The optics of firing David Culley are terrible; the decision is rational

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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There are many reasons to hate that the Texans fired David Culley, so I want to start out by laying a few of them out.

— He’s the first one-and-done coach in Texans history.
— By all accounts, there wasn’t a lot more he could have done with this roster. His four wins equaled the pre-season over/under for the team. Expectations were at rock bottom, and the team fought hard to rise above those. That’s a credit to the head coach.
— The Texans took four days post-season to actually come to the decision to fire Culley, and then the very day it comes out that he’s fired, three very obvious candidates are circled almost instantly, all of them are former Patriots.
— The idea that the Texans fired a black head coach after one season in which he lived up to expectations, fair or not, is a brutal look for the team and the league.

There’s probably more than this. It’s been a long day. I’m tuckered. Let’s get to the point.

To be honest with you, boots on the ground here, it’s hard to really understand why they hired David Culley in the first place beyond him being a placeholder. I wrote about it the day it happened. It was almost impossible to have an opinion on him because he was a 65-year-old first-time head coach! The Texans brand was toxic, and anybody who came here knew they’d be saddled with losses.

Culley gets to ride off into the sunset with, apparently, four guaranteed years of money for being a punching bag. What is your soul worth? I don’t think I would have had it in me to take this job. But that is lifechanging money. I think there were a lot of people that turned down interviewing for this job because they knew what was happening here. To have a general manager on your headset the entire game feeding you advice and undermining your authority is not something I think a lot of people would sign up for.

I don’t think you can find a single person with a bad word to say about David Culley the person. He was pitched as a leader and a motivator and he did just that. Nick Caserio pointed to “philosophical differences” in their parting, and the one thing I’m curious about with this idea that nobody has pointed out yet is the parade of disciplinary actions: Justin Reid, Desmond King, Zach Cunningham, Charles Omenihu, even Shaq Lawson in training camp. Culley defended those very strenuously at all times.

Now, I can’t tell you who in the organization was for these punishments and who wasn’t — all I can tell you is that it’s pretty wild that they happened. It’s not something you see very often. And with how vociferously Culley defended them, it would make sense to me that he led that charge. That doesn’t mean it’s how it went down! But it’s something I think could have been an easy tension point in the organization if the power structure didn’t seem to agree.

I enjoyed the human side of Culley. The fact that he couldn’t help but chew his damn tongue in pressers or on the sideline. The fact that he later switched to gum. The fact that he all but admitted he doesn’t watch film that often when he’s not working. The fact that he could wax poetic about a Hershey’s bar. I liked the guy more than I liked the coach. And I think that’s about where the Texans wound up on the situation as well.

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David Culley couldn’t reliably say the word “analytics,” always lisping it to sound like “analythics.” David Culley apologized after wild in-game decision mistakes multiple times in the first six weeks of the season, including not letting the Patriots score so they stopped bleeding clock, and declining a penalty that would have given the Texans another third-down play so that he could punt on fourth-and-short. David Culley’s offense was so conservative that it would barely look out of place in the 1980s, when he came of age in football. In one interview he joked that he was computer-technology illiterate.

It was very obvious that this was a big wedge between Caserio and Culley, particularly when he was being fed advice and going with his gut, which did not particularly appreciate being second-guessed.

Culley was the coach the Texans settled for, not the coach they actually wanted. And as extremely haphazard as it played out over this last week, it’s not like he was slaying people with in-game decisions. He was 28th the last time EdjSports put up their list of coaches by pure decision WPA added. And I think that undersells how conservative he was because Edj’s model downplayed Houston’s chances to win often on account of how bad the team was.

Firing David Culley the head coach is, at the very least, not worthy of scorn. He wasn’t downright embarrassing all that often, but it was clear that he was behind the times. There was little hope that this would improve or that a second year of it would go better than the first. About the only positive thing you could point to in a major way was that Davis Mills improved drastically after he was benched, and that’s not something that often gets attributed to Culley so much as Pep Hamilton.

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I don’t know how much optimism I have that Brian Flores can make Deshaun Watson play for the Texans again. I think he’s a worthy target in the sense that if you paired him with a better offensive coordinator, he has proven that he can be an effective NFL head coach already.

But what I am optimistic about is that this horrific year of Texans football will be buried quickly. Because if the Texans are willing to upset the apple cart by firing Culley, they must believe that this is a year where a lot can happen in a very short time. Like last year, where a lot also happened in a very short time. But except maybe unlike last year, with a head coach that has some credibility and that they have stake in the success of, and who will be working with talent more equal to that of a real NFL franchise.

I can’t tell you I’m brimming with joy about the fact that the Texans continue to actually be Patriots South, but Josh McDaniels is pre-eminently one of the best-regarded candidates available, and I think highly of Flores’ work in Miami. I’d be less excited about Jerod Mayo, but I’d be willing to hear more about why I should be excited.

But in a way, the feeling of firing Culley reminds me a lot of when the Texans traded up to get Deshaun Watson. They were mired in quarterback hell, and whether Watson worked out or Watson didn’t work out, it was clear that something was going to give about this team. This happened in plaid speed as opposed to the Bill O’Brien era, where we were three years into mediocrity already, but the message is that the Texans understand and are acting like they can’t continue to fritter away time.

Maybe that will work out, and maybe that won’t. It’s beyond frustrating that the candidate list would have been a funny joke told the day that Bill O’Brien was fired based purely on who Jack Easterby liked. But I’m glad to dispense with what appears to have been a WarGames simulation of what the Texans might look like and try something that might have a chance of working. It’s time for the front office to take some praise or take some heat, and with the decision to jettison Culley, it’s clear that they’re willing to put themselves front and center.

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Four Downs: Texans 25, Titans 28

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’m going to share a snippet of one of my very favorite videos with you. It comes from a larger video called “The Entire ‘Here Comes The Pizza’ Affair,” and it stars a couple of sports broadcasters (rest in peace, Jerry Remy):

One of the reasons I love this video as I do is that it gets people who are supposed to understand what’s happening completely out of the element of knowing the answer. Why would you throw a slice of pizza at someone? Why would that exact sequence of events have sent this fan down the rabbit hole of throwing the pizza? It poses a question that is immediately unanswerable without more questions. Questions of motivation, of character, of wonderment. 

Those are the underlying feelings I carry about the 2021 Texans. We can rehash the how and the why, and we can get answers that provide fuel into Nick Caserio’s pattern of thoughts. At the end of the day, I just watched Rex Burkhead become a feature back for seven weeks and become the lone Texan of any acclaim to receive a contract extension. I thoroughly enjoyed him eating against the Chargers and he seems like a nice enough guy, but why would anybody build a team to accomplish this series of events? What was the point of watching Danny Amendola get on the rejuvenation machine against the Titans in Week 18? Why did Mr. Caserio throw the pizza?

Of the four seasons I have covered the Texans thoroughly since joining The Athletic in 2018, this was by far the worst of them. 2020 was terrible, but brought with it the end of Bill O’Brien and the hope that I could learn about someone new to eventually get mad at for wasting a generational quarterback. Or at least empathize in sorrow with them over a bad beat if the coach was good. 

Instead, that quarterback quit on the team. The team, shepherded by leadership who cannot begin to understand or care about how terrible this situation and the hiring of Caserio looked from the outside, embraced an ethos of burying their heads in the sand to any outside questions or suggestions. For shits and giggles, Cal McNair and his wife both thought that demonizing COVID-19 as the “China Virus” in a large public setting was just hilarious. They were barely held accountable at all, with only a panty pinch of an apology issued. They were happy to have security bother anyone who would dare speak against them at games, eventually not letting angry fans in at all. And because the team placed on the field was largely uncompetitive when not facing the Jaguars, nobody really wanted to talk much about the football. 

2021 was a terrible year to express an opinion about the Texans. For one thing, any thought about the team that was focused on actual football was haunted by the shadow of the barely-connected reply guy who has made an inference: “They’re tanking, they must be!” But as they finish third in what looks to be a two-person elite talent draft, the assumption of rationality didn’t roll out in the way many wanted it to. The Texans genuinely tried to win as many games as they could. They brought in high-functioning hard-practicers who would do whatever the front office asked as far as nutrition and sleep. They brought in high-effort guys with a lot of Want. Guys that are easy to root for, but who can’t win games for the team in major roles on their own. There are many players here who deserve a lot of credit for buying in and playing their asses off for 17 games while many of the Louder Yous thought they were tanking. 

This wasn’t a secret. The Texans shouted it all along. Nobody listened, because many have learned from our bubbles that our opinion is all that matters. The art of listening is dying as more and more people come to understand that being loud and never admitting you’re wrong is a winning strategy in the attention-grabbing world we now live in, one that is only wins and losses. The art of backpedaling, however, soars to the moon. 

