Four Downs: Texans 41, Chargers 29

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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What do you do when you’re down entire starting lines on offense and defense due to a COVID-19 outbreak? What do you do when you don’t have Brandin Cooks and your offense is entirely Brandin Cooks?

Well, obviously, you (checks notes) … go beat the hell out of a playoff team? Impressively so? And run better than you have all season? And pass better than you have all season? This is starting to feel suspiciously like a post that was written about another team, but it is, in fact, a post about your Houston Texans.

The Houston Texans came to life because they were built for exactly this sort of scenario. They are the team that buried depth parts on the roster like acorns for the winter. They are the team that decided Rex Burkhead was a worthy use of a roster spot despite him being 31. They are the team that carried Cole Toner on the active roster for weeks at a time despite him not playing beyond special teams. I have personally made fun of them several times this year for not getting younger players on the practice squad and on the field.

But, as dumb as I think carrying low-upside backups is as an operating philosophy, as ridiculous and cornball as Team Team Team and our weekly culture talks are, this is exactly the situation where that depth pays off. Playing in a pandemic, where both sides have massive losses, and you’re the team with less gaping holes.

And, honestly, hopefully the Texans learn some lessons from this. Because when your offensive line executes (Culley talk) as poorly as it has all season, many of the starters are gone, and all of the sudden you run like the Texans did today — that should be a wakeup call about who exactly the depth actually is.

1) Davis Mills’ best game of his career to date

I’ve been pretty skeptical about Davis Mills being good this year, but from the beginning I knew that this would be a process. The funny thing about processes is that they can take leaps quickly. While this came in the midst of the Texans actually running well, came against a defense that was missing important starters, and while there still weren’t many deep throws, this was the best game that Mills has played to date. Let’s start with the touchdown throw to Conley:

Here’s what I was excited about with this play: It felt like an overrule of what the offense traditionally has been, and that was echoed in post-game comments by both Chris Conley and Mills. It came after the Texans started running the ball and not using timeouts, and where it felt like they were almost happy to attempt a long field goal to take a one-point lead. (As they had, actually, the drive before.) Instead they went for the jugular, and the throw had to be on the money, and it was:

(Please ignore the fact that I left audio on for that during an SNF commercial.) These are the kind of throws that Mills is going to have to hit with ease if he wants to be a long-term starter in this league. He doesn’t have to hit a ton of them to be an Andy Dalton sort of player, but he has to find some of them. This was a big step and came on the heels of another dart earlier in the drive, his other long pass that was completed:

The other section of improvement from Mills has come pre-snap, where he’s become a lot smarter about not dialing in on his receivers based on coverages he’s seen. That was something he specifically talked about in his post-game presser:

These are encouraging signs that Mills is growing as a player. I was never one who urged a lot of doom and gloom about the pick when it happened, but I definitely have thought at times this year that Mills didn’t look like he belonged on the field. Since he’s come back, he’s been much better on third down and has limited his turnover rate. I think there’s a lot of ballgame(s) left, and I don’t expect him to be this good all the time. I still don’t think he’s hit throws against blitzes that I want to see. But it’s impossible to watch this and think that he hasn’t markedly improved from the beginning of the year. And there’s almost no way he won’t be starting games for this team next year the way things are trending.

2) The Rex Burkhead career game

The only player with more rushing yards over expected in Week 16 than Rex Burkhead was Rashaad Penny. I can’t believe I’m typing these words, and can’t believe they are real, but this is where we’re at as a society now. We must acknowledge the Rexaissance.

David Johnson? Not playing. The Chargers run defense? Look, it’s not been good this year. They’re 31st in the NFL by DVOA. But the Texans played No. 32 in rush defense DVOA — the Jets — and didn’t do crap against them. So let’s celebrate the victories. I think the Texans offensive line pushed this front around for most of the day, and I think Burkhead got some extra yardage when Chargers spun out of their gaps because he’s a smart enough runner to take advantage of that.

This was the first time the Texans have had a 100-yard rusher since Week 16 of the 2020 season — almost a full calendar year — despite the fact that it is inextricably linked to their team’s identity. Here’s what I’m interested in: Who just lost a job? Because when David Culley talked about the reserves, he didn’t sound like a man interested in playing politics:

Tytus Howard needs to play tackle. But your Lane Taylors and Justin McCrays and Justin Britts? If they can’t get you a 100-yard rusher until Game 15, how much have they helped? Let’s see some more Cole Toner and Jimmy Morrissey. And honestly given how the roster has been constructed — I know they can’t have everyone active every game — but I’m a little surprised by how much of a given some of these roster spots actually have been so far. The only player who has received a punishment benching is Max Scharping. Let’s spend the next two weeks finding out if there are any Team Team Team players here who can actually get movement up front.

3) The front seven, to their credit, did not get pushed around by the Chargers front despite massive losses

The only two players who have been full-time rotation guys for the Texans defensive line before last week and also played heavily on Sunday were Ross Blacklock and DeMarcus Walker. They were joined by guys like Michael Dwumfour, Demone Harris, and Xavier Williams — Williams was signed off the street literally this week.

That’s a dangerous situation for any team — while you don’t need dominant line play in the NFL to win, if you get too thin there, can’t run rotations, and get outclassed, it’s extremely easy to lose. The Texans weren’t outclassed. Dwumfour, in my opinion, had one of the most impactful plays of the game:

They also managed to hold the Chargers to just 89 rushing yards and 4.2 per carry. There was no Austin Ekeler, yes, but Justin Jackson is pretty splashy and they were able to keep him from dominating the game. Walker even stripped him on the run-by in what became another huge play for the Texans:

I can’t tell you Houston’s defense was downright good, given that they allowed 7.3 yards a play, but they did get three turnovers against one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL — Jonathan Owens’ pick being a key one whereas Tavierre Thomas’ pick-six was just window dressing on a game that was already over.

I didn’t come away from the game with any new insights about Houston’s defense but it says a lot that they were able to hang on and not get absolutely bullied at such a massive deficit. In a season like this, that can be a win.

4) Brevin Jordan became the go-to guy on third down

Brevin Jordan won three crucial third-down plays in the second half, the most impressive of which to me was this one:

Jordan gets to the horizontal part of his route here, and he leaves his guy — who had early leverage — in the dust as the defender falls down. Then there was the 27-yarder that was much-more celebrated because Jordan was able to make some misses happen in the open field:

I thought that was a well-placed ball from Mills as well with the angle Jordan gave him. He had to lead him to the sideline, and that’s the kind of throw that has to be located perfectly. It was.

The Texans really spread the ball around in a big way without Brandin Cooks, and I think the fact that they were as successful at it as they were speaks loudly to Mills’ development, but I was most excited to see how involved Jordan was in it. He has been tangentially involved with touchdown catches and with certain packages, but seeing him as the focal point on a few key third-down throws was a big step for me. We’ve had flashes like this before with guys like Jordan Akins and Jordan Thomas, and it was just four targets, but the importance of those particular targets feels promising. Just that this is the guy that they trust to win the ball even when he’s covered says quite a bit — because a lot of their other third-down catches in this game were open underneath zone holes.

This was the best game Tim Kelly has called since the Lions game in Thanksgiving 2020. It was not entirely without flaws, but there was a notable lack of conservatism. Maybe some of that is just Mills growing up, as well. But it’s rare that I feel like the Texans are actively hunting mismatches so much as just running the same few plays, and this felt like an inspired effort.

