Four Downs: Texans 21, Browns 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.

***

If you are an optimistic type of fan, it’s nice to see the fight and the hustle that the Texans showed today. They brought tenacity in the first half, forcing more turnovers and stifling the Cleveland rushing attack early. Regardless of what you think about Tyrod Taylor’s value to this team long-term, Tim Kelly has put him in a position to succeed this year and it showed with the game plan today. The Texans generally look prepared to play against their opponents on Sunday, which is a welcome change of pace from the weekly Bill O’Brien first quarter hibernation.

It was all going to plan for another weekend talking optimistically about the Houston Texans … right up until Taylor got hurt and left the game, leaving Davis Mills as the only quarterback on the roster. I’m not going to tell you that Mills was the worst quarterback I’ve ever seen in my life, but he was appreciably not ready yet.

Mills completed just 8-of-18 passes, and was lucky to get into the red zone on account of a DPI that Brandin Cooks forced on a ball that was nowhere close to him. On multiple occasions the team seemed to be running different plays from the one Mills was running from the snap. It was not altogether surprising to see this in the wake of his last preseason start, Mills is extremely mistake-prone right now and doesn’t seem to get to his second read without a lot of pocket movement. It was capped by a sack that Mills never saw coming:

With a short week ahead against the Panthers in Houston’s only prime-time game of the season, the fun and dynamic Taylor offense will now have to be rebooted around a much more-limited quarterback. Were I directing things at NRG … well, a lot would be different … but specifically about this, I’d be inclined to give Jeff Driskel the start. I don’t want Mills’ developmental momentum stalled this early. I don’t think anything he showed us in the past month would lead you to believe he’s ready to play in the NFL. Revisit it later in the season? Sure. To put this on national television?

I think the Texans can be more competitive using Driskel in the run game and playing option football than they can with whatever Mills can be spoonfed in two days. That’s not a shot at Mills because it’s not fair to expect him to be a good quarterback right away, especially for a player with that few college games played. But if the Texans aren’t out-and-out tanking — and they aren’t, sorry — I don’t see how that’s a better option for them.

I am not going to pretend that Taylor’s dead or something, but hamstring injuries are annoying at best and can linger for a full season. You may remember them from careers such as Will Fuller’s. As someone who is invested in these players putting the best versions of themselves they can out there, this sucks. Taylor had overcome my low expectations by quite a bit, and I was having fun watching him play in this offense. His injury has kind of downshifted expectations quite a bit here. (It is kind of the story of Taylor’s career that he gets hurt and overcomes it over and over again. That’s part of the reason he was available for as little as he was.)

If Tim Kelly can turn this version of Davis Mills into a productive quarterback he deserves head coaching interviews. The Texans can talk about how confident they are in Mills, and they can talk about how he has a next play mentality and turns the page quickly; that’s all well and good. The problem is that there are an awful lot of pages that need to be turned right now.

1) The injury epidemic

This was a tough one. @TexansPR was busy as not only was Taylor injured, but Nico Collins was ruled out with a shoulder injury, Danny Amendola was ruled out with a hamstring injury, Anthony Auclair was out with an eye injury, Terrance Mitchell was questionable to return with a concussion, and Justin Reid was questionable to return with a knee injury. That’s just guys who actually left the game for good at some point! Laremy Tunsil was dinged, Charles Omenihu was dinged. Kamu Grugier-Hill had a stint on the ground, as did Roy Lopez. Eric Murray needed a concussion evaluation. It was carnage for the Texans.

And I guess this is just part of growing up now as I have dealt with my own health issues and all that, and I understand how the system works, but it frankly is terrible to watch so many guys on one-year prove-it contracts get hurt with no real recourse. Reid missed a tackle here or there but he was having the game of his life in a return to the scene of one of his worst games of 2020 with a forced fumble and a pick right up until…

Reid would try to play through that but would go to the ground again later. I feel like I’m stopping short of organizing for greater athlete worker’s rights or something here, but the thing about the competition mindset is that there are going to be a lot of discarded stories along the way. There are a lot of football players who just get hurt and we’ll never hear from them again. Next man up isn’t just a mentality for players, it’s a mentality for the grander machinations of football.

This team is built to be churned. That’s how it operates. It just sucks to see so much of it happening due to injury. It’s hard to build a connection to a fanbase when you can’t even get acquainted with the players before they’re hurt or gone.

2) David Culley declined an offsides, declined a fourth-and-1 go, and it was weird

There haven’t really been many peeks inside the David Culley game management curtain, but this was a big one. Third-and-15, they complete a ball to get to fourth-and-2, and the response to a penalty for a free shot at third-and-10 was to decline it (good!) but then punt it (what?!?). Here’s how Culley answered questions about it:

If you know what David Culley was trying to say here beyond “we wanted to pin them deep,” let me know, because I have no idea what the response to just taking the penalty was about. To be fair, the Texans have somewhat of a rich tradition of nonsensical answers to these kinds of things, and this is no different than what Bill O’Brien would have done in the past. But, boy, was that a shaky sequence. They were bailed out via the turnover on that call. They didn’t go for it on fourth down at all this game or last game, and those sorts of conservative calls are not actually a good fit for the current state of the team for reasons I will get into in about 500 words.

If this were a team I fully believed in being competitive, this would be the kind of sequence that I would rip into someone for. As it is, it’s kind of just a signpost that says to me that the Texans lean a little conservative on that side of things — it’s Week 2, too early to say an identity is established, lot of time to do some cool fourth-down stuff. But I do think that a staff this old school will likely lean old school. I would read more into the end of first half clock runout on this if we had a clearer read on just how healthy they thought Taylor was at that point.