To the 2021 Texans, a team that floated through these last twelve months as gracefully as a slice of pizza. 

1) Davis Mills made some pretty passes to rebound from a bad first half

At halftime, Davis Mills was 7-of-14 for 61 yards, and 25 of those came on one deep completion to Brandin Cooks. I don’t think he was out-and-out playing poorly, but he was playing to the limitations I thought he’d shown over the course of this season. He wasn’t great at throwing deep, and he struggled with blitzes. He felt a little extra emotionally frenetic early on too, which I think can best be exemplified by this attempt to scramble:

But, to Mills’ credit, he rebounded hard in the second half. I think you can run them through the ringer of typical “interesting, but let’s see the quote tweets” ways: Nico Collins catches one off a deflection, he’s making his receivers really work for balls, they were down 21, and so on. But the No. 1 thing that was interesting to me in the scenario is that the Texans focused on up-tempo offense coming out of the half and it worked.

This has been an extremely common thing for the offense under Bill O’Brien for years, and under Culley with Tim Kelly coordinating this year as well: Whether it’s Deshaun Watson or Davis Mills, the offense always looks better when they play like this. It would be incredibly stupid to just shout out “run no-huddle all the time,” because that’s not how football really works. But I think it says a lot about how stuck in their ways the team is that when they do stuff like this — or say, when Mills and Cooks improvise that route in the Rams game — that the empirical results suddenly get a lot better. It’s a point I feel like I’ve made for years and can make in my sleep at this point. And yet, the team just can’t get out of their own way. That’s the hallmark bit of it.

Mills again had no running game to help him — 17 running back carries for 52 yards led by David Johnson’s longest carry of the season. The defense struggled on third-and-long as Ryan Tannehill shredded them in all quarters not starting with “third,” and the run defense remained splash-or-be-splashed. Games like these only get winnable if the Texans start grabbing turnovers left and right, and Terrence Brooks missed the two balls he got hands on while Lonnie Johnson’s actual pick was turned away after a rough defensive pass interference call.

This game didn’t change much of the established orthodoxy of Mills in my view. I don’t believe the Texans are going to challenge him unless they fire David Culley, at which point with a new coach, all bets are off because there’s a new voice in the building. He’s shown enough development that I’m not totally uncomfortable just giving him an offseason and a few more games to see what else can stick, but I’m also not at a point where I’d personally let him go unchallenged this offseason. I’d want him to beat out some real competition for the starting job. But I’m not losing my mind over this or anything, the odds of the 2022 Texans mattering in the grand scheme of things are fairly low. It’s house money. Unless…

2) David Culley in The Gum Chewer Who Might Be Unemployed

I literally am stunned that CBS ran a segment about David Culley chewing gum. The depths that they attempted to plumb here to make the Texans interesting in a game they were (momentarily) getting blown out in were fascinating.

The big news that broke in the morning was that David Culley’s future — which had seemed pretty assured up until this point — was suddenly tenuous. Jay Glazer reported it pre-game, and John McClain followed up a little while later.

Now, this is again a mission where Rivers tries to discern meaning from context clues rather than “Rivers has sources,” but there are two possible ways to interpret a Culley firing in my view. One of them is, in my opinion, positive. The other one is chaotic.

The Pressure Scenario — The team continues to look like a disaster with very little in the way of marketable players, ticket sales are way down, and so there’s renewed focus from ownership to make the team look presentable. David Culley isn’t the coach for this job, he’s the coach you let build culture when there’s no expectations. The second you shift to a place where a coach’s reputation is on the line, nobody is playing tiddlywinks anymore. As Aaron Reiss pointed out in his Athletic column, most general mangers don’t get to hire three coaches. So if they do rip that band-aid off immediately, it probably means we’re in for a stormy offseason with a lot of changes. Some of them could be very good! At the very least, I imagine this would mean they’d be Actually Trying.

The Chaos Explanation — This one is very simple, and some of you are going to hate it. Ever since Jack Easterby took his spot in the inner circle of the Texans, the team has just made splashes on top of splashes. They literally can’t sit still. They’re a team that signed Mark Ingram and promoted him as one of the linchpins of the culture rebuild, then traded him at the deadline for a future pack of gum for Culley. The one constant is that there’s churn everywhere. Laremy Tunsil in, DeAndre Hopkins out, this season there were no big moves but they literally brought in 25-plus veteran free agents, of which they’ve re-signed exactly one player who wasn’t a practice squad elevation. Under this scenario, Culley is out because everybody is eventually out on the Texans. Whatever you want to build here has to be so idiot-proof that even the extremely hands-on management team can’t help but not want to mess it up.

I don’t really have any skin in the game with Culley and I’m finding it hard to find the motivation to defend him. It’s funny, he’s a very likeable person when you get him not talking about the Texans — it’s just that the head-in-the-sand stuff that he preaches makes him practically unrelatable when it comes to what his job actually is. He’s way too conservative in both direction and game management, but that only really matters if the Texans believe they’re going somewhere in 2022. As a child who grew up in two divorced households, Culley has strong That’s The Best Mom Could Do? Energy — but at the same time, you’re just wanting her to be happy, right? And if this goofy man is what she needs for the moment, then I can tolerate him.

3) Zach Cunningham’s “revenge game”

We don’t really get the full gist of what’s going on behind the scenes, and we won’t until these players retire or this regime fails, because most players are media-savvy enough to know that limiting their future career prospects in any way is a bad move for them. But rarely do we get a former Texans bagging on the team in such an obvious way that it turns Andrew Catalon into a “hey, I’m just the messenger” actor in punchlines.

Cunningham was one of the worst interviews on the team for years — you practically could not get him to say anything interesting. The only thing I really remember slipping out that was interesting was watching him stand at a podium in 2020 and acting like he deserved a Pro Bowl nod when the team was a dumpster fire, and him seeming totally unaware of how those two facts would mesh. I didn’t wind up posting that online because — some of you are going to find this hard to believe — I don’t always try to kick the Texans when they’re down. And yet he goes to a production meeting and we get all this? Very tonally weird way to end the season.

Anyway, I don’t have any deep insights on this situation. I know the Texans didn’t think he worked hard enough at his craft. I’ve certainly got no inner window in to how true that is or was. But beyond that, it feels like there’s more beneath the surface that we just won’t know until it’s not relevant to anybody anymore. Was it about Watson wanting out? Why is Laremy Tunsil also not playing? What exactly went down to get this team to have to literally replace almost a full roster of players?

4) Personal and acknowledgements

My own personal experience of this year was developing what I now believe is an anxiety disorder. I wrote about this briefly in September. I had random heart palpitations hit me right after Labor Day. They were joined by headaches, major gas, and a self-perpetuating anxiety that comes with an admission of one’s mortality. I have spent more time in doctor’s offices in 2021 than I had in any year prior.  I’ve been cleared by cardiologists and hematologists, and now we’re on gastroenterologists and psychiatrists. I know that in the grand scheme of things, many people have had it much worse than me these past two years, but job one for this year had to be protecting myself and making sure I was okay. It’s something I’m still working on. I’m supposed to try to handle less stress. I’ll come back to that in a second. 

Job two and three was making sure that the crews at Football Outsiders and NBC Sports Edge got what they paid for. I wish I had more time to give them, because in a world where your best ability is availability, I didn’t hit previous year’s bench marks as well as I would have liked. There are writing gigs that I had to give up that I liked for lack of time and energy. Heck, I entirely walked away from any management duties involving Free Enterprise. I have been fried for five months. 

And then there’s this labor of what used to be love. I still want the Texans to win and, though I missed days or had delays here or there, I provided the game coverage I’ve been known for to mostly bemusement or angry fans. But as the idea of “reducing stress” laid with me more and more, covering the Texans largely became at odds with that. For one thing, it turned every Sunday into a marathon session where I probably put down 7,000 words between a Texans gamer, NBCSE blurbs, and the Monday NBCSE column. That’s a lot of pressure to handle, even if a substantial portion is self-inflicted. 

I greatly appreciate those of you who actually read these pieces and who silently take in what I have to say, with the spare encouraging comment or compliment or donation. Most of the interaction I get from people now is not that, even as I’ve actively worked to curb the amount of literal opinions I put on Twitter down. It is from people who barely know me and who believe the worst of me because I represent something they don’t want to understand. It is the long-standing petty pisses from bad faith trolls. It is from people who don’t like that I have skeptical points of view of things they take for granted. 

