The optics of firing David Culley are terrible; the decision is rational

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.


There are many reasons to hate that the Texans fired David Culley, so I want to start out by laying a few of them out.

— He’s the first one-and-done coach in Texans history.
— By all accounts, there wasn’t a lot more he could have done with this roster. His four wins equaled the pre-season over/under for the team. Expectations were at rock bottom, and the team fought hard to rise above those. That’s a credit to the head coach.
— The Texans took four days post-season to actually come to the decision to fire Culley, and then the very day it comes out that he’s fired, three very obvious candidates are circled almost instantly, all of them are former Patriots.
— The idea that the Texans fired a black head coach after one season in which he lived up to expectations, fair or not, is a brutal look for the team and the league.

There’s probably more than this. It’s been a long day. I’m tuckered. Let’s get to the point.

To be honest with you, boots on the ground here, it’s hard to really understand why they hired David Culley in the first place beyond him being a placeholder. I wrote about it the day it happened. It was almost impossible to have an opinion on him because he was a 65-year-old first-time head coach! The Texans brand was toxic, and anybody who came here knew they’d be saddled with losses.

Culley gets to ride off into the sunset with, apparently, four guaranteed years of money for being a punching bag. What is your soul worth? I don’t think I would have had it in me to take this job. But that is lifechanging money. I think there were a lot of people that turned down interviewing for this job because they knew what was happening here. To have a general manager on your headset the entire game feeding you advice and undermining your authority is not something I think a lot of people would sign up for.

I don’t think you can find a single person with a bad word to say about David Culley the person. He was pitched as a leader and a motivator and he did just that. Nick Caserio pointed to “philosophical differences” in their parting, and the one thing I’m curious about with this idea that nobody has pointed out yet is the parade of disciplinary actions: Justin Reid, Desmond King, Zach Cunningham, Charles Omenihu, even Shaq Lawson in training camp. Culley defended those very strenuously at all times.

Now, I can’t tell you who in the organization was for these punishments and who wasn’t — all I can tell you is that it’s pretty wild that they happened. It’s not something you see very often. And with how vociferously Culley defended them, it would make sense to me that he led that charge. That doesn’t mean it’s how it went down! But it’s something I think could have been an easy tension point in the organization if the power structure didn’t seem to agree.

I enjoyed the human side of Culley. The fact that he couldn’t help but chew his damn tongue in pressers or on the sideline. The fact that he later switched to gum. The fact that he all but admitted he doesn’t watch film that often when he’s not working. The fact that he could wax poetic about a Hershey’s bar. I liked the guy more than I liked the coach. And I think that’s about where the Texans wound up on the situation as well.


David Culley couldn’t reliably say the word “analytics,” always lisping it to sound like “analythics.” David Culley apologized after wild in-game decision mistakes multiple times in the first six weeks of the season, including not letting the Patriots score so they stopped bleeding clock, and declining a penalty that would have given the Texans another third-down play so that he could punt on fourth-and-short. David Culley’s offense was so conservative that it would barely look out of place in the 1980s, when he came of age in football. In one interview he joked that he was computer-technology illiterate.

It was very obvious that this was a big wedge between Caserio and Culley, particularly when he was being fed advice and going with his gut, which did not particularly appreciate being second-guessed.

Culley was the coach the Texans settled for, not the coach they actually wanted. And as extremely haphazard as it played out over this last week, it’s not like he was slaying people with in-game decisions. He was 28th the last time EdjSports put up their list of coaches by pure decision WPA added. And I think that undersells how conservative he was because Edj’s model downplayed Houston’s chances to win often on account of how bad the team was.

Firing David Culley the head coach is, at the very least, not worthy of scorn. He wasn’t downright embarrassing all that often, but it was clear that he was behind the times. There was little hope that this would improve or that a second year of it would go better than the first. About the only positive thing you could point to in a major way was that Davis Mills improved drastically after he was benched, and that’s not something that often gets attributed to Culley so much as Pep Hamilton.


I don’t know how much optimism I have that Brian Flores can make Deshaun Watson play for the Texans again. I think he’s a worthy target in the sense that if you paired him with a better offensive coordinator, he has proven that he can be an effective NFL head coach already.

But what I am optimistic about is that this horrific year of Texans football will be buried quickly. Because if the Texans are willing to upset the apple cart by firing Culley, they must believe that this is a year where a lot can happen in a very short time. Like last year, where a lot also happened in a very short time. But except maybe unlike last year, with a head coach that has some credibility and that they have stake in the success of, and who will be working with talent more equal to that of a real NFL franchise.

