Some thoughts on the Eternal Deadline of the Deshaun Watson 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.


Normally, I’m a fan of writing about things that happened on this blog. Unfortunately, the Deshaun Watson trade-to-be has not been rooted in a lot of them until the last few days, when we’ve learned that compensation is agreed to (or, so it is said) between the Texans and Dolphins but that the Dolphins want Watson to settle his cases before he’s a Dolphin.

The drama of any kind of sweepstakes pretty much ended Wednesday morning with the report that Watson has only waived his no-trade clause for one team: The Dolphins. Watson could waive his no-trade clause to other destinations, but reportedly has already used it to rule out the Eagles. The Panthers wanted to do sit-down meetings with Watson before acquiring him, which is a great thought, but even if he wanted to do that, would probably not be in Watson’s best interests while he has ongoing litigation and people who could leak those discussions would be in the room. Roger Goodell’s non-comments about Watson’s availability to play on Tuesday set in to motion a few extra morsels for a team to acquire him before the deadline with an eye towards playing their way into playoff contention, but the Dolphins lost to the Jaguars and the Falcons and their playoff odds are at 2.4%.

Other teams might be able to re-enter the fray in the offseason, but with a deadline approaching now, this seems to be a Dolphins-or-bust proposition. Guess we’ll see if any Mystery Teams charge into the fold, but I think a no-trade clause is a pretty big carrot that says right now this is a trade all about Miami.

Let’s discuss the proposed trade and the situation as a whole in my favorite format for indigestible things: theoretical reader questions and answers.

What’s your own personal read of the chances of a Dolphins-Texans trade?

I think there’s a line to be neatly threaded about what has been agreed to in principle. I think the Dolphins and Texans have an agreement contingent on Watson settling his cases. That’s not necessarily the same deal that the Texans would get if the deal was made without that happening. Therein lies the gray area of “agreeing to compensation.” The issue is the same as it has been for many months: risk drives the price down, and the Texans are right to wait for the price to be at its highest. I think the Texans are getting the three first-round picks no matter what — but the remainder of the deal is up for grabs and the Dolphins and the Watson camp have every reason to tell the world about what’s going on because a) Watson should want his new team to have as many picks as they possibly can and b) the Dolphins would obviously prefer the trade to be as unfair as possible.

OK, so why would the Texans do that?

Well, Watson’s been here for months. He’s wasting a roster spot. He’s making his salary even though he’s not doing anything. Those are all poor reasons to rush into a trade, though. I think the reality of the situation is that the Texans would prefer to move on from him because they want to distance themselves from what they believe he’s done, and if anyone would know what he’s done as well as Watson’s camp, it’s the Texans. They have to be open to hearing the offers. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they have to take an offer that they don’t think is worth the price of someone who has played like a true franchise quarterback.

The interesting thing is that I think the Watson story is doing a great job running cover for the Texans, in a way. The team is horrendous. The trades and signings that Nick Caserio made last season weren’t a disaster because they were so low stakes that it is impossible for that to be true. But they have added no real assets from the free agent crop, and only Jon Greenard is taking a true step into becoming one. Watson’s situation actually helps take some attention away from that.

Anyway, I can’t tell you I’ve got compelling evidence that says the Texans should make this move, which is why I’m more on the side of believing there will be no trade yet. But I guess we’ll see. From the beginning, this has felt like a story of whether an ownership group is more desperate to get Watson than Texans ownership is to get rid of him.

Why doesn’t Watson just settle the lawsuits against him?

That’s an interesting one, because it seems like it would be in the best interests of his playing career. However, from day one his team has been adamant about this being a shakedown. Lance Zierlein said last Friday that he believed there might have been some recent movement between the Watson camp and attorney Tony Buzbee. I’ve got no information on that. I can’t fault Watson for believing that taking the case to court is the only way to really clear his name, because it probably is, but the mass brunt of the damage has already been done in terms of perception. The internet isn’t going to stuff those Bill Cosby memes back into the drawer and pretend it never happened.

I think it will all largely be swept away in the long-term either way because the NFL has never been a league that hasn’t been happy to rebuild shattered reputations. But this is a personal choice to fight these cases in court from Watson as far as I can tell and I can’t fault him for that choice. I don’t think it’s a great one for his playing career, and I don’t think he can fault the Texans for not trading him given the circumstances.

