Four Downs: Bengals 37, Texans 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.


The Texans were seven-point favorites to the Cincinnati Bengals, a team starting a backup quarterback that sports records like the ones I put in the post’s header picture. They had a massive talent edge at starting quarterback. And, as this season has taught us, it’s not worth anything if you don’t use it correctly.

This is a story of a defense that broke. The only good news you can really share for the defense is that, midway through yet another dwindling finish to a close game, the FOX guys casually mentioned that J.J. Watt told them he intends to be back next season:

That’s great news because, even if he isn’t who he was in 2014, Watt is still the best player the Texans have and would do a lot in different schemes. Schemes that actually try. What the Texans did as a defense today — and I’m not even putting this on the players — was put together a plan to roll over and die. There’s nothing any player could do about it.

I wouldn’t call this one of Deshaun Watson’s best games, because he missed a few deep throws as the half was closing. But he was still plenty, plenty good enough to win — evaded some key rushes, made some great plays on the run. Typical Watson stuff that has us spoiled. He got some help from a running attack that hasn’t existed all season.

The Texans somehow managed to feel like they were tanking without having a first- or second-round pick. That’s special, and not in a good way.

1) Where has this stuff been all season?

The Texans ran a play-action pass with Brandin Cooks in the first quarter. Cooks shook his man. Watson uncorked a throw under pressure.

Houston’s play-action attack has been lacking for the entirety of the season, married into Bill O’Briens defective “I’m going to run Yankee concept (double crossers) max protect” stuff. Look at how easy this became. They let the fast man … run fast. On his own. And he won. Wow. Who could have foreseen such an event?

The Texans made it to the goal line in the third quarter and had David Johnson lined up wide. They ran dual slants to that side of the formation. They threw to Johnson. He caught it. Touchdown.

Johnson had a big day receiving against the Colts, but the majority of that came out of structure, with Watson scrambling or just dumping the ball off against aggressively deep drops by zone defenders. This was an intentional usage of him out wide. It worked, as it should work when he’s as accomplished a receiving back as he is.

I hate that it feels like a revelation that two very simple things would work, but that’s kind of how things have been with the Texans this year. They can’t get out of their galaxybrain 4d chess ways to just use players the way they have successfully been used in the past. And what I will remember about this game in a positive way, as the season began turning to ashes, is that suddenly they realized they could use David Johnson as a receiver in a structured way and have it work.

2) Brandon Allen throws for 371 yards … what the fuck is going on out there?

Sorry, it feels unprofessional to curse like that. But also: I can’t think of a better way to state this. Allen is a career backup. He has six career starts to this point and has gone over 217 passing yards in one of those starts. His career yards per attempt before this game was 6.08. Cincinnati’s offense as a whole had not gone over 309 total offensive yards in a game since Joe Burrow’s injury. And the Texans turned that into this:

Lemme put aside the Crossen stuff for next segment and focus on that large clustering of dots on the left side of the line of scrimmage. Plays like this were routine in the course of this game:

The Bengals screened the Texans to death on these, almost always getting 5+ yards as the linebackers bit and then tried to recover.

The Texans have sold out so hard to try to stop the run by shifting to a 4-3 that none of their linebackers knows how to drop to a correct depth. They’re little yo-yos that even junior level programmers like Zac Taylor and Matt Nagy have been able to own, working on the *mocking Boris from Goldeneye voice* guidance system.

Watt’s big speech after the game got the highlights, but just as importantly I think you can read how exasperated he was from his answers about how the defense played:

There’s nothing he can do, no way to win a down fast enough, to make this defense work schematically. The Texans had no sacks on Sunday. They had one in Week 15. Three in Week 14 when they actually got Trubisky to process blitzes from Eric Murray. But when an offense is just throwing on the air to these flats, there’s nothing Watt can do about it.

I would only be speculating about who he could be trying to reach — Steph Stradley pointed out that this was theoretical, but he’s done it before this season at other times — it feels like Watt has been trying to tell someone on this team to wake up for the entirety of this season via the media. I appreciate how much Watt understands about the media today — it’s a rare level of self-awareness that lets an athlete go on one like this and connect with the fans. I just wish whoever he was calling out had that same level of awareness.

3) Crossen Corner

The only person who was competitive in any real sense today on defense was Texans cornerback Keion Crossen, in his third career start. When the Texans did play man coverage, the Bengals saw his 5-foot-10 frame against their big wideouts and went right to work on it. Crossen made some good plays:

I think he had a hit-or-miss game in this position. I don’t think he often got good initial position outside of a few throws, like this one:

But he also had a few where it was clear he wasn’t up to the NFL-sized task of outside corner:

Here’s the thing about this: It doesn’t bother me at all. I don’t care that Keion Crossen got burned. I respect that he came close on some of those plays. I don’t care that John Reid got burned deep for a touchdown by Tee Higgins, someone who has probably a half-foot of height on him at the very least. I want to see these guys play and if they line up and get beat, that’s perfectly fine. We’re learning more about what the Texans need to think about for the future. I don’t think Crossen is a future superstar cornerback because he made a play or two on about 11 or 12 man-coverage targets as the Bengals went after him. But he a) sure as hell did a lot better with them than Phillip Gaines ever did and b) didn’t embarrass himself.

It turns out when you put pressure on receivers and quarterbacks to actually make tight throws, you see, they actually miss them. I’m not saying the Texans should never run zone. I’m saying that the amount of zone they’ve run these last two games has been downright cowardly. The building is on fire all around them and they’re reacting not with the desperation that deserves, but with a display that turns a journeyman third-string quarterback into a superstar. Your guys are probably going to get beat if you play honestly, sure. Some of them may not be ready to play every down, sure. But line up and fight for it, man. Make them earn it.

4) Did you miss Laremy Tunsil?

I don’t want this to sound trolly. I realize that I’m fighting an uphill battle on that because I see how hard some sections of this fanbase lionize over this. So I will lead with why I’m wrong: Laremy Tunsil is a much better tackle than Charlie Heck is. He would have made the difference on a number of key plays, including the one that got Watson hurt and eventually turned into a game-winner for the Bengals:

But Tunsil went out somewhere in the middle of the second quarter and the Texans didn’t really seem to miss him all that much on a grand scale picture. David Johnson had his best rushing game of the season and almost all of the big runs came post-Tunsil’s injury:

Roderick Johnson did a great job clearing the left side hole on this enormous run. He did a great job sealing the inside on this other enormous run:

I wanna be clear: I’m not coming after Tunsil’s money. I’m not saying he doesn’t deserve the accolades. It is very clear that he’s one of the best tackles in the game and if the Texans had a must-win game on Sunday, I want him healthy and available.

But to me it is also clear that the offense barely suffered at all for his absence. And that is a trend, my friends. He missed the Patriots game, the Texans won 27-20 and Watson had one of his best games of the season. He missed the London game last year, the Texans won 26-3 and Watson was barely pressured. It’s a small sample size against bad defenses, yes. But just the utter lack of any real change in production … when you look at how much the Texans gave up as they’re stumbling into securing a top-10 pick for the Miami Dolphins … is gutting.

And a quick side note on David Johnson actually getting going: After watching his presser, I wanted to give David Johnson a hug.

None of this is worth that kind of self-doubt, man. All the bullshit of us critiquing his every move. All the fan hate I’m sure he’s taken as splashback for something he never asked for. It’s terrible. I don’t want him to suit up here next year and nothing will change that because it’s not about him at all — but I’m glad he got a little moment in a lost season that maybe he can take and rebuild his confidence with.


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Ranking the 17 biggest mistakes of the Bill O’Brien/Jack Easterby administration

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.


(Exhale.) Texans fans, it’s been a year. To be more specific, it’s been a year-and-a-half. Jack Easterby took over as the executive vice president of team development in April of 2019. In the time since that arrival, so many people who were integral to the success of the 2018 Houston Texans were exiled to the far ends of the Earth because of ego. Ultimately, they were joined by Bill O’Brien.

It is a popular misconception that O’Brien was a solo driver. While he was responsible and has paid for that, I think you have to take him at his word: the Texans were a consensus team that made consensus decisions.

Even though a lot of the pre-Easterby moves were bad or middling moves — the kind that pop up when you’re trying to find consensus between two different egos in O’Brien and Rick Smith/Brian Gaine — the franchise-crippling moves didn’t come until Easterby joined the ship. The Houston Texans didn’t improve themselves much in the early 2019 offseason by not spending what it took for Tyrann Mathieu and replacing him with Tashaun Gipson. They also didn’t destroy themselves. But once the adults were out of the room, the bad moves could begin in earnest.

In a way, this post is therapy and a way to pat myself on the back for some correct takes at the end of a hard year. In another way, it’s a PSA to all of you that the really bad stuff didn’t start hitting the Texans until about the same time Easterby came on board. Did I mention that you can email the Texans about that? I should do that:

I would love nothing more in my stocking than the ability to not have to worry about Easterby undermining whoever is given a position of power in this franchise.

While the obvious No. 1 is obvious, I think there are some deep cuts on here that you may not have fully embraced or appreciated. I also want to note in advance that I will:

-Not be critiquing draft picks in this post — this is only free-agency signings or trades.
-Not be critiquing coach hirings in this post — so Mike Devlin’s employment is not taking up eight spots on the list.
-I will also, in the interest of fairness, provide moves I thought were good.

Actual Good Moves

Signed Deshaun Watson to a contract extension.
My post on this move at the time:

Of all the things we have to be thankful for in this hellscape, the one that matters most is that Deshaun Watson is still here. It doesn’t take any deep analysis to think about how much he’s grown this year, how much he has gotten better at reading defenses, how much more confident he’s gotten with the ball. To put up about 750 yards on the Colts in two weeks without any established NFL receivers besides Brandin Cooks is a feat that I think is being undersold as this Texans season slowly bleeds out.

Signed as low-level free agents: Pharaoh Brown and P.J. Hall
My post on this move at the time: Too small stakes!

The Hall signing was working out pretty well for the Texans earlier in the year before he got hurt, and I can see how a man of his power and prowess could be a factor for the team going forward. He’s going to be a restricted free agent next year, which generally means nobody will touch him in a fairly conservative NFL. I could see him and Charles Omenihu playing inside together on passing downs and generating a hold-your-own amount of hurries.

Brown is what the Texans dreamed Darren Fells was. He’s a powerful blocker — he’s won some blocks so decisively this year that he’s been called for holding just because it looks like he should have been holding. He’s also delivered us highlights like this:

I know everyone got snarky about his Tweet about payday, and fair enough, you’re entitled to your Twitter layup lines. But he’s one of the few bright spots I’ve seen this season.

Trading Martinas Rankin for Carlos Hyde
My post on this move at the time: (That’s actually from after the season.)

Carlos Hyde was the exact kind of back that O’Brien never knew he needed. He started off in a supporting role to Duke Johnson in 2019, and quickly became the best interior runner O’Brien ever had. The rumored two-year, $10 million deal that he turned down with the Texans was a disaster for both sides as Hyde lingered in veteran free agency until the start of the season and the Texans, well, you know.

Hyde was a good fit for inside zone, and even though O’Brien still called it too often and had Hyde running on fumes towards the end of the 2019 season, I think Hyde performed it better than any back has under O’Brien.

Re-signing Bradley Roby to a three-year, $31.5 million contract
My post on the move at the time: (I didn’t post about this either, I’m so bad at blogging!)

This is very close to the “jury is probably still out on” list, but two things save it for me:

  1. Without Roby, the Texans look absolutely and completely lost. He was not a terrific-graded player or anything like that this season, but he was often just stapled to the best receiver on the field. He’s not an A+ corner. He’s a B+ corner who was pushed into a role above his weight class.
  2. The contract itself wasn’t onerous, and the PED suspension wasn’t something anybody could foresee at the time.

Now, is he here next year? I’m not sure. But if he’s not here, the Texans are going to have a hell of a time replacing him. It’s good to have lines about things that players can’t cross, it’s good to want your guys in the building … but at some point you have to actually accumulate talent. The Texans don’t have enough of it. And outside of Roby, the current cornerback roster is depleted.

Moves I personally don’t like but that are, as a general rule, not important enough to rock the boat

If a move isn’t listed, it probably belongs here in my mind. I feel this way about signing A.J. McCarron and giving Brandon Dunn a big extension. Neither of those moves are devastating, they’re just the small wastes of money that many, many NFL teams have because they like a guy a little too much.

Moves the jury is probably still out on — could be rising later:

17) Re-signing Zach Cunningham to a four-year, $58 million contract
My post on this move at the time:

Woo boy, this season for Zach Cunningham.

Cunningham has played this year like a pop-punk song: he’s loud, he’s often got no consideration beyond getting to his next verse, and if he makes mistakes he’s not going to dwell on them much. He even sat up at the podium recently and talked about how he thought he deserved to be leading the Pro Bowl balloting, which wasn’t exactly a great look considering how many busts he’s had this year.

Do I think the next defensive coordinator can turn him around? I do. Do I think that he’s ever going to be a value on that contract he got? Probably not. I think there’s a lot to like about him as a player, but non-zone coverage is not a strong suit and his radar feels like it just comes and goes. He needs a strong ecosystem to thrive and this Texans defense is not that.

16) Trading a second-round pick for Brandin Cooks and a future fourth-round pick
My post on this move at the time:

Through one year, Brandin Cooks has mostly been able to allay my concerns that the price was too high for him by staying healthy. His production spiked without Bill O’Brien around to keep him anchored to the outside, where he can’t really win, and he’s been a reliable receiver as far as catch rate, which he wasn’t with the Rams. Without Will Fuller, his flaws are a little more obvious, but that was always going to be the case.

I still think there’s a lot of downside to this move. For one thing, we have no idea if the Texans can or want to afford him next season at his $12 million cap hit. A long-term extension for a player with his concussion history is still a scary prospect and has the potential to be a bad cascade move. I also think that there will be several receivers picked at or around that Rams spot that have a chance to be much better and cheaper than Cooks — Denzel Mims or Bryan Edwards in particular — and that the trade will look worse in that perspective with another season gone.