It’s exhausting. It’s exhausting in service of a team that wasn’t good, for management I don’t have a lot of belief in, for an ownership group that has a lot of work to do in my eyes to bring fans back. I don’t know what the next eight months will bring us, but I want to be up front that what I’ve given will likely change in a major way next year. Maybe there will be no in-game videos. Maybe I will have fewer jobs. Maybe I won’t write gamers anymore. Maybe I’ll try something a little more creative to shake up the tedium of what looks to be a long rebuild. The worst time for self-reflection is immediately after something is over, but the one thing I walked away from this year thinking is: This was not fun. Sunday was like the last day of school, and it’s summer time, and I was much more interested in watching the Raiders and Chargers play than writing this.

What I largely learned this year are the capacities of my own boundaries. I’m not trying to compliment myself when I say that I’m generally a pretty sweet and loyal person, because it has lead to a lot of time invested in things that don’t bring a lot of joy at times. 

I won’t miss 2021. Let’s bury it. 

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Four Downs: Texans 7, 49ers 23

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.

***

The dog days of seasons like this are always difficult, because a lot of the narrative of the offseason is already established. There’s also not a whole lot new we can discover about established players at this point. Pharaoh Brown, like Darren Fells before him, is going to get called for a ton of penalties when you ask him to block across the line of scrimmage constantly. Christian Kirksey is a pretty solid little linebacker, but that’s about all he is. And so on.

Losing to the 49ers was mostly a return to normalcy for this team after their stunning win against the Chargers last weekend. They’re not a horrific team at this point of the season, with Davis Mills giving them a little bit more execution on third downs than they were getting out of Tyrod Taylor post-hamstring injury. But they’re also not very good. They don’t have non-Brandin Cooks playmakers on offense, and they have almost nobody who can win in space. They are a splash-only run defense that has trouble whenever they can’t get someone in the backfield. When they manage to be well-designed enough as an offense to actually counteract those issues, as they were against Los Angeles, life can go pretty well for them! In games like this, it’s right back to praying you find something horizontal.

The screen game just hasn’t been very consistent for the Texans this year — nor should it, if we’re being honest, because screen passes are amongst the worst play calls in the NFL. They are conservative plays that are built to keep the ball moving, but the NFL is a league without the same physical mismatches you can hunt in college football on plays like this.

The ultimate philosophical goal of David Culley’s offense is to drain clock and conservative its way down the field with third-and-short execution, ala the 2019 Ravens if they replaced Lamar Jackson’s running with even more horizontal stretch plays and their good backs with Rex Burkhead. It’s not a stunning surprise when this team can’t run the football (3.2 yards per carry felt downright above-average for them!), nor is it that the only drives that got anywhere happened when Mills consistently executed on third downs and the Texans got about 50 yards of Brandin Cooks DPIs.

And, well, seven points. So much youth, but seven points. Their seventh game of the year where they finished with a single-digit point total.

1) David Culley gives up

David Culley sure seems like he’ll be coming back next year. It’s not a decision I’ve spent a lot of energy on because there’s not really a lot of upside in firing him right now in my estimation. But because this has become more of a layup, and because this team ostensibly is trying to not waste our collective time, it’s time to treat Culley like we’d treat the coach of a real football team. And that coach simply can’t look at the situation the Texans were given at the end of the fourth quarter and punt.

There was no way the Texans had two extra scoring drives left based on any consideration of how they’d been playing, and no guarantee that when they went on those drives, they’d ever do better than fourth-and-8 at the San Francisco 41. Maybe they’d luck into a long touchdown pass. But down 10, you really don’t have much of a choice. And David Culley coward-punted, as he mostly has all season.

It’s one thing to manage an offense conservatively — and I am not even saying that can’t be the optimal strategy for a Texans team that needs a lot of things to go right — but you have to do it in a way that makes logical and consistent sense. If the team is bad enough that they need to be managed as conservatively as they do as far as running the ball often despite no chance of a big play, well, they also need to be aggressive when they actually get chances. Culley is 28th in the EdjSports rankings that measure only in-game decisions. I personally think these undersell how poor he’s been a bit because there is a pre-built bias into Edj’s rankings that gives Culley an out: They don’t think the Texans are very good, so many marginal calls actually don’t gain or lose much win probability because the Texans aren’t expected to win often when down 10 anyway.

I continue to have little hope for Culley as a game manager, but the Texans job was never going to be something that attracted big-time candidates, so it is what it is at this point. The Athletic’s Jeff Howe reported that the team is expected to keep Culley after the game.

I think he’s a really fun and energetic person, and I’d love to listen to his Horror Movies podcast, but no amount of people on the headset with him can keep Culley from mainlining 1970s and early 1980s NFL game theory and it’s going to be a problem in 2022.

2) Davis Mills’ encouraging deep throws

Davis Mills’ numbers don’t look great. 21-of-32 for 163 yards, a touchdown, and a pick. But I was encouraged by his tendency to push the ball. First, there’s the play that a Pharaoh Brown holding call ruined, but was our first real example of Mills hitting Brandin Cooks on a deep pass against a normal defensive structure:

There’s also this play that Mills would say he checked to based on a pre-snap look, a pretty loft ball in Cooks’ direction:

I found it very interesting that Mills noted after the game that the 49ers continually had him checking to shorter plays. It didn’t seem like they were blitzing very much until the fourth quarter — always harder to react without hard data — but it feels like the identity of the Texans essentially is that Mills should only throw deep when he’s positive he has something schemed. They had a few plays where Mills was waiting longer than usual early in the game — including one where he seemed to force the ball at a well-covered Cooks — and then they seemed to lean more into checkdowns.

Other than his turnover — which, much to David Culley’s chagrin, I’m going to tell you that turnovers happen — I don’t think Mills played all that poorly. Towards the end of the game with the threat of the run removed, the 49ers began sending more blitzes and teeing off on him, and the offensive line couldn’t quite hold up anymore:

What Arik Armstrong did to Justin McCray on that play is illegal in 23 states.

And I think at that point Mills got flustered and started leaving some throws short, and the emotion of the game got a little big for him. And that’s fine, it’s a rookie quarterback learning on the job. I’m more encouraged than discouraged by this start, if only because we finally got a deep completion that didn’t feel like a fluke of circumstance or Cover-0 blitz.

3) The Texans get their first major ref screwjob of the year

The Texans have had bad calls against them this year, as they do every year, because every year there are several bad calls in the NFL. But none of them were as potentially game-altering as what happened when Davis Mills was picked off in the third quarter and the refs ruled that a defensive players forward progress was stopped before Rex Burkhead got him to fumble:

The fact that it was followed up immediately with a weak DPI call on Terrance Mitchell did not help things:

Generally I try to give officials the benefit of the doubt. I can remember the 2019 game against the Ravens when DeAndre Hopkins didn’t get a clear DPI call and how upset the fanbase was about that … even as the Ravens romped all over the Texans. That didn’t really matter. I don’t think anybody is trying to screw the Texans — why would they, who actually cares about the Texans? — these are just hard-working officials who make very public mistakes. But given the 7-3 scoreline when this happens, and the fact that these two calls directly lead to a 49ers lead in a game where Trey Lance looked shaky throwing the ball without the help of play-action, it’s hard to not believe that these calls didn’t completely alter the course of the game. They were devastating for the Texans.

4) I could see it with Brevin Jordan last week, why can’t I see it with Nico Collins?

Nico Collins did have a nice toe-tap catch in this game, so let’s show that off before we get too down on him:

But the one thing I have had problems with all year is that Collins is an extremely tall, physically skilled player — but he doesn’t always play like it.

He barely generates any force at all on Ambry Thomas on this throw. In fact, Thomas boxes him out. Notice how little movement back to the ball there is for Collins. He puts his hands in there, but he’s locked on the spot. Let’s go to the fourth-down play that ended the game:

Quick slant to the outside, Collins doesn’t do a great job of getting off initial jam, but the ball is already coming his way. But notice he is able to create the space off that, and then … the ball comes his way and there’s just no way for him to fight through this contact to get the ball. Inside of five yards of the line of scrimmage, even! He’s clearly bigger than the SF corner. He’s got the body to box him out decisively. But what he needs to do to win that ball from that spot isn’t clicking with him yet.

It’s very clear that they want Nico Collins to be a red zone, big box-out threat. Because they throw to him there, often. No wideout on the team has more goal-to-go targets than Collins, and he hasn’t caught a single one of them. Could you argue one or two of them should have been interference? Yeah. Does he look impressive after he actually catches the ball and gets in to space? I think so. But I’m a little concerned about how he’s not performing well up to the limited box that the Texans have put him in so far. He’s got the lowest catch rate of anyone on the team with more than 15 targets. A lot of that has been the Texans forecasting him to win the physical matchup and him struggling to execute.

