I dropped pyrrhic. I think the difference between picking No. 2 and No. 7 (or whatever) in this specific draft feels kind of negligible, and I don’t think this team has ever aspired to tanking so I’ve never entertained that mindset. That doesn’t change the fact that this team still has a 0.0X% playoff chance and that they learn almost nothing about their few young offensive players every game. Today David Culley learned he can win a game against an 8-2 team with Tyrod Taylor never throwing deep and Rex Burkhead and David Johnson getting 31 carries, while he punts like crazy. I don’t think that’s a lesson that’s good for this team’s long-term health.

Obviously, you can’t run Scottie Phillips because he’s on IR, but the commitment to literally aspire to nothing beyond pure naked culture ball in a lost season is depressing. If a healthy Scottie Phillips runs 100 yards off against the Titans, you have something to talk about for the future. If you get Nico Collins involved in the offense beyond short balls, you’ve got something to talk about for the future. If you literally raid a young running back from a practice squad and start him, you have something to talk about for the future. I think this win will become a cultural example of how what they’re doing is working, and with all due credit to a defense that created four of the five turnovers with good reads, I don’t think it really means all that much. It’s an extremely fun win against a rival team who I hate, so it is beautiful in that way. I don’t think the tide is turning.

1) The swingy nature of the modern NFL

The Titans tend to go for it on fourth down pretty often. They wanted to do it on their first drive, but a false start by Rodger Saffold on fourth-and-2 led to a punt. After Kamu Grugier-Hill’s Extremely Reminiscent Of Whitney Mercilus red zone pick of Ryan Tannehill staked the Texans to a 6-0 lead, and that became a 12-0 lead after a balanced drive ended with Houston’s first road touchdown since Week 2.

At 12-0, things get a little more precarious for a team that needs to run as part of its identity, but that’s still ultimately a two-score deficit. So the Titans go down the field on another long drive where D’Onta Foreman is heavily featured. Then they get to a fourth-and-1 go, and they get stuffed by the Texans:

I can understand why the modern NFL wants you to go for this. Not only is it a long field goal attempt with a rough kicker, but a field goal cuts a two-score lead into … a two-score lead. But when you are as run-focused as the Titans are, staying within two scores is the key to the playbook being open. Anything more than that, and all of the sudden things become very predictable. The Titans had one more drive before 19-0, one that ended on a Tannehill intentional grounding that prevented them from getting a field-goal attempt up. Then this happened:

The Titans simply weren’t equipped to come back from 19-0 with how their team is built right now, not with A.J. Brown hurt. Their leading receiver wound up being Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, and almost all of that came from one catch. When your four receiver sets end up having Anthony Firkser, Chester Rogers, NWI, and Dez Fitzpatrick — a rookie who Tannehill literally double-checked with on an audible to make sure he got it — having to abandon the running game is a death sentence. The Titans tried to sprinkle it in, but weren’t getting any real yardage off of it.

I’m not saying the Titans were dumb to not attempt a field goal on that fourth-and-1. I think it’s the smarter of the two decisions. But as the modern NFL leans into more decisions like this, I feel like things get swingier and it gets easier for a run of good play to meaningfully force a team out of a comfort zone. The punt recovery is obviously a fluke, and the interception being returned inside the Tennessee red zone is kind of fluky, but the Texans managed to compile enough points along the way to meaningfully alter Tennessee’s strategy despite only a few drives where they actually moved the ball well. And once it’s 19-0, and you can pin your ears back, your life is a lot easier as a defensive coordinator.

2) Let’s praise some big defensive moments

OK, so let’s talk about some enormous plays that the Texans had in shutting down the comeback. My first set of props goes to Eric Murray on the fourth-and-6 go at the Houston 24 — another fourth-down go where a field goal would have kept the Titans two scores away.

The Texans rush four, Tannehill isn’t meaningfully hurried but scrambles out of the pocket to buy some more time as his middle of the field crossers are enveloped by three underneath zone defenders. Murray is one of the deep safeties on this play, and he comes up from depth on what looks like a pretty sure completion on the run to break the ball up. If you look at the replay, you can see his feet heading deeper before he spots the tight end breaking open and charges on it. That’s a play that, say, Lonnie Johnson would not have made at safety. And if that drive continues, it becomes more and more dangerous.

The second huge play comes after Westbrook-Ikhine’s long catch sets the Titans up in Houston territory again. Desmond King simply put on a master class of positioning against rookie wideout Dez Fitzpatrick, to the point that it looked like he was running the route for him, and wound up intercepting the ball.

Notice that King did not fall for the Fitzpatrick head deke on this route — that was the only subtle thing Fitzpatrick really offered — then he got in great position on a ball that probably shouldn’t have been thrown, and he had to catch it almost like it was a punt because Fitzpatrick’s arm is also in there trying to play defensive back as it drifts lower. DeMarcus Walker gets a share of the credit too for getting into Tannehill’s passing lane.

There were, of course, other big defensive plays in this game. But those were the two moments I felt that the Texans could have really folded if their defenders hadn’t stepped up. They also did a much better job of play-action defense than they have in some time, though I think that ties in pretty well to the game score.

3) Brevin Jordan and Nico Collins get lightly involved again

The Texans tied Brevin Jordan to one of their staple concepts in this game, one where he wound up right on the right sideline. It gave Jordan almost no room to actually do anything and forced a tight contested catch. He did so against Kevin Byard, one of the NFL’s best:

The ball was not quite as clean against Elijah Molden later in the drive and that led to an incompletion:

A third pass at Jordan was broken up on the exact same sideline. I want to be excited about him, can we see him run a play that isn’t

Collins only got two targets, and the one everyone was left buzzing about was his red-zone non-touchdown that David Culley challenged:

Matt Harmon, who watches wideouts as closely as anybody, came out and wrote that he thinks Collins is even being undervalued this year. It’s kind of a shame that Collins ends the game with just two targets. What we’ve seen from Collins is that he can play bully ball on a tight catch and that he can take a play-action slant a long way. What I still want to see before I decide my interpretation of his ceiling is some deeper routes. The Texans seem almost pathologically opposed to their offense doing this — and I get it — but it makes it harder to evaluate what they have here and the season is a lost cause.

4) The Tyrod Taylor red zone offense: get the hell out of my way because this isn’t working

One thing that Davis Mills would never be able to offer to an offense is what Taylor did on each of his two touchdown runs. Let’s look at the dots on them:

Taylor said after the game that Burkhead was running an option route on this play, which was his primary read. But by the time that option was chosen, Denico Autry and Jeffery Simmons had already pushed Taylor out of the pocket to his left. At that point the only receiver drifiting on his side, Pharaoh Brown, was double-covered. Thus began his journey to dunk on Amani Hooker:

On his second touchdown run, Charlie Heck actually falls right on his ass, which I think is beautifully shown by the stagnant dot:

The Titans bracket Brandin Cooks, who looks to be the first read. David Johnson blocks nobody, and so six-on-four becomes four-on-four, with Autry winning enough on the edge to push Taylor outside. While there was probably a flip to Cooks or Jordan available on the run, Taylor didn’t take it and just out-ran Simmons to the pylon.

In a game where the Texans had goal-to-go on eight snaps, these were the only two plays that gained more than three yards. They are out of structure and unreliable, but unreliable is a better play call for this team than their standard red zone plans.

It’s great to see Tyrod fly again. I cringe just a little bit every time I see it happen because that’s how the first hamstring injury happened, and I don’t want to see another injury. What I’d really like is if there was a way for this to be easier for everyone involved. But it doesn’t seem like that will happen any time soon.

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Seven lessons learned from covering a terrible football team

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

***

Since 2020 started, the Texans have beaten the Jaguars three times, the Lions once, and the Patriots once. They have won five of their last 25 games, and beaten exactly one team that finished with more than five wins in a season over that timespan. Coming into Week 10, they have the worst point differential in the NFL, are 30th in DVOA, and have a playoff chance of roughly 0.0%. They are somehow doing this while being one of the oldest teams in the NFL.

This is on top of a cataclysmic couple of offseasons that saw them trade away DeAndre Hopkins, lose J.J. Watt, lose Will Fuller, and piss off their franchise quarterback and most talented player to ever play for the franchise while he spent the offseason becoming a pariah and wrecking his own trade value. They signed Zach Cunningham to a massive extension and he’s now a two-down linebacker who plays 15 snaps a game when everyone is healthy. They signed Whitney Mercilus to an extension that he could never live up to and released him when he didn’t. They signed Randall Cobb to a contract he could never live up to and traded him only because Aaron Rodgers cosplayed as GM for a spell. Eric Murray’s contract was bad the moment it was signed. Limiting it to just the last two offseasons doesn’t even get into trading for Laremy Tunsil and trading away Jadeveon Clowney while paying his entire salary. They have $39 million of dead cap this season, and have $22 million lined up for 2022 before they even get around to trading Deshaun Watson. The product on the field is anchored by a coach who mostly seems to be out of his depth at anything beyond motivating:

Simply put: This has been a disaster to cover and a disaster to live through. While the Texans were never a legitimate contender under Bill O’Brien and had an extremely short window as one during the Gary Kubiak years, they were still entertaining. The only season they’ve out-and-out stunk for before these last two was a cursed 2013 that fell into an avalanche of pick-sixes. The team O’Brien took over still had a ton of raw talent. This team? Doesn’t have a lot of it. It’s hard to find angles to discuss the future of the team because the team itself doesn’t really seem all that interested in creating one of those. Maybe they’ll get around to it this offseason. In the meantime, people don’t want to read the truth about this team unless it’s in a rubbernecker-stares-at-accident sort of portal. The fans that are left want to read about how turning Jon Greenard into a capable edge rusher (by actually playing him) means the Texans can fix anybody, and how many all-pro players Nick Caserio will draft this offseason while ignoring his entire draft history. The fans that were turned off by (broadly gestures) all of this don’t read a lot anymore.

So in the interest of creating content that spans beyond the very depressing circumstances that this team have created and built a nest in, I wanted to share some thoughts about covering this bad team. I want to be clear that outside of exchanging DMs or texts with players, people in the building, or people that have talked to people in the building, I haven’t been on the ground for any of this. The Texans don’t really seem all that interested in extending me press credentials (personal parenthetical aside below*), so I don’t ask the questions in these interviews. At the same time, nobody has really approached me with a good offer to be a beat reporter full-time or anything like that, so there’s no reason for me to push for these credentials and waste a ton of gas money. It doesn’t pay my bills, and the few positions that exist that have shown any interest will pay you a Happy Meal per post.

(*-I was getting into the press box in 2011 when I was with Football Outsiders. The Texans started to crack down on that a bit after the season, I think partially in response to me never showing up for training camp after my car died during the worst summer of my life. I didn’t get credentialed again (tried a few times) until I joined The Athletic late in the 2018 offseason. They had me commute from Humble to NRG an additional time every week to go pick up a weekly parking pass just so I could go to the games — that’s like an 80 minute back-and-forth commute if you’re not a native — and no matter how many times I approached and was like “this is kind of unreasonable,” nobody actually helped.

I also have my own personal demons around this where I kind of never feel like I belong anywhere. I don’t have a lot of living family that talks to me. I can count on one hand the number of people in all my years writing about football who have actually been happy to see me in a press box. I don’t say this as like a “Houston media has never accepted me!” sort of thing — I’m just not very outgoing and don’t make easy friends, so it’s easy for me to convince myself that I’m not really desired. As a person I am kind of stuck in my own head and aloof when I don’t fight those feelings, so the people that are closest to me tend to be the ones who keep messaging me or engaging with me through that. There’s a reason that my wife is a chatterbox. Therapy over.)

