Six pessimistic things about the Texans through six games

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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This was a painful post to write and it’s going to be a painful post to read. I apologize if it digs up any scars or trauma. Know that I, too, want the Texans to be good. But the only way to dig through it to the light at the end of the tunnel is to speak truth to what has amassed in front of us. I blame none of this on the players and only one of these is actually about them — they were set up to fail. If you need some positive things to balance you, here’s last week’s post.

1) It’s painfully obvious that Jack Easterby retained some power

This is sort of the elephant in the room for a lot of you. There are some people who won’t accept this because a) they have an incentive not to and b) there’s nothing overt that has said so. The offseason forecasted a very clear power dynamic with a story that has yet to be refuted anywhere, one where Easterby found out the Texans were going to hire Steelers executive Omar Khan and steered the search directly to Nick Caserio so he could keep his job. Easterby is close to the McNairs, and Easterby has been given unreasonable power for somebody who already had a disastrous run of meddling in personnel that led to perhaps the worst trade of the 2000s where he and Bill O’Brien sent DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona for the pick that would become Ross Blacklock and David Johnson.

Easterby has not given a public interview since the very beginning of the 2020 season, so there’s no way of getting it from the horse’s mouth. But is he there on the sideline every week, in a role that wildly exceeds what most vice presidents of football operations do? He is. I don’t have a lot of sources I can cite here without ruining information given to me off-the-record, but let me put it like this: I have a strong reason to believe that Easterby is well aware that he is the most powerful person the team employs.

And if you take that and look at what has happened this offseason, it aligns pretty well. Why would any new general manager come into this team and decide that they had to keep David Johnson, let alone guarantee him money? And … hey, what did Nick Caserio say about that?

A riveting endorsement! And did Eric Murray get yet another chance to start at safety? He sure did! And does Vernon Hargreaves continue to get opportunities despite the fact that he has roundly been bad in every season? He sure does! And did 2020’s weird fetish with blocking young players on the roster continue? Mostly! How about layers and layers of players? Tell me your favorite Tae Davis moment, tell me about the good Rex Burkhead has provided while being outrushed by Jordan Akins. Versatility? Tytus Howard is taking reps at tackle and guard every week and is struggling! The wild mood swings where nobody knows who is starting and who is on the roster next week? Goodbye Whitney Mercilus and Andre Roberts! Welcome to the bench, Desmond King!

I’m by no means trying to say here that Nick Caserio doesn’t have control of personnel in name, nor trying to absolve the job that he has done so far. But I do think there are players that Easterby has stuck up for that are there, and I don’t think it should be surprising in the slightest that 2020s biggest bugaboos have continued to be a big part of how this team is constructed and run.

One last thing here: I know that there are a lot of people out there who are sick of hearing about Easterby, and I’ve dialed it back a little because over the years I’ve learned to let people get optimistic in training camp and early in the season. I am at my most optimistic about the Texans the day the season ends, before the mistakes happen. Other people are not like that — their optimism grows as football activities begin again. Trying to fight that wave is like spitting into the wind. Fans will justify literally anything they can to continue rooting for the team, and that means there have been quite a few conspiracy theories invented to help Easterby along the lines of “he was trying to stay in front of Deshaun Watson’s massage problems” or whatever else that eventually spreads to my mentions and is largely bunk spread to allow tribalism to continue.

I don’t have a dog in the fight of “is Easterby a good person?” I don’t care about who he is or what his intentions are beyond trying to understand how he’s approaching his role with the team better. I specialize in results, and his results have been awful. His culture results: multiple PED suspensions in 2020, multiple waves of players on the COVID-19 list this year, and we just spent two days listening to members of a 1-5 team try not to call out their teammates by name but say that the effort isn’t good enough. Justin Reid noted that the entire locker room fell apart last year in a presser last week after O’Brien was fired. What kind of culture is that? What kind of players have been protected here, and why? As long as he’s involved, I think it’s fair for fans to be skeptical that this team will ever turn around.

It’s not like Easterby’s Texans have tried to acquire anybody who is actually currently good. They’ll draft some in 2022 because the team is so bad they couldn’t help but do so … but those young players are just fighting against the established order. As we’ve seen time and time again, already. If you’re ready to excuse, let’s say, the 12th overall pick cornerback not playing because he’s young and Random Patriots Vet Free Agent With Culture has value and didn’t miss a meeting, you’ll excuse anything this team does. I’m not saying you need to be as pessimistic or cynical as I can sometimes be, but set a realistic expectation. This team has one win in two seasons that isn’t against the Jaguars or Lions. It’s dire, and the last of the people who created it should not be here. (And you can’t fire the owner.)

2) David Culley is a dinosaur strategically and tactically

I never had high expectations for David Culley’s strategic acumen because my initial impression of him led with him saying “the most important thing about football … is the football.”

What I was hopeful that he’d do would be a CEO/manager-type coach that would elevate everyone else around him with his positivity, and that maybe some of the Ravens analytics department mantras had touched him just a little bit. Instead what he’s done is installed a ground-and-pound offense that doesn’t run read-options or in any way make it hard for the defense to attack them. The only time this team is actually able to throw deep — even when Tyrod Taylor was healthy — is off-script buying time on the outside. None of their route concepts have dialed up a throw the quarterbacks on the roster can hit reliably beyond 20 yards. And they lean quite heavily into the wideout screens, the horizontal game, and … I know this sounds harsh to say, but there’s no ambition behind his plans. He’s not a problem solver. He can see the problems, but his response is just something along the lines of “we’ll have to really stick to our keys,” rather than “Kyler Murray’s frightening, what are we going to change about Lovie’s game plan to fight it?”

There’s no grand design to get this team out of the gutter. There’s no secret game plan adjustment that they’ll be making against the Cardinals. David Culley started coaching in the 1980s-1990s NCAA and NFL and has fully absorbed all the lessons from that. None of them matter now in 2021. He defends the system and appears to have almost no interest in game planning based on what opponents do from what I’ve seen in interviews.

Do I cut him some slack because this is an impossible situation? I do. Do I cut the Texans some slack for hiring him because they may very well have had a limited pool of applicants? Not really, because they know why they had that pool. But I accept the role that played in him being the head coach here.

I will hold no grudge against David Culley when his watch ends. I find him quite affable and I enjoy his personality when he’s not talking about the football. I won’t miss him complaining about penalties in every press conference. It’s become very apparent to me that there was a reason nobody hired him to be even an offensive coordinator before this year. He just doesn’t seem that interested in tactics. This is a perfect cushion job for him, to babysit the boy scout troop, get some NFL head coach money, and retire back to Tennessee. Godspeed with those dreams. He’s the exact opposite of what you need in a 2020s head coach from a tactics and in-game analytics perspective.

3) The fans have voted with their wallets

I don’t blame the fans at all for being turned off by this team. But I believe this will be the biggest storyline of the 2021 season. Nobody is going to these games. The Texans, who have never had to ask any seat to be filled throughout their existence, are now advertising non-stop during their own games to try to get people to come out. Every post on their website ends with a footer about how you can go to their next game. Every lengthy video they produce ends with a call to action to how you can go to their games. They’ve increasingly resorted to desperation gimmicks like the below:

How do I put this delicately: I don’t think the Texans are in any danger of being moved or anything, but this kind of mass exodus of fans does not augur well in the long term. There is some chatter in league circles about St. Louis getting an expansion team out of the Rams case. I don’t think the Texans are likely to become a team that gets moved or anything, but a lot can change depending on how ownership reacts to what I’m expecting are going to be skeleton crews at NRG throughout the rest of the season. So far they have resisted any kind of internal movement towards understanding why that is.

They’re probably behind the Jaguars in any sort of pecking order for a reckoning. But the fact that the crowds could be compared to what is happening in Jacksonville is a tough indictment of the situation that they, alone have created. Just on a human, person-to-person level, I can’t tell you the last time I had a conversation in real life with someone who is excited about the direction this team is going in. I have seen the few Twitter people willing to defend the team, but as you can see from the stands, contrarians aren’t lining up to pay money to watch this team play. A lot easier to project what a big fan you are on Twitter, and a lot less expensive as well.

One reason that has unfolded the way that it has been is…

4) Very few people with power in the organization seem to acknowledge any idea of how badly the trust with the fanbase has been shattered

People forget this now that there’s been some distance put between the Texans and this offseason, but after Caserio’s introductory presser there was about a 10-day gap where nothing happened for the team and they entered virtual silence. They were getting bombarded on social media by (largely) their fanbase after the tone-deaf answers that Cal McNair gave for the disaster that the 2020 Texans had become.

I don’t know that the sports media world as a general concept wrestles with what fan buy-in really means, but there’s an excitement that’s palpable. Even when I didn’t think the Texans would win anything important under Bill O’Brien, there was still a sense of “there’s a playoff game to go to!” or, perhaps more famously, “this team is 40 minutes of good football from playing in the AFC Championship game.” Fans and analysts may wind up reacting negatively to that in the end when it falls apart, especially when it gets repetitive, but they’re still engaged. They’re still wanting to see good things happen. They’re still wanting to see the next step.

When you try to pull the wool over on a bunch of Texans with these terrible explanations about why Easterby is here and appeal to an authority that has no results worthy of mentioning, it turns out that they become quite embittered! Long-time followers of this team … I’ve lost count of how many have told me they’re never watching again until something changes upstairs. When you follow something closely, you can tell when someone is all hat and no cattle, as the saying goes.

The one thing that has never happened since 2020 started is that the Texans have shown no remorse for anything they’ve done. To do so would be to tell on how poorly it is all going, in a way, but other than maybe a Drew Dougherty nod to the fans in a livestream here or there, there’s been almost no reckoning publicly with what they’ve done here. There’s been whining about rotten luck, and there’s been a lot of variations on “we have to do a better job,” but at no point has anyone ever said that the Hopkins trade was bad. I’m curious how many people in the organization will even talk about it this week. No public recognition of this team’s many issues. I can barely get the few people I have some link to in the organization to talk about it off the record beyond dismay. And publicly? It’s all just gritted fake smiles and pretending that filming community events at fire houses and hospitals is the same thing as building a fanbase.