3) Tim Kelly’s 2021 mixtape keeps the Texans in it early

The Texans largely were able to stay in this game early via the pass and their ability to create open receivers. Tyrod Taylor didn’t really hit a ton of difficult throws, but he also didn’t really have to. Look at our one glimpse of Nico Collins:

The throw didn’t have to be rocketed in there. It was a very generous window. There was a catch that Cooks had early on the sideline where he was wide-open. The Texans did this despite not running the ball well at all. If you take out Taylor’s touchdown scramble and David Johnson’s five carries protecting the clock at the end of the half, the Texans ran the ball 20 times for 48 yards. Not many of those were goal-line totes.

The deep balls to Brandin Cooks last week all but disappeared outside of one wayward Mills miss. The Texans struggled to get vertical against the Cleveland zone. But I think the game plan in and of itself was sound, and, well, once you’re left starting a third-round rookie, you’re left starting a third-round rookie. I’d love to believe the offensive line will do better than this, but (gestures at last two years of Texans football) it’s not exactly like this line is built to pound the rock. They aren’t going to be able to spill 150 even with a bad first half like they’re the Browns. Kelly has his work cut out for him every week, and through the first six quarters with Taylor, had been doing a stellar job. He’s a Chopped chef working with the Alton Brown diabolical baskets.

4) The defense generates turnovers, but that’s about it

Baker Mayfield’s pass chart:

Do you think, maybe, they had an area of the field they figured they could attack? The interception came on this play which appears to be a mistake by a rookie wideout:

And the Jaguars passing game that the Texans held to a mere (checks notes) 332 passing yards last week were able to put up just 118 yards on a much better Denver secondary in Week 2.

I don’t think Lovie’s defensive concepts are hard to grasp. I don’t think there’s been much in the way of change-ups. If you make mistakes against the coverages, you’ll pay. If you don’t, well, Mayfield’s stat line isn’t all that out of place with what happened last year towards the end of the season. This simply isn’t a complex puzzle to solve.

The Texans have now given up 4.6 yards per carry on the season. They gave up 5.2 last year, so that’s still — somehow — an improvement. But this defense is what it has preached it is since day one: They’re out here to force turnovers. By any measure other than that one? It’s below-average. There was another huge play for the Browns (second-and-19 touchdown) to get out of a huge hole. There aren’t enough playmakers on this unit to win down-to-down. This is the kind of unit you have to be aggressive with, and where you hope the turnovers keep coming in bunches. I would argue it’s not very well-suited to playing field position games with.

***

If you listened to the Texans after the game, there was an abundance of talk in the vague direction of “this sucks, but we believe in the guys in the building.”

It was downright defiant. I don’t think by any means it’s time to close the book on this team’s competitive chances for the AFC South — it’s just looked too bad this year — but the ranks were closed around this team’s culture in the press and that’s … an interesting reaction to a loss. Not saying it’s bad, not saying it’s good, but I can’t remember a Bill O’Brien team being quite this performative and loud about the team culture.

Especially to bring it up on a question as innocuous as that one. Cunningham’s benching for “disciplinary reasons” that are “internal”? Similarly interesting to me.

***

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The heart versus the inevitable

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 take some lumps from a smattering of fans who remain anonymous and are often fighting against an idea rather than a person. For them I am a stand-in avatar to project what they believe is terrible on — usually it winds up being not clapping hard enough. Sometimes it’s that the media is out to get their team. Sometimes it’s that Jack Easterby isn’t a mastermind. And so on. But as for the rank-and-file riversmccown.com blog reader, I think it’s okay for me to admit that even you guys regard me as the reality check you don’t want at times.

I have written a lot of words about football over the last 13 years. Some of it’s about this team. A lot of it is about other teams. I write a column for a chill little Ravens website with some regularity. I think the Ravens are a really well-run team, but it doesn’t matter much because a lot of what drives your comments and furor is the idea of winning a championship. Since I started writing about the Texans regularly, they and the Ravens have the exact same number of rings. So, in this reductionist exercise, there is no difference between good and bad, right? Well, no, one of those teams has a direction that has worked for many teams over the years and is a consistent contender. The other is the Texans.

But I come to this not to bury the Texans, but to praise the moments.

Listen, the extent that last Sunday’s performance matters to the aether of time, I don’t know. I don’t think there’s anything this team could have done last week to change the perceptions around them short of revolutionize football. It’s another bad opponent and you’re at home.

The reason Tyrod Taylor was a free agent is because he doesn’t hit the throws he hit in that game against Jacksonville regularly. The goal of objective and rational football analysis is to look at what happened in the past and predict the future. You don’t need me to tell you that Taylor isn’t likely to hit those throws next week. If he was likely to do so, he’d be making $35 million this year.

But what I can’t take away — and what I hope you understand regardless of rationality and a lack of understanding about how building culture matters for the long-term here — is how preposterously cool this throw was. I have watched it tens of times and every time I see a replay I still can’t believe it happened.

The moment he threw it I wrote it off. I figured the drive was over. Someone right in his face on the throw. As Brandin Cooks comes into frame, I was thinking the ball would get picked. As Cooks gets to the ball first, I’m thinking it could get stripped from him. And no matter how happy I am to see it completed each time, in my mental library of throws that look like this, very few of them end like this.

And that’s kind of the excellent thing about sports to me. You couldn’t make this play happen in Madden. It’s too irrational to be logical. But it happened. And it’s a moment that I’ll take from this team that joins several moments from older bad-to-mediocre Texans teams. (Aaron Glenn’s game against the Steelers in 2002 comes to mind first, beating the Patriots on the final day of the 2009 season is another. In the bad corners of my mind there’s the Rosencopter and the Glover Quin Hail Mary bat down.)

There exists a space between legitimate criticisms of a team and just enjoying the players who played for it in whatever way that’s worth to you. If I wanted to not write about the Texans it’s really easy — I don’t make anything but gas money for tips here anyway, so the incentive is all in the heart. And, much as I would rather have someone who meant more to the future of the team at quarterback found this offseason, I think this Taylor throw is etched in to me forever.