Why are we talking about Watson’s trade value? Aren’t the allegations against him pretty serious?

They sure are! You raise an excellent point. Unfortunately, the NFL didn’t have a pre-arranged solution to this situation, and the only way they seem capable of learning about things they need is reactively rather than proactively. Their reaction to the Watson situation has been like waking up with the smell of smoke in their bedroom and waiting in bed in disbelief until the wall is actually on fire before trying to find a way to escape. You can see this time and time again in things like the St. Louis trial over the Rams relocating (wow, we can’t just buy the court?) and the WFT scandal (who could have predicted that there would be public backlash to a slap on the wrist for Mr. Snyder?)

If it were up to me: Watson belongs on the commissioner’s exempt list or some new version of it, and I don’t think he should be off of it until things are settled. Unfortunately, that is not the reality we live in, and the football machine must be greased. In fact, Premiere Football Brains around the world know that this is the opportunity to grab him at a bargain, so the circumstances can be ignored for a clear win. Sort of like when the Astros traded for Roberto Osuna.

What is a fair price for Deshaun Watson?

The football player that Deshaun Watson became in 2020 does not have a fair price. If there were a theoretical player like that and the team had no incentive to move him, I think you wouldn’t be talking about three firsts, but three entire years worth of draft picks.

Obviously, you have to weigh that against what’s actually happening here. Watson isn’t playing and the allegations are serious. One thing that we’ve never really gotten any insight about because the Texans are cosplaying Very Serious New England lads is whether the directive to not play him is negotiated between both sides, a Watson hold-in that the Texans aren’t punishing him for, or a directive from above to not play him. I kind of believe it’s negotiated, but that’s just an educated guess based on people I’ve heard talking around the situation.

To be a little less vague: I feel resigned and predestined to hate this trade and this return, whenever it happens, regardless of the circumstances, from a pure football standpoint. The Texans had an opportunity to fix the problem after the season and they stood with one of their least valuable employees instead of their most valuable one. It’s a decision that they will be paying for on the football field for years. You can keep counting up from three first-round picks to like, eight. It doesn’t matter. I played Madden franchise mode too, but in the real world those picks pale in comparison to a young star quarterback under contract for several seasons. You’re not guaranteed to find three players with those three picks that equate to the value of one Watson, let alone one. I will be relieved when the hanging sword is out of our lives, because it’s obvious he has no interest in playing here ever again, but all the trade will do is turn the Texans from “the team Deshaun Watson is done with” to “the team Deshaun Watson used to play for.”

Why don’t the Texans just keep Watson?

Well, they don’t really have a way to accede to what he wants to be changed anymore. They can’t just have Cal resign as lead partner and fire Jack Easterby and say “everything’s fixed,” because it is clearly not water under the bridge when we’re dealing with personal feelings. On top of that, the team is now worse than ever.

I guess what they could say is “we’re not trading you, you can play here or retire.” But hardball is a very easy thing to think about in practice and a very hard thing to actually pull off. Like it or hate it — and I think most of you hate it based on the comments I get — Watson not saying anything has been a boon for the Texans. He knows where the bodies are. If you think the Sports Illustrated Easterby articles were a disaster for the franchise, wait until the franchise quarterback is telling everyone about the things that didn’t make those pieces. Maybe you’d come back with “can the team reputation get any worse than it already is?” and, well, every time I think the Texans have hit their nadir they find a way to create a new low.

I’m not trying to say there’s 100% no way that Watson will ever play a game for the franchise again — anybody who says they know 100% for certain what is going on here is lying — but I think a lot of things would have to change drastically. I think his trade market would have to crater based on what comes out of the cases. I think he’d have to take on a lot of humility about his situation. These are things that I can’t entirely rule out, but that certainly don’t seem to be happening in the current stasis of the situation.

Why don’t you ever just tear down Deshaun Watson for wanting to leave, never speaking about the Texans, crying at the signing of his contract, and quitting on his team?

