Four Downs: Texans 36, Titans 42

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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As J.J. Watt succinctly put it after the game: This one really hurts.

It hurts because you got the cosmic breaks to align for you that you needed to win the game. The pick by Bradley Roby downfield because Tannehill carried the ball a little too far outside the numbers. The strip sack and fumble deep in Titans territory that Watt caused and that the Texans capitalized on. The blocked field goal by Justin Reid. A second missed field goal by Gostkowski! The big plays were there.

And on the same line of thought, it hurts because the offense delivered. 335 passing yards from Deshaun Watson despite a quiet day from Randall Cobb. The Texans punted on just four drives and when they did punt, they often pinned Tennessee deep. They answered back-breaking plays like the 94-yard Derrick Henry run with great plays of their own.

But most importantly, it hurts because the Texans are running out of time. They’re not a shitty team. They’re a 1 -5 team primarily because of the schedule that got nailed to them, a defense moved past prime that they never fixed, and a devotion to a few franchise-crippling addictions that they just can’t shake about how football is played.

Even despite all of that, this game was there on a platter for them if they held the Titans to not scoring a touchdown from their own 24, in 1:50 with one timeout. Win the game, you’re 2-4, you’re 2-0 in the division, life goes on. They couldn’t get it done.

1-5? It’s realistically over. You’re at run the table territory. And if it gets to 1-6 after playing the Packers on Sunday, you’d be foolish not to listen to offers on anything that isn’t nailed down.

The Texans are a victim of their own hubris. Nobody should feel bad for them in general. They created what they’ve become. But it’s terrible to suffer through as a fan. Watching Watson get anchored to things that are clearly not working is wildly entertaining, but ultimately unfulfilling in the way that things with known endings are. And, of course, it’s not great for business either! Turns out most people do not care about the stories of 1-5 teams.

But, you’re still reading, so let’s dance.

1) One of the worst defensive performances in modern NFL history

There have been, per Stathead, 21 times in NFL history since 1979 prior to today where an offense has totaled 600 or more yards. There have been, per Stathead, four times in NFL history prior to today where a rushing offense has run for 9.7 YPC on 25 or more carries. The Texans are lucky No. 5:

Literally the only thing the Texans showed any aptitude for stopping today was screen passes, and even that has a corollary in that Lonnie Johnson gave every inch of his body to keep Derrick Henry from rumbling a checkdown pass all the way down to the end zone on the first play of overtime. Look at Tannehill’s completion chart — this is insane:

Name me a play that worked for the Texans that the Titans had any ambitions on — you basically can’t! On just about every play I can show you where someone got pushed out of their gap, got suckered, or was otherwise owned. The Texans were lucky to hold the Titans to 42 points. The three possessions the Titans had that didn’t end via turnover only ended because of penalties. Holding that created first-and-20 at the HOU 39 on the blocked field goal drive, holding that created first-and-20 at the HOU 36 on the missed field goal drive, and a false start that created first-and-15 on the opening drive.

Heads won’t roll, because there are no heads left to roll outside of Easterby and Cal McNair needs a tough, smart, and dependable golf buddy, but I think there has been a clear shift towards Romeo’s defensive strategies in the last few games and what the Texans do is rely on an offense to beat itself at a time where offenses are more efficient than they’ve ever been in NFL history. I think there’s something indirectly telling about this J.J. Watt quote:

The thing about people not doing their job is that your team is only good as your ability to hold someone accountable for that. The Texans either don’t have a lot of depth or act like a team that doesn’t have a lot of depth. I’ll let you decide — I tend to think the coaches are pretty decent talent evaluators.

I predicted a win against the Titans today and many, many breaks went Houston’s way. But you can’t win games with a defense like this. Wholesale changes in scheme or personnel are needed. Good players aren’t playing smart. (Zach Cunningham.) Bad players are being put in a losing position too often.

Arthur Smith hung this defense on the door by the back of its coat like the Wet Bandits in Home Alone and instead of trying to get off the hook, they just flailed around uselessly.

2) The sunk cost fallacy, or what David Johnson is teaching us everyday

There continues to be an amazing irony haunting the Texans via the David Johnson trade: for a team that wants to be balanced and run the ball, and a team willing to pay a premium for that, the Texans are terrible at it! Every other team they’ve faced this year outside of maybe Kansas City is somehow better than they are at running the ball. But … let’s hear both sides:

When the announcers say something like that, you can guarantee that it usually has backing behind the scenes. But let me be clear: There isn’t going to be a David Johnson resurgence on a type of play he was never good at. Stop trying to make David Johnson carries inside, isolated from Watson, happen. The Texans went for it on fourth down a lot in this game — three times. The reason they had to go for it is because they spent snaps on trying to make Johnson matter. Johnson was stuffed for no gain on back-to-back plays at the goal line on Houston’s last real drive of regulation. He got exactly one yard on fourth-and-1 — barely — to keep that drive alive to begin with. The call to put him up the middle on third-and-1 is what made them go for it on their first fourth down.