And that’s why we watch even if they hand us a team that mathematically aspires to win seven games at best and looks to be executing a player acquisition strategy that emulates a naughty or nice list. Hopefully they make us all eat a big shitburger for doubting them, but even if they don’t, they still have the capacity to give us moments that are unforgettable.

***

The Monday before the season started, I got heart palpitations. It’s a stupid word for something that’s a big deal, makes it sound like my heart got a visit from a tax regulator. Graham Glasgow had the same thing I have, an elevated heartbeat. He’s not expected to miss any real time, as the parlance goes in transactional world.

Now, if I’d had more urgent symptoms — chest pain, trouble breathing — that would have been an ER call. Instead, what’s happened has largely been my wife doing more of my housework while I have been unable to do a lot of strenuous things without accruing lightheadedness. At my worst moments my heart has pounded uncontrollably and I get burning sensations in different parts of my body, like suddenly someone exposed my shoulder to a full 95 degrees of sunlight, followed by a gigantic headache that sometimes has that same sensation as well. At my best moments, when I’m writing and not focusing on my body, I don’t even know anything is wrong with me.

I saw a cardiologist, they ruled out anything incredibly dangerous and had me do several tests that I have no immediate closure for because the American medical system is a disaster and the office closed down on an appointment day due to a hurricane. But, anyway, when the bad stuff comes, I know that by all rights someone should have pulled me into a hospital if I had real signs of danger.

But that doesn’t make the feelings I feel any less intense, and it doesn’t make the lack of a plan of attack for dealing with whatever I have any less stressful as we inch into Week 2. This is my first real experience reckoning with my own mortality rather than someone else’s. It doesn’t make the thoughts I have over what happens when I die — whenever that is — any less dark and haunting. Could happen when I fall asleep because this one little thing avoided my doctor’s eye, right?

***

And as I’ve been mostly laying low, trying to be calm, what I keep coming back to is the parallels of those feelings versus that place of mostly-secure knowledge. I’ve been thinking a lot about how my 13 years working at a mostly-national level inform me about this team as compared to (for most of my readers) your anecdotal experience or thoughts, colored by what you want to believe to be true.

I think about how I doubt my doctor even though I am sure she’s very good at her job because she doesn’t feel what I feel. She’s very well-studied. By all means I should just take her at her word. But she doesn’t go home to the dread I feel when this thing starts pumping at light speed. She doesn’t know the unresolved parts of my life that this is pushing into my mind. She doesn’t know the myriad of bad things that have happened to me and how I Am Different.

And I kind of have played with those two ideas next to each other, because I can tell you something from experience, and you can tell me your feelings, and words don’t really change feelings all that often today. And that’s about how I feel about this too, as I wait for a plan that is an action instead of a “you’re okay enough to go home.”

We really all do believe what we feel is just as special as Tyrod Taylor lacing it just between two outstretched sets of arms right to Brandin Cooks.

***

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Four Downs: Texans 37, Jaguars 21

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.

***

Well, this certainly wasn’t the game I expected to watch today. It is too early to feast on a season-long portion of crow, and it was just the Jaguars, but it was beyond welcome to see a big win for the first time since Thanksgiving Day 2020. It is fun to sit around and think of writing a recap and not know where to begin in a positive way, for a change. Let’s do this more often.

But I think the easy lead is: There is no part of me that ever expected Tyrod Taylor to put up 8.5 yards per pass in this game. A lot of it comes down to two magnificent plays: the 40-yard bomb to Brandin Cooks to set up Houston’s first score, and the 52-yard pass to Cooks on third-and-1 that set up Houston’s touchdown to take a 27-7 halftime lead.

The first of these two passes feels like it was created in a lab. Tyrod Taylor has pressure in his face, places a ball that is absolutely spot-on to Cooks, who has to high-point it between both his defender and the single-high safety. Not only does he come down with it, there’s no review of the catch, which looked a little bit questionable. That turns what would have been a punt — and looked like a wildly unlikely completion based on where everyone was from the throw — into a touchdown. Follow that up with the play before the half:

K’Lavon Chaisson goes from clean shot on Taylor into an absolute goat for the play, and Taylor buys enough time that the single-high safety has to pick up Pharaoh Brown. That leaves Cooks against Shaquill Griffin all alone, and Cooks leaves him in the dust. Meanwhile, Taylor lofts an absolutely perfect ball over the retreating safety. And the Texans take a timeout and score a touchdown on the next play.

Take these two highly improbable plays out of the game and you have a line that looks more like what I expected from Taylor: 19-of-31 for 199 yards and a sack. Of course, you can’t erase those plays, they absolutely happened. They showed more upside than I thought we’d see from Taylor buying time as a scrambler. To be honest, if I clipped those two plays and put them in Deshaun Watson’s career highlights, they would not look out of place. This one too:

So, what are the odds that more of that is in Taylor’s bag at 32 years old? I would subjectively say not high, and I would say that while I didn’t expect them to pants Jacksonville’s defense in Week 1, that the Texans getting some concepts to succeed against them was absolutely in play. But if Tyrod Taylor throws out four plays every week that look like peak Watson on-field shit? Sure, the Texans are going to be a lot better than any of us thought.

1) The impact of game script

As a run-focused team, the Texans are going to be very reliant on making sure that this club is always in their bag, and so for them most of pretty much every NFL team, it’s important that they get out to leads early. That’s what happened here, and that’s why that first Cooks touchdown was so huge. When you put the Jaguars into a 14-0 hole early, taking advantage of good field position and a defense that looked like it had never seen a bunch formation before, what that means is you get to operate with the entire bag open for the whole game.

