What should the Texans want in a head coaching candidate?

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 is part one of a two-part series. The second part — the one you actually care about — is coming later this week.

I’ve read a lot of the conversation around Texans Twitter about head coaches. I asked you all for your top five head coaching candidates last week:

I didn’t rush into the prospect of just throwing out head coaches that I like publicly when all this went down because a lot of it was/is conditional on certain things happening. If I had shot this poll out when Bill O’Brien was fired, I am guessing a lot of you would have put Greg Roman high up on the list. Now? Not hearing that quite as much. Maybe that’s earned, and maybe it’s not.

I also didn’t want to just neglect someone who might pop up a little bit later in the process. Sometimes letting the names simmer turns out to bring some ideas you wouldn’t have thought about in October.

Before I start naming the names, though, let me hit you guys with my mindset about the entire situation, because that informs a lot about who I want:

1) The head coach must (_MUST_) be ambitious

There were many things that pissed me off about the Bill O’Brien Era — most of them are somewhere on the pages of this blog. He overcommitted to the run when his team couldn’t really do that. He was dramatic in an unflattering way. He chose culture over stars in a league run by stars. I can go on.

But the No. 1 thing I think a head coach needs — here in particular with hands-off ownership — is ambition. I can’t tell you how many times I’d watch O’Brien stroll up to the podium and pull his “well every game is tough in the NFL, we’ve got to battle and scratch and claw, every game in the division is so difficult” stuff. This became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Texans would put themselves in a position where winning a 27-24 game was what the team aimed to be, and that informed things like their talent level, their drive in free agency, and their coaching philosophy.

Every year in the NFL that one of your star players has is a ticking clock. Injury attrition. Physical decline. No NFL team goes through a season without some of that hitting them. This is something that J.J. Watt has tried to get through in recent weeks to this team via stone-faced press conferences, and I think it’s wildly important.

The only time in the history of this franchise that the Texans have been able to have an empirically good unit on both sides of the ball was when they combined Gary Kubiak’s offense with Wade Phillips’ defense and spent money. The secondary in 2010 was hot garbage, they signed Johnathan Joseph and Danieal Manning. They drafted Watt. That team didn’t win it all because the quarterback wasn’t good enough to carry them through the truly tough playoff games — that’s not a shot at Matt Schaub, most quarterbacks aren’t! — but those were the best teams Houston ever saw. The peak died when there was no replacement plan for Schaub.

I want a head coach who doesn’t just want to make the playoffs. I want a head coach who wants to win the damn thing. Who wants to create a dynasty. Who wants to use every tool at his disposal — including analytics, scouting, taking sick plays off high-school reels — to make his team better. Who breathes that lifestyle.

It’s not enough to just “work hard.” Work isn’t enough. If it was, 32 NFL head coaches would win the Super Bowl every year. You need a top-down plan for the entire franchise to become good, stay good, and accumulate the talent that lets that happen over the long term. You can’t wishful thinking assistants into being great coaches. Bill O’Brien’s modus operandi was basically “I only employ people who are beholden to me, anyone else with an idea can screw off. We do things my way.” That’s not to say that Tim Kelly is never going to be a good offensive coordinator, nor is it to say that Anthony Weaver will never be a good defensive coordinator. But you can’t rely on coaches with that little experience in their respective fields — in Weaver’s case, with a ridiculously low level of talent — and just expect them to be great. It’s a recipe for disaster!

Speaking of which…

2) The next Texans head coach needs to hire someone with a plan for the other side of the ball

Most head coaches at this point specialize in either offense or defense. There are some coaching candidates that are special-teams guys like Dave Toub, but for the most part when you hire a head coach, you hire a system to fix one side of the ball. As we’ve seen with Gary Kubiak, that fails when that head coach has no locked-and-loaded plan for the other side of the ball. And, as we’ve seen with Bill O’Brien, that head coach has to actually be able to execute the plan on his side of the ball as well.

I’m a wide-net kind of guy on interviews. I’d listen to a lot of the grand plans of these guys and come into it with an open mind. There are absolutely guys who are higher in my ranking right now than others, but if lower-rankers come to me with a plan and I think they’ve got a good argument, I would be happy to be swayed. The potential head coach can’t just be selling me on his vision for his side of the ball — he needs to sell me on the vision for the entire franchise.

If I’m hiring an offense-first guy — who is his defensive coordinator going to be? What is his plan for J.J. Watt? (Do I need to tell him that J.J. Watt wants out?) What is his plan for getting the pass rush together? What is his plan for the secondary? How quickly does he think the unit can turn around? What are our main weaknesses there and how can they be improved tomorrow with no draft picks? And so on. If I’m hiring a defense-first guy — obviously Deshaun Watson is great, what are you doing to make him the best he can be so the Texans can have a truly special unit? What kind of strengths are you playing to? How do you fix the run game?

I need a fully-rounded plan.

3) The head coach must have a history of empirical success on his side of the ball, and there must be scouting backing up why what he did worked. You get bonus points if you do it without A-List talent.

There are certain coaches who I think have done a really good job this year, but when I look at what they’ve done in the past, I cringe a little bit. One guy who I’m not seeing get any buzz and who I probably won’t use in my post is Brian Schottenheimer. Do I think he’s an idiot? Nope. Do I think he’s doing a great job with the Seattle pass offense this year? I do. But is there a large history of success there? No. In fact, he actively covered up this passing game for much of 2018 and 2019, and a lot of his previous experience gets tied into Jeff Fisher’s brand of football.

Does that mean I won’t talk to him? No. Does it mean that he’s going to have to really convince me that he knows what he’s doing? You bet.

When the Texans hired Kubiak, one of the best things about him is that he had a history of making run offenses churn without needing a lot of talent or investment. Sure enough, the Texans signed players like Kevin Walter and Arian Foster, they traded for Chris Myers and had a Pro Bowl center for many years. Unheralded guys like Mike Brisiel made that running game go. They barely invested anything in the offense after bringing in Matt Schaub and Duane Brown and it consistently did very well. I’d be looking to replicate certain bits of that in this hire. Under O’Brien, the Texans signed many players to mid-level contracts in free agency that immediately underperformed. Particularly offensive linemen.

4) I lean towards having an offensive-minded head coach who wants to work with the things that Deshaun Watson does best: playing with tempo and playing out of empty

In my opinion, the best way to be a great team is to amplify the best thing you do. The best thing that this team has is Deshaun Watson. There are several elements around Deshaun Watson that would work well in bringing out his best. Duke Johnson, for example, cost a third-round pick and is not a particularly good inside zone back. But the Texans randomly discovered on Thanksgiving that they could throw to Duke Johnson out wide and it was a stunning revelation — something that should have been exploited for, and I am not kidding, literal years. The Texans instead had defenders tell their running backs things like this:

So my heart is more set on having a head coach that is going to make the Texans have the best passing offense in the NFL — maybe they don’t get there every year, maybe Patrick Mahomes is so special that it’s not possible to catch him — and using that as a jumping off point for the rest of the team. Watson is one of the highest-paid players in the NFL. He’s the face of the franchise. He’s been tearing things up even just ditching a lot of the bad structure that Bill O’Brien provided this team and letting Tim Kelly run the show.

Imagine if they found a system that made him even better, one that emphasizes the things he is uniquely great at. That’s my dream. Just Deshaun Watson tearing the NFL a new one every year until he gets bored.

5) I would prefer if the head coach had NFL experience coaching at the thing he’s good at, though this isn’t a dealbreaker to me

I don’t think Kliff Kingsbury has been a bad hire by any stretch of the imagination, but the firestorm that was supposed to be the Air Raid didn’t really take off the way people thought it would. Instead, he’s succeeded because he’s created a great run game with a substandard line and a dynamic running quarterback.

To me, the shape of the success matters more if it is NFL success. That doesn’t mean that I’m ruling out coaches that don’t have a ton of it, but I am more skeptical about a coach who hasn’t proven something in the NFL (or, at the very least, whose inspirations haven’t proven much in the NFL.)

Bill O’Brien was kind of a weird hire because he wasn’t statistically impressive in college, but he also was dealing with massive sanctions in the wake of the Joe Paterno/Jerry Sandusky Nittany Lions. He did great work with Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, but, well, so did everybody. Join the club.

6) If Jack Easterby remains in this front office, you can’t pick anybody from the Patriots

I don’t want the head coach that Easterby knows the best. I think any coach pick that has anything to do with the Patriots is a tough sell to the fanbase unless it’s literally Belichick or something. Maybe that’s unfair to some of those guys, but between the large recent history of failed Patriots assistants and the recent regime failure here, I can’t see it going over better than a wet fart. Sorry, but not really.

7) The small things

There’s a lot of small little bonus points in between these six things. Some things I would give extra credit for:

– Demonstrated good use analytically of timeouts and challenges. (Don’t challenge ball spots, don’t get suckered into timeouts.)
– Demonstrated use and understanding of play-action shot plays. (Area of the offense the Texans have that is currently broken.)
– Demonstrated understanding of modern offense/defense (Not shredded by RPOs, understands how to protect the middle of the field, etc.)
– Demonstrated use of adapting game plans in a successful way to overcome a weakness.
– Demonstrated ability to blow out bad teams.

