Four Downs: Titans 41, Texans 38

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

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With 18 seconds left, the Titans completed a pass to field-goal range from their own 25 — a 52-yarder where Keion Crossen was left to deal with A.J. Brown:

The Texans gave up another four-yard run, and a doinked-in field goal to somehow lose a game where they scored on their last eight possessions. There’s a lot of talk about the Texans going 2-8 in close games, but this loss buttressed incredibly well with the one that started the O’Brien/Easterby era: The one where the Saints got a last-second field goal off after a blown coverage by Aaron Colvin.

The Texans have lived this life before. The story of the Bill O’Brien era was that in the mindset of “an 8-8 league,” as he always used to say, you’re only as good as your opponents. It’s okay to have a somewhat deficient defense when you’re facing Alex Smith or Jake Luton. When you face Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Philip Rivers, Ryan Tannehill, Ben Roethlisberger, and so on … not quite so easy. This defense has always been shreddable under Romeo Crennel. They have a terrible and easily exploitable game plan on third-and-long. That came to roost several times today, and again, one final time, for the game-winning field goal.

The story of Bill O’Brien’s Texans, beyond doing all of the world’s worst trades and acquisitions for literally no reason, is that they refused to adapt as the game did. They refused to figure out why David Johnson would be a bad fit for them, they just assumed he’d be good at zone. They refused to believe that they needed more talent on defense or that J.J. Watt wasn’t just going to be an era-defining superstar in every season. They refused to believe that they could do anything but run Yankee concepts out of play-action. They refused to believe that there was a better path on zone defense. They refused to defend play-action in any way but having linebackers get psyched out and opening huge holes. They promoted in-house aggressively and then turned it back over to the guy who had failed, and he — unsurprisingly — failed again. They tried to play 8-8 league football as O’Brien would have played 8-8 league football in 2014.

It didn’t work because it could never work. It isn’t 2014 anymore.

1) The same ol’, same ol’

I have watched this team get its ass kicked by Derrick Henry four times in two seasons. He coughed it up once in this game when Zach Cunningham spun into him protecting the football high, but other than that, he had his way with the run defense. They continued to struggle on practically every level. I remember maybe four or five plays where an edge contained him, otherwise, it was off to the races.

The Texans didn’t magically learn to tackle. They continued to employ passing downs players as run downs players. Even J.J. Watt got in on the act by blowing an edge assignment late in the game. Whenever the Titans wanted to run read-options with Ryan Tannehill the edge was completely open and vacated.

Outside of the fumble, they didn’t force a single punt all day after their first drive. Every time it got to third down, the Titans knew they’d go right at Vernon Hargreaves or Keion Crossen with A.J. Brown and it was almost pre-ordained to work.

This defense was broken from the beginning. I would like to tell you that individual parts improved — and I guess they did to the extent that Crossen was playing instead of Phillip Gaines or something like that — but this is the 2020 Houston Texans. They never actually tried to fix anything. They never went all-out with blitzes after the few games they won running Justin Reid at Cam Newton and Matt Stafford. They just kept on doing the same stupid ass things they’d been doing all season. Kept making Charles Omenihu a run-down player, kept using EDGE players who had no business being out there, kept pretending Brandon Dunn and Ross Blacklock could run the same kind of scheme that D.J. Reader had, kept running out cornerbacks that were utterly hopeless (and praising them for it!), kept pretending Zach Cunningham was going to diagnose holes and attack them well. None of those things ever happened in the scope of what the Texans did. There was never a reason to believe they would.

The defense is a multi-year rebuild project. It needs love and attention from a defensive coordinator who made his chops stopping what is popular in the NFL now. It needs a massive talent injection at cornerback, edge defender, and interior defensive line. It probably could use a few extra parts as well. And all of that as we wait to see how the world turns with J.J. Watt.

It is an absolute joke that this team never appeared to try anything different after firing O’Brien. They hid behind excuses about a lack of practice time or offseason. Romeo Crennel never talked about fixing scheme — it was always players that had to do more lifting and play more soundly. I have no idea based on the quotes that were coming out about the defense just how much input Anthony Weaver had after what looked like a couple of promising early-season games.

It was a waste of everybody’s time. If Brandon Staley Bar Rescued a college defense, they could have done better than this.

