Welcome to the Dead Sea

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There’s a very thematically interesting dungeon in the ill-fated Chrono Trigger sequel Chrono Cross called The Dead Sea. The concept is that it’s a collection of timelines that didn’t happen for one reason or another — the Chrono Trigger universe that was supposed to be destroyed, for example, is one of many scenes from dead universes. Or, to quote directly from the game text: “A future denied of all existence because of a change in the past… A future that was destroyed even before it was born rests here… condensed into the Dead Sea.” These snapshots become ruins that are stagnant, frozen in time, and ghosts rummage around the place. It’s such a cool concept for a dungeon that the game hooked into … and then immediately could not keep up with on any real level.

This is the most exciting time of the NFL calendar year for most teams, because they are thinking about creating their future. Fans get to squabble over who the best player in the draft is, get to think about the future of the franchise and how it could change with one correct pick. Guess right and you get DeAndre Hopkins. Guess wrong and you get Cordarrelle Patterson. Even teams with low first-round picks can look forward to that kind of debate. But that future, like many for the Texans, is consigned to the Dead Sea.

The future where Deshaun Watson was traded before his many lawsuits made it implausible. The future where the team kept Brian Gaine and never decided to listen to Jack Easterby. The future where the organization didn’t lose the plot in the eyes of their franchise quarterback. The Texans still exist in so much as they are a real entity, but as a franchise they have become a team of what could have been rather than what is.


I think it might be a little overstated the extent that Watson’s trade value has declined or to say that his market is dead; it only takes one team. But there’s likely little to be done about moving Watson right now as his crisis continues to escalate, for sure. We have seen players with haunting off-field issues like this move after things are done — Astros fans may remember Roberto Osuna — but to make a move for someone as an investigation is being undertaken by the NFL and as a lawsuit begins to form would create a PR vortex for the acquiring team that would be hard to swallow. When these lawsuits do eventually resolve, the offers that would have been on the board for him before the draft may not reappear. It could potentially get to the point where the Texans decide it’s not worth moving him for the quoted prices, and they carry the most valuable asset in the NFL that has no interest in playing for the team. Perhaps on the suspended list for a bit.

There are fans who are trying hard to believe that this team has improved, and maybe they have in some small ways on special teams and with depth. But those moves don’t make up for losing two of the four best players on a 4-12 team to free agency and a request to be released, then watching the Watson situation go from denial to bargaining to no acceptance. This team doesn’t pick until the third round of the draft. The only player they’ll have in the first two rounds from either of the 2020 and 2021 drafts barring a trade up is Ross Blacklock, who had an abysmal rookie season while getting yanked around into roles he wasn’t fit for. Outside of Shaq Lawson, Desmond King, and Phillip Lindsay, this team didn’t add much in the way of established starter-level talent in their prime either.

I’m at the point where I’m trying to imagine writing about this team in September. I’m trying to imagine putting together a gamer after a, let’s say, 23-10 loss to the Titans. The run game got some yards with Tyrod Taylor. Here are some passes he couldn’t connect on for one reason or another. He said he had to hit those throws and he didn’t. David Culley said he wanted to dial up some plays early to get him comfortable but they couldn’t find a rhythm. Special teams blocked a field-goal attempt. The defense held on in the red zone pretty well, but gave up a back-breaking run to Derrick Henry in the third quarter. And this offense can’t play from behind and that was that. There’s one bullet point about how (Lawson, Tytus Howard, Justin Reid, etc.) played well and how that’s cool and might be something to build on. This is the optimistic side of me trying to match them against good teams.

This team has been consigned, folks. This team is in the Dead Sea. When I write about them as a football unit, you vote with your eyes about how little you believe in them. Me trying to craft a realistic optimistic upside to the offense was roundly ignored. I can’t blame you, because I can’t defend anything that’s happened here. All that’s left is what happens with Deshaun Watson.


Watson’s status deteriorated rapidly after the public testimony from Ashley Solis and the written testimony of Jennifer Baxley hit two Wednesdays ago. He was hardly in a great place before that, with the Texans issuing a letter to season ticket holders in which Cal McNair said the team was “deeply troubled by any form of abuse and we condemn this type of behavior.” But after that public testimony entered the record, Watson was dropped by sponsors and dropped out of almost all of the in-house Texans TV video introductions purposely. Innocent before proven guilty does not apply to optics. I don’t consider this a prelude to a trade, I consider it a play where an unpopular figure is minimized.