And in tandem with that — or as Bill O’Brien would say, complimentary to that — is that when you keep the opposing team from running and make them one-dimensional, you get to really dial in on whatever weaknesses they have in that area. The Jaguars very much looked like a group of receivers that had never played with Trevor Lawrence before, even despite the three touchdowns and 300 yards passing. Plays like this were extremely common:

The Jaguars had a pair of monster runs in the first quarter called back for holding, and they ran for 4.8 yards per carry despite getting absolutely nothing from Lawrence as a runner. Did the Texans have to worry about that? Nope. Those holding calls — one of which would have set up first-and-10 at the HOU 30 — were enormous in helping to set the script and in making the Jaguars as one-dimensional as they were. Eventually that led to a young quarterback trying to do too much, and that’s when Vernon Hargreaves, of all people, flourished:

Lawrence showed me a lot of why he deserved to be the No. 1 pick today, but there were some extremely big mistakes and the Jaguars let the game script get out of hand too fast for the Texans to not focus on him. The first 10 minutes of each Texans game are going to decide a lot more than we think.

2) An actual crow eating: Mark Ingram flourished and made the early Caserio moves look better

I was not much of a believer in the Mark Ingram signing — I am not a fan of running backs that are bad enough to become midseason inactives the year before. I was not much of a believer in the Justin Britt signing. I am not a fan of centers that miss an entire year to injury. Or, I think the better way to look at this is: I wasn’t a fan of them being priority signs. I don’t mind trying to sift through and find players, but I didn’t really like the idea of getting so deep into the scrapheap that early, because I think the Texans should have been focused on players for a rebuild instead of players for a culture.

However,

For this, and this only, I think a little bit of crow for dinner early on is the right approach. Ingram has been the best running back on the team to this point simply because he has the best vision in a crowd and the ideal version of this team is 1980s football:

To put that into perspective, David Johnson saw 14.9% of his snaps on the season with eight-plus men in the box in 2020.

Now, does Ingram’s overall box score look sexy? No. 26 carries for 85 yards at 3.3 a tote is a workmanlike line. But when you consider it in the overall context of Ingram having to take carries into crowded boxes for half the game, that starts looking a lot better. The Texans did not have a very efficient running game today, but the yards that Ingram was earning were Big Tough Football yards that you get via force of will and only with great vision.

Am I going to be happy that Ingram took all of Scottie Phillips’ carries in four months? Maybe, maybe not, depends on what that means in a grander scope of how this season goes. But I’m happy for him that he’s still got this gear in his bag and I can’t deny it played a big role in the outcome of this game.

3) One sack, four quarterback hits, but more impactful than that sounds

Trevor Lawrence wasn’t exactly evading Texans defenders all day. I’d put the plurality of the blame of the Jaguars offense discombobulation on the game script, and after that, Jacksonville’s penalties and inability to get in sync. The lone sack from Whitney Mercilus was a case where Lawrence simply took so wide of an angle off an initial rush that he ran himself into additional pressure:

I think there were a lot of completable throws left on the field, but I also think on a down-to-down basis, the Texans did a much better job of getting a push in the pocket. Compare this to some of the pictures I was putting out last season, where J.J. Watt was the only person in the quarterback’s zip code. The Texans finished with four quarterback hits, and a few of those hits would come later in the game as the script solidified itself. But the actual pass rush was alive in a way that I’d say it wasn’t in 2020. How much of that is about the Jaguars offensive line continually being terrible? Well, probably a chunk of it. The Jaguars were one of the few teams that the Texans were able to do this to last year.

My concerns about the lack of an impact pass rusher are still very real at this point, but if the Texans can spin this into more than just a “only good against the Jaguars thing,” that’d be a big selling point for upping our projections for them.

4) This one’s for the vets

The Texans targeted Nico Collins just three times. One of those was a red zone target: Collins supposedly committed offensive pass interference on this play:

Collins didn’t really fit into the overall game flow much. Ross Blacklock had one of the quarterback hits and figured into the pass rush but was behind Maliek Collins. Roy Lopez played a fair amount of snaps after Vincent Taylor was carted off. Other than that, hard to find anybody who played a big role in this game that was young. Scottie Phillips was inactive. Charlie Heck’s on the COVID list. Brevin Jordan was inactive. Jon Greenard was inactive with an injury. Garret Wallow didn’t play real snaps as far as I saw.

The last thing I’m going to do is defecate on the Texans for winning a game decisively, but I want to bring this up to point out that to me it’s very clear that no part of this says a damn word about tanking. They believe in themselves and the culture they’ve created, and I think for a Week 1 result, it’s okay to say that they’ve earned the right to talk their talk about it for a spell. Are we ultimately going to remember this as the launch point of an exemplary football culture that Nick Caserio has GalaxyBrained us all into? I’ve been dismissive about it and can’t say one game has changed my mind. But there’s more doubt in my head about it than there was before that one game!

***

This doesn’t feel like enough because there are so many players that deserve their own point in Game 1:

Pharaoh Brown was as excellent as he was last season, in an even bigger role. It was very easy to see how good he was last year, but you didn’t really know if that was going to be something that you could rely on. He certainly was that good today. (Jordan Akins was invisible.)

Danny Amendola rolled literally off the street and caught a touchdown and five balls.

The Texans didn’t turn the ball over at all. I’m flabbersmocked. I was more than open to the idea of the Texans winning this game, but I never expected it to be a crockpotting.


***

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2021 NFL Predictions

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 business of predictions is inherently stupid. I have a lot of skepticism of my own mind’s ability to pick anything correctly, because I know all the misses. Last season I predicted the Dallas Cowboys to be very good, and it turns out I was a year ahead of schedule on that prediction. Granted the whole “Dak Prescott being hurt” thing didn’t help.

My biggest weakness as a predictor is that I absorb a lot of common knowledge, try to fight that common knowledge with whoever I think is the best logical choice that is being “ignored” according to consensus, and go big on them. This means I either swing and miss or I hit so big that I can put it on the board. That’s what I did with the Ravens in 2019, and that’s what I did with the Cowboys this year.

