Four Downs: Texans 3, Colts 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.

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The Texans are who we thought they were. They never pretended otherwise, and only the blind faith of fandom could drag anyone to think any differently.

Let’s put aside the talk about “good football,” which isn’t played with penalties and turnovers, and let’s talk about what David Culley did as the Colts grabbed a 14-point lead: fourth-and-2 at your own 45 yard-line and the answer was “punt,” the Colts followed up with Jonathan Taylor’s 83-yard foot stomp.

If you’re a sixty-six year old head coach, you cannot get made to look like a rookie as much as Culley has this year. In each of the last two games — here on this fourth-and-2, New England on the 56-yard field goal attempt — the game situation asked for a call to bold action to stop a run. Houston’s head coach might be apologetic about it on Monday, or he might just say that winning football is about field position. The problem is that this team needs to be managed aggressively to win games, and while he hasn’t shown that he’ll never do that, the reins are so inconsistent that it’s impossible to feel like there’s a plan. He had no problems doing it in the first half against the Patriots! Then, he gave it away.

To follow that up with a disgusting, nearly seven-minute drive that was turned over on downs and that featured six runs in 14 plays? That was deeply unserious football. That was culture ball. This team is devoted to the running game even though it a) has blown for most of the season and b) has almost zero explosiveness. I preface with almost because Phillip Lindsay finally hit a 35-yard run with about four minutes left in the game:

That finally cracked 100 yards for the team! Major kudos are in order, lads. The Texans have established the run. Davis Mills would later be picked to end the drive. Good stuff for the PR team to tweet out next week as the Cardinals send the team into oblivion.

1) Did you miss Laremy Tunsil?

Sent to IR after last week’s thumb injury prevented him from punching, Tunsil’s absence forced the Texans to start Geron Christian at left tackle. They were already starting Charlie Heck at right tackle after Marcus Cannon went on IR last week. And … Davis Mills took two sacks and only five quarterback hits. The two sacks were through 1) David Johnson and 2) Tytus Howard at left guard:

Meanwhile, the rag-tag group of starters helped spring Mark Ingram on his longest run of the season:

I hate bagging on the trade itself at this point because it is spilled milk under the bridge, and I have been slow to critique Laremy Tunsil this year because a) I enjoy his vibe and b) he had COVID and seemed to me at times to clearly have problems speaking without coughing in press availabilities. I don’t want to pretend I know what that dude was going through.

But with the Texans anchored to a regressive screen-and-short-balls passing game based on their overall dumb team concept, a star left tackle just isn’t making a material difference. You can argue that Tunsil never made a real difference in any of his three Texans seasons, even when he played well. That’s not a statement on how well he does his job, he’s obviously on talent an elite pass protector — but it does take all five, and he’s never been a good run blocker. It should not surprise us if the Texans punch a little above their established weight in that phase of the game without Tunsil. They did it last year with Roderick Johnson, and two big carries against a good Colts run defense isn’t something to sneeze off even if I hate how the second one went down.

2) Jon Greenard made an impact on pass defense, but that was about it

Carson Wentz only had to drop back 22 times all game, meaning Jon Greenard downed him on around 10 percent of his total dropbacks.

Greenard ran over Mo Alie-Cox on his first sack, and on his second picked up a coverage sack as Wentz drifted into his area as it appeared Wentz missed multiple open receivers. The most impressive thing was actually not a sack, but a tripping call that Greenard drew late in the game against Eric Fisher when he spun him:

Greenard had three of the Texans five quarterback hits and added two tackles for loss. The Texans were largely reliant on him to do something, anything, against a Colts offense with an immobile quarterback that schemed Cover-2 to death and torched it twice for big plays in the first half.

I know that the major Texans Twitter war at this point is that Charles Omenihu is inactive again and Lonnie Johnson didn’t start before Terrence Brooks got injured. I understand that what each of them have done this year have been inconsistent. My thing is: If Greenard can be put in a position and left alone and flourish, that means it is possible. I don’t think Lonnie is a deep safety this year because Justin Reid is better at the job — I think he fits better as a big nickel linebacker long-term as well, as he was covering Travis Kelce in the playoffs basically. I think Omenihu belongs inside in passing downs. The Texans seem to put them into roles where they can focus on what they can’t do, then discard them. It’s a shitty way to deal with your youth.

But, it is the culture at this point. Thank goodness Greenard has played culture-proof ball so far. I think he’ll have some slower games than this, but it’s been nice to see some real impact.