These people got pissed off. Then they left. I can’t tell you how many donations this site has got this year — it’s got to be in the single digits — nobody follows this team. Trying to build content that people want to read about the day-to-day struggles of Davis Mills is the NFL equivalent of public access news stories about new library initiatives. These fans are checked out. Getting them back is going to require some real accountability at some level. None seems forthcoming, so I guess this is just where we are now.

5) Nick Caserio’s obsession with personality and intangibles has not borne any fruit

The entire premise of this offseason is that with enough hard practice and discipline, that the Texans can create a good team out of a bunch of NFL outcasts that their secret methods would somehow unlock the latent potential in. The result has been that this team is 1-5, with only a win over the similarly disjointed Jaguars at home, and that many of the players feel like some of the players aren’t holding up their end of the bargain on being “disciplined.”

The reality of the situation is that — pardon my language — this isn’t fucking Rudy. This team is outmanned, and being outmanned makes it hard for them to play above their talent level because they’re put into uncomfortable positions. Desmond King is pushed into playing outside because there are no outside cornerbacks, then he gets benched because he’s — stunner — not great at it! Outside of Brandin Cooks I am struggling to think of someone who has legitimately been playing well through all six games. A couple of the signings have wound up being fine cost bargains — Ingram has been better than I expected, Britt’s been better than I expected as a run blocker — but these are players in search of a core that can make them look good. That core was systematically stripped off, traded, released, or alienated. There’s nothing left but Cooks and … maybe Greenard.

The guys Caserio has brought in? They haven’t really added much. Maliek Collins has flashed some pass rush but has no sacks. Grugier-Hill has probably been the best they’ve had and I don’t think he’s more than a gap-shooter who looks good compared to Zach Cunningham. Tavierre Thomas has been … okay at nickel corner? Vincent Taylor got hurt. Jordan Jenkins is most notable for being the guy who took Charles Omenihu’s roster spot. Terrance Mitchell’s forced fumbles have been a boon but he’s just an adequate outside guy. Maybe we want to talk about trades? Marcus Cannon is on IR. Shaq Lawson didn’t make the 53-man roster. Ryan Finley didn’t make training camp. Special teams has been a dumpster fire.

And when you consider that some of these guys could be elsewhere while there’s youth waiting to be served, the entire offseason was a waste of everyone’s time. All this wave of culture veterans showed was that they can still be bit players in this league. They’ll all be free agents soon, and I am rooting for them. But as far as the greater game of establishing value for this franchise, this bet was pointless and needless. The Texans could have gone 1-5 without any of this. The idea that Caserio has some kind of hidden tell on player personality that will somehow provide value has not been vindicated in any way.

How about finding some good young players by giving young players a chance, and signing some other good players, like a normal team? Why does this team need to continually pretend there’s any reason to be confident when a team run by fan vote on the internet would have returned more value than they have over the past two years?

6) The offensive line — the only area with any real investment over the past few seasons — has been an utter disaster

The Texans are dead-last in the NFL in adjusted line yards. They were average in sack rate through Week 5, and I doubt that changed much after the Colts game. I don’t think that shows the full scope of what they’re up against because there’s almost no explosiveness at the running back position. Nobody but Ingram is setting up guys to miss in the open field, let alone actually breaking tackles. They’re also dealing with Howard moving from guard to tackle for absolutely no reason, and Laremy Tunsil is now hurt and also dealt with COVID-19 in the lead-up to the season.

Simply put, without any value judgements on what they’re going through: Tunsil was not playing like the best tackle in the NFL. He was maybe in the conversation as a pass protector only last year. His next good season as a run blocker in Houston will be his first. Tytus Howard has not played well enough to make me feel comfortable picking up his fifth-year option, which is a disastrous outcome for someone who you thought was showing some flashes at right tackle last year. Max Scharping is pretty replaceable at guard. Tied up in those three are the last three Texans first-round picks and two of their last three second-round picks. That’s a travesty. This is the only area that anybody around the team talked up as a definite positive all offseason and they were so bad at run blocking that bringing in Charlie Heck and Geron Christian made them better last Sunday.

To leave three drafts with that investment at offensive line and for the line to be as bad as it is today is simply unacceptable. This can’t just be a “it’s all Mike Devlin’s fault!” thing anymore. Unless Howard turns it around in a hurry — and I have a little hope there — the Texans are going to be paying for these decisions for a long time. And they barely were getting any benefit out of them when they were actually a contending team, either. It has been a systemic destruction of resources to try to replace Duane Brown — who is still very good even though he’s old.

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Four Downs: Texans 3, 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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The Texans are who we thought they were. They never pretended otherwise, and only the blind faith of fandom could drag anyone to think any differently.

Let’s put aside the talk about “good football,” which isn’t played with penalties and turnovers, and let’s talk about what David Culley did as the Colts grabbed a 14-point lead: fourth-and-2 at your own 45 yard-line and the answer was “punt,” the Colts followed up with Jonathan Taylor’s 83-yard foot stomp.

If you’re a sixty-six year old head coach, you cannot get made to look like a rookie as much as Culley has this year. In each of the last two games — here on this fourth-and-2, New England on the 56-yard field goal attempt — the game situation asked for a call to bold action to stop a run. Houston’s head coach might be apologetic about it on Monday, or he might just say that winning football is about field position. The problem is that this team needs to be managed aggressively to win games, and while he hasn’t shown that he’ll never do that, the reins are so inconsistent that it’s impossible to feel like there’s a plan. He had no problems doing it in the first half against the Patriots! Then, he gave it away.

To follow that up with a disgusting, nearly seven-minute drive that was turned over on downs and that featured six runs in 14 plays? That was deeply unserious football. That was culture ball. This team is devoted to the running game even though it a) has blown for most of the season and b) has almost zero explosiveness. I preface with almost because Phillip Lindsay finally hit a 35-yard run with about four minutes left in the game:

That finally cracked 100 yards for the team! Major kudos are in order, lads. The Texans have established the run. Davis Mills would later be picked to end the drive. Good stuff for the PR team to tweet out next week as the Cardinals send the team into oblivion.

1) Did you miss Laremy Tunsil?

Sent to IR after last week’s thumb injury prevented him from punching, Tunsil’s absence forced the Texans to start Geron Christian at left tackle. They were already starting Charlie Heck at right tackle after Marcus Cannon went on IR last week. And … Davis Mills took two sacks and only five quarterback hits. The two sacks were through 1) David Johnson and 2) Tytus Howard at left guard:

Meanwhile, the rag-tag group of starters helped spring Mark Ingram on his longest run of the season:

I hate bagging on the trade itself at this point because it is spilled milk under the bridge, and I have been slow to critique Laremy Tunsil this year because a) I enjoy his vibe and b) he had COVID and seemed to me at times to clearly have problems speaking without coughing in press availabilities. I don’t want to pretend I know what that dude was going through.

But with the Texans anchored to a regressive screen-and-short-balls passing game based on their overall dumb team concept, a star left tackle just isn’t making a material difference. You can argue that Tunsil never made a real difference in any of his three Texans seasons, even when he played well. That’s not a statement on how well he does his job, he’s obviously on talent an elite pass protector — but it does take all five, and he’s never been a good run blocker. It should not surprise us if the Texans punch a little above their established weight in that phase of the game without Tunsil. They did it last year with Roderick Johnson, and two big carries against a good Colts run defense isn’t something to sneeze off even if I hate how the second one went down.

2) Jon Greenard made an impact on pass defense, but that was about it

Carson Wentz only had to drop back 22 times all game, meaning Jon Greenard downed him on around 10 percent of his total dropbacks.

Greenard ran over Mo Alie-Cox on his first sack, and on his second picked up a coverage sack as Wentz drifted into his area as it appeared Wentz missed multiple open receivers. The most impressive thing was actually not a sack, but a tripping call that Greenard drew late in the game against Eric Fisher when he spun him:

Greenard had three of the Texans five quarterback hits and added two tackles for loss. The Texans were largely reliant on him to do something, anything, against a Colts offense with an immobile quarterback that schemed Cover-2 to death and torched it twice for big plays in the first half.

I know that the major Texans Twitter war at this point is that Charles Omenihu is inactive again and Lonnie Johnson didn’t start before Terrence Brooks got injured. I understand that what each of them have done this year have been inconsistent. My thing is: If Greenard can be put in a position and left alone and flourish, that means it is possible. I don’t think Lonnie is a deep safety this year because Justin Reid is better at the job — I think he fits better as a big nickel linebacker long-term as well, as he was covering Travis Kelce in the playoffs basically. I think Omenihu belongs inside in passing downs. The Texans seem to put them into roles where they can focus on what they can’t do, then discard them. It’s a shitty way to deal with your youth.

But, it is the culture at this point. Thank goodness Greenard has played culture-proof ball so far. I think he’ll have some slower games than this, but it’s been nice to see some real impact.

3) Davis Mills wasn’t bad, but didn’t take a step forward either

The one thing I’ve worried about the most with Mills is his inability to deal with blitzes in a timely manner. He has a sneaky way of avoiding the sack sometimes, so I wouldn’t exactly call him immobile. But it’s funny just how awkward he can look before suddenly he is all alone on the outside and he can dial up a ball drifting to his right:

His two interceptions were a) an attempt to imagine a ball past Darius Leonard in the middle and b) a overzealous deep ball to Cooks when Jordan Akins would have broken open in a zone hole:

On the balance of things, I don’t think Mills played particularly bad football for what he was asked to do. He had a couple of drift-out completions, they just weren’t as impactful as they were in Week 5 against the Patriots. Deep balls are going to be infrequent with this combination of offense and quarterback, and so it relies a lot on improvisation on the move and, well, missed tackles and luck.