Without further ado…

AFC East

Bills
Patriots*
Dolphins
Jets

I will eat my metaphorical hat if (TEAM) makes the playoffs: Jets. I think they’re much more promising than they were last year and all, but a rookie quarterback and rookie head coach in a division that doesn’t look all that easy is hard for me to pick. I think you probably need nine wins to make the playoffs, the Jets have a way higher ceiling than last year but it’s still seven or eight.

AFC North

Ravens
Browns*
Steelers
Bengals

I will eat my metaphorical hat if (TEAM) makes the playoffs: Cincinnati. I just don’t trust this team’s coaching staff. I think Joe Burrow is good enough to start a playoff game. I think they’ve got a promising skill receiver corps. But between Zac Taylor and Lou Anarumo, I don’t see any reason to believe they’ll get easy yards or prevent easy yards.

AFC South

Titans
Colts
Jaguars
Texans

I will eat my metaphorical hat if (TEAM) makes the playoffs: Texans. You know why.

AFC West

Chiefs
Chargers*
Broncos
Raiders

I will eat my metaphorical hat if (TEAM) makes the playoffs: None of them. The Raiders have a decently high floor, and the reports that Jon Gruden was trying to trade for Khalil Mack make me think they will chase a playoff spot even if it’s just a seventh seed. I think they could be early buyers.

NFC East

Cowboys
Football Team
Eagles
Giants

I will eat my metaphorical hat if (TEAM) makes the playoffs: Giants. Don’t believe in the coaching staff, don’t believe in Daniel Jones as a franchise quarterback. Don’t believe in the general manager’s ability to understand the passing game. I’d be surprised if Philadelphia made it as well.

NFC North

Packers
Vikings
Bears
Lions

I will eat my metaphorical hat if (TEAM) makes the playoffs: Lions. I’m not necessarily in “Dan Campbell isn’t a good coach” camp, but I’m poking around the edges of it while I’m looking to see what happens here. I don’t think there’s much to salvaging Jared Goff. Penei Sewell has struggled at right tackle in the preseason and I’m worried about Andrew Thomas-itis.

NFC South

Buccaneers
Saints*
Panthers
Falcons

I will eat my metaphorical hat if (TEAM) makes the playoffs: Panthers. Yes, even though I’m picking the Falcons to finish last. I think there’s more upside in the coaching of Arthur Smith and Dean Pees, to the point where my major worry with the Falcons is personnel. Matt Ryan versus Sam Darnold is an easy win for Atlanta and one that I think caps the upside of Carolina by a lot. I am putting the Panthers ahead because I think Joe Brady will work some magic with Darnold. Just, you know, not enough magic for it to matter.

NFC West

Seahawks
Rams*
Cardinals*
49ers

I will eat my metaphorical hat if (TEAM) makes the playoffs: None of them. They’re all pretty good, and I wouldn’t be stunned if the 49ers won the division. I am very curious as to how the 49ers defense moves on from Robert Saleh and Richard Sherman, and my lean is that it might not be quite as good as it was in the past. It’s pretty much neck-and-neck with Arizona, who has their own coaching issues under Kingsbury.

Wild Card Round:

Ravens over Patriots
Bills over Browns
Chargers over Titans
Buccaneers over Cardinals
Saints over Seahawks
Rams over Cowboys

Divisional Round

Ravens over Bills
Chiefs over Chargers
Packers over Saints
Rams over Buccaneers

Championships

Ravens over Chiefs
Packers over Rams
Packers over Ravens

Feel free to laugh about this post at any time, including the moment you first read it, the moment you think about it in Week 5 when one of the playoff teams I’ve projected is 1-4, the moment that that COVID makes one of these teams play a 14-game schedule, or after the season when you’ve got 20-20 hindsight and I don’t. I am not going to get Mad Online at you. As I said: Predictions are inherently stupid.


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The Texans were scheduled to play some football games this year, let’s preview it

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 being written, as always, with the caveat that Deshaun Watson doesn’t appear likely to play games this season. If for whatever reason he actually suits up, life will be a lot more interesting.

I will get this out of the way up front so that the people who read this stuff for the boost of dopamine where they can tell me how much of a non-fan jerkwad I am can get it out of their system early. I believe the Houston Texans will win somewhere in the range of 2-to-6 games this year without it surprising me. I am picking them to go 3-14. This does not mean I am not rooting for them to kick my projection around and make me look stupid.

There are many people in the media and the Twitter comments section who want to kick this team while they’re down and call them 0-17, and I get the impulse. But it takes a huge amount of negative luck to wind up with a record that bad. The worst team by DVOA ever, the 2005 49ers, actually won four(!!) games. Most sportsbooks have put the over/under on the Texans wins at four or 4.5.

But it has seemed to me for some time that this year is not going to be about creating new value for the team so much as it is about the team “creating a culture” as Nick Caserio said last week. I am an “actions equal attitudes” person — I think that without taking real and actual on-field steps to make the product better in the future, this year is a waste of time for the fans and organization. I am pulling hard for the players involved to boost their stock and get better contracts elsewhere, but otherwise, it’s hard to have a lot of investment in what is happening.

Offense

I think this will be the worst offense in the NFL this year. The amount of wins they actually wind up with will be very reliant on the games that they do produce adequately (250-300 total yards) being grouped with a special teams big play, a bushel of turnovers, or both.

To start with, losing Deshaun Watson isn’t a case where the Texans had a fine offense without him and we should expect them to just hum along now that he’s gone. There were not many easy throws in the game plan last season. (I have asked several local radio personalities to name me their favorite easy pass plays the Texans ran last year, and it usually ends with me naming the few I can remember.) There are probably three quarterbacks in the NFL who could make a passing offense function with Keke Coutee and Chad Hansen as the main targets. Will Fuller’s absence is another big blow to this team’s realistic upside, as he was easily the team’s best receiver last season. Take out Watson’s off-the-cuff ability to create on his own and his deep passing ability and essentially all the boom has been taken out of this offense.