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Four Downs: Texans 30, Jaguars 16

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 Texans have conclusively proven one thing over the past two years and it’s that no matter how bad they are, they can always count on the Jacksonville Jaguars to be dysfunctional enough to keep them out of the AFC South basement. Even without Deshaun Watson. Even without J.J. Watt. Even without nearly half of the defensive starters due to COVID-19 protocols. It didn’t matter one bit. The Texans didn’t even really need to do much as an offense. The Jaguars self-combusted as a passing offense yet again after a hot start.

Of Houston’s seven wins over the last two seasons, four of them are triumphs over the Jaguars. Maybe they’ll get it together with Trevor Lawrence, maybe they’ll hire a good head coach — it’s kind of hard to believe because the team has been bad for so long — but the hole the Jaguars have dug themselves into today is inimitable and they have almost nothing in the way of NFL-caliber wideouts. They’re starting other team’s first-round draft washouts and vagabonds because Urban Meyer tried to force them to be as fast as they could. The Texans refused to join the Jaguars in that hole today. They just sat and watched as the Jaguars tried to climb out of it, then stepped on their fingers any time they came close.

This is a big victory for the Nick Caserio off-season strategy (I can’t say Easterby here, right? They will get mad at me for saying his name even though the Texans did it before Caserio arrived? OK, just checking.) of “layers and layers of players.” The next men up of age and experience that the Texans accumulated were able to hold off the Jaguars and put the Texans back into the win column.

1) Special teams were a massive difference-maker — in a positive light — for the first time in a Texans game this season

Of course, the big game here was seven points directly off of Tremon Smith’s kickoff return touchdown. That was seven points that influenced a lot about how this game between two sloppy offenses in sloppy weather played out. It directed the entirety of the game script. The Texans are driving to take a lead against the Jaguars on the Brandin Cooks screen touchdown without that, and maybe at that point the Jaguars aren’t bringing a Cover-0 blitz.

But even beyond that, the Texans destroyed the Jaguars on special teams. The Jaguars started drives at the JAX 17, JAX 25, JAX 18, JAX 25, JAX 14, JAX 25, JAX 34, HOU 22, JAX 18, JAX 4, and JAX 25. That means that only two drives all game started beyond a touchback, and one of those was directly off a Davis Mills turnover. The one that made it to the Jacksonville 34 was on a ball that arguably shouldn’t have been returned, because it was caught inside the 5!

On the other side of things, leaving out the touchdown runback, the Texans started drives at the JAX 49, the HOU 38, the JAX 47, the HOU 40 twice, and the HOU 45. One of those was because of a big fourth-down stop, but the Jaguars didn’t turn the ball over at all. Special teams kept giving the Texans the ball in premium field position. And Kai’mi Fairbairn didn’t miss his long attempts, even in the rain, disappointing Jaxson De Ville.

This is sort of more my vision for how wins for the Texans would look this season after the heavy offseason focus on special teams players of some note. Not all of those players actually worked with the Team Team Team — Andre Roberts had a long kickoff return on Thursday night football — and this unit struggled for most of the season. The Texans came into the game 19th in special teams DVOA. But they have had only one negative DVOA special teams game since Week 5 (against the Jets), and suddenly special teams look good enough to give this team a needed edge.

2) Davis Mills hit the two throws he needed to hit, but continues to be mostly fed easy stuff

I don’t think that Davis Mills had a bad game, but I do think the raw numbers are again overstating the impact. Once again, the Texans script mostly worked, and once again, when the other team adjusted, he had problems adjusting with it. He was 13-of-15 for 104 yards and a touchdown at halftime. The Cooks screen pass touchdown — which now that I’ve referenced it twice, I guess I’ll put up below this — ended the game, but pretty much any first down would have ended the game at that point. It was 43 yards. That means from the second half start to the screen pass touchdown, he went 5-of-14 for 62 yards.

The best throw that Mills made all game was a momentum swinger in the third quarter where the Jaguars zero-blitzed and he had to hang tough in the pocket and place a ball to Phillip Dorsett.

Mills did a little jump back on the throw — it’s not exactly something that I think a quarterback coach would be in love with — but that was a humongous throw for the state of the game. 20-10 lead, you’re in No Man’s Land as far as punting/kicking and we all know David Culley wasn’t going for it on fourth down. The throw was placed right in Dorsett’s bucket. That’s the kind of throw he’s going to need to consistently hit to have a real claim as a long-term starter.

The second throw I want to talk about is his 18-yard completion to Jordan Akins at a point of time where the Jaguars finally were bottling up the run and the Texans desperately needed to keep a drive alive. The Texans ran play-action, and it stunned me because they’d been just chewing time up:

Four-man rush, Geron Christian releases his guy into Mills. Burkhead is open underneath. Five Jaguars defenders are either near the first-down marker or running with someone near it. Rudy Ford comes off Burkhead and is able to get his hands in the area, almost intercepting the ball. Instead, fortuitously, it ends up right in Jordan Akins’ hands off a deflection. Miss that completion and the Texans are at third-and-8.

It wasn’t pretty. Obviously, I’m happy for Mills that the winless drought is over. There’s still a lot of work to be done here. He said so himself after the game.

Mills didn’t take the bait on a question to make the game a him versus Lawrence showdown, which is unsurprising because my experience of watching Mills talk has proved that he’s from the Matt Ryan school of quarterback thought. He doesn’t want to put a lot interesting in to the world as a media personality. He just wants to play ball.

It’s a fun fan thing to fire the takes off about Mills performing better than Lawrence this year, and I say have your fun with that. I don’t know that it’s going to last beyond this year, but smoke ’em while you’ve got ’em.

3) The defense didn’t have an eye-popping game, but stood up when it needed to

After giving up 154 yards to the Jaguars on their first two drives, I have to admit I was a little worried that the special teams touchdown wouldn’t hold up. At that point the Jaguars were almost at seven yards per play. From that point on, the Jaguars would have only three drives that gained a first down, one of which came with the game in hand. They converted only three third-downs all game, and while the James Robinson train was hit-or-miss, it’s not like they were handed impossible situations. They just failed to execute time and time again.

Third-and-3, Texans drop into coverage. Lawrence initially comes back to the two curls in the middle but both are well-defensed. He dekes a dumpoff to Robinson, but thinks he has more time than he does as Derek Rivers comes looping around. Lawrence doesn’t have the athleticism to do a lot about a guy right in his face. The drive ends. None of these routes play off each other in a hard way to defend.

People have given Tim Kelly hell around here, and I think he definitely deserves some blame for the way the offense has gone, but watching the Jaguars will give you a new appreciation for what he does. Jacksonville, too, used up all its creativity in the opening script. Their base calls are tough and their skill position players were dire.

Let’s go to the big moment of the defensive game: third-and-2 and the Jaguars are driving to get in position to cut the lead to four. Dare Ogunbowale and Lawrence bobble a handoff after Robinson limps off and it goes to fourth-and-1. The Jaguars try a sneak (they had a great sneak earlier in the game) and they just get stonewalled:

That was an enormous play — if they convert, the Jaguars are almost certainly attempting a field goal to end the half at some point. Instead, the Texans got the ball and were able to advance far enough in a few plays on some quick slants to get into field-goal range. Instead of a four-point game, it’s a ten-point game.