I can’t tell you I’m brimming with joy about the fact that the Texans continue to actually be Patriots South, but Josh McDaniels is pre-eminently one of the best-regarded candidates available, and I think highly of Flores’ work in Miami. I’d be less excited about Jerod Mayo, but I’d be willing to hear more about why I should be excited.

But in a way, the feeling of firing Culley reminds me a lot of when the Texans traded up to get Deshaun Watson. They were mired in quarterback hell, and whether Watson worked out or Watson didn’t work out, it was clear that something was going to give about this team. This happened in plaid speed as opposed to the Bill O’Brien era, where we were three years into mediocrity already, but the message is that the Texans understand and are acting like they can’t continue to fritter away time.

Maybe that will work out, and maybe that won’t. It’s beyond frustrating that the candidate list would have been a funny joke told the day that Bill O’Brien was fired based purely on who Jack Easterby liked. But I’m glad to dispense with what appears to have been a WarGames simulation of what the Texans might look like and try something that might have a chance of working. It’s time for the front office to take some praise or take some heat, and with the decision to jettison Culley, it’s clear that they’re willing to put themselves front and center.


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Four Downs: Texans 25, Titans 28

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 going to share a snippet of one of my very favorite videos with you. It comes from a larger video called “The Entire ‘Here Comes The Pizza’ Affair,” and it stars a couple of sports broadcasters (rest in peace, Jerry Remy):

One of the reasons I love this video as I do is that it gets people who are supposed to understand what’s happening completely out of the element of knowing the answer. Why would you throw a slice of pizza at someone? Why would that exact sequence of events have sent this fan down the rabbit hole of throwing the pizza? It poses a question that is immediately unanswerable without more questions. Questions of motivation, of character, of wonderment. 

Those are the underlying feelings I carry about the 2021 Texans. We can rehash the how and the why, and we can get answers that provide fuel into Nick Caserio’s pattern of thoughts. At the end of the day, I just watched Rex Burkhead become a feature back for seven weeks and become the lone Texan of any acclaim to receive a contract extension. I thoroughly enjoyed him eating against the Chargers and he seems like a nice enough guy, but why would anybody build a team to accomplish this series of events? What was the point of watching Danny Amendola get on the rejuvenation machine against the Titans in Week 18? Why did Mr. Caserio throw the pizza?

Of the four seasons I have covered the Texans thoroughly since joining The Athletic in 2018, this was by far the worst of them. 2020 was terrible, but brought with it the end of Bill O’Brien and the hope that I could learn about someone new to eventually get mad at for wasting a generational quarterback. Or at least empathize in sorrow with them over a bad beat if the coach was good. 

Instead, that quarterback quit on the team. The team, shepherded by leadership who cannot begin to understand or care about how terrible this situation and the hiring of Caserio looked from the outside, embraced an ethos of burying their heads in the sand to any outside questions or suggestions. For shits and giggles, Cal McNair and his wife both thought that demonizing COVID-19 as the “China Virus” in a large public setting was just hilarious. They were barely held accountable at all, with only a panty pinch of an apology issued. They were happy to have security bother anyone who would dare speak against them at games, eventually not letting angry fans in at all. And because the team placed on the field was largely uncompetitive when not facing the Jaguars, nobody really wanted to talk much about the football. 

2021 was a terrible year to express an opinion about the Texans. For one thing, any thought about the team that was focused on actual football was haunted by the shadow of the barely-connected reply guy who has made an inference: “They’re tanking, they must be!” But as they finish third in what looks to be a two-person elite talent draft, the assumption of rationality didn’t roll out in the way many wanted it to. The Texans genuinely tried to win as many games as they could. They brought in high-functioning hard-practicers who would do whatever the front office asked as far as nutrition and sleep. They brought in high-effort guys with a lot of Want. Guys that are easy to root for, but who can’t win games for the team in major roles on their own. There are many players here who deserve a lot of credit for buying in and playing their asses off for 17 games while many of the Louder Yous thought they were tanking. 

This wasn’t a secret. The Texans shouted it all along. Nobody listened, because many have learned from our bubbles that our opinion is all that matters. The art of listening is dying as more and more people come to understand that being loud and never admitting you’re wrong is a winning strategy in the attention-grabbing world we now live in, one that is only wins and losses. The art of backpedaling, however, soars to the moon. 