Ultimately if I believe in a head coach’s ambition, I think most of these things will follow. However, the more demonstrated examples of this we have, the better. I’m not going to obsess on stuff like this, but I’m also not going to tell you it doesn’t matter.

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That’s basically the gist of what I’m looking for in a head coach and what I’m hoping to figure out from the interviews. (Obviously they aren’t inviting me to the interviews, but in theory.) A lot of the things I want to know about probably won’t be brought to life in a material way for us to read and know about. But just from the outside, I hope the gist of the process looks a little something like this. I have my obvious leans and doubt they are shared by everybody, and that’s fine.

See you in a few days for the list.


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Four Downs: Texans 41, Lions 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 Detroit Lions lost to 20-0 to the Panthers on Sunday and on Thursday they left no doubt that they were hapless, nearly doubling Houston’s turnover total on the season as well as supplying a J.J. Watt pick-six. The Lions became the first non-Jaguars team to lose to the Texans by multiple scores since the Falcons did in Week 5 of the 2019 season.

It’s hard to not garner a little optimism for the Texans with the way that Deshaun Watson is playing and that continued again on Thursday as he firebombed the Lions in a way that I would call uniquely Texans. The offense scored 34 points, but somehow still found themselves kicking two field goals after rashes of penalties, sacks, and negative plays wrecked them. As Will Fuller would say after the game: They scored 41 and it feels like they left points on the board. However, the highs were high and the Texans produced some memorably great plays as the nation was re-introduced to Deshaun Watson playing at a high level:

At 4-7, the Texans would realistically need to win out to make the playoffs in a seven-team format. They were at 0.4% in last week’s Football Outsiders odds. They would need 2-4 finishes from their division rivals to catch either Indy or Tennessee. Even to catch a 6-4 team like Miami, who has only a 50/50 shot at making the playoffs, they’d need a 3-3 finish and tiebreakers.

However, eyes on Baltimore as the NFL has said that cancelled games could lead to an expansion of the playoffs. There’s no reason you should believe that the Texans could waltz into Kansas City as a No. 8 seed and win the game. No reason except that they have Deshaun Watson.

1) Special quarterbacks dominate bad teams. Deshaun Watson is a special quarterback.

There have been many throws in Deshaun Watson’s season that have been ridiculous, contested, and showcased a lot of his ability. While the bombs to Fuller and Duke Johnson on the sideline were beautiful throws, for the most part the degree of difficulty that Watson had to deal with in this game was low. Most throws looked more like this:

For sure the rusher was a problem to get past, but once Watson settled, the zone was wide and the throws was relatively easy. I lead with this to say: The Lions down a starting cornerback and with Desmond Trufant injured for a lot of the game were mostly easy pickings for the Texans. Deshaun Watson did not have a single “aggressive” throw into tight coverage per NFL Next Gen Stats charting.

The only things that really got in Watson’s way were his offensive line, which had some issues on the first two drives, and his running game, which improved to mediocre in today’s effort.

The tear that Watson has gone on since being freed from O’Brien is Mahomes-esque. That’s the only way I can put it. Sacks have gone way down. Turnovers? None of them since Week 5. It is worth noting that his schedule has gotten easier since the first four starts — The Jaguars, Patriots, Titans, and Lions are all in the bottom eight in defensive DVOA coming into this week, and Cleveland is 16th. But the mark of a great quarterback is that they crush defenses like that. The only defense that has even come close to Watson since the coaching change had 30 miles per hour winds on their side.

And oh yeah, by the way, after becoming the first quarterback with four touchdown throws and a 150+ QB rating since Tom Brady, he remembers each and every miss and knows he can do better. He’s going to call audibles mid-play for easy touchdowns.

And that’s just going to be how it is from now on. All the Texans need to do is avoid what Bill O’Brien did: They need to find someone who is not going to screw up having a figurative golden goose fall into their laps.

2) The defense has increased its pressure rate massively in the past two games

There was a very revealing press answer by J.J. Watt when he was asked if Anthony Weaver changed things or if it’s been about execution over the past two weeks:

The writing that has been on the wall to me for the better part of 10 days looks like this — and I want to be clear that this is speculation and unsourced:

Anthony Weaver really went off in the pressers after the Cleveland game, which was a rare bit of emotion from someone who I would regard as generally well-measured. All of the sudden, the Texans started bringing a lot more heat than we’re used to seeing against the Patriots. They blitzed 18 times in that game per SportsRadar, a season high, and pressured Cam Newton on 44% of his dropbacks, also a season high. That sort of revealing stumble into “…yeah” that’s here hints to me at a difference of opinion among Weaver and Romeo Crennel.

Once Crennel took over, I think you saw the defense play a little more muted and blandly — it was Weaver’s defense, but I would speculate that he was dialing some things back at the behest of a boss who wanted the simple to work. The simple did not work. Weaver was pissed off. The defense has gotten more aggressive, and while it hasn’t solved some of the underlying problems — because nothing is going to save this secondary this season in my opinion — it has absolutely created more negative plays.

Houston finished last week’s game with 6.5 tackles for loss, eight quarterback hits, and two sacks. It was the first time they’d won the quarterback hit and sack battle in a game since Week 4. This week: four tackles for loss, four sacks, eight quarterback hits. They won each of those battles again. (It should be mentioned that Nate Hall won the battle almost single-handedly but, hey, you gotta create obvious pass-rush situations in the first place to get there.) Justin Reid, it must be mentioned, was flying around and had a sack for the second straight game and a key fourth-down stuff.

This is the defense that I think we were sold in the preseason, the one that would be flying around. They’re never going to overcome a lack of talent in some spots — they just don’t have enough good defensive backs or linebackers in coverage right now with Gareon Conley on IR and Lonnie Johnson learning safety on the fly — but the actual negative plays mean a lot for this defense. The NFL is in a spot right now — and the Texans in particular — where offensive levels are so high all you need to do to be a good defense is force some turnovers, not strangle an offense to death.

The Texans of the last two weeks can do that.

3) Will Fuller’s always been a star; he’s finally been healthy enough to show the world

There has been no doubt in my mind for years that Will Fuller was a star receiver. It was evident in how he played from the jump, and the soft-tissue injuries and torn ACLs along the way have impacted the Texans in the way that it has because … he’s ridiculous. While the flea flicker catch was wildly easy, he put on a show on his other routes:

The throw that jumped to me was the completion he had in the middle of the third quarter. Blanketed early in the route, Fuller shook his man, read the defensive back’s leverage, and created a humongous catch that set the Texans up just outside of the red zone:

The Lions refused to play this game — even with their injury situation at DB — without pressing Fuller often. It just didn’t matter.

I know there’s a lot of hemming and hawwing every time the contract situation gets brought up because Fuller has been hurt a lot. He spoke a little to that in his presser and about how having Brandin Cooks here has helped him learn ways to take care of his body. There’s also speculation that he may not get a monster deal this year because of the falling salary cap and the wide array of talented options hitting the market.

But listen, Fuller’s special. Always has been. He’s taken on a bigger role with DeAndre Hopkins gone and proved that he can handle extra volume.

Take it from the guy who is always right: Fuller is a star, and the Texans had two of them last year. It just all got lost in Bill O’Brien’s pathetic offense.

4) What happens when the run offense is not total garbage

OK, yes, you remember the fumble, but asides from that, the Texans ran the ball with their backs 14 times for 49 yards. That’s 3.5 yards per carry, which is — astoundingly — the fifth-best yards per carry average the Texans have left a game with this year. More importantly, some of the carries were still productive from an on-schedule stand point, and the Texans had just one carry lose yards: C.J. Prosise’s tote on first-and-goal from the nine.

It is sad that we have to start here, but just actively not destroying drives is the goal for Houston’s running game. There was a run for no gain on the first drive, there was the Prosise run, and otherwise, the run game was almost competent:

Of course, even in a game like this, the Texans had to turn to wacky run plays to get defenses off balance, and thus comes Jordan Akins down the pipe on third-and-1:

To some extent the penalties that the Texans seem plagued with are about Deshaun Watson holding the ball too long on certain option plays that need to be quicker decisions. But between his sack rate, the team’s penalty rate, and the run game’s “greatest hits,” the Texans created a situation where they go backwards on way, way, too many plays at the start of the season.

Watson has cut his sack rate immensely. He’s taken more than two sacks in a game just once since O’Brien got fired. The run game did their job for the most part today. What makes the Texans offense so stop-start is their propensity for negative plays. If they won’t use Watson in that role asides from special situations, then they need to continue to be creative with these plays like Akins at fullback or Coutee catching pitches.

When the Texans don’t create many negative plays, they’re scary.

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The sanitization of Jack Easterby and the necessary atonement

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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Over the last three Saturdays, the Houston Chronicle and ESPN’s Houston branch have released two gigantic stories about Jack Easterby. They framed what he has done as “unconventional” and chronicled his rise to his standing today, and they are attempts to rehabilitate his standing after the role he has played in the Bill O’Brien tenure. You can tell that the Texans and those outlets know that he is unpopular and that these stories would receive backlash from fans because they ran on Saturdays, a day where absolutely nobody pays attention to the news.