I cannot deny that Cooks has brought what he generally brings his team: a seam threat that lifts coverages for underneath players. The Texans have a regressive play-action game that ruins a lot of his pure bomb upside and makes me think he might thrive under a new coach if he gets there. I think he has won year one of the battle on this trade. I don’t think he’s won the war.

Small stakes bad stuff:

15) Re-signing Ka’imi Fairbairn to a four-year, $17.65 million contract
My post on this at the time:

Fairbairn has lived up to established expectations with this contract. He’s never hit 90 percent of his field goals in a season, and he’s 13-of-21 in his career from over 50 yards. He’s missed big-time kicks against the Chiefs in the postseason and the Texans punted an inordinate amount of long field-goal attempts away in 2019 because they didn’t want to give him a chance.

So this is nothing against Fairbairn, who seems like a fine guy and is in my mind a league-average kicker. I’m very glad he got his. He’s also not a top-ten kicker in any universe. His contract? It’s a top-ten kicker contract. Sixth-highest on total value, fourth-highest on average per season, eighth-most money. He’s yet to have one season where I feel like he’s been a top-10 kicker. When he lines up to kick an extra point or a run-of-the-mill 40-yarder, I don’t assume it’s going in.

14) Picking up Vernon Hargreaves as a street free agent and pretending he was more than a stop-gap cornerback
My post on this at the time:

Vernon Hargreaves seems like a delightful individual. He’s just a guy who keeps getting handed jobs that he can’t really perform. I don’t understand why he’s being handed this job, and I’m not sure why Texans coaches continue to assert that he’s played well or that he’s good.

The Texans are married to a bad corner. It’s okay to sign a guy like this and think you can change him. It’s okay to re-sign him after it’s a midseason thing and think maybe a training camp will change things. But when the corner who has played bad football for his entire career continues to play bad football, why do we have to pretend it’s not true? By the way, this isn’t asking for the coaches to tell us Hargreaves is a bum who doesn’t deserve a job — just be honest. Say he’s struggling, praise his work ethic, tell us about where he’s doing a good job. It doesn’t look like it’s on the field. And if it is on the field, we need a major reckoning about why this is.

People jumped down my throat on signing Hargreaves because it was “low-risk.” The risk has been cashed: The Texans refuse to move on from this player because they don’t want to give any young player snaps. They love him and can’t quit him. I don’t understand it on any level.

13) Re-signing Darren Fells to release Jordan Thomas
My post on this at the time:

The Texans spent a modest sum on retaining Darren Fells this past offseason — it’s a two-year, $6.3 million deal. The problem isn’t that Fells is bad — he’s fine — but again in how the Texans used him. He’s not a blocking tight end in any real way. He led Sports Info Solutions’ charting in blown blocks at the position in 2019. The Texans? Well, they thought he was a blocker. So they kept him, used him that way, and then were astonished to find out Brown was a better blocker than he was and was freely available. Wow, it’s almost like you shouldn’t make long-term fixtures out of players who were picked up for little in the first place!

Losing the last two years of Jordan Thomas’ rookie deal isn’t something that should make you tear up inside. He’s a fine player who I think had a shot to do some real things in a bigger role in 2018. But the idea that any team would prefer an old Darren Fells to a young Jordan Thomas on a rookie contract boggles the mind. It could only happen on a team that didn’t make production a priority.

12) Releasing Tashaun Gipson
My post on this at the time:

Gipson was a fine player for the 2019 Texans. His mistake was having an injured back towards the end of that season which, in the eyes of the crew leading the team, made him expendable.

Gipson hasn’t been a superstar or anything for the Bears, who signed him to a cheap deal as a replacement for Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, but he’s been a solid supporting player. The Texans, meanwhile, have used A.J. Moore, Michael Thomas, and have been forced to move Lonnie Johnson to safety this season. It has become wildly clear that none of those players except Johnson should be on the field in more than a dime role, and they’ve not performed well in those spots. They are special-teamers playing safety because they’re good guys. Meanwhile, what was a promising offseason for Johnson working on his ability to be a corner has been extinguished and now we’ll probably never know if he would have been a good corner. Even Johnson didn’t understand why he was moved, it sounded like, when he was asked:

I don’t know who Gipson hurt or upset, but it was beyond pointless to cut him and create a $4,250,000 dead cap hit this year when there was never a plan to replace him beyond hope and wishful thinking.

11) Letting D.J. Reader walk
My post on this at the time:

I don’t think Reader was a must-keep player. As you watch Houston’s salary cap balloon in real time, it becomes apparent that a run-stuffing nose, no matter how good he is, is an expense that the roster could not have held after its 2019 decisions.

The problem was that in replacing Reader with Brandon Dunn, they created a gaping wound in a run defense that really couldn’t take more hits. They also did not spend the money they saved by letting Reader walk well: this was a cascade effect of several bigger moves that rank higher on this list. The Texans are 29th in run defense DVOA this year though 15 weeks, and were 19th last year. Reader was kind of the last thread holding it all together.

Now, Reader got hurt this year. If you look at it that way, it’s not a bad move to not re-sign him. But in the context of what would happen following Reader’s defection? Whew.

The Big 10

10) Firing Brian Gaine
My post on this at the time:

If we were to point out the canary in the coal mine of what was to come, it was firing Gaine, who was (checks notes) coming off an extremely successful first season and with a lot of money still owed on his five-year contract that he signed in 2018.

Gaine reportedly wanted to extend Jadeveon Clowney. Bill O’Brien didn’t. We’ll talk about that in a bit.

While a lot of the 2019 offseason to that point had been calm and measured — if not mistake-prone — as soon as Easterby took some power, the Texans became a much more impulsive organization. I don’t write about Gaine as if he’s the best general manager who ever lived, and I don’t think the job he was doing in Houston was particularly great despite the Tyrann Mathieu one-year revival. I do think he drafted well and was on his path to build a solid talent base with some better picks.

Gaine was the last adult in the room. Once he was gone, the Keystone Kops began LARPing as GMs and that led to where the Texans are today.

9) Re-signing Nick Martin to a three-year, $33 million extension
My post on this at the time:

I have no idea if Nick Martin is a good center. But I know that he hasn’t played like one.

I say that because Martin has spent his entire career playing for offensive line coach Mike Devlin, a man who rotates linemen even though nobody else in the NFL does, and who says things like this in public:

When the Texans signed Martin to his extension, he became the ninth-highest paid center by total value, the fifth-highest by average per year, and the 11th-highest in guaranteed money. I think Pro Football Focus has a lot of problems grading centers and gives them higher figures than they should, but Martin has literally never been a top-10 center in their grading. He hasn’t even been a top-15 center. The contract wishcasted that he was better than he was. And as the interior line has continued to struggle with picking up stunts this season, this guy is the one making the calls. Notice I didn’t mention the botched snap against Indianapolis: I don’t care about that. Everyone botches a few of those, and that came at the worst time. The problem with Martin is … everything else.

So what keeps him low on this list? As bad as the contract is, it was basically a two-year extension with some money paid in advance. The 2021 Texans can save $6.25 million by releasing him and leave only $2.5 million in dead money. That’s a bargain compared to some players on this roster! I can’t pass judgement and say I think Martin is bad because, I will be honest with you, I want to see any player on this line play a game with a real coach before I fully judge them. But he clearly has never played up to his deal and the deal in and of itself was a reach.

8) Signing Eric Murray to a three-year, $21 million contract
My post on this at the time:

This move has played out to be even worse than it was because the Texans valued Murray’s versatility.

The problem? Murray’s versatility doesn’t make him good at either of his spots. If we want to cut him a break for his cornerback play, we have to acknowledge that the safety play he posted with the Chiefs was loudly not great. He was destroyed by Jared Goff in the Monday Night Football score-a-thon in 2018.

I think what the Texans did here is pay starter money to a dime-caliber defensive back because he could play two spots instead of one.

The only upside is, just like the Martin contract, it was basically a two-year deal. The problem is that releasing Murray will free up exactly $250,000 of cap room this coming season — $1,750,000 if it’s done post-June 1 — and so there’s really not much incentive to do anything but trade him. So … unless the Texans can find a way to incentivize someone to take his deal or make some sort of junk-for-junk trade, they’re kinda stuck paying him starter money next year. Many players with the same skillset Murray has will make NFL rosters for the minimum next season.

7) Trading a third-round pick for RB Duke Johnson
My post on this at the time:

The thing is: Duke Johnson is a natural fit for an offense built around Deshaun Watson. That kind of empty-set cheat code should thrive with a player like Johnson. The problem is that the Texans don’t use him that way. He has the fourth-worst Rushing Yards Over Expectation in the entire NFL this year, and the Lions game was the only time all year we saw Johnson actually used like a wide receiver.

I consider Johnson a quality running back despite the poor numbers this year — he’s just not a fit for what the Texans installed.

The problem is that panic-trading a third-round pick to get a player that you barely use, and then later usurp with a running back you overpay by even more, is an absolute disaster of resource management. Johnson has played 920 snaps with the Texans. Remember how J.J. Watt missed a lot of last season? Watt has played, over that same time span, 1,344 snaps. Whitney Mercilus has played 1,565 snaps.

The pick that Johnson was traded for wound up being a top-100 pick. Jacob Phillips, a run-stuffing linebacker, was who the Browns selected. His rookie year? Not great. But top-100 picks in general are pretty valuable commodities, and several players in this area like Harrison Bryant, Alex Highsmith, Adam Trautman, and Tyre Phillips have all shown bits and pieces of promise early on in their career. They could also have traded the pick for something more valuable. Did I mention Duke Johnson has a top-15 average annual value among all running backs? It’s probably a fair contract, but it’s not free.

6) Trading a third-round pick for Gareon Conley
My post on this at the time:

I know, I’m the worst. Just a big ol’ hater. Can’t wait to hear it from you.

I think a lot of people have overrated how good Gareon Conley was in the first place based on his small sample of targets upon taking over outside for the Texans, and I wrote about it here. Was he an upgrade on what the Texans had on the roster? Absolutely. But that’s mostly because the Texans never had a real plan to replace Kareem Jackson, who walked to Denver without an offer because he wasn’t considered a cornerback. Nobody knows what this organization wants out of a cornerback outside of just “being Vernon Hargreaves.”

So my break from Texans Optimistic Conley Twitter — which I have never understood how it was created — is not all that surprising. It sucks that he got hurt, and it’s not really his fault that his body capital got used up. But he was also a) never a good corner in Oakland, b) never showed much in the way of promise beyond a fluky breakup rate, and c) was going to a coaching staff that hasn’t done a lot to develop any defensive back better than what they were before they walked in the door. I think the hype was set up to fail.

And, again, a late third-round pick is not nothing, as discussed with Duke Johnson a few paragraphs ago. You can find an impact, promising rookie who sticks on your roster for cheap for four years with a top-100 pick. The story some fans tell themselves is that the Texans don’t typically find those guys — it doesn’t matter. The draft is a crapshoot in a lot of ways. You want more shots rather than less.

5) Trading Jadeveon Clowney to the Seahawks for a third-round pick (would later become Gareon Conley), Jacob Martin, and Barkevious Mingo
My post on this at the time:

Jadeveon Clowney has not been worth the energy we spent on his contract in 2019 because he hasn’t been used like he was in Romeo’s scheme in 2018, where he was a stand-up rusher that destroyed gaps. The Seahawks used him as a more traditional EDGE, and the Titans have watched him be overweight and hurt for most of this season.

It’s a shame we don’t know how things would have turned out here, and it’s very true that Clowney may have underperformed a big contract in Houston. However, what’s also true is that by getting rid of him, the Texans destroyed the matchup problems their front seven caused in 2018. That’s something that they haven’t even come close to correcting two years later. If anything, they’re backsliding.

Jacob Martin has been good when he gets on the field. The coaching staff is never going to let him be a full-time EDGE if it hasn’t happened by now, in a lost season with Mercilus not providing anything against the run. Barkevious Mingo blocked a punt once. The Texans watched Dee Ford get traded in this same offseason for a 2020 second-round pick, and they did absolutely nothing about it because the front office was of two minds. Once one mind won out, as Clowney said to Ian Rappoport, they pretty much pre-determined he wasn’t going to be a Texan anymore:

The Texans never had a real plan to replace Clowney’s production. They expected that by trading him, the magical forces of chemistry and tough/smart/dependable would bless them with instant pass rush from someone like Brennan Scarlett. That never happened. Talent, it turns out, is hard to come by in the NFL when you decide to narrow your personality scope as the Texans did.

Makes you wonder why you’d ever let a coach’s personality be bigger than his star players.

4) Re-signing Whitney Mercilus to a four-year, $54 million contract.
My post on this at the time:

Man, my headline for this move when I wrote about it was embarrassingly safe, but I think it comes from a place of just enjoying Whitney Mercilus as a person. He’s always so genuine to talk to in the locker room. He’s been a Texan for so, so many years. He’s a really good dude who in his prime did a lot of the little things coaches are saying he’s been doing now.

But this contract, from the moment the ink dried, was a bad deal for the Texans. Mercilus regressed in 2020, moving from below-average second pass rusher to a rotational end. He’s essentially unplayable on run downs, and his magnum opus this year was the “our linebacker” moment where he let Kirk Cousins get to the edge because he was blocked by a wide receiver.

The contract that Mercilus was signed to makes him essentially a locked-in Texan for next season barring a trade, as the team gains nothing for cutting him. He’s looked so bad this year that — and I don’t want to speculate wildly here — I wonder if he got hurt in the offseason or had something else happen to him. He’s just so, so, impossibly slow on the edge. He moves like he’s stuck in invisible Jell-O.

The contract never had real upside and was always a “the devil you know” kind of starting point that valued intangibles. He has managed to play it to its downside. I don’t know if there’s any reason for the next coach to consider keeping him active on the roster next season based on this year’s tape. I think he’ll have to earn a rotation spot with a big training camp. It’s a sad ending to the career of a guy who fought his way back from being labeled a first-round bust that every time I post about him he just gets shat on by every fan on the timeline. I hate it. NFL contracts are terrible for making this scenario happen.