The question remains: How are the Texans going to stop teams from blitzing Mills other than hoping to catch them with a good wideout screen? Because that’s the big weak point of this offense, and when the Texans really needed points, that was what the Colts brought to snuff out a drive:

And that area is what I’ve got my eye on for the next couple of weeks (at least) with Mills under center. I think he’s shown a little better than I expected from him after the early exposures, but he needs to keep taking steps. Every game he doesn’t take one is a week closer to Tyrod getting his job back and Mills being a long-term backup. It’s not particularly fair compared to how some quarterbacks get to live, but that’s the third-round rookie life.

4) The culture was established in 2020

This reminded me a lot of the loss to the Packers last year, a game which sent Houston to 1-6. It’s very easy for the players to hold the company line when it’s early, or when things are going well, but you can’t expect a 1-5 team to do the same. We had a rip-roaring press session where Mark Ingram ran the same four or five things in each answer he gave. Brandin Cooks called people out while trying to not call people out by name but also, yeah, he called people out.

The thing is: the culture has been established here since 2020, the first full year where the culture leader got to run an offseason. The culture isn’t interested in talent, it’s interested in gritty players like Ingram who are going to do what they can to overcome the next hurdle and play by the culture rules:

In that way, the culture becomes a weight of frustration, because the culture is built around growing through adversity and how that Has Meaning. But none of that actually matters for NFL teams that don’t employ great players. The Texans have one of the weakest rosters on the star level in the NFL — I would say they had the weakest period if Deshaun Watson wasn’t technically on the roster. Mark Ingram isn’t going to find anything that he can do better at this point. He’s a seasoned veteran. A lot of these guys are. They were set up to fail from the start. No roster this weak was ever going to contend, and they need to play almost flawless football. What this takes me back to is a quote Jacob Martin gave almost a year ago today:

The culture may have changed as far as players in and players out, but you can’t build a real culture around competition anymore than you can build a foundation with toothpicks on a blank slab. I feel bad for each and every player in the locker room. It doesn’t matter if Chris Moore unlocks his latent potential and becomes a palatable third receiver, because it changes nothing for the Texans’ long-term future. The only players that have any real upside here are the youth, who mostly don’t get to play outside of Mills, Greenard, Nico Collins, and Roy Lopez. And who knows how long they’ll play before they don’t eat the right brand of chips at lunch or they undersleep and get caught by the performance lab and get red flagged by a bunch of people who are trying to Frankenstein a team of loose parts together because they think they’ve got all the answers. You can’t aspire this into an NFL team with wishful thinking and one-percent-a-day-ism any more than you can aspire to make Frankenstein a real human being.

There’s a Great Gatsby quote for this circumstance: “It never occurred to me that one man could start to play with the faith of fifty million people- with the single mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe.” There aren’t quite fifty million Texans fans — there may not be fifty hundred Texans fans at Week 8’s Rams game — but this has been so brazen and so obvious for so long that you almost lose sight of how amazing it is that this team has been put together. If it were any other team but the one that I support, I would regard it like Leonard Nimoy talking about the cosmic ballet in The Simpsons.

It’s yes, a miracle that anyone would be dumb enough to do this and think that it would work, let alone to have leadership aligned around the concepts. The culture of this team is needless suffering and a forced smile through it, with accountability for everyone except those who built it.


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Five optimistic things about the Texans through five games

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

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The Texans are 1-4 and have one of the worst five point-differentials in the NFL. That was fairly foreseeable from the jump. How they got there, though, is a little more unexpected. They haven’t been the worst team in the NFL, nor in their own division. They nearly jumped a sleeping Patriots team on Sunday. Some of their players have played very well, and others, well, not so much.

Here’s what I’d give you as far as optimism through five weeks:

1) Roy Lopez is essentially Houston’s starting nose tackle, as a rookie, and is doing just fine

Has Roy Lopez become the best player in the NFL? No. Is he a top … let’s say, 25 defensive tackle in the NFL? No. But is he a productive player on a four-year rookie contract? He sure is. That’s all I ever wanted out of this season, from the moment that it became clear that Deshaun Watson wouldn’t wear deep steel blue. The whole point of this team should have been to create several Roy Lopez’s. And so I think it’s a great sign of where Lopez is that he was able to get deep enough into the culture membrane to actually win a starting job after Vincent Taylor was sent to IR:

He is the only Texans rookie that has played multiple good games, and he’s shown more pass-rush ability than expected. That doesn’t mean he’s going to be a star, and it doesn’t even mean he’s going to get good enough for people to whine that he’s overlooked. I’ve seen many five-game samples of players that were meaningless in the long run. But the Texans have got an honest-to-goodness chance at long-term production at a cheap price here, and as the guy who is always complaining about how this team is locked in on veterans, it’s nice to see that it can actually happen here. We’re beginning to see this happen with the conversation around Jon Greenard now too, even though Greenard hasn’t been very healthy. Lonnie Johnson finally has outlasted the Eric Murray starting experience and is making some plays on the football even if he makes things interesting. Let’s find out what these young players are good at and use them the best way they can be used.

2) Regardless of the outcome of the experiment, Davis Mills had real experience this year and the Texans won’t have to approach him as an unknown in the 2022 offseason

My line of thinking around Mills at this point is: I didn’t think he was ready to start this year, but he also showed noticeable improvement in the Patriots game. I don’t know if it’s enough to bank on him being a full-time starter in 2020 or 2021, but it’s an optimistic outcome for the pick at all that he didn’t just bleed out after being thrown to the wolves.

The first three starts for a quarterback are always a weird situation because coordinators don’t try to dial down on weaknesses that they can’t see on NFL film very often. I think it’s likely that Mills will get drawn into the grand adjustment game. Right now, I’m most concerned about how Mills will deal with blitzes. That’s not something that happened all that often against the Patriots, and when it did, he looked ghastly. Mills kept clean is a much different player than Mills hurried. I’d also feel better about his future if I saw plays like the Conley fourth-down play, but where he remains in the pocket and finds the solution rather than drifting.

Ultimately, I’m expecting him to settle in as a Kevin Kolb-type of player after the first four games of experience. That sounds negative, but it comes with a couple of caveats. Any player that can improve as much as Mills did from the Bills game to the Patriots game has to be treated seriously as a prospect because that level of improvement is rare (and that’s from someone who thinks some of Mills’ big throws in the game have the aura of flukiness to them). Finally, you might remember Kolb as a washout, but the Eagles were able to trade him for a second-round pick and a solid cornerback. There were a lot of people around the league who thought quite highly of Kolb. I don’t know if that same process plays out 10 years later because I think NFL front offices tend to be a little more wary of small samples, but there’s still plenty of time to change that.

The worst-case scenario for the Texans this year was leaving the season without any evidence on Mills one way or another, because with the Watson situation resolved in the way it has been, they desperately needed to have an opinion on Mills with actual field work before they pop up with, say, the 20th pick in the draft in a trade and are considering their options in a down quarterback class.

3) Brandin Cooks has been better than I anticipated and has earned at least a “draw” on the trade that brought him to Houston

I dial in pretty deep into my feelings on the major trades this team makes, and for the most part I’ve been proven right to be pessimistic on them. I kind of hate it! One thing people think about the guy who has “branded” this way is that it’s a conscious choice to just dig in and despise everything the team does rather than a reaction to 12-plus years covering the NFL in-depth. But when I go back and look at the record of hating the Tunsil trade, hating the Hopkins trade, hating bringing back Easterby, thinking the Whitney Mercilus re-signing was low-ceiling, hating the Eric Murray signing, and on and on … I feel pretty vindicated in the way this has played out on the field and off the field. I don’t want to be negative, I’d love if the team pilfered their own Hopkins off some sucker. They don’t do that.

The one trade I think I was a little too low on, in retrospect, was dealing a second-round pick for Brandin Cooks. Most of my feedback in this post is focused on the fact that Cooks is not DeAndre Hopkins, but you traded for him like he was.

Cooks has not suffered a major injury in his 20 games with the Texans, and has only missed a single game. I think it’s fair to note that the deep passing game for the Texans never really established him in the same way it has for other teams because Tim Kelly’s play-action scheme remains broken. The only deep shot Cooks touchdown that comes to mind off play-action was in the Week 17 Titans game last year. The rest of what he’s done has been taking short passes a long way or winning balls deep that he has to slow up for out of structure. The rationale of Cooks becoming a part of a balanced attack was always silly and he’s been the Texans primary receiver in a ridiculous way early on:

Now, I think some of you on the optimistic side are going “a draw”?!!?! Well, here’s my rationale for that: The Texans are 5-15 since acquiring Cooks, and three of those five wins are against the Jaguars. In the context of knowing that, would you rather not have had the second-round pick? It turned into Van Jefferson, but you have your choice of guys like A.J. Dillon, Justin Madubuike, Josh Jones, Kristian Fulton, Jeremy Chinn, Bryan Edwards, Antonio Gibson, Julian Blackmon, and so on. All of whom would have two more years of control on their rookie deals. I think you can debate that those are more valuable assets for a team that should be rebuilding to control.