The court of public opinion on sexual assault has become a much tougher environment for a defense to win in, and while I’m not sitting here telling you I know that these cases are going to prove that Watson is guilty, I definitely think Tony Buzbee understands the positives of pressing knowledge to the public. Watson’s lawyer, Rusty Hardin, has spent the last three weeks digging up 18 masseuses that would testify to Watson’s character and trying to get defendants publicly named. Listen, if there are 40 masseuses willing to testify to Watson’s character one way or another, and 22 of them are willing to accuse him of something untoward, that’s not exactly a batting average I would want to be trumpeting.

To me, not a lot has changed since Watson’s first statement with the defense: The defense is that none of this happened and that they’ll prove it in a trial. I would love to believe that world where he is cleared exists, but just from the outside? This looks really, really bad. The number of people involved in the lawsuits and how specific the details are in a few key areas that repeat are not great signs. This could get him an NFL suspension and it already has Watson’s public image getting destroyed daily. Whether or not his desire to get traded elsewhere is happening or not is almost a non-event right now. Now that this has become a public relations firestorm rather than a small civil suit, this has become an issue where it has been bad enough for long enough that it has become easy human heuristics to assume the worst. By that I mean: Nobody with a majorly-sourced public platform that I can see is talking about this in a way that suggests the Texans will make out well.

Something Pro Football Talk brought up last week was that the Watson camp was willing to pay some money at some point: “[I] wanted to check in on this to see if Ms. Solis wanted to either help us understand the rationale behind the $100k demand or come back with a different figure,” Scott Gaffield wrote on Watson’s behalf. “As I said to [attorney] Cornelia [Brandfield-Harvey] last week, we don’t believe that the alleged facts show that Deshaun did anything wrong with regards to Ms. Solis, but we are nevertheless happy to continue the conversation around a reasonable settlement figure because we believe he can learn a lesson about having put himself in this situation.” That’s been repeated in reporting by the Washington Post, that there have been a couple different settlement windows that the defense has not taken.

I am not a lawyer, nor do I know the details of these cases front and back. But I think we’ve given the Watson team about a month since these allegations first started popping up and they have floundered themselves in the court of public opinion. I have to think if they had an easy way to protect Watson’s image — reminder, he is losing millions because of these endorsements being cancelled — they’d have gone to it. The best they have so far is that Watson engaged in consensual sex with some of these women. And, well, that’s not what you’re hearing from 22 women. The thing is, until or unless the Watson campaign has a tact beyond denial and attacking the character of the accusers, it’s kind of hard to hit on an effective defense — in the court of public opinion — that exists in 2021.

That’s about it until they actually get to a courtroom or a settlement table, Buzbee has proven that he is going to continue to effectively use the media to push out what is best for his clients, which has repercussions for Watson that are already mattering now.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to see how much changes as things stand today. There’s more hearings to be done, and more listening for us all, as we see just how far into the Dead Sea Watson’s career will go. Even a settlement may not assuage the commissioner’s office.


When Bill O’Brien was fired, there was a sense of relief from Texans fans that finally the Texans could coalesce around their young star quarterback and build something new. As I wrote at the time, it was an opportunity that they needed to ace. There were many potential positive futures for this team that they themselves sabotaged by holding on to Easterby. The Watson situation could not have been anticipated — the generally accepted company line I’ve heard is that they knew about a one-woman lawsuit but did not see it blowing up and becoming this — but they chose to put their heads in the sand about moving him because it did not fit the narrative they wanted to craft. In doing so, they may have consigned the future where this team had a highly drafted quarterback this year into the Dead Sea. And then, cherry on the shit sundae, Watson’s ongoing litigation has a potential ending of him throwing the best version of who he could have been in there as well.