3) Signing Randall Cobb to a three-year, $27 million contract.
My post on this at the time:

Randall Cobb is a guy I highly respect as a player. Randall Cobb also never had a purpose on this 2020 team beyond blocking Keke Coutee from playing. Several people have mentioned Bill O’Brien putting Coutee in a doghouse. Cobb was a chain-link fence put up around that doghouse. They had similar skill sets, and Cobb’s 2019 season was never so good that he should have been positioned as a real upgrade at slot receiver. He hadn’t had a season like that since 2016. It was an overvaluing of who he used to be and what his character was about.

To Cobb’s credit, this can’t be what he imagined when he signed this. He was supposed to be the finishing piece for an offense that was playoff bound, with a quarterback ready to take a leap. Instead the head coach and general manager was fired four games into the season.

Cobb is on the books for a $10,625,000 cap hit in 2021. Releasing him would cost the Texans money. He’s not a real upgrade on Coutee or Chad Hansen. He is, like Mercilus, stuck on the roster, but simultaneously not useful. The only difference is that pass rushers rotate so you can imagine a reduced-role Mercilus at least providing some kind of juice next year. Cobb’s only real path to playing time should be through injuries.

It’s going to take a creative trade to get him off the roster and save money. Whoever the general manager of this team is in 2021, he has a lot to deal with right off the bat. The production was impacted by an injury, but even when Cobb was healthy, he was barely ever a major target for the Texans. It was a massive overreaction to the target void that was caused by a certain trade we’re going to talk about very shortly. Cobb’s a good egg, he doesn’t deserve this, but that is how NFL contracts work. He can still be useful for someone else — here he is pointless.

2) Trading two first-round picks (2020 first round, Austin Johnson, 2021 first round), a second-round pick (2021), Johnson Bademosi, and Juilen Davenport to the Dolphins for Laremy Tunsil, Kenny Stills, a fourth-round pick (2020, eventually John Reid ), and a sixth-round pick (2021)
My post on this at the time:

So this was a massive overreaction and, I would even go so far as to say, a lib-owning of Brian Gaine’s disastrous Matt Kalil contract. If you don’t remember Matt Kalil — bless you for becoming a fan this year — I made a video of his time as a Texan:

Easterby, by the way, joined the team just after the signing of Kalil. So though it spiritually feels like a move that should be on this list, it’s disappointingly not.

I want to point out that there’s one person who I blocked recently — not for this, but just for being condescending — that came to me with an attitude of “Why are we belaboring the trade, everyone knows it’s a bad trade!” You think so? Look at this poll of Battle Red Blog fans circa November, 18th, 2020. It says 82% of fans believe it was a good trade. It was not! The article it was attached to was highly persuasive that it was not! But you believe that what Tunsil offers is valuable because it’s rare and because of the history of bad tackle play in this organization in general and on the 2018 Texans in particular. I love watching Laremy Tunsil play and believe he’s one of the probably five best tackles in the game. But you do know that Joe Thomas never made the playoffs in Cleveland, right?

The Laremy Tunsil trade has barely touched upon anything the Texans did as an offense because there’s no way it could. He is but one man trying to deal with a systemic poisoning of the offensive line by the coaching staff. He’s done an admirable job in the circumstances. I think he’s a great player. I would also rather have Austin Jackson, the top-10 pick that’s coming to the Dolphins, the second-round pick that’s coming to the Dolphins, and $22 million in cap space than Tunsil. Particularly when the No. 1 trade on this list came from a perceived reason that there were too many people pay. Even, from the mouths of babes, Tunsil would have traded Tunsil for that. Kenny Stills is probably one of the five Texans players of the O’Brien Era that I most admire, and I think he was railroaded out of a job in 2020 for no reason, but he probably would have been a free agent had he not been included in the trade.

The trade being bad doesn’t mean Tunsil is bad, it doesn’t mean it’s not a joy to watch him play tackle. It doesn’t mean he should be heckled or shamed or whatever. But he’s not worth this trade because nobody, not even Anthony Munoz as I said in my initial take on it, could ever be worth this price. It is the trade that is crippling the roster as the Texans try to figure out who to pay and who to let go. It is the trade that will keep them from infusing good young talent that other teams in the AFC playoff race will have. It is the trade that makes their GM job questionable in the eyes of a few pundits even though they literally have one of the three best quarterbacks in the NFL.

It was a disaster. And if you are on the other side of that, you’re going to need to let go of the initial take. It was a disaster that was created so that Bill O’Brien could win exactly one 2019 playoff game. Deshaun Watson dragged him to it, while getting slaughtered, while taking multiple hits on the play that got the ball out to Taiwan Jones. Because the Tunsil trade doesn’t fix the core issues and it never could.

1) Trading DeAndre Hopkins and a 2020 fourth-round pick (Rashard Lawrence) to the Cardinals for David Johnson and a second-round pick 2020 No. 40 (Ross Blacklock)
My post on this at the time:

The big kahuna. The king. The unprecedented. The dumbest trade in recent NFL history. A combination of all the stupid things that led to these other moves: a misunderstanding of the salary cap, a misunderstanding of what star players are worth, a misunderstanding of how tough, smart, and dependable you can make a team.

As bad as the trade was when it was conceived, every possible out for it has also come up dry so far. Ross Blacklock is barely playing. David Johnson is part of a historically bad rushing attack and has been hurt, barely providing anything as a receiver outside of Week 15. He can’t run inside zone and that is basically all the Texans wanted to do with him. DeAndre Hopkins leads the NFL in receiving yards despite barely ever being moved inside in Kliff Kingsbury’s offense.

It’s incredible to this day that the trade was conceived, created, and defended by management multiple times. It was defended as recently as after O’Brien was fired! And it led to Cal McNair being called “Kyle” by Hopkins in a deleted post that will live forever. The money has never mattered, by the way, I debunked it.

This is the defining moment of the era. Just two idiots, drunk on their own power, ruining what should have been one of the defining quarterback-wide receiver tandems for a decade because they believed their baby mama observations and practice habits mattered. Because they were given control beyond what they should have ever been granted.

Because smart, tough, and dependable personalities they could control mattered more than talent.


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Four Downs: Texans 20, Colts 27

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The Texans have had two chances this season to take a game from the Colts (or at least tie it) on the final drive. They have two fumbles in the Indianapolis red zone to show for it. Keke Coutee had the ball punched out from behind and the result was an agonizing loss in a year where the close losses have tended to be that way.

I feel bad for Coutee, and I think it’s very telling that the Texans are again going to be in a position where they’re forced to make a small-sample size decision on him. He has three fumbles lost this year — one on a punt return — and had an additional fumble in 2019 in the asskicking against the Broncos.

I think Coutee’s explosiveness has been on display. You saw that he could at times get open in man-coverage against Kenny Moore. You saw him win a touchdown on an RPO in this game. He’s a good player trying to make a good football move and not carrying the ball close enough to his person at a bad time. We have almost a full-season of Keke Coutee targets. The seven today made 105. He’s at four touchdowns, 72 catches, and 797 yards. The catch rate is very good. His drops in this one — and honestly all year — have been him coming up a little short (no pun intended) downfield. Four fumbles is a lot, sure, but it’s not a lot in the grand scheme of regression until we get a larger sample size. It’s just that three of the four of them have been absolute gut-punches.

Me? I like what I’ve seen from Coutee and Chad Hansen down the stretch. I’d be very comfortable with those two vying it out for the No. 3 receiver role in camp in 2021. I think they complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses in an interesting way as well. But we can’t know for sure how much of what Coutee has shown us negatively is something he’s going to get better at with playing time because instead the Texans signed Randall Cobb. And Cobb is still on the roster, uncuttable, Cobbing it up.

I think we’ll forget about the loss outside of it becoming trivia. But what bothers me is that this team has young players on the roster that I still don’t think we have a good handle on who they ultimately are. That’s all on the upstairs and the people who were in positions they weren’t qualified. Or in one person’s case, still are unqualified for.

1) The offensive line has been destroyed for the last three games.

It is factual that the Houston Texans were going up against their toughest stretch of the season from a defensive line standpoint. The Colts have DeForest Buckner, Denico Autry, and Justin Houston. The Bears have Khalil Mack, Robert Quinn, and Akiem Hicks. Those are not easy matchups for any team to deal with. But the Texans did not fail to deal with them so much as get completely embarrassed by them.

Deshaun Watson took 16 quarterbacks in two games against the Colts. He took 11 against the Bears. He took 16 in the four games before those three combined. And yes, he does make some of it worse by trying to create off-the-cuff, sure, but he also had an entire red zone possession in the first half that was essentially all throwaways. I think the level of risk he’s played with this year has been well below what some of our more fervent “latent ingrained thoughts about black quarterbacks” fans are at on the scale of who is to blame here.

The simple fact of the matter is that when you invest two first-round picks and a second-round pick (along with some other minor picks) and a $22M a year contract on Laremy Tunsil, a first-round pick on Tytus Howard, a second-round pick on Max Scharping, top-10 center money on Nick Martin, you need to see returns on it. You team them with one of the best pocket movement quarterbacks in the entire NFL right now. An eight-quarterback hit game is unacceptable. I don’t care that the narrative is that they improved later. I don’t even say this from a basic tenet of you have to protect the franchise quarterback. I say it from a pure talent standpoint: these results are unacceptable. To do it three games in a row is a dereliction of duty.

Things will improve, I’m sure. But the very fact that we have the lingering question in our minds of “what happens when this unit is well-coached?” — that is extremely telling about what the Texans have done this year and every year under Mike Devlin, whose public appearances have come off as if he barely understands what is going on. Get these line rotations out of my life, and get someone who can teach a guard to pick up a stunt. Thank you.

2) David Johnson and the infinite sadness

I came into this game expecting to come out of it with a big missive about the Texans continuing to obliterate themselves by using David Johnson. But what I ended up feeling was just … pity for David Johnson.

Listen to Johnson talk and you see a guy who I think is almost hyper-critical of himself. He’s telling you that he thinks he could do things better in literally every game. He’s saying that he thinks he needs to do more to help Deshaun Watson out. He’s saying, unprompted, that you never know when your last play in the NFL will be. This guy is so far in his own head that he’s costing himself plays his God-given talent should be able to make. That’s what it feels like.

So, yeah, look, involving Johnson to the extent that he was — it was a giant waste of everybody’s time and we all learned nothing from it. He had eight carries for 27 yards. He caught 11 balls for a game-high 106 yards, but two major plays were made downfield as Watson bought time and outside of those it was more like nine catches for 39 yards. Including plays like this, which he self-critiqued as he should have been able to make a move here:

Buddy Howell looked like he had more want carrying the rock. Scottie Phillips got involved a minimal amount and I thought also acquitted himself well. There’s nothing the Texans could ever do in my eyes that would make using David Johnson this much worth it at this point. He has no future on this roster.

But on Sunday, when David Johnson said that he felt bad for Deshaun Watson because he can tell that he cares, I learned that I could feel bad for David Johnson, because I know he also cares. He just, for whatever reason, can’t do what his body wants him to anymore.

3) Red zone issues: Can’t run, nobody can win one-on-one

When you run the ball with your running backs 15 times and get 58 yards — sadly that qualifies as pretty solid this season — it’s hard to not be one-dimensional. But with seven carries for 19 yards with your main ballcarrier outside of an opening eight-yard plunge, you hamstring this offense when the field gets constricted. Since Will Fuller went out, the Texans do not have a single wide receiver that can reliably win a contested ball in press-man coverage. That’s not Brandin Cooks’ game. It’s not Chad Hansen’s game. If anything it’s closest to Jordan Akins’ game but he can’t get involved in this offense for reasons I won’t understand as an outsider.

That has made the red zone a disaster for the Texans. The Texans had an 0.5% DVOA on red zone plays through Week 14’s games. When they targeted Fuller in the red zone, he’s four-of-eight with three touchdowns, a first down, and the bobbled out of bounds Vikings play. That even undersells him because one of his incompletions was from Randall Cobb.

But over the past two weeks prior to this game, that number had declined to minus-20.8% DVOA. The Texans lost this game mainly because as soon as they got the ball at first-and-goal at the Indianapolis 10, they gained zero yards on three incompletions. Then, when they got the ball on their opening possession of the third quarter, they false started on third-and-1 and this happened:

If you can explain how that route combination would ever work, you are a better football analyst than I am. On those two drives, the Texans took 10 snaps inside the Indianapolis red zone and gained 14 yards. This play didn’t even count but I want to show you one of the many throwaways:

There’s not really a lot to say about this at this point. The DeAndre Hopkins trade ripped this team’s heart out in the red zone. Removing Fuller is like removing another limb. There aren’t a lot of potential answers this team has for man-coverage in the red zone right now outside of the tight ends. Coutee won on one touchdown on an RPO, yes, but other than that, this is going to be a dark place for the remainder of the season. Thankfully it barely matters anyway.

4) Run defense pilloried yet again

To the extent that the Texans were able to hang in this game as a defense, I didn’t really see a lot of reasons outside of the Colts simply losing interest in running the football. 23 carries for 127 yards in a game that you’re winning most of the way feels wonky. One of those was a kneel by Rivers, and another was an important-but-predetermined quarterback sneak by Jacoby Brissett. That means the other 21 carries — by Nyheim Hines and Jonathan Taylor — went for 125 yards all on their own. The Colts did this despite a long carry of just 23 yards. That means that, more often than not, the Texans were getting gashed. Right up the middle.

Missed tackles were here. Multiple defensive linemen getting knocked four-to-five yards off the ball any time they were doubled was a fixture. As well as linemen just hanging out on their knees in the backfield:

To the extent that the Texans were able to “hold” the Colts to 27 points, a lot of it was just unforced mistakes. Charles Omenihu’s sack was probably held a beat too long by Philip Rivers. The punt before the two-minute warning came because Rivers slightly overthrew a wide-open Trey Burton. The first Colts field goal came when they passed the ball three times in a row despite the fact that they were running as you saw above.

There’s not a positive spin to put on this. I’m not saying there aren’t some positive individual performances to be taken, but largely this defense played like we thought it would on Sunday. It had to play soft without Justin Reid and Bradley Roby. Just when it had a chance to be the hero, it let T.Y. Hilton steal the scene yet again:

It sucks. But, you know, it is what it is at this point, as Bill O’Brien liked to say. It is what it is. This defense just isn’t very talented, and the parts of it that have some potential are largely raw. It’s J.J. Watt, a good Zach Cunningham stuff or two a game — hopefully without him also adding a bad miss on a long run — and that’s about it. Lonnie Johnson is learning safety on the spot while Eric Murray plays corner in a Petey Faggins cover band. Ross Blacklock spent a lot of today learning how far back a good block can push him. Charles Omenihu is an interior pass-rusher on passing downs to me. Tyrell Adams has good hits but the things that kept him from seeing the field before this year aren’t hard to see. It’s just a bunch of limited players right now with nobody to cover for them.

