Four Downs: Texans 41, Chargers 29

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.


What do you do when you’re down entire starting lines on offense and defense due to a COVID-19 outbreak? What do you do when you don’t have Brandin Cooks and your offense is entirely Brandin Cooks?

Well, obviously, you (checks notes) … go beat the hell out of a playoff team? Impressively so? And run better than you have all season? And pass better than you have all season? This is starting to feel suspiciously like a post that was written about another team, but it is, in fact, a post about your Houston Texans.

The Houston Texans came to life because they were built for exactly this sort of scenario. They are the team that buried depth parts on the roster like acorns for the winter. They are the team that decided Rex Burkhead was a worthy use of a roster spot despite him being 31. They are the team that carried Cole Toner on the active roster for weeks at a time despite him not playing beyond special teams. I have personally made fun of them several times this year for not getting younger players on the practice squad and on the field.

But, as dumb as I think carrying low-upside backups is as an operating philosophy, as ridiculous and cornball as Team Team Team and our weekly culture talks are, this is exactly the situation where that depth pays off. Playing in a pandemic, where both sides have massive losses, and you’re the team with less gaping holes.

And, honestly, hopefully the Texans learn some lessons from this. Because when your offensive line executes (Culley talk) as poorly as it has all season, many of the starters are gone, and all of the sudden you run like the Texans did today — that should be a wakeup call about who exactly the depth actually is.

1) Davis Mills’ best game of his career to date

I’ve been pretty skeptical about Davis Mills being good this year, but from the beginning I knew that this would be a process. The funny thing about processes is that they can take leaps quickly. While this came in the midst of the Texans actually running well, came against a defense that was missing important starters, and while there still weren’t many deep throws, this was the best game that Mills has played to date. Let’s start with the touchdown throw to Conley:

Here’s what I was excited about with this play: It felt like an overrule of what the offense traditionally has been, and that was echoed in post-game comments by both Chris Conley and Mills. It came after the Texans started running the ball and not using timeouts, and where it felt like they were almost happy to attempt a long field goal to take a one-point lead. (As they had, actually, the drive before.) Instead they went for the jugular, and the throw had to be on the money, and it was:

(Please ignore the fact that I left audio on for that during an SNF commercial.) These are the kind of throws that Mills is going to have to hit with ease if he wants to be a long-term starter in this league. He doesn’t have to hit a ton of them to be an Andy Dalton sort of player, but he has to find some of them. This was a big step and came on the heels of another dart earlier in the drive, his other long pass that was completed:

The other section of improvement from Mills has come pre-snap, where he’s become a lot smarter about not dialing in on his receivers based on coverages he’s seen. That was something he specifically talked about in his post-game presser:

These are encouraging signs that Mills is growing as a player. I was never one who urged a lot of doom and gloom about the pick when it happened, but I definitely have thought at times this year that Mills didn’t look like he belonged on the field. Since he’s come back, he’s been much better on third down and has limited his turnover rate. I think there’s a lot of ballgame(s) left, and I don’t expect him to be this good all the time. I still don’t think he’s hit throws against blitzes that I want to see. But it’s impossible to watch this and think that he hasn’t markedly improved from the beginning of the year. And there’s almost no way he won’t be starting games for this team next year the way things are trending.

2) The Rex Burkhead career game

The only player with more rushing yards over expected in Week 16 than Rex Burkhead was Rashaad Penny. I can’t believe I’m typing these words, and can’t believe they are real, but this is where we’re at as a society now. We must acknowledge the Rexaissance.

David Johnson? Not playing. The Chargers run defense? Look, it’s not been good this year. They’re 31st in the NFL by DVOA. But the Texans played No. 32 in rush defense DVOA — the Jets — and didn’t do crap against them. So let’s celebrate the victories. I think the Texans offensive line pushed this front around for most of the day, and I think Burkhead got some extra yardage when Chargers spun out of their gaps because he’s a smart enough runner to take advantage of that.

This was the first time the Texans have had a 100-yard rusher since Week 16 of the 2020 season — almost a full calendar year — despite the fact that it is inextricably linked to their team’s identity. Here’s what I’m interested in: Who just lost a job? Because when David Culley talked about the reserves, he didn’t sound like a man interested in playing politics:

Tytus Howard needs to play tackle. But your Lane Taylors and Justin McCrays and Justin Britts? If they can’t get you a 100-yard rusher until Game 15, how much have they helped? Let’s see some more Cole Toner and Jimmy Morrissey. And honestly given how the roster has been constructed — I know they can’t have everyone active every game — but I’m a little surprised by how much of a given some of these roster spots actually have been so far. The only player who has received a punishment benching is Max Scharping. Let’s spend the next two weeks finding out if there are any Team Team Team players here who can actually get movement up front.

3) The front seven, to their credit, did not get pushed around by the Chargers front despite massive losses

The only two players who have been full-time rotation guys for the Texans defensive line before last week and also played heavily on Sunday were Ross Blacklock and DeMarcus Walker. They were joined by guys like Michael Dwumfour, Demone Harris, and Xavier Williams — Williams was signed off the street literally this week.