To the 2021 Texans, a team that floated through these last twelve months as gracefully as a slice of pizza. 

1) Davis Mills made some pretty passes to rebound from a bad first half

At halftime, Davis Mills was 7-of-14 for 61 yards, and 25 of those came on one deep completion to Brandin Cooks. I don’t think he was out-and-out playing poorly, but he was playing to the limitations I thought he’d shown over the course of this season. He wasn’t great at throwing deep, and he struggled with blitzes. He felt a little extra emotionally frenetic early on too, which I think can best be exemplified by this attempt to scramble:

But, to Mills’ credit, he rebounded hard in the second half. I think you can run them through the ringer of typical “interesting, but let’s see the quote tweets” ways: Nico Collins catches one off a deflection, he’s making his receivers really work for balls, they were down 21, and so on. But the No. 1 thing that was interesting to me in the scenario is that the Texans focused on up-tempo offense coming out of the half and it worked.

This has been an extremely common thing for the offense under Bill O’Brien for years, and under Culley with Tim Kelly coordinating this year as well: Whether it’s Deshaun Watson or Davis Mills, the offense always looks better when they play like this. It would be incredibly stupid to just shout out “run no-huddle all the time,” because that’s not how football really works. But I think it says a lot about how stuck in their ways the team is that when they do stuff like this — or say, when Mills and Cooks improvise that route in the Rams game — that the empirical results suddenly get a lot better. It’s a point I feel like I’ve made for years and can make in my sleep at this point. And yet, the team just can’t get out of their own way. That’s the hallmark bit of it.

Mills again had no running game to help him — 17 running back carries for 52 yards led by David Johnson’s longest carry of the season. The defense struggled on third-and-long as Ryan Tannehill shredded them in all quarters not starting with “third,” and the run defense remained splash-or-be-splashed. Games like these only get winnable if the Texans start grabbing turnovers left and right, and Terrence Brooks missed the two balls he got hands on while Lonnie Johnson’s actual pick was turned away after a rough defensive pass interference call.

This game didn’t change much of the established orthodoxy of Mills in my view. I don’t believe the Texans are going to challenge him unless they fire David Culley, at which point with a new coach, all bets are off because there’s a new voice in the building. He’s shown enough development that I’m not totally uncomfortable just giving him an offseason and a few more games to see what else can stick, but I’m also not at a point where I’d personally let him go unchallenged this offseason. I’d want him to beat out some real competition for the starting job. But I’m not losing my mind over this or anything, the odds of the 2022 Texans mattering in the grand scheme of things are fairly low. It’s house money. Unless…

2) David Culley in The Gum Chewer Who Might Be Unemployed

I literally am stunned that CBS ran a segment about David Culley chewing gum. The depths that they attempted to plumb here to make the Texans interesting in a game they were (momentarily) getting blown out in were fascinating.

The big news that broke in the morning was that David Culley’s future — which had seemed pretty assured up until this point — was suddenly tenuous. Jay Glazer reported it pre-game, and John McClain followed up a little while later.

Now, this is again a mission where Rivers tries to discern meaning from context clues rather than “Rivers has sources,” but there are two possible ways to interpret a Culley firing in my view. One of them is, in my opinion, positive. The other one is chaotic.

The Pressure Scenario — The team continues to look like a disaster with very little in the way of marketable players, ticket sales are way down, and so there’s renewed focus from ownership to make the team look presentable. David Culley isn’t the coach for this job, he’s the coach you let build culture when there’s no expectations. The second you shift to a place where a coach’s reputation is on the line, nobody is playing tiddlywinks anymore. As Aaron Reiss pointed out in his Athletic column, most general mangers don’t get to hire three coaches. So if they do rip that band-aid off immediately, it probably means we’re in for a stormy offseason with a lot of changes. Some of them could be very good! At the very least, I imagine this would mean they’d be Actually Trying.

The Chaos Explanation — This one is very simple, and some of you are going to hate it. Ever since Jack Easterby took his spot in the inner circle of the Texans, the team has just made splashes on top of splashes. They literally can’t sit still. They’re a team that signed Mark Ingram and promoted him as one of the linchpins of the culture rebuild, then traded him at the deadline for a future pack of gum for Culley. The one constant is that there’s churn everywhere. Laremy Tunsil in, DeAndre Hopkins out, this season there were no big moves but they literally brought in 25-plus veteran free agents, of which they’ve re-signed exactly one player who wasn’t a practice squad elevation. Under this scenario, Culley is out because everybody is eventually out on the Texans. Whatever you want to build here has to be so idiot-proof that even the extremely hands-on management team can’t help but not want to mess it up.