3) Davis Mills wasn’t bad, but didn’t take a step forward either

The one thing I’ve worried about the most with Mills is his inability to deal with blitzes in a timely manner. He has a sneaky way of avoiding the sack sometimes, so I wouldn’t exactly call him immobile. But it’s funny just how awkward he can look before suddenly he is all alone on the outside and he can dial up a ball drifting to his right:

His two interceptions were a) an attempt to imagine a ball past Darius Leonard in the middle and b) a overzealous deep ball to Cooks when Jordan Akins would have broken open in a zone hole:

On the balance of things, I don’t think Mills played particularly bad football for what he was asked to do. He had a couple of drift-out completions, they just weren’t as impactful as they were in Week 5 against the Patriots. Deep balls are going to be infrequent with this combination of offense and quarterback, and so it relies a lot on improvisation on the move and, well, missed tackles and luck.

The question remains: How are the Texans going to stop teams from blitzing Mills other than hoping to catch them with a good wideout screen? Because that’s the big weak point of this offense, and when the Texans really needed points, that was what the Colts brought to snuff out a drive:

And that area is what I’ve got my eye on for the next couple of weeks (at least) with Mills under center. I think he’s shown a little better than I expected from him after the early exposures, but he needs to keep taking steps. Every game he doesn’t take one is a week closer to Tyrod getting his job back and Mills being a long-term backup. It’s not particularly fair compared to how some quarterbacks get to live, but that’s the third-round rookie life.

4) The culture was established in 2020

This reminded me a lot of the loss to the Packers last year, a game which sent Houston to 1-6. It’s very easy for the players to hold the company line when it’s early, or when things are going well, but you can’t expect a 1-5 team to do the same. We had a rip-roaring press session where Mark Ingram ran the same four or five things in each answer he gave. Brandin Cooks called people out while trying to not call people out by name but also, yeah, he called people out.

The thing is: the culture has been established here since 2020, the first full year where the culture leader got to run an offseason. The culture isn’t interested in talent, it’s interested in gritty players like Ingram who are going to do what they can to overcome the next hurdle and play by the culture rules:

In that way, the culture becomes a weight of frustration, because the culture is built around growing through adversity and how that Has Meaning. But none of that actually matters for NFL teams that don’t employ great players. The Texans have one of the weakest rosters on the star level in the NFL — I would say they had the weakest period if Deshaun Watson wasn’t technically on the roster. Mark Ingram isn’t going to find anything that he can do better at this point. He’s a seasoned veteran. A lot of these guys are. They were set up to fail from the start. No roster this weak was ever going to contend, and they need to play almost flawless football. What this takes me back to is a quote Jacob Martin gave almost a year ago today:

The culture may have changed as far as players in and players out, but you can’t build a real culture around competition anymore than you can build a foundation with toothpicks on a blank slab. I feel bad for each and every player in the locker room. It doesn’t matter if Chris Moore unlocks his latent potential and becomes a palatable third receiver, because it changes nothing for the Texans’ long-term future. The only players that have any real upside here are the youth, who mostly don’t get to play outside of Mills, Greenard, Nico Collins, and Roy Lopez. And who knows how long they’ll play before they don’t eat the right brand of chips at lunch or they undersleep and get caught by the performance lab and get red flagged by a bunch of people who are trying to Frankenstein a team of loose parts together because they think they’ve got all the answers. You can’t aspire this into an NFL team with wishful thinking and one-percent-a-day-ism any more than you can aspire to make Frankenstein a real human being.

There’s a Great Gatsby quote for this circumstance: “It never occurred to me that one man could start to play with the faith of fifty million people- with the single mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe.” There aren’t quite fifty million Texans fans — there may not be fifty hundred Texans fans at Week 8’s Rams game — but this has been so brazen and so obvious for so long that you almost lose sight of how amazing it is that this team has been put together. If it were any other team but the one that I support, I would regard it like Leonard Nimoy talking about the cosmic ballet in The Simpsons.

It’s yes, a miracle that anyone would be dumb enough to do this and think that it would work, let alone to have leadership aligned around the concepts. The culture of this team is needless suffering and a forced smile through it, with accountability for everyone except those who built it.


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Five optimistic things about the Texans through five games

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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The Texans are 1-4 and have one of the worst five point-differentials in the NFL. That was fairly foreseeable from the jump. How they got there, though, is a little more unexpected. They haven’t been the worst team in the NFL, nor in their own division. They nearly jumped a sleeping Patriots team on Sunday. Some of their players have played very well, and others, well, not so much.