Have you seen what this team has become? I have a lot of empathy for wanting to flee the scene. Let’s leave Easterby out of it for a second and say for the sake of argument that he has no say (lol) — the team that they’ve constructed here is a dire plea for help. The acting owner of the team drops an anti-Asian reference at his charity golf event and thinks it’s funny. They traded DeAndre Hopkins for pennies on the dollar. They lost the faith of J.J. Watt. I’ve been an enormous critic of most of the moves they’ve made since 2018 ended and the only time I look back in retrospect and say I don’t feel good about my read on the situation is the Brandin Cooks trade — and even that one, now that the Texans are 5-18 in their last 23 games, I think you could still argue you’d rather have a younger cost-controlled second-round player. (And hey, now you pissed him off too! Great job, guys!)

While I find loyalty very commendable and would be praising Watson hard for staying, we’re in a new era. It’s not 1970 where you can hide how bad things are in Houston from a quarterback, he’s going to be able to ask people if it’s normal for a character coach to be elevated to the position he has been. Legacy media are very committed to protecting ownership/the team. (To give an example, I heard the Cal anti-Asian story months ago but wasn’t going to report it without a way to actually verify it, and if I heard it, I know my spot on the food chain here. Other people definitely knew.) Players aren’t bound by the same rules.

You’ve seen Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson walk the same “not confident in this team” tightrope, and they’re in much better situations. It’s very apparent to every player that the Texans are one of the worst organizations in the NFL right now, and if you have any doubt about that, look at how many free agents just had no interest in coming here. John Brown signed with a team that released him rather than sign here. Teams now have to live up to franchise quarterbacks as much as franchise quarterbacks have to live up to teams. That is 2021.

Do I think Watson quit on the team? Sure. Do I think the team quit on him before that? Yup. I’m never gonna step on a man for doing what he thinks is best for him, and it’s obvious that these Texans are in no state to grow a winning football team for years to come. Firing Bill O’Brien changed nothing.


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Four Downs: Texans 5, Cardinals 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.


I think the biggest story of this game for the long-term interests of the Texans was the play of Davis Mills. The Cardinals had no qualms about stacking the line of scrimmage and asking him to figure out who was coming and who wasn’t. He only took two sacks, but it shattered pretty much every third- or fourth-and-short the team had, sans the one that Brandin Cooks dropped in the flat.

Tim Kelly does not ask Davis Mills to throw deep because the results have been pretty disastrous outside of the Patriots game, and even those throws happened outside of structure and — I think we have to admit at this point — were pretty fortunate. And when the Cardinals blitz, and Mills heads to a checkdown, Houston has absolutely no way to punish that. Cooks doesn’t win press as easily as he does against man. Nobody else on the team beats man quickly. And so it leads to checkdowns or sailed passes at best, sacks at worst. It created this ghastly set of splits:

26 of 32 passes coming within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. The ones that were deep throws were not even remotely close to completions. If Mills isn’t able to do better than this against the Rams or Dolphins (I am assuming he starts these games and not Tyrod Taylor because the Texans seem wildly non-committal on Taylor’s status, happy to be proven wrong) in these same kinds of looks, then he’ll have stagnated.

It isn’t all on him, because the talent around him isn’t good and there is no running game. But the fact that the small sample of results we have point to him not throwing deep, and then pair that with the fact that nothing I’ve heard in any presser seems to directly give a reason for not doing that … they are consciously avoiding it because they know what they see everyday.

As I said after the Patriots game, there will be highs and there will be lows with Mills. I am hoping that we get a rebound and some more growth. I don’t think that’s out of the question. But this is, well, this is why you don’t want to start him. This was non-competitive from the jump, and even when the offense got good field position, they barely moved the ball at all. Not all of that is on Mills, but he’s got no kind of superlative talent that is going to erase that. And, well, you can say that about many quarterbacks in the NFL. None of them are franchise guys.

1) The Texans could have easily been the Cardinals, and that’s the most annoying thing of all

Permit me a little escape from the actual events of the game because it was a dark four hours of my life that I’ll never get back.

The most annoying thing about this entire situation — Hopkins and Watt on the other sideline — is that the Arizona Cardinals are doing exactly what the Texans should have done in 2019 and 2020. I’m not saying the Cardinals are nailing every personnel evaluation. I’m not saying they’re nailing every draft pick. But they selectively went hard after available difference-makers in trades and in free agency to supplement their star rookie quarterback. That is the stuff that me and, to give some credit for the shouting from the rooftops, Matt Weston, have been all about for the entirety of the Deshaun Watson era. To have a rookie quarterback on a value contract playing well is the most valuable commodity in sports. You have to exploit it to build a great team.