There’s a lot to dream on and it’d be extremely stupid to give up on Collins in Game 16 of his rookie season. But I think there needs to be a big step forward next season, and it’s these kind of plays that make me want another high-round rookie wideout added to this mix — preferably a tackle-breaker — in the 2022 draft.

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Four Downs: Texans 41, Chargers 29

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.

***

What do you do when you’re down entire starting lines on offense and defense due to a COVID-19 outbreak? What do you do when you don’t have Brandin Cooks and your offense is entirely Brandin Cooks?

Well, obviously, you (checks notes) … go beat the hell out of a playoff team? Impressively so? And run better than you have all season? And pass better than you have all season? This is starting to feel suspiciously like a post that was written about another team, but it is, in fact, a post about your Houston Texans.

The Houston Texans came to life because they were built for exactly this sort of scenario. They are the team that buried depth parts on the roster like acorns for the winter. They are the team that decided Rex Burkhead was a worthy use of a roster spot despite him being 31. They are the team that carried Cole Toner on the active roster for weeks at a time despite him not playing beyond special teams. I have personally made fun of them several times this year for not getting younger players on the practice squad and on the field.

But, as dumb as I think carrying low-upside backups is as an operating philosophy, as ridiculous and cornball as Team Team Team and our weekly culture talks are, this is exactly the situation where that depth pays off. Playing in a pandemic, where both sides have massive losses, and you’re the team with less gaping holes.

And, honestly, hopefully the Texans learn some lessons from this. Because when your offensive line executes (Culley talk) as poorly as it has all season, many of the starters are gone, and all of the sudden you run like the Texans did today — that should be a wakeup call about who exactly the depth actually is.

1) Davis Mills’ best game of his career to date

I’ve been pretty skeptical about Davis Mills being good this year, but from the beginning I knew that this would be a process. The funny thing about processes is that they can take leaps quickly. While this came in the midst of the Texans actually running well, came against a defense that was missing important starters, and while there still weren’t many deep throws, this was the best game that Mills has played to date. Let’s start with the touchdown throw to Conley:

Here’s what I was excited about with this play: It felt like an overrule of what the offense traditionally has been, and that was echoed in post-game comments by both Chris Conley and Mills. It came after the Texans started running the ball and not using timeouts, and where it felt like they were almost happy to attempt a long field goal to take a one-point lead. (As they had, actually, the drive before.) Instead they went for the jugular, and the throw had to be on the money, and it was:

(Please ignore the fact that I left audio on for that during an SNF commercial.) These are the kind of throws that Mills is going to have to hit with ease if he wants to be a long-term starter in this league. He doesn’t have to hit a ton of them to be an Andy Dalton sort of player, but he has to find some of them. This was a big step and came on the heels of another dart earlier in the drive, his other long pass that was completed:

The other section of improvement from Mills has come pre-snap, where he’s become a lot smarter about not dialing in on his receivers based on coverages he’s seen. That was something he specifically talked about in his post-game presser:

These are encouraging signs that Mills is growing as a player. I was never one who urged a lot of doom and gloom about the pick when it happened, but I definitely have thought at times this year that Mills didn’t look like he belonged on the field. Since he’s come back, he’s been much better on third down and has limited his turnover rate. I think there’s a lot of ballgame(s) left, and I don’t expect him to be this good all the time. I still don’t think he’s hit throws against blitzes that I want to see. But it’s impossible to watch this and think that he hasn’t markedly improved from the beginning of the year. And there’s almost no way he won’t be starting games for this team next year the way things are trending.

2) The Rex Burkhead career game

The only player with more rushing yards over expected in Week 16 than Rex Burkhead was Rashaad Penny. I can’t believe I’m typing these words, and can’t believe they are real, but this is where we’re at as a society now. We must acknowledge the Rexaissance.

David Johnson? Not playing. The Chargers run defense? Look, it’s not been good this year. They’re 31st in the NFL by DVOA. But the Texans played No. 32 in rush defense DVOA — the Jets — and didn’t do crap against them. So let’s celebrate the victories. I think the Texans offensive line pushed this front around for most of the day, and I think Burkhead got some extra yardage when Chargers spun out of their gaps because he’s a smart enough runner to take advantage of that.

This was the first time the Texans have had a 100-yard rusher since Week 16 of the 2020 season — almost a full calendar year — despite the fact that it is inextricably linked to their team’s identity. Here’s what I’m interested in: Who just lost a job? Because when David Culley talked about the reserves, he didn’t sound like a man interested in playing politics:

Tytus Howard needs to play tackle. But your Lane Taylors and Justin McCrays and Justin Britts? If they can’t get you a 100-yard rusher until Game 15, how much have they helped? Let’s see some more Cole Toner and Jimmy Morrissey. And honestly given how the roster has been constructed — I know they can’t have everyone active every game — but I’m a little surprised by how much of a given some of these roster spots actually have been so far. The only player who has received a punishment benching is Max Scharping. Let’s spend the next two weeks finding out if there are any Team Team Team players here who can actually get movement up front.

3) The front seven, to their credit, did not get pushed around by the Chargers front despite massive losses

The only two players who have been full-time rotation guys for the Texans defensive line before last week and also played heavily on Sunday were Ross Blacklock and DeMarcus Walker. They were joined by guys like Michael Dwumfour, Demone Harris, and Xavier Williams — Williams was signed off the street literally this week.

That’s a dangerous situation for any team — while you don’t need dominant line play in the NFL to win, if you get too thin there, can’t run rotations, and get outclassed, it’s extremely easy to lose. The Texans weren’t outclassed. Dwumfour, in my opinion, had one of the most impactful plays of the game:

They also managed to hold the Chargers to just 89 rushing yards and 4.2 per carry. There was no Austin Ekeler, yes, but Justin Jackson is pretty splashy and they were able to keep him from dominating the game. Walker even stripped him on the run-by in what became another huge play for the Texans:

I can’t tell you Houston’s defense was downright good, given that they allowed 7.3 yards a play, but they did get three turnovers against one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL — Jonathan Owens’ pick being a key one whereas Tavierre Thomas’ pick-six was just window dressing on a game that was already over.

I didn’t come away from the game with any new insights about Houston’s defense but it says a lot that they were able to hang on and not get absolutely bullied at such a massive deficit. In a season like this, that can be a win.

4) Brevin Jordan became the go-to guy on third down

Brevin Jordan won three crucial third-down plays in the second half, the most impressive of which to me was this one:

Jordan gets to the horizontal part of his route here, and he leaves his guy — who had early leverage — in the dust as the defender falls down. Then there was the 27-yarder that was much-more celebrated because Jordan was able to make some misses happen in the open field:

I thought that was a well-placed ball from Mills as well with the angle Jordan gave him. He had to lead him to the sideline, and that’s the kind of throw that has to be located perfectly. It was.

The Texans really spread the ball around in a big way without Brandin Cooks, and I think the fact that they were as successful at it as they were speaks loudly to Mills’ development, but I was most excited to see how involved Jordan was in it. He has been tangentially involved with touchdown catches and with certain packages, but seeing him as the focal point on a few key third-down throws was a big step for me. We’ve had flashes like this before with guys like Jordan Akins and Jordan Thomas, and it was just four targets, but the importance of those particular targets feels promising. Just that this is the guy that they trust to win the ball even when he’s covered says quite a bit — because a lot of their other third-down catches in this game were open underneath zone holes.

This was the best game Tim Kelly has called since the Lions game in Thanksgiving 2020. It was not entirely without flaws, but there was a notable lack of conservatism. Maybe some of that is just Mills growing up, as well. But it’s rare that I feel like the Texans are actively hunting mismatches so much as just running the same few plays, and this felt like an inspired effort.

***

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Four Downs: Texans 30, Jaguars 16

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.

***

The Texans have conclusively proven one thing over the past two years and it’s that no matter how bad they are, they can always count on the Jacksonville Jaguars to be dysfunctional enough to keep them out of the AFC South basement. Even without Deshaun Watson. Even without J.J. Watt. Even without nearly half of the defensive starters due to COVID-19 protocols. It didn’t matter one bit. The Texans didn’t even really need to do much as an offense. The Jaguars self-combusted as a passing offense yet again after a hot start.

Of Houston’s seven wins over the last two seasons, four of them are triumphs over the Jaguars. Maybe they’ll get it together with Trevor Lawrence, maybe they’ll hire a good head coach — it’s kind of hard to believe because the team has been bad for so long — but the hole the Jaguars have dug themselves into today is inimitable and they have almost nothing in the way of NFL-caliber wideouts. They’re starting other team’s first-round draft washouts and vagabonds because Urban Meyer tried to force them to be as fast as they could. The Texans refused to join the Jaguars in that hole today. They just sat and watched as the Jaguars tried to climb out of it, then stepped on their fingers any time they came close.

