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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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