Steve Keim has not been my favorite general manager in the NFL by a longshot. I think he’s botched a ton of things. He also has shown aggression. He shows that he knows that every NFL player is on a limited timetable, and that your job is to win now. It’s something that Bill O’Brien, Rick Smith, Jack Easterby, and I’ll even say Brian Gaine (even though I liked his program-building) just showed no aptitude for. There was no grand ambition. There was no ethos to get better talent in the door as quickly as possible. With Smith and Gaine, it was patience to a fault — an inability to trust anybody but the guys they cleared for the program. With O’Brien and Easterby when they were given personnel control, they just wildly flailed in the dark trying to solve any problem they saw with as much capital as possible — especially when they weren’t real problems — then blamed the players that were actually good when that didn’t work.

It hurts a lot to watch the Cardinals be what the Texans could have been in an alternate universe. And then to have your completely unserious team come to town — and I’ll even say I didn’t think the Cardinals came close to playing their best game — and it didn’t even matter in the slightest. Outside of the defensive line, the Texans and Cardinals weren’t even playing the same sport. Our best assets were devalued and pilfered, then used to build what could have been right here, and even when misused as badly as they have been this year, they crushed a Texans team that had almost nothing steering it towards winning football. Ghastly.

2) The youth movement and other clever hypotheses

When the Texans assembled media met with David Culley, they kept trying to push him in the direction of rationality by asking about a youth movement, about playing younger players:

The grand youth movement runs into a major problem every time they talk about it: They aren’t actually going to do that, and have never considered doing that, because this team isn’t rational about what they are. They’ve never been that way under Easterby. They arguably were never that way under O’Brien, but at least they were able to parlay their star-level talent into better results then.

This team has 21 players under 25 years old on its 53-man roster. The ones that play the most are: Justin Reid (impending FA), Tytus Howard (bad at guard all year after being moved), Max Scharping (benched today), Roy Lopez, Charles Omenihu (inactive from the Bills game until today), Charlie Heck (would not be playing without injuries), Jon Greenard, Davis Mills (would not be playing without injuries), Ross Blacklock (rotational role), and Nico Collins (rotational role). Outside of Greenard and Lopez, I don’t think I can point you to a young player on the team who has a runway for starter-level playing time on purpose, and both of them play on the only group on the team that rotates constantly. That’s not something this team is built to do, because doing so would mean recognizing that accumulating layers of C-to-C-minus culture veterans doesn’t actually do anything to help it.

Culley has continued to be nothing but upbeat about the culture and staying the course, it’s the same tact he took after this game. Nothing is changing about the message or the vibe because that was never what this season was about.

There will be no tanking. Thankfully for the fans that want some tanking, this team is so poorly-managed philosophically that it can be mistaken for intentionally tanking when they do things like this:

And therein lies the true conflict of the 2021 Texans: They aren’t tanking, but they’re managed so poorly they kind of actually are.

3) The defensive line actually created some havoc on Kyler Murray

Both Greenard and Omenihu, as well as Maliek Collins in the midst of his best game of the season, were able to take advantage of a Cardinals offensive line missing Rodney Hudson and create some real pressure on Kyler Murray. Greenard had his second two-sack game in a row, and while they weren’t dominant sacks where he was rolling past a guy, he’s flashed plenty of that along the way. Collins had the sickest rip of the day with this spin past Arizona’s right guard:

Ultimately the Texans wound up with four sacks and four quarterback hits, while both Greenard and Jacob Martin were able to bat passes down at the line against Murray. DeMarcus Walker and Greenard each had two tackles for loss as well.

It was the only level the defense really looked good at — they had to win early or they wouldn’t win at all. They were shredded by Arizona’s RPOs in the third quarter, and when the Cardinals just focused on running the ball they gained yards by the bushel — an average of 4.6 with a ton of garbage time play and kneels mixed in to it. It was closer to six yards per pop at halftime. The defensive back play in zone coverage was godawful and culminated in this abomination on third-and-24:

I guess what I’m saying is that — I know they probably didn’t play the run all that well — at least the defensive line was able to keep the pass pressured enough to make it feel like there was one unit on the defense that was actually in the game. The defensive line and punt returns are the only two units I’d say played at an acceptable level today.

