Four Downs: Texans 22, Patriots 25

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

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

And the coaching staff gave it away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are the places where the Patriots started drives today:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4) The road to Chargers-dom

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

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

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

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

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

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3 Replies to “Four Downs: Texans 22, Patriots 25”

  1. Yeah….I’ve noticed that too; every post on the official website has a hotlink to tickets. Also “Football Feeling” commercials on local TV don’t highlight the players; all about tailgating, food, etc

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