4) The run game was not empirically good, but without penalties, it was enough

The Texans carried only 26 times for 75 yards in this game which is well in line with the established norms. But those 75 yards were not quite as bad as they might seem on paper because they weren’t creating a lot of horrible situations to throw in. This is something David Culley has emphasized time and time again via penalty, but what he really needs is two and three-yard runs to get into third-and-short.

After the Jaguars allowed their opening drive to breathe with a special-teams penalty, the Texans created third-and-1 with two runs, third-and-5 with a run, and third-and-3 with two runs mostly from David Johnson, who then was banished to the bench because David Culley likes Rex Burkhead more as a between the tackles back:

The Texans converted 10-of-18 third downs, in stark contrast to the Jaguars. They failed only two third-and-6 or shorter tries — when Mills went for the kill shot on third-and-6 at the Jaguars 7 to Nico Collins, and another one to Cooks later in the third quarter. To me, the most undersung hero in that is the Texans offensive line — Mills took just one sack for the first time as a starter. The Jaguars finished with only three quarterback hits, and they added only two tackles for loss.

It’s going to look bad in DVOA. It doesn’t look good in the box score. But, I have to admit, it was a slight improvement from what I’ve become accustomed to seeing for the Texans run game. They typically get gored enough times to bleed out a few drives. Not today.

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Four Downs: Texans 13, Seahawks 33

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 Texans come away from a 20-point loss to the Seahawks without much to be optimistic about beyond playing the Jaguars next week. They continued to not be able to run, as has been a season-long ordeal for the worst DVOA (standard link to DVOA explainer) run offense of all-time:

This time, at least they managed to have an excuse of losing David Johnson to the COVID-19 list. (Well, I guess that’s an excuse, it’s not like he’s run well.) But to have 22 carries with Royce Freeman and Rex Burkhead and manage just 55 yards … it’s status quo stuff for this team. Stuff that goes down to the studs, from the players (trying, but mostly not good at run blocking or breaking tackles) to the play calls. The good news is that David Culley said that it was on him.

Ah, finally, I had missed that phrase over the years! “It’s on me” conveys quite clearly that the coach wishes to do no further introspection about the state of the team in the media. It conveys that the coach knows that he’s doing a bad. It conveys that he doesn’t even want to put out a line of hope for the fans who are still putting up with the product. There’s not many of them at the stadium these days, as today they were mostly replaced by Seahawks fans. Here’s Culley’s laughable comment on that:

You can create a montage of David Culley denying basic reality about how much the fans are engaged that would be surprising if this wasn’t the same person who just wants to shut out all the noise. Well, the noise from the Seahawks fans speaking louder than the home crowd signals loudly about where we’re at there.

1) Davis Mills’ performance didn’t do a lot for me, and I realize the box score scouts are going to seize this and run with it and call me a hater

331 yards! How can you do anything but call it a massive success, Rivers!?!? Well, I think it was a massive success, but a massive success of the Texans game plan as developed by Tim Kelly and David Culley in the early game. When you start tapping the bones of these 331 yards and checking for meat, it gets awfully skinny. The chart above his Next Gen Stats chart. There are zero completions with a pass distance of more than 20 yards. Of the ones that are close to that, well, they weren’t all that impressive.

Was Mills hurried on this pass? No. Was Mills tasked to make an accurate throw? Not really. Did Nico Collins need to jump for it anyway? He did.

How about the one touchdown pass that Mills had? Was that a highlight reel play?

Not really, no. I guess it was accurate on the run, you have to give Mills that! But … this again was not all that hard.

This was the first time all year that Tim Kelly’s screen passes were a) almost always working and b) almost always open.

I think the most telling fact of all is that Royce Freeman finished with 51 receiving yards. Royce Freeman was targeted eight times! The Seahawks started retreating into deep carpet zones and the Texans piled up 98 total yards in their last two drives with the Seahawks up 20. As it was during the Rams game, I don’t think this production augurs well for a “Davis Mills Actually Is Better Than Justin Fields Because of Numbers” take. (It might be up to a “Davis Mills Actually Is Better Than Zach Wilson” take.)

Does that mean everything Davis Mills did in this game sucked? No. I liked this back shoulder ball to Brandin Cooks that got waived off on a dubious OPI:

That is the level of anticipation that I think Mills is going to have to work with to actually be a successful quarterback in the long run. Blitz is dialed up, Mills doesn’t have the cannon to beat the blitz in most spots. (He has struggled against the blitz this year for a reason.) But he’s able to sense it and punish the defense at a known weak point.

Was yesterday a step forward for Mills? Inarguably. It’s good to see him hit the easy throws, because his accuracy still matters quite a bit as that was a bugaboo coming out. Did it do anything to change my opinion that he should start next year? It did not. I think he’d have to beat out a real quarterback — acquisition or draft — if I were in charge of things. Of course, I’m not the Texans, and I expect them to just let him be the quarterback, so from their perspective, this game is a handy validation tool.

2) The meat thresher that is the last five games of the season

One of the looming things that sucks about the way this team was put together is that they’re full of one-year contracts for older players with no security. I believe the news since it happened has looked fairly good, but seeing this happen to Kamu Grugier-Hill in light of what he’s meant to the team this year is diabolical:

Non-contact knee injuries (look to the left of where this target goes) are scary things. They’re especially ugly when they are focused on a guy who has no long-term security with a team. And, in this case, someone who is literally playing for pride and some small contract incentives at this point.

I’m not going to tell you I Learned A Big Lesson Today or preach at you about the product — these players accept the consequences of their jobs. This is just the absolute worst-case scenario for so many of these guys, your Maliek Collinses, Desmond Kings, and so on. There’s no security and there’s not a lot to play for but putting good stuff on tape for your future employer, whoever that might be. Four games left that mean little, but where you can get hurt in a meaningful enough way to change your upcoming bottom line.

Anyway, I hated to see that. I hated to see Justin Reid’s concussion, too. Rex Burkhead’s (Rex Burkheart’s?) groin. David Johnson’s COVID listing, Kamu’s COVID-listing Monday, and so on. The tenuousness of their future makes me pull for these guys.

3) The stark difference between turnover Lovie and non-turnover Lovie

Lovie Smith has outperformed my expectations for him this year. The unit has played pretty well without a lot of non-Jon Greenard impact-level contributors. On the other hand, a ton of their value is currently tied up in turnovers. Through Week 12, they had five games with negative DVOA as a team. In those games they had 16 turnovers. They have five turnovers in their other seven (now eight) games.

In many ways I felt like Russell Wilson was the worst possible quarterback for this unit to face. The Texans without Lonnie Johnson at safety have been very good at limiting the deep pass. Carson Wentz didn’t attempt a ball over 20 yards last week. Zach Wilson had one in Week 12. Tannehill had a couple in Week 11 but only because he threw 52 times. What Wilson did was buy enough time with his feet to make the Texans lose control of their zones, and he picked on Terrance Mitchell quite a bit.

Lovie’s unit has been pretty bad as a run defense this year, but that hasn’t mattered all that much because a) they were worse at it in 2020 and b) they’re still getting enough TFLs and penetration to make enough plays to get off the field.

It also means they are, as this offense is, married to game script. They can’t fall behind by enough to just let the opponent run on them, because that opponent will have a good chance to bust a tackle like Rashaad Penny did twice.