I don’t really have any skin in the game with Culley and I’m finding it hard to find the motivation to defend him. It’s funny, he’s a very likeable person when you get him not talking about the Texans — it’s just that the head-in-the-sand stuff that he preaches makes him practically unrelatable when it comes to what his job actually is. He’s way too conservative in both direction and game management, but that only really matters if the Texans believe they’re going somewhere in 2022. As a child who grew up in two divorced households, Culley has strong That’s The Best Mom Could Do? Energy — but at the same time, you’re just wanting her to be happy, right? And if this goofy man is what she needs for the moment, then I can tolerate him.

3) Zach Cunningham’s “revenge game”

We don’t really get the full gist of what’s going on behind the scenes, and we won’t until these players retire or this regime fails, because most players are media-savvy enough to know that limiting their future career prospects in any way is a bad move for them. But rarely do we get a former Texans bagging on the team in such an obvious way that it turns Andrew Catalon into a “hey, I’m just the messenger” actor in punchlines.

Cunningham was one of the worst interviews on the team for years — you practically could not get him to say anything interesting. The only thing I really remember slipping out that was interesting was watching him stand at a podium in 2020 and acting like he deserved a Pro Bowl nod when the team was a dumpster fire, and him seeming totally unaware of how those two facts would mesh. I didn’t wind up posting that online because — some of you are going to find this hard to believe — I don’t always try to kick the Texans when they’re down. And yet he goes to a production meeting and we get all this? Very tonally weird way to end the season.

Anyway, I don’t have any deep insights on this situation. I know the Texans didn’t think he worked hard enough at his craft. I’ve certainly got no inner window in to how true that is or was. But beyond that, it feels like there’s more beneath the surface that we just won’t know until it’s not relevant to anybody anymore. Was it about Watson wanting out? Why is Laremy Tunsil also not playing? What exactly went down to get this team to have to literally replace almost a full roster of players?

4) Personal and acknowledgements

My own personal experience of this year was developing what I now believe is an anxiety disorder. I wrote about this briefly in September. I had random heart palpitations hit me right after Labor Day. They were joined by headaches, major gas, and a self-perpetuating anxiety that comes with an admission of one’s mortality. I have spent more time in doctor’s offices in 2021 than I had in any year prior.  I’ve been cleared by cardiologists and hematologists, and now we’re on gastroenterologists and psychiatrists. I know that in the grand scheme of things, many people have had it much worse than me these past two years, but job one for this year had to be protecting myself and making sure I was okay. It’s something I’m still working on. I’m supposed to try to handle less stress. I’ll come back to that in a second. 

Job two and three was making sure that the crews at Football Outsiders and NBC Sports Edge got what they paid for. I wish I had more time to give them, because in a world where your best ability is availability, I didn’t hit previous year’s bench marks as well as I would have liked. There are writing gigs that I had to give up that I liked for lack of time and energy. Heck, I entirely walked away from any management duties involving Free Enterprise. I have been fried for five months. 

And then there’s this labor of what used to be love. I still want the Texans to win and, though I missed days or had delays here or there, I provided the game coverage I’ve been known for to mostly bemusement or angry fans. But as the idea of “reducing stress” laid with me more and more, covering the Texans largely became at odds with that. For one thing, it turned every Sunday into a marathon session where I probably put down 7,000 words between a Texans gamer, NBCSE blurbs, and the Monday NBCSE column. That’s a lot of pressure to handle, even if a substantial portion is self-inflicted. 

I greatly appreciate those of you who actually read these pieces and who silently take in what I have to say, with the spare encouraging comment or compliment or donation. Most of the interaction I get from people now is not that, even as I’ve actively worked to curb the amount of literal opinions I put on Twitter down. It is from people who barely know me and who believe the worst of me because I represent something they don’t want to understand. It is the long-standing petty pisses from bad faith trolls. It is from people who don’t like that I have skeptical points of view of things they take for granted. 