I don’t understand how anybody can watch this game and believe that this defense is one or two pieces away. I will be stunned if it is good next year. Average? Maybe, with the right coach. But there are so many holes to fill before we even get into what happens if Watt decides he wants out that it’s hard to gussy them all up in one offseason. Particularly one in which the Dolphins have your likely top-10 draft pick.


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The 2020 Houston Texans are a loving re-creation of the 2013 Atlanta Falcons

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What happens when you hit on your franchise quarterback, but between bad coaching decisions, bad free-agency decisions, and bad luck, you’re irrelevant after a nice little stretch? That’s the situation the Houston Texans find themselves in, and it’s a situation that reminds me a lot of what the Atlanta Falcons were up to in the middle of last decade.

The re-creation of that scenario

After the Falcons drafted Matt Ryan in 2008, they immediately became a good team. They finished 11-5 in Ryan’s first year, losing a wild card game, and after a year of reconsolidation, they made three straight playoffs, winning 36 games in three years, but getting labeled chokers after Aaron Rodgers kicked them around in a divisional round game and they blew a 24-14 halftime lead to the San Francisco 49ers in the 2012 NFC Championship game.

The Falcons didn’t know it at the time, but Mike Nolan’s defensive chops were fading. The offense would fight like hell over the next two seasons to get anywhere, but losing Dunta Robinson, Asante Samuel, and especially John Abraham would make it an uphill battle. Their defense simultaneously got too old and they didn’t hit on any of the picks they had, as well as losing players like Sean Weatherspoon to injury attrition. They had committed a trade-up for superstar wide receiver Julio Jones, and he was immediately great. But at the cost of two-first round picks and a second-round pick, as well as some additional picks, it made it hard for the Falcons to bring in fresh blood for a bit.

The 2013 Falcons would finish 26th in defensive DVOA. Their major offseason additions were Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson. I’m sure you’ve heard of them. In related news, the 2014 Falcons finished 31st in defensive DVOA, finally getting the head coach fired. Once Dan Quinn was installed and the offense was handed over to Kyle Shanahan, the Falcons immediately trended up to 8-8 in 2015 (after a 6-1 start), and then the Super Bowl the next year.

Maybe you’re thinking: “OK Rivers but this defensive roster is SO bad!” Yeah, okay, let me run you the table that we ran in the Falcons chapter of the 2015 Football Outsiders Almanac:

This isn’t even a team that had a J.J. Watt. That front seven barely had young players you could describe as “as promising as Charles Omenihu.” Yeah, that’s right Prince Shembo fans. I’m calling you out.


The Texans don’t have the exact same circumstances because, if anything, they have done what the Falcons have done but condensed it into a much smaller period of time. Even for how much our attention span has been attacked over the last decade by cell phones and alerts, it’s hard to believe how much upheaval and damage was done in the period between Brian Gaine’s firing in June 2019 and Bill O’Brien’s in October 2020. It’s been a constant string of bad news.

The big trade for an elite talent (Laremy Tunsil is getting paid, Jones was not), the defections of older good talent on defense leading to decay, and the franchise quarterback (Ryan is no Deshaun Watson and that’s no slam on Ryan) make this feel like a fairly relevant scenario to me. The Falcons got further into the playoffs than the Texans did, but I think you can charitably apply the choker label to a franchise that blew a 24-0 lead to Kansas City and barely showed up as an offense against the Bills and Colts.

They stand in roughly the same spot as the Falcons were after they fired Mike Smith at the end of 2014 — they’ve got the franchise quarterback, they have a terrible defense, and they’re in need of some updates to the roster. There’s been a lot of talk about how you turn things around quickly without draft picks, mostly from people who just want to separate Deshaun Watson from the Texans for their own selfish reasons.

But the Falcons didn’t really do anything special after the 2014 season. If anything they released a lot of old hands like Steven Jackson and Harry Douglas, They signed Alex Mack as a free agent after the 2015 season, but other than that they just crushed it in the draft — even in the lower rounds — and the turnaround was more a matter of just, well, not doing dumb shit. Hiring coaches that had more of a clue. Creating a system that amplified what they already had. And so on.

The Texans don’t have quite the same options because financially they’re in a different situation — set to be over the cap on a $176 million estimate before they deal with Will Fuller and how to untangle what he means with all his Not Playing Today baggage. The only way to overcome bold moves blowing up in your face is to either wait a while or just continue making bold moves. Given just how many bad contracts are on the roster, it might behoove the Texans to try to Brock Osweiler away some of this cap space. Whitney Mercilus will cost money to get rid of this offseason as a release, but if you trade him, you can reap as much as $10.5 million. Eric Murray saves almost no money as a cut — trading him can free up about $4-5.25 million depending on the designation. Randall Cobb is on the same basic plan as Mercilus, with up to $8.6 million available if he’s traded away.

There’s not a lot on this roster that needs to be sacred after a year like this and pairing these guys into a trade ala the Osweiler thing where you tempt a low-spending team into using their cap is a way to deal with this and let the Texans fix their holes in free agency without major constraints. Hell, with several teams over the cap, there might even be some space for some challenge trades with other underperforming or suddenly questionable players. (How about a Brandon Brooks reunion challenge trade with the $65 million over the cap Eagles?) I think if the Texans want to compete next year, they need to approach this offseason with the belief that the salary cap is there to be manipulated if they want to really bring in impact talent. There’s nothing stopping that from happening besides the front office’s creativity.

But the major plan for this roster doesn’t need to be very complicated — I roll my eyes whenever I see someone suggest that this is a long-term rebuild. They need to maximize Watson, recreate the defensive roster to a different system if a new DC is hired, and bring in defensive backs who can play to surround Justin Reid and (if they still want him) Bradley Roby. Kudos if you can get them in the draft, but don’t pretend that you’re going to without a pick in the first two rounds. And that’s pretty much it. There is no will-the-quarterback-be-good, do-we-need-to-find-the-quarterback, etc. debate. I think the running game is a matter of scheme. I think the offensive line will play better under new coaching. The defense being bad at stopping the run isn’t ideal, but the Chiefs have been terrible at stopping the run the last two years and that hasn’t really held them back in the slightest.

Just hire smart people and don’t do dumb shit to them. That’s all it takes to get this back on track.


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Four Downs, Texans 7, Bears 36

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The Houston Texans played a form of Football Product on Sunday that makes you wonder what the point of all of this is. They were eliminated from playoff contention officially rather than reasonably. They did not put up any real fight and there are no moral victories in Mitch Trubisky slaughtering your defense for 30 first-half points.

Deshaun Watson had an elbow injury occur that seemed scary even if he was able to shake it off and keep playing. The offensive line plays like they all just met for the first time three hours to kickoff. The best drive of the game was the opening drive of the third quarter, one that took eight minutes off the clock because Buddy Howell was killing it between the tackles. Because not a single Chicago Bear cared and everybody wanted the game to end.

I’m glad Buddy Howell got his chance here, as I am glad that Keke Coutee caught another touchdown, that Chad Hansen caught another 56 yards of balls, and that Keion Crossen got a start. It didn’t go very well for Crossen, because Bears wideout Allen Robinson, it turns out, is much better than him. But that’s not a death sentence for his NFL career and he did make a few plays.

But mostly, my gratitude is limited to Deshaun Watson appearing to come out of the game unscathed and the fact that there are only three more games left in this season. It took me seven hours to get to writing this recap because CenterPoint Energy had a power outage in my branch of Houston and I was thinking about ways I could have continued to deliver content through that in a COVID-19 world. I did have a few, but thankfully, it wasn’t necessary, because this team’s current form is so irrelevant that I don’t think beating somebody to the punch on speed matters at this point. Those who would read this were already going to read it, whenever it got put up. The fans who are here for a winning sugar rush have moved on to something else. I appreciate you if you are still reading this.

1) “We’ve Got To Get Deshaun Out Of Houston”

If there is one thing that has been drilled into my head by posting a lot of Deshaun Watson clips on Twitter this year, it’s that there is vast media interest in Deshaun Watson, almost all of it positive, and almost all of it wants good things to happen to him. What the Texans have done this year is generate a large section of the football internet — Twitter, Reddit, newspaper columns, websites, wherever — that thinks that they aren’t good enough to have this guy’s rights. That thinks that something has to be done to move him off the team because the team is that poorly run.

I am beyond exhausted of this because, you know, obviously, it is in my best interests to have Deshaun Watson around to write about for a long time. Nobody starts blogging about a football team to write about Tom Savage or Brian Hoyer. And at the same time, I have to admit that they have a point about the organization as it is currently constituted because I think what happened on Sunday was malpractice.

Deshaun Watson wants to play. That’s understandable! Athletes are wired in a different way. I have absolutely no problems with him saying that or even wanting to play. He’s a competitor. Of course he wants to play and of course he wants to continue improving. Here’s what I have a problem with:

As I wrote about on Thursday, when there is nobody in the organization that cares about the long-view, you get answers like what Romeo Crennel put out here. There was never a consideration about that because to do so would be admitting that this season is pointless for the team. Everyone is just left to follow their guttural instincts. In Romeo Crennel’s case, that was to avoid making the risky move to pull Watson and have to answer questions about it because he said he could play. And it led to at least three more sacks as Houston’s beleagured offensive line was ransacked over and over again by Chicago’s front, which notched 11 quarterback hits and six sacks, as well as seven scrambles since I can’t remember a single designed Watson run.

I admit that I don’t have a lot to say in counter to this. I think if you’re a fan you breathe deep, believe that Easterby can be sunk by the Sports Illustrated article that you all should read front-to-back, and know that new leadership will be brought in. The new leadership is the most important decision in Cal McNair’s life. He’s got to nail it, or the people who have been collecting receipts about why the Texans hold back Watson will move from circumstantial evidence (a lost game in a lost season that he survived) to the actual warrants.

This franchise is incredibly fragile right now. It’s disconnected, the owner doesn’t know how this situation is supposed to be operated, and the leader of the culture is essentially a multi-level marketing pariah who connects with the owner via religion. We need to hold our noses and hope that things get better. Fast.

2) Mitch Trubisky’s big day was fueled by asking Texans to tackle

Mitch Trubisky threw 11 passes behind the line of scrimmage in this game. The Bears caught nine of them. That, in and of itself, isn’t very interesting. What is interesting is that those passes went for 93 yards and a touchdown. The average pass behind the line of scrimmage this year averages 4.7 yards per play. 303 of 1980 passes thrown behind the line of scrimmage from Week 1-Week 13 went 10 or more yards, or roughly 15% of them. Those other plays averaged 2.7 yards per play.

The Chicago Bears, on the season, averaged 2.9 yards per throw behind the line of scrimmage through Week 13. They do it a lot. They don’t play risky, they just ask you to tackle. The Texans couldn’t even begin to do that.

That was a bubble screen thrown because there were only two guys in coverage on that side of the formation. Eric Murray was destroyed. A cool two sack game for Murray, I guess, if you want to give him some plaudits. But, you know, this sucked. The Bears ran play-action to the flat over and over again and the Texans could not have looked less interested in defending that. It happened in the first quarter, it happened in the third quarter:

52 played this to get outside leverage, of course. But after that, you know, he just let the back run right past him. Cunningham eventually rallies to the ball, but Adams is standing there five yards away just waiting for a move. There’s no aggressiveness left. There’s such a thing as smart zone defense. We watched the Colts play it last week. This is just passive. Passive leads to this:

The only Bears receiver that was within the league average of separation was Robinson, and only then just barely. 6.45 yards? 7.91 yards? 7.55 yards? This defense never put a single drip of real pressure on Mitch Trubisky in this game. J.J. Watt said it himself:

There are games this year where if you view them, you come out of it thinking something along the lines of “Anthony Weaver’s unit is undermanned, but at least they’re trying some things.” I don’t mind that Robinson roasted Crossen. That’s going to happen. But this stuff … why even show up and play the game? That’s the kind of performance that gets coaches fired when coaches haven’t already been fired. I’m not questioning manhoods here — I believe those players want to win, and I believe they want to fight — that scheme is an abject failure at allowing them to do that. People have been dunking on how terrible this Bears scheme is all year and the Texans made it look like 2010 Auburn.

3) Jordan Akins is playing himself out of a bigger role in 2021

As the wide receiver core has drifted from killers in Week 10 to multiple practice-squad elevations every week over the last two weeks, one thing I expected to happen was that Jordan Akins would take the reins of this offense and be a focal point. Instead, he’s been largely irrelevant. In today’s game, he was part of two of the only non-offensive line sections of the game plan that were dusted. He had an end-zone target that drew gambler’s ire and that looks like someone clipped it off a video game glitch because he lost it in the sun:

And, earlier in the game, he and Watson had a miscommunication that almost led to an interception, one that left Watson furious after the play:

I’m not certain why the Texans haven’t just used Akins purely as a receiver at this point. I’m not sure what part of route-running he needs to learn better because I’m not in the building. The coaches noted him improving before his concussion. But whatever this was … well, this is not how you get on the good page with the franchise quarterback. This stretch was supposed to be a big opportunity for Akins to establish himself.

Instead, he’s establishing himself in the vein of players like Jared Cook. “Say, why does that guy never just get seven targets a game?” Hall of Famers who have great highlights and hidden skill sets that keep the from ever getting more than that.

4) J.J. Watt, a Texans Standard, and who that exists in the mind of at this point

The role of J.J. Watt in this lost season has been fascinating to me. On one hand, he has not been very subtle about Bill O’Brien’s firing being a good thing for the team. This is, in my mind, the defining quote of the 2020 Texans (and he was absolutely right about it):

On the other hand, I feel like there’s a disconnect between Watt and this organization right now. He says things like that, but his own rhetoric about staying in Houston has died down noticeably. He did not do much to allay fears of him leaving on Sunday when asked if he was thinking about his future:

He’s somehow the closest thing this organization has to somebody who understands what NFL football is supposed to be, and yet at the same time, my outside interpretation of the last two months is that he’s got one foot out the door waiting to see if Easterby is here after Week 17 is concluded. It’s a bizarre set of circumstances, this 2020 Texans team.