I was ready to write Lovie off entirely after the first month of the season, but he’s really committed to changing up schemes and throwing more curveballs here. It’s been a welcome change. Unfortunately for him, this unit can’t win a game like this without creating more turnovers. The only non-rookies that fell into the negative DVOA trap is Tannehill, who played in a monsoon without any good receivers, and Jacoby Brissett, who is at best a serviceable backup. It’s been fun to watch what Lovie has done without much investment, but this unit sure could use more good players.

4) Garrett Wallow’s intro to the lineup, thoughts on the other rookies

Wallow did the up-and-down rookie thing. He had a key stop on Houston’s first defensive drive when he got off a block and got to Rashaad Penny on the edge, which is something that this team has really struggled with this year:

He also got welcomed to zone coverage by Tyler Lockett:

It’s okay, it’s not like Zach Cunningham would have done it any better. (No sarcasm, I realize I should add in case one of my many admirers tries to interpret some.)

While Nico Collins had a big box score and target game, I didn’t think most of what he did was noteworthy beyond the one garbage time catch that Mills actually pushed downfield:

I’d really like to see him get more featured down the stretch. I think Brevin Jordan is solid but without an NFL-wow-level physical trait as a receiver — when he wins, it’s going to be with smarts. Collins’ size is an entry point to a lot of balls, and not just short one-on-one outside balls. (This Texans offense is remarkably boring because they’re just exceptionally conservative outside of the script.) First-and-goal and they target Collins twice and come away with no points … that hurts.

If Nico’s going to play the big boy game, this is a target he’s got to be able to at least stand up on. I don’t know if the ball was good enough to connect on either way, but you can’t just fall down and hope you draw the laundry.

Roy Lopez … well, he had a rough game. Get ’em next time.

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My football feeling is helplessness

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

***

I’m Rivers. My football feeling is helplessness.

I’m used to doing prescriptive analysis about the Houston Texans. I’ve written posts arguing for making things better for going on 11 years now. Sometimes it’s as simple as “this team should get a quarterback,” sometimes it’s as deep as “the Texans struggle to deal with heavy blitz schemes and here are three examples of it and some things that they could do to fix it.” I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I’ve often had a thought like “this is silly, they’re not going to change anything,” or “I am out of my depth as far as suggesting this,” I’ve never been vain enough to think that my opinions would matter to the team, but I’d like to think the ideas behind them have held up well over the years, or at least that I learned something from the ones that didn’t.

I’ve never felt like the local football team has been 100% smart or 100% dumb. Sometimes they catch you off-guard and you’re surprised — winning in Kansas City in 2019 — and often (lately) you’re let down. I’ve been doing this since the Gary Kubiak days, when they were actually winning and we’d talk about things like Matt Schaub’s future or Brian Cushing’s suspension. But until this year I’d always felt like putting these ideas into the world was worthwhile. Now it feels almost futile to suggest good things could happen or even pretend that good players want to play here.

Could the Texans do some decent things next year if they continue to stack on their defensive gains with an (Aidan Hutchinson or Kayvon Thibodeaux) and Jon Greenard pairing making the line of scrimmage hectic? I think they could. I wouldn’t expect the same turnover volume that they’ve created this year based on pure regression, but I’m open to reasons that we should believe Lovie Smith’s defenses are inherently turnover-heavy.

But what this team has done as an organization by being as broadly off-putting and demanding to everybody as they have is created a space where most ideas of them becoming good again barely have space to grow. Let me give you an example.

Here’s a good post idea I would run for a normal team: The offense is abysmal, so how do they fix it?

Well, they fire Tim Kelly. OK, and what’s the plan from there? If you’re Joe Brady or any other qualified offensive mind, why would you take a job where you’ll — at best — be coaching some stopgap players and unproven players next to Brandin Cooks while the people ahead of you in the organizational chart are just waiting to pounce in and tell you that your No. 3 receiver needs to be Danny Amendola? Is that the best way to increase your future earnings and better your career? I can’t see how it would be. If I were Joe Brady, unless I get wildly overpaid, I’d way rather rebuild my reputation at the college level again, where I can be in control of more.

OK, well, fine, maybe you just fire David Culley and start over! Here’s the problem with that: Who is going to want a job where your two direct superiors are on the sideline and headset (respectively) monitoring your every move, where you have no direct roster control, and where you are almost certain to pile up losses in the near-term in front of 25,000 people in the stands? How is a person who gets that job going to gain respect and continue an upwards trajectory? That’s the exact reason why the Texans hired David Culley in the first place — because as a situation, nothing is appealing about this job.

The people entrusted to run this organization’s day-to-day matters have spent the entirety of the season telling us variations of “you have a right to voice your opinion.” But it doesn’t really matter what the outside opinions are to them, and that’s something that’s been both codified in words and in a lack of actions taken to reassure people. Bring a Fire Easterby sign and you’ll get hassled by ushers. Have a radio personality or reporter ask a question about why this is not working and the answer is nothing beyond “we’re accountable for it.” Have them ask about why Tytus Howard played guard for roughly three months and the answer is “it was our best combination and Tytus is very smart” as if leaving him out to dry at guard was in any way defensible. Justin Reid gets forced to play box safety when he’s on the record as being happier playing deep. I’m no fan of David Culley the coach — I think the offense he and Kelly have used is regressive, pointless busyball and they never formulated a plan for what would happen if the run offense didn’t work — but I also agree that any head coach would struggle to turn this mess into more than a below-average offense.

So okay then, the answer is to go sign better players, right? But in a sport where careers are measured in years instead of decades, why would any marketable free agent come to play here and deal with the specter of Culture and getting deactivated for being late, something that apparently never happens anywhere else? For that matter, why would you come here and catch passes from Davis Mills if you’re a good wideout? Why would you come here and run behind the line that’s currently authoring two of the worst five run offense DVOA performances of all-time, particularly when you’re not going to be featured and David Johnson somehow is still here? Why would any player with an option come to this team? We’ve seen Laremy Tunsil’s four-week injury turn into an eight-week injury, with some people saying he had to be bribed to practice last year, does anybody believe he’s anything but done with this? And that’s why you see the one-year contracts. They are one-year contracts that speak loudly that the players are trying to rebuild their value, and if they have a way out of here, they’re going to take it.

So the initial post idea “How do we fix the offense?” doesn’t have an answer of “get a better offensive mind in here, bring in a better shifty receiver and an explosive back, grab a good lineman and hope it gels,” like it would for a normal team. Instead, it’s more like: “Well, circumstances dictate that the coaching isn’t likely to improve barring a home run hire out of left field) and circumstances dictate that the personnel isn’t likely to improve barring just absolutely crushing the NFL draft.” It’s very obvious what the circumstances are: Nobody else in the NFL has a power structure where the vice president of football operations and general manager are as important as they are here. Now let’s talk about someone who actually seems to want to be a Texan.