It’s exhausting. It’s exhausting in service of a team that wasn’t good, for management I don’t have a lot of belief in, for an ownership group that has a lot of work to do in my eyes to bring fans back. I don’t know what the next eight months will bring us, but I want to be up front that what I’ve given will likely change in a major way next year. Maybe there will be no in-game videos. Maybe I will have fewer jobs. Maybe I won’t write gamers anymore. Maybe I’ll try something a little more creative to shake up the tedium of what looks to be a long rebuild. The worst time for self-reflection is immediately after something is over, but the one thing I walked away from this year thinking is: This was not fun. Sunday was like the last day of school, and it’s summer time, and I was much more interested in watching the Raiders and Chargers play than writing this.

What I largely learned this year are the capacities of my own boundaries. I’m not trying to compliment myself when I say that I’m generally a pretty sweet and loyal person, because it has lead to a lot of time invested in things that don’t bring a lot of joy at times. 

I won’t miss 2021. Let’s bury it. 


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Four Downs: Texans 7, 49ers 23

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 dog days of seasons like this are always difficult, because a lot of the narrative of the offseason is already established. There’s also not a whole lot new we can discover about established players at this point. Pharaoh Brown, like Darren Fells before him, is going to get called for a ton of penalties when you ask him to block across the line of scrimmage constantly. Christian Kirksey is a pretty solid little linebacker, but that’s about all he is. And so on.

Losing to the 49ers was mostly a return to normalcy for this team after their stunning win against the Chargers last weekend. They’re not a horrific team at this point of the season, with Davis Mills giving them a little bit more execution on third downs than they were getting out of Tyrod Taylor post-hamstring injury. But they’re also not very good. They don’t have non-Brandin Cooks playmakers on offense, and they have almost nobody who can win in space. They are a splash-only run defense that has trouble whenever they can’t get someone in the backfield. When they manage to be well-designed enough as an offense to actually counteract those issues, as they were against Los Angeles, life can go pretty well for them! In games like this, it’s right back to praying you find something horizontal.

The screen game just hasn’t been very consistent for the Texans this year — nor should it, if we’re being honest, because screen passes are amongst the worst play calls in the NFL. They are conservative plays that are built to keep the ball moving, but the NFL is a league without the same physical mismatches you can hunt in college football on plays like this.

The ultimate philosophical goal of David Culley’s offense is to drain clock and conservative its way down the field with third-and-short execution, ala the 2019 Ravens if they replaced Lamar Jackson’s running with even more horizontal stretch plays and their good backs with Rex Burkhead. It’s not a stunning surprise when this team can’t run the football (3.2 yards per carry felt downright above-average for them!), nor is it that the only drives that got anywhere happened when Mills consistently executed on third downs and the Texans got about 50 yards of Brandin Cooks DPIs.

And, well, seven points. So much youth, but seven points. Their seventh game of the year where they finished with a single-digit point total.

1) David Culley gives up

David Culley sure seems like he’ll be coming back next year. It’s not a decision I’ve spent a lot of energy on because there’s not really a lot of upside in firing him right now in my estimation. But because this has become more of a layup, and because this team ostensibly is trying to not waste our collective time, it’s time to treat Culley like we’d treat the coach of a real football team. And that coach simply can’t look at the situation the Texans were given at the end of the fourth quarter and punt.

There was no way the Texans had two extra scoring drives left based on any consideration of how they’d been playing, and no guarantee that when they went on those drives, they’d ever do better than fourth-and-8 at the San Francisco 41. Maybe they’d luck into a long touchdown pass. But down 10, you really don’t have much of a choice. And David Culley coward-punted, as he mostly has all season.

It’s one thing to manage an offense conservatively — and I am not even saying that can’t be the optimal strategy for a Texans team that needs a lot of things to go right — but you have to do it in a way that makes logical and consistent sense. If the team is bad enough that they need to be managed as conservatively as they do as far as running the ball often despite no chance of a big play, well, they also need to be aggressive when they actually get chances. Culley is 28th in the EdjSports rankings that measure only in-game decisions. I personally think these undersell how poor he’s been a bit because there is a pre-built bias into Edj’s rankings that gives Culley an out: They don’t think the Texans are very good, so many marginal calls actually don’t gain or lose much win probability because the Texans aren’t expected to win often when down 10 anyway.

I continue to have little hope for Culley as a game manager, but the Texans job was never going to be something that attracted big-time candidates, so it is what it is at this point. The Athletic’s Jeff Howe reported that the team is expected to keep Culley after the game.

I think he’s a really fun and energetic person, and I’d love to listen to his Horror Movies podcast, but no amount of people on the headset with him can keep Culley from mainlining 1970s and early 1980s NFL game theory and it’s going to be a problem in 2022.