Anyway, that has put me in an interesting situation. I’m not wired in enough to ask questions to players and coaches in pressers, but nobody has absorbed as much of this team’s dumbass content as I have. I’ve suffered through Easterby sermons looking for clues to the way he’d run a team. I’ve listened to probably 80% of the team’s in-house radio content since 2020 started. I’ve listened to every scrap of an interview I can get my hands on. I know that David Culley likes horror movies, I know that David Johnson prays before every game, I know that Kamu Grugier-Hill was a terrible high school student, and I know that Davis Mills knows what sous-vide is. I know things that nobody who follows this team should know, because I have let myself drown in the content spigot.

Let me tell you what the last 22 months of these Texans has taught me about covering terrible football teams.

1) When teams say they’re going to correct something, but don’t offer a real reason why things would change, they’re not going to correct anything.

The Texans have offered essentially three different messages over the last two seasons for their inability to run the football:

-“We’ll get it corrected.”
-“We have to stick to it and we’ll get better, we have to be more consistent.”
-“We have to execute better.”

I have lost count of the number of times I have heard the team trot out that they will get something corrected.

When they don’t give you a specific reason that they’ll get something corrected, what that means is that they don’t have one. They are caught up in a reactionary id cycle. We all have these. The Texans and their players — rightfully, I’ll add! — have a lot of pride in themselves as competitors. That is commendable. But when you don’t have the right mix of players and coaching, you don’t have the right mix of players and coaching.

You can’t make Laremy Tunsil a fierce run blocker. You can’t make Max Scharping pick up a stunt correctly. You can’t make Tytus Howard reach his man across a few gaps. You can’t stop getting penalties with the click of a pen. Those guys can talk a great game, they are smart as hell, and they are among the top 98% of all football players in the world. But … that doesn’t mean they’re going to improve, because football is as much a sport of ingrained reactions as it is a test of memory and thought. You don’t get to spend ten seconds in the middle of a play remembering that the coach doesn’t want you to hold. You can hold and win the down and hope it doesn’t get called, or you can potentially let the running back get killed.

When you hear a coach say that they’re going to get it corrected without offering a real reason to believe that they are, that coach is just hoping and praying that it will work out. Sometimes it works! Sometimes a player takes a step forward or someone takes over that is better. But it’s hope, not an answer.

2) Curiosity may have killed the cat, but a lack of it kills the football team.

To this day, the Texans have no public acknowledgement of the reasons that they are bad. They chalked up 2020 to bad luck and will chalk up 2021 to Deshaun Watson ruining the season before it began. They’re not really interested in any kind of self-examination or outside ideas of why they’re bad, all they’re going to do is fall back on the new crutch of every bad team: “We’re trusting the process,” while they put their fingers in their ears and ignore any outside noise.

Listen, I’m a big fan of the process. But if one of my processes is “I’m not going to order $30 of food from Whataburger,” and then I do it, I generally tend to be curious about why that is and try to get to the bottom of it and how I can fix it. The Texans haven’t been interested in finding out why they’re eating junk food. They’re interested in explaining that the junk food won’t continue because they’re working very hard on that, but that’s about the extent of it.

The Texans have not begun to understand why J.J. Watt left the team. Watt talked about the team as an institution of the past when Texans media met with him before Week 7. They “mutually parted ways,” but that’s just PR-speak for Watt asking for his release so he could compete for a championship. Something like that should spar some real thinking about what exactly it is the team is doing: Why is our long-time star player who by all accounts loves the city unsure of what we are doing as an organization?

But if you close the door, as The Velvet Underground sang, the night could last forever. And that’s an important part of making sure that the Texans are able to maintain the delusions that they have that any of their leadership team is operating with ideas that are going to bear fruit. So that’s where we are. They’re not curious because being curious is going to lead to answers that are self-implicating. Being positive in a toxic way? That’s cheap, and easy, and good junk food for the hangover after yet another ass-kicking.

3) No matter how bad things get, there will always be optimistic fans looking for positive cues

One of the hardest things to understand about the way the world works today is that there are people that, in your opinion, have bad opinions. This goes beyond sports, obviously, but in sports it is a special kind of galling because there’s not even anything at stake. If a Texans homer watches a game and decides that actually Nick Caserio didn’t have a good offseason, their life changes not one iota in reality. But the psychology behind that is so powerful that some people would rather deathgrip that opinion until he’s fired, and sometimes even beyond that.

I think some of you non-Texans fans from the outside might think that with the way that the Texans have been mismanaged over the years, there’s just a settled negative mentality from everyone involved. Let me send you to this post I made a few Tuesdays ago:

In the comments to this alone, I received these varying thoughts of positivity:
-Tyrod Taylor is a good bridge quarterback.
-Davis Mills can be a franchise quarterback.
-The fans who are very excited about the draft and think that (Matt Corral, Malik Willis, etc.) are going to be way better than Tua.
-The fans who have fully embraced the tank and think the Texans will draft well and be a great team in 2023 or 2024.

I’m not trying to shit on anyone’s tastes here. Outside of muting the people who come after me like I’m the antichrist for having my own opinions, I don’t really care if we disagree. But I think it might surprise outside onlookers just how active positivity as a general concept is with this team’s fandom after everything that’s happened. It surprises me how many people still want this team to be a part of their lives after all these years. Some of that might be Twitter-ism — it’s not like these people are filling seats at NRG, so it’s not reflective of the fan culture as a whole — but there are an amazing number of people to me who are willing to be served lemons and make them into lemonade despite the ability to check out at any time.

Fandom is a weird affliction, and for many it survives a lot of bad times. This team also is used to saying things like “this was a close game” and getting away from it after the Bill O’Brien years, where nobody thought they were good and they kept winning games anyway. They built those division titles on a panoply of other bad quarterbacks, and they hung those banners anyway. Wins chase away any ability to recognize something isn’t working. More on that in a couple of hundred words.

I’m not saying that I expect rationality. In a perfect, rational world, I’d simply leave this team behind and do something more productive with my life. But I am still here posting, aren’t I? I still care. (Even if I don’t do it in the way that some people would prefer.)

4) Supporting the greater Houston community is nice, but you’re never going to change a conversation about the team through that alone

Let’s talk about That Football Feeling. The campaign is a filmmaker’s inside joke of propaganda brought to life. The Texans produced a cringe-worthy special full of people defining what exactly a Football Feeling is.

What the Texans have tried to do as they have floundered is try to lean further into their standing as an icon among the community. They’ve tried to do a better job of branding big moments — to the point where they have an all-22 breakdown on some random Cecil Shorts touchdown pass in 2015 because it was the first time they beat the Colts. They want to be thought of as an institution that helps out everyone else here. When they spoke to McNair after the disastrous Nick Caserio presser, one of my major takeaways was McNair saying that he’d finally be able to get back to serving the community. The blueprint of this is set up via a painful old Easterby project called The Bible Out Loud.

Cal McNair literally went into a fire house and told his in-house camera guys that he was here because he was e-mailed. That’s bulletpoint one. To eliminate entitlement they have done this weird thing where the Texans players have “Texans Care” on the back of their jerseys in public events. They still make the numbers the same as they are in reality, so it’s not like it’s an effort of saving on printing costs. What is the point of that? Are the players important here, or is it just the charity?

To bullet point three, several of the team’s best players — Brandin Cooks and Justin Reid for starters — did press appearances on Monday where they talked about how nice it will be to get away from football for a while. Football has become an overwhelming part of their lives because the culture demands that you breathe it. I’m all for people taking their jobs seriously, but humans aren’t football robots. They need to eat and talk with other people, have other hobbies and have rest.

When you do ordinary things extraordinarly (sic) well, nobody cares. I’m sorry, but nobody cares! Let’s set aside the fact that Cal decided to Not Be Cancelled during his “witty rejoinder” at charity golf. Let’s set aside the fire house thing. I’ve watched a dozen of these Texans charity things but have no scope for how that compares to the rest of the league. I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt and say that they’re good. Nobody cares! Nobody is talking about this. You might create some long-term Football Feelings in a kid or two? But like even as part of the local conversation, it is broadly irrelevant.

We as a nation are soaked in corporate charity messaging right now. I can’t go to a CVS without having to tell them I don’t want to round up to donate money to something on a pin pad. There are a ton of advertisements about companies doing a civic duty (not by paying taxes, though, not that one) and they also are broadly irrelevant.

I am but a casual onlooker of the Houston Astros. (I’m a Mets fan, my mom’s fault.) I can’t tell you a damn thing they do for charity, but I’m sure they do a lot of it. (I assume the raffles they run at their games help a charity? Well, maybe not actually, but in theory.) What I can tell you is that people are excited about them in the city even despite the cheating allegations. They have a collective goodwill behind them. All they had to do was build a good team and win a lot of games, and nothing else mattered. Speaking of wins…

5) Wins are the life-blood of culture, not people

People are important to a team, I’m not denying that in the slightest. Even though I found Mark Ingram’s public personality a little grating, I am in no way denigrating what he provided to this team in the locker room or what he gave the team as far as leadership. But … those things do not really matter when your team does not win games.

Let me give you an example: The Texans have a show called “Texans Replay.” The tagline is: “Get back in the game, from the line of scrimmage to the locker room, this is Texans Replay, your weekly look back at what happened and why.” Here’s Week 7’s Texans Replay. You’ll notice that it contains an interview with Zach Diles, who last started for the Texans in 2010. They don’t start covering what happened in the actual game until the 36-minute mark, because they’re not proud of it. It is hard to be proud of things when you get cleaned out, as it turns out.

It’s also hard to maintain all the positive energy you are supposed to have and bring when there is no light at the end of the tunnel. It’s easy to shut up and do your job, as Maliek Collins says:

I don’t say this to destroy the idea of culture: it is definitely a good thing to have a good culture. But you can’t maintain a good culture without a constant validation of the culture, and no amount of Easterby retweets about the importance of your struggles is going to change that. The reason that the Culture Vets didn’t turn this around wasn’t that anybody was wrong about them being great locker room guys or leaders — it’s that the team wasn’t good enough for any of that to matter. They hollowed out the core years ago. The culture is now the team.

The Texans’ current culture is very simple: They want to protect leadership, and they want to bring in people who will continue to protect leadership and say things that leadership wants to hear. The people who don’t fit that aren’t here. And as you can see from the turnover, that’s a lot of players.

6) The scheme matters a lot more than you’d think when everyone is an NFL-caliber player

Talent naturally is a big reason that the Texans are where they are, but this team’s inability to embrace any kind of new-world offense or defense are major factors in them getting crushed over the last two seasons.

I lead with the above video to show you that it’s completely possible to put spackle and grout around an untalented offense and make it, well, not good, but feisty. That’s how things went for the Patriots with Cam Newton in 2020. They were a bad offense, but they were a bad offense with a -7.3% DVOA because they knew they were a bad offense. They used Newton’s legs to make the run game better than it was. They used gadget plays often. I’m not saying Josh McDaniels deserves a medal (and please, please, don’t bring him to Houston, I don’t want to see anyone with a Patriots background ever again) — but he did a competent job of understanding his offense’s limitations and working with them.

The Texans do that in an infuriating way: They show that they understand it by creating plays like this, then they forget that they can ever call them again. The Texans have a run-heavy approach that has no prayer of going anywhere. They have had three games of more than 110 net rushing yards against a non-Jaguars team since 2020 started: The Chiefs in Week 1 of 2020, the Bengals in Week 16 of 2020, and the Colts in Week 6 of 2021. They get stuffed in a phone booth on a regular basis, and that’s the identity of the team.

