Bill O’Brien was put in the dream coaching spot. He had a 21-0 lead on the road in the AFC Divisional round, in a spot where a win would create the first AFC Championship game in the franchise history of the Houston Texans. That’s the kind of accolade where, even if the team hadn’t been empirically good this year, you can hang on the ass of every person who’s ever doubted you. He loves running out leads, but knew it couldn’t be just about that. He’d dialed up a wonderful play call for the game’s first score by faking a screen and hitting a wide-open Kenny Stills for six. He did not defer the ball at the coin toss, knowing he’d need the game script. It was beginning to look like the Texans were building an insurmountable lead. Twitter was discussing a Texans-Titans AFC South Conference Championship game and had already made it through three different iterations of Thursday Night Football/London game jokes.
To call what happened to the Texans an unraveling is an insult to the word. They didn’t just blow a lead. They didn’t just lose. They got annihilated so badly as a defense that they didn’t even have a halftime lead. They were laughed off the field so badly that the Chiefs ran out of fireworks. They allowed 51 points in about 45 minutes of football and came apart at the seams.
O’Brien blinked at fourth-and-1 at the Chiefs 13. He first claimed that he wanted to go for it, but felt that he had a first down and wanted to challenge. Wanting to challenge a spot is a horrific instinct and probably the worst idea you could ever have for a challenge outside of defensive pass interference, so naturally, the Texans failed to go for it because of that.
O’Brien’s presser was revealing in so much as he said that he thought he had to score 50 points to win this game. 50 points. So with that in mind, it makes some sense that the very next possession had this playcall on fourth-and-4:
It felt like that fake punt was what broke the Texans more than the fourth-and-1 field-goal attempt. As we learned in last night’s Titans-Ravens game, being bold is a double-edged sword. The Ravens were punished for going for it on fourth down. The Texans, here, invited the Chiefs to a short field. Once DeAndre Carter returned Tyreek Hill’s favor, the Texans were mentally cracked.
I want to marinate on how O’Brien comes out of this long-term for a bit longer than three hours before I write about it, but it goes without saying that being at the helm of one of the biggest meltdowns in NFL history while also saying that everybody is coming back and everything is fine is unbelievable. If Houston had an ownership group or anyone in power, this game alone would probably alter the way they felt about O’Brien. But when you win a coup, you get to just strut around like it doesn’t matter, so kudos, I guess. Bill O’Brien is bulletproof to everyone but the media, which he will continue to complain about constantly:
The Texans enter this offseason with no first-round pick. No easy answers exist for the spot they are in as long as O’Brien is in control, Romeo Crennel is in charge of the defense, and they won’t spend big on free agents. They will grow, they will trade more draft picks for fixes, or they will disappoint.
1 — The defense was always going to allow 50 points, O’Brien knew it
The reason the Texans were able to build the lead they did were all on unsustainable things. Patrick Mahomes wasn’t missing throws. The Chiefs weren’t having problems getting people open. They were simply dropping the ball over and over again.
That’s the problem here. When your head coach comes out after the game and says “we need to score 50 to win,” that’s a ridiculous ask. Is it the groceries or the shopper? Would Jadeveon Clowney have changed anything? The Texans mostly played straight man coverage, and they simply had no chance to rattle Mahomes.
They got one sack — a sack of Sammy Watkins — and hit Mahomes on three times in 35 dropbacks. They were able to keep the Chiefs from scoring early, but every indication was that it would be easy for them. Even in the first quarter. I can remember maybe two or three pressures the Texans got in this game, one from Whitney Mercilus, and one from Benardrick McKinney up the middle.
Houston had no answers for Travis Kelce with Tashaun Gipson sidelined. They tried to force Lonnie Johnson into coverage with him, and Johnson couldn’t handle pick plays, couldn’t stick with Kelce on crossing routes, and was whistled for a big penalty that set up one of Kansas City’s comeback scores. The fact that all this happened even despite the fact that Kansas City simply couldn’t run the ball only serves to underscore how embarrassing this is.
So the question becomes: Was this only because it was Mahomes? I don’t think so. The Texans spent a ton of this offseason bringing in new corners, and they turned over the whole cornerback crew. It didn’t actually matter how talented the guys they brought on were as compared to Johnathan Joseph, Shareece Wright, or Kareem Jackson. I don’t think Romeo Crennel did a bad job — I think he made the best out of a short period of time he had — but I also think fresh blood might be the only way the Texans can improve without reeling in another big edge star. If you spike a defensive coordinator hire, maybe you change thing in a meaningful way.