That’s a dangerous situation for any team — while you don’t need dominant line play in the NFL to win, if you get too thin there, can’t run rotations, and get outclassed, it’s extremely easy to lose. The Texans weren’t outclassed. Dwumfour, in my opinion, had one of the most impactful plays of the game:

They also managed to hold the Chargers to just 89 rushing yards and 4.2 per carry. There was no Austin Ekeler, yes, but Justin Jackson is pretty splashy and they were able to keep him from dominating the game. Walker even stripped him on the run-by in what became another huge play for the Texans:

I can’t tell you Houston’s defense was downright good, given that they allowed 7.3 yards a play, but they did get three turnovers against one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL — Jonathan Owens’ pick being a key one whereas Tavierre Thomas’ pick-six was just window dressing on a game that was already over.

I didn’t come away from the game with any new insights about Houston’s defense but it says a lot that they were able to hang on and not get absolutely bullied at such a massive deficit. In a season like this, that can be a win.

4) Brevin Jordan became the go-to guy on third down

Brevin Jordan won three crucial third-down plays in the second half, the most impressive of which to me was this one:

Jordan gets to the horizontal part of his route here, and he leaves his guy — who had early leverage — in the dust as the defender falls down. Then there was the 27-yarder that was much-more celebrated because Jordan was able to make some misses happen in the open field:

I thought that was a well-placed ball from Mills as well with the angle Jordan gave him. He had to lead him to the sideline, and that’s the kind of throw that has to be located perfectly. It was.

The Texans really spread the ball around in a big way without Brandin Cooks, and I think the fact that they were as successful at it as they were speaks loudly to Mills’ development, but I was most excited to see how involved Jordan was in it. He has been tangentially involved with touchdown catches and with certain packages, but seeing him as the focal point on a few key third-down throws was a big step for me. We’ve had flashes like this before with guys like Jordan Akins and Jordan Thomas, and it was just four targets, but the importance of those particular targets feels promising. Just that this is the guy that they trust to win the ball even when he’s covered says quite a bit — because a lot of their other third-down catches in this game were open underneath zone holes.

This was the best game Tim Kelly has called since the Lions game in Thanksgiving 2020. It was not entirely without flaws, but there was a notable lack of conservatism. Maybe some of that is just Mills growing up, as well. But it’s rare that I feel like the Texans are actively hunting mismatches so much as just running the same few plays, and this felt like an inspired effort.


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Four Downs: Texans 30, Jaguars 16

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The Texans have conclusively proven one thing over the past two years and it’s that no matter how bad they are, they can always count on the Jacksonville Jaguars to be dysfunctional enough to keep them out of the AFC South basement. Even without Deshaun Watson. Even without J.J. Watt. Even without nearly half of the defensive starters due to COVID-19 protocols. It didn’t matter one bit. The Texans didn’t even really need to do much as an offense. The Jaguars self-combusted as a passing offense yet again after a hot start.

Of Houston’s seven wins over the last two seasons, four of them are triumphs over the Jaguars. Maybe they’ll get it together with Trevor Lawrence, maybe they’ll hire a good head coach — it’s kind of hard to believe because the team has been bad for so long — but the hole the Jaguars have dug themselves into today is inimitable and they have almost nothing in the way of NFL-caliber wideouts. They’re starting other team’s first-round draft washouts and vagabonds because Urban Meyer tried to force them to be as fast as they could. The Texans refused to join the Jaguars in that hole today. They just sat and watched as the Jaguars tried to climb out of it, then stepped on their fingers any time they came close.

This is a big victory for the Nick Caserio off-season strategy (I can’t say Easterby here, right? They will get mad at me for saying his name even though the Texans did it before Caserio arrived? OK, just checking.) of “layers and layers of players.” The next men up of age and experience that the Texans accumulated were able to hold off the Jaguars and put the Texans back into the win column.

1) Special teams were a massive difference-maker — in a positive light — for the first time in a Texans game this season

Of course, the big game here was seven points directly off of Tremon Smith’s kickoff return touchdown. That was seven points that influenced a lot about how this game between two sloppy offenses in sloppy weather played out. It directed the entirety of the game script. The Texans are driving to take a lead against the Jaguars on the Brandin Cooks screen touchdown without that, and maybe at that point the Jaguars aren’t bringing a Cover-0 blitz.

But even beyond that, the Texans destroyed the Jaguars on special teams. The Jaguars started drives at the JAX 17, JAX 25, JAX 18, JAX 25, JAX 14, JAX 25, JAX 34, HOU 22, JAX 18, JAX 4, and JAX 25. That means that only two drives all game started beyond a touchback, and one of those was directly off a Davis Mills turnover. The one that made it to the Jacksonville 34 was on a ball that arguably shouldn’t have been returned, because it was caught inside the 5!

On the other side of things, leaving out the touchdown runback, the Texans started drives at the JAX 49, the HOU 38, the JAX 47, the HOU 40 twice, and the HOU 45. One of those was because of a big fourth-down stop, but the Jaguars didn’t turn the ball over at all. Special teams kept giving the Texans the ball in premium field position. And Kai’mi Fairbairn didn’t miss his long attempts, even in the rain, disappointing Jaxson De Ville.

This is sort of more my vision for how wins for the Texans would look this season after the heavy offseason focus on special teams players of some note. Not all of those players actually worked with the Team Team Team — Andre Roberts had a long kickoff return on Thursday night football — and this unit struggled for most of the season. The Texans came into the game 19th in special teams DVOA. But they have had only one negative DVOA special teams game since Week 5 (against the Jets), and suddenly special teams look good enough to give this team a needed edge.