The Texans on defense are married to a system that disguises what it’s doing less than any other NFL team. It is a system that works only if your pass rushers crush an offensive line, and while Jon Greenard’s breakout feels real, they are still extremely light on pass rush against good lines. They don’t tend to bring that up when they’re praising group efforts over Miami and Carolina, who can’t block.

The selling point of the system is that it creates turnovers, but outside of Week 9’s avalanche and Lonnie Johnson randomly being in the right throwing lane at the right time on two clunker throws, they have forced two turnovers in their last seven games. It was a hot start, but once other teams got film of what was happening, they adjusted. There’s been no adjustment back, because Lovie Smith’s defense is extremely rigid. The Dolphins were simply a team that is just as dumb as the Texans are. Houston generates many fumbles on peanut punches and if those don’t work, they are not going to have a good day.

This team could be much more competitive than it was, but the culture of this team is unnecessary suffering. So they keep doing the things that they have come to expect will get them beat, rather than aspire to something greater, because that is how football is supposed to be in a bunch of minds that are closed.

7) Public momentum in terms of perception matters a LOT more than most people are willing to admit

When I was younger, I remember building dream offseasons for the Texans. You sign Nnamdi Asomugha, you re-sign Owen Daniels, you sign up Jason Taylor to provide some pass rush. You make Madden franchise rebuilds. You can draft and dream on players for years and years. I remember thinking that Cordarrelle Patterson was better than Hopkins coming out. I also remember thinking that Russell Wilson should have been the heir apparent to Matt Schaub.

Look at what has broadly happened to this franchise and you’ll see that the entire tenor of these discussions have changed. The top free agents this year are players like Davante Adams and Chris Godwin. Why would they ever want to play here, in a place where they need to constantly kiss the ass of leadership? In a place that is so bereft of talent that winning is an afterthought? In a place where the only talk about the team is about the culture they’re building? The Texans have effectively disqualified themselves from any discussion about upper-level free agents for the next two years by their decisions this offseason. Nobody talks about them like a serious franchise, and players and coaches who have other options will take them.

I think the Texans would have hired Joe Brady last year had Watson not held out. There’s a potentially awesome future that could not exist because Jack Easterby was retained. And the momentum of clinging to the problems has continued to ride this team down. I can control + F “Houston,” “Texans,” on every national NFL column and rarely do I get any hits. They are irrelevant. They played on Thursday Night Football against a team that has its own problems maintaining a fanbase, and 75% of the conversation was about the Panthers as the Texans enabled a short-lived “Sam Darnold is actually good” conversation to surface. Also, nobody really came to the game, and by the end of the game, only Panthers fans were left:

Signing David Culley led to chasing Mark Ingram and Chris Moore, it didn’t give them any inroads on players that would be actually helpful. The slew of Patriots guys the team brought in have largely done nothing.

Imagine sitting down today and trying to even come up with a dream offseason plan for making this team an eight-win team, let alone a playoff contender. There might be a good free agent or two that they’re able to overpay — I doubt it, but I want to be open to the possibility — but why would they want to come here? I would be wishcasting into the void. This team is ostensibly competing for talent in free agency and the draft, but are they really doing that at this point?

The truth is that every NFL team is as good as their talent and coaching currently are. If there were a world where the Laremy Tunsil trade was for a great quarterback in, say, 2014 when the Texans needed one, it would have been fine. That’s what the Rams did, and the Rams are going after a Super Bowl now. This team has developed almost no long-term talent this year, and it has no coaches that put the players in a position to succeed schematically. I can’t speak to how they’re coached individually — maybe someone on the staff is good at that! — but the output is making just about everyone who doesn’t play defensive line look bad.

And the momentum of that decision is … nobody should want to play here if they have a better option. Which makes it hard to see a point where this team is going to have enough NFL talent to compete before 2023. (Realistically, 2024 would be a better fit for how players develop.) The player pool of guys who want to play for this front office is startlingly small and extremely insular. Many teams operate that way, but none have added the layer of culture to it quite like the Texans have. Does Jimmy Garoppolo want to come here and talk about bible study while he loses 17 games in two seasons? He might end up here anyway, but that’s going to be about the other options he has. Careers are short, these guys want to win and they want to play well enough to make more money. This team gives them no chance.

It’s hard to overcome the momentum at place here. It’s hard to understand the escape plan for this team out of talent purgatory if what they have put out there is broadly offputting to the league around them. Not to even mention their own fans.

This is a franchise that is stuck in quicksand and is talking about how smooth it feels between their toes as they continue to sink further and further. Any rational outside observer who wants to offer them a hand out of it is up against the problem that they don’t want to be saved. They already were.

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Four Downs: Texans 9, Dolphins 17

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

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If I had written a preview for this game, I would have made an embarrassment of myself. I thought that the Texans would come out emboldened after watching their general manager get roasted by the local media on Wednesday. I wouldn’t have necessarily prepared a win in that prediction, but I also hadn’t factored in the Dolphins losing Tua Tagovailoa before the game started. Get a load of these circumstances:

– Jacoby Brissett was 12-23 as a starting quarterback, 0-3 with the Dolphins, and can’t even pretend to throw a deep ball. The Dolphins didn’t even try, as Brissett’s longest completed throw of the game was 28.6 yards.
– The Dolphins turned the ball over to the Texans five times. Not two, not three. Five. Since the Texans came into the NFL, only five teams have won with five or more turnovers in a game. The most recent was the 2019 49ers. That was the only game like that in the last ten years.
– The Texans, who have been just miserable at running the ball, found an opponent that also couldn’t run the ball. They held the Dolphins to 1.9 yards per carry. The Texans were at 15 non-quarterback carries for 50 yards, which isn’t good, but certainly isn’t as bad as it has sometimes been this season.

When I wrote about the Texans in the preseason, and I projected three wins, the reason I went there in spite of the talent is because there were going to be games like this that perfect-stormed for them. They’d have a bad opponent facing some adversity, they’d force some turnovers, and even though I don’t think their offense is all that great, they’re not always going to be at a marked disadvantage.

It is a testament to this team’s ability to never even attempt to have an answer to real glaring problems that we are here today talking about a 17-9 loss that might have been one of the worst Texans games in the history of the franchise in terms of pure watchability. The Dolphins suck out loud. But you have to hand it to them, they suck out loud in a way that just can’t match what the great people the Texans have in the building are putting together.

The juggernaut rolls into the bye week at 1-8, essentially eliminated from even dreaming about the playoffs, and behind the Jaguars in the win column in the AFC South basement. Let’s have some discourse.

1) Tyrod Taylor joins the Rosencopter and the Chris Brown halfback pass in vaunted embarrassing Texans play history

There are many plays that are scarred into my memory from a lifetime of watching Houston Texans football. Some of them are great — the J.J. Watt pick-six against the Bengals — but because of the circumstances, most of them are bad. Only a few of them are downright embarrassing. I will list the ones that immediately come to mind in that category:

The RosenCopter
– DeMarcus Faggins getting called for DPI and defensive holding on a play he still allowed Roddy White to catch.
– Chris Brown halfback pass picked off in the end zone against the Jaguars
– Glover Quin’s Q-Tip touchdown to the Jaguars.
– Kris Brown’s wild shank in the Bush Bowl.

We have a new contender today in Tyrod Taylor’s amazing interception that he was attempting to throw away:

Now, all of those other plays have something in common: They have someone daring greatly. Glover Quin was absolutely trying his damndest to knock the ball down, but sometimes things happen. DeMarcus Faggins was not very good, but he was trying his best. The Texans have a history of attempting incredibly stupid things and not succeeding.

This is an attempt to do nothing that is somehow still intercepted, and that meant I could only stare on at disbelief. It sums up where this team is at right now better than anything I could ever write.

This team wasn’t built with a real purpose beyond “gather all the best culture players in the NFL together,” and that means it’s not trying to tank or bereft of a certain baseline level of NFL talent. It doesn’t really matter though, because it shoots itself in the foot at nearly every occasion. It turns the ball over at the worst time, can’t convert in the red zone, and finds new ways every week to have flags thrown just when things are starting to get better.

This team is an attempt at an incompletion (spinning wheels with older average players that are holding on, trying to be a working man’s NFL team) that somehow still manages to embarrass itself every week.

2) The Texans have absolutely no plan to actually deal with a blitz-heavy Dolphins defense

It became very evident early on in the game that the Dolphins had one strategy for dealing with Tyrod Taylor: blitz the hell out of him. Taylor and Tim Kelly did not respond to this well, and it was the major place the game was lost.

Taylor’s Texans went 6-of-17 on third downs, none of which were running plays. Only two of them were deeper than third-and-7. By the second half, Taylor looked notably slow to react to the blitz and then we got downs like this:

Some of your favorite box score-reading fans who didn’t watch the game will say things like “he still threw for 248 yards!” Do not fall for the bait. This was an abysmal game for Taylor and the ability to escape pressure as he did against the Jaguars was non-existent. Maybe that’s on his hamstring, or maybe what happened against the Jaguars was a fluke. I certainly have my lean on fluke. To be fair to Taylor, it’s not his fault that the offensive line decided to part ways with him on third-and-goal, but other than that, most of the pressure came late in the down or off the edge.

This isn’t all on Taylor because Tim Kelly has never really developed a good way to beat a blitz with this receiving corps, probably because that’s something Bill O’Brien was never any good at either. Kelly has wideout screens — you’ve seen how that goes with Davis Mills and Taylor bounced one in the first quarter on a third down for good measure. Beyond that, nobody can win one-on-one.

This team never has conceived of the idea of a backup plan. They have one way of doing things, and if you beat them schematically, you’re going to win. That’s about as simple as I can put it at this point. I don’t think the Dolphins did anything legendarily great, and I don’t think their blitz schemes were so majestic that Taylor had no chance. The Texans just never considered that their plan wouldn’t work, because that is the level of obstinate they are willing to be.

David Culley was non-committal about another Taylor start after the game. I think Taylor’s the better quarterback of the two despite this game. But we’re at the point where it doesn’t really matter, and I’m not going to complain about either quarterback because I don’t think either of them is an answer.

3) This game is not really the defense’s fault, but they’re incredibly soft on third down

OK, so Brissett is the opposing quarterback. He’s yet to go above 3.3 completed air yards per pass attempt in a season in his career. When he does glitch out of the matrix and attempt to throw deep, things like this happen:

But in spite of that, Houston’s coverage on third down against Brissett just made it too easy for him in underneath coverage over and over again, particularly when the Dolphins were trying to salt away a lead and it would make sense to be aggressive. The Dolphins were 9-of-16 on third-down attempts. With Jacoby Brissett! And they either found easy open spots or they made Texans underneath defenders look silly. Take a bow, Zach Cunningham:

There are just too many plays where nature finds a way to allow Lovie Smith to give up third downs with the game on the line. And when they happen, they’re so easy that even a Brissett or a Sam Darnold can see them:

This game’s not on the defense, as I said, but it remains alarming that they continue to make the mediocre quarterback class rich on underneath throws.

4) David Culley’s a placeholder

There’s a certain baseline level of empathy I have for a head coach. It’s a terrible job with long hours, you’re accountable for so many people who aren’t you, and your reward is usually getting fired. This particular situation would have tested any head coach’s resolve. That said, the idea that David Culley came out of halftime and was happy with what he saw on the field in the first half outside of the turnovers is just completely baffling to me.