O’Brien said he expects Crennel to stay during his wrap-up presser.
2 — The tone-deaf unawareness of the O’Brien Texans
The Texans seem perpetually three steps behind with O’Brien. That they needed to use a timeout to go for it on fourth down was … mind-boggling. To call this play down by 17:
O’Brien can preach about how the media doesn’t give him a chance all he wants: Things like this are why. The Texans have never felt like a situationally-aware team under O’Brien. They had to come back from down 16-0 to make this game in the first place. They flat-lined down the stretch statistically, and got in by winning close games.
If your comeback for this is that “O’Brien is doing it all,” well, he doesn’t have to! You’re allowed to hire people to do this stuff to help you or keep you honest! It’s in the NFL rules and everything. That O’Brien stubbornly forges on and just seems to organically create situations like this isn’t a fluke. It’s who he is and how he operates, and if those things were going to change, they likely would have changed in one of his first six years as head coach.
3 — Without the read-option, the Texans couldn’t run at all
The Texans ran the ball 21 times for 94 yards, but most of that came from Deshaun Watson’s six carries for 37 yards and a touchdown, and Duke Johnson’s one (ONE?!?!!?) 11-yard run. In my experience there are a lot of fans that pre-complain about O’Brien “letting off the gas” or “resting on his laurels.” Well, 21-0 is a pretty good time to rest on one’s laurels as long as you keep it creative. The Texans didn’t. From the time they went up 24-0, the Texans ran the ball with Hyde five times and gained 11 yards.
Now that may not sound that bad — it may even sound like a typical Texans game — but this was a team they destroyed with read options. Every time they involved Watson in the running game, it worked in this game.
The Texans ran Watson intentionally three times after going up 24-0: a three-yard run on third-and-1 that came back after a holding penalty, a 10-yard play on second-and-1, and the touchdown above these words. The Chiefs as a whole were one of the worst teams in the NFL against the run, as I pointed out in the preview for Football Outsiders.
Again, as it always is with O’Brien, it’s the teases that make you upset. In Week 6 this team rolled with simple read-options and RPOs, and was able to strangle the life out of the ball. This time? It wasn’t so simple. Maybe Watson was still feeling banged up from whatever happened in Week 16, and if so I understand a bit, but there was no reason to never show this look again.
I think the Texans abandoned the run way too quick in this game. It’s easy to say that with retrospect, I know, but that defense needed time to compose themselves and never got it until it was too late.
4 — Deshaun Watson was calm and composed, but it wasn’t enough
I thought Watson played pretty well throughout this game. He wasn’t perfect, he did have plays where I think he looked to run a little too early. But I think he threw some pretty balls, and I think he did a good job of getting his team to the doorstep. Fairbairn’s missed field goal helped people develop the idea that the Chiefs were “on a run,” but the Texans ended their last three plays on downs in Kansas City territory. They couldn’t finish, and issues popped up from last week. It was fitting that the exact kind of blitz that Watson became a hero for avoiding last week was the one that ended this game.
Watson took this sack on a play where the dots would reveal nobody was even close to open, but otherwise took just two others and mostly excelled at checking the ball down over the middle. But towards the end of the fourth quarter he was harmed by an onslaught of drops. Darren Fells had a number of ones we’d look back on as extremely costly if we were in a tighter ballgame.
I don’t leave this game thinking anything has changed about Watson’s franchise quarterback status. Houston and Watson need to continue to develop the plan on blitzes to make that easy for him. They need to improve his play-action passing so that he has more routes rather than having to buy time to make something develop. And, well, I know it gets old when I say this, but they’ve got to get Duke Johnson involved before the blowout game scripts. He can’t be as shackled as he was.
It felt bad. All historical outliers do, unfortunately. We’ve all got to wear this one for a long time, you as fans, the Texans as an organization.
I’m happily writing this article free of charge — this is a labor of love as I am between Texans gigs. This is presented to you ad-free and without any hassle. If you enjoy my work and want to encourage me to produce more, please feel free to leave me a PayPal tip.