All there is right now is a team that cannot find a ceiling to the number of positive situations they can self-sabotage. And it’s sad and dumb and heartbreaking to just understand how the team that was up 24-0 on the soon-to-be Super Bowl Champion Chiefs could not possibly believe any harder that they are on the right track. Because what has been created here is a situation not unlike the Hue Jackson Browns or post-Jim Harbaugh 49ers or Dennis Allen Raiders. The talent level is so depleted and the reputation so bad that it may take three or four years to finally reload it to contender status … except those teams I mentioned were actually willing to make big changes. Crap on Jed York all you want, but he didn’t hold on to Chip Kelly for a second season. This Texans team ardently seems to believe that it knows what it is doing. In fact, in the above VOD, Cal McNair asks fans to “trust that they know what’s right,” but nothing they’ve shown since Easterby joined the front office deserves that trust. That’s the most dangerous part.

Twice in three months, Nick Caserio has been forced into the “there’s a lot bigger problems in society” than the Texans rhetorical device. He’s right about that. But the fact that he even has to say it belies a lot about the state of this franchise now. It may be the worst-run major sports franchise in major American sports, maybe neck-and-neck with the Rockies and maybe the Sabres depending on the eye of the beholder.

As Steph Stradley would say, this is the time to put your feelings in escrow. This situation has been bleak for so long that it’s only natural to believe that surely things can only get better from here. I’m trying to hold on to the little scraps of hope and faith I see along the way — hopefully the third-round pick is a steal, and the UDFA class is terrific and a lot of these vets that got signed are beaten out and catch on somewhere else. Hopefully the Watson allegations are resolved in a way that is a positive outcome for the women involved and in a way where Watson can rehabilitate his status in a way that jives with the character he’s displayed in the past.

But it’s hard to think of this team as anything but an aftermath right now. What could have been is gone. What remains is a team of players who don’t deserve the rancor they’re going to get because they’ve been asked to do the impossible: make this look good.


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Optimism Prospectus: Texans Offense

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


I am pretty much incapable of optimism as an operating system when it comes to these Houston Texans. I don’t trust the leadership of the team. I don’t believe the David Culley CEO head coach plan is a good one, much as I am pulling for him to make it work. I don’t believe that any organization that would dig in around a failed culture because the owner is a big fan of the culture leader has a bright future.

But I want to express what I believe is a rational optimistic viewpoint for this team as a thought exercise. Not because I believe any of it will happen, but because the fanbase gets a little whiny if I don’t throw in a little sunshine every now and then. Well, these are my beliefs of how much things can change.

The offense
2020 DVOA: 13th (8th pass, 32nd run, second-easiest schedule in the NFL, 15.5 adjusted games lost — third-lowest)

If Deshaun Watson, for whatever reason, comes back, the ceiling of this offense is high enough to make the team a playoff contender and a tough out in the playoffs. He is simply that good. I don’t know that this is in anyway feasible at this point, and I am not trying to get anyone’s hopes up or handwave the allegations he’s dealing with away. He made an ascension into a top-five quarterback last season that nobody saw, despite playing in an offense that absolutely could not run the ball and, at times, playing with almost no receiver help. Because I don’t see him coming back, I’m going to leave this paragraph hanging here and move on. But because it would change literally everything about this team, the caveat has to come first.

Tyrod Taylor’s best years were spent with the Buffalo Bills, leading a run-first offense with a Hall of Very Good back to three consecutive above-average seasons. The 2015-2017 Bills finished fourth, first, and then 20th in run offense DVOA in a year that got Greg Roman fired mid-season. The pass offense DVOA declined precipitously after a ninth-place finish in 2015. Since moving on from Buffalo, he’s been a place-holder for young quarterbacks, keeping the Browns warm for Baker Mayfield and the Chargers job to mentor Justin Herbert for a few games.

The two major knocks against Taylor as a passer are his lack of deep strikes and his sack rate. Taylor threw 25% of his passes as “deep” or “bombs” per FO charting with the Bills in his first season, but fell to 22% in 2016 and a ghastly 16% in 2017. To be fair, that 2017 Bills team had no receivers of note — Kelvin Benjamin was just about done with his time in the league and their leading receiver by targets was rookie Zay Jones. (Note that this is not slandering Taylor’s deep ball so much as noting he doesn’t uncork it often.) The Bills had a decent-to-good offensive line over those three years led by Eric Wood, Cordy Glenn (and then Dion Dawkins), and Richie Incognito. Taylor never threw more than 436 attempts in a season and was sacked at least 36 times in all three years. He took two sacks in his one start last year and 13 in three starts with the Browns. He’s going to take sacks.