It was okay that they couldn’t throw the ball? It was okay that they looked schematically defeated? It was okay that after Tim Kelly’s opening script faded the offense couldn’t run the ball at all? It was just all execution?

The process is doomed. The process is the idea that the Texans are doing anything right to be here in this moment of time. They are not. There is no read of this team that is improving. They will have more promising players next season because they’ll have a high draft pick, and probably a Deshaun Watson trade, but nothing about what has happened this season outside of Roy Lopez winning a starting spot should give anyone a lot of hope that those players will be used in the right way or anything like that.

Culley spent a timeout to avoid a Delay of Game penalty near his goal line that might have saved two yards. He didn’t go for it on fourth-and-2 at the goal line when his team needed a touchdown desperately. There’s no fight in him. He’s happy to be here, happy to say one day that he was an NFL head coach. Perhaps there was no one better that would take this job in this specific set of circumstances — I’m not involved in those meetings — but it’s hard to believe that someone who wanted to be a head coach for as long as Culley did became one to just babysit this team and talk about doing things the right way for 17 games. There’s no backup plan. There’s not even an ounce of curiosity about why the team is 1-8. Just a straight “we’re gonna keep doing what we know works in the past,” while losses continue to stockpile.

The entire team just has its head in the sand, and they’re all waiting for the 2021 season to be over.

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The Deshaun Watson watch goes into hibernation and other thoughts from Houston’s trade deadline

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

***

As I tried to say when I wrote last week’s post on the only situation with the team any non-Texans fan cares about, I didn’t really see much of a way forward for the Texans and Dolphins if there was an insistence on the civil lawsuits being settled. Of the flood of reports that came out as the hopes of a deal officially ended on Tuesday afternoon, the only new twist was that Dolphins owner Stephen Ross had tried to establish contact with Watson through the Texans and that this had only been granted very recently in the process.

I don’t necessarily know that reading into this needs to be a conspiratorial exercise (i.e. I don’t think this lack of speaking was a malicious thing, but perhaps an unexpected part of the process in what is very much an unexpected situation), but it does sound like there were bits of the process that just were never going to come together in-season while a football team is focusing on it’s football things. The Dolphins did get permission whereas the Panthers did not. Watson started to try to settle but didn’t know he’d need to until it was a bit late. It’s a complex deal. And so our watch continues.

I don’t blame the Texans at all for holding on for a better deal. I am very curious if they’ll actually get it. Watson showing at least some desire to settle the cases per various reporters (including Houston ones) is probably a good sign for the future of his trade value. That leads us to the most divisive bit that went up, from Pro Football Talk:

It is only good business for Watson to settle the cases. I don’t know that this is ultimately what will happen, or if doing so will wipe away all the other criminal complaints, FBI involvement, and so on. I do think it makes sense that Houston’s price would go up given that happening. I also think that Watson taking any of the cases to court could potentially sabotage his own trade value — and that’s something that he actually controls — just on the pure shock value of what is revealed. It just adds another complex cog to a situation you already needed a doctorate in to talk about. I agree that waiting on a trade makes sense given these conditions, I commend the Texans for not jumping the gun as well as getting clarity on where the picks are going to be, but I do want to point out that there is at least some downside inherent in that play. It relies on Watson to be a rational actor about his legal situation when he has not really done much of that without incentive to date.

Ultimately, there will likely be some deal as we get more legal clarity at the start of the new league year or around draft time. In the meantime, we can get a respite from focusing on the delicious draft picks and get to the depressing business of the 2021 Texans.

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Texans deal Charles Omenihu for beans

The Texans dealt Charles Omenihu to the 49ers for a future sixth-round pick in a move that was not all that surprising. It’s a move that also doesn’t make any sense without the context of the very binary yes/no culture this team is installing.

Whatever happened behind closed doors here, the Texans failed spectacularly with Omenihu this year. They played him as a 4-3 end, in a role that he should not have been anticipated to succeed at on run downs, then got mad when he didn’t do it well. They deactivated him for two games. Lovie Smith spoke to trying to find a new role for him, and Omenihu came back and did a fairly decent job with the Texans against Arizona as a pass rusher. He’s an interior pass rusher who may or may not be playable there on run downs — probably not.

Omenihu was one of the only players on the team under 25 years old with any real playing time in the past. It’s really hard to understand this move on paper for a team that is 1-7. The only way to view it rationally is to point out that he was not a personality fit with this team for whatever reason. And isn’t it interesting how this is the only team that has those problems on the scale that the Texans do?

I don’t think this is a move worth setting NRG on fire over. I don’t think Omenihu is ultimately an NFL star or anything. But he should have been a promising piece on the inside after his first two years, and they simply don’t have much to show for it. My belief is that the NFL draft is about four rounds long. That sixth might pay for some freight, and I don’t care that it’s a future pick. But it’s probably at most going to be feeding a special teams need or traded for the next Anthony Miller, that’s just the rational big picture view of it.

The Mark Ingram trade

So this was an interesting change of pace: the Texans regarded Ingram as a key culture piece, but after being pushed by the Saints multiple times, Houston apparently relented and asked Ingram if he wanted the trade. Ingram, as I think anyone with a rational brain would have, said yes. He even got a contract extension out of it.

The Texans received a 2024 seventh-round pick from the Saints. I don’t necessarily disagree with the Texans that Mark Ingram is a beloved locker room guy and culture leader; I just question what it was worth to have him here if the team is 1-7. I would have taken seven games of Scottie Phillips carries and an understanding of what he is as a player over the seventh-round pick — you can always find UDFAs at running back. That probably wasn’t going to happen anyway given David Johnson’s existence, but it’s hard for me to understand the divide between “this guy is super important for our culture” and “we’ll trade him for a seventh-round pick as a favor to him.”

I would love to learn more about what exactly facilitated that and how that relates to the other culture players on their roster, but ultimately I applaud the move to trade Ingram. He wasn’t going to be a part of the next good Houston Texans team. The return is light, but his value was never going to be high. I would love to say I carried some memories of Ingram beyond the few long carries he had, but I really don’t beyond just how deep the team went in on him in terms of words, actions, and posts, and how jarring it is that they just up and dropped him for nothing.

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In sum, the first year of Nick Caserio’s tenure was pretty much a waste. The team is 1-7. The coaching pick has devolved from bad in practice to bad in actuality, to the point where David Culley continues to say things that any rational eyes can dispute and has turtled so hard as a head coach that it’s easy for people to believe he’s tanking on purpose. The only players Caserio has brought in or brought back that are playing well are Roy Lopez, 15 snaps of Brevin Jordan and six quarters of Tyrod Taylor. Maybe Tavierre Thomas, Nico Collins, and Maliek Collins crack that list by season’s end. They were only able to bring in a sixth-rounder for Shaq Lawson and a seventh-rounder for Ingram.

The only argument that anything is actually happening in a positive way is something vague and generic about a culture, one where the best player on the team continues to be called a leader even as he gets pissed off enough to dog the team weekly, and where one of the other leaders can be dealt for a seventh-round pick:

It remains a dark time to try to find optimism in Houston. About all I can give you is that the situation Caserio entered into was unprecedented and that it was unlikely that anybody would have succeeded with the start that he did. But when you break it down move-by-move, there’s just not a lot happening with this roster beyond their young players, and those young players have been held back behind culture veterans all season.

I’m sorry. I’d like it to be better too. Maybe next offseason will have an actual plan for creating future value for the Texans. I sure hope so.

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Four Downs: Texans 22, Rams 38

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

***

Down 38-0, and with Matthew Stafford pulled, the Texans mounted a comeback on the Rams backups. They scored 22 points in a row, destroying parlays. (And what a hilarious counter-twist to go for two on the third touchdown — eschewing their normal way of head-in-sand thinking — in a hopeful coincidence that just happened to damage a bunch of 16.5-point lines!) In a way, they regained some hope in themselves, or at least that was the drumbeat after the game from the coaches and players.

I don’t necessarily disagree that it’s something to build on, mostly because it was the only thing that happened outside of a Jon Greenard sack and some decent enough plays to set up fourth-and-goal, but you can only build on it if you see what happened and act on that. Davis Mills is not a guy who usually says a lot, but I want to point to how this was brought up without a question being asked about it:

Dating back to the third game of the season, Mills mentioned doing more in the hurry-up offense. The Texans saw how well they looked doing that there and promptly never did it again. It doesn’t fit the team’s identity, which has been run-heavy even though the team cannot run, and which is actively hurting their chances of winning games.

So even though it was against backups, and even though Mills is not flawless running it, it remains a surprise that they can see results like that and not really act on them. The only things that work in their base offense right now are the play-action shots they take on first down, and that’s because they’re a massive tendency breaker. Then you watch Mills slinging it over the field and an offense that is able to generate time for him with the hurry-up, and you realize that it doesn’t need to be this hard.

It is, yet again, a trap that the Texans have invented for themselves that this team has to be run-heavy and deliberate. It’s an identity, but not a useful one. I’m not going to tell you they’re a good team or anything, but if they can mix in three or four hurry-up series a game and put up 10-14 points with them, they do have some winnable games left on the schedule. That includes next week’s matchup with the 1-7 Dolphins.

1) Houston’s run defense was absolutely crushed by the Rams, which is why they were impossible to stop

Houston’s run defense was disastrous, allowing 165 yards on 5.3 a tote. Their defensive backs — outside of Justin Reid, maybe — all joined together to have a brutal game in box defense. Lonnie Johnson missed several tackles, including whiffing on the first play of the game. Each starting corner had instances of problems on the edge. Or, to give you a more pure Xs-and-Os view of what’s going on, let’s talk to Jon Greenard:

I think that’s more detailed than any answer that a Texans coach has given this year. Anyway, Houston doesn’t run many fronts, and teams have the answers to those fronts. It’s yet another example of a Lovie Smith simple design that can get exploited pretty easily by a coach in the know. It doesn’t help when your best run defense corner, Desmond King, is suspended and held out for disciplinary reasons.

You can’t let a team as good as the Rams run on you, because that feeds the rest of the playbook. The play-action pass game was devastating against zones and eventually it led to Lonnie getting picked on again by Van Jefferson:

And, well, that’s how the Rams pile up 38 points in three quarters and barely look challenged. They punted just once. Every other drive through three quarters made it at least into the red zone. There were no turnovers for the Texans, and if Lovie’s defense doesn’t generate turnovers, it doesn’t do a lot.

Miami should be a much more fair test for the Texans. If they can’t hold down that RPO-fest, then it will be time for major changes. I kind of think the ship has sailed on Lonnie Johnson at safety, as much as I advocated for playing him — but that’s the thing about youth, they’re not always going to be good. Removing the question means that it can be targeted deeper in free agency and the draft. I would love to have seen how a less tumultuous organization tried to develop Johnson — cornerback? dimebacker? — but we’ll never get to see that now.

2) Rex Burkhead? Rex Burkhead.

With Mark Ingram traded at his behest, and the Texans needing a new running back to step up into snaps, of course the answer was … Rex Burkhead, who had one carry all season before today.

Burkhead had 28 snaps, Scottie Phillips 15, David Johnson 11, and Phillip Lindsay 8. Johnson and Lindsay were used most in the first drive, but that gave way to garbage time and garbage time was Burkhead time.

I don’t necessarily think Burkhead’s a bad little role player — I think he’d be a fine bit guy on a good team, ala Gio Bernard’s role for Tampa — but it was very funny to watch this team be unable to run the ball with it’s best guys for three quarters and then stumble on no-huddle Burkhead as their best rushing option. He was the only player who got a carry to break the three yards per carry barrier.