But I guess most of all what hit me about this is that you have him again advocating for a higher standard — he’s advocated for a higher standard for a lot of the season — and yet I don’t feel like most of the other players on this defense are, how can I put this delicately, vibing with that mindset. Zach Cunningham came out in his presser the other day and said he wasn’t surprised he was leading Pro Bowl voting at inside linebacker and felt like the recognition could have come sooner. This is a guy who has covered at times this year like the plastic bag in American Beauty, and has dipped into quite a few gaps on run plays that he should not have gone down.

Watt has complimented Tyrell Adams a few times and spoke about helping Charles Omenihu but I haven’t really felt like outside of that, there’s a lot of common ground between him and this defense. They exist together, but they also kind of don’t? Like when he ran off the field against the Packers after a tackle for loss without celebrating?

Watt has this standard and it’s excellent. He’s excellent. I don’t know who he’s subtweeting anymore when he talks about this, but it’s a subplot that has caught my eye in a lost season. In some ways, it’s a natural little outbreak of what happens when nobody else is around to actually lead the team. In other ways … I wonder what exactly is going down in this locker room that I don’t know about.


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A personal story that is eventually about David Johnson’s Texans career

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.


In 1865, the Civil War ended. Lee surrendered at Appomattox. The war was over. But not everybody wanted to believe that in Texas. The Battle of Palmito Ranch occurred in May even though the war had officially ended. The union commanding officer knew that the war was over. He fought the battle anyway.

It happens to be that, sometimes in our lives, logic is a spectator. Emotion is a driving force. Just as I can sit here and quote to you that there’s not much statistical support to the idea that momentum exists, but that a vast majority of the people who have played in the NFL will tell you that it exists and impacts the game. Logic is what we know to be right. Emotion is often driven by what we want to be right and, more importantly, what we feel.

We live in a world where the wide spread of information on the internet has created a scenario where emotion is more powerful than logic. People have so many different factoids or supporting pieces of evidence to back on to that they can present any side of a story they want to — the emotion of what they want to believe is right is more important than the logic of what is right. One informs the other, and not in the way it should most of the time.


I’m gonna type out one of the worst moments of my life here. You are going to think I’m an idiot after you read this and I am not going to argue with you. But it shows you the power of emotion.

Both of my parents passed away in 2010 (father, drug overdose) and 2011 (mother, stroke). I was 25. I have some well-meaning family members, but for the most part, we are ships passing in the night — someone would keep me from being homeless if I asked, but conversations are rare. What I mean to say is: I was left on my own, for the first time in my life, and I was emotionally alone. Nobody that had a big impact on my life, who made it a point to involve themselves or keep tabs on me, was alive. I am very grateful, in fact, for the few friends that I had made just by writing Texans stuff. Because in a sense, that’s all I had at times.

In late 2011 and building up to 2012, I began talking to a woman that I had known for a while. I was always a big fan. When I was growing up, I tended to prefer relationships that I could pursue online. I liked that distance in it, that distance was safe. I had been hurt a lot by a lot of people growing up — some inadvertently, others not — and so I approached any kind of relationship by starting with distance, then gradually closing the gap. I knew that wasn’t logical by this point, and really harbored little hope that this woman would come into my life, but it was fun to flirt and I was quite lonely so I ate up whatever little chunks of anybody’s attention I was given. At some point there was a plan where she and her roommate were going to move to a small Texas beach town on the gulf coast, and then hey, we’d meet up a few times and see what happened. Sounded fun.

The Friday of the NFL Draft that year, I go out with some friends to watch the draft and get tanked on the belief that DeVier Posey is going to save us. (I wanted the Texans to draft Russell Wilson.) I wake up to a string of text messages from this woman panicking about her situation. That her roommate is throwing out her stuff. That she had to go find her cat in the ditch outside the place they were renting. That she has nowhere to go. And so, I made an extremely emotional decision: Nobody helps me, OK, but I will help you. I had never met this woman before.

She drives from Florida to Texas over what has to be 22 straight hours. She can’t even stop at a hotel because she has lost any form of real identification. She gets here, I steer her in from my neighbor’s driveway to my actual driveway. We embrace. It’s one of the few moments that is unforgettable in my life.

Two weeks later, maybe even less than that, it’s very clear that this isn’t going to work and that we want very different things. I’m hopped up on this idea that I finally just took a risk and let my guard down and so, well, the way that story ends in my mind is that this is The One, right? Right. So, of course, dumb things ensue. We officially “break up” in late June, a couple of days after my birthday.

I would love to tell you that this break up was amicable, but it wasn’t. It was me desecrating myself in the service of the outcome I’d already pre-determined in my head. Me inventing reasons she should stay. Me going out of my way to try to help out. She moved with me to a new place I got in late July. We fought constantly, because she believed I was not listening and because she was right that I was not listening. It’s hard to really remember now how many grievances I felt. I could have asked her to leave at any time, yet I never did.

I guess the best way to sum this up is to say that my major memory of the last couple months was me taking time off of a Monday football editing grind to take her to a (small) exploratory surgery for stomach issues (suspected Chron’s disease) that I was paying for. I pulled the car out. I asked her if she was ready for this. She screamed at me: “You’re only doing this because you want to fuck me!” I pulled back in front of the place and shouted back something along the lines of “then I have to be the dumbest fucking person on the planet,” before I left to head back inside. And reader, well, I might have been in the running.

She left in November. I was so consumed with the idea of keeping her that I assumed I would be crushed when she left. So I was startled when I felt … relief. Hours after the process. That it was just my house again. I had given up so much in an attempt to convince this woman that I cared about her, which was something she obviously never bought or considered possible. It was all I thought about for months. My car was broken during Texans training camp, which I’d finally convinced them to give me credentials for, and I just never showed up while I was dealing with all this. I look back at things like that and wonder what life could have been like had I not been so emotionally invested in trying to change something that — SO, so obviously — was never going to change. Who knows what one connection I could have made there could have meant?

Time has colored those memories and aged them in a way that made it feel less like the torture it felt in real time, when I was living it every day for four months, just someone in my house, rent-free, who wanted nothing to do with me, while I was trying to convince them otherwise. I’m glad things ended up going the way they did. At the same time, in some ways, it was almost more traumatic than losing my parents. I had never fought for something like that before, and just almost bathing in that struggle on a daily basis changed a lot about who I am. I learned a lot about how easy it is to blind yourself. I learned that none of my angst about this was worth holding on to, even in the slightest.

I learned that there are battles worth fighting, and that there are battles you need to lose.


There are four games left in this Texans season. The team has a 0.0% chance of making the playoffs. It would require a Titans lose-out, a Ravens lose-out, a Raiders lose-out, among other things. They’re not actually eliminated. But they’re effectively eliminated. Even in the scenario where COVID-19 forces an extra playoff team, they’re far behind several teams right now.

David Johnson has rushed for 452 yards in nine games. Be it him, his line, or the schemes, his production has been empirically amongst the worst in the NFL. The Texans are dead-last in rushing DVOA by almost 10%: -35.0% to 26.2% for the 31st-place Falcons. The trend in NFL football is such that rushing becomes less and less valuable every year — even the best teams in rushing DVOA are rushing at like 8.7% instead of say, Green Bay’s 52.2% passing DVOA — but that’s a remarkably bad number.

Johnson is set to take up $9 million in cap space in 2021. It’s very hard to imagine a scenario in which keeping him makes sense for a team that is projected to be $11 million over a $176 million cap before they even worry about what they do with Will Fuller. I’m not saying it’s impossible — Jack Easterby has a lot of dreams and he’s got more power than anybody with his track record should — but keeping Johnson for next season would be irresponsible. You could argue that certain bits of this offense make him look worse than he is, but there have been almost zero special back flashes this season. His cap figure of $9 million would rate sixth in the NFL, sandwiched between backs who have shown special flashes a lot more recently — that’s a remarkably bad number.

Yet, there he is, off IR and ready to be given a workhorse role. Even beyond that, for the beleaguered fans of this franchise, the last thing anyone needs is the constant reminder that the DeAndre Hopkins trade happened. We don’t need any reason to create more graphics ala the one FOX ran in the Green Bay game. The games don’t matter, Johnson is unlikely to play a role on the 2021 Houston Texans. I have said over and over again, I have nothing against David Johnson — it’s not his fault he’s declined, and it’s not his fault that he was involved in a franchise-crippling trade. He was trying to rehabilitate his career here and it didn’t work out. Nothing will change that now.

There’s no logical reason for him — particularly on the franchise that suddenly found Arian Foster in 2009 as a UDFA — to continue playing for this team. There’s nothing to be gained here. There are no milestones to hit. There’s no film that’s suddenly going to be weighted against his full season of performance. The die has been cast.

Hiring Romeo Crennel was a stab at trying to steer the Texans back to their normal BOB ways, and that stab failed. It has nothing to do with Romeo, because none of the problems were problems he created. He can’t make Vernon Hargreaves and Phillip Gaines into outside cornerbacks. It’s not his fault Fuller and Bradley Roby got themselves suspended. It’s not his fault the team can’t run, and the run defense finally stabilized later into his watch.

But the mindset that this team has inflicted on itself reminds me a lot of four months I lived in 2012. You see Chad Hansen and Keke Coutee come in and have some measure of success and it’s exciting. It’s all anybody wants to talk about. In a lost season, the best thing for the long-term success of the football team is to let young players play and see what they can do. This team is pathologically opposed to that.

Jon Greenard comes in and has a good 10 snaps of run defense and it doesn’t matter, because Whitney Mercilus is Our Guy. Romeo stands up at the podium and says the snaps have really helped Greenard out, but can’t just take that leap to “hm, maybe it would help everybody!” or “what if snaps but for young player?” John Reid can’t get on the field. Ross Blacklock hasn’t had a great rookie season, but Carlos Watkins is a free agent. Who knows what Watkins will do this offseason? I know that Blacklock will be here. Isaiah Coulter isn’t even allowed on the active roster.

There are many, many opportunities to create more stories like Hansen and Coutee. Tyrell Adams came out of nowhere this year and is leading the NFL in tackles since he became a starter. But this team is just stubbornly clinging to its priors in the face of — hilariously — players they didn’t think much of continually proving them wrong. Heck, when Keion Crossen has played corner, that hasn’t even been all bad.

But the heads are down, the drive to finish the season with as respectable a record as possible is in place, to own the Dolphins, or maybe to make Jack Easterby’s stock go up half a point. It’s hard to even say that what they’re doing is ruining the future, because given what we’ve seen so far with players that have been off the playing time radar, they’re actually ruining the present too. It’s prime NFL cocoon hours, and we have to have been right that David Johnson can get 100 rushing yards in an NFL game still. We can’t just accept that this is a battle worth abandoning. The only opportunity is the one in front of us: moving to 5-8 for … some reason.

These last four games of the season — outside of just having fun watching Deshaun Watson dunking on some blitzes and bad coverages or whatever — are among the most meaningless games in franchise history. All I want to see as someone who covers the team is some good performances from young players who are going to be here next year. Something to dream on. We appear to be being denied even that. They’ve already decided who was tough, smart, and dependable. We just have to live with the consequences.

I can’t wait until someone who actually cares about the future of this franchise on the football side is in the building again. That will be a relief.

More battles will be fought. The war is over.


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Rivers McCown’s 2021 Texans Head Coach Interview List

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.


This is part two of a two-part series. Yeah, you got it.

As I mentioned in the first post of the two-part series, I would cast a wide net on these coaches, meaning that I would be looking to interview up to 15-20 different coaches. I went over most of my criteria in that post as well, so have a look before you complain to me that the guy you want isn’t in the spot you want him in. My biases are at play here and inform a lot of the list.

Between Cal McNair, Jed Hughes of Korn Ferry, and (sigh) Jack Easterby, we have the main players in the room. They mentioned wanting to get a general manager first on both the telecast of the first Texans-Jags game and several times thereafter — I’m mostly going to stay out of that because there’s no real way for me as an outsider to pre-evaluate a general manager without prior experience. I think John Dorsey’s work has aged well in Cleveland though he’s not someone who I would consider a great cap guy. I think Scot McCloughan is to blame for most of Washington’s most recent playoff push. I’m happy to poach a newcomer from a good front office. I don’t hold strong opinions on most general managers until they start making bad trades.

But, let me do the work of Korn Ferry for Korn Ferry and put some good thoughts into the world about who I want to see as head coach. Come with a good cup of coffee.

A major thing I will say before we begin is that as long as the Texans hire someone I’d consider interviewing, I’m not going to get mad about who they pick. I think there’s a certain level of detail that, as an outsider, I don’t get the full gist of. I’m willing to give some credit there. I don’t come at this full of hubris and my-guy-is-better-than-your-guy. I just have leans and those leans produce the number of guys I want to talk to.

I’ve produced this list using a) my own biases and b) a list of most-mentioned names by people in a Twitter post asking other Texans fans to name their own five guys. If you’ve got someone that wasn’t named on this post, well, I’m sorry I can’t cover literally everyone. If I did, the post would be 20,000 words instead of 5,000.

Who do I __NOT__ want to be head coach?

I respect to various degrees the work that David Shaw, Dabo Swinney, and Pat Fitzgerald have done as college coaches. I don’t think Dabo or Pat have an attitude that meshes well with the NFL vis a vis enlightenment about players. I think they’d stage their own versions of the Hopkins trade at some point. That doesn’t mean they aren’t good head coaches, but they’re not fits to me in a post-BOB landscape. Shaw is a good egg with a big track record of success, but I think they’ve faded recently and I don’t believe the system the Cardinal run is a great one for Deshaun Watson. Matt Campbell gets thrown around by some people who are interested in finding a young superstar coach, but I think I’d like to see what he can do at a place where there are no built-in excuses. (That reminds me a lot of hiring O’Brien from a sanctioned Penn State team.) I would say the same thing for Baylor’s Dave Aranda. Florida’s Dan Mullen has been pretty good, but I want a longer track record at a big program — he’s probably the guy on this list I feel the worst about not writing more about. Urban Meyer will quit this team in a hot minute. I think Jim Harbaugh needs to rehabilitate his image somewhere before he’s ready to be a professional head coach again.