Cooks has kept his value fairly steady — I think in a rational NFL marketplace where you’re not dealing with Bill O’Brien, you could probably get a three for him, maybe a two. But the way the Texans value his contributions to the culture, which was a concern of mine when they made the trade, I don’t know that he’s actually going to get traded. He’s literally a guaranteed caller on the Texans in-house programs on Monday reviewing the game, and his tightness with Easterby essentially makes him an extension of management. That’s all well and good while he’s performing like this. He’s also going to have a $16 million cap hit next year with two void years after that, at which point he’ll be 30. The NFL moves fast. A rational front office would be thinking about starting a trade deadline bidding war. A front office this hooked into what a player is about as a person, however, I don’t know if that’s happening…

4) Tyrod Taylor was much better than I anticipated when he was healthy

I definitely had a very low expectation of Taylor this season because his recent statistical output was not good. In his last four seasons, he’d been sacked on 10.1% of his dropbacks and averaged only 121 yards per game as he dink-and-dunked his way up the field. While I still believe that the Jaguars game amounts to a few big throws out-of-structure working out that I wouldn’t exactly call repeatable, I think the Texans did a good job of building the box around him to keep the statistical output manageable. One sack in 44 dropbacks speaks to that, including a lot of chips at Myles Garrett to keep him from becoming a factor in that game.

I do think that there’s a lot of hyperbole around “just wait until we get Tyrod back!” because there’s a) no guarantee that this version of Tyrod is coming back and b) we’re coloring that six-quarter sample with a lot of bad Jaguars pass defense. Jacksonville is dead-last in pass defense DVOA. Cleveland, even with Garrett, is 19th.

But, I must admit, the underneath accuracy and the sack-avoidance was better than I expected, and if he does come back, there are a lot of winnable games on the schedule. I know that at 1-4, the fans who have written off the Texans as “tanking” don’t want to hear that. Well, sorry. You better hope that hamstring injury is worse than reported.

5) Lovie Smith has delivered on his turnover focus promise

Houston’s defense is the only part of this team delivering on any of their promise statistically. They’re 15th in defensive DVOA and ninth in defensive pass DVOA through five games, as compared to 30th and 29th the year before. At it’s core, it all comes down to the turnovers. Houston forced a turnover on just 5.4% of their opponent’s possessions last year, which was dead last in the NFL by a lot — as you’d expect from a team with just nine total turnovers. This year they’re at 14.5% — seventh in the NFL — and they’ve forced eight turnovers in five games. They’ve also had a number of fumbles hit the ground that they have not scooped up, including five in two games against the Bills and Panthers.

To be honest, the most appalling thing about this is how simple it has been. The Texans have had a relatively easy quarterback schedule so far and probably caught a break in that Josh Allen’s start against them was in lousy weather. They’re still giving up a ton of yardage. They’re just counting on you to make mistakes in ball carriage and capitalizing against it, as was part of the explanation for letting Rhamondre Stevenson carry the ball after the two-minute warning last week.

If you have to lean a defense into one ethos for a modern NFL that feels like offenses have most of the answers, well, why wouldn’t it be turnovers? And I have to give Lovie a lot of credit for backing up his messaging on that, because it was exhausting in the preseason. It has paid off so far for a unit I would charitably say is short two good outside corners and at least one big pass rusher. They are relentless at trying to pop the ball out.

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Next week: Six pessimistic things about the Texans through six games. That’s right, we’re engaging in complementary posting.

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Four Downs: Texans 22, Patriots 25

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

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

And the coaching staff gave it away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are the places where the Patriots started drives today:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4) The road to Chargers-dom

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

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

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

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

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

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Four Downs: Texans 0, Bills 40

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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It’s been pretty evident since the preseason that Davis Mills wasn’t actually ready to be a starting NFL quarterback. He is but a symptom of what ails the Texans. There have been bursts of effectiveness in between the turnovers he’s sprayed wildly, particularly when he’s running a hurry-up offense.

But he’s extremely inaccurate, he locks on to his No. 1 target, and he doesn’t offer you anything as a quarterback to get beyond that right now. He’s not winning late in the down consistently, he isn’t running the ball for big gains or trusted to run read-option plays. The most telling play of the game for me was the initial fourth-and-short go, where Mills throws the ball directly at Jerry Hughes’ hand:

That wasn’t Hughes like, jumping and making a terrific play on the ball. All he did was literally hold his hand out, outstretched, and Mills threw directly at it. I read some reactions around the play along the lines of “well, good play by the defense and you have to tip your cap to them,” — lemme disagree. If you’re going to be a good quarterback in the league, this is the kind of pass you have to hit. Show some feel for the game and loop it over him, hold the ball longer and run more horizontally, deke Hughes out and slam on the brakes to create some throwing room … there are many NFL quarterbacks with the talent to make something happen here. If your quarterback isn’t one of them, he’s not good enough to win with.

This isn’t me saying Mills can’t ever become good, but this year feels like a lost cause. He needs to develop into much more than he is, and this game was the cruel hand of football at the highest level slamming the door in his face.

Only four times since 2009 has a quarterback thrown the ball for fewer than 100 yards on 20 or more attempts and been picked at least three times. The list is actually kind of funny: rookie Sam Darnold in 2019, Ryan Fitzpatrick in 2019 (both against the Patriots in their amazing first half), washed up 39-year-old Peyton Manning in 2015, and Andy Dalton in 2014. It’s a list that betrays that there’s a level of investment a team has to have in you to keep throwing you out there in spite of such horrendous results.

With the Texans, that level of investment shouldn’t exist, but it does because they a) never brought in a real backup quarterback to Tyrod Taylor and b) continue to carry Deshaun Watson on the active roster because that is their only ticket to the draft picks they need out of this mess. If you’re charitable you could say that Taylor was supposed to be a backup plan to Watson. Either way, once the path was settled to hide Watson on the roster, the team needed a more serious backup plan than Jeff Driskel. Where would you get that roster spot? I dunno, why is Rex Burkhead here anyway?

Nowhere in anything that David Culley said in his soaked-through clothes after the game did he give any indication that he didn’t think Mills is ready to start. That’s really not all that surprising, because the hallmark of covering the Texans in the Jack Easterby era is that they must at all times pretend that problems don’t exist. But it does foreshadow yet another Mills start.

The saddest thing about this is that, even at 1-3, the AFC South remains so barren that the Texans are going to allow themselves to imagine that they could be in first place if Tyrod Taylor stayed healthy. And that they’re right about that. Because that’s exactly the kind of delusion this team doesn’t need to feed itself — just as it was for Bill O’Brien’s early Texans when they played Blake Bortles and Zach Mettenberger four times a season and stumbled into deeply unserious playoff games to get blown out by any real contender that was healthy. This team has major problems as a defense, major problems running the ball, and a major problem in navigating the exit plan of the Deshaun Watson era. But, if you don’t do anything but say you need to execute better or deny problems exist, you don’t really have to face any of those. The culture, after all, is getting better every day.

1) Mills without an exit plan

The few remaining optimists on my timeline gravitated towards something along the lines of (paraphrasing) “Only two of Mills’ interceptions were his fault.” Well, they don’t include this ball:

Frankly, I also don’t agree about the way they’re backtracking the two tipped picks. The ball to Pharaoh Brown at the end of the game was so far behind him that it was begging to not be caught and popped up. The second pick, the one Matt Milano tipped, came with Milano directly in the passing lane and unencumbered. That’s not a ball you should throw without loft, and it’s a ball that many better and more experienced quarterbacks would not attempt to throw at all depending on their comfort with that loft. Mills’ sacks showed a distinct inability to move on to a next read:

This is a target that Mills has to get off of much sooner than he did. Brandin Cooks was the man he locked on to. There was nothing there, go on to Pharaoh Brown over the middle. The better quarterbacks get that read down before it even happens and are already on to the next one.

Where I will give Mills some credit is that the Texans picked up 10 penalty for 100 yards, and that his average third-down attempt came with a distance of 11.3 yards. That would be tough for a good quarterback, let alone one as limited as Mills is right now. Houston played them mostly conservatively before the game went out of hand, and it didn’t end well for anybody involved. Joe Montana in his prime? He would have made a difference, David.

2) End the myth that this offensive line is improved, 2021 edition

The Texans ran exactly two plays that gained more than 10 yards and were runs: Mark Ingram’s heavy-set run in the first quarter, and David Johnson’s third-and-long draw give-up on their first drive.

Poor Phillip Lindsay. He had no chance on that play. This is an interesting situation for me because I look at what the team did all offseason: They embraced a competition mindset. They needed competitors, only the most competitive people could be considered good fits for the team. But through four weeks, nothing has changed from last season. The team can’t run the ball. And the result of the competition is: the starters are the starters minus some snaps for Marcus Cannon to get his conditioning back, and the backfield roles have mostly been the same for four weeks. What was the point of the competition if it creates this result (back-to-back-to-back sub-3 YPC games) and there’s nothing that can be done about it? What happened to those competitive juices? Where are those extra competitors hiding?

Tytus Howard doesn’t deserve to be dragged through the mud because the team asked him to learn a new position as a result of a trade for Cannon. But that’s where he is. He was inconsistent at right tackle last season, and now he’s having to learn a brand new position on the fly because of a versatility edict that the Texans are struggling to implement. They still can’t block zone on account of all the new bodies and lack of time together. Nothing about the running game has materially changed from last year outside of being able to bludgeon Ingram inside in heavy personnel, and the Texans routinely forget that they’re allowed to do that.

They’ll run better against the Patriots because the Patriots haven’t stopped the run for two seasons now. Local media will pretend that it’s an uptick, or that consistency has finally been found, then the run offense will disappear for another four weeks. Calling it right now.

I haven’t listened to a lot of in-house radio because of expanded work hours this season for me, but when I did listen to it after the Panthers game, I was cackling over “they just, for whatever reason, can’t seem to run the ball.” Well, their best back is 30-something, their line has no continuity, they weren’t good last year, a new coach can’t change everything, Tim Kelly hasn’t evolved his run-game playcalling, they don’t use option plays … pick one. (Or many.)

3) Lovie’s defense remains a sieve

The optimistic way to look at this defense is that they forced three fumbles, got an interception, and made the Bills kick four field goals. The pessimistic way to look at them is that they allowed 450 total yards, couldn’t stop the run or the pass, and got lucky to get the stops that they did.