This is a big victory for the Nick Caserio off-season strategy (I can’t say Easterby here, right? They will get mad at me for saying his name even though the Texans did it before Caserio arrived? OK, just checking.) of “layers and layers of players.” The next men up of age and experience that the Texans accumulated were able to hold off the Jaguars and put the Texans back into the win column.

1) Special teams were a massive difference-maker — in a positive light — for the first time in a Texans game this season

Of course, the big game here was seven points directly off of Tremon Smith’s kickoff return touchdown. That was seven points that influenced a lot about how this game between two sloppy offenses in sloppy weather played out. It directed the entirety of the game script. The Texans are driving to take a lead against the Jaguars on the Brandin Cooks screen touchdown without that, and maybe at that point the Jaguars aren’t bringing a Cover-0 blitz.

But even beyond that, the Texans destroyed the Jaguars on special teams. The Jaguars started drives at the JAX 17, JAX 25, JAX 18, JAX 25, JAX 14, JAX 25, JAX 34, HOU 22, JAX 18, JAX 4, and JAX 25. That means that only two drives all game started beyond a touchback, and one of those was directly off a Davis Mills turnover. The one that made it to the Jacksonville 34 was on a ball that arguably shouldn’t have been returned, because it was caught inside the 5!

On the other side of things, leaving out the touchdown runback, the Texans started drives at the JAX 49, the HOU 38, the JAX 47, the HOU 40 twice, and the HOU 45. One of those was because of a big fourth-down stop, but the Jaguars didn’t turn the ball over at all. Special teams kept giving the Texans the ball in premium field position. And Kai’mi Fairbairn didn’t miss his long attempts, even in the rain, disappointing Jaxson De Ville.

This is sort of more my vision for how wins for the Texans would look this season after the heavy offseason focus on special teams players of some note. Not all of those players actually worked with the Team Team Team — Andre Roberts had a long kickoff return on Thursday night football — and this unit struggled for most of the season. The Texans came into the game 19th in special teams DVOA. But they have had only one negative DVOA special teams game since Week 5 (against the Jets), and suddenly special teams look good enough to give this team a needed edge.

2) Davis Mills hit the two throws he needed to hit, but continues to be mostly fed easy stuff

I don’t think that Davis Mills had a bad game, but I do think the raw numbers are again overstating the impact. Once again, the Texans script mostly worked, and once again, when the other team adjusted, he had problems adjusting with it. He was 13-of-15 for 104 yards and a touchdown at halftime. The Cooks screen pass touchdown — which now that I’ve referenced it twice, I guess I’ll put up below this — ended the game, but pretty much any first down would have ended the game at that point. It was 43 yards. That means from the second half start to the screen pass touchdown, he went 5-of-14 for 62 yards.

The best throw that Mills made all game was a momentum swinger in the third quarter where the Jaguars zero-blitzed and he had to hang tough in the pocket and place a ball to Phillip Dorsett.

Mills did a little jump back on the throw — it’s not exactly something that I think a quarterback coach would be in love with — but that was a humongous throw for the state of the game. 20-10 lead, you’re in No Man’s Land as far as punting/kicking and we all know David Culley wasn’t going for it on fourth down. The throw was placed right in Dorsett’s bucket. That’s the kind of throw he’s going to need to consistently hit to have a real claim as a long-term starter.

The second throw I want to talk about is his 18-yard completion to Jordan Akins at a point of time where the Jaguars finally were bottling up the run and the Texans desperately needed to keep a drive alive. The Texans ran play-action, and it stunned me because they’d been just chewing time up:

Four-man rush, Geron Christian releases his guy into Mills. Burkhead is open underneath. Five Jaguars defenders are either near the first-down marker or running with someone near it. Rudy Ford comes off Burkhead and is able to get his hands in the area, almost intercepting the ball. Instead, fortuitously, it ends up right in Jordan Akins’ hands off a deflection. Miss that completion and the Texans are at third-and-8.

It wasn’t pretty. Obviously, I’m happy for Mills that the winless drought is over. There’s still a lot of work to be done here. He said so himself after the game.

Mills didn’t take the bait on a question to make the game a him versus Lawrence showdown, which is unsurprising because my experience of watching Mills talk has proved that he’s from the Matt Ryan school of quarterback thought. He doesn’t want to put a lot interesting in to the world as a media personality. He just wants to play ball.

It’s a fun fan thing to fire the takes off about Mills performing better than Lawrence this year, and I say have your fun with that. I don’t know that it’s going to last beyond this year, but smoke ’em while you’ve got ’em.

3) The defense didn’t have an eye-popping game, but stood up when it needed to

After giving up 154 yards to the Jaguars on their first two drives, I have to admit I was a little worried that the special teams touchdown wouldn’t hold up. At that point the Jaguars were almost at seven yards per play. From that point on, the Jaguars would have only three drives that gained a first down, one of which came with the game in hand. They converted only three third-downs all game, and while the James Robinson train was hit-or-miss, it’s not like they were handed impossible situations. They just failed to execute time and time again.

Third-and-3, Texans drop into coverage. Lawrence initially comes back to the two curls in the middle but both are well-defensed. He dekes a dumpoff to Robinson, but thinks he has more time than he does as Derek Rivers comes looping around. Lawrence doesn’t have the athleticism to do a lot about a guy right in his face. The drive ends. None of these routes play off each other in a hard way to defend.

People have given Tim Kelly hell around here, and I think he definitely deserves some blame for the way the offense has gone, but watching the Jaguars will give you a new appreciation for what he does. Jacksonville, too, used up all its creativity in the opening script. Their base calls are tough and their skill position players were dire.

Let’s go to the big moment of the defensive game: third-and-2 and the Jaguars are driving to get in position to cut the lead to four. Dare Ogunbowale and Lawrence bobble a handoff after Robinson limps off and it goes to fourth-and-1. The Jaguars try a sneak (they had a great sneak earlier in the game) and they just get stonewalled:

That was an enormous play — if they convert, the Jaguars are almost certainly attempting a field goal to end the half at some point. Instead, the Texans got the ball and were able to advance far enough in a few plays on some quick slants to get into field-goal range. Instead of a four-point game, it’s a ten-point game.

4) The run game was not empirically good, but without penalties, it was enough

The Texans carried only 26 times for 75 yards in this game which is well in line with the established norms. But those 75 yards were not quite as bad as they might seem on paper because they weren’t creating a lot of horrible situations to throw in. This is something David Culley has emphasized time and time again via penalty, but what he really needs is two and three-yard runs to get into third-and-short.

After the Jaguars allowed their opening drive to breathe with a special-teams penalty, the Texans created third-and-1 with two runs, third-and-5 with a run, and third-and-3 with two runs mostly from David Johnson, who then was banished to the bench because David Culley likes Rex Burkhead more as a between the tackles back:

The Texans converted 10-of-18 third downs, in stark contrast to the Jaguars. They failed only two third-and-6 or shorter tries — when Mills went for the kill shot on third-and-6 at the Jaguars 7 to Nico Collins, and another one to Cooks later in the third quarter. To me, the most undersung hero in that is the Texans offensive line — Mills took just one sack for the first time as a starter. The Jaguars finished with only three quarterback hits, and they added only two tackles for loss.

It’s going to look bad in DVOA. It doesn’t look good in the box score. But, I have to admit, it was a slight improvement from what I’ve become accustomed to seeing for the Texans run game. They typically get gored enough times to bleed out a few drives. Not today.

***

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Four Downs: Texans 13, Seahawks 33

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.

***

The Texans come away from a 20-point loss to the Seahawks without much to be optimistic about beyond playing the Jaguars next week. They continued to not be able to run, as has been a season-long ordeal for the worst DVOA (standard link to DVOA explainer) run offense of all-time:

This time, at least they managed to have an excuse of losing David Johnson to the COVID-19 list. (Well, I guess that’s an excuse, it’s not like he’s run well.) But to have 22 carries with Royce Freeman and Rex Burkhead and manage just 55 yards … it’s status quo stuff for this team. Stuff that goes down to the studs, from the players (trying, but mostly not good at run blocking or breaking tackles) to the play calls. The good news is that David Culley said that it was on him.

Ah, finally, I had missed that phrase over the years! “It’s on me” conveys quite clearly that the coach wishes to do no further introspection about the state of the team in the media. It conveys that the coach knows that he’s doing a bad. It conveys that he doesn’t even want to put out a line of hope for the fans who are still putting up with the product. There’s not many of them at the stadium these days, as today they were mostly replaced by Seahawks fans. Here’s Culley’s laughable comment on that:

You can create a montage of David Culley denying basic reality about how much the fans are engaged that would be surprising if this wasn’t the same person who just wants to shut out all the noise. Well, the noise from the Seahawks fans speaking louder than the home crowd signals loudly about where we’re at there.