I think if there’s one player the Texans want to re-sign, it’s Kamu Grugier-Hill. He’s been vocally supportive of the culture from day one, and despite being undersized for the position he’s held up well. But if Grugier-Hill hits free agency and gets $6-7 million a season from a team that has a chance to win next year, what’s his incentive to stay here? Caserio hasn’t doled out big money to anybody; is he going to turn a 28-year-old linebacker into a core player? My read of both his Texans tenure and the sudden spend-heavy philosophy of the Patriots in his absence is that Caserio is extremely conservative in paying players and extremely aggressive in trading for guys that he believes in. In addition to that, the Texans have $35 million in dead money for next year before they do anything with Deshaun Watson (and possibly, Tunsil as well)

These are some of the debates I have with myself mentally when I sit down and try to think about what to write about this team’s future. Do I think Grugier-Hill deserves $7 million? I probably wouldn’t be comfortable paying him that based on one season. Would it still be a good sign if he got it? Maybe, and I certainly wouldn’t be upset about it, if only because it means the team is actually identifying a core piece! I thought the Greenard quote I posted above was very telling — the entire culture of the team seems to be that if they pile adversity on players that it will somehow make them better. I guess this is only allowed to just be my opinion, but I don’t think that’s been born out by the record this year. Or last year. Or by the fact that any number of good players aren’t interested in being here when other options appear. Or by the history of the NFL.

***

There’s a lot of talk about the optimistic holdouts about the “narrative” of this team, and the narrative seems to be that because the Texans are getting rid of players and those players aren’t franchise-level stars, we should believe that it’s fine or a clear-out of Bill O’Brien Bad Players despite many of them becoming functional elsewhere. Now, I understand the power of a good national narrative — the Astros are subjected to plenty of it, and how the national media treated James Harden’s run in Houston was criminal — but the thing about that is that a) the Astros and Rockets won games hand over fist as the narratives were being created and b) winning games makes people care about you. The national narrative around the Texans is that it’s very sad and also, excuse me, do you know when Deshaun Watson will get dealt? If I called up seven national NFL writers and asked them to name Texans until they ran out of names, I doubt I’d get many real answers at this point beyond fantasy football quasi-relevant guys. In many ways, the Watson beat is more important to the future of the NFL than what is taking place in NRG Stadium. Yes, even though he quit on the Texans.

This is a team that is in a bleak enough place that they don’t really need to be adding additional obstacles in the way of them competing for good players or creating fans. But that is their organizational ethos at this point. They simply can’t understand why what they are doing is off-putting, and nobody from the outside can fix that, no matter how hard they try. (Note that when the first Easterby article came out in Sports Illustrated, several of the sources told the reporters that they were trying to do this to get Cal McNair’s attention. It did not matter.)

There’s an ever-hopeful quality about the NFL Draft, and one thing I think about a lot is that players like Will Fuller and Zach Cunningham are both a) very successful picks for their draft slots and b) guys that five years later, fans stopped being excited about. I write a top-25 prospects list for Football Outsiders that includes only guys taken after the third round every year going back to 2015 or so, and you know what I’ve learned? Most guys who don’t make it in their first two years aren’t going to become NFL starters, and most guys who are still on their rookie deals continue to get wonderful promising player rhetoric anyway. Remember Gareon Conley? It was very easy for optimists to believe that he was a great find for a third-round pick. Then he got hurt and never played again. Jordan Akins is someone who I thought looked really good in his rookie season and in his small samples in 2019 and 2020 — they never played him full-time. Tytus Howard is finally looking decent at left tackle, but there’s no guarantee they pick up his fifth-year option. The amount of times I have read overwhelming fan sentiment that this would be the year that a certain player develops in a Tweet or a comment or a Reddit post versus the amount of times it has actually come to fruition in a game-changing way is roughly 10 to 1. That’s not to say that players never surprise you or players never show you that they have talent — but becoming a consistent, game-to-game impact player if you don’t enter the league as one is extraordinarily rare. It’s worthy of celebration when it happens.

And that’s where I’m at right now: Relying on the general manager who was named general manager of the decade after he spent an entire season pushing dead cap into 2022 and whose most successful solo draft pick so far is probably Roy Lopez to just nail every pick. Because if he doesn’t, there’s certainly no other set up structure here that is good or interesting, and there’s certainly no other reason anybody else would want to come to this team short of just being enormously overpaid. Maybe one or two guys jump on that this offseason, I kind of doubt it. All that’s here is the idea of culture that the Texans have created, one that is, broadly speaking, if you don’t do everything we tell you to do, we distrust you at best.

So what I’m left with is helplessness. I can’t even pretend to write a post that would solve the problems this team has created for itself. I would love to tell you that, with me being branded as “the negative guy,” that people read me more during times where the Texans are 2-10. That doesn’t really happen. Nobody reads about teams that suck, and nobody donates to the site unless I barb about how nobody donates to the site. It sucks, and I see slim odds of anything changing before 2023.

I’ve never been more relieved that the end of the season is almost here. I’d like to be more hopeful about potential changes for the future, but nothing I’ve heard has inspired me to believe it’ll be anything more than different placeholders in these chairs and us running mock drafts for the next few years. Maybe those draft picks will turn out well, and maybe they won’t. Either way, odds are that they’re going to be fighting a tide that goes far beyond anything they can do.

***

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Four Downs: Texans 0, Colts 31

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

***

Well. I can’t pretend that I thought the Texans had a chance to win this game, but somehow I expected more than we got. I’m not going to beat around the bush: there are somehow still five games left in the #LongestSeasonEver and the Texans have already been eliminated from the playoffs.

This team has bad offensive games because they have bad offensive play calls and players that are not good enough to execute those play calls without help. They hadn’t had many true meltdowns just yet because they managed to be so safe that it was impossible for them to get boat-raced. But this game, like the Rams game before it, was one that was lost before it ever began. The defense valiantly managed to keep the Colts punting for most of the first half, but it didn’t matter. The offense did not run a play in Colts territory until the third quarter, nor did it complete a pass to a wide receiver. It didn’t get past the Colts 40 for the entirety of the game. I think the best way to exemplify things is this third-and-26 pass from Tyrod Taylor.

There’s no way this throw would work even if they had completed it. The entire point of the offensive play is to play field position — that happens far too often under David Culley and Tim Kelly’s respective watches. They don’t trust the guys that they have to do any better than that. And then the cherry on top is that somehow Taylor turns it into a grounder to second base, meaning they can’t even execute the CultureBall as called.

The operating philosophy of this Texans offense for the entire season, even in the games that they’ve won, has been to exist. Almost every big passing play this season — Cooks’ TD in the Jets game, both of his long catches against the Jaguars, Davis Mills’ big TD to Chris Moore and finding Conley against the Patriots — has come outside of the structure of the offense. The best you can hope for with the Texans are plays like this:

First down, a down they usually run on so the defense isn’t expecting pass, and a well-covered young receiver who needs a good throw that neither quarterback has the touch to deliver 100% of the time. The Texans have decided that they are so scared of incompletions down the field that they’d rather just run the ball en route to their third-and-longs. That’s what passes for philosophy, and that’s why they managed 141 total yards and 2.8 yards per play en route to their latest embarrassment. The Texans offense right now is basically this Futurama sequence:

1) It doesn’t really matter who starts at quarterback, but it might as well be Mills

Davis Mills hasn’t really shown me anything that Tyrod Taylor hasn’t. He’s not as good as Taylor as a runner, and while he has a little more flash to his game than you’d expect when he’s under pressure, I don’t harbor deep beliefs that he’ll one day be a great passer. His relief appearance in this game was as bad as I can remember under center for the Texans, and I watched Dave Ragone starts.

Mills actually missed so badly on one third-and-10 play — I really hope because of a miscommunication — that he got called for intentional grounding on a play where he never was in danger of getting sacked or leaving the pocket.