Because of my clarification in the last post about hiring anyone that Jack Easterby knows, obviously, I am not interested in Josh McDaniels, Matt Patricia, or Jerod Mayo. No, I don’t care how fawning the Chronicle article was about Mayo.

Some guys who got mentioned to me in the post are guys I just don’t think have any reason to leave for the Texans. I don’t think Ryan Day should leave Ohio State to go to the Texans. They’re not hiring John Harbaugh. Some of them I just don’t think are ready to be head coaches — I saw a lot of 49ers underlings like Mike McDaniels being thrown around as potential hires. Maybe that will happen, but it wouldn’t be my focus. There are plenty of guys with coordinator experience who I’d give a shot first. I haven’t been particularly impressed with Byron Leftwich in his stints as Arizona OC or, now, with Tampa Bay.

I am very grateful for his best years, but no thanks on Gary Kubiak as a reunion. I can’t believe I have to say this, but because people have asked — no, I don’t want Tim Kelly to be the head coach. Great job this year after BOB bit the dust, but that’s an elevation that makes me squeamish.

Who am I interviewing despite some reservations?

Todd Bowles
Last five years by the numbers:
2020: Bucs DC, -16.1% def. DVOA (3rd)
2019: Bucs DC, -10.5% def. DVOA (6th)
2018: Jets HC, -17.0% total DVOA (25th)
2017: Jets HC, -19.2% total DVOA (27th)
2016: Jets HC, -34.5% total DVOA (32nd)

Bowles’ defenses with the Jets were similarly not good, never rising above 22nd place after 2015. While I admit that those Jets teams were lacking talent — by the end it was Jamal Adams and Leonard Williams playing around stopgaps at best — I think if you look at his Tampa teams you can say that he inherited a ton of talent. The fact that when given control to pick an offensive coordinator the team wound up with Chan Gailey and guys who would never coordinate again is also not optimism-inducing.

Bowles’ defensive blueprint is to turn up the heat. Tampa is fifth in blitz rate as of Week 12’s games at 39.3%. They were second in 2019 with a 43.4% blitz rate. The Jets were top-six in blitz rate in 2018.

Bowles’ first season with the Jets was some good lightning in a bottle. I do think he deserves a second chance somewhere, particularly with how Tampa’s defense has showed up under him. But I would question the offensive direction of the franchise and think his defensive blue-print winds up being a bit one-dimensional.

Steve Spagnuolo
Last five years by the numbers:
2020: Chiefs DC, 3.2% def. DVOA (17th)
2019: Chiefs DC, -2.6% def. DVOA (14th)
2018: n/a
2017: Giants DC, 7.6% def. DVOA (25th)
2016: Giants DC, -13.9% def. DVOA (3rd)

One thing I’ve thought a lot about since I heard it was from a For The Win podcast that Steven Ruiz did with Chris Vasseur, and Vasseur (I’m paraphrasing) defended Matt Patricia and said something along the lines of Patricia has good ideas even if the results haven’t been there.

I think Spagnuolo has some great ideas. I think he’s extremely creative. I don’t doubt that he’s in the upper echelon of defensive coaches in the NFL. But that track record? Just not enough for me to want to bank on him to turn it around. And it’s not like his 11-41 head coaching record has been all that impressive either.

(It’s funny that his two offensive coordinators in St. Louis were … Josh McDaniels and Pat Shurmur.)

Kellen Moore
Last five years by the numbers:
2020: Cowboys OC, -13.0% off. DVOA (26th)
2019: Cowboys OC, 24.5% off. DVOA (2nd)
2018: Cowboys QB, -6.3% off. DVOA (24th)
2017: Still playing
2016: Still playing

Well, you certainly can’t hold his year against him without Dak Prescott. Coming into Week 5 the Cowboys led the NFL in passing yards and that’s without the benefit of most of the vaunted offensive line. Without Prescott, the Cowboys are basically in free-fall on offense, trying to make Andy Dalton hit three receivers who can get open in the very brief window of time they have before someone runs over a backup lineman.

That said, I don’t know if I can justify going out and banking on just one year of production, and it’s not like there are a ton of hidden upsides to the Cowboys this year. Maybe you get someone like Kris Richard as defensive coordinator out of the deal and that’s not so bad, but it feels like a big projection at this point and making Prescott and Amari Cooper torch the league isn’t exactly ground-breaking stuff — those are good players.

Moore’s on a good track to becoming a head coach, it just feels about two years too soon to me.

Dave Toub
Last five years by the numbers:
2020: Chiefs ST Coordinator, -1.7% ST DVOA (23rd)
2019: Chiefs ST Coordinator, 4.1% ST DVOA (2nd)
2018: Chiefs ST Coordinator, 5.6% ST DVOA (2nd)
2017: Chiefs ST Coordinator, 5.3% ST DVOA (4th)
2016: Chiefs ST Coordinator, 7.8% ST DVOA (1st)

Back in the day — by the day I mean like, 2016 — Toub used to get a lot of steam as a John Harbaugh guy — someone who can oversee an entire team well because they’re used to dealing with special teams and the detail-level work that takes. Now I feel like maybe his time has passed a little? Nobody interviews him anymore. But you can’t say he’s not a maestro at what he does — I’m sure the Chiefs special teams DVOA will be on the up-and-up these last four weeks, and other than that it’s an instant top-five unit every year he’s in charge, mostly working with UDFA guys outside of Tyreek Hill. He’s been running special teams since 2004 between the Bears and Chiefs.

I know it’s a little outside the box of what I’m preferring, but maybe he’s a guy who wows in his interview and has a plan for everything, like Harbaugh did. I’m a big fan of his work and I’d absolutely take an interview with him.

Matt Eberflus
Last five years by the numbers:
2020: Colts DC, -11.4% def. DVOA (8th)
2019: Colts DC, 3.0% def. DVOA (19th)
2018: Colts DC, -3.5% def. DVOA (11th)
2017: Cowboys LBs, 1.9% def. DVOA (16th)
2016: Cowboys LBs, -2.2% def. DVOA (14th)

This is the one I expect to be a major disagreement between me and the lists I’ve seen from everyone else — I just don’t think Eberflus is some kind of rising star. I think he has coached a steady, passive defense that has done extremely well at times. But if you look at the elevation this year, I think a lot of it is about bringing in DeForest Buckner and, breaking news, DeForest Buckner does not get hired with Eberflus as head coach.

If you listen to Colts fans, you’ll hear plenty of complaints about Eberflus. They’ll talk about how his zones allowed the only Jaguars win of this season to date, one where Gardner Minshew completed 19-of-20 passes. Drew Brees completed 29-of-30 against the Colts last year. I think where I stand on defense in general right now is that I want someone who isn’t afraid to mix up multiple mindsets, but I prefer the defense be aggressive rather than passive, and there are times over the past few years where Eberflus has played passive and gotten burned. After years of watching Romeo Crennel zones on third-and-long get torched, I’m not yearning for more of that. The underlying numbers are good, not great. I want great if someone is going to be the head coach.

Now, does that mean that I have no interest in him? No. But rather than being a presumptive top candidate for the job, he’s gotta come in and wow me in an interview.

Don Martindale
Last five years by the numbers:
2020: Ravens DC, -11.4% def. DVOA (7th)
2019: Ravens DC, -11.5% def. DVOA (5th)
2018: Ravens DC, -11.7% def. DVOA (4th)
2017: Ravens LBs, -13.4% def. DVOA (4th)
2016: Ravens LBs, -9.5% def. DVOA (6th)

Here is the yin to Eberflus’ yang. Nobody has sent more blitzes over the last few years than Martindale, and because the Ravens run an organizational philosophy that stacks the roster with good defensive backs, the Ravens have generated a ton of pressure without much in the way of investing in star edge rushers. It’s been Matt Judon for most of his reign, and the results have empirically been quite good.

However, as much as I like Martindale and prefer his operating philosophy to Eberflus, I think Martindale needs to find the off switch sometimes. I think his game plan against the Chiefs — blitzing Mahomes early and often — has been destroyed every time the two teams play. He’s the major reason I have no faith in the Ravens to make that a fair fight right now. It’s a minor quibble to a unit that has, overall, been very successful. This is where the Yannick Ngakoue trade came from — a desire to be able to beat Mahomes with pressure that isn’t schemed.

I do believe in Martindale a little more than I believe in Eberflus. But there may be a little more Rex Ryan in here than you’d really want in a head coach.

Jim Caldwell
Last five years by the numbers:
2020: n/a
2019: Dolphins assistant head coach/quarterbacks, -14.5% DVOA (28th)
2018: n/a
2017: Lions HC, 9.0% total DVOA (12th)
2016: Lions HC, -11.2% total DVOA (26th)

I have no idea if Caldwell actually wants a job — and I’m not saying that in a coded way, I haven’t read anything about him interviewing anywhere — he recently said he might be interested on Adam Schefter’s podcast. I think you have to look at him seriously. He’s the only person in years to turn that Lions franchise into something respectable. He won 14 games when he had a healthy Peyton Manning. His 2-14 season — the thing that makes his career record 112-62 instead of something obscene — came with Manning sidelined and him hung out to dry with a retirement-worthy Kerry Collins.

Caldwell’s offenses routinely were among the league’s least interested in running, which fits well with Watson. His job as interim offensive coordinator in Baltimore culminated in the Joe Flacco Super Bowl explosion. Even what happened in Miami in 2019 is mostly above expectations for what you might have thought from an offense with DeVante Parker, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and company.

I’m not saying there’s no downside here — it’s not like we know of Caldwell as some master innovator or anything — but someone who has put up the records he has and been involved in some overperforming teams should be on the radar.

Doug Pederson
Last five years by the numbers:
2020: Eagles HC, -18.5% total DVOA (27th)
2019: Eagles HC, 5.5% total DVOA (11th)
I2018: Eagles HC, -1.0% total DVOA (15th)
2017: Eagles HC, 23.7% total DVOA (5th)
2016: Eagles HC, 13.3% total DVOA (6th)

This is assuming he’s fired — Super Bowl-winning head coach available. Who is to blame for the collapse of the Eagles? Is it Carson Wentz, is it Pederson, is it the talent around both of them? I think the easy answer is that it’s a mix of the three. Brett Kollman did a video on Wentz that I found enlightening. I agree on most of the points of it.

At the same time, Pederson’s offense in and of itself hasn’t struck me as especially innovative or anything. Neither Travis Fulgham nor Zach Ertz gets easy separation often out of it. Is that a groceries thing or is it about the schemes? I think when I watch the Eagles there’s just been something lacking in the calls. I’m not saying that Wentz isn’t to blame — he is — but even when he’s played decently in it, the offense hasn’t been dominant in any year since 2017. 2017, of course, was dominated by an obscenely great third-down offense.

My read of Pederson? He’s someone who was strategically ahead of the game on fourth-down conversions. The rest of the league caught up to that. Now he doesn’t really have a winning edge. I don’t think he’s bad, I’m happy to interview him, but I think the recent Super Bowl might draw eyes here that wouldn’t exist if they’d watched just the last three years of Eagles games.

Brian Daboll
Last five years by the numbers:
2020: Bills OC, 7.7% off DVOA (8th)
2019: Bills OC, -7.1% off DVOA (21st)
2018: Bills OC, -27.9% off DVOA (31st)
2017: Alabama OC, 33.5 off S&P+ (11th)
2016: Patriots TE coach, 27.9% off DVOA (1st)

I don’t want to speak ill of what Daboll has done in the past, but what keeps me from giving him a full endorsement for the job he’s done with Josh Allen is that it’s mostly just a six-game sample. Nobody could have made that 2018 Bills defense good, but 2019 could have done quite a bit better. It’s also an inescapable fact in my mind that he has tied himself to Bill Belichick and Nick Saban and that is what is driving a lot of league-wide interest in his services.

That said, what a breakout year this has been for Allen. And Daboll has done an excellent job of using more play-action (122 passes through Week 12, third-most in the NFL) and letting Allen and Stefon Diggs create a real connection. It would look even better if they had an actual run game. I can’t look at what Daboll has created this year and say with a straight face that I thought it would happen. So I’d love to hear more about what made him reinvent things for Allen during quarantine and how that has worked.

Another thing I think Daboll would have going for him is that both the Bills and Alabama defense roots should probably turn up somebody who is a good defensive schemer. (If it’s Matt Patricia, though, kill me.)

Who is clearly in the inner circle?

8. Greg Roman
Last five years by the numbers:
2020: Ravens OC, -6.7% off. DVOA (24th)
2019: Ravens OC, 28.2% off. DVOA (1st)
2018: Ravens assistant, 1.2% off. DVOA (13)
2017: Ravens assistant, -4.6% off. DVOA (21st)
2016: Bills OC, 10.5% off. DVOA (9th)

Recommended further reading:

If you want to build a run-first attack, Greg Roman is your man. Roman’s created powerful rushing offenses as Jim Harbaugh’s right-hand man in San Francisco, as Rex Ryan’s counterpoint in Buffalo with Tyrod Taylor, and now with the Ravens. While I don’t think what the Ravens do as a run offense is replicable because Lamar Jackson is a special talent in that regard at the quarterback position, he’s had empirical success with guys like Taylor and Colin Kaepernick who are closer to what Deshaun Watson is. The 2016 Bills had the best rushing DVOA in the NFL.

In trying to decide between Roman and passing-game focused coordinators, I’ve leaned towards the passing game because the NFL is a passing league. The Ravens led the NFL in pass offense DVOA last year, and Jackson was MVP, but I am less sold on Roman’s ability to create pass offense from a negative game-script. I don’t think what’s happening with the Ravens this year is 100% his fault, as I don’t think the team has a good receiving corps, but he definitely hasn’t helped things.