Here’s what I’d give you as far as optimism through five weeks:

1) Roy Lopez is essentially Houston’s starting nose tackle, as a rookie, and is doing just fine

Has Roy Lopez become the best player in the NFL? No. Is he a top … let’s say, 25 defensive tackle in the NFL? No. But is he a productive player on a four-year rookie contract? He sure is. That’s all I ever wanted out of this season, from the moment that it became clear that Deshaun Watson wouldn’t wear deep steel blue. The whole point of this team should have been to create several Roy Lopez’s. And so I think it’s a great sign of where Lopez is that he was able to get deep enough into the culture membrane to actually win a starting job after Vincent Taylor was sent to IR:

He is the only Texans rookie that has played multiple good games, and he’s shown more pass-rush ability than expected. That doesn’t mean he’s going to be a star, and it doesn’t even mean he’s going to get good enough for people to whine that he’s overlooked. I’ve seen many five-game samples of players that were meaningless in the long run. But the Texans have got an honest-to-goodness chance at long-term production at a cheap price here, and as the guy who is always complaining about how this team is locked in on veterans, it’s nice to see that it can actually happen here. We’re beginning to see this happen with the conversation around Jon Greenard now too, even though Greenard hasn’t been very healthy. Lonnie Johnson finally has outlasted the Eric Murray starting experience and is making some plays on the football even if he makes things interesting. Let’s find out what these young players are good at and use them the best way they can be used.

2) Regardless of the outcome of the experiment, Davis Mills had real experience this year and the Texans won’t have to approach him as an unknown in the 2022 offseason

My line of thinking around Mills at this point is: I didn’t think he was ready to start this year, but he also showed noticeable improvement in the Patriots game. I don’t know if it’s enough to bank on him being a full-time starter in 2020 or 2021, but it’s an optimistic outcome for the pick at all that he didn’t just bleed out after being thrown to the wolves.

The first three starts for a quarterback are always a weird situation because coordinators don’t try to dial down on weaknesses that they can’t see on NFL film very often. I think it’s likely that Mills will get drawn into the grand adjustment game. Right now, I’m most concerned about how Mills will deal with blitzes. That’s not something that happened all that often against the Patriots, and when it did, he looked ghastly. Mills kept clean is a much different player than Mills hurried. I’d also feel better about his future if I saw plays like the Conley fourth-down play, but where he remains in the pocket and finds the solution rather than drifting.

Ultimately, I’m expecting him to settle in as a Kevin Kolb-type of player after the first four games of experience. That sounds negative, but it comes with a couple of caveats. Any player that can improve as much as Mills did from the Bills game to the Patriots game has to be treated seriously as a prospect because that level of improvement is rare (and that’s from someone who thinks some of Mills’ big throws in the game have the aura of flukiness to them). Finally, you might remember Kolb as a washout, but the Eagles were able to trade him for a second-round pick and a solid cornerback. There were a lot of people around the league who thought quite highly of Kolb. I don’t know if that same process plays out 10 years later because I think NFL front offices tend to be a little more wary of small samples, but there’s still plenty of time to change that.

The worst-case scenario for the Texans this year was leaving the season without any evidence on Mills one way or another, because with the Watson situation resolved in the way it has been, they desperately needed to have an opinion on Mills with actual field work before they pop up with, say, the 20th pick in the draft in a trade and are considering their options in a down quarterback class.

3) Brandin Cooks has been better than I anticipated and has earned at least a “draw” on the trade that brought him to Houston

I dial in pretty deep into my feelings on the major trades this team makes, and for the most part I’ve been proven right to be pessimistic on them. I kind of hate it! One thing people think about the guy who has “branded” this way is that it’s a conscious choice to just dig in and despise everything the team does rather than a reaction to 12-plus years covering the NFL in-depth. But when I go back and look at the record of hating the Tunsil trade, hating the Hopkins trade, hating bringing back Easterby, thinking the Whitney Mercilus re-signing was low-ceiling, hating the Eric Murray signing, and on and on … I feel pretty vindicated in the way this has played out on the field and off the field. I don’t want to be negative, I’d love if the team pilfered their own Hopkins off some sucker. They don’t do that.

The one trade I think I was a little too low on, in retrospect, was dealing a second-round pick for Brandin Cooks. Most of my feedback in this post is focused on the fact that Cooks is not DeAndre Hopkins, but you traded for him like he was.

Cooks has not suffered a major injury in his 20 games with the Texans, and has only missed a single game. I think it’s fair to note that the deep passing game for the Texans never really established him in the same way it has for other teams because Tim Kelly’s play-action scheme remains broken. The only deep shot Cooks touchdown that comes to mind off play-action was in the Week 17 Titans game last year. The rest of what he’s done has been taking short passes a long way or winning balls deep that he has to slow up for out of structure. The rationale of Cooks becoming a part of a balanced attack was always silly and he’s been the Texans primary receiver in a ridiculous way early on:

Now, I think some of you on the optimistic side are going “a draw”?!!?! Well, here’s my rationale for that: The Texans are 5-15 since acquiring Cooks, and three of those five wins are against the Jaguars. In the context of knowing that, would you rather not have had the second-round pick? It turned into Van Jefferson, but you have your choice of guys like A.J. Dillon, Justin Madubuike, Josh Jones, Kristian Fulton, Jeremy Chinn, Bryan Edwards, Antonio Gibson, Julian Blackmon, and so on. All of whom would have two more years of control on their rookie deals. I think you can debate that those are more valuable assets for a team that should be rebuilding to control.