Now, all that said … the Texans are eliminated from the playoffs. I don’t care about tanking for a high pick — maybe I should because I think the impact talent pool is pretty low — because there is no slam-dunk franchise quarterback. I think if you start Davis Mills these last five weeks and come up with one or two good areas he improves on or bad areas where he can fix something, it’s more worthwhile than letting Tyrod Taylor finish out the season. I don’t know that the Texans see it that way, but there was a real breaking point for David Culley today in my view. He exited that game not saying that Taylor was the starter, but that he have to “evaluate everything.”

And well, I’ll put it this way: Taylor’s still a better quarterback than Mills, but not by enough at this point for it to matter.

2) Let’s talk about Kamu Grugier-Hill’s tackles and why they don’t matter just as much as Zach Cunningham’s and Tyrell Adams’ didn’t in 2020

Texans PR has had a lot of experience talking about tackle numbers on bad teams over the past few years. They have this experience because the Texans have spent a lot of time trailing, and while trailing, those players tend to rack up a lot of tackles because opponents run the ball on them. The Colts, in this game, ran at the Texans 48 times. Kamu Grugier-Hill played … fine. It wasn’t his best game of the season, but he had a few nice stuffs and the Texans muscled up a lot of guys in the box. (Taylor faced eight or more in the box on 43.75% of his carries.)

However, the Texans proudly trumpeted during and after the game that Grugier-Hill broke the team’s franchise record for tackles in a game as if that mattered. Grugier-Hill, after the game, did a good job of deflecting that by saying that nobody cares about individual records in games like this. I would agree with him. It reminded me a lot of moments like this:

It turns out that you get many more tackle attempts when you are losing and facing a lot of runs if you’re a linebacker. Grugier-Hill has been one of the better players on the Texans this year, but only from a straight PR standpoint should anyone make a big deal out of breaking the tackle record in a 31-0 loss. If there were say, a football operations man who was cheering that, it would sound really stupid.

As I was saying…

3) Zach Cunningham wins the deactivation lottery

Zach Cunningham became the third player this season to get a straight deactivation before the game for violating culture rules:

I threw this to Twitter, and I’m throwing it to you as well if you know any better: I’ve literally never heard of a professional team doing this to its players at this frequency. And I think this number actually undercounts the amount of random benchings we’ve seen this season without deactivation. I know we’re out of the Justin Reid zone but since I didn’t write about this team last week after they “fixed” things with him, let me point to this:

I don’t think the Texans have out-and-out lost any games because of this, mostly because I don’t think they were winning many games to begin with this season. But it’s an ethos that seems to be highly punishing for no real reason. What we’ve gotten is that Justin Reid got into a disagreement with the coaches (the Texans have pushed back on this version of the story but won’t tell us what actually happened), Cunningham was late to a COVID test today and also missed some time in training camp, and King missed some meetings in a game week. Those are things that I think most teams in the NFL are not happy about, but won’t punish, or that maybe a player would get fined for in a player’s court or something.

Both Grugier-Hill and Christian Kirksey refused to really answer a question about Cunningham after the game, saying they didn’t want to speak about it. It’s an interesting dynamic here where the culture is just so good and growing so hard, but also it can’t be talked about in a rational way to outsiders. Nor can anybody explain why the Texans need to be so hard on these guys as compared to the rest of the NFL. What I have gathered is that they are a historical outlier — these Texans look set to be a historical outlier in many ways — what I don’t understand, no matter who I talk to about it, is why?

4) Maybe it’s time that some of that outside noise was actually heard

I’m not a victory lap kind of guy. I don’t like linking to old work. I’m also happy to own my mistakes if anyone isn’t just a complete miserable bastard about it. I’m the guy who is always proud to dunk on myself by saying I liked Cordarrelle Patterson over DeAndre Hopkins in the 2013 NFL Draft.

But let’s just tell this situation like it is: There was never a reason to do what the Texans did this year. They are going to bring back maybe two or three players this offseason from this defense and have a veteran core of like: Grugier-Hill, Terrance Mitchell, Tavierre Thomas, and maybe Christian Kirksey and Maliek Collins. Thomas has been a nice signing who has played well and is young — he is the exception to the rule, though I don’t think he’s been challenged all that much.

The team is 2-10 and, outside of the defensive line, it doesn’t have young players that are heavily involved and playing well. Nico Collins and Brevin Jordan have flashed enough that they might be playing well in a functional offense, if anyone was interested in building one. But the rest of this is bleak, failed stuff. Charlie Heck hasn’t been great at right tackle, or at least not as great as the Texans seem to believe he’s been.

I was upset about signing both Justin Britt and Mark Ingram as early as the Texans did because I thought the Texans should have heavily focused on letting youth play a role in these things. There was never a need to bring in Danny Amendola or Rex Burkhead, or bring back David Johnson. The strategy for this year should have been — at the very least — more balanced on youth versus vets. I say this not to crap on these guys, who have all played very hard and given their best, but because there was never a chance that this team was going to be anything but what it was.

If the Texans were gambling on Deshaun Watson coming back at any point, they were delusional regardless of the late-arriving allegations. That should never have been a thought on the table from the moment he put in his trade request. And without him, it was extremely obvious that this team wasn’t going to be competitive.

So, listen, Scottie Phillips could have played in this game if he weren’t hurt. Where are the other Scottie Phillipses? Where’s Jalen Camp’s chance at the active roster? Where are the Davion Davis targets? Why not give Jimmy Morrissey another couple of games? (How soon is now?) Why isn’t Garret Wallow getting a shot in the middle on passing downs? Where’s the young cornerback this team could be giving snaps to? And on, and on.

The thing about this team is that it simply never considered a future where they’d be better off developing players rather than having depth because they never believed they would fail as badly as they have this year. And they never believed that because nobody involved with building this team could be honest with themselves about what this was. If they were tanking, they would have guys to put in at this point to give an opportunity to. Instead, we’re watching eight Burkhead carries per game — sorry Rex, I’m sure you’re a fine dude and I love your charity cleats — for no discernable reason, in a game you’re losing big time to the Colts on your way to 2-10.

What if, instead of pretending the organization that is mired in the middle of a 6-21 spell has it all figured out and the perfect process, it deemed it worthy to try to understand anything about why the outside world believed they were failing? About why the fanbase has all but left them for dead? What if they had that little itch of curiosity?

***

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Four Downs: Texans 14, Jets 21

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

***

One thing that remains a trademark of the Easterby Texans is that it would be really easy for them to fade out of our memories during lost seasons, but they can’t help themselves. They have to find a way to do some real amateur psychology stuff, they have to find a way to embarrass themselves, they have to resist any urge to be normal.

Today’s idiotic thing was the surprise deactivation of one of their defensive leaders before the game for reasons that will be handled SO internally.

With Justin Reid sitting, the Texans could muster only one pick of a clearly dying-to-get-picked Zach Wilson. And, as it turns out, when the Texans don’t get five turnovers a week, it’s a lot harder for them to go home with a happy win. On the bright side, at least we got someone from management to explain a position they hold on TV for once — that’s as accountable as the team has ever been! And it’s just as incoherent as they usually come across:

OK, listen up Texans front office that obviously reads this. (They won’t, that would involve them having to care about anything anybody thinks outside of the building.) Nobody suspends more players before a game randomly than you. Desmond King, Zach Cunningham, now Reid. Aaron Wilson was tasked to defend this with saying it’s “maintaining consistency in how he handles individual player situations.” Well, OK, but if the consistency is something that nobody actually agrees with or understands, and literally nobody else in the NFL operates like this, what good is it doing?