2) Davis Mills hit the two throws he needed to hit, but continues to be mostly fed easy stuff

I don’t think that Davis Mills had a bad game, but I do think the raw numbers are again overstating the impact. Once again, the Texans script mostly worked, and once again, when the other team adjusted, he had problems adjusting with it. He was 13-of-15 for 104 yards and a touchdown at halftime. The Cooks screen pass touchdown — which now that I’ve referenced it twice, I guess I’ll put up below this — ended the game, but pretty much any first down would have ended the game at that point. It was 43 yards. That means from the second half start to the screen pass touchdown, he went 5-of-14 for 62 yards.

The best throw that Mills made all game was a momentum swinger in the third quarter where the Jaguars zero-blitzed and he had to hang tough in the pocket and place a ball to Phillip Dorsett.

Mills did a little jump back on the throw — it’s not exactly something that I think a quarterback coach would be in love with — but that was a humongous throw for the state of the game. 20-10 lead, you’re in No Man’s Land as far as punting/kicking and we all know David Culley wasn’t going for it on fourth down. The throw was placed right in Dorsett’s bucket. That’s the kind of throw he’s going to need to consistently hit to have a real claim as a long-term starter.

The second throw I want to talk about is his 18-yard completion to Jordan Akins at a point of time where the Jaguars finally were bottling up the run and the Texans desperately needed to keep a drive alive. The Texans ran play-action, and it stunned me because they’d been just chewing time up:

Four-man rush, Geron Christian releases his guy into Mills. Burkhead is open underneath. Five Jaguars defenders are either near the first-down marker or running with someone near it. Rudy Ford comes off Burkhead and is able to get his hands in the area, almost intercepting the ball. Instead, fortuitously, it ends up right in Jordan Akins’ hands off a deflection. Miss that completion and the Texans are at third-and-8.

It wasn’t pretty. Obviously, I’m happy for Mills that the winless drought is over. There’s still a lot of work to be done here. He said so himself after the game.

Mills didn’t take the bait on a question to make the game a him versus Lawrence showdown, which is unsurprising because my experience of watching Mills talk has proved that he’s from the Matt Ryan school of quarterback thought. He doesn’t want to put a lot interesting in to the world as a media personality. He just wants to play ball.

It’s a fun fan thing to fire the takes off about Mills performing better than Lawrence this year, and I say have your fun with that. I don’t know that it’s going to last beyond this year, but smoke ’em while you’ve got ’em.

3) The defense didn’t have an eye-popping game, but stood up when it needed to

After giving up 154 yards to the Jaguars on their first two drives, I have to admit I was a little worried that the special teams touchdown wouldn’t hold up. At that point the Jaguars were almost at seven yards per play. From that point on, the Jaguars would have only three drives that gained a first down, one of which came with the game in hand. They converted only three third-downs all game, and while the James Robinson train was hit-or-miss, it’s not like they were handed impossible situations. They just failed to execute time and time again.

Third-and-3, Texans drop into coverage. Lawrence initially comes back to the two curls in the middle but both are well-defensed. He dekes a dumpoff to Robinson, but thinks he has more time than he does as Derek Rivers comes looping around. Lawrence doesn’t have the athleticism to do a lot about a guy right in his face. The drive ends. None of these routes play off each other in a hard way to defend.

People have given Tim Kelly hell around here, and I think he definitely deserves some blame for the way the offense has gone, but watching the Jaguars will give you a new appreciation for what he does. Jacksonville, too, used up all its creativity in the opening script. Their base calls are tough and their skill position players were dire.

Let’s go to the big moment of the defensive game: third-and-2 and the Jaguars are driving to get in position to cut the lead to four. Dare Ogunbowale and Lawrence bobble a handoff after Robinson limps off and it goes to fourth-and-1. The Jaguars try a sneak (they had a great sneak earlier in the game) and they just get stonewalled:

That was an enormous play — if they convert, the Jaguars are almost certainly attempting a field goal to end the half at some point. Instead, the Texans got the ball and were able to advance far enough in a few plays on some quick slants to get into field-goal range. Instead of a four-point game, it’s a ten-point game.

4) The run game was not empirically good, but without penalties, it was enough

The Texans carried only 26 times for 75 yards in this game which is well in line with the established norms. But those 75 yards were not quite as bad as they might seem on paper because they weren’t creating a lot of horrible situations to throw in. This is something David Culley has emphasized time and time again via penalty, but what he really needs is two and three-yard runs to get into third-and-short.

After the Jaguars allowed their opening drive to breathe with a special-teams penalty, the Texans created third-and-1 with two runs, third-and-5 with a run, and third-and-3 with two runs mostly from David Johnson, who then was banished to the bench because David Culley likes Rex Burkhead more as a between the tackles back:

The Texans converted 10-of-18 third downs, in stark contrast to the Jaguars. They failed only two third-and-6 or shorter tries — when Mills went for the kill shot on third-and-6 at the Jaguars 7 to Nico Collins, and another one to Cooks later in the third quarter. To me, the most undersung hero in that is the Texans offensive line — Mills took just one sack for the first time as a starter. The Jaguars finished with only three quarterback hits, and they added only two tackles for loss.

It’s going to look bad in DVOA. It doesn’t look good in the box score. But, I have to admit, it was a slight improvement from what I’ve become accustomed to seeing for the Texans run game. They typically get gored enough times to bleed out a few drives. Not today.