While I am not accusing either ESPN or the Chronicle of this, because I don’t know for a fact, often stories like this come about as favors. Major media wants scoops and so they are beholden to power when power has a message that needs to come out. That’s kind of how the sausage gets made at times — reporters know more than you think they know and a lot of us have things we could say but won’t. I know where a few bones are buried. Other reporters who actually make it a point to traffic in this stuff know where bodies are. These are both massive articles full of quotes from people who favor and praise Easterby, though only one of them, Ryan Succop, both has a role in the NFL and is willing to voice belief that Easterby will be a great leader of a franchise. He is but a replacement-level kicker.

To use a term more popular in politics writing, these articles are sanitization. They are scrubbing and polishing around the rough bits of Easterby’s legacy to prepare the public for the fact that he’s going to be involved in this franchise for a long time — that move has been confirmed by McNair and announced while announcing that he’s not going to be general manager. In this case, the main issues are a) his standing in the organization as things fell apart to create this season and b) the fact that nothing in his history would ever suggest he’s more than a motivational speaker masquerading as a leader.

The language tells a story the Texans don’t want told

Both the ESPN piece and Houston Chronicle piece have sections buried that speak to the fact that Easterby has major flaws in his resume. Take this section from the ESPN article:

Jamey Rootes has tried to paint the devastatingly unpopular and idiotic DeAndre Hopkins trade as something that is in the past because O’Brien had personnel control. Yet, in a “consensus” situation, which is something that O’Brien spoke to many times over this last offseason and that McNair himself calls Easterby in the ESPN article, it is clear that the “consensus” agreed that trading Hopkins was a smart move. McNair isn’t going to fire himself, and has blamed the monetary situation for the trade, but it’s very clear by even a rudimentary analysis of the cap that the Texans could have kept Hopkins on a huge deal. Even before Hopkins out-and-out Tweeted that he would have taken a band-aid deal from “Kyle.”

OK. So, that’s one thing. The other thing is omission. Imagine you are building an article meant to praise Jack Easterby. Imagine you have access to every person in the entirety of football to talk to. You can talk to his previous employers. You can talk to his current employers. You can talk to analysts. You can talk to NFL Network people. You can talk to other teams. The two reporters who wrote these articles used quotes from press conferences where current Texans and Texans coaches talked briefly about Easterby, but didn’t endorse him moving up the totem pole. Outside of Succop, not a single NFL person is willing to put their name on an endorsement of Easterby leading anything. If they did, they’d be in the articles.

So instead we have people in South Carolina. Dawn Staley. People from past jobs that had nothing to do with the NFL. Buzz Williams. A murderer’s row of praise from sources who really don’t matter. When the Texans are good and this stuff matters, I try to bring praise from opponents and football people into the timeline. But I wouldn’t take, say, Stephen A. Smith’s opinion about Deshaun Watson and broadcast it. That’s nothing against Smith — he’s a great entertainer and that’s his job — but he’s no football guy. He’s there to make you laugh and capture your emotions. Amplifying his opinion is like running a story about a gas station clerk who has a vendetta against pens being on cords at the bank. There’s nothing of substance here. Just people who know Easterby personally and believe he’s a good person.

In other words, the compliments mean nothing. They have no say on how Easterby has done his job. What we have is that since joining the Texans in 2019, they fired the general manager, traded Jadeveon Clowney and DeAndre Hopkins for peanuts, and completed a franchise-crippling trade for Laremy Tunsil. Maybe those trades happen with Easterby not in the building. Maybe they don’t. But my view from the outside is that Easterby helped encourage O’Brien’s base instincts with his motivational garbage and O’Brien acted more like himself than someone who had to please someone else. You just didn’t see this level of poor management until O’Brien and Easterby were joined. At least until O’Brien wound up with a knife in his back.

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So that brings us to another question, and a question I bring up in the interests of keeping things positive since it’s clear the Texans are going to just push through with what they want to happen and the wishful belief that Easterby will be competent: What can the Texans and Jack Easterby actually do to make peace with the fanbase knowing that sanitization won’t work?

Here’s my list:

1) Easterby actually needs to be accountable to the fanbase.

That means that, yes, he can’t hide under a pile of coats during the trade deadline and act like he did nothing. He needs to talk. He needs to be involved in press conferences. If he’s this major part of the organization to the point of him driving away potential general managers and head coaches because of his influence, then he needs to be accountable. He needs to speak.

Jack Easterby has not appeared in a press conference since Deshaun Watson’s extension, and he has not actually had one on his own since July 30th, which was basically all about COVID-19 protocols. He’s simultaneously the director of so much and yet the guy who is never accountable. Cal McNair has spoken multiple times during this trashfire of a season. The only thing Easterby did was appear on a religion podcast. Let’s hear from the guy that is so worth all this hub-bub that he’s reportedly worth ruling out head coach and GM candidates for! My guess it that the Texans won’t do this because he’s not that special, but I’m willing to hear it out.

2) Easterby needs to apologize for his role in the DeAndre Hopkins trade

Yup. He does.

The Texans have up until now resisted the idea that they messed this up. They did. There will be no going forward until they reckon with it — everything up until that moment is just reactive posing.

Easterby may not have been the one that pushed the trigger. He may not have been the one that decided to send Hopkins to Arizona. But he was involved with the idea that it needed to happen, and he needs to stand at the podium and apologize to the fans for it. He needs to stand up there and tell us, with hindsight, why he messed up. What he mistook for signs of a downward trend and what that was. What he will be doing to rectify it. He needs to do all that without blaming Bill O’Brien for it, because if this is a consensus build, and he’s the consensus builder, his part clearly mattered plenty.

3) We need the actual plan, in his words, of how he’s going to change this franchise for the better

It’s very easy to say things like “he’s a great leader, he’s a great person” and leave it at that. But plans require actions. To this date, there have been zero actions taken. Clearly, the plan is to leave the football plans in the hands of the new general manager and head coach.

But if Easterby is going to have an active role in picking that person, we need to know what he’s looking for in the first place. He needs to be on the record. He needs to share this grand and unifying vision that Cal McNair has fallen for. And he needs to do it in a way that puts the organization in a better light than it’s been in for a long time.

My read of all that has transpired so far is that Easterby doesn’t actually want to be accountable, he just wants to be in charge, unchecked. That’s not a front office position, that’s a state of mind. One that hasn’t been earned no matter what Dawn Staley and Ryan Succop say.

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Ultimately I don’t expect any of those three things to happen. But even if they don’t, the Texans have a credibility problem with their fanbase that goes beyond firing a head coach, because a head coach that did what Bill O’Brien did doesn’t nascently come to fruition of its own volition. It is something that is fed and created via the All That Matters Is How Hard I Work And The Lord Will Figure The Rest Out culture that Easterby is trying to protect. What they’ve done so far about that is nothing, and they appear to be all out of ideas.

It’s not really Cal McNair’s place to tell us that things are going to be different when people who created the situation are still in the building. He can say it, and he can feel it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s more than wishful thinking. Given that he’s the only person who is willing to stand up and publicly say something about this culture, it’s hard to believe it’s valuable to anybody but him.

Sadly, he is the only person Easterby has to fool.

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Four Downs: Texans 27, Patriots 20

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

***

The Patriots came to town with a win over the Jets and a win over the Ravens in a monsoon in their pockets, looking to get back into the fringes of the AFC playoff race. But your Houston Texans, now 3-7, speedbumped them using the formula that should have them in the playoff race: great quarterback play and an aggressive defense.

Houston’s defense allowed 365 passing yards. But after an opening drive that looked like it would be more of the same on run defense, they allowed just 60 rushing yards over the course of the rest of the game. The Josh McDaniels gimmick offense was able to step up and attack Houston’s corners to generate some second-half momentum, but it wasn’t enough. The run defense started coming downhill. The Texans started to play with the understanding that they just needed to read and attack, and they did:

The Texans have a quick turnaround with a date coming up against the Lions on the early Thanksgiving slate, so they’ll have yet another chance to play spoiler. Detroit was shut out by a Panthers team starting P.J. Walker, so they’re going to have something to prove as they look to stay in the NFC races.

If they do what they did today, and hide their weak points a little more than they have in the first half of the season, the Texans could suddenly … convey a lower draft pick to the Dolphins. OK, no, really, they could get a little feisty. There’s still no telling how COVID-19 is going to affect the very end of the playoff picture. There’s already a rule written in allowing an eighth playoff team in the event of cancelled games. All the Texans can do is keep winning games to put themselves in position to take advantage of such a break.

1) Deshaun Watson’s best half of the season carried Houston’s offense

With Laremy Tunsil out, there were some legitimate fears that the Texans would give up a ton of pressure in this game. The Patriots were third in the NFL in pressure rate coming into the game. But what they mostly chose to do against Watson was drop eight into coverage and make him read the room. He devoured it, getting to his third or fourth read at times, and devastated New England’s coverage with a series of excellent throws.