Roman’s past is kind of odd. After being let go by the Ravens in 2006 he didn’t see much of an NFL future and went to call offensive plays at his high school. He was also, weirdly, fired by Rex Ryan in the middle of the 2016 season. It’s hard, as an outsider, to understand why he’s not been in the right circles to keep moving up in the NFL. But it would be a return for Roman — he was on the original Texans staff in 2002 — and I’ll bet he could divvy up a hell of a run game for Watson.

7. Brent Venables
Last five years by the numbers:
2020: Clemson DC, 15.3 def. S&P+ (7th)
2019: Clemson DC, 14.6 def S&P+ (4th)
2018: Clemson DC, 12.6 def S&P+ (3rd)
2017: Clemson DC, 8.3 def S&P+ (2nd)
2016: Clemson DC, 14.1 def S&P+ (6th)

Recommended further reading:

If you want a defensive schemer who is on the forefront of college football right now, there are really two answers: Brent Venables and Dave Aranda. I think Venables could come in to the pros tomorrow and make even this bad Houston defense pretty competitive right away. The track record is unfathomably good. Cut-ups of this guy’s work on defense make film Twitter’s world go round.

Ultimately though, it’s someone who has never been a head coach, so it’s a big leap of faith. I like the idea of him picking an offensive guy to complement Watson because, well, he watched Watson’s college career. I think he has a good idea of how to fit that. This may seem like a wildly aggressive ranking and I’m okay with that, but between the sustained dominance and the connection to Watson, I’d be very excited to grant an interview here and learn more.

Why Venables and not Dabo? I just think it’s all about the personality and ego management — one of them has it, the other one really needs to be in college football for what he does to clear the bar of acceptable.

6. Lincoln Riley
Last five years by the numbers:
2020: HC Oklahoma, 44.4 off. S&P+ (3)
2019: HC Oklahoma, 46.1 off. S&P+ (3)
2018: HC Oklahoma, 54 off. S&P+ (1)
2017: HC Oklahoma, 49.8 off. S&P+ (1)
2016: HC Oklahoma, 48.7 off. S&P+ (1)

Recommended further reading:

It’s hard to argue with the offensive genius of what Riley has built at Oklahoma. Even in a down year with a new quarterback, they’re still churning out points by the boatload. While I’ve got some coaches higher on this list with less head coaching experience, I would even say that as someone with experience running a program as a whole, and perhaps that breadth of experience of a Riley would be extremely helpful.

But what has he done with that power? The defense has largely been pretty bad, and that is squarely on his shoulders to fix. That’s giving me some major Kubiak vibes. Kubiak in Houston ran his own guys for five years at DC and basically washed Andre Johnson’s career down the drain because of it. I like what Riley is about as an offensive designer and I’m sure he’d have better talent to work with a defense in the pros, but the combination of no pro game experience and that bad OU defense are big questions I need answers to before I sign up for him as Watson’s coach for the next part of this journey.

That said — you can’t find anybody with his track record in the college game, and if what he does translates, it’s high-reward. High-risk, high-reward. Nobody in the collegiate game does it quite as well as Riley has over this recent stretch.

5. Brandon Staley
Last five years by the numbers:
2020: Rams DC, -12.2% def. DVOA (6th)
2019: Broncos LB coach, -2.8% def. DVOA (13th)
2018: Bears LB coach, -25.4% def. DVOA (1st)
2017: Bears LB coach, -0.4% def. DVOA (14th)
2016: John Carroll DC

Recommended further reading:

I think this is the best stab out there at hiring a long-term defense guy who has already established some roots at the NFL level. Whenever I praise Staley, what inevitably happens is that somebody says “Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey, how hard could it be?” Well, let me read off to you some of the other players that are starting on this defense: Sebastian Joseph, Leonard Floyd, Samson Ekubam, Kenny Young, Troy Reeder, Jordan Fuller. The Rams lost a ton of defensive talent last offseason, and even some of their long-time stalwarts like Michael Brockers are pretty one-dimensional.

Doesn’t matter, Staley’s defense has (through Week 12) held opponents to the lowest net yards/attempt in the NFL and just 3.9 yards per carry. Jalen Ramsey, by the way, has been targeted 46 times in 10 games. Players like Darious Williams (UDFA) and Troy Hill (small stakes free agency) are the ones doing well with a massive amount of targets. Micah Kiser had stepped in and done an excellent job replacing Cory Littleton, a huge free-agent bust for the Raiders.

Honed under Vic Fangio, who has created several of the best defenses of the past decade, I believe importing Staley to Houston would do quite nicely for the bad defense here. And, you know, if they want to bring some of those Rams offensive concepts that have hid Jared Goff so well to Houston too, that’s pretty nice as well.

4. Eric Bieniemy
Last five years by the numbers:
2020: Chiefs OC, 30.0% off. DVOA (1st)
2019: Chiefs OC, 25.6% off. DVOA (2nd)
2018: Chiefs OC, 35.4% off. DVOA (1st)
2017: Chiefs RB coach, 16.4% off. DVOA (4th)
2016: Chiefs RB coach, 3.1% off. DVOA (13th)

Recommended further reading:

Listen, football media attributes a lot of everything that happens on offense to Andy Reid in Kansas City. Is that fair? I don’t know. I don’t see what Eric Bieniemy does on a daily basis. I don’t know how he prepares the guys. But given the relative success of the Reid coaching tree and the fact that he’s an offensive mind who reportedly already has Deshaun Watson’s eye if you listen to Jason La Canfora, I think it’s important that we consider him seriously.

My main negatives on Bieniemy are things he has no control over. His career as an offensive coordinator has overlapped the career of a generational quarterback talent and a generational play caller as his head coach. From an empirical standpoint, that makes it hard to measure what Bieniemy’s contributions are. There’s also skeletons in the closet about his time in Colorado as offensive coordinator — I have no clue how much they matter to anybody today. The 2011 and 2012 Buffalos were terrible at offense, but Colorado as a program has floundered for years.

Would we consider Matt Nagy’s coaching career a success if he had drafted Deshaun Watson? I have no idea. I definitely believe Bieniemy is worth an interview and has a shot at being a great coach. But I have less evidence of him working well with inferior surroundings to compare him to my top three on.

3. Robert Saleh
Last five years by the numbers:
2020: 49ers DC, -5.8% def. DVOA (9th)
2019: 49ers DC, -20.3% def. DVOA (2nd)
2018: 49ers DC, 6.5% def. DVOA (24th)
2017: 49ers DC, 9.1% def. DVOA (27th)
2016: Jaguars LBs coach, -2.1% def. DVOA (15th)

Recommended further reading:

If we had just the last two years of Saleh, I think I’d be more excited about him than any other candidate besides my No. 1. But those first two years with the 49ers were brutal. Yes, they had nobody. I remember how bleak the pre-Shanahan 49ers were. But they were not great years. Saleh checks the leader of men box emphatically, to the point where Richard Sherman continually goes to bat for him.

Schematically, I think he’s done a great job of adjusting to his own weaknesses, and this year in the wake of losing Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, and Buckner, there have been a lot of them. They’ve successfully integrated Javon Kinlaw, which has helped, but for this ragtag unit to be ninth in DVOA is a minor miracle.

Listen to some of the names that have started games for the 49ers this year: Kevin Givens, Kerry Hyder, Jamar Taylor, Jason Verrett. These are scrapheap free agents or UDFA guys. Saleh has helped develop Fred Warner into one of the best linebackers in the NFL. I think he’d be a major upgrade for Houston’s defense, and bringing a Shanaclan-approved OC would be a nice bonus.

2. Arthur Smith
Last five years by the numbers:
2020: Titans OC, 23.7% off. DVOA (3rd)
2019: Titans OC, 13.0% off. DVOA (6th)
2018: Titans TEs, -5.6% off. DVOA (23rd)
2017: Titans TEs, -2.1% off. DVOA (18th)
2016: Titans TEs, 10.8% off. DVOA (32nd)

Recommended further reading:

I’m blown away by what the Titans have done over the past two seasons, and I want in.

Smith has created an outside-zone heavy system that runs a ton of effective play-action (per SportsRadar, nobody has more play-action passing yards than the Titans this year through Week 12’s games.) Yes, Derrick Henry isn’t on this roster and is a special flower, I agree. But I don’t think that what he does in getting to those holes is all that special — he’s special because he’s running over your safety and corner after he reaches them. He’s rejuvenated Ryan Tannehill from a nobody into a franchise quarterback with nothing more than the second-round stab at A.J. Brown and a bunch of nonsense.

There’s a secret allure here in my eyes because, well, I’m not a huge Mike Vrabel guy as far as the schemes go. I think he’s a great leader of men. I think he’s heady as far as creating timeouts and exploiting rules. I give him a lot of credit there. But I think his defense has been rough this year without Dean Pees. If you take away his advantage with Smith, well, are the Titans necessarily going to be able to recreate that? Is that guy in the building? I don’t know. I’m not positive about that.

Smith’s background isn’t much — he’s a quick-riser with almost no direct control before the 2019 season — but what he’s put out so far has been so good that it’s hard to ignore. The idea of pairing Watson on a bootleg sort of game appeals to me, and with no direct Kyle Shanahan availability, I think this is the guy that reminds me the most of him in this class.

Who would I most like to see as Texans head coach?

  1. Joe Brady
    Last five years by the numbers:
    2020: OC, Carolina Panthers (5.8% DVOA, 10th)
    2019: OC, LSU (48.9 S&P+ O, 1st)
    2018: Saints offensive assistant (27.0% DVOA, 1st)
    2017: Saints offensive assistant (16.1% DVOA, 2nd)
    2016: Grad assistant, Penn State

Recommended further reading:

Everyone wants to find the next Sean McVay or Kyle Shanahan. I think Brady is the best fit for that. It is a goddamn miracle that the Panthers offense is in the top 10 in offensive DVOA. Teddy Bridgewater was left for dead. Christian McCaffrey has been out for weeks, they’ve plugged in Mike Davis and lost nothing. The offensive line that the Panthers have rolled out is Taylor Moton and some hot garbage. Do they have good receivers? Sure. You know who else has good receivers right now? The Houston Texans. A big part of what elevates Brady above the best of the rest to me is that he’s done what he’s done this year with the NFL equivalent of table scraps.

Last year at LSU, Brady was the main author of one of the best offenses in the history of college football. With a transfer quarterback leading the way — one who his offense would help elevate to the No. 1 overall pick — LSU scored 36 or more points in every game but one for the entire season. They faced a worthy Clemson defense in the championship game and dropped 42. The year before, with mostly the same team, LSU scored 36 or more points just six times in 13 games. His deeper history has Sean Payton/Saints roots, which are also wildly successful at the NFL level.

Is he a perfect, 100% flawless candidate? No. I have no idea what he would do at DC. I don’t know much about his talent evaluation or his GM acumen. (I know the Texans will hire a real GM, spoiler alert to fans: head coach evaluations matter a lot in the GM process.) What I do know is that you’ve got a guy with a history of elevating even janky talent to good places and that you can pair him with Deshaun Watson. That seems to be the cleanest fit on the board to me.


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Four Downs: Colts 26, Texans 20

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 spent this season pissing away a series of MVP-caliber performances by Deshaun Watson. Call a spade a spade. With the game on the line, down six and at the Indianapolis 2 with 1:28 remaining, center Nick Martin snapped a ball low and away, and failed to block anybody as the Colts recovered the aborted snap.

As usual, Watson absorbed that pain. He waited roughly 30 minutes before his presser and gave a raw account of the facts, blaming himself for not picking up the snap and saying he felt like he let the entire city of Houston down.

This is how a leader acts. This is the kind of thing fans want to see: players taking accountability, speaking openly of greatness and their journey to get there, and trying to learn from their mistakes. Meanwhile, because of injuries and suspensions, he’s creating 100-yard receiving days for Chad Hansen and Keke Coutee.

In a month most of us aren’t going to remember this game. The Texans have had a nice little comeback here, but the writing was kind of on the wall that the miracle comeback was dead when Bradley Roby and Will Fuller got suspended heading into this five-game stretch. We’re going to move on to the actual business of the Texans, which is rebooting from a lost season. But I know one person in the building who is going to remember it, he wears No. 4. Even in a down year for the franchise, with his head coach fired, his heart and soul is so deep into everything he does.

That’s what makes this as depressing as it is.

1) T.Y. Hilton is the true owner of the Houston Texans

Janice and Cal McNair may have their name on the papers, but the man who had racked up 85 catches for 1537 yards and 10 touchdowns in 16 regular season games against the Texans torched backup plan Texans corners Phillip Gaines and Vernon Hargreaves relentlessly in the first half. Hilton had seven catches for 100 yards and a score in the first half. Most of the plays that he made, Texans defensive backs were barely even in his area code.

There were some very strange things about this game to me that mostly shook out in a surprising way. Run defense was better than I thought it would be. Run offense was better than I thought it would be. But God forbid the Texans actually figure out a way to shut down a No. 1 receiver. Doubling them? Unthinkable. Playing enough zone to keep them from going off? Unthinkable.

Why the Colts went away from Hilton in the second half? I have no idea. I suspect they were trying to run clock at some points. They kept getting in bad down-and-distance situations (third-and-18, third-and-10, third-and-13) and not being able to hide Rivers’ deteriorated arm strength. But there were only three targets that were at Hilton that weren’t caught, and one of them was a dropped screen.

When we talk about how stubborn this franchise is, there are a lot of things that come to mind immediately from just the last few years. Refusal to fire Bill O’Brien after he’d taken the Texans as far as he could. Refusal to deal with whatever irrational hatred they had of DeAndre Hopkins’ personality and practice habits.

But for my money, it’s amazing that they still haven’t figured out that they have nobody that can defend T.Y. Hilton and continue to just look on in amazement as he dusts them game after game after game, regardless of quarterback, place in standings, or anything else.

2) Zone-heavy coverages left Watson peppering the middle of the field

This was a big game for Chad Hansen, the former practice-squad receiver, and Keke Coutee — but what this really was to me was a game that showcased Watson’s growth as a thrower and his understanding of defenses. Both Coutee and Hansen made great adjustments to balls thrown in zone coverage.

