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.

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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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