Cooks has kept his value fairly steady — I think in a rational NFL marketplace where you’re not dealing with Bill O’Brien, you could probably get a three for him, maybe a two. But the way the Texans value his contributions to the culture, which was a concern of mine when they made the trade, I don’t know that he’s actually going to get traded. He’s literally a guaranteed caller on the Texans in-house programs on Monday reviewing the game, and his tightness with Easterby essentially makes him an extension of management. That’s all well and good while he’s performing like this. He’s also going to have a $16 million cap hit next year with two void years after that, at which point he’ll be 30. The NFL moves fast. A rational front office would be thinking about starting a trade deadline bidding war. A front office this hooked into what a player is about as a person, however, I don’t know if that’s happening…

4) Tyrod Taylor was much better than I anticipated when he was healthy

I definitely had a very low expectation of Taylor this season because his recent statistical output was not good. In his last four seasons, he’d been sacked on 10.1% of his dropbacks and averaged only 121 yards per game as he dink-and-dunked his way up the field. While I still believe that the Jaguars game amounts to a few big throws out-of-structure working out that I wouldn’t exactly call repeatable, I think the Texans did a good job of building the box around him to keep the statistical output manageable. One sack in 44 dropbacks speaks to that, including a lot of chips at Myles Garrett to keep him from becoming a factor in that game.

I do think that there’s a lot of hyperbole around “just wait until we get Tyrod back!” because there’s a) no guarantee that this version of Tyrod is coming back and b) we’re coloring that six-quarter sample with a lot of bad Jaguars pass defense. Jacksonville is dead-last in pass defense DVOA. Cleveland, even with Garrett, is 19th.

But, I must admit, the underneath accuracy and the sack-avoidance was better than I expected, and if he does come back, there are a lot of winnable games on the schedule. I know that at 1-4, the fans who have written off the Texans as “tanking” don’t want to hear that. Well, sorry. You better hope that hamstring injury is worse than reported.

5) Lovie Smith has delivered on his turnover focus promise

Houston’s defense is the only part of this team delivering on any of their promise statistically. They’re 15th in defensive DVOA and ninth in defensive pass DVOA through five games, as compared to 30th and 29th the year before. At it’s core, it all comes down to the turnovers. Houston forced a turnover on just 5.4% of their opponent’s possessions last year, which was dead last in the NFL by a lot — as you’d expect from a team with just nine total turnovers. This year they’re at 14.5% — seventh in the NFL — and they’ve forced eight turnovers in five games. They’ve also had a number of fumbles hit the ground that they have not scooped up, including five in two games against the Bills and Panthers.

To be honest, the most appalling thing about this is how simple it has been. The Texans have had a relatively easy quarterback schedule so far and probably caught a break in that Josh Allen’s start against them was in lousy weather. They’re still giving up a ton of yardage. They’re just counting on you to make mistakes in ball carriage and capitalizing against it, as was part of the explanation for letting Rhamondre Stevenson carry the ball after the two-minute warning last week.

If you have to lean a defense into one ethos for a modern NFL that feels like offenses have most of the answers, well, why wouldn’t it be turnovers? And I have to give Lovie a lot of credit for backing up his messaging on that, because it was exhausting in the preseason. It has paid off so far for a unit I would charitably say is short two good outside corners and at least one big pass rusher. They are relentless at trying to pop the ball out.

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Next week: Six pessimistic things about the Texans through six games. That’s right, we’re engaging in complementary posting.

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Four Downs: Texans 22, Patriots 25

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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The most positive thing I can say about this game from Houston’s perspective is that the players showed urgency in a must-win situation. They got the best they could out of Davis Mills (more on this below), they didn’t wilt with a Laremy Tunsil injury, the defense got the big turnovers that they needed in big moments. There were penalties, and there are weaknesses about this team that aren’t going to change because they are part of the roster construction as a whole. But to a man, the players bounced up from 40-0 and fought hard for this one.

And the coaching staff gave it away.