Kudos to Lovie Smith for actually starting Lonnie Johnson instead of pretending that Eric Murray was good again this week, which was a step in the right direction. But there had to be a reason that they were starting Murray in the first place, right? That showed its face today with Lonnie. He’s a playmaker and that interception against Allen was big, but in his haste to make plays, he sometimes creates some big holes. I’m glad he’s out there regardless, because there is some upside in him figuring it out. But right now he makes things interesting, and that’s not exactly a desirable quality at safety.

Through four games, the only team to not run for at least 4.6 yards per carry against the Texans are the Panthers, and that was with Chuba Hubbard and Royce Freeman receiving the majority of the carries for an injured Christian McCaffrey. For all the hullabaloo about how improved they were going to be at stopping the run, well, they didn’t really bring in anybody who was all that renowned as a run-stuffer besides Vincent Taylor, who is now on IR.

The passing defense too regularly is exploitable on easy stuff.

Josh Allen has a rocket arm. That doesn’t mean you need to give him throws that are this easy. And that’s a problem when you lean as heavily into Cover-2 as the Texans have — they’re by far the most Cover-2 heavy team in the NFL. The NFL figured out Cover-2 in about 2013 or 2014. Unless you run it inverted or throw a real twist on it, it can’t be the staple that Lovie wants it to be without a mass explosion of plays like this.

Well, anyway, the turnovers are nice. At least there’s that. But this defense is firmly on the “scrappy” continuum at this point, and that’s with almost perfect health. Trading Bradley Roby may or may not be a good move in the long-term, but it wrecked this team. You can’t play without good outside corners as an ethos.

4) On watching the tape

Like a moth to a flame, I was of course drawn to the pressers that culture leaders Kamu Grugier-Hill and Christian Kirksey gave. They, along with Mills emphasized not giving up and just executing better.

I can’t really expect them to say anything differently, but there’s not a whole lot here that’s correctable in a real or actionable way unless they change something schematically. The message from the culture seemed to just be: We have to watch the tape and get it corrected.

They just had 10 days to get it corrected after losing to the Panthers and what they came up with got them knocked off the field. These guys are competitors, and they will say what they have to say, and it will indeed be a long season where things can change. Particularly when/if Taylor is able to play again.

I guess what I’m saying is: I don’t begrudge them their beliefs and their pride as athletes, but whatever this was on Sunday afternoon goes beyond what a culture can fix. It goes beyond the tape. It goes to the very elemental concepts of a football team: Who is playing where, and why? Is that player qualified to execute that assignment? If not, is there someone who potentially is? Or can there be a way to hide a weakness? They can only play who is scheduled, of course, and they haven’t really played a middle-of-the-road team so much as they’ve played two pretty sure playoff teams and an NFC upstart who might be. But it’s very clear that this team doesn’t have the Jimmys and Joes to play top competition, and it was always obvious that this would be the case.

At this point, what’s there to be surprised about? It’s a team that had obvious flaws from the beginning. One of them was Tyrod Taylor’s inability to stay healthy. The size of the defeat feels disappointing, but it doesn’t really change the calculus of the 2021 Texans. They’re going to continue to be bad at several things, mostly on account of a lack of top-line talent. They need to establish their culture by winning four more games against a soft AFC South schedule and pretending that the 2020 Texans are gone forever because of that. That is the only measuring stick this team appears to have, and they have plenty of time to get it done. They could very well beat the Patriots if Davis Mills can be managed into not spitting out turnovers every five pass plays, and Carson Wentz has been an utter disaster so that’s solidly in play as well.

It’s not that hard to win football games. Except for the way the Texans are trying to do it.

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Four Downs: Texans 9, Panthers 24

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.

***

This game should be a wake-up call. Not a wake-up call to the players, but a wake-up call to upper management.

On Thursday Night Football, hosting their only prime time game of the season against the 2-0 Panthers, the Texans were entirely irrelevant to the proceedings. The Panthers — a team that is barely relevant nationally in their own right — commanded every pre-game feature. Commanded 80% of the player cut-ins and discussions among the pre-game show. The stands looked like this at kickoff:

Post-game, the Texans were barely even mentioned beyond some regard for Davis Mills’ health after some of the shots he took. They talked about how the Panthers injury situation with Jaycee Horn and Christian McCaffrey would impact the team, and their role in the playoff race. And Panthers fans mobbed the area by the post-game booth. There is no conversation around this team as a national entity. They are dead to the NFL world beyond their role in the Deshaun Watson situation and a few minor side notes.

It’s not that covering this team hasn’t shown me elements of all of these things before tonight, but it was sobering to see the entirety of it come to life on the screen. This team can cry “no respect” and talk about developing culture all they want. They very well may have points in those areas by the end of the season! Hopefully this game is just rock bottom for the franchise and we can look back on it in as a badge of character someday, ala the Carlos Lee-era Astros. But without Tyrod Taylor the offense was hopeless and the most notable thing the defense did besides get a bit of pressure on Sam Darnold was have Troy Aikman point out all the throws Darnold was leaving on the field.

It was not unexpected that the storm to create these events could come together like it did, but it was hard to watch. It’s not just that the team has no young blossoming studs or star players on the major line beyond some Brandin Cooks is underrated talk. It’s that they have nothing to even begin to build around as a national positive talking point. They were trying to make things other coaches said about David Culley’s character stick as an in-game thing. That’s what we’ve got. No talk about the front office, not much talk about Watson’s scenario because there’s not a lot new to say about it, just a hollowed-out stadium where football used to be played that hosted a Sam Darnold revival into relevancy event for one night.

I’m sick to my stomach. Anyway, the game;

1) Davis Mills’ first start was about what should have been expected

Mills completed 19-of-28 passes for 168 yards, taking four sacks and one “incomplete pass” sack, and talked up his play with the hurry-up offense after the game. If that is what he’s comfortable doing, perhaps the Texans should consider running more of it. It’s not like what happened to Mills in the two-minute drill was without moments to praise, but the major downfield throw was an easy zone coverage lob that didn’t take much arm talent, and Mills’ touchdown pass to Anthony Miller was essentially uncovered:

I have been fairly optimistic about the Mills selection, but after the preseason I wasn’t much of a believer in him coming out and performing right away based on what I saw. This is about what I expected: There are some good plays, because of course there are good plays, those plays are why he was drafted. But the down-to-down consistency is lacking and there’s still a lot of adjustments to make. The Panthers had a ton of success when they blitzed, and Mills went 1-of-9 on third downs. Which means when Mills has a clean pocket, he absolutely has to hit the throw:

From a long-term mindset, it’s easy to talk about how Mills has plenty of time to grow and he’s on a four-year rookie deal. But from a Face of the Franchise perspective, he’s not going to have a lot of time. The average third-round drafted quarterback from 1994-2016 had 685 career attempts. Statistically speaking, this is Mills’ shot. So regardless of the fact that he’s entirely too young for this and didn’t look ready in the preseason, these next few games without Tyrod Taylor are going to have a lot of bearing on the direction of Mills’ future. He needs to at the very least show some development against the Bills, some better play in the pocket when he’s moved off his initial spot, and some better process when his initial read is covered.

This game won’t fly as face of the franchise-caliber play. I hate to be so serious about a rookie, but statistically speaking, there needs to be more shown in a hurry or he is going to be the backup of the future rather than have any real say in how this franchise goes forward. The NFL is not a league of long-term development if you’re not a first-round pick. It’s a patently unfair thing to ask of a guy with 14 career college games played. The indictment for that is not on Mills, but the front office that didn’t really anticipate a world where Tyrod Taylor would get hurt. #SelectiveCompetition

2) The young pass rushers played, and actually played fairly well! Interesting!

The biggest pre-game news of the week was that the Texans would emphasize Jacob Martin and Jon Greenard — Greenard was essentially a healthy scratch early in the season — and make Jordan Jenkins a healthy inactive and decrease Whitney Mercilus’ role in the game. The results? Sam Darnold took three sacks and I don’t recall a time in the last few years that the Texans have put as much pressure on a non-Jake Luton quarterback as they did here:

Blacklock got the first sack of his career and developed the pressure on Mercilus’ sack, while Greenard came up with a strip sack of his own. In a game where the Texans desperately needed a turnover, neither strip sack bounced their way. It was a tough break, but one that should statistically not be surprising.

Now, did Jacob Martin get abused a bit in the run game as the edge player in the red zone? He sure did, that was kind of a known weakness of his game even going back to the Chiefs playoff game, and the Panthers went after it with aplomb. But you know what? Mercilus also gets abused in the run game, and it was refreshing to have mistakes made by young players instead of old veterans who are supposed to know better.

It is screaming into the void at this point. Martin’s in the final year of his rookie deal. Greenard and Blacklock can’t magically get those snaps back from the end of a 4-12 season. But it never made any sense that the Texans were blocking playing time from either of them. It was pointless to the long-term goal of building a winner to block any player who could be a rookie contract value from getting on the field. The way that Greenard won his sack — against a tight end — was also not wildly impressive. The Panthers don’t have a great offensive line. But at least you can say that they gave the kids a chance and they performed, and that’s a damn sight better than we’ve seen over the last 18 games this team has played.

3) The running game was dead on arrival

The Texans have repeatedly emphasized that they need to run the ball very well. I wrote in my season preview that despite the enthusiasm around the new offensive line coach and running backs, I wasn’t very optimistic that the Texans would be up to that consistently. It’s Week 3 and the longest carry the Texans had against the Panthers was a seven-yard run by David Johnson on a third-and-16 give-up draw. As a team, they compiled 17 carries for 42 yards, some of the carries went more to nowhere than others:

The Texans continue to try to feature zone runs that they have no prayer of hitting with an offensive line that has almost no track record of working together, and they did not involve Mills in the read-option game in a material way. They were eaten up by Carolina’s tite fronts.