The No. 1 thing the Houston Texans do not understand — something I bring up over and over again — is that none of the people who want them to do well understand what exactly they are doing here. They want to win, so they’re not tanking, but they’re willing to bench their best safety before a winnable game over some weird argument? And whenever they are questioned about it, they can’t say anything to defend it beyond it being a policy and something they deal with inside the building. They go out of their way to tell us over and over again that they don’t care what we think. Well, what happens when you don’t care about the fans? They don’t care about you.

I will be honest with you — I’ve felt for a while that Reid’s days in Houston were numbered. I don’t say this out of any kind of inside thoughts about how he feels so much as reading the room of the public statements he’s given (paraphrasing: we’ll see how things go when free agency starts) and noting how little David Culley felt they missed him after the Panthers game. So rather than trade him, they’ve kept him, and rather than draft of develop young players to turn to, they’ve got nobody but old veteran safeties. So there’s almost not even a point to benching him from a team perspective. It’s a perfect microcosm of how this Texans organizational-wide philosophy of never focusing on anything but the current day is just self-destructive at its core.

They created a team so bad that they could lose to the Jets, and they created a team that, outside of Jon Greenard and a few nice finds, has no future but rounding up some other highly-drafted young players to drown in culture as they lose to the future Jets. All while continuing to offer no real explanation about why they think what they’re doing is working beyond “we know the process.”

1) How do you go an entire half without scoring on the worst defense by DVOA in the NFL?

The Texans gained 45 offensive yards after halftime. The Jets were not only 32nd in the NFL in defensive DVOA (here for those that don’t know what that means), but they were 32nd by almost 10%! No other team in the NFL is playing the kind of terrible defensive football that the Jets are right now. They’d given up 31 or more points in four of their last five games, including three games of more than 45!

The Texans saw this and … they started crafting a legacy of runs to nowhere while they were losing and passes that had no prayer.

One thing I posted earlier today on Twitter was that the Texans have generally been pretty good on the first drive of the game and, by extension, the first quarter. The Texans have a -6.7% DVOA in the first quarter as an offense. That is 17th in the NFL, just about an average offense. The other three quarters? 32nd, 31st, and 30th, respectively.

And so it was again as the Texans ran for 38 of their 96 rushing yards on their first drive. Take out Tyrod Taylor’s 30-yard scramble, which isn’t a designed run, and they wind up with 16 carries for 28 yards over the course of the rest of the game. This against a run defense that gave up 260 rushing yards to the Colts on Thursday Night Football. The Texans are incredibly consistent at this since the Miami game: They can run the ball on their first drive, for some reason. And then for the rest of the game, they can’t.

It would seem very clear to me that the Texans lean overtly conservative after their first drive. Their entire plan is to have a lead and then, after that, run the ball and hope their opponent gets bored of playing football. 2-9 demonstrates the efficacy of this strategy better than I can in words. Even their big plays come on third-and-long because they’ve set them up with ghastly second-down runs that everyone in the building can see coming.

You can’t continually play as conservative as the Texans have and make it work for you. You need the defense to at least respect you. And when even the worst defense in the NFL is just so in-sync with what’s coming that your good third-down plays require feats like this to pull off:

…the entire point of the conservativism no longer becomes about being smart, but just spinning gears. Until the next drive. Until the next game. Until the next season.

2) The Jets coached ballsier than the Texans did and it paid off

The Texans found themselves in a great spot as the fourth quarter started when Zach Wilson went three-and-out on three horrific pass plays, one of which was nearly picked by Terrance Mitchell. They followed that up with a 29-yard punt to the Houston 37.

The Texans attempted to run twice in a row to start that series, down four with about 11 minutes left. They got zero yards. On third down, they went past the sticks to Danny Amendola and couldn’t pick it up. If the Texans had any concept that they could go for it, they might have considered just getting what they could on the Jets on third down. Instead, they trotted out Fairbairn for a field-goal attempt that he, of course, missed. Fairbairn is now 15-of-25 for his career on kicks beyond 50 yards. A 55-yarder would have been a career-best for him. Maybe he’s not good at that and the Texans can stop pretending that he is? No? OK, well business as usual then. (This exact scenario played out in the Patriots loss, too, by the way.)

The Jets take over and, up four, they never give the ball back until there’s 3:34 left in the game. They convert twice on two fourth-and-short looks.

The Jets don’t actually punch it in, because they found an offensive holding penalty on first-and-goal at the Texans 8 — yes, that happens to other teams too — but they held the ball for 6:20 of game time and got a much easier field goal for their beleaguered kicker.

The Texans instead wind up going for fourth-and-2 at their own 39 after this disastrous third-down play call:

They asked Taylor about this after the game and he said (paraphrasing) that it was about trying to get one first down before they go into hurry-up mode. Did the Texans think they were winning? Why would you ever run the ball here? It was just a patently “we don’t trust this passing game” play call. And, well, they were paid with what they deserved after being stuffed on fourth down on a quick throw to Nico Collins.

3) Why is a 2-8 team trying to hurt David Johnson for no reason?

A story told through Aaron Wilson’s Twitter timeline:

David Johnson got three touches from the 7:31 mark in the second half and limped off the field each and every time he touched the ball. He’s turning 30 years old in a few weeks. He’s not playing great football — though to be fair to him, anyone who leaves this offensive system immediately starts playing much better. (See: Ingram, Lindsay.) His backup, Royce Freeman, is no great shakes but is 25 and could conceivably masquerade as cheap depth next year if they evaluate him positively. The team is 2-8.

What is the point of doing this to David Johnson? What did he do to deserve this? Why does this team insist on trying to create something out of him when — let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and say that he’s better than he’s showed on raw talent — the Texans simply have no idea how to make him play well? Who is this good for beyond his therapist? Who asked for it? Why do we have to pretend this is working? I just don’t get anything about the way this has played out in either of the last two seasons. Let it go, Jack. Don’t injure the guy for no reason.

4) The new-look offensive line felt like a panic move and it played out that way

With Lane Taylor activated for the Texans, they moved Tytus Howard to left tackle for the first time ever in a game situation, then asked him to play it. How did that go?

Taylor wound up taking five sacks — his second five-sack game in three weeks — and the Jets weren’t exactly sending the house on all of these.

The Texans, to be fair, lost Justin McCray mid-game and had to reintegrate Max Scharping again. But it sure seems like this is all just shuffling deck chairs at this point. Charlie Heck gave up one of his own:

I am starting to wonder when or if the fanbase will turn on Tytus Howard. It’s not his fault in my view that he’s been jerked around all over the place and hasn’t settled at one spot. It’s not his fault that the line is bad. But he’s not playing well, and the fanbase sure turned on Lonnie Johnson fast in the same basic situation.

At this point, the Texans have a defense that isn’t actively destroying my will to live every time they take the field. They’re more scrappy than good, but they set out to win the turnover battle and they sell out for loose balls. They could have come up with a few more turnovers in this game with a little luck here or there. They’re not going to stop the run well against every front and they’re going to get picked on because they’re too conservative. But they do what it says on the label and what Lovie Smith has preached the moment he’s walked through the door: turnovers.

What about the offense is going well? Who holds the ultimate accountability for that?

Ah, I see accountability hits different for players versus coaches in this culture. What a useful culture it is!