Jordan Akins, Will Fuller, and Brandin Cooks all had big first-half catches as the Texans completely walloped a pass defense that has not been very good this season but that often gave Watson rough throwing angles. They did manage to get some pressure on Watson in the game, but when they did, it was erased by great pocket play:

Finally, Watson capped the half with one of his most impressive individual plays of the season, a run where he bulldozed Devin McCourty on his way to the end zone that had offense and defensive players alike gawking:

The list of quarterbacks who I would take for the next five years over Deshaun Watson is one player long. He’s been having great games this season that have been lost in the shuffle because the results haven’t gone his way. But what he put on in the first half against the Patriots was mesmerizing. Even the plays called back by penalty were wildly impressive. The only mistake I can remember him making is the audible he went to in the second half on third-and-2 in NE territory didn’t work out for him. Other than that, a few drives wound up in the wrong column because of penalties or runs, and then the trip on Jordan Akins that should have been called DPI ended the Texans chances of running out the game on their own:

Tremendous game for Deshaun Watson. The Texans ran the ball just six times in the first half with running backs. They didn’t use Watson on any designed runs that I can remember. It didn’t matter. He just kept torching looks all day.

2) Justin Reid’s best game of the season kept Houston’s defense from collapsing

Fired up with his haters, which I guess includes me even though I didn’t set out to hate(?), Justin Reid had a major impact on the Texans game in a few different ways. He picked up his first sack of the season, he was around the ball constantly, and most importantly I think he trusted his instincts. This is the kind of play where if Jamal Adams makes it, NFL front office guys debate how much money he’s going to get:

What has been missing from this pass defense all season? There’s been a lot of talk about the idea of exotic blitzes, but the Texans haven’t really run many of them. With their corners getting gashed, the Texans finally threw caution to the wind, as they should have a while ago, and decided to blitz that exotic Patriots play-action package into the Stone Age. They brought the same double safety blitz to stop both of the last two real Patriots drives in their tracks. Reid’s first career sack came with it at first-and-10 in the red zone:

They followed that up with the exact same blitz on third-and-17, both rushers came free into a screen that got decent yardage. But by then the damage had already been done — the Texans held the Patriots to a field goal. On the last drive, New England had a third-and-4 just outside the red zone. That blitz popped up again, and this time it wound up with a pass break up that either Watt or Reid probably could have had if the other wasn’t in the picture:

And on fourth-and-4, the exact same play call. That blitz got to Newton and all he could do was throw the ball away and hope it worked. Houston’s defense finally found something that worked:

The Texans finished this game with eight quarterback hits, and those hits were indicative of the extra pressure dialed up pretty much constantly after the first drive. But nothing they did gave them looks as clean as this. Here’s what Reid had to say about those blitzes after the game:

It’s been mind-boggling as an outside observer why it’s taken so long for the coaching staff to understand that this back seven simply can’t hold up in pass coverage and that they need to blitz more. Had they established something like this sooner, they might have won games in Tennessee and against Minnesota.

Having never been part of the story (even as I fight the idea that I was) of a player doing well in a game, this was a weird experience to live through. It gives you a lot of empathy for what players are going through, as I’m sure they get tagged and see much nastier things than that one play I posted. There was one guy who just spammed out into the void a couple of times something like “fuck @riversmccown if it makes the @HoustonTexans play better!” — anyway, as I lay out in that little pastebin, I’m happy that Reid delivered a big game and I take zero credit for that. Seeing yourself become part of the story is really awkward and I don’t recommend it to anybody who doesn’t have narcissistic tendencies. Thankfully I have been handed many stressful situations in my life.

3) J.J. Watt had a throwback performance with four passes broken up

One thing that I think has kind of flown under the radar post-trade deadline is that J.J. Watt’s demeanor in press conferences has changed to be a little less team-focused. In the early weeks of the season, you saw him talking about things like the connection to the fanbase, last year this was a guy who came back from a torn pec in midseason to play in the playoffs. He was desperate to do what he could for this organization. Now there just seems to be a little more … distance, maybe, is the right term here? You listen to him and he’s here but you get quotes like this and it almost feels like he’s talking to you as a past Texan:

I have no idea how much toll this season has taken on him. I’m sure it’s just as unfun for him as it is for Reid, as it is for the fans, and so on. I also have no idea where his head is at regarding playing for this team next year. But it was good to see him flash some big plays in this game, breaking up four different passes:

Whether it comes to next season as a Texans end or elsewhere, Watt’s pass rush production has slipped noticeably. He has four sacks in 293 pass rushes, but Sports Info Solutions has him with just 29 pressures coming into today’s game, a rate of less than one pressure per 10 pass-rush snaps. So even though he didn’t dominate this game as a rusher either, it was good to see him making impact plays. Somehow, four PBUs is a career high for Watt — I would never have guessed that. Maybe they were more aware of him earlier in his career, or maybe the gimmick defense helped.

Either way, those pass break ups were massive plays for a defense that generates almost no negative plays in coverage without a bad throw. I believe Bradley Roby skimmed a near-pick in the first quarter, but other than that, most of Newton’s misses were misplaced throws or pressured throwaways. It was big for the Texans to have a vintage Watt game as they figure out together how their future intersects.

4) The run game continues to flounder

The smarter defenses in the NFL have constantly destroyed Houston’s base run schemes for years now. The Patriots held the Texans to 19 carries for 53 yards in their meeting last year. 13 of those came on one Duke Johnson run, and almost all of Johnson’s 36 yards came after contact. When the Texans don’t involve Deshaun Watson in the run game, the run game shrivels up and dies. The final tally today: 13 carries for the running backs, 19 yards.

I don’t know that there’s a way to go install a brand new run game in-season. There’s definitely not enough time to install one before Thursday. But the base concepts have struggled for the Texans all season. They are too predictable by half, and teams innately understand how to handle them schematically. It’s the one legacy of Bill O’Brien that just keeps keeping on with this team.

The good news? The Texans figured out that their run game sucked and stopped using it. 13 running back carries isn’t a lot, and it’s particularly not a lot for a team that led or was tied for almost the entirety of the game. The Patriots had more rushes than the Texans. On the final drive that the Texans took deep into New England territory with 7:39 left, trying to run the clock out, they ran the ball just twice. On their four drives that ended in punts, the Texans ran the ball eight of their 13 attempts. That means that, for the rest of the game, it was essentially all Deshaun Watson.

Even under O’Brien, it made no sense that this line produced like this considering the investment. I’m excited to see someone else get a crack at it. What they are doing right now is so bad that it’s asking Watson to win the game on his own.

Luckily, he has that ability sometimes.

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Sowing and Reaping: When you’re 2-7, nobody cares

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.

***

One of the most hilarious things about Texans president Jamey Rootes writing a book about business leadership and promoting it this season is that there isn’t an easier product to sell than NFL football with a great quarterback. I don’t write this because I’m gloating; I don’t write this because I’m happy that the Texans are a disaster.

But, all you have to do is give people a reason to believe in your franchise and they will take it. The Bill O’Brien Era is a microcosm of this. There was never any reason for anyone to believe that O’Brien’s actual coaching was good beyond letting Watson run his Clemson offense. There was never any reason to believe trading DeAndre Hopkins was going to work out well for this franchise. There was never any reason that the playoff flameouts this team experienced against the Colts and Chiefs weren’t emblematic of this franchise’s future. But I can’t count how many people fought me for presenting these ideas before they came to pass — every time I posted about these things, people vehemently rejected the ideas. The people that care about this stuff — for the most part — ultimately want to believe the best in the team.

This is what has been reaped — a 2-7 season that’s been dead on arrival. It’s been seven weeks since Romeo Crennel has replaced Bill O’Brien and from the moment he set foot to the podium, little has changed. The rookies aren’t playing much and the discourse around them playing has only gotten more defiant. The Texans are trying to win, but they’re not good enough to win. The only good thing that has happened to this franchise for the entire calendar year was signing Deshaun Watson to an extension. Fan engagement is down significantly because, when faced with the truth that there’s nothing to root for, you only really have two options: apathy or anger. Many people choose apathy and I can’t blame them.

***

One of the things that Marc Vandermeer said that rang true to me as he was talking about this season in one of the more recent Texans radio hits is that he never takes it for granted when a team is competing for division titles instead of competing for championships because he knows what the other side was like. That spoke to me, but I don’t think it spoke to me in the way that he meant it.

The greater atmosphere of a football team is dictated on a simple premise: That this matters somehow. The NFL has worked very hard on making that circumstance be ever-present. There are seven playoff teams per conference. Bad teams from last year get games against other bad teams from last year. But when you’re 2-7, the games do not matter. You have a 0.5% chance to make the playoffs. The fiction breaks, and the fog dissipates. And suddenly we’re all asking ourselves what we were doing here and what we believed in — what choices we made — that left us talking about this team. The Texans Unfiltered guys led off a show recently with what I will charitably call 15 minutes of straight-up complaining that they didn’t want to do the show and wound up apologizing for it later but noting that there’s not a lot to talk about.

The games themselves have ceased to matter, right? I think that’s pretty clear to anybody who doesn’t have to delude themselves into thinking otherwise for their jobs. And when the games cease to matter, football for the sake of football in a pandemic actually becomes a harder thing to sell. The Texans will try — and, I’ll be honest, I will try — to give you things to talk and think about. But at this point I’m just expecting a dead seven weeks on the field, where the only news that matters is what happens upstairs.