Do I think he’s a solution? Probably not. It was backups. But it speaks something to the existential dread that this team’s running game has hooked on to that suddenly one quarter of garbage time sweeps, or one third-and-long draw, or one Davis Mills broken run, is the only thing that looks good. It’s so bad that it needs passable yards that don’t matter to look even borderline acceptable. Other Texans backs picked up 23 yards on 10 carries.

3) The scant flashes of hope for the youth

Brevin Jordan, active for the first time all season, caught 3-of-4 balls for 41 yards and a touchdown. He did not look out of place as a receiver at all. To compare that to other Texans tight ends, Jordan Akins has not cleared 41 yards all year, and Pharaoh Brown hasn’t done it since Week 1. It was a wildly different offense, yes. It was still essentially one quarter of production that was as good as anything the Texans have gotten all season. David Culley gave him some support as a guy who’d been practicing hard in the post-game presser. Maybe this can be something the Texans build on over the second half of the season.

Jon Greenard continued his recent run of great play with another sack. The Texans weren’t able to generate much pass rush around him, but that spin move was devastatingly effective. They finished the game with just two quarterback hits despite no Andrew Whitworth.

I’m really trying here, guys. The blowouts are accumulating. I’m trying to find positive things to point to or talk about. Nico Collins had another couple of good catches, including one in play-action. Scottie Phillips did nothing, but the same nothing that Johnson and Lindsay did. Youth is slowly fighting its way on to the field. Hopefully the Texans can take what I expect to be 2-8 at best after the Tennessee game post-bye and start getting some more answers on the youth — yes, as they did on Lonnie Johnson. No, I know nobody’s happy about how that is turning out, but that’s what rebuilding teams do. They are open to being surprised by young players.

4) Blinders on

My kudos to Brandon Scott, who is on the ground, cares, and is asking questions. He specifically targeted the culture with questions to both David Culley and Brandin Cooks. And he got answers that amounted to “there’s nothing we can do but believe in what we’re doing.”

I don’t have a lot to tell you that I haven’t already said about this team’s culture at this point. There’s nothing surprising about closing ranks around it. That is part of the player pride and ego, and I think Brandin Cooks acknowledged that in a big way in his first answer on the podium:

“All I know is work, and most of these guys all we know is work hard and keep fighting … it hurts in the moment, when you go to sleep and wake up and you’ve got to do it again, because quite frankly that’s our job.” That’s a dark picture of a man who is struggling through a season he has no real control over. Cooks, out of nowhere, has become the most relatable person the Texans have right now because of his breadth of experience and willingness to speak up when things aren’t going well instead of reiterating the company line and moving on to the next question.

At the end of the day, there’s not a lot that the players can do to change what’s happening here, so I get it. It’s not their fault that the team was depleted of assets, and it’s not their fault that Deshaun Watson isn’t here. That falls on Watson’s own decisions and leadership. These guys are, to Jack Easterby-ism them, embracing their greatest struggles as well as anyone can.

What’s left here is a broken team and a fanbase that is either tuned out or fighting over who is to blame the most for the struggles. I’m of the mind that things turned the second that Easterby got in the building and started making trades. Other people have put out the idea that Cal McNair is such a bad owner that it doesn’t matter. My position has largely been that I’d like to see McNair — who can’t be fired — operate without Easterby before jumping on that wagon. Because if nothing else, McNair will actually spend money. And that means quite a bit.

But it doesn’t really matter who you blame. This is a disaster. Getting outscored 100-8 over the course of 11 quarters can’t be erased by 22 garbage time points. This is something we’re all suffering through. This isn’t a process that’s working. It’s a process that, in a world wherein Easterby didn’t just stabilize his power by linking up with Caserio, deserves a clean sweep. Coaches, management, ownership. Knock it all down and start over again with a fresh football mind. End of the day, I don’t care who is in the front office if they’re gathering good players and winning. This team isn’t doing that.

The Warriors, by the way, bottomed out after the 1997-1998 season when they traded away Latrell Sprewell after he choked P.J. Carlesimo. They won 78 games over their next four seasons, and didn’t check into the second round of the playoffs again until 2006. They also got obscenely lucky to ever become great, because the teams directly in front of them drafted Johnny Flynn instead of Stephen Curry and Jimmer Fredette over Klay Thompson. That’s not a process you should want to emulate.


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Some thoughts on the Eternal Deadline of the Deshaun Watson trade

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

***

Normally, I’m a fan of writing about things that happened on this blog. Unfortunately, the Deshaun Watson trade-to-be has not been rooted in a lot of them until the last few days, when we’ve learned that compensation is agreed to (or, so it is said) between the Texans and Dolphins but that the Dolphins want Watson to settle his cases before he’s a Dolphin.

The drama of any kind of sweepstakes pretty much ended Wednesday morning with the report that Watson has only waived his no-trade clause for one team: The Dolphins. Watson could waive his no-trade clause to other destinations, but reportedly has already used it to rule out the Eagles. The Panthers wanted to do sit-down meetings with Watson before acquiring him, which is a great thought, but even if he wanted to do that, would probably not be in Watson’s best interests while he has ongoing litigation and people who could leak those discussions would be in the room. Roger Goodell’s non-comments about Watson’s availability to play on Tuesday set in to motion a few extra morsels for a team to acquire him before the deadline with an eye towards playing their way into playoff contention, but the Dolphins lost to the Jaguars and the Falcons and their playoff odds are at 2.4%.

Other teams might be able to re-enter the fray in the offseason, but with a deadline approaching now, this seems to be a Dolphins-or-bust proposition. Guess we’ll see if any Mystery Teams charge into the fold, but I think a no-trade clause is a pretty big carrot that says right now this is a trade all about Miami.

Let’s discuss the proposed trade and the situation as a whole in my favorite format for indigestible things: theoretical reader questions and answers.

What’s your own personal read of the chances of a Dolphins-Texans trade?

I think there’s a line to be neatly threaded about what has been agreed to in principle. I think the Dolphins and Texans have an agreement contingent on Watson settling his cases. That’s not necessarily the same deal that the Texans would get if the deal was made without that happening. Therein lies the gray area of “agreeing to compensation.” The issue is the same as it has been for many months: risk drives the price down, and the Texans are right to wait for the price to be at its highest. I think the Texans are getting the three first-round picks no matter what — but the remainder of the deal is up for grabs and the Dolphins and the Watson camp have every reason to tell the world about what’s going on because a) Watson should want his new team to have as many picks as they possibly can and b) the Dolphins would obviously prefer the trade to be as unfair as possible.

OK, so why would the Texans do that?

Well, Watson’s been here for months. He’s wasting a roster spot. He’s making his salary even though he’s not doing anything. Those are all poor reasons to rush into a trade, though. I think the reality of the situation is that the Texans would prefer to move on from him because they want to distance themselves from what they believe he’s done, and if anyone would know what he’s done as well as Watson’s camp, it’s the Texans. They have to be open to hearing the offers. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they have to take an offer that they don’t think is worth the price of someone who has played like a true franchise quarterback.

The interesting thing is that I think the Watson story is doing a great job running cover for the Texans, in a way. The team is horrendous. The trades and signings that Nick Caserio made last season weren’t a disaster because they were so low stakes that it is impossible for that to be true. But they have added no real assets from the free agent crop, and only Jon Greenard is taking a true step into becoming one. Watson’s situation actually helps take some attention away from that.

Anyway, I can’t tell you I’ve got compelling evidence that says the Texans should make this move, which is why I’m more on the side of believing there will be no trade yet. But I guess we’ll see. From the beginning, this has felt like a story of whether an ownership group is more desperate to get Watson than Texans ownership is to get rid of him.

Why doesn’t Watson just settle the lawsuits against him?

That’s an interesting one, because it seems like it would be in the best interests of his playing career. However, from day one his team has been adamant about this being a shakedown. Lance Zierlein said last Friday that he believed there might have been some recent movement between the Watson camp and attorney Tony Buzbee. I’ve got no information on that. I can’t fault Watson for believing that taking the case to court is the only way to really clear his name, because it probably is, but the mass brunt of the damage has already been done in terms of perception. The internet isn’t going to stuff those Bill Cosby memes back into the drawer and pretend it never happened.

I think it will all largely be swept away in the long-term either way because the NFL has never been a league that hasn’t been happy to rebuild shattered reputations. But this is a personal choice to fight these cases in court from Watson as far as I can tell and I can’t fault him for that choice. I don’t think it’s a great one for his playing career, and I don’t think he can fault the Texans for not trading him given the circumstances.

Why are we talking about Watson’s trade value? Aren’t the allegations against him pretty serious?

They sure are! You raise an excellent point. Unfortunately, the NFL didn’t have a pre-arranged solution to this situation, and the only way they seem capable of learning about things they need is reactively rather than proactively. Their reaction to the Watson situation has been like waking up with the smell of smoke in their bedroom and waiting in bed in disbelief until the wall is actually on fire before trying to find a way to escape. You can see this time and time again in things like the St. Louis trial over the Rams relocating (wow, we can’t just buy the court?) and the WFT scandal (who could have predicted that there would be public backlash to a slap on the wrist for Mr. Snyder?)

If it were up to me: Watson belongs on the commissioner’s exempt list or some new version of it, and I don’t think he should be off of it until things are settled. Unfortunately, that is not the reality we live in, and the football machine must be greased. In fact, Premiere Football Brains around the world know that this is the opportunity to grab him at a bargain, so the circumstances can be ignored for a clear win. Sort of like when the Astros traded for Roberto Osuna.

What is a fair price for Deshaun Watson?

The football player that Deshaun Watson became in 2020 does not have a fair price. If there were a theoretical player like that and the team had no incentive to move him, I think you wouldn’t be talking about three firsts, but three entire years worth of draft picks.

Obviously, you have to weigh that against what’s actually happening here. Watson isn’t playing and the allegations are serious. One thing that we’ve never really gotten any insight about because the Texans are cosplaying Very Serious New England lads is whether the directive to not play him is negotiated between both sides, a Watson hold-in that the Texans aren’t punishing him for, or a directive from above to not play him. I kind of believe it’s negotiated, but that’s just an educated guess based on people I’ve heard talking around the situation.

To be a little less vague: I feel resigned and predestined to hate this trade and this return, whenever it happens, regardless of the circumstances, from a pure football standpoint. The Texans had an opportunity to fix the problem after the season and they stood with one of their least valuable employees instead of their most valuable one. It’s a decision that they will be paying for on the football field for years. You can keep counting up from three first-round picks to like, eight. It doesn’t matter. I played Madden franchise mode too, but in the real world those picks pale in comparison to a young star quarterback under contract for several seasons. You’re not guaranteed to find three players with those three picks that equate to the value of one Watson, let alone one. I will be relieved when the hanging sword is out of our lives, because it’s obvious he has no interest in playing here ever again, but all the trade will do is turn the Texans from “the team Deshaun Watson is done with” to “the team Deshaun Watson used to play for.”

Why don’t the Texans just keep Watson?

Well, they don’t really have a way to accede to what he wants to be changed anymore. They can’t just have Cal resign as lead partner and fire Jack Easterby and say “everything’s fixed,” because it is clearly not water under the bridge when we’re dealing with personal feelings. On top of that, the team is now worse than ever.