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Four Downs: Texans 13, Seahawks 33

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The Texans come away from a 20-point loss to the Seahawks without much to be optimistic about beyond playing the Jaguars next week. They continued to not be able to run, as has been a season-long ordeal for the worst DVOA (standard link to DVOA explainer) run offense of all-time:

This time, at least they managed to have an excuse of losing David Johnson to the COVID-19 list. (Well, I guess that’s an excuse, it’s not like he’s run well.) But to have 22 carries with Royce Freeman and Rex Burkhead and manage just 55 yards … it’s status quo stuff for this team. Stuff that goes down to the studs, from the players (trying, but mostly not good at run blocking or breaking tackles) to the play calls. The good news is that David Culley said that it was on him.

Ah, finally, I had missed that phrase over the years! “It’s on me” conveys quite clearly that the coach wishes to do no further introspection about the state of the team in the media. It conveys that the coach knows that he’s doing a bad. It conveys that he doesn’t even want to put out a line of hope for the fans who are still putting up with the product. There’s not many of them at the stadium these days, as today they were mostly replaced by Seahawks fans. Here’s Culley’s laughable comment on that:

You can create a montage of David Culley denying basic reality about how much the fans are engaged that would be surprising if this wasn’t the same person who just wants to shut out all the noise. Well, the noise from the Seahawks fans speaking louder than the home crowd signals loudly about where we’re at there.

1) Davis Mills’ performance didn’t do a lot for me, and I realize the box score scouts are going to seize this and run with it and call me a hater

331 yards! How can you do anything but call it a massive success, Rivers!?!? Well, I think it was a massive success, but a massive success of the Texans game plan as developed by Tim Kelly and David Culley in the early game. When you start tapping the bones of these 331 yards and checking for meat, it gets awfully skinny. The chart above his Next Gen Stats chart. There are zero completions with a pass distance of more than 20 yards. Of the ones that are close to that, well, they weren’t all that impressive.

Was Mills hurried on this pass? No. Was Mills tasked to make an accurate throw? Not really. Did Nico Collins need to jump for it anyway? He did.

How about the one touchdown pass that Mills had? Was that a highlight reel play?

Not really, no. I guess it was accurate on the run, you have to give Mills that! But … this again was not all that hard.

This was the first time all year that Tim Kelly’s screen passes were a) almost always working and b) almost always open.

I think the most telling fact of all is that Royce Freeman finished with 51 receiving yards. Royce Freeman was targeted eight times! The Seahawks started retreating into deep carpet zones and the Texans piled up 98 total yards in their last two drives with the Seahawks up 20. As it was during the Rams game, I don’t think this production augurs well for a “Davis Mills Actually Is Better Than Justin Fields Because of Numbers” take. (It might be up to a “Davis Mills Actually Is Better Than Zach Wilson” take.)

Does that mean everything Davis Mills did in this game sucked? No. I liked this back shoulder ball to Brandin Cooks that got waived off on a dubious OPI:

That is the level of anticipation that I think Mills is going to have to work with to actually be a successful quarterback in the long run. Blitz is dialed up, Mills doesn’t have the cannon to beat the blitz in most spots. (He has struggled against the blitz this year for a reason.) But he’s able to sense it and punish the defense at a known weak point.

Was yesterday a step forward for Mills? Inarguably. It’s good to see him hit the easy throws, because his accuracy still matters quite a bit as that was a bugaboo coming out. Did it do anything to change my opinion that he should start next year? It did not. I think he’d have to beat out a real quarterback — acquisition or draft — if I were in charge of things. Of course, I’m not the Texans, and I expect them to just let him be the quarterback, so from their perspective, this game is a handy validation tool.

2) The meat thresher that is the last five games of the season

One of the looming things that sucks about the way this team was put together is that they’re full of one-year contracts for older players with no security. I believe the news since it happened has looked fairly good, but seeing this happen to Kamu Grugier-Hill in light of what he’s meant to the team this year is diabolical:

Non-contact knee injuries (look to the left of where this target goes) are scary things. They’re especially ugly when they are focused on a guy who has no long-term security with a team. And, in this case, someone who is literally playing for pride and some small contract incentives at this point.

I’m not going to tell you I Learned A Big Lesson Today or preach at you about the product — these players accept the consequences of their jobs. This is just the absolute worst-case scenario for so many of these guys, your Maliek Collinses, Desmond Kings, and so on. There’s no security and there’s not a lot to play for but putting good stuff on tape for your future employer, whoever that might be. Four games left that mean little, but where you can get hurt in a meaningful enough way to change your upcoming bottom line.

Anyway, I hated to see that. I hated to see Justin Reid’s concussion, too. Rex Burkhead’s (Rex Burkheart’s?) groin. David Johnson’s COVID listing, Kamu’s COVID-listing Monday, and so on. The tenuousness of their future makes me pull for these guys.

3) The stark difference between turnover Lovie and non-turnover Lovie

Lovie Smith has outperformed my expectations for him this year. The unit has played pretty well without a lot of non-Jon Greenard impact-level contributors. On the other hand, a ton of their value is currently tied up in turnovers. Through Week 12, they had five games with negative DVOA as a team. In those games they had 16 turnovers. They have five turnovers in their other seven (now eight) games.

In many ways I felt like Russell Wilson was the worst possible quarterback for this unit to face. The Texans without Lonnie Johnson at safety have been very good at limiting the deep pass. Carson Wentz didn’t attempt a ball over 20 yards last week. Zach Wilson had one in Week 12. Tannehill had a couple in Week 11 but only because he threw 52 times. What Wilson did was buy enough time with his feet to make the Texans lose control of their zones, and he picked on Terrance Mitchell quite a bit.