There were three monumentally bad calls by David Culley in the second half after he — without question — was excellent in the first half. He allowed whatever the hell this fake punt formation thing was to happen. Here’s the excuse:

He backed that up on the next drive with an extremely questionable decision to have Ka’imi Fairbairn attempt a 56-yard field goal on fourth-and-4 at the NE 38. Fairbairn literally has never hit a field goal that long in his career, has made only 14-of-22 50+ yard attempts in his career, and had missed two extra points earlier in this game. It was a wild heat check to let Fairbairn attempt that field goal given the context around his performance this year and his injury. That sets up New England with great field position for the tying touchdown drive.

Finally, on the last Patriots drive of the game, Culley and crew were faced with a choice: They could let New England score with 1:53 left and give Davis Mills a chance to drive the length of the field with no timeouts, or they could get possession of the ball with about 15 seconds left and need a field goal to tie. They chose, you guessed it, the 15 seconds. They followed it up with this explanation:

You’ll be surprised, no doubt, to learn that the 15 seconds did not help the Texans get a field goal and that they lost. Or you would be if the score wasn’t in the title of the post, anyway. The Patriots did not attempt a pass, despite Culley’s pleas.

I’ve given a lot of leeway on criticizing Culley’s game management because a) he’s very new to the job and b) I’ve never felt like the Texans were actually making the playoffs this season even in the most optimistic of scenarios. But … these are three calls that took them from 2-3 with a real chance to make noise in a bad division versus 1-4 and being two games in the rearview mirror of the Titans.

And that has been the story of the management of this Texans team for quite a bit now, dating back to the O’Brien years: They’re too passive at times, too cute at others, and they’re eternally confused on the sideline about what they want. When I’m watching Brandon Staley (who this team interviewed!) manage fourth-and-long down 14 like the game is on the line, and I turn to Culley needing to burn three separate timeouts on fourth-down decisions, it just makes me wonder when we’ll be allowed to have nice things. Say what you will about keeping a locker room together and in check, but if they’re in check to say great things about the chemistry while they lose every close game they play in an NFL that has left them behind, what does it matter?

1) Davis Mills — I’m going to be unpopular here

Davis Mills did some commendable things in this game and I think they start with a much-improved ability to recognize when his first read is going nowhere. That was the case on his biggest play of the game — in my opinion — the fourth-and-2 go that he hit downfield to Chris Conley for 40 yards.

Neither underneath route wins cleanly (I think Cooks winds up open, but not at the time that Mills has to make a decision), so he drifts right away from the pressure and dials up Conley downfield. Now, that throw could have used a little more zip. He was almost undercut by the safety. But the decision was very sound.

All and all, this felt a lot like the Jaguars game. The Texans pooled almost all of their yardage off three splash passes that, while great, didn’t really feel like something you’d want to rely on.

Mills making this throw, on the move, is awesome. But we knew he had the upside to do that. It’s why he was drafted. Look at how tightly Moore is covered on the play. Look at the amount of inaccuracy we’ve seen from Mills at times. I would not give this ball more than a 10-20% chance of being completed from the catch point. It got completed, and that’s all that matters for our purposes today, but that was extremely close to getting intercepted.

Then, of course, there’s the flea flicker. Great call, not exactly requiring a dominant throw.

People are going to get ahead of themselves to talk up Mills’ performance because it looks extremely pretty in the box score. 300 yards and three touchdowns, how could you complain? There was certainly improvement there — that much is obvious. That throw to Auclair for his first touchdown was well-placed, and also safe because it’s, as a Manning would say “our ball or no one’s.” The Texans did a better job of protecting him. But so much of that improvement came via trick plays that worked, hand-holding screens that the Texans blocked well, and out-of-structure miracles.

Mills and Tim Kelly did a great job bouncing back from 40-0. There’s just not a lot of throws to take from this performance where I say “this is what a top-notch quarterback looks like.” Don’t get caught up by the numbers. Remember that Case Keenum played this game in a close loss, too. He’s nobody’s franchise quarterback.

The upside? It sure looks like Mills can grow in-season and that growth is extremely important from a quarterback who is a project. As someone who has never been down on the pick, I think this is a big step to him playing above the floor that was forecasted for him. I just think there’s a lot to play out still here, and so I advise cautious optimism rather than spraying “His QBR is better than any rookies!” or something along those lines that could make you look silly in a few weeks. He will have good weeks and bad weeks, as all rookies do.

2) What in the absolute hell happened to Texans special teams?

The one thing I never felt any difficulty forecasting this year is that the Texans would have a good special teams unit. Apparently, I should have thought harder about the coordinator. The players on the unit definitely are solid-at-worst over their careers, and with all this hoopla about competition, and how good the Patriots have generally been at it, how could you go wrong?