The way this run game works is the way it worked in Week 1: Mark Ingram runs into a crowded box using gap schemes and power. For all the deserved praise Tim Kelly was getting for creating open receivers for Taylor, his work in the run game has continued to not be imaginative or interesting beyond the early script. He is a zone devotee, and the Texans have proven conclusively for the last 19 games that they can’t do it.

Is Jason Heyward Fixed?

It hasn’t.

4) Lovie’s defense is just solved in such an obvious way that it’s dispiriting

When Darnold wasn’t getting pressure or hassled into stepping up into the pocket, this back seven had no prayer. DJ Moore had 100 yards in the first quarter alone, and other than a few outside one-on-ones, the majority of what happened was him finding a nice happy soft spot in the pillowy-soft Lovie Smith zone and waiting for Darnold to wake up and see him:

Perhaps exchanging Zach Cunningham with a linebacker who has ever had any natural feel for coverage against play-action would help, and perhaps the scheme is just too out of date to matter. As I said in the opening bit, Aikman was detailing throughout the first half in excruciatingly bare terms just how open some of these throws were and that there were throws Darnold was missing. In the end, Darnold hit 304 yards and probably left another 50-60 on the field with misreads or poor throws. This is against a team that lost it’s best offensive weapon, McCaffrey, before the first quarter had ended.

It turns out that when Lovie Smith doesn’t create 2-3 turnovers his defenses don’t look quite as hot. This game? They didn’t create any.

I was always pretty low on Lovie, but it’s funny that we started the talking points around his scheme way back when he was hired as a) him laying out that he plays much more than Cover-2 and b) the idea that he would have more time as a defensive mind without head coaching responsibilities would perhaps give him more time to create change-ups. Neither of those things have happened, this team runs more Cover-2 than it can afford to play, and the results are that even a hurried Sam Darnold has no reason to fear.

And the cherry on top of it was this Culley quote:

Here’s my thought: If your scheme makes Justin Reid as irrelevant as it makes Lonnie Johnson, maybe … the scheme should be better. And for a team that boosts its culture so much, it was a glaring off-note to me that one of the few players nationally regarded as good missing the game was described as having had no effect. Culley generally plays a pretty good Generic Question Answer game but “the guy who forced two turnovers who missed this game where we had no turnovers had no real effect” felt tonally awkward.

The Texans have 10 days to get ready for the defending AFC East champion Buffalo Bills. Hopefully they can regroup into something better than this, because the effort they put out here tonight is going to get them waxed again.

***

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Four Downs: Texans 21, Browns 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.

***

If you are an optimistic type of fan, it’s nice to see the fight and the hustle that the Texans showed today. They brought tenacity in the first half, forcing more turnovers and stifling the Cleveland rushing attack early. Regardless of what you think about Tyrod Taylor’s value to this team long-term, Tim Kelly has put him in a position to succeed this year and it showed with the game plan today. The Texans generally look prepared to play against their opponents on Sunday, which is a welcome change of pace from the weekly Bill O’Brien first quarter hibernation.

It was all going to plan for another weekend talking optimistically about the Houston Texans … right up until Taylor got hurt and left the game, leaving Davis Mills as the only quarterback on the roster. I’m not going to tell you that Mills was the worst quarterback I’ve ever seen in my life, but he was appreciably not ready yet.

Mills completed just 8-of-18 passes, and was lucky to get into the red zone on account of a DPI that Brandin Cooks forced on a ball that was nowhere close to him. On multiple occasions the team seemed to be running different plays from the one Mills was running from the snap. It was not altogether surprising to see this in the wake of his last preseason start, Mills is extremely mistake-prone right now and doesn’t seem to get to his second read without a lot of pocket movement. It was capped by a sack that Mills never saw coming:

With a short week ahead against the Panthers in Houston’s only prime-time game of the season, the fun and dynamic Taylor offense will now have to be rebooted around a much more-limited quarterback. Were I directing things at NRG … well, a lot would be different … but specifically about this, I’d be inclined to give Jeff Driskel the start. I don’t want Mills’ developmental momentum stalled this early. I don’t think anything he showed us in the past month would lead you to believe he’s ready to play in the NFL. Revisit it later in the season? Sure. To put this on national television?

I think the Texans can be more competitive using Driskel in the run game and playing option football than they can with whatever Mills can be spoonfed in two days. That’s not a shot at Mills because it’s not fair to expect him to be a good quarterback right away, especially for a player with that few college games played. But if the Texans aren’t out-and-out tanking — and they aren’t, sorry — I don’t see how that’s a better option for them.

I am not going to pretend that Taylor’s dead or something, but hamstring injuries are annoying at best and can linger for a full season. You may remember them from careers such as Will Fuller’s. As someone who is invested in these players putting the best versions of themselves they can out there, this sucks. Taylor had overcome my low expectations by quite a bit, and I was having fun watching him play in this offense. His injury has kind of downshifted expectations quite a bit here. (It is kind of the story of Taylor’s career that he gets hurt and overcomes it over and over again. That’s part of the reason he was available for as little as he was.)

If Tim Kelly can turn this version of Davis Mills into a productive quarterback he deserves head coaching interviews. The Texans can talk about how confident they are in Mills, and they can talk about how he has a next play mentality and turns the page quickly; that’s all well and good. The problem is that there are an awful lot of pages that need to be turned right now.

1) The injury epidemic

This was a tough one. @TexansPR was busy as not only was Taylor injured, but Nico Collins was ruled out with a shoulder injury, Danny Amendola was ruled out with a hamstring injury, Anthony Auclair was out with an eye injury, Terrance Mitchell was questionable to return with a concussion, and Justin Reid was questionable to return with a knee injury. That’s just guys who actually left the game for good at some point! Laremy Tunsil was dinged, Charles Omenihu was dinged. Kamu Grugier-Hill had a stint on the ground, as did Roy Lopez. Eric Murray needed a concussion evaluation. It was carnage for the Texans.

And I guess this is just part of growing up now as I have dealt with my own health issues and all that, and I understand how the system works, but it frankly is terrible to watch so many guys on one-year prove-it contracts get hurt with no real recourse. Reid missed a tackle here or there but he was having the game of his life in a return to the scene of one of his worst games of 2020 with a forced fumble and a pick right up until…

Reid would try to play through that but would go to the ground again later. I feel like I’m stopping short of organizing for greater athlete worker’s rights or something here, but the thing about the competition mindset is that there are going to be a lot of discarded stories along the way. There are a lot of football players who just get hurt and we’ll never hear from them again. Next man up isn’t just a mentality for players, it’s a mentality for the grander machinations of football.

This team is built to be churned. That’s how it operates. It just sucks to see so much of it happening due to injury. It’s hard to build a connection to a fanbase when you can’t even get acquainted with the players before they’re hurt or gone.

2) David Culley declined an offsides, declined a fourth-and-1 go, and it was weird

There haven’t really been many peeks inside the David Culley game management curtain, but this was a big one. Third-and-15, they complete a ball to get to fourth-and-2, and the response to a penalty for a free shot at third-and-10 was to decline it (good!) but then punt it (what?!?). Here’s how Culley answered questions about it:

If you know what David Culley was trying to say here beyond “we wanted to pin them deep,” let me know, because I have no idea what the response to just taking the penalty was about. To be fair, the Texans have somewhat of a rich tradition of nonsensical answers to these kinds of things, and this is no different than what Bill O’Brien would have done in the past. But, boy, was that a shaky sequence. They were bailed out via the turnover on that call. They didn’t go for it on fourth down at all this game or last game, and those sorts of conservative calls are not actually a good fit for the current state of the team for reasons I will get into in about 500 words.

If this were a team I fully believed in being competitive, this would be the kind of sequence that I would rip into someone for. As it is, it’s kind of just a signpost that says to me that the Texans lean a little conservative on that side of things — it’s Week 2, too early to say an identity is established, lot of time to do some cool fourth-down stuff. But I do think that a staff this old school will likely lean old school. I would read more into the end of first half clock runout on this if we had a clearer read on just how healthy they thought Taylor was at that point.

3) Tim Kelly’s 2021 mixtape keeps the Texans in it early

The Texans largely were able to stay in this game early via the pass and their ability to create open receivers. Tyrod Taylor didn’t really hit a ton of difficult throws, but he also didn’t really have to. Look at our one glimpse of Nico Collins:

The throw didn’t have to be rocketed in there. It was a very generous window. There was a catch that Cooks had early on the sideline where he was wide-open. The Texans did this despite not running the ball well at all. If you take out Taylor’s touchdown scramble and David Johnson’s five carries protecting the clock at the end of the half, the Texans ran the ball 20 times for 48 yards. Not many of those were goal-line totes.

The deep balls to Brandin Cooks last week all but disappeared outside of one wayward Mills miss. The Texans struggled to get vertical against the Cleveland zone. But I think the game plan in and of itself was sound, and, well, once you’re left starting a third-round rookie, you’re left starting a third-round rookie. I’d love to believe the offensive line will do better than this, but (gestures at last two years of Texans football) it’s not exactly like this line is built to pound the rock. They aren’t going to be able to spill 150 even with a bad first half like they’re the Browns. Kelly has his work cut out for him every week, and through the first six quarters with Taylor, had been doing a stellar job. He’s a Chopped chef working with the Alton Brown diabolical baskets.

4) The defense generates turnovers, but that’s about it

Baker Mayfield’s pass chart:

Do you think, maybe, they had an area of the field they figured they could attack? The interception came on this play which appears to be a mistake by a rookie wideout:

And the Jaguars passing game that the Texans held to a mere (checks notes) 332 passing yards last week were able to put up just 118 yards on a much better Denver secondary in Week 2.