Lovie’s unit has been pretty bad as a run defense this year, but that hasn’t mattered all that much because a) they were worse at it in 2020 and b) they’re still getting enough TFLs and penetration to make enough plays to get off the field.

It also means they are, as this offense is, married to game script. They can’t fall behind by enough to just let the opponent run on them, because that opponent will have a good chance to bust a tackle like Rashaad Penny did twice.

I was ready to write Lovie off entirely after the first month of the season, but he’s really committed to changing up schemes and throwing more curveballs here. It’s been a welcome change. Unfortunately for him, this unit can’t win a game like this without creating more turnovers. The only non-rookies that fell into the negative DVOA trap is Tannehill, who played in a monsoon without any good receivers, and Jacoby Brissett, who is at best a serviceable backup. It’s been fun to watch what Lovie has done without much investment, but this unit sure could use more good players.

4) Garrett Wallow’s intro to the lineup, thoughts on the other rookies

Wallow did the up-and-down rookie thing. He had a key stop on Houston’s first defensive drive when he got off a block and got to Rashaad Penny on the edge, which is something that this team has really struggled with this year:

He also got welcomed to zone coverage by Tyler Lockett:

It’s okay, it’s not like Zach Cunningham would have done it any better. (No sarcasm, I realize I should add in case one of my many admirers tries to interpret some.)

While Nico Collins had a big box score and target game, I didn’t think most of what he did was noteworthy beyond the one garbage time catch that Mills actually pushed downfield:

I’d really like to see him get more featured down the stretch. I think Brevin Jordan is solid but without an NFL-wow-level physical trait as a receiver — when he wins, it’s going to be with smarts. Collins’ size is an entry point to a lot of balls, and not just short one-on-one outside balls. (This Texans offense is remarkably boring because they’re just exceptionally conservative outside of the script.) First-and-goal and they target Collins twice and come away with no points … that hurts.

If Nico’s going to play the big boy game, this is a target he’s got to be able to at least stand up on. I don’t know if the ball was good enough to connect on either way, but you can’t just fall down and hope you draw the laundry.

Roy Lopez … well, he had a rough game. Get ’em next time.


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My football feeling is helplessness

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’m Rivers. My football feeling is helplessness.

I’m used to doing prescriptive analysis about the Houston Texans. I’ve written posts arguing for making things better for going on 11 years now. Sometimes it’s as simple as “this team should get a quarterback,” sometimes it’s as deep as “the Texans struggle to deal with heavy blitz schemes and here are three examples of it and some things that they could do to fix it.” I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I’ve often had a thought like “this is silly, they’re not going to change anything,” or “I am out of my depth as far as suggesting this,” I’ve never been vain enough to think that my opinions would matter to the team, but I’d like to think the ideas behind them have held up well over the years, or at least that I learned something from the ones that didn’t.

I’ve never felt like the local football team has been 100% smart or 100% dumb. Sometimes they catch you off-guard and you’re surprised — winning in Kansas City in 2019 — and often (lately) you’re let down. I’ve been doing this since the Gary Kubiak days, when they were actually winning and we’d talk about things like Matt Schaub’s future or Brian Cushing’s suspension. But until this year I’d always felt like putting these ideas into the world was worthwhile. Now it feels almost futile to suggest good things could happen or even pretend that good players want to play here.

Could the Texans do some decent things next year if they continue to stack on their defensive gains with an (Aidan Hutchinson or Kayvon Thibodeaux) and Jon Greenard pairing making the line of scrimmage hectic? I think they could. I wouldn’t expect the same turnover volume that they’ve created this year based on pure regression, but I’m open to reasons that we should believe Lovie Smith’s defenses are inherently turnover-heavy.

But what this team has done as an organization by being as broadly off-putting and demanding to everybody as they have is created a space where most ideas of them becoming good again barely have space to grow. Let me give you an example.

Here’s a good post idea I would run for a normal team: The offense is abysmal, so how do they fix it?

Well, they fire Tim Kelly. OK, and what’s the plan from there? If you’re Joe Brady or any other qualified offensive mind, why would you take a job where you’ll — at best — be coaching some stopgap players and unproven players next to Brandin Cooks while the people ahead of you in the organizational chart are just waiting to pounce in and tell you that your No. 3 receiver needs to be Danny Amendola? Is that the best way to increase your future earnings and better your career? I can’t see how it would be. If I were Joe Brady, unless I get wildly overpaid, I’d way rather rebuild my reputation at the college level again, where I can be in control of more.

OK, well, fine, maybe you just fire David Culley and start over! Here’s the problem with that: Who is going to want a job where your two direct superiors are on the sideline and headset (respectively) monitoring your every move, where you have no direct roster control, and where you are almost certain to pile up losses in the near-term in front of 25,000 people in the stands? How is a person who gets that job going to gain respect and continue an upwards trajectory? That’s the exact reason why the Texans hired David Culley in the first place — because as a situation, nothing is appealing about this job.

