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.

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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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One Reply to “Four Downs: Texans 25, Titans 28”

  1. Rivers, I have really appreciated you this year. Well, every year that I’ve had the privilege of reading your work. You have such a sharp and analytical football mind, a good sense of humor, and you communicate so well in the modern form of football writing, using video and words to make intricacies come to life.

    I don’t blame you for changing how you cover the team. The team doesn’t deserve it. But I will say the way I consume the team has changed. This is the first year since the franchise began that I didn’t watch a single game the Texans played. I was RedZone all year because of how fed up I am at the administration, the roster building, the lack of self-reflection this team exhibits.

    Your work was my connection to this team. And, I can’t say this enough, I appreciated it immensely. Thank you.

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