***

Deshaun Watson has been phenomenal this year. I put together a video with his best throw of every game this season in my opinion. It got practically no traction. He’s spectacular. Nobody cares:

Watson has developed another level this year. He’s taking fewer sacks despite being in many of the same situations he had last year. His throws and process continue to get better. He hasn’t thrown an interception since Week 5. They took away DeAndre Hopkins from him and he is fifth in passing DVOA and sixth in DYAR. And … it doesn’t matter.

I posted his ridiculous throw to Randall Cobb in the Cleveland game as it happened and a fan said something like “if Patrick Mahomes did this everyone would shit their pants,” and, again, that’s a point, though not the point I think the fan thought they were making. It’s not bias. It’s not that nobody in the NFL thinks Watson is good. It’s not even that it happened in a non-island game. It’s that it happened for a 2-7 team that nobody cares about, in a game where they had scored zero points up until then. If you carefully watch that game, and you understand wind conditions, you know why there’d been zero points scored. But it’s impossible to get excited about watching that throw and pretend that it is going to have a bearing on the rest of the NFL season.

There is no reason to short-term focus on the Texans anymore.

***

Lemme share some finances with you. I don’t run this site in a way to optimally make money. Partially that’s because I’m making money on other things, partially it’s because I have some self-worth issues, and partially that’s because I haven’t put much effort into it this season because I had no idea if the season would happen or not in April. The only thing I have done, as I have last year, is link to my PayPal tips at the end of each post.

Last year, the Texans were making a playoff run. I received a little under $600 in donations for writing roughly 2-3 times a week about the team for five months. In the three months this season has gone on, I have made about $250 in donations. Since the Texans fired Bill O’Brien and I wrote the post that day, I have had three total donations. I don’t say this to complain — anything I get out of this is a bonus and I live a comfortable life — but along the way as I’m sharing what I believe to be the truth about the Texans, one of the major pushback themes I’ve gotten is that I’m doing this for the clicks. That I’m trying to get people upset. That it’s in my best interest for the team to fail because I’m “negative.”

But this clearly isn’t in my financial interest either! People read about winning teams. People read about teams that matter! I’m not here to bemoan that fact, I just want to bury an entire line of thought. The Texans being not good is not good for me! It’s not good for the Houston Chronicle. It’s not good for The Athletic. It’s not good for local sports radio. It’s not good for independent content creators. When we get upset at management, it’s because we want the team to matter!

I can’t speak for everybody else, but I cover this brand new team without an established fanbase in a city that is heavily transplant-based not to tear them down, but because I want them to be built up. When I critique them, it comes from that place. It comes from my concern that lackadaisical ownership has invalidated the best years of several awesome players like Andre Johnson, J.J. Watt, and Arian Foster, and left their legacies destitute compared to where they could be. It comes from not wanting the same fate to befall Deshaun Watson.

2-7 should be a wake up call to everybody in a leadership position in this organization. The prevailing logic for 15 years was that they couldn’t win because they don’t have a franchise quarterback. They have one and little has changed.

Maybe the problem isn’t the players, but the grander design of the team. The kind of thing that can only be changed by the architects.

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The idea of Gareon Conley

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.

***

One of the things that I think about a lot when it comes to individual football players is the idea of them versus the actuality of them. I say this as someone who is fairly idealistic in my own mind: I think of players in their roles based on what I’ve seen of their talent, and I project them forward. Sometimes that works out, sometimes it doesn’t. I still think Keke Coutee has the ability to be a good slot receiver; history has told us that this is not likely to be the case. Players that perform as little as he has in his first three seasons in the NFL are generally mistrusted by their teams for a reason. Does that mean Coutee’s career is over? No. Does it mean he has no chance? No. But does it mean we need to apply a healthy dose of skepticism to the idea that this is going to work out? Or, at the very least, that this is going to work out here? I think so.

Skepticism, of course, is the exact opposite of what a lot of you are here for. You want to hear about reasons to be optimistic for Jon Greenard or John Reid. You want to believe that the front office is on the right track. You want to be fans, and fans want positives even in tough times. A lot of times I feel like the role of my posts are just to throw a bucket of cold water on your fandom, in a weird confluence of events that starts with me trying to achieve the truth of the matter and you looking for knowledge. We both want the same things to happen — nobody here wants Jacob Martin to waste away for 20 snaps a game — but our roles wind up being oppositional because truth isn’t always what fans want to hear.

***

This is our only view of Gareon Conley on the football field for the Houston Texans in 2020. It’s small, edited clips of a scrimmage that the team released. They have every reason to make themselves look good. Conley is hobbling badly:

He hasn’t played a single down this year. Coaches have either deferred to trainers or been dismissive of reporters asking about him all season. He’s not healthy, he has “nerve pain” per Patrick Storm, and Romeo Crennel doesn’t know when or if he’s going to practice to even work towards coming back. It’s Week 11. There’s not much season left.

There are a lot of success stories of guys missing an entire season and coming back. But there are even more examples of guys missing a season, never coming back, and being swiftly forgotten. We don’t talk about those stories because they’re not fun to reminisce on. The downside to chasing an NFL dream for many, many players is that it leaves their bodies ruined in one way or another. Their physical capital gets spent. I’m not saying that Conley is done in the NFL, and I’m not saying that Conley can never recover from this injury to be a real NFL player again. I’m saying that you need to have skepticism about it because not every player that undergoes what he has this year comes back.

***

The truth of Gareon Conley trade is that I believed the flashes were worth buying in on because he was the kind of guy who could benefit from a change of scenery and because he had the kind of body that Texans corners generally don’t have. But in studying him for that post, it was also very obvious why the Raiders gave up on him — he made some mental mistakes, he made some physical mistakes,

What he did with the Texans in 2019 was — and I use this term kindly because obviously the results were good — a master class in flukery. He broke up 11 passes on 38 targets per Sports Info Solutions. To put that in perspective, he broke up 13 passes in 14 starts with the Raiders in 2018. To put that into even deeper perspective, Tre’Davious White broke up 10 passes in his entire 2019 season. Conley’s work with the Texans was one of two instances in the entire 2019 season where someone with less than 50 targets broke up 11 or more balls — it was him and Jamel Dean.

Now, that’s not to say that Conley didn’t earn that number or something — he is a man-cover corner and one of the best parts of his skill set is breaking up contested balls. But because the results were so wildly one-sided and so wildly out-of-character for how he had played for the rest of his career, it’s hard to look at what happened in those six starts as statistically meaningful.

I think a careful viewing of his targets shows more plays like these — ends up with his back turned, gets beat off the line, doesn’t show the early-down wins you’d want — than ones where he plays something flawlessly. I think the process of those plays matters as much as the results. I was never one to take those results and jump to the conclusion that Conley is Actually Bad — that’s a Matt Weston island — but I don’t think they showed me enough to believe he should be a long-term fixture either.

***

Now you have reached the end of the rookie contract. His fifth-year option wasn’t picked up. You — for now — have a system that preaches versatility, and a player that says this about his versatility:

You have a player who likely will miss the entire season. And then you have the fact that this will be a player who will not be My Guy for anybody new brought into the building. Coaches and general managers around the NFL subscribe very carefully to the My Guy philosophy — for an example, see the complete lack of consequences for anything that DeAndre Carter has ever done wrong up until yesterday — and when a new coach or general manager takes over a roster that’s not theirs, they tend to make some swift breaks with the new guys they don’t care for.

I understand the current Texans front office wants Conley back — I don’t think that matters. Or, I should say, if it does matter, this team is in a lot more trouble than they should be. Because nobody who was involved in creating this trash fire of a season should be given any say in anything going forward.

I think a small, incentive-based, one-year deal for Conley is fine. It’s a gamble on whatever happened in 2019 being a long-term improvement rather than a fluke, but I don’t have a problem with it. The problem is that at this point in his career, you can no longer have the expectations that he came into the season with. He’s missed major portions of two of his four seasons in the NFL. You can’t pencil Conley in as a starter and expect things to go right — that’s a big mistake the 2020 Texans made. It shouldn’t be a mistake the 2021 Texans make too.

The idea of this Conley who was going to rescue the Texans from their corner depth? It’s gone. The Conley that exists is a prove-it upside man corner who you can’t count on to play games, and we have no idea what the next defensive coordinator’s scheme is going to emphasize. Judging by how much NFL front offices value players who can stay healthy and the general tenor of NFL free agency not having a lot of cash flow this year, I would be surprised if he was in demand anywhere, let alone in Houston.


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Four Downs: Browns 10, Texans 7

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.

***

Have you had enough of watching a bad, stupid team pretend that it is actually unlucky and unfortunate?

After a 30-minute weather delay, the Texans went out and nearly got shut out by the Cleveland Browns — a defense that has generally only been good through turnovers — despite the Texans not turning it over once. They didn’t decisively lose time of possession. They didn’t even lose a lot of ground on terrible carries as Duke Johnson provided a little more burst than we’ve seen so far. They just managed to play bad situational football in key spots time and time again. Even the one touchdown they threw in this game came with two receivers basically running the same route:

Falling to 2-7, the Texans will somehow put on their game faces and pretend that this is good and that everything is fine and they’ll learn from this. They may even dig deep and turn some things around — I can’t believe I’m writing this — because there were some hidden positives in this game. They rode the topsy-turvy too aggressive-too passive thing between their fourth-and-goal go and their field-goal attempt. They had situational breakdowns every time the offense got into Cleveland territory.

