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.
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.
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.
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.
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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