What you want to get from Taylor is value in the running game — the read-option doesn’t quite have the same veneer of newness today as it did in 2012 or 2015 when Roman began using it extensively, but teams still generate a lot of value from it. Taylor had only three designed rushes with the Chargers last year and they generated a total of one yard, and he had only 22 yards on six designed runs with the Browns in 2018. Taylor is still a good athlete for a quarterback and it wouldn’t surprise me if the Texans took a page out of the Ravens notebook, however we’ve heard little from the players or the staff that would confirm that they’re doing this. At his best, Taylor was providing roughly 90 carries of 5.4 YPC to the offense every year in Buffalo. That is his major upside, provided he hasn’t lost a step.

Ryan Finley realistically needed to hit the ground running in his chances without Andy Dalton in Cincinnati and didn’t. He’s been a disaster in his 119 NFL pass attempts so far. No reason to wishcast a bunch of improvement on him or pretend he’s the quarterback of the future. He could be an adequate backup, but the list of quarterbacks drafted outside the top two rounds who go to a new place and suddenly thrive is short.

The Texans don’t have a Shady McCoy in their backfield rotation. I think the majority of David Johnson’s “breakout” at the end of last season was a fluke. His two biggest catches came on busted plays with Watson creating late in the down, his biggest runs were big holes caused by the re-insertion of Roderick Johnson.

If there’s a spot to be optimistic with Johnson it’s that the offense last year didn’t really provide him much space as a pass-catcher and there’s nobody in the backfield currently who should threaten his role there. But it’s not like Tim Kelly got him involved suddenly after O’Brien was deposed, and that’s a little bit of a concern to me. Dumpoffs are a more reasonable request for him, and I think that’s something that quarterbacks both control and that Taylor has a lot of history with. McCoy got 50 targets a year and led the team in targets in 2017. I could see a rise for Johnson along those same lines if he keeps the job.

If we’re being optimistic, I think the best-case scenario for the Texans is that Phillip Lindsay takes control of the job at some point in the first four weeks of the season. He’s the back with the most recent success — back-to-back 1000 yard seasons to start his career before a down 2020 as Melvin Gordon’s backup. I think the ideal distribution of roles is probably something like Johnson third-down back, Ingram goal-line back, Lindsay lead back. Well, I am actually not sure if Ingram has the juice to do goal-line stuff anymore, but I assume he’s going to get carries somewhere.

Brandin Cooks rebounded from his down 2019 in 2020 and then demanded to stay, so the Texans re-worked his deal. It still wasn’t quite the dominant aerial show of 2016-2018, but I think a lot of that was locked away by the offense being terrible at play-action. Only 26% of Cooks’ targets in 2020 qualified as “deep” or “bomb.” In 2018, it was 32%, and in 2017, it was 43%(!). However, going from Watson to Taylor probably hurts his chances of getting deep looks in a vacuum. One of the sneaky secrets of last year’s Texans offense is that there wasn’t much to “but they weren’t healthy!” about and Cooks playing 15 games certainly qualifies. Cooks was targeted 120 times last year and the most common route was a curl — but he was only targeted eleven times in the red zone, and four of those were against the Titans in the Week 17 finale. Cooks lacks the physicality to be a plus-plus player there or to handle the RPOs that went to Will Fuller last season. To me, he’s a good No. 2 receiver who will be stretched as a No. 1.

Unfortunately, without Hopkins, that tough interior player may not be on the Texans roster right now. Chris Conley was signed in free agency to give a bigger body and may wind up starting outside, but he had just six red zone targets all of last season and only one of them was completed for positive yards. He also had just eight red zone targets in 2019 — and six of them happened after Week 15 with the Jaguars basically eliminated. He did at least show a little more physicality inside on slants, catching six of the eight of them for four first downs in 2020 — that just wasn’t part of the package in the red zone for the Jaguars.