Tyrod Taylor will attempt some deep throws and he doesn’t have a bad arm, but Taylor is a passer that has traditionally been reluctant to uncork balls that aren’t wide open. He is a quarterback that will try to live to the next down. His preseason average distance of target was 5.8, which would have been second-lowest qualified number in the NFL last year. And his completion rates aren’t good enough to keep long drives alive often without a running game. Thus, the Texans emphasis on how they must have a good running game this year and must run a lot.

What we saw of Davis Mills in training camp and the preseason was not exactly anything that made me excited to see him get an in-season sample. I’m not ruling out that he could be improving massively over the weeks that he’s sitting, but he needs to be immensely better to be passable in an NFL game right now from what I watched. You couldn’t notice anyone livetweet Texans training camp without an interception from Mills or Jeff Driskel coming in a team drill. Driskel is, ironically, the quarterback who I think looked the most like the quarterback they need to do the run-game things they’ll need to do this season. I just think he has no business ever throwing a football.

I think you can expect the Texans to run the ball well in some of this year’s games. The thing I’ve learned over the years with running games is that there are times when the schematic matchups work out, and there are times where they do not. The 2018 Texans had one of the best run defenses in NFL history from a DVOA perspective. The Colts ran over them in the playoffs because they could check D.J. Reader. The 2020 Texans finished last in the NFL in run offense DVOA. They still had four separate games where they finished with a 10% or higher rush offense DVOA. You can expect that the Texans will do a good job in the run game about 4-6 times this season without improvement. There are times where the game-plan schematics work in your favor, there are times where you will win a particular matchup decisively, and there are times where you just play a team that is remarkably bad at run defense.

Those games will — in my opinion — be lead balloons of false hope, the sort of things that people covering the team closely will say things like “If they could just run like this every game,” or “They just need Tytus Howard to dominate like he did in Week 7 every week, they have to be more consistent,” or “David Johnson’s last three games of the season were a real turning point!” That’s a misreading of what’s happening here. This team does not have above-average run game personnel and, as things stand today, I don’t think you can expect them to have above-average schematic play calling. Tim Kelly runs this offense and he could not find a way to change things in the middle of last season. Position coaches can give input but it’s not like Pep Hamilton’s Colts were a dominant run offense force — they were the team that made the Trent Richardson trade a boondoggle. I think both the talent and coaching is aspiring to be average.

The preseason had the Texans predominantly running zone. Zone is a scheme that tends to require a lot of chemistry, practice and continuity to get off the ground with. This is an offensive line that projects to return exactly one player from last season’s team at the spot he started last year: Laremy Tunsil. They project to have two starters in 2021 (Justin Britt, Marcus Cannon) who didn’t even play in 2020. Forget the idea of developing chemistry in camp, this offensive line will be lucky to have played more than two days of practice snaps together when they take the field against Jacksonville. And when Lane Taylor comes back, if he is as favored as it seemed he was early in camp, they get to make more adjustments all over again.

Now if the Texans had leaned into Tyrod Taylor’s strength in the read-option game as a base philosophy, I think that could have been interesting. But they didn’t do that. They aren’t going to use him as a runner if they can avoid it. And that’s going to lead to a lot more second-and-8s and third-and-7s than they’d like. Maybe, if we’re all lucky, that will change in the middle of the season if things look bad enough. I have my doubts based on how things went last year.

Defense

This is going to be the hardest for you to accept after watching the preseason’s first two games if you’re an optimist, but here we go: Lovie Smith’s system has generally been pretty simple, and the ability that he has to be able to create turnovers are limited with the lack of a true star pass rusher he has.

I think the question isn’t whether the Texans will improve on defense or not — last year’s defense barely appeared to have team meetings per Justin Reid. They’re going to improve, because last year’s bar is literally on the floor.

But I think the preseason has mostly masked the real flaws that Lovie’s defense has had. In a way, it’s almost a defense built for the preseason. When we talk about the idea of young quarterbacks struggling against Lovie’s scheme, that’s not exactly how things have played out. The Titans put up 35 points of offense on the Bucs with Marcus Mariota in the first game of Lovie’s last season as head coach. Blake Bortles put up four touchdowns on them in his second year. In Kirk Cousins’ first season as a full-time starter, he completed 33-of-40 for three touchdowns and 317 yards. This is all from the same season. Am I of the belief that Smith has more freedom to change things up and more time to analyze the defense than he did as a head coach? I sure am. Do I think he’d tip his hand in the preseason if he was more likely to do this? Hard to say. But I see him more as a mind that has crystallized on “the system” and the way he’s done things in the past, and I worry that he simply is what he is at this point.

What we saw in the preseason was an illusion to me. One created by the fact that they saw real starters at every position for exactly three series, two of which they were shredded on. So in the game of adjustments, how far Lovie is willing to adjust from his previous comfort zone is the biggest question of the season for me as far as where the Texans wind up. If they get some exotic change-ups and play stingy run defense in 75% of their games? I could see the Texans closer to five or six wins. But that’s a big ask for a front seven that — outside of Charles Omenihu — is either coming off poor seasons, has zero good NFL years as a primary starter, or looks washed. Omenihu and Maliek Collins looked good in the preseason, and I think the Texans can build a pass rush that can target weak links on opposing offensive lines. But I think Omenihu and Collins need to take big leaps for this unit to be more than feisty. I like the secondary just fine for Lovie’s scheme, but they’re not going to be able to cover for five seconds on every play.