1) Davis Mills’ performance didn’t do a lot for me, and I realize the box score scouts are going to seize this and run with it and call me a hater

331 yards! How can you do anything but call it a massive success, Rivers!?!? Well, I think it was a massive success, but a massive success of the Texans game plan as developed by Tim Kelly and David Culley in the early game. When you start tapping the bones of these 331 yards and checking for meat, it gets awfully skinny. The chart above his Next Gen Stats chart. There are zero completions with a pass distance of more than 20 yards. Of the ones that are close to that, well, they weren’t all that impressive.

Was Mills hurried on this pass? No. Was Mills tasked to make an accurate throw? Not really. Did Nico Collins need to jump for it anyway? He did.

How about the one touchdown pass that Mills had? Was that a highlight reel play?

Not really, no. I guess it was accurate on the run, you have to give Mills that! But … this again was not all that hard.

This was the first time all year that Tim Kelly’s screen passes were a) almost always working and b) almost always open.

I think the most telling fact of all is that Royce Freeman finished with 51 receiving yards. Royce Freeman was targeted eight times! The Seahawks started retreating into deep carpet zones and the Texans piled up 98 total yards in their last two drives with the Seahawks up 20. As it was during the Rams game, I don’t think this production augurs well for a “Davis Mills Actually Is Better Than Justin Fields Because of Numbers” take. (It might be up to a “Davis Mills Actually Is Better Than Zach Wilson” take.)

Does that mean everything Davis Mills did in this game sucked? No. I liked this back shoulder ball to Brandin Cooks that got waived off on a dubious OPI:

That is the level of anticipation that I think Mills is going to have to work with to actually be a successful quarterback in the long run. Blitz is dialed up, Mills doesn’t have the cannon to beat the blitz in most spots. (He has struggled against the blitz this year for a reason.) But he’s able to sense it and punish the defense at a known weak point.

Was yesterday a step forward for Mills? Inarguably. It’s good to see him hit the easy throws, because his accuracy still matters quite a bit as that was a bugaboo coming out. Did it do anything to change my opinion that he should start next year? It did not. I think he’d have to beat out a real quarterback — acquisition or draft — if I were in charge of things. Of course, I’m not the Texans, and I expect them to just let him be the quarterback, so from their perspective, this game is a handy validation tool.

2) The meat thresher that is the last five games of the season

One of the looming things that sucks about the way this team was put together is that they’re full of one-year contracts for older players with no security. I believe the news since it happened has looked fairly good, but seeing this happen to Kamu Grugier-Hill in light of what he’s meant to the team this year is diabolical:

Non-contact knee injuries (look to the left of where this target goes) are scary things. They’re especially ugly when they are focused on a guy who has no long-term security with a team. And, in this case, someone who is literally playing for pride and some small contract incentives at this point.

I’m not going to tell you I Learned A Big Lesson Today or preach at you about the product — these players accept the consequences of their jobs. This is just the absolute worst-case scenario for so many of these guys, your Maliek Collinses, Desmond Kings, and so on. There’s no security and there’s not a lot to play for but putting good stuff on tape for your future employer, whoever that might be. Four games left that mean little, but where you can get hurt in a meaningful enough way to change your upcoming bottom line.

Anyway, I hated to see that. I hated to see Justin Reid’s concussion, too. Rex Burkhead’s (Rex Burkheart’s?) groin. David Johnson’s COVID listing, Kamu’s COVID-listing Monday, and so on. The tenuousness of their future makes me pull for these guys.

3) The stark difference between turnover Lovie and non-turnover Lovie

Lovie Smith has outperformed my expectations for him this year. The unit has played pretty well without a lot of non-Jon Greenard impact-level contributors. On the other hand, a ton of their value is currently tied up in turnovers. Through Week 12, they had five games with negative DVOA as a team. In those games they had 16 turnovers. They have five turnovers in their other seven (now eight) games.

In many ways I felt like Russell Wilson was the worst possible quarterback for this unit to face. The Texans without Lonnie Johnson at safety have been very good at limiting the deep pass. Carson Wentz didn’t attempt a ball over 20 yards last week. Zach Wilson had one in Week 12. Tannehill had a couple in Week 11 but only because he threw 52 times. What Wilson did was buy enough time with his feet to make the Texans lose control of their zones, and he picked on Terrance Mitchell quite a bit.

Lovie’s unit has been pretty bad as a run defense this year, but that hasn’t mattered all that much because a) they were worse at it in 2020 and b) they’re still getting enough TFLs and penetration to make enough plays to get off the field.

It also means they are, as this offense is, married to game script. They can’t fall behind by enough to just let the opponent run on them, because that opponent will have a good chance to bust a tackle like Rashaad Penny did twice.

I was ready to write Lovie off entirely after the first month of the season, but he’s really committed to changing up schemes and throwing more curveballs here. It’s been a welcome change. Unfortunately for him, this unit can’t win a game like this without creating more turnovers. The only non-rookies that fell into the negative DVOA trap is Tannehill, who played in a monsoon without any good receivers, and Jacoby Brissett, who is at best a serviceable backup. It’s been fun to watch what Lovie has done without much investment, but this unit sure could use more good players.

4) Garrett Wallow’s intro to the lineup, thoughts on the other rookies

Wallow did the up-and-down rookie thing. He had a key stop on Houston’s first defensive drive when he got off a block and got to Rashaad Penny on the edge, which is something that this team has really struggled with this year:

He also got welcomed to zone coverage by Tyler Lockett:

It’s okay, it’s not like Zach Cunningham would have done it any better. (No sarcasm, I realize I should add in case one of my many admirers tries to interpret some.)

While Nico Collins had a big box score and target game, I didn’t think most of what he did was noteworthy beyond the one garbage time catch that Mills actually pushed downfield:

I’d really like to see him get more featured down the stretch. I think Brevin Jordan is solid but without an NFL-wow-level physical trait as a receiver — when he wins, it’s going to be with smarts. Collins’ size is an entry point to a lot of balls, and not just short one-on-one outside balls. (This Texans offense is remarkably boring because they’re just exceptionally conservative outside of the script.) First-and-goal and they target Collins twice and come away with no points … that hurts.

If Nico’s going to play the big boy game, this is a target he’s got to be able to at least stand up on. I don’t know if the ball was good enough to connect on either way, but you can’t just fall down and hope you draw the laundry.

Roy Lopez … well, he had a rough game. Get ’em next time.

***

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My football feeling is helplessness

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’m Rivers. My football feeling is helplessness.

I’m used to doing prescriptive analysis about the Houston Texans. I’ve written posts arguing for making things better for going on 11 years now. Sometimes it’s as simple as “this team should get a quarterback,” sometimes it’s as deep as “the Texans struggle to deal with heavy blitz schemes and here are three examples of it and some things that they could do to fix it.” I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I’ve often had a thought like “this is silly, they’re not going to change anything,” or “I am out of my depth as far as suggesting this,” I’ve never been vain enough to think that my opinions would matter to the team, but I’d like to think the ideas behind them have held up well over the years, or at least that I learned something from the ones that didn’t.

I’ve never felt like the local football team has been 100% smart or 100% dumb. Sometimes they catch you off-guard and you’re surprised — winning in Kansas City in 2019 — and often (lately) you’re let down. I’ve been doing this since the Gary Kubiak days, when they were actually winning and we’d talk about things like Matt Schaub’s future or Brian Cushing’s suspension. But until this year I’d always felt like putting these ideas into the world was worthwhile. Now it feels almost futile to suggest good things could happen or even pretend that good players want to play here.

Could the Texans do some decent things next year if they continue to stack on their defensive gains with an (Aidan Hutchinson or Kayvon Thibodeaux) and Jon Greenard pairing making the line of scrimmage hectic? I think they could. I wouldn’t expect the same turnover volume that they’ve created this year based on pure regression, but I’m open to reasons that we should believe Lovie Smith’s defenses are inherently turnover-heavy.

But what this team has done as an organization by being as broadly off-putting and demanding to everybody as they have is created a space where most ideas of them becoming good again barely have space to grow. Let me give you an example.

Here’s a good post idea I would run for a normal team: The offense is abysmal, so how do they fix it?