Randall Cobb and Keke Coutee sort of replicate each other as inside receivers. Five of Cobb’s 48 targets came as an outside receiver. Four of Coutee’s 40 targets came as an outside receiver. Coutee has the juice that I think Cobb has lost at this point, but Cobb has the surer hands and is less disaster-prone. It’s hard to tell the guy you signed to a big money contract last year that he’s not good enough to start, but I think a Coutee breakout is probably one of the only real chances this team has to improve on last year. Cobb is going to give you 50-70 catch-and-fall-downs.

At tight end, the Texans enter the last season of Jordan Akins’ rookie deal with no real idea of what he can be. Akins is 29 already, and Jack Easterby was lauded by John McClain for not trading him at the deadline for … some reason?

Akins has demonstrated the ability to be a No. 1 move tight end for a few years now, but seems to always get hurt or otherwise left behind whenever that chance should be occurring. After Will Fuller got suspended prior to Week 13, it was my supposition that Akins would grow into an enhanced target role. Instead he got just three total targets in Week 13, and wound up with just 21 total targets over the last six weeks of the season. To put that in perspective, Chad Hansen had 14 combined targets in Weeks 13 and 14 alone. I’m a big fan of the ability that Akins has, but it seems like the offense has a hard time getting to him as a read. Regardless, along with Coutee, this is one player who has a chance to breakout.

Pharaoh Brown was the best Texans tight end last year and, frankly, the only one who had any prayer at blocking anybody. I can see a lot of 12-personnel in this offense’s future given their likely reliance on running the ball. I don’t think there’s like, untapped potential here. What they saw last year was a jolt and they should be hoping they get to see it again this year. Kahale Warring is on the roster but the list of guys who come from doing almost nothing their first two seasons to being a major contributor in year three is so small that I can barely take his presence seriously. I also wouldn’t be surprised if he was cut, because he’s going up against Not My Guys! syndrome from Nick Caserio.

The offensive line is one area where the Texans should definitely improve next year after their firing of the disastrous Mike Devlin, who often seemed to be speaking a different language when interviewed. The media hasn’t gotten a real chance to speak to James Campen yet, but this is an addition-by-subtraction move to me.

The interior line did not play well last year. Zach Fulton and Nick Martin are gone, while Max Scharping will no longer be carrot-and-sticked by idiots.

The biggest thing this offense can do is to create a line that is worthy of the investment that has been spent here — Laremy Tunsil’s huge amount of picks, the first on Tytus Howard, the second on Scharping, and additionally now a trade for Marcus Cannon and his big cap hit. I don’t know exactly how the Texans will suss it out, but my best guess is that they will put Cannon at right guard. Outside of Tunsil, nobody on this line has played a lights-out 16 games yet — and even Tunsil has had a rough game or two. We’ve seen plenty of flashes from Howard. But this unit needs consistency in a big way in 2021, and Howard’s pass protection is going to be even more amplified in terms of importance with Taylor in the pocket.

Summing it up

Obviously without Watson (or some sort of trade that looks more unlikely by the day) there’s no way this pass offense is going to crack the top 10 in DVOA again. I think it would be overly optimistic to believe it will crack the top 20. I’d be more down at about 22-23 myself as an optimist’s point of view. Taylor is limited, the receiving corps has red zone limitations, and Will Fuller is a bigger loss than people are giving him credit for. I think the best-case scenario is, kind of like Bill O’Brien’s rookie season as head coach, the team is able to grind enough yards on the ground to make that irrelevant. Maybe not a top five season because of the lack of tackle-breaking talent and elusiveness involved, but I could see a read-option and offensive line-influenced, I dunno, 3% DVOA? Something along those lines. Something near the bottom of the top 10 that runs a lot of clock.

I know the roster isn’t full yet, I know the rookies haven’t been drafted yet. I think there’s some hope inherent to that that I’m pricing in (better receiver, more dynamic back, highly-drafted center). But it’s hard to see an optimistic upside for this offense, as currently constructed, as more than a top-20 unit without Watson. I think that relies heavily on Taylor being up to the task of 16 games started with his 20s athleticism, as well, which I’m not at all about to bank on. It’s a really old unit on paper and if their defensive schedule gets harder that’s also not great news.


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