Special teams

This is a saving grace. The Patriots have always focused heavily on special teams, and under Caserio the Texans brought in a metric ton of guys with experience at it, to the point where they dealt Keion Crossen in the middle of training camp because they didn’t think they needed that much depth at the spot. Cameron Johnston had a ridiculous preseason and Jon Weeks still hasn’t blown a snap. No matter who the Texans pick as main coverage guys, return guys, and so on, I think they’ll contribute real value. I would be surprised if this team finished outside of the top-15 in special teams DVOA.

I’m not wild on Kai Fairbairn as a top-five kicker — what he’s paid to be — but he’s a solid-average one.

Answering common fan questions for those of you who are just coming back to this after an offseason of blissful ignorance:

Is this team tanking?

This team isn’t trying to tank. Yes, I believe that even after the Bradley Roby trade. Tanking teams embrace youth. This team barely signed any UDFAs from the 2021 class. (There are only three players on the practice squad under 25 years old.) There’s no extra layer of youth hanging out waiting for an opportunity. This team has precisely seven players they drafted from the 2019 and 2020 drafts still on the roster, period. Tanking teams would not put Lonnie Johnson into a camp battle with Eric Murray for a starting spot — they’d simply throw him out there and see what happened.

I tend to not think of tanking as good for a football organization, period. It’s bad for the fans, bad for the players, and it’s a thought experiment that does less good than you might think in a sport where many, many players start. You can tank your way to a good quarterback, but the Texans just got one and squandered it by not properly surrounding him with talent. It’s not like you just get the No. 1 pick, draft LeBron James, and it’s nothing but finals appearances for a decade. The Packers have Aaron Rodgers and have won one (1) Super Bowl. The Colts tanked to the best pre-Trevor Lawrence prospect in recent memory and had one blowout AFC Championship game loss to show for it.

There may be a point in the season where tanking makes some sense for the team, and I’ll be loud about it when we get there, but I actually would praise the organization for not embracing tanking as an ethos. It took Cleveland years to scrub off the tanking part of analytics, and it became a black cloud that haunted all coverage of the team. I think the Texans stumbled upon this idea for reasons that don’t mirror mine: which is to say I think this is more about making Jack Easterby look good. (If anyone is going to be the black cloud over this team, folks, it’s going to be Easterby!) If you gave me control of the roster I think you’d see many, many more young players that I was hoping would develop into solid-average players with snaps rather than vets that don’t have a lot of upside. But I don’t have it, and this is what they’ve got, and we’re all hopeful that it won’t be a complete waste of everybody’s time.

I think this team is too myopic to tank. That they have managed to create a roster that everyone thinks is tanking is a self-scathing indictment of Nick Caserio’s belief that he can judge character and culture better than everybody else. The results are not guaranteed to be bad! But boy, on the face of things, it sure does look like a roster full of 25-40th best guys on a great team. I am not one to root for the team to fail, but I can see the argument in hoping that a truly disastrous season will wash out the front office (Easterby in particular). I just don’t have much faith that anything anybody does this season is going to change the results that have already been put in to motion. Easterby will argue that Watson ruined the season before it began, and Cal McNair doesn’t listen to us, he listens to Easterby.

What I have seen of the draft-eligible quarterbacks does not have me excited to start throwing games, but players pop up every year (see: Zach Wilson) and perhaps that will be the case this year as well.

Why didn’t the team trade Deshaun Watson, and why do we have to keep hearing about him?

Well, the easy answer to this is that the trade value of Deshaun Watson was destroyed by the 22 lawsuits to his name. The Texans have an obligation to get the best value they can out of Watson, because he is the only player on this roster with any long-term value. They are hoping that in time, Watson’s value will rebuild itself. It is an unresolved question that means so, so much more than this season. So, yes, you will continue to hear a lot about Deshaun Watson and he will hang over this season as a distraction. Nobody will admit it is a distraction, because they have all been told to say so, but it very much is one.

In the mean time the likeliest outcome appears to be the Texans playing with a 52-man roster this season while wasting a spot on an inactive Watson. I can’t say that this is a bad move from their perspective, but, yes, it’s going to be awkward as all get out.

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And, well, that’s what I’ve got. I watched all three preseason games intently, devoured as many camp notebooks and other beat writer reports that I could. Listened to all the interviews that the team put out. I would love to believe that there was more here that I’m just not seeing. But I don’t think the current team is very good, I don’t think there’s much of a chance that they’re going to be well-coached on offense, and the optimism about Lovie changing things up more with more focus on defense exists only as a theory at this point. David Culley largely feels like a head coach that is going to stay out of the way outside of popping up to complain about self-inflicted mistakes. (I will be honest with you, I think Culley’s a cool guy, but I have no idea what his actual job is. He seems lost in some very real ways in pressers, feels behind Caserio in the power ranking pecking order, and has little in-game value. He’s a CEO coach that is still learning how to be a CEO coach. At 65 years old.)

They’ll have a good special teams unit in my opinion, and they’ll be feisty enough to win a few games. Whether it is two or three or four or five largely depends on a) something unknown to my current radar popping up in a positive way and b) cluster luck in getting the best of this offense on the same day you’re getting the best of the defense.

I have no idea how they will define creating a culture, but the great thing about leading with that and saying things like process-oriented is that it’s almost impossible for anyone on the outside to properly critique. We’ll get the bits and pieces, and we’ll be able to snark about the team culture that got matching PED suspensions for Fuller and Bradley Roby, and talk about how ridiculous it is that Rex Burkhead saying something to Scottie Phillips before a big run was trumpeted as a sign of a winning culture. But if your goal is indefinable, then so are the results.

And, well, that’s the ultimate design for a grifter to keep power, isn’t it? That’s what we’re doing here. Nobody can attach logic to what this team is doing because there’s nothing to attach. The goal is to win five games instead of three to boost Jack Easterby’s stock three-tenths of a point, and if they don’t happen to do that, well, it’s Deshaun’s fault anyway.