I guess what they could say is “we’re not trading you, you can play here or retire.” But hardball is a very easy thing to think about in practice and a very hard thing to actually pull off. Like it or hate it — and I think most of you hate it based on the comments I get — Watson not saying anything has been a boon for the Texans. He knows where the bodies are. If you think the Sports Illustrated Easterby articles were a disaster for the franchise, wait until the franchise quarterback is telling everyone about the things that didn’t make those pieces. Maybe you’d come back with “can the team reputation get any worse than it already is?” and, well, every time I think the Texans have hit their nadir they find a way to create a new low.

I’m not trying to say there’s 100% no way that Watson will ever play a game for the franchise again — anybody who says they know 100% for certain what is going on here is lying — but I think a lot of things would have to change drastically. I think his trade market would have to crater based on what comes out of the cases. I think he’d have to take on a lot of humility about his situation. These are things that I can’t entirely rule out, but that certainly don’t seem to be happening in the current stasis of the situation.

Why don’t you ever just tear down Deshaun Watson for wanting to leave, never speaking about the Texans, crying at the signing of his contract, and quitting on his team?

Have you seen what this team has become? I have a lot of empathy for wanting to flee the scene. Let’s leave Easterby out of it for a second and say for the sake of argument that he has no say (lol) — the team that they’ve constructed here is a dire plea for help. The acting owner of the team drops an anti-Asian reference at his charity golf event and thinks it’s funny. They traded DeAndre Hopkins for pennies on the dollar. They lost the faith of J.J. Watt. I’ve been an enormous critic of most of the moves they’ve made since 2018 ended and the only time I look back in retrospect and say I don’t feel good about my read on the situation is the Brandin Cooks trade — and even that one, now that the Texans are 5-18 in their last 23 games, I think you could still argue you’d rather have a younger cost-controlled second-round player. (And hey, now you pissed him off too! Great job, guys!)

While I find loyalty very commendable and would be praising Watson hard for staying, we’re in a new era. It’s not 1970 where you can hide how bad things are in Houston from a quarterback, he’s going to be able to ask people if it’s normal for a character coach to be elevated to the position he has been. Legacy media are very committed to protecting ownership/the team. (To give an example, I heard the Cal anti-Asian story months ago but wasn’t going to report it without a way to actually verify it, and if I heard it, I know my spot on the food chain here. Other people definitely knew.) Players aren’t bound by the same rules.

You’ve seen Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson walk the same “not confident in this team” tightrope, and they’re in much better situations. It’s very apparent to every player that the Texans are one of the worst organizations in the NFL right now, and if you have any doubt about that, look at how many free agents just had no interest in coming here. John Brown signed with a team that released him rather than sign here. Teams now have to live up to franchise quarterbacks as much as franchise quarterbacks have to live up to teams. That is 2021.

Do I think Watson quit on the team? Sure. Do I think the team quit on him before that? Yup. I’m never gonna step on a man for doing what he thinks is best for him, and it’s obvious that these Texans are in no state to grow a winning football team for years to come. Firing Bill O’Brien changed nothing.

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Four Downs: Texans 5, Cardinals 31

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

***

I think the biggest story of this game for the long-term interests of the Texans was the play of Davis Mills. The Cardinals had no qualms about stacking the line of scrimmage and asking him to figure out who was coming and who wasn’t. He only took two sacks, but it shattered pretty much every third- or fourth-and-short the team had, sans the one that Brandin Cooks dropped in the flat.

Tim Kelly does not ask Davis Mills to throw deep because the results have been pretty disastrous outside of the Patriots game, and even those throws happened outside of structure and — I think we have to admit at this point — were pretty fortunate. And when the Cardinals blitz, and Mills heads to a checkdown, Houston has absolutely no way to punish that. Cooks doesn’t win press as easily as he does against man. Nobody else on the team beats man quickly. And so it leads to checkdowns or sailed passes at best, sacks at worst. It created this ghastly set of splits:

26 of 32 passes coming within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. The ones that were deep throws were not even remotely close to completions. If Mills isn’t able to do better than this against the Rams or Dolphins (I am assuming he starts these games and not Tyrod Taylor because the Texans seem wildly non-committal on Taylor’s status, happy to be proven wrong) in these same kinds of looks, then he’ll have stagnated.

It isn’t all on him, because the talent around him isn’t good and there is no running game. But the fact that the small sample of results we have point to him not throwing deep, and then pair that with the fact that nothing I’ve heard in any presser seems to directly give a reason for not doing that … they are consciously avoiding it because they know what they see everyday.

As I said after the Patriots game, there will be highs and there will be lows with Mills. I am hoping that we get a rebound and some more growth. I don’t think that’s out of the question. But this is, well, this is why you don’t want to start him. This was non-competitive from the jump, and even when the offense got good field position, they barely moved the ball at all. Not all of that is on Mills, but he’s got no kind of superlative talent that is going to erase that. And, well, you can say that about many quarterbacks in the NFL. None of them are franchise guys.

1) The Texans could have easily been the Cardinals, and that’s the most annoying thing of all

Permit me a little escape from the actual events of the game because it was a dark four hours of my life that I’ll never get back.

The most annoying thing about this entire situation — Hopkins and Watt on the other sideline — is that the Arizona Cardinals are doing exactly what the Texans should have done in 2019 and 2020. I’m not saying the Cardinals are nailing every personnel evaluation. I’m not saying they’re nailing every draft pick. But they selectively went hard after available difference-makers in trades and in free agency to supplement their star rookie quarterback. That is the stuff that me and, to give some credit for the shouting from the rooftops, Matt Weston, have been all about for the entirety of the Deshaun Watson era. To have a rookie quarterback on a value contract playing well is the most valuable commodity in sports. You have to exploit it to build a great team.

Steve Keim has not been my favorite general manager in the NFL by a longshot. I think he’s botched a ton of things. He also has shown aggression. He shows that he knows that every NFL player is on a limited timetable, and that your job is to win now. It’s something that Bill O’Brien, Rick Smith, Jack Easterby, and I’ll even say Brian Gaine (even though I liked his program-building) just showed no aptitude for. There was no grand ambition. There was no ethos to get better talent in the door as quickly as possible. With Smith and Gaine, it was patience to a fault — an inability to trust anybody but the guys they cleared for the program. With O’Brien and Easterby when they were given personnel control, they just wildly flailed in the dark trying to solve any problem they saw with as much capital as possible — especially when they weren’t real problems — then blamed the players that were actually good when that didn’t work.

It hurts a lot to watch the Cardinals be what the Texans could have been in an alternate universe. And then to have your completely unserious team come to town — and I’ll even say I didn’t think the Cardinals came close to playing their best game — and it didn’t even matter in the slightest. Outside of the defensive line, the Texans and Cardinals weren’t even playing the same sport. Our best assets were devalued and pilfered, then used to build what could have been right here, and even when misused as badly as they have been this year, they crushed a Texans team that had almost nothing steering it towards winning football. Ghastly.

2) The youth movement and other clever hypotheses

When the Texans assembled media met with David Culley, they kept trying to push him in the direction of rationality by asking about a youth movement, about playing younger players:

The grand youth movement runs into a major problem every time they talk about it: They aren’t actually going to do that, and have never considered doing that, because this team isn’t rational about what they are. They’ve never been that way under Easterby. They arguably were never that way under O’Brien, but at least they were able to parlay their star-level talent into better results then.

This team has 21 players under 25 years old on its 53-man roster. The ones that play the most are: Justin Reid (impending FA), Tytus Howard (bad at guard all year after being moved), Max Scharping (benched today), Roy Lopez, Charles Omenihu (inactive from the Bills game until today), Charlie Heck (would not be playing without injuries), Jon Greenard, Davis Mills (would not be playing without injuries), Ross Blacklock (rotational role), and Nico Collins (rotational role). Outside of Greenard and Lopez, I don’t think I can point you to a young player on the team who has a runway for starter-level playing time on purpose, and both of them play on the only group on the team that rotates constantly. That’s not something this team is built to do, because doing so would mean recognizing that accumulating layers of C-to-C-minus culture veterans doesn’t actually do anything to help it.

Culley has continued to be nothing but upbeat about the culture and staying the course, it’s the same tact he took after this game. Nothing is changing about the message or the vibe because that was never what this season was about.

There will be no tanking. Thankfully for the fans that want some tanking, this team is so poorly-managed philosophically that it can be mistaken for intentionally tanking when they do things like this:

And therein lies the true conflict of the 2021 Texans: They aren’t tanking, but they’re managed so poorly they kind of actually are.

3) The defensive line actually created some havoc on Kyler Murray

Both Greenard and Omenihu, as well as Maliek Collins in the midst of his best game of the season, were able to take advantage of a Cardinals offensive line missing Rodney Hudson and create some real pressure on Kyler Murray. Greenard had his second two-sack game in a row, and while they weren’t dominant sacks where he was rolling past a guy, he’s flashed plenty of that along the way. Collins had the sickest rip of the day with this spin past Arizona’s right guard:

Ultimately the Texans wound up with four sacks and four quarterback hits, while both Greenard and Jacob Martin were able to bat passes down at the line against Murray. DeMarcus Walker and Greenard each had two tackles for loss as well.

It was the only level the defense really looked good at — they had to win early or they wouldn’t win at all. They were shredded by Arizona’s RPOs in the third quarter, and when the Cardinals just focused on running the ball they gained yards by the bushel — an average of 4.6 with a ton of garbage time play and kneels mixed in to it. It was closer to six yards per pop at halftime. The defensive back play in zone coverage was godawful and culminated in this abomination on third-and-24:

I guess what I’m saying is that — I know they probably didn’t play the run all that well — at least the defensive line was able to keep the pass pressured enough to make it feel like there was one unit on the defense that was actually in the game. The defensive line and punt returns are the only two units I’d say played at an acceptable level today.

4) The effort versus the results

The only real interesting message I caught from the post-game interviews was from Greenard, let’s hear him talk:

This jives a lot with what Chris Moore said on Monday, which is something I’ve been thinking about all week:

I feel awful for the players that are on this team, first of all, because while they are blessed to play NFL football, I’m sure nobody asked for this. This is the epitome of showing up and trying to block out noise and pushing through all this to do your job. But here’s the thing: This team is not being outworked. If anything, the constant number of penalties kind of show that they’re pressing. They’re getting crushed by their head coach for them, but this is the kind of team that needs to hold because Davis Mills is slow at processing. It’s the kind of team that false starts because it needs an extra step. It chop blocks on third down because it’s asking Jordan Akins, who is not really a good blocker anyway, to come across the line of scrimmage to grab someone.

These guys do play hard. They play their asses off every week. They don’t quit when they’re down 20 in the fourth quarter. Nobody is knocking the effort.

But, you can’t make a football team out of that if you do everything as stupidly as the Texans are managed. You can’t make a football team that is scared to throw downfield with their quarterback better by run-game managing them into third-and-7 or third-and-9 with your terrible run game. You can’t make the running game better by “sticking with it.” You can’t make Cover-2 work against good quarterbacks without a great pass rush every down, especially as undisguised as it is. You can’t run into nine in the box and expect that to work.

This isn’t a championship football team. Nobody’s surprised by that. But this team also puts its players in terrible situations on a weekly basis because it is coached and managed in an indescribably stupid way. And the answer to that, whenever there’s pushback, is that “that’s the system.”

Want some run plays to work? Run some read-option. Try Scottie Phillips. Use orbit motion. Try to get eyes going and create space to run to. Want some defensive plays to work on big downs? Change things up. Disguise coverages. Don’t be so passive. The Texans haven’t had many winnable games this year, but the eagerness of the coaching staff to just hum along as if they’ve established everything they’ve needed in the face of these results is malpractice to the value they’re trying to establish for these veterans. Let alone the culture.