Well, they fire Tim Kelly. OK, and what’s the plan from there? If you’re Joe Brady or any other qualified offensive mind, why would you take a job where you’ll — at best — be coaching some stopgap players and unproven players next to Brandin Cooks while the people ahead of you in the organizational chart are just waiting to pounce in and tell you that your No. 3 receiver needs to be Danny Amendola? Is that the best way to increase your future earnings and better your career? I can’t see how it would be. If I were Joe Brady, unless I get wildly overpaid, I’d way rather rebuild my reputation at the college level again, where I can be in control of more.

OK, well, fine, maybe you just fire David Culley and start over! Here’s the problem with that: Who is going to want a job where your two direct superiors are on the sideline and headset (respectively) monitoring your every move, where you have no direct roster control, and where you are almost certain to pile up losses in the near-term in front of 25,000 people in the stands? How is a person who gets that job going to gain respect and continue an upwards trajectory? That’s the exact reason why the Texans hired David Culley in the first place — because as a situation, nothing is appealing about this job.

The people entrusted to run this organization’s day-to-day matters have spent the entirety of the season telling us variations of “you have a right to voice your opinion.” But it doesn’t really matter what the outside opinions are to them, and that’s something that’s been both codified in words and in a lack of actions taken to reassure people. Bring a Fire Easterby sign and you’ll get hassled by ushers. Have a radio personality or reporter ask a question about why this is not working and the answer is nothing beyond “we’re accountable for it.” Have them ask about why Tytus Howard played guard for roughly three months and the answer is “it was our best combination and Tytus is very smart” as if leaving him out to dry at guard was in any way defensible. Justin Reid gets forced to play box safety when he’s on the record as being happier playing deep. I’m no fan of David Culley the coach — I think the offense he and Kelly have used is regressive, pointless busyball and they never formulated a plan for what would happen if the run offense didn’t work — but I also agree that any head coach would struggle to turn this mess into more than a below-average offense.

So okay then, the answer is to go sign better players, right? But in a sport where careers are measured in years instead of decades, why would any marketable free agent come to play here and deal with the specter of Culture and getting deactivated for being late, something that apparently never happens anywhere else? For that matter, why would you come here and catch passes from Davis Mills if you’re a good wideout? Why would you come here and run behind the line that’s currently authoring two of the worst five run offense DVOA performances of all-time, particularly when you’re not going to be featured and David Johnson somehow is still here? Why would any player with an option come to this team? We’ve seen Laremy Tunsil’s four-week injury turn into an eight-week injury, with some people saying he had to be bribed to practice last year, does anybody believe he’s anything but done with this? And that’s why you see the one-year contracts. They are one-year contracts that speak loudly that the players are trying to rebuild their value, and if they have a way out of here, they’re going to take it.

So the initial post idea “How do we fix the offense?” doesn’t have an answer of “get a better offensive mind in here, bring in a better shifty receiver and an explosive back, grab a good lineman and hope it gels,” like it would for a normal team. Instead, it’s more like: “Well, circumstances dictate that the coaching isn’t likely to improve barring a home run hire out of left field) and circumstances dictate that the personnel isn’t likely to improve barring just absolutely crushing the NFL draft.” It’s very obvious what the circumstances are: Nobody else in the NFL has a power structure where the vice president of football operations and general manager are as important as they are here. Now let’s talk about someone who actually seems to want to be a Texan.

I think if there’s one player the Texans want to re-sign, it’s Kamu Grugier-Hill. He’s been vocally supportive of the culture from day one, and despite being undersized for the position he’s held up well. But if Grugier-Hill hits free agency and gets $6-7 million a season from a team that has a chance to win next year, what’s his incentive to stay here? Caserio hasn’t doled out big money to anybody; is he going to turn a 28-year-old linebacker into a core player? My read of both his Texans tenure and the sudden spend-heavy philosophy of the Patriots in his absence is that Caserio is extremely conservative in paying players and extremely aggressive in trading for guys that he believes in. In addition to that, the Texans have $35 million in dead money for next year before they do anything with Deshaun Watson (and possibly, Tunsil as well)

These are some of the debates I have with myself mentally when I sit down and try to think about what to write about this team’s future. Do I think Grugier-Hill deserves $7 million? I probably wouldn’t be comfortable paying him that based on one season. Would it still be a good sign if he got it? Maybe, and I certainly wouldn’t be upset about it, if only because it means the team is actually identifying a core piece! I thought the Greenard quote I posted above was very telling — the entire culture of the team seems to be that if they pile adversity on players that it will somehow make them better. I guess this is only allowed to just be my opinion, but I don’t think that’s been born out by the record this year. Or last year. Or by the fact that any number of good players aren’t interested in being here when other options appear. Or by the history of the NFL.

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There’s a lot of talk about the optimistic holdouts about the “narrative” of this team, and the narrative seems to be that because the Texans are getting rid of players and those players aren’t franchise-level stars, we should believe that it’s fine or a clear-out of Bill O’Brien Bad Players despite many of them becoming functional elsewhere. Now, I understand the power of a good national narrative — the Astros are subjected to plenty of it, and how the national media treated James Harden’s run in Houston was criminal — but the thing about that is that a) the Astros and Rockets won games hand over fist as the narratives were being created and b) winning games makes people care about you. The national narrative around the Texans is that it’s very sad and also, excuse me, do you know when Deshaun Watson will get dealt? If I called up seven national NFL writers and asked them to name Texans until they ran out of names, I doubt I’d get many real answers at this point beyond fantasy football quasi-relevant guys. In many ways, the Watson beat is more important to the future of the NFL than what is taking place in NRG Stadium. Yes, even though he quit on the Texans.

This is a team that is in a bleak enough place that they don’t really need to be adding additional obstacles in the way of them competing for good players or creating fans. But that is their organizational ethos at this point. They simply can’t understand why what they are doing is off-putting, and nobody from the outside can fix that, no matter how hard they try. (Note that when the first Easterby article came out in Sports Illustrated, several of the sources told the reporters that they were trying to do this to get Cal McNair’s attention. It did not matter.)

There’s an ever-hopeful quality about the NFL Draft, and one thing I think about a lot is that players like Will Fuller and Zach Cunningham are both a) very successful picks for their draft slots and b) guys that five years later, fans stopped being excited about. I write a top-25 prospects list for Football Outsiders that includes only guys taken after the third round every year going back to 2015 or so, and you know what I’ve learned? Most guys who don’t make it in their first two years aren’t going to become NFL starters, and most guys who are still on their rookie deals continue to get wonderful promising player rhetoric anyway. Remember Gareon Conley? It was very easy for optimists to believe that he was a great find for a third-round pick. Then he got hurt and never played again. Jordan Akins is someone who I thought looked really good in his rookie season and in his small samples in 2019 and 2020 — they never played him full-time. Tytus Howard is finally looking decent at left tackle, but there’s no guarantee they pick up his fifth-year option. The amount of times I have read overwhelming fan sentiment that this would be the year that a certain player develops in a Tweet or a comment or a Reddit post versus the amount of times it has actually come to fruition in a game-changing way is roughly 10 to 1. That’s not to say that players never surprise you or players never show you that they have talent — but becoming a consistent, game-to-game impact player if you don’t enter the league as one is extraordinarily rare. It’s worthy of celebration when it happens.

And that’s where I’m at right now: Relying on the general manager who was named general manager of the decade after he spent an entire season pushing dead cap into 2022 and whose most successful solo draft pick so far is probably Roy Lopez to just nail every pick. Because if he doesn’t, there’s certainly no other set up structure here that is good or interesting, and there’s certainly no other reason anybody else would want to come to this team short of just being enormously overpaid. Maybe one or two guys jump on that this offseason, I kind of doubt it. All that’s here is the idea of culture that the Texans have created, one that is, broadly speaking, if you don’t do everything we tell you to do, we distrust you at best.

So what I’m left with is helplessness. I can’t even pretend to write a post that would solve the problems this team has created for itself. I would love to tell you that, with me being branded as “the negative guy,” that people read me more during times where the Texans are 2-10. That doesn’t really happen. Nobody reads about teams that suck, and nobody donates to the site unless I barb about how nobody donates to the site. It sucks, and I see slim odds of anything changing before 2023.

I’ve never been more relieved that the end of the season is almost here. I’d like to be more hopeful about potential changes for the future, but nothing I’ve heard has inspired me to believe it’ll be anything more than different placeholders in these chairs and us running mock drafts for the next few years. Maybe those draft picks will turn out well, and maybe they won’t. Either way, odds are that they’re going to be fighting a tide that goes far beyond anything they can do.

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Four Downs: Texans 0, 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.

***

Well. I can’t pretend that I thought the Texans had a chance to win this game, but somehow I expected more than we got. I’m not going to beat around the bush: there are somehow still five games left in the #LongestSeasonEver and the Texans have already been eliminated from the playoffs.