We can’t be worried about the results unless they’re good. Because the process is so great. We’ll tell you so.


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How should we read the Shaq Lawson trade?

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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I tread lightly on this territory because it is September, and Training Camp-September is the league-mandated Time Of Optimism where I get eight times the amount of crap I’d otherwise get for being interested in potential dysfunction. But, here we go. The Texans traded Shaq Lawson on Sunday after an extremely quiet training camp where he a) wasn’t talked about a lot in-house, b) was playing deep into the preseason games and c) wasn’t productive when he did play in those preseason games. Per PFF data, Lawson did not have a single pressure in 50 pass-rush snaps.

So I understand how true-blood fans would like to just take this as a very simple trade: Lawson was bad, and Lawson was traded because he was bad. Even though the Texans had restructured him before the season to push more of his guaranteed money into the 2022 cap year and all they received was a sixth-round pick.

However, what I come back to is this:

“It’s not going to work like that here. It just can’t. Not with all these guys putting out the effort they are,” those are the alarms of culture taking place. So, rhetorical you who is made out of people I’ve had yelling at me on Twitter the past 24 hours about this, your counter might be that the Texans are cultivating the culture that they want, but that Lawson being bad in preseason is why he didn’t make the team.

But the thing about that is: Teams can say that all their decisions are based on training camp play, but we know that’s not true. We know some people are managed and looked at a little bit differently than others. I want to specifically come to the example of Whitney Mercilus here. Mercilus finished the preseason with one hurry. He has not been a productive pass rusher in the regular season since 2017, which is a big contrast to Lawson’s regular seasons. The most productive thing Mercilus gave us in the preseason was a Papa John’s commercial.

Now, I’m a Mercilus fan. I think he’s a very good guy, and I don’t begrudge him for signing the contract that he got. But on the objective face of things, if we’re looking at who attacked training camp and was productive, I don’t think he’s much above Lawson. One of them was treated with kid gloves, and one of them was treated to fourth quarter snaps in Green Bay. I also tend to think it’s okay if a player isn’t productive in training camp — if the player is productive when the lights come on in the regular season, that’s what matters most.

But I don’t think the Texans think that way. And I think that quote from Vander Meer kind of demonstrates the culture inside the building. The competition, competition, competition mindset and ethos. That in itself is a very big cultural choice. And that’s why Shaq Lawson asked to be traded.

Something that becomes very apparent in looking at PFF’s preseason data is that Lawson has not exactly gone full-bore in any of those games. He has just seven total pressures in 157 pass rush snaps over four preseasons, compared to an average of about one in every 10 plays in the regular season. Or, as Shaq Lawson would put it:

So the Texans clearly have a vested interest in protecting their culture after it was a major focus of Deshaun Watson’s ire and the culture leader was kept, protected, and put in bubble wrap so he didn’t have to answer to anybody following Sports Illustrated’s well-sourced reports of his power seizure. Kamu Grugier-Hill will loudly tell you about how great it is any time he’s at the podium, and so of course he did that again yesterday. And the result of that culture’s impact on Lawson was: “I can finally be myself here” after he was traded to the Jets.

That sounds like Shaq Lawson wasn’t a cultural fit more than anything else. Preseason stats be damned (and there are tons of other examples of players who played bad making the team — Davis Mills and Vernon Hargreaves, come on down), not drawing from that inner reservoir of fortitude and grinding out every practice and going all-out in practices and preseason games is the negative in the eyes of the Texans. I say “sounds like” because this is circumstantial, I didn’t watch every practice or anything, but the evidence that we have publicly available sure points to that.

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Now, when I posted this, it riled a lot of the true-bloods up:

But there’s a very clear reason I chose “weird” here and not “bad” — if I wanted to slag the Texans, trust me, I can be way clearer than I was.

Now, my supposition based on the past is that this culture is player-unfriendly and that being player-unfriendly is, to take a Steph Stradley line, the Texans making life harder for themselves than it has to be. It is the kind of culture that drove DeAndre Hopkins out of the room. (A major talking point being that they didn’t like how he didn’t practice.) It is the culture that Watson spoke up about before he became a pariah. It is, in my opinion, the unstated reason that several of this franchise’s best players have packed up and left. This doesn’t mean that hard work and practice shouldn’t be celebrated, but I think this particular overemphasis by this particular assistant vice president of football operations — who has never played the game and struts on the sideline in preseason like he’s a coach — has pretty clearly been a problem for some players. It appears to have been that way for Shaq Lawson as well.

In trying to combat that with “their type of player,” with their intangibles, ala Nick Caserio’s Sloan speech, the Texans may very well have totally changed over their locker room culture in a way that creates the exact sort of eager beavers that they were looking for:

The problem is that in creating this team, the Texans have limited their player pool by self-selecting their traits. Many teams do this in other ways. They’ll want all their tackles to be 6-foot-4 with a 36-inch wingspan (or whatever), and that’s a major reason why certain draft pick busts continue to get more chances. They were drafted highly because they have physical traits other players just don’t have.

The Texans are approaching this from the standpoint of player mentality. The result they have created is a roster full of older free agents that have little upside. If they play beyond their tools, they’ll have to be re-signed and will command more money. If they play below their tools, the team will have wasted a year of snaps on someone who could have been a young, cost-controlled player. What they do have is the ability to show up for practice, bust their ass during practice, and give it their all in the eyes of Jack Easterby and Nick Caserio.

The players the Texans have wound up with are not appreciably talented at football. They aren’t terrible players, and they aren’t the most untalented roster in the history of the game. But they lack upside now and they lack upside in the future. They are knowns. Some will be average, some will be average for backups, and so on. The bet is that there’s some sort of extra benefit to filling the room with the kind of personality traits and intangibles that Caserio and Easterby value. It’s almost a science experiment.

What is that worth? We’re about to find out.

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