2) Davis Mills’ encouraging deep throws

Davis Mills’ numbers don’t look great. 21-of-32 for 163 yards, a touchdown, and a pick. But I was encouraged by his tendency to push the ball. First, there’s the play that a Pharaoh Brown holding call ruined, but was our first real example of Mills hitting Brandin Cooks on a deep pass against a normal defensive structure:

There’s also this play that Mills would say he checked to based on a pre-snap look, a pretty loft ball in Cooks’ direction:

I found it very interesting that Mills noted after the game that the 49ers continually had him checking to shorter plays. It didn’t seem like they were blitzing very much until the fourth quarter — always harder to react without hard data — but it feels like the identity of the Texans essentially is that Mills should only throw deep when he’s positive he has something schemed. They had a few plays where Mills was waiting longer than usual early in the game — including one where he seemed to force the ball at a well-covered Cooks — and then they seemed to lean more into checkdowns.

Other than his turnover — which, much to David Culley’s chagrin, I’m going to tell you that turnovers happen — I don’t think Mills played all that poorly. Towards the end of the game with the threat of the run removed, the 49ers began sending more blitzes and teeing off on him, and the offensive line couldn’t quite hold up anymore:

What Arik Armstrong did to Justin McCray on that play is illegal in 23 states.

And I think at that point Mills got flustered and started leaving some throws short, and the emotion of the game got a little big for him. And that’s fine, it’s a rookie quarterback learning on the job. I’m more encouraged than discouraged by this start, if only because we finally got a deep completion that didn’t feel like a fluke of circumstance or Cover-0 blitz.

3) The Texans get their first major ref screwjob of the year

The Texans have had bad calls against them this year, as they do every year, because every year there are several bad calls in the NFL. But none of them were as potentially game-altering as what happened when Davis Mills was picked off in the third quarter and the refs ruled that a defensive players forward progress was stopped before Rex Burkhead got him to fumble:

The fact that it was followed up immediately with a weak DPI call on Terrance Mitchell did not help things:

Generally I try to give officials the benefit of the doubt. I can remember the 2019 game against the Ravens when DeAndre Hopkins didn’t get a clear DPI call and how upset the fanbase was about that … even as the Ravens romped all over the Texans. That didn’t really matter. I don’t think anybody is trying to screw the Texans — why would they, who actually cares about the Texans? — these are just hard-working officials who make very public mistakes. But given the 7-3 scoreline when this happens, and the fact that these two calls directly lead to a 49ers lead in a game where Trey Lance looked shaky throwing the ball without the help of play-action, it’s hard to not believe that these calls didn’t completely alter the course of the game. They were devastating for the Texans.

4) I could see it with Brevin Jordan last week, why can’t I see it with Nico Collins?

Nico Collins did have a nice toe-tap catch in this game, so let’s show that off before we get too down on him:

But the one thing I have had problems with all year is that Collins is an extremely tall, physically skilled player — but he doesn’t always play like it.

He barely generates any force at all on Ambry Thomas on this throw. In fact, Thomas boxes him out. Notice how little movement back to the ball there is for Collins. He puts his hands in there, but he’s locked on the spot. Let’s go to the fourth-down play that ended the game:

Quick slant to the outside, Collins doesn’t do a great job of getting off initial jam, but the ball is already coming his way. But notice he is able to create the space off that, and then … the ball comes his way and there’s just no way for him to fight through this contact to get the ball. Inside of five yards of the line of scrimmage, even! He’s clearly bigger than the SF corner. He’s got the body to box him out decisively. But what he needs to do to win that ball from that spot isn’t clicking with him yet.

It’s very clear that they want Nico Collins to be a red zone, big box-out threat. Because they throw to him there, often. No wideout on the team has more goal-to-go targets than Collins, and he hasn’t caught a single one of them. Could you argue one or two of them should have been interference? Yeah. Does he look impressive after he actually catches the ball and gets in to space? I think so. But I’m a little concerned about how he’s not performing well up to the limited box that the Texans have put him in so far. He’s got the lowest catch rate of anyone on the team with more than 15 targets. A lot of that has been the Texans forecasting him to win the physical matchup and him struggling to execute.

There’s a lot to dream on and it’d be extremely stupid to give up on Collins in Game 16 of his rookie season. But I think there needs to be a big step forward next season, and it’s these kind of plays that make me want another high-round rookie wideout added to this mix — preferably a tackle-breaker — in the 2022 draft.


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