I don’t think Lovie’s defensive concepts are hard to grasp. I don’t think there’s been much in the way of change-ups. If you make mistakes against the coverages, you’ll pay. If you don’t, well, Mayfield’s stat line isn’t all that out of place with what happened last year towards the end of the season. This simply isn’t a complex puzzle to solve.

The Texans have now given up 4.6 yards per carry on the season. They gave up 5.2 last year, so that’s still — somehow — an improvement. But this defense is what it has preached it is since day one: They’re out here to force turnovers. By any measure other than that one? It’s below-average. There was another huge play for the Browns (second-and-19 touchdown) to get out of a huge hole. There aren’t enough playmakers on this unit to win down-to-down. This is the kind of unit you have to be aggressive with, and where you hope the turnovers keep coming in bunches. I would argue it’s not very well-suited to playing field position games with.

***

If you listened to the Texans after the game, there was an abundance of talk in the vague direction of “this sucks, but we believe in the guys in the building.”

It was downright defiant. I don’t think by any means it’s time to close the book on this team’s competitive chances for the AFC South — it’s just looked too bad this year — but the ranks were closed around this team’s culture in the press and that’s … an interesting reaction to a loss. Not saying it’s bad, not saying it’s good, but I can’t remember a Bill O’Brien team being quite this performative and loud about the team culture.

Especially to bring it up on a question as innocuous as that one. Cunningham’s benching for “disciplinary reasons” that are “internal”? Similarly interesting to me.

***

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The heart versus the inevitable

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 take some lumps from a smattering of fans who remain anonymous and are often fighting against an idea rather than a person. For them I am a stand-in avatar to project what they believe is terrible on — usually it winds up being not clapping hard enough. Sometimes it’s that the media is out to get their team. Sometimes it’s that Jack Easterby isn’t a mastermind. And so on. But as for the rank-and-file riversmccown.com blog reader, I think it’s okay for me to admit that even you guys regard me as the reality check you don’t want at times.

I have written a lot of words about football over the last 13 years. Some of it’s about this team. A lot of it is about other teams. I write a column for a chill little Ravens website with some regularity. I think the Ravens are a really well-run team, but it doesn’t matter much because a lot of what drives your comments and furor is the idea of winning a championship. Since I started writing about the Texans regularly, they and the Ravens have the exact same number of rings. So, in this reductionist exercise, there is no difference between good and bad, right? Well, no, one of those teams has a direction that has worked for many teams over the years and is a consistent contender. The other is the Texans.

But I come to this not to bury the Texans, but to praise the moments.

Listen, the extent that last Sunday’s performance matters to the aether of time, I don’t know. I don’t think there’s anything this team could have done last week to change the perceptions around them short of revolutionize football. It’s another bad opponent and you’re at home.

The reason Tyrod Taylor was a free agent is because he doesn’t hit the throws he hit in that game against Jacksonville regularly. The goal of objective and rational football analysis is to look at what happened in the past and predict the future. You don’t need me to tell you that Taylor isn’t likely to hit those throws next week. If he was likely to do so, he’d be making $35 million this year.

But what I can’t take away — and what I hope you understand regardless of rationality and a lack of understanding about how building culture matters for the long-term here — is how preposterously cool this throw was. I have watched it tens of times and every time I see a replay I still can’t believe it happened.

The moment he threw it I wrote it off. I figured the drive was over. Someone right in his face on the throw. As Brandin Cooks comes into frame, I was thinking the ball would get picked. As Cooks gets to the ball first, I’m thinking it could get stripped from him. And no matter how happy I am to see it completed each time, in my mental library of throws that look like this, very few of them end like this.

And that’s kind of the excellent thing about sports to me. You couldn’t make this play happen in Madden. It’s too irrational to be logical. But it happened. And it’s a moment that I’ll take from this team that joins several moments from older bad-to-mediocre Texans teams. (Aaron Glenn’s game against the Steelers in 2002 comes to mind first, beating the Patriots on the final day of the 2009 season is another. In the bad corners of my mind there’s the Rosencopter and the Glover Quin Hail Mary bat down.)

There exists a space between legitimate criticisms of a team and just enjoying the players who played for it in whatever way that’s worth to you. If I wanted to not write about the Texans it’s really easy — I don’t make anything but gas money for tips here anyway, so the incentive is all in the heart. And, much as I would rather have someone who meant more to the future of the team at quarterback found this offseason, I think this Taylor throw is etched in to me forever.

And that’s why we watch even if they hand us a team that mathematically aspires to win seven games at best and looks to be executing a player acquisition strategy that emulates a naughty or nice list. Hopefully they make us all eat a big shitburger for doubting them, but even if they don’t, they still have the capacity to give us moments that are unforgettable.

***

The Monday before the season started, I got heart palpitations. It’s a stupid word for something that’s a big deal, makes it sound like my heart got a visit from a tax regulator. Graham Glasgow had the same thing I have, an elevated heartbeat. He’s not expected to miss any real time, as the parlance goes in transactional world.

Now, if I’d had more urgent symptoms — chest pain, trouble breathing — that would have been an ER call. Instead, what’s happened has largely been my wife doing more of my housework while I have been unable to do a lot of strenuous things without accruing lightheadedness. At my worst moments my heart has pounded uncontrollably and I get burning sensations in different parts of my body, like suddenly someone exposed my shoulder to a full 95 degrees of sunlight, followed by a gigantic headache that sometimes has that same sensation as well. At my best moments, when I’m writing and not focusing on my body, I don’t even know anything is wrong with me.

I saw a cardiologist, they ruled out anything incredibly dangerous and had me do several tests that I have no immediate closure for because the American medical system is a disaster and the office closed down on an appointment day due to a hurricane. But, anyway, when the bad stuff comes, I know that by all rights someone should have pulled me into a hospital if I had real signs of danger.

But that doesn’t make the feelings I feel any less intense, and it doesn’t make the lack of a plan of attack for dealing with whatever I have any less stressful as we inch into Week 2. This is my first real experience reckoning with my own mortality rather than someone else’s. It doesn’t make the thoughts I have over what happens when I die — whenever that is — any less dark and haunting. Could happen when I fall asleep because this one little thing avoided my doctor’s eye, right?

***

And as I’ve been mostly laying low, trying to be calm, what I keep coming back to is the parallels of those feelings versus that place of mostly-secure knowledge. I’ve been thinking a lot about how my 13 years working at a mostly-national level inform me about this team as compared to (for most of my readers) your anecdotal experience or thoughts, colored by what you want to believe to be true.

I think about how I doubt my doctor even though I am sure she’s very good at her job because she doesn’t feel what I feel. She’s very well-studied. By all means I should just take her at her word. But she doesn’t go home to the dread I feel when this thing starts pumping at light speed. She doesn’t know the unresolved parts of my life that this is pushing into my mind. She doesn’t know the myriad of bad things that have happened to me and how I Am Different.

And I kind of have played with those two ideas next to each other, because I can tell you something from experience, and you can tell me your feelings, and words don’t really change feelings all that often today. And that’s about how I feel about this too, as I wait for a plan that is an action instead of a “you’re okay enough to go home.”

We really all do believe what we feel is just as special as Tyrod Taylor lacing it just between two outstretched sets of arms right to Brandin Cooks.

***

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Four Downs: Texans 37, Jaguars 21

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, this certainly wasn’t the game I expected to watch today. It is too early to feast on a season-long portion of crow, and it was just the Jaguars, but it was beyond welcome to see a big win for the first time since Thanksgiving Day 2020. It is fun to sit around and think of writing a recap and not know where to begin in a positive way, for a change. Let’s do this more often.

But I think the easy lead is: There is no part of me that ever expected Tyrod Taylor to put up 8.5 yards per pass in this game. A lot of it comes down to two magnificent plays: the 40-yard bomb to Brandin Cooks to set up Houston’s first score, and the 52-yard pass to Cooks on third-and-1 that set up Houston’s touchdown to take a 27-7 halftime lead.

The first of these two passes feels like it was created in a lab. Tyrod Taylor has pressure in his face, places a ball that is absolutely spot-on to Cooks, who has to high-point it between both his defender and the single-high safety. Not only does he come down with it, there’s no review of the catch, which looked a little bit questionable. That turns what would have been a punt — and looked like a wildly unlikely completion based on where everyone was from the throw — into a touchdown. Follow that up with the play before the half:

K’Lavon Chaisson goes from clean shot on Taylor into an absolute goat for the play, and Taylor buys enough time that the single-high safety has to pick up Pharaoh Brown. That leaves Cooks against Shaquill Griffin all alone, and Cooks leaves him in the dust. Meanwhile, Taylor lofts an absolutely perfect ball over the retreating safety. And the Texans take a timeout and score a touchdown on the next play.

Take these two highly improbable plays out of the game and you have a line that looks more like what I expected from Taylor: 19-of-31 for 199 yards and a sack. Of course, you can’t erase those plays, they absolutely happened. They showed more upside than I thought we’d see from Taylor buying time as a scrambler. To be honest, if I clipped those two plays and put them in Deshaun Watson’s career highlights, they would not look out of place. This one too:

So, what are the odds that more of that is in Taylor’s bag at 32 years old? I would subjectively say not high, and I would say that while I didn’t expect them to pants Jacksonville’s defense in Week 1, that the Texans getting some concepts to succeed against them was absolutely in play. But if Tyrod Taylor throws out four plays every week that look like peak Watson on-field shit? Sure, the Texans are going to be a lot better than any of us thought.

1) The impact of game script

As a run-focused team, the Texans are going to be very reliant on making sure that this club is always in their bag, and so for them most of pretty much every NFL team, it’s important that they get out to leads early. That’s what happened here, and that’s why that first Cooks touchdown was so huge. When you put the Jaguars into a 14-0 hole early, taking advantage of good field position and a defense that looked like it had never seen a bunch formation before, what that means is you get to operate with the entire bag open for the whole game.