Ross had never run the show on his own in Indianapolis, and what we now see is a unit that is in Dire Straits, and I absolutely do mean that as in “money for nothing.” They’re 26th in special teams DVOA, and the only area they’ve been above average in was punting. That was before Cameron Johnston shanked one off his teammate’s helmet. Fairbairn is making top-five kicker money and has never been reliable from beyond 40. Andre Roberts has two fumbles and a long punt return of nine yards while reliably not making it beyond the 25. I believe that he’s playing hurt.

Here are the places where the Patriots started drives today:

NE 40 (Fairbairn kicked it out of bounds), NE 22, NE 24, NE 25, HOU 36, NE 39, NE 46, NE 13.

When you give a team the 39 or better on four drives, and they score on all four of those drives, and it’s a three-point game — and that’s not even counting the extra points and field goals that were missed — that’s a disaster. That’s not something a roster with this little talent can do in a close game.

3) The sad performance of this defensive line in a smash spot

It was very interesting to see Charles Omenihu become a surprise inactive for this game given that the Patriots were starting four backup offensive linemen. Here’s what David Culley said about the Omenihu deactivation:

The Texans, against that backup line, picked up exactly one sack and merely four quarterback hits. That’s a straight out of 2020 performance against a line that was depleted by injuries and COVID.

Nobody even came close to rushing the passer beyond Greenard, and next man up Jenkins recorded four tackles and a TFL. Whitney Mercilus and Jacob Martin were downright invisible.

Forgive me for asking a question that might breach the sanctity of the culture bubble, but what exactly is the point of benching one of your best pass rushers in a game you lose by three points? Where just one random sack on one of those drives might be enough to turn the tide? OK, you don’t like him on the outside? I like Omenihu more inside too. But don’t pretend that this depth you’ve accumulated is more than what it is.

Greenard’s a potential impact player, so by all means let him lead the way. Don’t take away his help. These guys can work together on passing downs.

4) The road to Chargers-dom

The Chargers are one of the league’s most exciting teams, and the only problem with them is that outside of general NFL fans, nobody cares that they exist. They destroyed their fanbase in San Diego, moved to Los Angeles for money, and are becoming a force with Justin Herbert and Staley. And they were also so unloved that the 2019 Texans were able to turn their temporary soccer stadium into a home crowd.

Anyway, here’s NRG Stadium as the Texans gave up the game-tying score today:

If you didn’t buy Texans season tickets, and paid more than $20 for a Texans ticket this year, you are getting ripped off. This stadium looked half-full at kickoff at best, and those half-full are mostly Patriots fans cheering for Hunter Henry. That’s an easy thing to imagine when you see the destruction of the moves over the years played out, but much like it was seeing the Texans be completely ignored on Thursday Night against the Panthers, unsettling to see happen in real world. This team sold out every game and had a season ticket waitlist that was thousands-deep two years ago. Today they are the Chargers, and the only reckoning publicly about it are desperate pleas to check out “the best game day experience in the NFL,” TexansPup’s existence, and the Texans putting ticket links and contests on every post they make.

There have been teams who have had to endure losing for longer than the Texans have had to. They were in the playoffs in the calendar year 2020! And in that context, what the O’Brien/Easterby/Caserio/Patriots South crew have done here renders me speechless. They’re looking at 2-5 at best, and maybe 1-6 after two road games against Indianapolis and Arizona. How many people are going to show up to watch the Texans play the Rams? How many of them are going to be from St. Louis?

This is a tragedy that we as fans live every day, and the front office is not even close to understanding their role in it. That is the power of toxic positivity. You can see it in every unsold seat.

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Four Downs: Texans 0, Bills 40

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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It’s been pretty evident since the preseason that Davis Mills wasn’t actually ready to be a starting NFL quarterback. He is but a symptom of what ails the Texans. There have been bursts of effectiveness in between the turnovers he’s sprayed wildly, particularly when he’s running a hurry-up offense.

But he’s extremely inaccurate, he locks on to his No. 1 target, and he doesn’t offer you anything as a quarterback to get beyond that right now. He’s not winning late in the down consistently, he isn’t running the ball for big gains or trusted to run read-option plays. The most telling play of the game for me was the initial fourth-and-short go, where Mills throws the ball directly at Jerry Hughes’ hand:

That wasn’t Hughes like, jumping and making a terrific play on the ball. All he did was literally hold his hand out, outstretched, and Mills threw directly at it. I read some reactions around the play along the lines of “well, good play by the defense and you have to tip your cap to them,” — lemme disagree. If you’re going to be a good quarterback in the league, this is the kind of pass you have to hit. Show some feel for the game and loop it over him, hold the ball longer and run more horizontally, deke Hughes out and slam on the brakes to create some throwing room … there are many NFL quarterbacks with the talent to make something happen here. If your quarterback isn’t one of them, he’s not good enough to win with.