This isn’t even counting this hilarious play:

Friends, we all have bad habits we’re in to. I eat too much when I’m depressed — it’s something that ties back to being incredibly alone when both of my parents passed away. I don’t try to bottle up a lot of rage. I don’t vent a lot. But I do just have a sad little moment where I throw down a full personal pizza from time-to-time.

These David Johnson carries are the bad habits that keep the Texans from winning. This trade wasn’t justifiable from the moment it was made. Ross Blacklock could turn into J.J. Watt tomorrow and it was still an incredible waste of a great player on a contract that could have been kept satisfied.

Does this sound like a quarterback who is excited to hand it off? Especially in light of the fact that when he gets involved in the run game, it actually functions? I know you don’t want Deshaun Watson getting hurt in what is quickly becoming a fairly meaningless season, but like, it’s pretty evident what happens when he gets involved, right?

We’d all love to be the best versions of ourselves. I’d love to wear size 32 pants and the Texans would love David Johnson to get 100 yards on the ground. Neither of those things are happening this season. The sooner the Texans move on from the mindset that created this trade and this circumstance, the better.

3) The two-point attempt, the math behind it, and why nobody should care what Rich Gannon thinks

The Texans, up seven with 1:50 to go, attempted to go for a two-point try that would have essentially won the game. I’ll let Deshaun Watson tell you about the play:

Here’s how it looked as they ran it:

They wanted to go to Duke Johnson, you can see he gets held at the line pretty quickly. Tytus Howard gets beaten around the edge and forces a step up. but as Watson moves up Randall Cobb flashes open on a Cooks pick. It worked out well right up until the part where the ball deflects off an underneath defender.

Now, the inherent math behind that actually is not in favor of going for two:

But I’m going to tell you why I don’t care: Refer to point one. The Texans defense was an utter shitshow for this entire game. Romeo’s a defense-first guy, I think he knows a little something about how things are trending on that side of the ball. Do you think he had any faith in the unit at that point? Because I can’t see a single reason he would. The slaughter was almost a foregone conclusion. The question would simply be if the Titans could be stopped on the two-point attempt. So: Do you trust Watson playing out of his mind, or a defense playing like it has no mind?

Not a very hard decision to me. I respect the call even though it didn’t work out. Rich Gannon had an aneurysm about this because he was born at a time where football teams played defense. That time is not now.

4) Tough, smart, and dependable

So the Texans have this mantra of tough, smart, and dependable. It’s another one of those cringy things Jack Easterby brought to the organization that feels like it was designed by a multi-level marketing scheme creator:

The Texans have this whole “glue guy” idea floating around the organization, and think they can spot a character that makes a player great. They have evaluated personality as much as they’ve evaluated football talent.

The one thing that came out of post-game interviews that was extremely interesting to me was Romeo Crennel’s description of what happened on Derrick Henry’s walkoff wildcat touchdown run. Let’s start with the run:

You can see certain players don’t get a good quick read of this. Mostly they are the ones who weren’t sure why nobody called timeout.

And then here’s what Romeo said after the play about it as someone asked about calling timeout because of confusion:

“That play was run in practice,” is dagger one. “They should have been prepared,” is No. 2.

Are these the kinds of things you have to say about players that are smart, tough, and dependable? This isn’t a new phenomenon. What happened at the end of the Texans game today is the same thing that has happened at the end of halves to them for years under Bill O’Brien. Even dating back to the 2017 Seahawks and Patriots games, this defense often acts like its head has been chopped off every time things get dire and the clock is flying.

So when a coach says something like that about his defense … what does that tell us? Does it tell us that they’re smart, tough, and dependable? He won’t baby his team and give them a timeout.

Maybe, just, maybe, “smart, tough, and dependable” is something that has to be earned on the field. You can’t just pretend a guy showed up for his practice reps so he’s ready. The real job is to be there on Sunday, with the game on the line, and play cool under pressure. Something that this defense — and, indeed, many players under the greater protection of the TSD mantra with O’Brien — has never done.

“Tough, smart, dependable” just means “our guy.” He’s our guy. Own it. If being tough, smart, and dependable means you’re allowed to suck on any Sunday — or, taking this to general managers, any trade — you want, then there’s no culture of accountability. It’s just a set of words that means a player is our guy.

Maybe some of these players shouldn’t be your guys. Maybe some of these team architects shouldn’t be getting to decide who is smart, tough, and dependable, when there’s no reason to believe they would know a player like that from a hole in the ground.

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