Hansen’s line is a little inflated on a ball that was tipped off of Xavier Rhodes to him, but he still showcased good instincts to catch it as it fluttered towards him. Here’s Coutee adjusting to a ball that had to be thrown where it was because of the zone coverage:

Finally, I want to appreciate this rocket throw to Brandin Cooks that nearly pushed him backwards. This is a tight-window throw you have to push at an NFL level, and Watson checked that box:

In his career against the Colts, Watson has had some big games — notably Week 4 in Indianapolis in 2018. He’s also had games that were a little more muted. He’s taken 16 sacks against the Colts, and with three more in today’s game, that ties for the most he’s had against any team — in just five games. They destroyed him and the O’Brien offense in the 2018 playoffs. In this one, he showed a lot of poise from the pocket and attacked the middle of the field zones:

The one interception here was, in my opinion, total bullshit. Not to say that Watson didn’t make some risky throws that deserved to get picked off, but I think the Texans got hosed on that call. That looked like Cooks was down and then the ball was wrested from his grasp. Watson tore up the middle of this field with only one of the receivers he played with circa Week 5.

It’s an encouraging long-term sign for his development and where he’s at, and I’ll stop to appreciate it even as the result of this game leaves a bitter taste to it.

3) “You just don’t normally see this at this level.”

To their credit, Houston’s defense played pretty well outside of Hilton’s explosion. J.J. Watt and Jacob Martin both got sacks through backup backup tackle Chaz Green. Charles Omenihu broke up a pass. The run defense came to play other than a small stretch of the fourth quarter.

But in a game where a lot of what came to the Colts was hard-earned, what stood out to me on remembrance was this garbage fourth-and-3 play. Stop them right here and you win this game, and the Texans completely lost Jonathan Taylor. Rich Gannon’s words were: “Somebody has to account for the running back in the passing game, you just don’t normally see that at this level. Just a blown assignment on the part of this Texans defense.”

Well, you know what I remembered? When the Texans left Juju Smith-Schuster completely uncovered in Pittsburgh for a touchdown, in a game they lost by one touchdown. When Adam Humphries was left completely uncovered in a coverage snafu, in a game that Rich Gannon also covered:

When Jake Luton threw a touchdown to D.J. Chark. When Adam Thielen was left completely uncovered on play-action in the Minnesota game. When the linebackers didn’t cover Derrick Henry in overtime in Tennessee.

This defense busts coverage figuratively at least once per game. It’s a major problem. I don’t know how you address it — I would guess off-hand that moving your corner to safety before the season might not help — but these mental mistakes show up constantly. They are, as Gannon points out, college mistakes. They do happen often. They can make a big difference in close games!

The players have talked about Anthony Weaver simplifying things over the last couple of weeks. I think they’ve clearly improved. But plays like this are just far, far too common this year. Someone’s got to answer for it.

4) The interior offensive line got their asses kicked

If I had written a preview of this game, the majority of it would have focused on the return of DeForest Buckner and how the interior of the Colts line is loaded for bear against a Texans interior that has had a challenging season. Sure enough, the three sacks that the Colts picked up are mostly on the interior. Zach Fulton — in particular — just can’t seem to pick up stunts effectively. Here’s the safety:

After the game Watson would say that he knew that Akins was cutting across the field here, but didn’t want to throw the ball blind. He couldn’t see him through the rush and didn’t want to risk getting intercepted this deep in his own territory. Four-man rush, Justin Houston was barely touched on his way to the quarterback.

Watson did his best to make what the interior gave him look good. I still have no idea how he avoided a sack on this play:

Here’s one of the other two sacks, with Kelemete getting beat one-on-one, Fulton and Martin … what the hell are they doing on this one?

I am not going to use this column to shovel shit on Nick Martin. He’ll hear plenty about the big error. He’s honestly not the biggest problem this interior has. But that play … woof. I don’t know if both he and Fulton got fooled into thinking this was a fake rush and both thought they could let the guy go or what. It was a disaster. This is a game where the Texans honestly could have taken five or six sacks easy had Watson not made it his personal goal to dunk on them:

There aren’t many areas for evaluation on offense for whoever takes over this team’s day-to-day. Watson is set. You’re probably keeping Fuller. The tackles are set. You probably get another running back. But other than Fulton, I am very curious how they decide to deal with the offensive line. I actually want to see Hjalte Froholdt get some run down the stretch just to see what’s going on back there.

It was another game where the Texans juggled Scharping and Kelemete. The biggest weak link all year has been at right guard, which makes the fact that they keep punishing Scharping feel extra weird.

But, you know, nothing about this season is normal. So join me this time next week when we discuss how another top-notch performance by Watson was ruined by, oh, I dunno, an Eric Murray bobbled pick-six that winds up in Allen Robinson’s hands for a touchdown somehow.


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What should the Texans want in a head coaching candidate?

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.


This is part one of a two-part series. The second part — the one you actually care about — is coming later this week.

I’ve read a lot of the conversation around Texans Twitter about head coaches. I asked you all for your top five head coaching candidates last week:

I didn’t rush into the prospect of just throwing out head coaches that I like publicly when all this went down because a lot of it was/is conditional on certain things happening. If I had shot this poll out when Bill O’Brien was fired, I am guessing a lot of you would have put Greg Roman high up on the list. Now? Not hearing that quite as much. Maybe that’s earned, and maybe it’s not.

I also didn’t want to just neglect someone who might pop up a little bit later in the process. Sometimes letting the names simmer turns out to bring some ideas you wouldn’t have thought about in October.

Before I start naming the names, though, let me hit you guys with my mindset about the entire situation, because that informs a lot about who I want:

1) The head coach must (_MUST_) be ambitious

There were many things that pissed me off about the Bill O’Brien Era — most of them are somewhere on the pages of this blog. He overcommitted to the run when his team couldn’t really do that. He was dramatic in an unflattering way. He chose culture over stars in a league run by stars. I can go on.

But the No. 1 thing I think a head coach needs — here in particular with hands-off ownership — is ambition. I can’t tell you how many times I’d watch O’Brien stroll up to the podium and pull his “well every game is tough in the NFL, we’ve got to battle and scratch and claw, every game in the division is so difficult” stuff. This became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Texans would put themselves in a position where winning a 27-24 game was what the team aimed to be, and that informed things like their talent level, their drive in free agency, and their coaching philosophy.

Every year in the NFL that one of your star players has is a ticking clock. Injury attrition. Physical decline. No NFL team goes through a season without some of that hitting them. This is something that J.J. Watt has tried to get through in recent weeks to this team via stone-faced press conferences, and I think it’s wildly important.

The only time in the history of this franchise that the Texans have been able to have an empirically good unit on both sides of the ball was when they combined Gary Kubiak’s offense with Wade Phillips’ defense and spent money. The secondary in 2010 was hot garbage, they signed Johnathan Joseph and Danieal Manning. They drafted Watt. That team didn’t win it all because the quarterback wasn’t good enough to carry them through the truly tough playoff games — that’s not a shot at Matt Schaub, most quarterbacks aren’t! — but those were the best teams Houston ever saw. The peak died when there was no replacement plan for Schaub.

I want a head coach who doesn’t just want to make the playoffs. I want a head coach who wants to win the damn thing. Who wants to create a dynasty. Who wants to use every tool at his disposal — including analytics, scouting, taking sick plays off high-school reels — to make his team better. Who breathes that lifestyle.

It’s not enough to just “work hard.” Work isn’t enough. If it was, 32 NFL head coaches would win the Super Bowl every year. You need a top-down plan for the entire franchise to become good, stay good, and accumulate the talent that lets that happen over the long term. You can’t wishful thinking assistants into being great coaches. Bill O’Brien’s modus operandi was basically “I only employ people who are beholden to me, anyone else with an idea can screw off. We do things my way.” That’s not to say that Tim Kelly is never going to be a good offensive coordinator, nor is it to say that Anthony Weaver will never be a good defensive coordinator. But you can’t rely on coaches with that little experience in their respective fields — in Weaver’s case, with a ridiculously low level of talent — and just expect them to be great. It’s a recipe for disaster!

Speaking of which…

2) The next Texans head coach needs to hire someone with a plan for the other side of the ball

Most head coaches at this point specialize in either offense or defense. There are some coaching candidates that are special-teams guys like Dave Toub, but for the most part when you hire a head coach, you hire a system to fix one side of the ball. As we’ve seen with Gary Kubiak, that fails when that head coach has no locked-and-loaded plan for the other side of the ball. And, as we’ve seen with Bill O’Brien, that head coach has to actually be able to execute the plan on his side of the ball as well.

I’m a wide-net kind of guy on interviews. I’d listen to a lot of the grand plans of these guys and come into it with an open mind. There are absolutely guys who are higher in my ranking right now than others, but if lower-rankers come to me with a plan and I think they’ve got a good argument, I would be happy to be swayed. The potential head coach can’t just be selling me on his vision for his side of the ball — he needs to sell me on the vision for the entire franchise.

If I’m hiring an offense-first guy — who is his defensive coordinator going to be? What is his plan for J.J. Watt? (Do I need to tell him that J.J. Watt wants out?) What is his plan for getting the pass rush together? What is his plan for the secondary? How quickly does he think the unit can turn around? What are our main weaknesses there and how can they be improved tomorrow with no draft picks? And so on. If I’m hiring a defense-first guy — obviously Deshaun Watson is great, what are you doing to make him the best he can be so the Texans can have a truly special unit? What kind of strengths are you playing to? How do you fix the run game?

I need a fully-rounded plan.

3) The head coach must have a history of empirical success on his side of the ball, and there must be scouting backing up why what he did worked. You get bonus points if you do it without A-List talent.

There are certain coaches who I think have done a really good job this year, but when I look at what they’ve done in the past, I cringe a little bit. One guy who I’m not seeing get any buzz and who I probably won’t use in my post is Brian Schottenheimer. Do I think he’s an idiot? Nope. Do I think he’s doing a great job with the Seattle pass offense this year? I do. But is there a large history of success there? No. In fact, he actively covered up this passing game for much of 2018 and 2019, and a lot of his previous experience gets tied into Jeff Fisher’s brand of football.

Does that mean I won’t talk to him? No. Does it mean that he’s going to have to really convince me that he knows what he’s doing? You bet.

When the Texans hired Kubiak, one of the best things about him is that he had a history of making run offenses churn without needing a lot of talent or investment. Sure enough, the Texans signed players like Kevin Walter and Arian Foster, they traded for Chris Myers and had a Pro Bowl center for many years. Unheralded guys like Mike Brisiel made that running game go. They barely invested anything in the offense after bringing in Matt Schaub and Duane Brown and it consistently did very well. I’d be looking to replicate certain bits of that in this hire. Under O’Brien, the Texans signed many players to mid-level contracts in free agency that immediately underperformed. Particularly offensive linemen.

4) I lean towards having an offensive-minded head coach who wants to work with the things that Deshaun Watson does best: playing with tempo and playing out of empty

In my opinion, the best way to be a great team is to amplify the best thing you do. The best thing that this team has is Deshaun Watson. There are several elements around Deshaun Watson that would work well in bringing out his best. Duke Johnson, for example, cost a third-round pick and is not a particularly good inside zone back. But the Texans randomly discovered on Thanksgiving that they could throw to Duke Johnson out wide and it was a stunning revelation — something that should have been exploited for, and I am not kidding, literal years. The Texans instead had defenders tell their running backs things like this:

So my heart is more set on having a head coach that is going to make the Texans have the best passing offense in the NFL — maybe they don’t get there every year, maybe Patrick Mahomes is so special that it’s not possible to catch him — and using that as a jumping off point for the rest of the team. Watson is one of the highest-paid players in the NFL. He’s the face of the franchise. He’s been tearing things up even just ditching a lot of the bad structure that Bill O’Brien provided this team and letting Tim Kelly run the show.

Imagine if they found a system that made him even better, one that emphasizes the things he is uniquely great at. That’s my dream. Just Deshaun Watson tearing the NFL a new one every year until he gets bored.

5) I would prefer if the head coach had NFL experience coaching at the thing he’s good at, though this isn’t a dealbreaker to me

I don’t think Kliff Kingsbury has been a bad hire by any stretch of the imagination, but the firestorm that was supposed to be the Air Raid didn’t really take off the way people thought it would. Instead, he’s succeeded because he’s created a great run game with a substandard line and a dynamic running quarterback.

To me, the shape of the success matters more if it is NFL success. That doesn’t mean that I’m ruling out coaches that don’t have a ton of it, but I am more skeptical about a coach who hasn’t proven something in the NFL (or, at the very least, whose inspirations haven’t proven much in the NFL.)

Bill O’Brien was kind of a weird hire because he wasn’t statistically impressive in college, but he also was dealing with massive sanctions in the wake of the Joe Paterno/Jerry Sandusky Nittany Lions. He did great work with Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, but, well, so did everybody. Join the club.

6) If Jack Easterby remains in this front office, you can’t pick anybody from the Patriots

I don’t want the head coach that Easterby knows the best. I think any coach pick that has anything to do with the Patriots is a tough sell to the fanbase unless it’s literally Belichick or something. Maybe that’s unfair to some of those guys, but between the large recent history of failed Patriots assistants and the recent regime failure here, I can’t see it going over better than a wet fart. Sorry, but not really.

7) The small things

There’s a lot of small little bonus points in between these six things. Some things I would give extra credit for:

– Demonstrated good use analytically of timeouts and challenges. (Don’t challenge ball spots, don’t get suckered into timeouts.)
– Demonstrated use and understanding of play-action shot plays. (Area of the offense the Texans have that is currently broken.)
– Demonstrated understanding of modern offense/defense (Not shredded by RPOs, understands how to protect the middle of the field, etc.)
– Demonstrated use of adapting game plans in a successful way to overcome a weakness.
– Demonstrated ability to blow out bad teams.

Ultimately if I believe in a head coach’s ambition, I think most of these things will follow. However, the more demonstrated examples of this we have, the better. I’m not going to obsess on stuff like this, but I’m also not going to tell you it doesn’t matter.


That’s basically the gist of what I’m looking for in a head coach and what I’m hoping to figure out from the interviews. (Obviously they aren’t inviting me to the interviews, but in theory.) A lot of the things I want to know about probably won’t be brought to life in a material way for us to read and know about. But just from the outside, I hope the gist of the process looks a little something like this. I have my obvious leans and doubt they are shared by everybody, and that’s fine.

See you in a few days for the list.


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