This isn’t me saying Mills can’t ever become good, but this year feels like a lost cause. He needs to develop into much more than he is, and this game was the cruel hand of football at the highest level slamming the door in his face.

Only four times since 2009 has a quarterback thrown the ball for fewer than 100 yards on 20 or more attempts and been picked at least three times. The list is actually kind of funny: rookie Sam Darnold in 2019, Ryan Fitzpatrick in 2019 (both against the Patriots in their amazing first half), washed up 39-year-old Peyton Manning in 2015, and Andy Dalton in 2014. It’s a list that betrays that there’s a level of investment a team has to have in you to keep throwing you out there in spite of such horrendous results.

With the Texans, that level of investment shouldn’t exist, but it does because they a) never brought in a real backup quarterback to Tyrod Taylor and b) continue to carry Deshaun Watson on the active roster because that is their only ticket to the draft picks they need out of this mess. If you’re charitable you could say that Taylor was supposed to be a backup plan to Watson. Either way, once the path was settled to hide Watson on the roster, the team needed a more serious backup plan than Jeff Driskel. Where would you get that roster spot? I dunno, why is Rex Burkhead here anyway?

Nowhere in anything that David Culley said in his soaked-through clothes after the game did he give any indication that he didn’t think Mills is ready to start. That’s really not all that surprising, because the hallmark of covering the Texans in the Jack Easterby era is that they must at all times pretend that problems don’t exist. But it does foreshadow yet another Mills start.

The saddest thing about this is that, even at 1-3, the AFC South remains so barren that the Texans are going to allow themselves to imagine that they could be in first place if Tyrod Taylor stayed healthy. And that they’re right about that. Because that’s exactly the kind of delusion this team doesn’t need to feed itself — just as it was for Bill O’Brien’s early Texans when they played Blake Bortles and Zach Mettenberger four times a season and stumbled into deeply unserious playoff games to get blown out by any real contender that was healthy. This team has major problems as a defense, major problems running the ball, and a major problem in navigating the exit plan of the Deshaun Watson era. But, if you don’t do anything but say you need to execute better or deny problems exist, you don’t really have to face any of those. The culture, after all, is getting better every day.

1) Mills without an exit plan

The few remaining optimists on my timeline gravitated towards something along the lines of (paraphrasing) “Only two of Mills’ interceptions were his fault.” Well, they don’t include this ball:

Frankly, I also don’t agree about the way they’re backtracking the two tipped picks. The ball to Pharaoh Brown at the end of the game was so far behind him that it was begging to not be caught and popped up. The second pick, the one Matt Milano tipped, came with Milano directly in the passing lane and unencumbered. That’s not a ball you should throw without loft, and it’s a ball that many better and more experienced quarterbacks would not attempt to throw at all depending on their comfort with that loft. Mills’ sacks showed a distinct inability to move on to a next read:

This is a target that Mills has to get off of much sooner than he did. Brandin Cooks was the man he locked on to. There was nothing there, go on to Pharaoh Brown over the middle. The better quarterbacks get that read down before it even happens and are already on to the next one.

Where I will give Mills some credit is that the Texans picked up 10 penalty for 100 yards, and that his average third-down attempt came with a distance of 11.3 yards. That would be tough for a good quarterback, let alone one as limited as Mills is right now. Houston played them mostly conservatively before the game went out of hand, and it didn’t end well for anybody involved. Joe Montana in his prime? He would have made a difference, David.

2) End the myth that this offensive line is improved, 2021 edition

The Texans ran exactly two plays that gained more than 10 yards and were runs: Mark Ingram’s heavy-set run in the first quarter, and David Johnson’s third-and-long draw give-up on their first drive.

Poor Phillip Lindsay. He had no chance on that play. This is an interesting situation for me because I look at what the team did all offseason: They embraced a competition mindset. They needed competitors, only the most competitive people could be considered good fits for the team. But through four weeks, nothing has changed from last season. The team can’t run the ball. And the result of the competition is: the starters are the starters minus some snaps for Marcus Cannon to get his conditioning back, and the backfield roles have mostly been the same for four weeks. What was the point of the competition if it creates this result (back-to-back-to-back sub-3 YPC games) and there’s nothing that can be done about it? What happened to those competitive juices? Where are those extra competitors hiding?

Tytus Howard doesn’t deserve to be dragged through the mud because the team asked him to learn a new position as a result of a trade for Cannon. But that’s where he is. He was inconsistent at right tackle last season, and now he’s having to learn a brand new position on the fly because of a versatility edict that the Texans are struggling to implement. They still can’t block zone on account of all the new bodies and lack of time together. Nothing about the running game has materially changed from last year outside of being able to bludgeon Ingram inside in heavy personnel, and the Texans routinely forget that they’re allowed to do that.