And in tandem with that — or as Bill O’Brien would say, complimentary to that — is that when you keep the opposing team from running and make them one-dimensional, you get to really dial in on whatever weaknesses they have in that area. The Jaguars very much looked like a group of receivers that had never played with Trevor Lawrence before, even despite the three touchdowns and 300 yards passing. Plays like this were extremely common:

The Jaguars had a pair of monster runs in the first quarter called back for holding, and they ran for 4.8 yards per carry despite getting absolutely nothing from Lawrence as a runner. Did the Texans have to worry about that? Nope. Those holding calls — one of which would have set up first-and-10 at the HOU 30 — were enormous in helping to set the script and in making the Jaguars as one-dimensional as they were. Eventually that led to a young quarterback trying to do too much, and that’s when Vernon Hargreaves, of all people, flourished:

Lawrence showed me a lot of why he deserved to be the No. 1 pick today, but there were some extremely big mistakes and the Jaguars let the game script get out of hand too fast for the Texans to not focus on him. The first 10 minutes of each Texans game are going to decide a lot more than we think.

2) An actual crow eating: Mark Ingram flourished and made the early Caserio moves look better

I was not much of a believer in the Mark Ingram signing — I am not a fan of running backs that are bad enough to become midseason inactives the year before. I was not much of a believer in the Justin Britt signing. I am not a fan of centers that miss an entire year to injury. Or, I think the better way to look at this is: I wasn’t a fan of them being priority signs. I don’t mind trying to sift through and find players, but I didn’t really like the idea of getting so deep into the scrapheap that early, because I think the Texans should have been focused on players for a rebuild instead of players for a culture.

However,

For this, and this only, I think a little bit of crow for dinner early on is the right approach. Ingram has been the best running back on the team to this point simply because he has the best vision in a crowd and the ideal version of this team is 1980s football:

To put that into perspective, David Johnson saw 14.9% of his snaps on the season with eight-plus men in the box in 2020.

Now, does Ingram’s overall box score look sexy? No. 26 carries for 85 yards at 3.3 a tote is a workmanlike line. But when you consider it in the overall context of Ingram having to take carries into crowded boxes for half the game, that starts looking a lot better. The Texans did not have a very efficient running game today, but the yards that Ingram was earning were Big Tough Football yards that you get via force of will and only with great vision.

Am I going to be happy that Ingram took all of Scottie Phillips’ carries in four months? Maybe, maybe not, depends on what that means in a grander scope of how this season goes. But I’m happy for him that he’s still got this gear in his bag and I can’t deny it played a big role in the outcome of this game.

3) One sack, four quarterback hits, but more impactful than that sounds

Trevor Lawrence wasn’t exactly evading Texans defenders all day. I’d put the plurality of the blame of the Jaguars offense discombobulation on the game script, and after that, Jacksonville’s penalties and inability to get in sync. The lone sack from Whitney Mercilus was a case where Lawrence simply took so wide of an angle off an initial rush that he ran himself into additional pressure:

I think there were a lot of completable throws left on the field, but I also think on a down-to-down basis, the Texans did a much better job of getting a push in the pocket. Compare this to some of the pictures I was putting out last season, where J.J. Watt was the only person in the quarterback’s zip code. The Texans finished with four quarterback hits, and a few of those hits would come later in the game as the script solidified itself. But the actual pass rush was alive in a way that I’d say it wasn’t in 2020. How much of that is about the Jaguars offensive line continually being terrible? Well, probably a chunk of it. The Jaguars were one of the few teams that the Texans were able to do this to last year.

My concerns about the lack of an impact pass rusher are still very real at this point, but if the Texans can spin this into more than just a “only good against the Jaguars thing,” that’d be a big selling point for upping our projections for them.

4) This one’s for the vets

The Texans targeted Nico Collins just three times. One of those was a red zone target: Collins supposedly committed offensive pass interference on this play:

Collins didn’t really fit into the overall game flow much. Ross Blacklock had one of the quarterback hits and figured into the pass rush but was behind Maliek Collins. Roy Lopez played a fair amount of snaps after Vincent Taylor was carted off. Other than that, hard to find anybody who played a big role in this game that was young. Scottie Phillips was inactive. Charlie Heck’s on the COVID list. Brevin Jordan was inactive. Jon Greenard was inactive with an injury. Garret Wallow didn’t play real snaps as far as I saw.

The last thing I’m going to do is defecate on the Texans for winning a game decisively, but I want to bring this up to point out that to me it’s very clear that no part of this says a damn word about tanking. They believe in themselves and the culture they’ve created, and I think for a Week 1 result, it’s okay to say that they’ve earned the right to talk their talk about it for a spell. Are we ultimately going to remember this as the launch point of an exemplary football culture that Nick Caserio has GalaxyBrained us all into? I’ve been dismissive about it and can’t say one game has changed my mind. But there’s more doubt in my head about it than there was before that one game!

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This doesn’t feel like enough because there are so many players that deserve their own point in Game 1:

Pharaoh Brown was as excellent as he was last season, in an even bigger role. It was very easy to see how good he was last year, but you didn’t really know if that was going to be something that you could rely on. He certainly was that good today. (Jordan Akins was invisible.)

Danny Amendola rolled literally off the street and caught a touchdown and five balls.

The Texans didn’t turn the ball over at all. I’m flabbersmocked. I was more than open to the idea of the Texans winning this game, but I never expected it to be a crockpotting.


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2021 NFL Predictions

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

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The business of predictions is inherently stupid. I have a lot of skepticism of my own mind’s ability to pick anything correctly, because I know all the misses. Last season I predicted the Dallas Cowboys to be very good, and it turns out I was a year ahead of schedule on that prediction. Granted the whole “Dak Prescott being hurt” thing didn’t help.

My biggest weakness as a predictor is that I absorb a lot of common knowledge, try to fight that common knowledge with whoever I think is the best logical choice that is being “ignored” according to consensus, and go big on them. This means I either swing and miss or I hit so big that I can put it on the board. That’s what I did with the Ravens in 2019, and that’s what I did with the Cowboys this year.

Without further ado…

AFC East

Bills
Patriots*
Dolphins
Jets

I will eat my metaphorical hat if (TEAM) makes the playoffs: Jets. I think they’re much more promising than they were last year and all, but a rookie quarterback and rookie head coach in a division that doesn’t look all that easy is hard for me to pick. I think you probably need nine wins to make the playoffs, the Jets have a way higher ceiling than last year but it’s still seven or eight.

AFC North

Ravens
Browns*
Steelers
Bengals

I will eat my metaphorical hat if (TEAM) makes the playoffs: Cincinnati. I just don’t trust this team’s coaching staff. I think Joe Burrow is good enough to start a playoff game. I think they’ve got a promising skill receiver corps. But between Zac Taylor and Lou Anarumo, I don’t see any reason to believe they’ll get easy yards or prevent easy yards.

AFC South

Titans
Colts
Jaguars
Texans

I will eat my metaphorical hat if (TEAM) makes the playoffs: Texans. You know why.

AFC West

Chiefs
Chargers*
Broncos
Raiders

I will eat my metaphorical hat if (TEAM) makes the playoffs: None of them. The Raiders have a decently high floor, and the reports that Jon Gruden was trying to trade for Khalil Mack make me think they will chase a playoff spot even if it’s just a seventh seed. I think they could be early buyers.

NFC East

Cowboys
Football Team
Eagles
Giants

I will eat my metaphorical hat if (TEAM) makes the playoffs: Giants. Don’t believe in the coaching staff, don’t believe in Daniel Jones as a franchise quarterback. Don’t believe in the general manager’s ability to understand the passing game. I’d be surprised if Philadelphia made it as well.

NFC North

Packers
Vikings
Bears
Lions

I will eat my metaphorical hat if (TEAM) makes the playoffs: Lions. I’m not necessarily in “Dan Campbell isn’t a good coach” camp, but I’m poking around the edges of it while I’m looking to see what happens here. I don’t think there’s much to salvaging Jared Goff. Penei Sewell has struggled at right tackle in the preseason and I’m worried about Andrew Thomas-itis.

NFC South

Buccaneers
Saints*
Panthers
Falcons

I will eat my metaphorical hat if (TEAM) makes the playoffs: Panthers. Yes, even though I’m picking the Falcons to finish last. I think there’s more upside in the coaching of Arthur Smith and Dean Pees, to the point where my major worry with the Falcons is personnel. Matt Ryan versus Sam Darnold is an easy win for Atlanta and one that I think caps the upside of Carolina by a lot. I am putting the Panthers ahead because I think Joe Brady will work some magic with Darnold. Just, you know, not enough magic for it to matter.

NFC West

Seahawks
Rams*
Cardinals*
49ers

I will eat my metaphorical hat if (TEAM) makes the playoffs: None of them. They’re all pretty good, and I wouldn’t be stunned if the 49ers won the division. I am very curious as to how the 49ers defense moves on from Robert Saleh and Richard Sherman, and my lean is that it might not be quite as good as it was in the past. It’s pretty much neck-and-neck with Arizona, who has their own coaching issues under Kingsbury.

Wild Card Round:

Ravens over Patriots
Bills over Browns
Chargers over Titans
Buccaneers over Cardinals
Saints over Seahawks
Rams over Cowboys

Divisional Round

Ravens over Bills
Chiefs over Chargers
Packers over Saints
Rams over Buccaneers

Championships

Ravens over Chiefs
Packers over Rams
Packers over Ravens

Feel free to laugh about this post at any time, including the moment you first read it, the moment you think about it in Week 5 when one of the playoff teams I’ve projected is 1-4, the moment that that COVID makes one of these teams play a 14-game schedule, or after the season when you’ve got 20-20 hindsight and I don’t. I am not going to get Mad Online at you. As I said: Predictions are inherently stupid.


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