This team has bad offensive games because they have bad offensive play calls and players that are not good enough to execute those play calls without help. They hadn’t had many true meltdowns just yet because they managed to be so safe that it was impossible for them to get boat-raced. But this game, like the Rams game before it, was one that was lost before it ever began. The defense valiantly managed to keep the Colts punting for most of the first half, but it didn’t matter. The offense did not run a play in Colts territory until the third quarter, nor did it complete a pass to a wide receiver. It didn’t get past the Colts 40 for the entirety of the game. I think the best way to exemplify things is this third-and-26 pass from Tyrod Taylor.

There’s no way this throw would work even if they had completed it. The entire point of the offensive play is to play field position — that happens far too often under David Culley and Tim Kelly’s respective watches. They don’t trust the guys that they have to do any better than that. And then the cherry on top is that somehow Taylor turns it into a grounder to second base, meaning they can’t even execute the CultureBall as called.

The operating philosophy of this Texans offense for the entire season, even in the games that they’ve won, has been to exist. Almost every big passing play this season — Cooks’ TD in the Jets game, both of his long catches against the Jaguars, Davis Mills’ big TD to Chris Moore and finding Conley against the Patriots — has come outside of the structure of the offense. The best you can hope for with the Texans are plays like this:

First down, a down they usually run on so the defense isn’t expecting pass, and a well-covered young receiver who needs a good throw that neither quarterback has the touch to deliver 100% of the time. The Texans have decided that they are so scared of incompletions down the field that they’d rather just run the ball en route to their third-and-longs. That’s what passes for philosophy, and that’s why they managed 141 total yards and 2.8 yards per play en route to their latest embarrassment. The Texans offense right now is basically this Futurama sequence:

1) It doesn’t really matter who starts at quarterback, but it might as well be Mills

Davis Mills hasn’t really shown me anything that Tyrod Taylor hasn’t. He’s not as good as Taylor as a runner, and while he has a little more flash to his game than you’d expect when he’s under pressure, I don’t harbor deep beliefs that he’ll one day be a great passer. His relief appearance in this game was as bad as I can remember under center for the Texans, and I watched Dave Ragone starts.

Mills actually missed so badly on one third-and-10 play — I really hope because of a miscommunication — that he got called for intentional grounding on a play where he never was in danger of getting sacked or leaving the pocket.

Now, all that said … the Texans are eliminated from the playoffs. I don’t care about tanking for a high pick — maybe I should because I think the impact talent pool is pretty low — because there is no slam-dunk franchise quarterback. I think if you start Davis Mills these last five weeks and come up with one or two good areas he improves on or bad areas where he can fix something, it’s more worthwhile than letting Tyrod Taylor finish out the season. I don’t know that the Texans see it that way, but there was a real breaking point for David Culley today in my view. He exited that game not saying that Taylor was the starter, but that he have to “evaluate everything.”

And well, I’ll put it this way: Taylor’s still a better quarterback than Mills, but not by enough at this point for it to matter.

2) Let’s talk about Kamu Grugier-Hill’s tackles and why they don’t matter just as much as Zach Cunningham’s and Tyrell Adams’ didn’t in 2020

Texans PR has had a lot of experience talking about tackle numbers on bad teams over the past few years. They have this experience because the Texans have spent a lot of time trailing, and while trailing, those players tend to rack up a lot of tackles because opponents run the ball on them. The Colts, in this game, ran at the Texans 48 times. Kamu Grugier-Hill played … fine. It wasn’t his best game of the season, but he had a few nice stuffs and the Texans muscled up a lot of guys in the box. (Taylor faced eight or more in the box on 43.75% of his carries.)

However, the Texans proudly trumpeted during and after the game that Grugier-Hill broke the team’s franchise record for tackles in a game as if that mattered. Grugier-Hill, after the game, did a good job of deflecting that by saying that nobody cares about individual records in games like this. I would agree with him. It reminded me a lot of moments like this:

It turns out that you get many more tackle attempts when you are losing and facing a lot of runs if you’re a linebacker. Grugier-Hill has been one of the better players on the Texans this year, but only from a straight PR standpoint should anyone make a big deal out of breaking the tackle record in a 31-0 loss. If there were say, a football operations man who was cheering that, it would sound really stupid.

As I was saying…

3) Zach Cunningham wins the deactivation lottery

Zach Cunningham became the third player this season to get a straight deactivation before the game for violating culture rules:

I threw this to Twitter, and I’m throwing it to you as well if you know any better: I’ve literally never heard of a professional team doing this to its players at this frequency. And I think this number actually undercounts the amount of random benchings we’ve seen this season without deactivation. I know we’re out of the Justin Reid zone but since I didn’t write about this team last week after they “fixed” things with him, let me point to this:

I don’t think the Texans have out-and-out lost any games because of this, mostly because I don’t think they were winning many games to begin with this season. But it’s an ethos that seems to be highly punishing for no real reason. What we’ve gotten is that Justin Reid got into a disagreement with the coaches (the Texans have pushed back on this version of the story but won’t tell us what actually happened), Cunningham was late to a COVID test today and also missed some time in training camp, and King missed some meetings in a game week. Those are things that I think most teams in the NFL are not happy about, but won’t punish, or that maybe a player would get fined for in a player’s court or something.

Both Grugier-Hill and Christian Kirksey refused to really answer a question about Cunningham after the game, saying they didn’t want to speak about it. It’s an interesting dynamic here where the culture is just so good and growing so hard, but also it can’t be talked about in a rational way to outsiders. Nor can anybody explain why the Texans need to be so hard on these guys as compared to the rest of the NFL. What I have gathered is that they are a historical outlier — these Texans look set to be a historical outlier in many ways — what I don’t understand, no matter who I talk to about it, is why?

4) Maybe it’s time that some of that outside noise was actually heard

I’m not a victory lap kind of guy. I don’t like linking to old work. I’m also happy to own my mistakes if anyone isn’t just a complete miserable bastard about it. I’m the guy who is always proud to dunk on myself by saying I liked Cordarrelle Patterson over DeAndre Hopkins in the 2013 NFL Draft.

But let’s just tell this situation like it is: There was never a reason to do what the Texans did this year. They are going to bring back maybe two or three players this offseason from this defense and have a veteran core of like: Grugier-Hill, Terrance Mitchell, Tavierre Thomas, and maybe Christian Kirksey and Maliek Collins. Thomas has been a nice signing who has played well and is young — he is the exception to the rule, though I don’t think he’s been challenged all that much.

The team is 2-10 and, outside of the defensive line, it doesn’t have young players that are heavily involved and playing well. Nico Collins and Brevin Jordan have flashed enough that they might be playing well in a functional offense, if anyone was interested in building one. But the rest of this is bleak, failed stuff. Charlie Heck hasn’t been great at right tackle, or at least not as great as the Texans seem to believe he’s been.

I was upset about signing both Justin Britt and Mark Ingram as early as the Texans did because I thought the Texans should have heavily focused on letting youth play a role in these things. There was never a need to bring in Danny Amendola or Rex Burkhead, or bring back David Johnson. The strategy for this year should have been — at the very least — more balanced on youth versus vets. I say this not to crap on these guys, who have all played very hard and given their best, but because there was never a chance that this team was going to be anything but what it was.

If the Texans were gambling on Deshaun Watson coming back at any point, they were delusional regardless of the late-arriving allegations. That should never have been a thought on the table from the moment he put in his trade request. And without him, it was extremely obvious that this team wasn’t going to be competitive.

So, listen, Scottie Phillips could have played in this game if he weren’t hurt. Where are the other Scottie Phillipses? Where’s Jalen Camp’s chance at the active roster? Where are the Davion Davis targets? Why not give Jimmy Morrissey another couple of games? (How soon is now?) Why isn’t Garret Wallow getting a shot in the middle on passing downs? Where’s the young cornerback this team could be giving snaps to? And on, and on.

The thing about this team is that it simply never considered a future where they’d be better off developing players rather than having depth because they never believed they would fail as badly as they have this year. And they never believed that because nobody involved with building this team could be honest with themselves about what this was. If they were tanking, they would have guys to put in at this point to give an opportunity to. Instead, we’re watching eight Burkhead carries per game — sorry Rex, I’m sure you’re a fine dude and I love your charity cleats — for no discernable reason, in a game you’re losing big time to the Colts on your way to 2-10.

What if, instead of pretending the organization that is mired in the middle of a 6-21 spell has it all figured out and the perfect process, it deemed it worthy to try to understand anything about why the outside world believed they were failing? About why the fanbase has all but left them for dead? What if they had that little itch of curiosity?

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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.

***

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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