4) The effort versus the results

The only real interesting message I caught from the post-game interviews was from Greenard, let’s hear him talk:

This jives a lot with what Chris Moore said on Monday, which is something I’ve been thinking about all week:

I feel awful for the players that are on this team, first of all, because while they are blessed to play NFL football, I’m sure nobody asked for this. This is the epitome of showing up and trying to block out noise and pushing through all this to do your job. But here’s the thing: This team is not being outworked. If anything, the constant number of penalties kind of show that they’re pressing. They’re getting crushed by their head coach for them, but this is the kind of team that needs to hold because Davis Mills is slow at processing. It’s the kind of team that false starts because it needs an extra step. It chop blocks on third down because it’s asking Jordan Akins, who is not really a good blocker anyway, to come across the line of scrimmage to grab someone.

These guys do play hard. They play their asses off every week. They don’t quit when they’re down 20 in the fourth quarter. Nobody is knocking the effort.

But, you can’t make a football team out of that if you do everything as stupidly as the Texans are managed. You can’t make a football team that is scared to throw downfield with their quarterback better by run-game managing them into third-and-7 or third-and-9 with your terrible run game. You can’t make the running game better by “sticking with it.” You can’t make Cover-2 work against good quarterbacks without a great pass rush every down, especially as undisguised as it is. You can’t run into nine in the box and expect that to work.

This isn’t a championship football team. Nobody’s surprised by that. But this team also puts its players in terrible situations on a weekly basis because it is coached and managed in an indescribably stupid way. And the answer to that, whenever there’s pushback, is that “that’s the system.”

Want some run plays to work? Run some read-option. Try Scottie Phillips. Use orbit motion. Try to get eyes going and create space to run to. Want some defensive plays to work on big downs? Change things up. Disguise coverages. Don’t be so passive. The Texans haven’t had many winnable games this year, but the eagerness of the coaching staff to just hum along as if they’ve established everything they’ve needed in the face of these results is malpractice to the value they’re trying to establish for these veterans. Let alone the culture.


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Six pessimistic things about the Texans through six 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.


This was a painful post to write and it’s going to be a painful post to read. I apologize if it digs up any scars or trauma. Know that I, too, want the Texans to be good. But the only way to dig through it to the light at the end of the tunnel is to speak truth to what has amassed in front of us. I blame none of this on the players and only one of these is actually about them — they were set up to fail. If you need some positive things to balance you, here’s last week’s post.

1) It’s painfully obvious that Jack Easterby retained some power

This is sort of the elephant in the room for a lot of you. There are some people who won’t accept this because a) they have an incentive not to and b) there’s nothing overt that has said so. The offseason forecasted a very clear power dynamic with a story that has yet to be refuted anywhere, one where Easterby found out the Texans were going to hire Steelers executive Omar Khan and steered the search directly to Nick Caserio so he could keep his job. Easterby is close to the McNairs, and Easterby has been given unreasonable power for somebody who already had a disastrous run of meddling in personnel that led to perhaps the worst trade of the 2000s where he and Bill O’Brien sent DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona for the pick that would become Ross Blacklock and David Johnson.

Easterby has not given a public interview since the very beginning of the 2020 season, so there’s no way of getting it from the horse’s mouth. But is he there on the sideline every week, in a role that wildly exceeds what most vice presidents of football operations do? He is. I don’t have a lot of sources I can cite here without ruining information given to me off-the-record, but let me put it like this: I have a strong reason to believe that Easterby is well aware that he is the most powerful person the team employs.

And if you take that and look at what has happened this offseason, it aligns pretty well. Why would any new general manager come into this team and decide that they had to keep David Johnson, let alone guarantee him money? And … hey, what did Nick Caserio say about that?

A riveting endorsement! And did Eric Murray get yet another chance to start at safety? He sure did! And does Vernon Hargreaves continue to get opportunities despite the fact that he has roundly been bad in every season? He sure does! And did 2020’s weird fetish with blocking young players on the roster continue? Mostly! How about layers and layers of players? Tell me your favorite Tae Davis moment, tell me about the good Rex Burkhead has provided while being outrushed by Jordan Akins. Versatility? Tytus Howard is taking reps at tackle and guard every week and is struggling! The wild mood swings where nobody knows who is starting and who is on the roster next week? Goodbye Whitney Mercilus and Andre Roberts! Welcome to the bench, Desmond King!