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Six pessimistic things about the Texans through six games

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

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This was a painful post to write and it’s going to be a painful post to read. I apologize if it digs up any scars or trauma. Know that I, too, want the Texans to be good. But the only way to dig through it to the light at the end of the tunnel is to speak truth to what has amassed in front of us. I blame none of this on the players and only one of these is actually about them — they were set up to fail. If you need some positive things to balance you, here’s last week’s post.

1) It’s painfully obvious that Jack Easterby retained some power

This is sort of the elephant in the room for a lot of you. There are some people who won’t accept this because a) they have an incentive not to and b) there’s nothing overt that has said so. The offseason forecasted a very clear power dynamic with a story that has yet to be refuted anywhere, one where Easterby found out the Texans were going to hire Steelers executive Omar Khan and steered the search directly to Nick Caserio so he could keep his job. Easterby is close to the McNairs, and Easterby has been given unreasonable power for somebody who already had a disastrous run of meddling in personnel that led to perhaps the worst trade of the 2000s where he and Bill O’Brien sent DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona for the pick that would become Ross Blacklock and David Johnson.

Easterby has not given a public interview since the very beginning of the 2020 season, so there’s no way of getting it from the horse’s mouth. But is he there on the sideline every week, in a role that wildly exceeds what most vice presidents of football operations do? He is. I don’t have a lot of sources I can cite here without ruining information given to me off-the-record, but let me put it like this: I have a strong reason to believe that Easterby is well aware that he is the most powerful person the team employs.

And if you take that and look at what has happened this offseason, it aligns pretty well. Why would any new general manager come into this team and decide that they had to keep David Johnson, let alone guarantee him money? And … hey, what did Nick Caserio say about that?

A riveting endorsement! And did Eric Murray get yet another chance to start at safety? He sure did! And does Vernon Hargreaves continue to get opportunities despite the fact that he has roundly been bad in every season? He sure does! And did 2020’s weird fetish with blocking young players on the roster continue? Mostly! How about layers and layers of players? Tell me your favorite Tae Davis moment, tell me about the good Rex Burkhead has provided while being outrushed by Jordan Akins. Versatility? Tytus Howard is taking reps at tackle and guard every week and is struggling! The wild mood swings where nobody knows who is starting and who is on the roster next week? Goodbye Whitney Mercilus and Andre Roberts! Welcome to the bench, Desmond King!

I’m by no means trying to say here that Nick Caserio doesn’t have control of personnel in name, nor trying to absolve the job that he has done so far. But I do think there are players that Easterby has stuck up for that are there, and I don’t think it should be surprising in the slightest that 2020s biggest bugaboos have continued to be a big part of how this team is constructed and run.

One last thing here: I know that there are a lot of people out there who are sick of hearing about Easterby, and I’ve dialed it back a little because over the years I’ve learned to let people get optimistic in training camp and early in the season. I am at my most optimistic about the Texans the day the season ends, before the mistakes happen. Other people are not like that — their optimism grows as football activities begin again. Trying to fight that wave is like spitting into the wind. Fans will justify literally anything they can to continue rooting for the team, and that means there have been quite a few conspiracy theories invented to help Easterby along the lines of “he was trying to stay in front of Deshaun Watson’s massage problems” or whatever else that eventually spreads to my mentions and is largely bunk spread to allow tribalism to continue.

I don’t have a dog in the fight of “is Easterby a good person?” I don’t care about who he is or what his intentions are beyond trying to understand how he’s approaching his role with the team better. I specialize in results, and his results have been awful. His culture results: multiple PED suspensions in 2020, multiple waves of players on the COVID-19 list this year, and we just spent two days listening to members of a 1-5 team try not to call out their teammates by name but say that the effort isn’t good enough. Justin Reid noted that the entire locker room fell apart last year in a presser last week after O’Brien was fired. What kind of culture is that? What kind of players have been protected here, and why? As long as he’s involved, I think it’s fair for fans to be skeptical that this team will ever turn around.

It’s not like Easterby’s Texans have tried to acquire anybody who is actually currently good. They’ll draft some in 2022 because the team is so bad they couldn’t help but do so … but those young players are just fighting against the established order. As we’ve seen time and time again, already. If you’re ready to excuse, let’s say, the 12th overall pick cornerback not playing because he’s young and Random Patriots Vet Free Agent With Culture has value and didn’t miss a meeting, you’ll excuse anything this team does. I’m not saying you need to be as pessimistic or cynical as I can sometimes be, but set a realistic expectation. This team has one win in two seasons that isn’t against the Jaguars or Lions. It’s dire, and the last of the people who created it should not be here. (And you can’t fire the owner.)

2) David Culley is a dinosaur strategically and tactically

I never had high expectations for David Culley’s strategic acumen because my initial impression of him led with him saying “the most important thing about football … is the football.”

What I was hopeful that he’d do would be a CEO/manager-type coach that would elevate everyone else around him with his positivity, and that maybe some of the Ravens analytics department mantras had touched him just a little bit. Instead what he’s done is installed a ground-and-pound offense that doesn’t run read-options or in any way make it hard for the defense to attack them. The only time this team is actually able to throw deep — even when Tyrod Taylor was healthy — is off-script buying time on the outside. None of their route concepts have dialed up a throw the quarterbacks on the roster can hit reliably beyond 20 yards. And they lean quite heavily into the wideout screens, the horizontal game, and … I know this sounds harsh to say, but there’s no ambition behind his plans. He’s not a problem solver. He can see the problems, but his response is just something along the lines of “we’ll have to really stick to our keys,” rather than “Kyler Murray’s frightening, what are we going to change about Lovie’s game plan to fight it?”

There’s no grand design to get this team out of the gutter. There’s no secret game plan adjustment that they’ll be making against the Cardinals. David Culley started coaching in the 1980s-1990s NCAA and NFL and has fully absorbed all the lessons from that. None of them matter now in 2021. He defends the system and appears to have almost no interest in game planning based on what opponents do from what I’ve seen in interviews.

Do I cut him some slack because this is an impossible situation? I do. Do I cut the Texans some slack for hiring him because they may very well have had a limited pool of applicants? Not really, because they know why they had that pool. But I accept the role that played in him being the head coach here.

I will hold no grudge against David Culley when his watch ends. I find him quite affable and I enjoy his personality when he’s not talking about the football. I won’t miss him complaining about penalties in every press conference. It’s become very apparent to me that there was a reason nobody hired him to be even an offensive coordinator before this year. He just doesn’t seem that interested in tactics. This is a perfect cushion job for him, to babysit the boy scout troop, get some NFL head coach money, and retire back to Tennessee. Godspeed with those dreams. He’s the exact opposite of what you need in a 2020s head coach from a tactics and in-game analytics perspective.

3) The fans have voted with their wallets

I don’t blame the fans at all for being turned off by this team. But I believe this will be the biggest storyline of the 2021 season. Nobody is going to these games. The Texans, who have never had to ask any seat to be filled throughout their existence, are now advertising non-stop during their own games to try to get people to come out. Every post on their website ends with a footer about how you can go to their next game. Every lengthy video they produce ends with a call to action to how you can go to their games. They’ve increasingly resorted to desperation gimmicks like the below:

How do I put this delicately: I don’t think the Texans are in any danger of being moved or anything, but this kind of mass exodus of fans does not augur well in the long term. There is some chatter in league circles about St. Louis getting an expansion team out of the Rams case. I don’t think the Texans are likely to become a team that gets moved or anything, but a lot can change depending on how ownership reacts to what I’m expecting are going to be skeleton crews at NRG throughout the rest of the season. So far they have resisted any kind of internal movement towards understanding why that is.

They’re probably behind the Jaguars in any sort of pecking order for a reckoning. But the fact that the crowds could be compared to what is happening in Jacksonville is a tough indictment of the situation that they, alone have created. Just on a human, person-to-person level, I can’t tell you the last time I had a conversation in real life with someone who is excited about the direction this team is going in. I have seen the few Twitter people willing to defend the team, but as you can see from the stands, contrarians aren’t lining up to pay money to watch this team play. A lot easier to project what a big fan you are on Twitter, and a lot less expensive as well.

One reason that has unfolded the way that it has been is…

4) Very few people with power in the organization seem to acknowledge any idea of how badly the trust with the fanbase has been shattered

People forget this now that there’s been some distance put between the Texans and this offseason, but after Caserio’s introductory presser there was about a 10-day gap where nothing happened for the team and they entered virtual silence. They were getting bombarded on social media by (largely) their fanbase after the tone-deaf answers that Cal McNair gave for the disaster that the 2020 Texans had become.

I don’t know that the sports media world as a general concept wrestles with what fan buy-in really means, but there’s an excitement that’s palpable. Even when I didn’t think the Texans would win anything important under Bill O’Brien, there was still a sense of “there’s a playoff game to go to!” or, perhaps more famously, “this team is 40 minutes of good football from playing in the AFC Championship game.” Fans and analysts may wind up reacting negatively to that in the end when it falls apart, especially when it gets repetitive, but they’re still engaged. They’re still wanting to see good things happen. They’re still wanting to see the next step.

When you try to pull the wool over on a bunch of Texans with these terrible explanations about why Easterby is here and appeal to an authority that has no results worthy of mentioning, it turns out that they become quite embittered! Long-time followers of this team … I’ve lost count of how many have told me they’re never watching again until something changes upstairs. When you follow something closely, you can tell when someone is all hat and no cattle, as the saying goes.

The one thing that has never happened since 2020 started is that the Texans have shown no remorse for anything they’ve done. To do so would be to tell on how poorly it is all going, in a way, but other than maybe a Drew Dougherty nod to the fans in a livestream here or there, there’s been almost no reckoning publicly with what they’ve done here. There’s been whining about rotten luck, and there’s been a lot of variations on “we have to do a better job,” but at no point has anyone ever said that the Hopkins trade was bad. I’m curious how many people in the organization will even talk about it this week. No public recognition of this team’s many issues. I can barely get the few people I have some link to in the organization to talk about it off the record beyond dismay. And publicly? It’s all just gritted fake smiles and pretending that filming community events at fire houses and hospitals is the same thing as building a fanbase.

These people got pissed off. Then they left. I can’t tell you how many donations this site has got this year — it’s got to be in the single digits — nobody follows this team. Trying to build content that people want to read about the day-to-day struggles of Davis Mills is the NFL equivalent of public access news stories about new library initiatives. These fans are checked out. Getting them back is going to require some real accountability at some level. None seems forthcoming, so I guess this is just where we are now.

5) Nick Caserio’s obsession with personality and intangibles has not borne any fruit

The entire premise of this offseason is that with enough hard practice and discipline, that the Texans can create a good team out of a bunch of NFL outcasts that their secret methods would somehow unlock the latent potential in. The result has been that this team is 1-5, with only a win over the similarly disjointed Jaguars at home, and that many of the players feel like some of the players aren’t holding up their end of the bargain on being “disciplined.”

The reality of the situation is that — pardon my language — this isn’t fucking Rudy. This team is outmanned, and being outmanned makes it hard for them to play above their talent level because they’re put into uncomfortable positions. Desmond King is pushed into playing outside because there are no outside cornerbacks, then he gets benched because he’s — stunner — not great at it! Outside of Brandin Cooks I am struggling to think of someone who has legitimately been playing well through all six games. A couple of the signings have wound up being fine cost bargains — Ingram has been better than I expected, Britt’s been better than I expected as a run blocker — but these are players in search of a core that can make them look good. That core was systematically stripped off, traded, released, or alienated. There’s nothing left but Cooks and … maybe Greenard.