They’ll run better against the Patriots because the Patriots haven’t stopped the run for two seasons now. Local media will pretend that it’s an uptick, or that consistency has finally been found, then the run offense will disappear for another four weeks. Calling it right now.

I haven’t listened to a lot of in-house radio because of expanded work hours this season for me, but when I did listen to it after the Panthers game, I was cackling over “they just, for whatever reason, can’t seem to run the ball.” Well, their best back is 30-something, their line has no continuity, they weren’t good last year, a new coach can’t change everything, Tim Kelly hasn’t evolved his run-game playcalling, they don’t use option plays … pick one. (Or many.)

3) Lovie’s defense remains a sieve

The optimistic way to look at this defense is that they forced three fumbles, got an interception, and made the Bills kick four field goals. The pessimistic way to look at them is that they allowed 450 total yards, couldn’t stop the run or the pass, and got lucky to get the stops that they did.

Kudos to Lovie Smith for actually starting Lonnie Johnson instead of pretending that Eric Murray was good again this week, which was a step in the right direction. But there had to be a reason that they were starting Murray in the first place, right? That showed its face today with Lonnie. He’s a playmaker and that interception against Allen was big, but in his haste to make plays, he sometimes creates some big holes. I’m glad he’s out there regardless, because there is some upside in him figuring it out. But right now he makes things interesting, and that’s not exactly a desirable quality at safety.

Through four games, the only team to not run for at least 4.6 yards per carry against the Texans are the Panthers, and that was with Chuba Hubbard and Royce Freeman receiving the majority of the carries for an injured Christian McCaffrey. For all the hullabaloo about how improved they were going to be at stopping the run, well, they didn’t really bring in anybody who was all that renowned as a run-stuffer besides Vincent Taylor, who is now on IR.

The passing defense too regularly is exploitable on easy stuff.

Josh Allen has a rocket arm. That doesn’t mean you need to give him throws that are this easy. And that’s a problem when you lean as heavily into Cover-2 as the Texans have — they’re by far the most Cover-2 heavy team in the NFL. The NFL figured out Cover-2 in about 2013 or 2014. Unless you run it inverted or throw a real twist on it, it can’t be the staple that Lovie wants it to be without a mass explosion of plays like this.

Well, anyway, the turnovers are nice. At least there’s that. But this defense is firmly on the “scrappy” continuum at this point, and that’s with almost perfect health. Trading Bradley Roby may or may not be a good move in the long-term, but it wrecked this team. You can’t play without good outside corners as an ethos.

4) On watching the tape

Like a moth to a flame, I was of course drawn to the pressers that culture leaders Kamu Grugier-Hill and Christian Kirksey gave. They, along with Mills emphasized not giving up and just executing better.

I can’t really expect them to say anything differently, but there’s not a whole lot here that’s correctable in a real or actionable way unless they change something schematically. The message from the culture seemed to just be: We have to watch the tape and get it corrected.

They just had 10 days to get it corrected after losing to the Panthers and what they came up with got them knocked off the field. These guys are competitors, and they will say what they have to say, and it will indeed be a long season where things can change. Particularly when/if Taylor is able to play again.

I guess what I’m saying is: I don’t begrudge them their beliefs and their pride as athletes, but whatever this was on Sunday afternoon goes beyond what a culture can fix. It goes beyond the tape. It goes to the very elemental concepts of a football team: Who is playing where, and why? Is that player qualified to execute that assignment? If not, is there someone who potentially is? Or can there be a way to hide a weakness? They can only play who is scheduled, of course, and they haven’t really played a middle-of-the-road team so much as they’ve played two pretty sure playoff teams and an NFC upstart who might be. But it’s very clear that this team doesn’t have the Jimmys and Joes to play top competition, and it was always obvious that this would be the case.

At this point, what’s there to be surprised about? It’s a team that had obvious flaws from the beginning. One of them was Tyrod Taylor’s inability to stay healthy. The size of the defeat feels disappointing, but it doesn’t really change the calculus of the 2021 Texans. They’re going to continue to be bad at several things, mostly on account of a lack of top-line talent. They need to establish their culture by winning four more games against a soft AFC South schedule and pretending that the 2020 Texans are gone forever because of that. That is the only measuring stick this team appears to have, and they have plenty of time to get it done. They could very well beat the Patriots if Davis Mills can be managed into not spitting out turnovers every five pass plays, and Carson Wentz has been an utter disaster so that’s solidly in play as well.

It’s not that hard to win football games. Except for the way the Texans are trying to do it.

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