I’m by no means trying to say here that Nick Caserio doesn’t have control of personnel in name, nor trying to absolve the job that he has done so far. But I do think there are players that Easterby has stuck up for that are there, and I don’t think it should be surprising in the slightest that 2020s biggest bugaboos have continued to be a big part of how this team is constructed and run.

One last thing here: I know that there are a lot of people out there who are sick of hearing about Easterby, and I’ve dialed it back a little because over the years I’ve learned to let people get optimistic in training camp and early in the season. I am at my most optimistic about the Texans the day the season ends, before the mistakes happen. Other people are not like that — their optimism grows as football activities begin again. Trying to fight that wave is like spitting into the wind. Fans will justify literally anything they can to continue rooting for the team, and that means there have been quite a few conspiracy theories invented to help Easterby along the lines of “he was trying to stay in front of Deshaun Watson’s massage problems” or whatever else that eventually spreads to my mentions and is largely bunk spread to allow tribalism to continue.

I don’t have a dog in the fight of “is Easterby a good person?” I don’t care about who he is or what his intentions are beyond trying to understand how he’s approaching his role with the team better. I specialize in results, and his results have been awful. His culture results: multiple PED suspensions in 2020, multiple waves of players on the COVID-19 list this year, and we just spent two days listening to members of a 1-5 team try not to call out their teammates by name but say that the effort isn’t good enough. Justin Reid noted that the entire locker room fell apart last year in a presser last week after O’Brien was fired. What kind of culture is that? What kind of players have been protected here, and why? As long as he’s involved, I think it’s fair for fans to be skeptical that this team will ever turn around.

It’s not like Easterby’s Texans have tried to acquire anybody who is actually currently good. They’ll draft some in 2022 because the team is so bad they couldn’t help but do so … but those young players are just fighting against the established order. As we’ve seen time and time again, already. If you’re ready to excuse, let’s say, the 12th overall pick cornerback not playing because he’s young and Random Patriots Vet Free Agent With Culture has value and didn’t miss a meeting, you’ll excuse anything this team does. I’m not saying you need to be as pessimistic or cynical as I can sometimes be, but set a realistic expectation. This team has one win in two seasons that isn’t against the Jaguars or Lions. It’s dire, and the last of the people who created it should not be here. (And you can’t fire the owner.)

2) David Culley is a dinosaur strategically and tactically

I never had high expectations for David Culley’s strategic acumen because my initial impression of him led with him saying “the most important thing about football … is the football.”

What I was hopeful that he’d do would be a CEO/manager-type coach that would elevate everyone else around him with his positivity, and that maybe some of the Ravens analytics department mantras had touched him just a little bit. Instead what he’s done is installed a ground-and-pound offense that doesn’t run read-options or in any way make it hard for the defense to attack them. The only time this team is actually able to throw deep — even when Tyrod Taylor was healthy — is off-script buying time on the outside. None of their route concepts have dialed up a throw the quarterbacks on the roster can hit reliably beyond 20 yards. And they lean quite heavily into the wideout screens, the horizontal game, and … I know this sounds harsh to say, but there’s no ambition behind his plans. He’s not a problem solver. He can see the problems, but his response is just something along the lines of “we’ll have to really stick to our keys,” rather than “Kyler Murray’s frightening, what are we going to change about Lovie’s game plan to fight it?”

There’s no grand design to get this team out of the gutter. There’s no secret game plan adjustment that they’ll be making against the Cardinals. David Culley started coaching in the 1980s-1990s NCAA and NFL and has fully absorbed all the lessons from that. None of them matter now in 2021. He defends the system and appears to have almost no interest in game planning based on what opponents do from what I’ve seen in interviews.

Do I cut him some slack because this is an impossible situation? I do. Do I cut the Texans some slack for hiring him because they may very well have had a limited pool of applicants? Not really, because they know why they had that pool. But I accept the role that played in him being the head coach here.