But, as has been a theme of this season: This team just doesn’t play smart football. It has overestimated its talent in some key areas. It is continuing to pay for those two things. The Texans talk over and over again about going back and watching the tape to see what went wrong, but every week they come into the game new again, with almost zero anticipation of what the other team will do, and act as if what they stand for alone is enough. In a league where your identity suddenly matters a whole bunch, Houston’s identity is hubris at the idea that they’d ever need to worry about what the other team does.

1) Third-and-18.

So OK, you play your gaps right. You get a penalty to help you out. You reach third-and-18, and this is what happens:

The Texans just lay out the red carpet for the Browns to complete any kind of pass here by starting everybody at the depth that they do. Baker Mayfield happens to find Rashard Higgins on the sideline and makes a nice throw, but if you look at the dots on this play, well, he had many open receivers:

12 has a pocket over the middle of the field if you can throw over 50. 81 on the checkdown is going to get at least 13 yards if not more. 22 is wide open for half the play. 80 is the only receiver I’d call “well covered” and if there was a timing route on him or something, he probably gets there too. Cunningham gets chipped on his rush and doesn’t do anything. J.J. Watt gets chipped by the back. Whitney Mercilus is easily stood up.

Here’s Michael Thomas talking about that play after the game:

“Everybody was where they needed to be.” Were they? Was that the design of the play? Because the play designer messed up royally if so. That was extraordinarily easy. All day in the pocket, receivers had plenty of time to make up the ground and were essentially unchallenged. This is a play that a bad defense calls because it is scared of getting burned by doing anything clever, and it does that despite the fact that the play itself is going to get them burned anyway.

I expected the Texans to get gashed on the ground, and despite the difference between the first and second halves being real, they did about the norm there. But I was annoyed at how the Texans played against a quarterback who continually was making throws behind his targets and who has a history of playing poorly when pressured. They decided that the way to win the chess game was to drop into coverage more often than not. Despite the low numbers and all that, the Texans started one drive in this game beyond their own 37 — and one drive beyond their 33 that they didn’t try to kneel out the half on. In a field position game, their inability to create negative plays made a big difference. Speaking of that…

2) I.O.U. one pass rush

The official play-by-play has the Texans with two quarterback hits and one sack. Baker Mayfield dropped back to pass just 21 times with both teams clearly worried about the high winds. The one sack came as Corey Liuget got past Wyatt Teller on a play-action attempt:

The rest of the pass rush? Well, they didn’t even get close to Baker Mayfield. NFL Next Gen Stats keeps a chart of how close to the quarterback each pass rusher is, on average, over the course of the game. The Texans were not in Mayfield’s area code:

On the biggest play of the game up to that point for the Texans, the Browns went for it on fourth-and-4. They had an open receiver downfield. The only reason Mayfield was hurried was because he hurried himself by drifting right. He could have had all day on this throw if he wanted it:

It used to be that J.J. Watt was all this team had. This year, I think it’s fair to say, he has declined further. Lost in all the talk about what this team could get for Watt is that the window back to his ceiling may be closing — he may need a more complementary role to get the numbers he is accustomed to. Nobody else the Texans have on this team can rush the passer outside of Jacob Martin, who has COVID. Dud games from Whitney Mercilus are the norm. P.J. Hall and Carlos Watkins are fine players but not guys who should be anybody’s third or fourth-best pass rusher. We talk a lot about the run defense playing terribly, so this kind of skates under the radar, but I don’t know if I would bet on a single Texan on this roster to have five sacks in 2022. It is somehow one of the bleakest long-term problems on the roster and, at the same time, something that only pops up occasionally on this 2020 team. That’s a testament to how much this defense has underwhelmed.

3) Deshaun Watson as a runner suddenly reappears, but gets stuffed at the worst time

One thing I tweeted out Tuesday, expecting nothing to change — as that has been the normal — is that Deshaun Watson had only carried the ball twice since Week 4 on actual designed runs. Maybe this was a special situation brought on by the winds. Maybe it was finally realizing that the real running game sucks because the interior can’t block. Either way, the Texans actually ran Watson four times intentionally on Sunday, more than tripling his season total.

Three of those plays worked out very well: The Texans got nine yards on the play above, nine yards on a run that started the second drive of the second half, and four more on that same drive on a third-and-1. Two first downs, one nine yard run on third down. As I feel like I’ve been saying since 2018 — it is always monumentally stupid that the Texans can’t seem to understand that their run offense is terrible whenever Watson isn’t involved. It has always been stupid. I understand that he is the franchise and that if he gets hurt the season’s over, but he’s smart about these runs and does not take a lot of undue risks.

Unfortunately, the other designed run was a fourth-and-goal QB draw that cost the Texans big time when the Browns snuffed it out:

Zach Fulton got his meathooks established and created the seal that should have gotten Watson the touchdown, but Myles Garrett read the play and Tytus Howard simply had no way to get back in front of him after Watson chose that gap. Both Howard and Laremy Tunsil blocked this play like a draw — that meant they had to pass set. That meant it was reliant on the interior line to win fast and … well, have you watched this interior line? Yeah. The whole operation felt uncomfortable. And that was a major turning point in this game as the Texans continued to trail and never fully caught up.

I know a lot of people are blaming the offense entirely for this loss because the point total is bad — those people are the same ones that are going to whine that three of my four points are about the defense — but it’s not really the offense’s fault that they called a bad play on fourth-and-goal and Kai Fairbairn missed a field goal. The wind clearly played a role in the game, and I thought they did a decent job adapting their running attack to have a chance to move the ball. Penalties and sacks undid them on the drive where they got ball at the CLE 49, the big sack was on Max Scharping:

They only had three real first-half drives because the Browns were able to shorten the game with their running game. I don’t think the operation of Watson’s incompletion to Cobb on third-and-5 on their penultimate drive was bad, Cobb just dropped the ball.

When you play a low-possession ballgame, the pressure is amplified to nail your opportunities. The Texans didn’t do that, and they got what they deserved. Even as someone who is a big fan of aggressive play, I would have understood taking three when they went for it. If you don’t come into the game aware that it’s likely going to be a low-possession game, well, that’s on you.

4) The theory of Vernon Hargreaves

It’s third-and-8 with 10 seconds left in the third quarter. The Texans desperately need to get off the field. The ball that Baker Mayfield throws is terrible. But it doesn’t matter, because Vernon Hargreaves III is in coverage and gets got:

Now, I wanna lead this off by saying I’ve got nothing against Hargreaves. He is simply an NFL player trying to play up to a starting outside corner job that he has never proven up to the task for — there is no shame in that. But the fact that the Texans seem almost defiant in their evaluation that he can do this job is baffling to me. Take it back to the bye week:

The Texans believe in this guy. I have no idea why they believe in this guy. Something in his attitude? It certainly shouldn’t be anything in his play. He gets toasted every game by anybody with a pulse. And yet he just continues to be given a pass for this while rookie John Reid gets shoehorned into a blitzing(?) role:

Hargreaves, Phillip Gaines … up until he got hurt, Brennan Scarlett — it’s not that the team employs players who aren’t dominant at their roles, every team does that. It’s that the team is so, so stubborn about fitting these players out week after week to get rolled when nothing they’ve shown all season should give us any confidence in it happening any other way.

The problem with this season isn’t merely that it’s a lost cause — it’s that it’s a lost cause in service of an initial failed evaluation. Play your rookies! You’re 2-7! Hargreaves gets lit up like a Christmas tree every week and this team stands around and acts like it never saw anything. No, even worse than that, they outright have the gall to stand up there and tell you they think he’s doing a very good job.

Anyway DeAndre Hopkins just caught a Hail Mary to win the Cardinals a game and this season is dwindling so let’s cut it there and get into the sadness chocolate. This is a trainwreck of a season and the Texans are a six-year old in the driver’s cab, stood over the controls of the smoldering, on-fire engine, pretending it still runs.


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Week 10 Preview: Texans @ Browns


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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Getting up off the mat after beating Jacksonsville for the second time this season — barely — the Texans were given a boost by playoff news that could add an eighth team to the fray for this season:

I will be honest — I don’t understand the reasoning behind this. The way it was laid out in previous Schefter/other insider rumor posts led me to believe that they were worried about cancelled games creating a situation where a 9-6 team made it over a 9-7 team, which, well, just play the damn game in a Week 18! But the NFL has treated this virus like a nuisance at best, and so we will continue previewing games that shouldn’t matter in a Whose Playoffs Are They Anyway? sort of scenario.

The Browns are coming off a bye and have lost Odell Beckham Jr for the season, but they have successfully turned the corner from Freddie Kitchens and appear to have developed a real offensive identity in a way Bill O’Brien would kill to have done: running the ball well.

The last time the Browns and Texans played was in 2018 — Baker Mayfield was picked three times in his wildly effective rookie season and the Texans beat up on the Browns, 29-13. Unfortunately for us, that game has almost no impact on how we should feel about this game versus an entirely different coaching staff.