The guys Caserio has brought in? They haven’t really added much. Maliek Collins has flashed some pass rush but has no sacks. Grugier-Hill has probably been the best they’ve had and I don’t think he’s more than a gap-shooter who looks good compared to Zach Cunningham. Tavierre Thomas has been … okay at nickel corner? Vincent Taylor got hurt. Jordan Jenkins is most notable for being the guy who took Charles Omenihu’s roster spot. Terrance Mitchell’s forced fumbles have been a boon but he’s just an adequate outside guy. Maybe we want to talk about trades? Marcus Cannon is on IR. Shaq Lawson didn’t make the 53-man roster. Ryan Finley didn’t make training camp. Special teams has been a dumpster fire.

And when you consider that some of these guys could be elsewhere while there’s youth waiting to be served, the entire offseason was a waste of everyone’s time. All this wave of culture veterans showed was that they can still be bit players in this league. They’ll all be free agents soon, and I am rooting for them. But as far as the greater game of establishing value for this franchise, this bet was pointless and needless. The Texans could have gone 1-5 without any of this. The idea that Caserio has some kind of hidden tell on player personality that will somehow provide value has not been vindicated in any way.

How about finding some good young players by giving young players a chance, and signing some other good players, like a normal team? Why does this team need to continually pretend there’s any reason to be confident when a team run by fan vote on the internet would have returned more value than they have over the past two years?

6) The offensive line — the only area with any real investment over the past few seasons — has been an utter disaster

The Texans are dead-last in the NFL in adjusted line yards. They were average in sack rate through Week 5, and I doubt that changed much after the Colts game. I don’t think that shows the full scope of what they’re up against because there’s almost no explosiveness at the running back position. Nobody but Ingram is setting up guys to miss in the open field, let alone actually breaking tackles. They’re also dealing with Howard moving from guard to tackle for absolutely no reason, and Laremy Tunsil is now hurt and also dealt with COVID-19 in the lead-up to the season.

Simply put, without any value judgements on what they’re going through: Tunsil was not playing like the best tackle in the NFL. He was maybe in the conversation as a pass protector only last year. His next good season as a run blocker in Houston will be his first. Tytus Howard has not played well enough to make me feel comfortable picking up his fifth-year option, which is a disastrous outcome for someone who you thought was showing some flashes at right tackle last year. Max Scharping is pretty replaceable at guard. Tied up in those three are the last three Texans first-round picks and two of their last three second-round picks. That’s a travesty. This is the only area that anybody around the team talked up as a definite positive all offseason and they were so bad at run blocking that bringing in Charlie Heck and Geron Christian made them better last Sunday.

To leave three drafts with that investment at offensive line and for the line to be as bad as it is today is simply unacceptable. This can’t just be a “it’s all Mike Devlin’s fault!” thing anymore. Unless Howard turns it around in a hurry — and I have a little hope there — the Texans are going to be paying for these decisions for a long time. And they barely were getting any benefit out of them when they were actually a contending team, either. It has been a systemic destruction of resources to try to replace Duane Brown — who is still very good even though he’s old.

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Four Downs: Texans 3, Colts 31

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

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The Texans are who we thought they were. They never pretended otherwise, and only the blind faith of fandom could drag anyone to think any differently.

Let’s put aside the talk about “good football,” which isn’t played with penalties and turnovers, and let’s talk about what David Culley did as the Colts grabbed a 14-point lead: fourth-and-2 at your own 45 yard-line and the answer was “punt,” the Colts followed up with Jonathan Taylor’s 83-yard foot stomp.

If you’re a sixty-six year old head coach, you cannot get made to look like a rookie as much as Culley has this year. In each of the last two games — here on this fourth-and-2, New England on the 56-yard field goal attempt — the game situation asked for a call to bold action to stop a run. Houston’s head coach might be apologetic about it on Monday, or he might just say that winning football is about field position. The problem is that this team needs to be managed aggressively to win games, and while he hasn’t shown that he’ll never do that, the reins are so inconsistent that it’s impossible to feel like there’s a plan. He had no problems doing it in the first half against the Patriots! Then, he gave it away.

To follow that up with a disgusting, nearly seven-minute drive that was turned over on downs and that featured six runs in 14 plays? That was deeply unserious football. That was culture ball. This team is devoted to the running game even though it a) has blown for most of the season and b) has almost zero explosiveness. I preface with almost because Phillip Lindsay finally hit a 35-yard run with about four minutes left in the game:

That finally cracked 100 yards for the team! Major kudos are in order, lads. The Texans have established the run. Davis Mills would later be picked to end the drive. Good stuff for the PR team to tweet out next week as the Cardinals send the team into oblivion.

1) Did you miss Laremy Tunsil?

Sent to IR after last week’s thumb injury prevented him from punching, Tunsil’s absence forced the Texans to start Geron Christian at left tackle. They were already starting Charlie Heck at right tackle after Marcus Cannon went on IR last week. And … Davis Mills took two sacks and only five quarterback hits. The two sacks were through 1) David Johnson and 2) Tytus Howard at left guard:

Meanwhile, the rag-tag group of starters helped spring Mark Ingram on his longest run of the season:

I hate bagging on the trade itself at this point because it is spilled milk under the bridge, and I have been slow to critique Laremy Tunsil this year because a) I enjoy his vibe and b) he had COVID and seemed to me at times to clearly have problems speaking without coughing in press availabilities. I don’t want to pretend I know what that dude was going through.

But with the Texans anchored to a regressive screen-and-short-balls passing game based on their overall dumb team concept, a star left tackle just isn’t making a material difference. You can argue that Tunsil never made a real difference in any of his three Texans seasons, even when he played well. That’s not a statement on how well he does his job, he’s obviously on talent an elite pass protector — but it does take all five, and he’s never been a good run blocker. It should not surprise us if the Texans punch a little above their established weight in that phase of the game without Tunsil. They did it last year with Roderick Johnson, and two big carries against a good Colts run defense isn’t something to sneeze off even if I hate how the second one went down.

2) Jon Greenard made an impact on pass defense, but that was about it

Carson Wentz only had to drop back 22 times all game, meaning Jon Greenard downed him on around 10 percent of his total dropbacks.

Greenard ran over Mo Alie-Cox on his first sack, and on his second picked up a coverage sack as Wentz drifted into his area as it appeared Wentz missed multiple open receivers. The most impressive thing was actually not a sack, but a tripping call that Greenard drew late in the game against Eric Fisher when he spun him:

Greenard had three of the Texans five quarterback hits and added two tackles for loss. The Texans were largely reliant on him to do something, anything, against a Colts offense with an immobile quarterback that schemed Cover-2 to death and torched it twice for big plays in the first half.

I know that the major Texans Twitter war at this point is that Charles Omenihu is inactive again and Lonnie Johnson didn’t start before Terrence Brooks got injured. I understand that what each of them have done this year have been inconsistent. My thing is: If Greenard can be put in a position and left alone and flourish, that means it is possible. I don’t think Lonnie is a deep safety this year because Justin Reid is better at the job — I think he fits better as a big nickel linebacker long-term as well, as he was covering Travis Kelce in the playoffs basically. I think Omenihu belongs inside in passing downs. The Texans seem to put them into roles where they can focus on what they can’t do, then discard them. It’s a shitty way to deal with your youth.

But, it is the culture at this point. Thank goodness Greenard has played culture-proof ball so far. I think he’ll have some slower games than this, but it’s been nice to see some real impact.

3) Davis Mills wasn’t bad, but didn’t take a step forward either

The one thing I’ve worried about the most with Mills is his inability to deal with blitzes in a timely manner. He has a sneaky way of avoiding the sack sometimes, so I wouldn’t exactly call him immobile. But it’s funny just how awkward he can look before suddenly he is all alone on the outside and he can dial up a ball drifting to his right:

His two interceptions were a) an attempt to imagine a ball past Darius Leonard in the middle and b) a overzealous deep ball to Cooks when Jordan Akins would have broken open in a zone hole:

On the balance of things, I don’t think Mills played particularly bad football for what he was asked to do. He had a couple of drift-out completions, they just weren’t as impactful as they were in Week 5 against the Patriots. Deep balls are going to be infrequent with this combination of offense and quarterback, and so it relies a lot on improvisation on the move and, well, missed tackles and luck.

The question remains: How are the Texans going to stop teams from blitzing Mills other than hoping to catch them with a good wideout screen? Because that’s the big weak point of this offense, and when the Texans really needed points, that was what the Colts brought to snuff out a drive:

And that area is what I’ve got my eye on for the next couple of weeks (at least) with Mills under center. I think he’s shown a little better than I expected from him after the early exposures, but he needs to keep taking steps. Every game he doesn’t take one is a week closer to Tyrod getting his job back and Mills being a long-term backup. It’s not particularly fair compared to how some quarterbacks get to live, but that’s the third-round rookie life.

4) The culture was established in 2020

This reminded me a lot of the loss to the Packers last year, a game which sent Houston to 1-6. It’s very easy for the players to hold the company line when it’s early, or when things are going well, but you can’t expect a 1-5 team to do the same. We had a rip-roaring press session where Mark Ingram ran the same four or five things in each answer he gave. Brandin Cooks called people out while trying to not call people out by name but also, yeah, he called people out.

The thing is: the culture has been established here since 2020, the first full year where the culture leader got to run an offseason. The culture isn’t interested in talent, it’s interested in gritty players like Ingram who are going to do what they can to overcome the next hurdle and play by the culture rules:

In that way, the culture becomes a weight of frustration, because the culture is built around growing through adversity and how that Has Meaning. But none of that actually matters for NFL teams that don’t employ great players. The Texans have one of the weakest rosters on the star level in the NFL — I would say they had the weakest period if Deshaun Watson wasn’t technically on the roster. Mark Ingram isn’t going to find anything that he can do better at this point. He’s a seasoned veteran. A lot of these guys are. They were set up to fail from the start. No roster this weak was ever going to contend, and they need to play almost flawless football. What this takes me back to is a quote Jacob Martin gave almost a year ago today:

The culture may have changed as far as players in and players out, but you can’t build a real culture around competition anymore than you can build a foundation with toothpicks on a blank slab. I feel bad for each and every player in the locker room. It doesn’t matter if Chris Moore unlocks his latent potential and becomes a palatable third receiver, because it changes nothing for the Texans’ long-term future. The only players that have any real upside here are the youth, who mostly don’t get to play outside of Mills, Greenard, Nico Collins, and Roy Lopez. And who knows how long they’ll play before they don’t eat the right brand of chips at lunch or they undersleep and get caught by the performance lab and get red flagged by a bunch of people who are trying to Frankenstein a team of loose parts together because they think they’ve got all the answers. You can’t aspire this into an NFL team with wishful thinking and one-percent-a-day-ism any more than you can aspire to make Frankenstein a real human being.

There’s a Great Gatsby quote for this circumstance: “It never occurred to me that one man could start to play with the faith of fifty million people- with the single mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe.” There aren’t quite fifty million Texans fans — there may not be fifty hundred Texans fans at Week 8’s Rams game — but this has been so brazen and so obvious for so long that you almost lose sight of how amazing it is that this team has been put together. If it were any other team but the one that I support, I would regard it like Leonard Nimoy talking about the cosmic ballet in The Simpsons.

It’s yes, a miracle that anyone would be dumb enough to do this and think that it would work, let alone to have leadership aligned around the concepts. The culture of this team is needless suffering and a forced smile through it, with accountability for everyone except those who built it.


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