I will hold no grudge against David Culley when his watch ends. I find him quite affable and I enjoy his personality when he’s not talking about the football. I won’t miss him complaining about penalties in every press conference. It’s become very apparent to me that there was a reason nobody hired him to be even an offensive coordinator before this year. He just doesn’t seem that interested in tactics. This is a perfect cushion job for him, to babysit the boy scout troop, get some NFL head coach money, and retire back to Tennessee. Godspeed with those dreams. He’s the exact opposite of what you need in a 2020s head coach from a tactics and in-game analytics perspective.

3) The fans have voted with their wallets

I don’t blame the fans at all for being turned off by this team. But I believe this will be the biggest storyline of the 2021 season. Nobody is going to these games. The Texans, who have never had to ask any seat to be filled throughout their existence, are now advertising non-stop during their own games to try to get people to come out. Every post on their website ends with a footer about how you can go to their next game. Every lengthy video they produce ends with a call to action to how you can go to their games. They’ve increasingly resorted to desperation gimmicks like the below:

How do I put this delicately: I don’t think the Texans are in any danger of being moved or anything, but this kind of mass exodus of fans does not augur well in the long term. There is some chatter in league circles about St. Louis getting an expansion team out of the Rams case. I don’t think the Texans are likely to become a team that gets moved or anything, but a lot can change depending on how ownership reacts to what I’m expecting are going to be skeleton crews at NRG throughout the rest of the season. So far they have resisted any kind of internal movement towards understanding why that is.

They’re probably behind the Jaguars in any sort of pecking order for a reckoning. But the fact that the crowds could be compared to what is happening in Jacksonville is a tough indictment of the situation that they, alone have created. Just on a human, person-to-person level, I can’t tell you the last time I had a conversation in real life with someone who is excited about the direction this team is going in. I have seen the few Twitter people willing to defend the team, but as you can see from the stands, contrarians aren’t lining up to pay money to watch this team play. A lot easier to project what a big fan you are on Twitter, and a lot less expensive as well.

One reason that has unfolded the way that it has been is…

4) Very few people with power in the organization seem to acknowledge any idea of how badly the trust with the fanbase has been shattered

People forget this now that there’s been some distance put between the Texans and this offseason, but after Caserio’s introductory presser there was about a 10-day gap where nothing happened for the team and they entered virtual silence. They were getting bombarded on social media by (largely) their fanbase after the tone-deaf answers that Cal McNair gave for the disaster that the 2020 Texans had become.

I don’t know that the sports media world as a general concept wrestles with what fan buy-in really means, but there’s an excitement that’s palpable. Even when I didn’t think the Texans would win anything important under Bill O’Brien, there was still a sense of “there’s a playoff game to go to!” or, perhaps more famously, “this team is 40 minutes of good football from playing in the AFC Championship game.” Fans and analysts may wind up reacting negatively to that in the end when it falls apart, especially when it gets repetitive, but they’re still engaged. They’re still wanting to see good things happen. They’re still wanting to see the next step.

When you try to pull the wool over on a bunch of Texans with these terrible explanations about why Easterby is here and appeal to an authority that has no results worthy of mentioning, it turns out that they become quite embittered! Long-time followers of this team … I’ve lost count of how many have told me they’re never watching again until something changes upstairs. When you follow something closely, you can tell when someone is all hat and no cattle, as the saying goes.

The one thing that has never happened since 2020 started is that the Texans have shown no remorse for anything they’ve done. To do so would be to tell on how poorly it is all going, in a way, but other than maybe a Drew Dougherty nod to the fans in a livestream here or there, there’s been almost no reckoning publicly with what they’ve done here. There’s been whining about rotten luck, and there’s been a lot of variations on “we have to do a better job,” but at no point has anyone ever said that the Hopkins trade was bad. I’m curious how many people in the organization will even talk about it this week. No public recognition of this team’s many issues. I can barely get the few people I have some link to in the organization to talk about it off the record beyond dismay. And publicly? It’s all just gritted fake smiles and pretending that filming community events at fire houses and hospitals is the same thing as building a fanbase.

These people got pissed off. Then they left. I can’t tell you how many donations this site has got this year — it’s got to be in the single digits — nobody follows this team. Trying to build content that people want to read about the day-to-day struggles of Davis Mills is the NFL equivalent of public access news stories about new library initiatives. These fans are checked out. Getting them back is going to require some real accountability at some level. None seems forthcoming, so I guess this is just where we are now.