Cleveland is only regarded as about a 3-3.5 point favorite at home on Sunday, with the over/under a shockingly non-Texans-esque 45.5-46.5. Most of that is likely informed by high gusts of wind in the forecast. While snow has not ever mattered in a material way for projecting things like this, heavy wind does impact the passing game.

When the Texans have the ball

All statistics courtesy Football Outsiders

With David Johnson ruled out due to concussion, we finally get a full glimpse of Duke Johnson as an everydown runner for the first time in his Texans career. He did handle most of the workload in the win against the Jaguars, but was waylaid by his blockers for most of the game. Johnson faced eight-plus in the box on 37.5% of his carries and contributed minus-2 yards over expectation. To put that into a direct comparison: David Johnson is at minus-17 yards over expectation this season.

The other factor here is Senio Kelemete was ruled out with his own concussion, meaning it’s likely that Max Scharping will return to the lineup at guard. I do rate Scharping as a better run blocker than Kelemete. At least on runs where Scharping isn’t pulling, anyway. Week 8’s Texans game plan involved more screens than we’ve seen in sometime. I have a little optimism that maybe that kind of game plan can work if the Texans are forced into something like that by the weather. The Browns and Raiders played one game in similar weather this year and the long pass by the Raiders was 11 yards, if you’re wondering how that might play out.

The name of the Cleveland pass defense is turnovers — they have forced one to end 17.1% of defensive possessions against them, second-highest in the NFL. If you’re comparing them to teams the Texans have played this year, they remind me a bit of the Titans with more pass rush. Myles Garrett is terrifying and has racked up nine sacks in eight games. Sheldon Richardson can still bring the heat, and Olivier Vernon and Adrian Clayborn are both vets with some juice. Watson hasn’t turned the ball over since Week 5.

Denzel Ward is an awesome corner, but not one that travels often, and the Texans have enough depth in their receiver corps to be able to exploit that if they are actually throwing the ball on Sunday. Terrance Mitchell and Kevin Johnson — remember him? — are the other corners. Johnson does know the Texans scheme and that helped the Bills strangle the Texans in the playoffs until Deshaun Watson bailed them out.

The Browns are solidly in the tier of teams that won’t blitz much — their 22.4% blitz rate ranks sixth-lowest in the NFL — and their overall pressure rate is pretty low at 19.0%. I think those are both factors that tend to tilt the game in Watson’s favor if the wind isn’t too blustery to deal with. The Texans tend to struggle against more aggressive teams. Garrett on Tytus Howard ought to tell us a lot about how Howard is faring — and if they put Garrett over Tunsil at any point, that’s a big win for the Texans.

Since firing Bill O’Brien, the Texans have become more 12-personnel (one back, two tight ends) heavy, using it on 26% of snaps since Week 5. They also showcased some I-Formation looks against the Jaguars with Pharaoh Brown as a pseudo-fullback. They average 5.2 yards per carry from 12-personnel and 3.3 from 11-personnel (one back, one tight end). The Browns have allowed 4.5 yards per carry against 12-personnel — it brings more of their young linebackers on to the field — but also have allowed only a 59.1 passer rating against 12. Houston’s passer rating in 12? 128.9. Something is going to have to give in that stat, one way or the other, that could break the game.

If the Texans are forced by the wind to become a one-dimensional team … it will not end well. This offense hasn’t run the ball well outside of short bursts in years. I do think the set up for them to run is as optimal as they have on the roster from a personnel perspective, but asking their run offense to win the game as currently constituted — poorly coached, poorly schemed, and against a solid run defense — is a big ask.

When the Browns have the ball

Buzzsaw, meet planks of wood. Houston’s run defense has improved slightly since Tyrell Adams was added to the lineup, but mostly only in obvious short-yardage situations. The Cleveland running game has been fantastic this season, with Wyatt Teller emerging as an obvious star on the offensive line and toting a ridiculous PFF grade as well as wreaking havoc on the film before being shut down by injury. He’s expected to return:

Cleveland’s offense is not locked into 11-personnel at all — they’ve run it just 44% of the time. In that regard, as DC Anthony Weaver mentioned in his presser, they’re kind of like the Vikings. That is where Kevin Stefanski came from, after all. The Browns have run for 6.1 yards per carry in 12-personnel, 5.7 in 13-personnel, and 3.9 with fullback Andy Janovich in the backfield for 22-personnel. Houston’s run defense has allowed 6.1 yards per carry against 12-personnel. The Texans aren’t equipped to hold this team to 100 yards rushing. They may not be equipped to hold it to 200 yards rushing. Nick Chubb’s status is up in the air, but if he plays, this is the best they’ve seen since Dalvin Cook.

With Jacob Martin still on the COVID list, I expect Jon Greenard’s snaps to be cut pretty heavily and for Whitney Mercilus to get at least 60% of the outside snaps, if not 70%. Mercilus has played like one of the worst run defenders in the NFL so far this season. Brennan Scarlett’s injury deprives the Texans of the guy they think is a primary run defender, Charles Omenihu is questionable. I’m sure the Texans would like to go back to ignoring Greenard completely based on how John Reid is being used, but they may just not have a choice based on the injuries and illnesses.

In their one game without Beckham so far, the Browns ran with Rashard Higgins as the No. 2 receiver and KhaDarel Hodge as the No. 3 over Donovan Peoples-Jones. Hodge has nine NFL catches, but I think Higgins is a solid possession receiver who could move some chains on the weak links of the Texans secondary. If Peoples-Jones get snaps, I think that speed could be hard for the Texans and their “veterans that are playing well” to deal with.

Baker Mayfield, for me, is a bust in the guise of franchise quarterback. I don’t think he’s equipped with any special attributes to climb the rankings. However, this offense has hidden him in the same role it hid Case Keenum in for the entirety of the 2017 season, when the Vikings made the NFC Championship game. Cleveland’s thrown for 586 passing yards off of 67 play-action dropbacks. Mayfield is more than capable of coughing it up — he’s got a bad throw % per SportsRadar of 20.6% — fourth-highest in the NFL. It’s hard to really gauge how much Beckham’s absence will hurt the passing game because their one game with that took place inside of a tornado, but Mayfield performed terribly in it.

At the same time — does it really matter who this Texans defense plays? Jake Luton threw for 300 on it. I’m sure Jarvis Landry will find some lanes and make some easy yardage in the role he was born to play in this offense as a high-volume extension of the running game. I’m sure that the Texans will lose at least one receiver on a leak concept. Bradley Roby’s return will help them look a little bit better, I’m positive of that, but beyond that … what kind of hope do they have here? They need Watt and Mercilus to turn back the clock to 2015 to get any sort of negative plays and both running backs and tight ends have shredded this defense when given the chance. The best way to describe this defense is to listen to their defensive coordinator:

“When we have 10 missed tackles or less, we tend to play pretty good defense” is an “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?” of the 2020s.

Special teams

Mired in disastrous reads and decisions by DeAndre Carter, the Texans have turned themselves into just another mediocre unit. Fairbairn hasn’t missed a kick in a few games, so that’s good! But other than that, there’s not a lot for this unit to hang their hat on besides Bryan Anger.

Cleveland’s kick and punt coverage is a disaster though, and the Browns did have a bad game from Austin Seibert, so I guess they’re somehow worse.

The read

Impossible to tell you today how this game will play out without knowing the weather forecast. The Texans gain a big boost if they are allowed to throw downfield on this team. The Browns are better-equipped for a wind tunnel game between a great run offense returning one of its best linemen and a cover-you-eyes-bad Texans defense.

If it turns out to be a 30+ MPH wind day for the Texans to deal with, I’ll go Texans 17, Browns 24. But if the Texans are actually allowed to throw the football, I think this game goes way over the spread as Deshaun Watson’s arm forces the Browns out of their comfort zone only for the Browns to discover this defense is pretty trash. If that’s the case? Texans 29, Browns 30. The Texans will have to prove they can beat an actual NFL team again before I believe that they will, even one I think has some pretty obvious weak spots.

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Four Downs: Texans 27, Jaguars 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 schedule has relented. The Texans have Deshaun Watson. This game should have been a one-way ticket to Get Right town. But between a COVID-19 (and Bradley Roby surprise inactive)-depleted defense struggling to do anything and a Jaguars defense that did their homework, this game almost blew up in Houston’s face.

In the end, it came down to a play that shouldn’t have counted: Deshaun Watson hitting Will Fuller on third-and-6 for a breakaway touchdown. It only took place about two or three seconds after the play clock hit zero.

Doug Marrone was appalled. This created a two-score lead for the Texans, and one that — bless the defense for trying — they just couldn’t lose. Did the Texans know they got away with one there? Let’s ask Deshaun Watson:

They sure did.

As much as the organization wants to create the allure of a football season that isn’t over yet, this is a win that only the hungriest of fans can walk away from feeling nourished. It was tough sledding against a 1-6 team starting a rookie quarterback who had never taken an NFL snap before. It was custom-built in a lab as a layup, and the Texans still hit every part of the rim, spinning around and around and almost out, before taking down the win.

1) The Battle Red Carpet rides again

The Texans punted on fourth-and-6 from the JAX 38 (after taking a delay of game penalty), setting up 80 yards for sixth-round rookie Jake Luton to go the distance of the field, needing eight points to tie the game. He had 3:03. He needed 1:33.