The people entrusted to run this organization’s day-to-day matters have spent the entirety of the season telling us variations of “you have a right to voice your opinion.” But it doesn’t really matter what the outside opinions are to them, and that’s something that’s been both codified in words and in a lack of actions taken to reassure people. Bring a Fire Easterby sign and you’ll get hassled by ushers. Have a radio personality or reporter ask a question about why this is not working and the answer is nothing beyond “we’re accountable for it.” Have them ask about why Tytus Howard played guard for roughly three months and the answer is “it was our best combination and Tytus is very smart” as if leaving him out to dry at guard was in any way defensible. Justin Reid gets forced to play box safety when he’s on the record as being happier playing deep. I’m no fan of David Culley the coach — I think the offense he and Kelly have used is regressive, pointless busyball and they never formulated a plan for what would happen if the run offense didn’t work — but I also agree that any head coach would struggle to turn this mess into more than a below-average offense.

So okay then, the answer is to go sign better players, right? But in a sport where careers are measured in years instead of decades, why would any marketable free agent come to play here and deal with the specter of Culture and getting deactivated for being late, something that apparently never happens anywhere else? For that matter, why would you come here and catch passes from Davis Mills if you’re a good wideout? Why would you come here and run behind the line that’s currently authoring two of the worst five run offense DVOA performances of all-time, particularly when you’re not going to be featured and David Johnson somehow is still here? Why would any player with an option come to this team? We’ve seen Laremy Tunsil’s four-week injury turn into an eight-week injury, with some people saying he had to be bribed to practice last year, does anybody believe he’s anything but done with this? And that’s why you see the one-year contracts. They are one-year contracts that speak loudly that the players are trying to rebuild their value, and if they have a way out of here, they’re going to take it.

So the initial post idea “How do we fix the offense?” doesn’t have an answer of “get a better offensive mind in here, bring in a better shifty receiver and an explosive back, grab a good lineman and hope it gels,” like it would for a normal team. Instead, it’s more like: “Well, circumstances dictate that the coaching isn’t likely to improve barring a home run hire out of left field) and circumstances dictate that the personnel isn’t likely to improve barring just absolutely crushing the NFL draft.” It’s very obvious what the circumstances are: Nobody else in the NFL has a power structure where the vice president of football operations and general manager are as important as they are here. Now let’s talk about someone who actually seems to want to be a Texan.

I think if there’s one player the Texans want to re-sign, it’s Kamu Grugier-Hill. He’s been vocally supportive of the culture from day one, and despite being undersized for the position he’s held up well. But if Grugier-Hill hits free agency and gets $6-7 million a season from a team that has a chance to win next year, what’s his incentive to stay here? Caserio hasn’t doled out big money to anybody; is he going to turn a 28-year-old linebacker into a core player? My read of both his Texans tenure and the sudden spend-heavy philosophy of the Patriots in his absence is that Caserio is extremely conservative in paying players and extremely aggressive in trading for guys that he believes in. In addition to that, the Texans have $35 million in dead money for next year before they do anything with Deshaun Watson (and possibly, Tunsil as well)

These are some of the debates I have with myself mentally when I sit down and try to think about what to write about this team’s future. Do I think Grugier-Hill deserves $7 million? I probably wouldn’t be comfortable paying him that based on one season. Would it still be a good sign if he got it? Maybe, and I certainly wouldn’t be upset about it, if only because it means the team is actually identifying a core piece! I thought the Greenard quote I posted above was very telling — the entire culture of the team seems to be that if they pile adversity on players that it will somehow make them better. I guess this is only allowed to just be my opinion, but I don’t think that’s been born out by the record this year. Or last year. Or by the fact that any number of good players aren’t interested in being here when other options appear. Or by the history of the NFL.


There’s a lot of talk about the optimistic holdouts about the “narrative” of this team, and the narrative seems to be that because the Texans are getting rid of players and those players aren’t franchise-level stars, we should believe that it’s fine or a clear-out of Bill O’Brien Bad Players despite many of them becoming functional elsewhere. Now, I understand the power of a good national narrative — the Astros are subjected to plenty of it, and how the national media treated James Harden’s run in Houston was criminal — but the thing about that is that a) the Astros and Rockets won games hand over fist as the narratives were being created and b) winning games makes people care about you. The national narrative around the Texans is that it’s very sad and also, excuse me, do you know when Deshaun Watson will get dealt? If I called up seven national NFL writers and asked them to name Texans until they ran out of names, I doubt I’d get many real answers at this point beyond fantasy football quasi-relevant guys. In many ways, the Watson beat is more important to the future of the NFL than what is taking place in NRG Stadium. Yes, even though he quit on the Texans.

This is a team that is in a bleak enough place that they don’t really need to be adding additional obstacles in the way of them competing for good players or creating fans. But that is their organizational ethos at this point. They simply can’t understand why what they are doing is off-putting, and nobody from the outside can fix that, no matter how hard they try. (Note that when the first Easterby article came out in Sports Illustrated, several of the sources told the reporters that they were trying to do this to get Cal McNair’s attention. It did not matter.)

There’s an ever-hopeful quality about the NFL Draft, and one thing I think about a lot is that players like Will Fuller and Zach Cunningham are both a) very successful picks for their draft slots and b) guys that five years later, fans stopped being excited about. I write a top-25 prospects list for Football Outsiders that includes only guys taken after the third round every year going back to 2015 or so, and you know what I’ve learned? Most guys who don’t make it in their first two years aren’t going to become NFL starters, and most guys who are still on their rookie deals continue to get wonderful promising player rhetoric anyway. Remember Gareon Conley? It was very easy for optimists to believe that he was a great find for a third-round pick. Then he got hurt and never played again. Jordan Akins is someone who I thought looked really good in his rookie season and in his small samples in 2019 and 2020 — they never played him full-time. Tytus Howard is finally looking decent at left tackle, but there’s no guarantee they pick up his fifth-year option. The amount of times I have read overwhelming fan sentiment that this would be the year that a certain player develops in a Tweet or a comment or a Reddit post versus the amount of times it has actually come to fruition in a game-changing way is roughly 10 to 1. That’s not to say that players never surprise you or players never show you that they have talent — but becoming a consistent, game-to-game impact player if you don’t enter the league as one is extraordinarily rare. It’s worthy of celebration when it happens.