5) Nick Caserio’s obsession with personality and intangibles has not borne any fruit

The entire premise of this offseason is that with enough hard practice and discipline, that the Texans can create a good team out of a bunch of NFL outcasts that their secret methods would somehow unlock the latent potential in. The result has been that this team is 1-5, with only a win over the similarly disjointed Jaguars at home, and that many of the players feel like some of the players aren’t holding up their end of the bargain on being “disciplined.”

The reality of the situation is that — pardon my language — this isn’t fucking Rudy. This team is outmanned, and being outmanned makes it hard for them to play above their talent level because they’re put into uncomfortable positions. Desmond King is pushed into playing outside because there are no outside cornerbacks, then he gets benched because he’s — stunner — not great at it! Outside of Brandin Cooks I am struggling to think of someone who has legitimately been playing well through all six games. A couple of the signings have wound up being fine cost bargains — Ingram has been better than I expected, Britt’s been better than I expected as a run blocker — but these are players in search of a core that can make them look good. That core was systematically stripped off, traded, released, or alienated. There’s nothing left but Cooks and … maybe Greenard.

The guys Caserio has brought in? They haven’t really added much. Maliek Collins has flashed some pass rush but has no sacks. Grugier-Hill has probably been the best they’ve had and I don’t think he’s more than a gap-shooter who looks good compared to Zach Cunningham. Tavierre Thomas has been … okay at nickel corner? Vincent Taylor got hurt. Jordan Jenkins is most notable for being the guy who took Charles Omenihu’s roster spot. Terrance Mitchell’s forced fumbles have been a boon but he’s just an adequate outside guy. Maybe we want to talk about trades? Marcus Cannon is on IR. Shaq Lawson didn’t make the 53-man roster. Ryan Finley didn’t make training camp. Special teams has been a dumpster fire.

And when you consider that some of these guys could be elsewhere while there’s youth waiting to be served, the entire offseason was a waste of everyone’s time. All this wave of culture veterans showed was that they can still be bit players in this league. They’ll all be free agents soon, and I am rooting for them. But as far as the greater game of establishing value for this franchise, this bet was pointless and needless. The Texans could have gone 1-5 without any of this. The idea that Caserio has some kind of hidden tell on player personality that will somehow provide value has not been vindicated in any way.

How about finding some good young players by giving young players a chance, and signing some other good players, like a normal team? Why does this team need to continually pretend there’s any reason to be confident when a team run by fan vote on the internet would have returned more value than they have over the past two years?

6) The offensive line — the only area with any real investment over the past few seasons — has been an utter disaster

The Texans are dead-last in the NFL in adjusted line yards. They were average in sack rate through Week 5, and I doubt that changed much after the Colts game. I don’t think that shows the full scope of what they’re up against because there’s almost no explosiveness at the running back position. Nobody but Ingram is setting up guys to miss in the open field, let alone actually breaking tackles. They’re also dealing with Howard moving from guard to tackle for absolutely no reason, and Laremy Tunsil is now hurt and also dealt with COVID-19 in the lead-up to the season.

Simply put, without any value judgements on what they’re going through: Tunsil was not playing like the best tackle in the NFL. He was maybe in the conversation as a pass protector only last year. His next good season as a run blocker in Houston will be his first. Tytus Howard has not played well enough to make me feel comfortable picking up his fifth-year option, which is a disastrous outcome for someone who you thought was showing some flashes at right tackle last year. Max Scharping is pretty replaceable at guard. Tied up in those three are the last three Texans first-round picks and two of their last three second-round picks. That’s a travesty. This is the only area that anybody around the team talked up as a definite positive all offseason and they were so bad at run blocking that bringing in Charlie Heck and Geron Christian made them better last Sunday.

To leave three drafts with that investment at offensive line and for the line to be as bad as it is today is simply unacceptable. This can’t just be a “it’s all Mike Devlin’s fault!” thing anymore. Unless Howard turns it around in a hurry — and I have a little hope there — the Texans are going to be paying for these decisions for a long time. And they barely were getting any benefit out of them when they were actually a contending team, either. It has been a systemic destruction of resources to try to replace Duane Brown — who is still very good even though he’s old.


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Four Downs: Texans 3, Colts 31

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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.


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.


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

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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.


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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