2) The season that should have saved the franchise

Deshaun Watson led the NFL in passing yards. He took a massive step forward even as DeAndre Hopkins was traded and his passing corps was shuffled entirely this offseason, then shuffled again after Will Fuller’s suspension and Randall Cobb’s injury. He threw two picks in his last 11 starts, one of which was a ball wrestled away from Brandin Cooks and one of which he described in the post-game presser as a fluke:

You can (and I will, later) make a highlight video of Watson’s best throws this season that would be the equal of a career highlight reel for most of the NFL’s quarterbacks. This should have saved the franchise and it should have saved the record from being as bad as it was this season. Quarterbacks that play as well as Watson did this year don’t wind up with records like this:

It is a goddamn shame that we’re going to have to endure an offseason of win-loss trolls telling us that it’s his fault that Nick Martin blew a snap that one time, that Keke Coutee fumbled that one time, that the defense failed umpteen times with a lead or chance to close something out.

This was a special, special year. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about special years in sports — think about the year the 2011 Texans had, particularly as an offensive line and as a defense — it’s that you can’t waste them. You just can’t. They don’t follow up as often as you’d like. And I hope that weighs heavily on the minds of the decision makers down at NRG as the offseason starts.

Bill O’Brien’s firing coincides nicely with Watson’s ascent to true NFL stardom. It’s a wonder that he played as well as he did. He’s everything you could ever hope would happen when you draft a quarterback, and he’s played as well in these circumstances as anyone could have. I’m sure he thinks there is a next level — and maybe he’s right, I sure as hell won’t doubt him — but it’s hard to imagine anybody playing as well as he did this year and finishing with four wins to show for it.

You can’t waste years like this, Houston Texans. You just can’t. It is criminal to the work that this man has put in at his craft and the improvement that he’s shown.

3) What we’ve endured

The Texans have had an almost unfathomably bad run of management over the last calendar year. I wrote about the individual decisions here, but suffice to say, this goes beyond that. Individual sections of this team have been broken with almost no focus on fixing them for the entirety of the season. The play-action passing game. The running game. The offensive line’s play with stunts. The defensive line outside of Watt has been brutal at stopping the run. The linebackers bite on literally any play-fake.

We’ve watched the Titans grow from a 9-7 team to a real AFC contender, and seen that regression isn’t going to take down Ryan Tannehill that easily. We’ve watched the Colts build a bully that is a quarterback away from being a dominant team and still has a lot of room to grow. We’ve watched the Jaguars successfully tank their way to Trevor Lawrence, meaning they ostensibly won’t be pushovers in the future.

This has been a painful year. It feels like a Fiona Apple record come to life. As someone who was always a skeptic of the Bill O’Brien Era and who often finds himself tampering down on optimism, I think there’s a lot of people who would believe that I’d be happy to be “right.” Even as I picked the Texans to hold off regression this year behind Watson’s growth. But this, as J.J. Watt said last weekend, sucks.

We’ve been through a lot, friends. There’s still plenty of time for things to turn around and the Texans have one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL to do it with. But there’s no denying that it is likely going to take a couple years for the defense to get good and to recover from a salary cap perspective. If you stuck it out this entire season, lemme say, you are a diehard. This season was, as I noted on Twitter:

I don’t have shame for anybody who fled. Just praise for those of you who stuck it out with me.

4) Thank you

So to everybody who stuck it out with me and with this team as it continued to inflict pain: Thank you. To the readers who are still here even in a 4-12 campaign that is nothing but misery, thank you. I have some individual thanks to follow:

-Thank you to the donators. There were 32 of you from August to Week 16, and though I won’t share names so that I don’t out anybody who doesn’t want to be outed, you pooled together a little over $650 with no real prodding and no promises from me. I appreciate you all, and … give me a second to get back to this.

-Thank you to Steph Stradley and Sean Pendergast, who I consider the two people who share my work the farthest and widest. Steph has been by far the biggest supporter of my content and work since I got serious about writing and without her chiming in on what I’ve written, sometimes I feel lost. May you both have excellent years to come.

-Thank you to Mike Meltser, who probably kept me from retiring this blog in 2019 with an off-hand comment at his post-bar exam party (remember when we could leave the house and go to bars?) that was something along the lines of “you’re the closest thing to the truth that there is on the Texans.”