And that’s where I’m at right now: Relying on the general manager who was named general manager of the decade after he spent an entire season pushing dead cap into 2022 and whose most successful solo draft pick so far is probably Roy Lopez to just nail every pick. Because if he doesn’t, there’s certainly no other set up structure here that is good or interesting, and there’s certainly no other reason anybody else would want to come to this team short of just being enormously overpaid. Maybe one or two guys jump on that this offseason, I kind of doubt it. All that’s here is the idea of culture that the Texans have created, one that is, broadly speaking, if you don’t do everything we tell you to do, we distrust you at best.

So what I’m left with is helplessness. I can’t even pretend to write a post that would solve the problems this team has created for itself. I would love to tell you that, with me being branded as “the negative guy,” that people read me more during times where the Texans are 2-10. That doesn’t really happen. Nobody reads about teams that suck, and nobody donates to the site unless I barb about how nobody donates to the site. It sucks, and I see slim odds of anything changing before 2023.

I’ve never been more relieved that the end of the season is almost here. I’d like to be more hopeful about potential changes for the future, but nothing I’ve heard has inspired me to believe it’ll be anything more than different placeholders in these chairs and us running mock drafts for the next few years. Maybe those draft picks will turn out well, and maybe they won’t. Either way, odds are that they’re going to be fighting a tide that goes far beyond anything they can do.


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Four Downs: Texans 0, Colts 31

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


Well. I can’t pretend that I thought the Texans had a chance to win this game, but somehow I expected more than we got. I’m not going to beat around the bush: there are somehow still five games left in the #LongestSeasonEver and the Texans have already been eliminated from the playoffs.

This team has bad offensive games because they have bad offensive play calls and players that are not good enough to execute those play calls without help. They hadn’t had many true meltdowns just yet because they managed to be so safe that it was impossible for them to get boat-raced. But this game, like the Rams game before it, was one that was lost before it ever began. The defense valiantly managed to keep the Colts punting for most of the first half, but it didn’t matter. The offense did not run a play in Colts territory until the third quarter, nor did it complete a pass to a wide receiver. It didn’t get past the Colts 40 for the entirety of the game. I think the best way to exemplify things is this third-and-26 pass from Tyrod Taylor.

There’s no way this throw would work even if they had completed it. The entire point of the offensive play is to play field position — that happens far too often under David Culley and Tim Kelly’s respective watches. They don’t trust the guys that they have to do any better than that. And then the cherry on top is that somehow Taylor turns it into a grounder to second base, meaning they can’t even execute the CultureBall as called.

The operating philosophy of this Texans offense for the entire season, even in the games that they’ve won, has been to exist. Almost every big passing play this season — Cooks’ TD in the Jets game, both of his long catches against the Jaguars, Davis Mills’ big TD to Chris Moore and finding Conley against the Patriots — has come outside of the structure of the offense. The best you can hope for with the Texans are plays like this:

First down, a down they usually run on so the defense isn’t expecting pass, and a well-covered young receiver who needs a good throw that neither quarterback has the touch to deliver 100% of the time. The Texans have decided that they are so scared of incompletions down the field that they’d rather just run the ball en route to their third-and-longs. That’s what passes for philosophy, and that’s why they managed 141 total yards and 2.8 yards per play en route to their latest embarrassment. The Texans offense right now is basically this Futurama sequence:

1) It doesn’t really matter who starts at quarterback, but it might as well be Mills

Davis Mills hasn’t really shown me anything that Tyrod Taylor hasn’t. He’s not as good as Taylor as a runner, and while he has a little more flash to his game than you’d expect when he’s under pressure, I don’t harbor deep beliefs that he’ll one day be a great passer. His relief appearance in this game was as bad as I can remember under center for the Texans, and I watched Dave Ragone starts.

Mills actually missed so badly on one third-and-10 play — I really hope because of a miscommunication — that he got called for intentional grounding on a play where he never was in danger of getting sacked or leaving the pocket.

Now, all that said … the Texans are eliminated from the playoffs. I don’t care about tanking for a high pick — maybe I should because I think the impact talent pool is pretty low — because there is no slam-dunk franchise quarterback. I think if you start Davis Mills these last five weeks and come up with one or two good areas he improves on or bad areas where he can fix something, it’s more worthwhile than letting Tyrod Taylor finish out the season. I don’t know that the Texans see it that way, but there was a real breaking point for David Culley today in my view. He exited that game not saying that Taylor was the starter, but that he have to “evaluate everything.”

And well, I’ll put it this way: Taylor’s still a better quarterback than Mills, but not by enough at this point for it to matter.