It doesn’t matter if the opponent is Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck, or Tom Brady. It doesn’t matter if the opponent is Jake Luton, Ryan Tannehill, or Nick Foles. When this Texans defense goes into hurry-up mode, it is a sitting duck. I don’t know if this is a feeling that is unique to the team — I honestly want to look it up and do a big project about it and compare to what other teams have done. What I do know is that I had no confidence — NONE — in the Texans stopping a rookie sixth-round pick from driving the field with ease in his first start to hold a lead. And that lack of confidence was rewarded:

This team’s only saving grace is when the other team celebrates a touchdown so they can get a breather to prepare for the two-point attempt. Thankfully Luton botched that one. It was one of very few underneath throws he botched, as he went (checks notes) 18-of-21 for 164 yards on passes that traveled between 0-10 yards of the line of scrimmage. I don’t clip short pass plays because generally they don’t matter much — but if you just let the opposing quarterback do that all game for free, it adds up. I mean, would you ask a rookie quarterback to try to make some difficult throws? The Texans got four bites at the turnover apple and came away with just one interception. They finished the game with four quarterback hits and two sacks. There’s barely any negative plays and barely any turnovers.

Listen, on a fundamental level, the hurry-up defense is broken. I don’t know how you fix that without a different coaching staff. Some of Houston’s lack of defensive success today is because they held Roby out, some of Houston’s lack of defensive success today is because of COVID and other injuries. But it is at least equal parts pure stubbornness. Speaking of…

2) Rescued from commitments

David Johnson took a nasty hit on a short throw from Deshaun Watson that concussed him. I feel bad about that, and in no way want to imply that I am happy that it happened. But it must be noted that when Duke Johnson was in, and actually attempted to cut the ball back, the run offense was incrementally better.

Duke Johnson had 16 carries for 41 yards, and he lost a fumble when Myles Jack straight up jacked it from him. It wasn’t the second coming and it proved that scheme and blocking had a say in all the problems the Texans have had running the ball to date. At the same time, when the Texans needed to close the game out, Johnson rallied with carries for four, four, and five yards. His ability to actually break tackles and cut back was sorely needed.

It appeared that Vernon Hargreaves was mercifully benched after missing a tackle, which put Keion Crossen in a big spot on third down, near the goal line. Crossen delivered by actually slowing up the underneath receiver on the same type of play:

Was it the best thing I’ve ever seen? No. But was it better than what Vernon Hargreaves has reliably been providing the Texans? Yep. Brennan Scarlett got hurt in this game and will miss the rest of the season, a move that forced Jon Greenard on to the field for his first extended snaps of the season. At times, that worked out well:

Now, am I denying that he got stiff-armed and thrown out the club by Jake Luton? Nope. But how many impact plays do you remember Scarlett giving the Texans?

When the Texans were forced to expose their roster depth to us, it turned out that those players made some plays. They also didn’t make some plays you’d like them to make. But it seems that the actual making of some plays was more than a lot of players who have been considered starters via fait accompli have produced all season.

In other words: The Texans got knocked out of their comfort zone via injuries. It turns out that the excuses to stay in the comfort zone were just that: excuses. If the players you thought weren’t the best aren’t working out, get out of your own way, and some good things will happen.

Maybe DeAndre Carter can not return kicks anymore?

3) Watson under siege by the worst pass rush in the NFL

Coming into today’s game, the Jaguars had a league-low six sacks. They also had just 55 pressures per SportsRadar data, a number that ranked them eighth-to-last. In the last game against the Texans, the Jaguars pressured Deshaun Watson six times in 36 dropbacks, getting one sack. They only picked up two sacks today, but the pressure was constant and it was constant from players who you’ve never heard of unless you’re a Jaguars fan.

Jacksonville showed a number of exotic blitzes that Watson had to find a way to get around. In the end, it wound up being Watson’s legs that carried a lot of the game for the Texans. Time and time again the Texans get stopped because their blocking situation just simply doesn’t add up or a mental mistake crunches them.

The Texans come out with the ball and eight minutes left looking for the killshot. Pressure immediately comes from Zach Fulton’s block. Watson steps up to try to get the ball off anyway, he gets crunched, the Texans have second-and-10. On the next drive:

Everything is slow, Watson sees the extra rusher coming. Nick Martin winds up on his ass. Watson evades the arm tackles and gets the first down.

There were countless plays like this. And, I would say, the offense didn’t really play all that well. They had two long pass plays that were exquisite, sure. But other than that, it was mainly Watson’s legs that had to save the day because the Texans continually were in bad blocking situations. This is a problem that goes all the way back to 2018. Take those two plays out and Watson was 17-of-30 for 147 yards. I’m not saying they don’t count — just that for the majority of the day, this offense stagnated in structure.

It is extremely telling to me that the Texans and Jaguars both came into this game off a bye week. One of these teams scouted the other team very well and did exactly what they’d need to do to win the game. The other is the Texans. Shades of Baltimore 41, Houston 7 here — just with a different caliber of team.

4) The Will Fuller factor

It’s been fun and memes online to talk about Will Fuller being traded for a “deluxe nut package,” but after the game, Fuller spoke to the human element of it:

The problem with trade rumors taking on a life of their own is that there’s a human side to that sort of thing. And when you’re dealing with someone who is set to become a free agent in short order, it’s perhaps not the best look to shop them, ultimately not trade them, have the interim head coach spend a lot of time talking about not trading them, then turn it into a meme. Particularly when the player has been the kind of solider that Fuller has been for this team gutting it out while hurt several times.

I can’t help but feel like a better, more experienced general manager would have turned the conversations away from Fuller before they started. Could have left Fuller feeling like someone valued by the organization rather than just a deluxe nut. If he was really in their long-term plans from the get-go, it’s a boondoggle that the Texans ever entertained trading him. That, unfortunately, is a problem with interim organizations where guys are out of their depth. I don’t think this is going to be a dealbreaker for Fuller come contract time — I think his injury history is ultimately going to steer teams away from anyway so his ability to be picky is going to be limited. But it does feel like yet another fire that could have been put out much earlier than it was.

Fuller has always shown the ability to be a No. 1 receiver. Watson was always going to stick up for his guy if given the chance. The fact that nobody at NRG thought about these two things before actively engaging the fourth-round hotline is yet another concern about the people running the show right now staying one second past the time the new head coach is hired.

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Week 9 Preview: Texans @ Jaguars

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.

***

Let’s be honest about a few things here:

— Neither of these teams are good. The Texans have a credible pass offense, so they are 1/4th of the way to a good team. Winning against the Jaguars would change nothing even if the Jaguars were healthy, let alone winning against them with “Jake Luton” as the starting quarterback.

— The only thing I care about for the rest of this season is how the offense looks without David Johnson involved and how new players on the defense look. I’m going to enjoy the good players being good, of course — Deshaun bombs and what not — but there’s not a lot of new ground in that. To that end, I am going to be hoping quite hard that Jon Greenard is involved in the game even though it feels like a big joke to Romeo Crennel to even play him and the linebackers coach literally insinuated Greenard was paying media to ask about him during the bye week. There’s no indication from Tim Kelly that anything with David Johnson will change. I am about five more runs up the middle to nowhere away from just clipping other things that are on TV on Sunday and passing them off as Johnson highlights. Maybe he’ll run for 100 yards against the Jaguars! Wow! What a day that would be for everyone!

— The fact that this game is even going to be played is an indictment on how the money matters much more than anything else here. The NFL is watching COVID-19 spike yet again and doing nothing about it. It’s going to be harder and harder to get these games in. The Texans cannot do anything about the environment they are a part of, but a disease that you can test positive for five or seven days after exposure is never going to be something that a football team can adequately deal with under the current protocols.

The 49ers-Packers prime time game was an abomination last night as the 49ers were decimated by the virus and the Packers had somebody test positive after the game who played. Given the incubation patterns of this virus, the Texans should not expect to play this game without any possibility of not spreading the virus. What the NFL’s rules are saying is: OK, but there’s money to be made here. The players actually get some of that money, unlike in college, which is why these games are still getting played.

Now, okay, you might say, some teams have a reason to keep playing games: We need to seed the playoffs. These two teams, though, do not. Nothing they do matters. They have a combined playoff odds chance of 3.0% despite seven different teams being invited to the AFC playoff picture. The Texans don’t even have picks for their fans to root for a tank for. There’s literally nothing at stake here for the rest of their season. The people who watch this game are only here to watch football because they love football; that’s it.

So … I’m not going to write a full and detailed preview of this game. There’s no reason to get detailed about this. I don’t work in PR. I’ll be there on Sunday. I’ll clip it. We’ll write about what happened and talk about what occurred — maybe some with younger players if we’re allowed to, maybe just depressing things if the game trends in that direction — but what the Texans do now doesn’t impact things one way or another. It doesn’t matter if their play-action rate is down. It doesn’t matter if they run Johnson up the middle three times or 15. It doesn’t matter if they win — it will be quite a fiasco if they lose, but it still won’t matter. The optimistic energy of stacking one win at a time is just empty, hollow wording at 1-6. I will predict a Texans win by the scoreline of: Houston 26, Jacksonville 10. Everybody will talk about how much better they feel if they win. It won’t really matter.


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