-Thank you to my wife for putting up with me holing myself up behind the dual monitor set up and essentially being unreachable for seven-hour chunks of Sundays. She hates it, and it’s been even worse this year because the pandemic has kept her from being able to go out and do other things. I’m sorry I ruined football for you.

-Thank you to Justin Reid for calling me out on Twitter and making it seem like I had any say at all in his mid-season resurgence before being lost to a hand injury. Twitter followers loved to pretend like me “calling out” Reid led to anything, but have conveniently ignored all the other people I’ve called out who did not suddenly start kicking ass. Regardless, salute. I hope your recovery goes well and that the new staff fits you well. The largest donation this blog took in this year was $100. I have sent that to Kids’ Meals Houston in your name:

-Thank you to J.J. Watt and Deshaun Watson for being the kind of people you want to promote in this world. There are certainly teams in Houston right now dealing with stars that, uh — searching for a kind way to say this — are making it hard to pull for them. I know that there are fans out there that don’t have positive opinions of the two of you, but they are the outliers. Even as the team was losing, I’m happy that both of you continued to be A+ people to cover.

-Thank you to all the people who would probably rather not have it revealed that they read this blog. Thank you to all the lurkers who talk about this stuff in their group chats. Thank you to the people who only talk to me via DM. Thank you to the people who know me from playing video games that humor me by reading this stuff. If you don’t say anything to me but you’re still a reader, I appreciate you and I totally understand why you wouldn’t want to engage with anybody on social media.

-Thank you to the Texans Unfiltered crew for their support as a fellow voice in the independent Texans content-sphere

-Thank you to Battle Red Blog for their support, and for being the old home you love and miss even as everybody still slags it.

-And, just generally, thank you to anybody who shared the posts, read the pieces, and engaged with it in a level beyond their own anger and snark. I appreciate your time and attention, the most valuable things you have to give. With your help, the Twitter account gained over 1200 followers in a lost season, and we continue to bring more people I love to interact with into the fold.

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As we scoot into the new year, we’re entering a terrifying proposition for me where the blog is growing and I have to consider expanding. People are speaking up about wanting me to do things I haven’t done before or haven’t done in a bit. I will try to accompany that to the best of my ability.

The reason it’s scary is because these last two football seasons have put a lot of mileage on me. I don’t know if you guys know this, but this blog and level of Texans coverage is basically a part-time thing that I’m treating as a second full-time job. Yeah, you can pick at little things like “posting a bunch of clips from press conferences isn’t hard” — but understanding what those things mean, trying to understand these guys at a human level, delving through all the rest of the content the team puts out and so on … that’s not easy. It’s a time-intensive undertaking to try to collate, edit, and put together all these clips into leans on who these people are. I feel like only Brandon Scott — the best questioner on the scene — could really identify with that.

So I simultaneously need to find a way to work smarter — less waste and less time spent on things that don’t matter — and I also need to find a way to get more people interested in paying for this, which is generally an area of expansion. That’s terrifying! I’m happy that I have had plenty of money from other gigs over the past couple of years, but the human toll of what I have done here is real. I haven’t touched some of my hobbies in months as the football season has drowned me. I rarely have off-days in-season and even when I do, there’s no telling when the brain will just come up with a good idea and decide to obsess about it until I write it out.

All of which is a way to say: I want to give you more of what you want. Please don’t be offended if it takes some missteps along the way to do that, because as good as I am at learning things, all of us only have so much bandwidth for that and I am also looking at spending a big chunk of my bandwidth getting deeper into Xs and Os this offseason. There’s likely to be a move to a platform that will encourage you to pay to read, and there’s likely to be a way to read things after a set period of time. There’s likely to be a podcast in some form or another. But what that does to things that you enjoyed previously? I can’t say for sure.

Or someone could just pay me a lot of money to just do this, and then I could not work for anybody else and have a reasonable amount of work in my life. That’d be nice too.

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One Reply to “Four Downs: Titans 41, Texans 38”

  1. Hey brother,
    Love your work, I love the information you bring to the Texans media. I really enjoy your writing. This year has been brutal, hell sad at times for Houston Texans football. I’m glad I found your work! I think this off-season could yield some positives, but I’m really not sure. Keep up the great work. I’ll keep trying to spread your content, and read your material. Thank you.

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