2) Let’s talk about Kamu Grugier-Hill’s tackles and why they don’t matter just as much as Zach Cunningham’s and Tyrell Adams’ didn’t in 2020

Texans PR has had a lot of experience talking about tackle numbers on bad teams over the past few years. They have this experience because the Texans have spent a lot of time trailing, and while trailing, those players tend to rack up a lot of tackles because opponents run the ball on them. The Colts, in this game, ran at the Texans 48 times. Kamu Grugier-Hill played … fine. It wasn’t his best game of the season, but he had a few nice stuffs and the Texans muscled up a lot of guys in the box. (Taylor faced eight or more in the box on 43.75% of his carries.)

However, the Texans proudly trumpeted during and after the game that Grugier-Hill broke the team’s franchise record for tackles in a game as if that mattered. Grugier-Hill, after the game, did a good job of deflecting that by saying that nobody cares about individual records in games like this. I would agree with him. It reminded me a lot of moments like this:

It turns out that you get many more tackle attempts when you are losing and facing a lot of runs if you’re a linebacker. Grugier-Hill has been one of the better players on the Texans this year, but only from a straight PR standpoint should anyone make a big deal out of breaking the tackle record in a 31-0 loss. If there were say, a football operations man who was cheering that, it would sound really stupid.

As I was saying…

3) Zach Cunningham wins the deactivation lottery

Zach Cunningham became the third player this season to get a straight deactivation before the game for violating culture rules:

I threw this to Twitter, and I’m throwing it to you as well if you know any better: I’ve literally never heard of a professional team doing this to its players at this frequency. And I think this number actually undercounts the amount of random benchings we’ve seen this season without deactivation. I know we’re out of the Justin Reid zone but since I didn’t write about this team last week after they “fixed” things with him, let me point to this:

I don’t think the Texans have out-and-out lost any games because of this, mostly because I don’t think they were winning many games to begin with this season. But it’s an ethos that seems to be highly punishing for no real reason. What we’ve gotten is that Justin Reid got into a disagreement with the coaches (the Texans have pushed back on this version of the story but won’t tell us what actually happened), Cunningham was late to a COVID test today and also missed some time in training camp, and King missed some meetings in a game week. Those are things that I think most teams in the NFL are not happy about, but won’t punish, or that maybe a player would get fined for in a player’s court or something.

Both Grugier-Hill and Christian Kirksey refused to really answer a question about Cunningham after the game, saying they didn’t want to speak about it. It’s an interesting dynamic here where the culture is just so good and growing so hard, but also it can’t be talked about in a rational way to outsiders. Nor can anybody explain why the Texans need to be so hard on these guys as compared to the rest of the NFL. What I have gathered is that they are a historical outlier — these Texans look set to be a historical outlier in many ways — what I don’t understand, no matter who I talk to about it, is why?

4) Maybe it’s time that some of that outside noise was actually heard

I’m not a victory lap kind of guy. I don’t like linking to old work. I’m also happy to own my mistakes if anyone isn’t just a complete miserable bastard about it. I’m the guy who is always proud to dunk on myself by saying I liked Cordarrelle Patterson over DeAndre Hopkins in the 2013 NFL Draft.

But let’s just tell this situation like it is: There was never a reason to do what the Texans did this year. They are going to bring back maybe two or three players this offseason from this defense and have a veteran core of like: Grugier-Hill, Terrance Mitchell, Tavierre Thomas, and maybe Christian Kirksey and Maliek Collins. Thomas has been a nice signing who has played well and is young — he is the exception to the rule, though I don’t think he’s been challenged all that much.

The team is 2-10 and, outside of the defensive line, it doesn’t have young players that are heavily involved and playing well. Nico Collins and Brevin Jordan have flashed enough that they might be playing well in a functional offense, if anyone was interested in building one. But the rest of this is bleak, failed stuff. Charlie Heck hasn’t been great at right tackle, or at least not as great as the Texans seem to believe he’s been.

I was upset about signing both Justin Britt and Mark Ingram as early as the Texans did because I thought the Texans should have heavily focused on letting youth play a role in these things. There was never a need to bring in Danny Amendola or Rex Burkhead, or bring back David Johnson. The strategy for this year should have been — at the very least — more balanced on youth versus vets. I say this not to crap on these guys, who have all played very hard and given their best, but because there was never a chance that this team was going to be anything but what it was.

If the Texans were gambling on Deshaun Watson coming back at any point, they were delusional regardless of the late-arriving allegations. That should never have been a thought on the table from the moment he put in his trade request. And without him, it was extremely obvious that this team wasn’t going to be competitive.

So, listen, Scottie Phillips could have played in this game if he weren’t hurt. Where are the other Scottie Phillipses? Where’s Jalen Camp’s chance at the active roster? Where are the Davion Davis targets? Why not give Jimmy Morrissey another couple of games? (How soon is now?) Why isn’t Garret Wallow getting a shot in the middle on passing downs? Where’s the young cornerback this team could be giving snaps to? And on, and on.

The thing about this team is that it simply never considered a future where they’d be better off developing players rather than having depth because they never believed they would fail as badly as they have this year. And they never believed that because nobody involved with building this team could be honest with themselves about what this was. If they were tanking, they would have guys to put in at this point to give an opportunity to. Instead, we’re watching eight Burkhead carries per game — sorry Rex, I’m sure you’re a fine dude and I love your charity cleats — for no discernable reason, in a game you’re losing big time to the Colts on your way to 2-10.

What if, instead of pretending the organization that is mired in the middle of a 6-21 spell has it all figured out and the perfect process, it deemed it worthy to try to understand anything about why the outside world believed they were failing? About why the fanbase has all but left them for dead? What if they had that little itch of curiosity?


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