***

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Four Downs: Texans 22, Titans 13

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.

***

My Football Feeling in this win was severely challenged because it felt very much like a pyrrhic victory. I understand that just saying that out loud with no context is like dropping a grenade on the ground and then running away, which is why I didn’t say it on Twitter. But let me try to unravel the way I feel as I do so I can get yelled at for more justifiable reasons:

The Titans are 18th in DVOA, barely above average at 0.7% coming into today. They had won their last two games in rather improbable fashion. They were outgained 4.6 yards per play to 6.1 yards per play by the Saints, and won that game because the Saints had the only turnover in a tight game, a fumble on a kickoff recovered deep in NO territory by Tennessee. Tennessee were similarly outgained 4.7 yards per play to 3.5 yards per play by the Rams in a game where the Titans had a pick-six and another turnover deep in Rams territory, and one where the Rams also committed 12 penalties for 115 yards. It would not be a stretch to say that Tennessee’s record versus their underlying statistical profile is one of the major sticking points between analytics and win/loss records this season.

And so what happens when you beat a team that is 8-2 is that it invigorates a lot of good feelings. All wins do that, but now you get to point to this one as a guiding star that things are back on the right track. I’m not all that sure that’s true. The run game remained a disaster after all the good things said about only “running plays that work” out of the bye. The Texans went three-and-out six consecutive times to end the game, pausing only to kick a field goal after one of Desmond King’s picks set them up deep in Tennessee territory.

The team was outgained 420 yards to 190, and on a per-play basis, 3.1 to 5.3. Every Titans drive ended in Houston territory except a three-and-out on their third drive, King’s second pick, and the end of game run.

It is a hell of a relief to win an NFL game, and I’m extremely happy for the players and the coaches because eight in a row is True Disaster hours. But nothing that happened today jumps out at me as easily repeatable or anything to get excited about as dominating a top-notch opponent. The Texans got five turnovers that an average Titans group — one that didn’t have Derrick Henry, Julio Jones, or A.J. Brown for most of the game — didn’t get. They used those to win.

Let me throw aside the tanking thing for a minute, because I bet that’s where you thought I was going when I dropped pyrrhic. I think the difference between picking No. 2 and No. 7 (or whatever) in this specific draft feels kind of negligible, and I don’t think this team has ever aspired to tanking so I’ve never entertained that mindset. That doesn’t change the fact that this team still has a 0.0X% playoff chance and that they learn almost nothing about their few young offensive players every game. Today David Culley learned he can win a game against an 8-2 team with Tyrod Taylor never throwing deep and Rex Burkhead and David Johnson getting 31 carries, while he punts like crazy. I don’t think that’s a lesson that’s good for this team’s long-term health.

Obviously, you can’t run Scottie Phillips because he’s on IR, but the commitment to literally aspire to nothing beyond pure naked culture ball in a lost season is depressing. If a healthy Scottie Phillips runs 100 yards off against the Titans, you have something to talk about for the future. If you get Nico Collins involved in the offense beyond short balls, you’ve got something to talk about for the future. If you literally raid a young running back from a practice squad and start him, you have something to talk about for the future. I think this win will become a cultural example of how what they’re doing is working, and with all due credit to a defense that created four of the five turnovers with good reads, I don’t think it really means all that much. It’s an extremely fun win against a rival team who I hate, so it is beautiful in that way. I don’t think the tide is turning.

1) The swingy nature of the modern NFL

The Titans tend to go for it on fourth down pretty often. They wanted to do it on their first drive, but a false start by Rodger Saffold on fourth-and-2 led to a punt. After Kamu Grugier-Hill’s Extremely Reminiscent Of Whitney Mercilus red zone pick of Ryan Tannehill staked the Texans to a 6-0 lead, and that became a 12-0 lead after a balanced drive ended with Houston’s first road touchdown since Week 2.

At 12-0, things get a little more precarious for a team that needs to run as part of its identity, but that’s still ultimately a two-score deficit. So the Titans go down the field on another long drive where D’Onta Foreman is heavily featured. Then they get to a fourth-and-1 go, and they get stuffed by the Texans:

I can understand why the modern NFL wants you to go for this. Not only is it a long field goal attempt with a rough kicker, but a field goal cuts a two-score lead into … a two-score lead. But when you are as run-focused as the Titans are, staying within two scores is the key to the playbook being open. Anything more than that, and all of the sudden things become very predictable. The Titans had one more drive before 19-0, one that ended on a Tannehill intentional grounding that prevented them from getting a field-goal attempt up. Then this happened:

The Titans simply weren’t equipped to come back from 19-0 with how their team is built right now, not with A.J. Brown hurt. Their leading receiver wound up being Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, and almost all of that came from one catch. When your four receiver sets end up having Anthony Firkser, Chester Rogers, NWI, and Dez Fitzpatrick — a rookie who Tannehill literally double-checked with on an audible to make sure he got it — having to abandon the running game is a death sentence. The Titans tried to sprinkle it in, but weren’t getting any real yardage off of it.

I’m not saying the Titans were dumb to not attempt a field goal on that fourth-and-1. I think it’s the smarter of the two decisions. But as the modern NFL leans into more decisions like this, I feel like things get swingier and it gets easier for a run of good play to meaningfully force a team out of a comfort zone. The punt recovery is obviously a fluke, and the interception being returned inside the Tennessee red zone is kind of fluky, but the Texans managed to compile enough points along the way to meaningfully alter Tennessee’s strategy despite only a few drives where they actually moved the ball well. And once it’s 19-0, and you can pin your ears back, your life is a lot easier as a defensive coordinator.

2) Let’s praise some big defensive moments

OK, so let’s talk about some enormous plays that the Texans had in shutting down the comeback. My first set of props goes to Eric Murray on the fourth-and-6 go at the Houston 24 — another fourth-down go where a field goal would have kept the Titans two scores away.

The Texans rush four, Tannehill isn’t meaningfully hurried but scrambles out of the pocket to buy some more time as his middle of the field crossers are enveloped by three underneath zone defenders. Murray is one of the deep safeties on this play, and he comes up from depth on what looks like a pretty sure completion on the run to break the ball up. If you look at the replay, you can see his feet heading deeper before he spots the tight end breaking open and charges on it. That’s a play that, say, Lonnie Johnson would not have made at safety. And if that drive continues, it becomes more and more dangerous.

The second huge play comes after Westbrook-Ikhine’s long catch sets the Titans up in Houston territory again. Desmond King simply put on a master class of positioning against rookie wideout Dez Fitzpatrick, to the point that it looked like he was running the route for him, and wound up intercepting the ball.

Notice that King did not fall for the Fitzpatrick head deke on this route — that was the only subtle thing Fitzpatrick really offered — then he got in great position on a ball that probably shouldn’t have been thrown, and he had to catch it almost like it was a punt because Fitzpatrick’s arm is also in there trying to play defensive back as it drifts lower. DeMarcus Walker gets a share of the credit too for getting into Tannehill’s passing lane.

There were, of course, other big defensive plays in this game. But those were the two moments I felt that the Texans could have really folded if their defenders hadn’t stepped up. They also did a much better job of play-action defense than they have in some time, though I think that ties in pretty well to the game score.

3) Brevin Jordan and Nico Collins get lightly involved again

The Texans tied Brevin Jordan to one of their staple concepts in this game, one where he wound up right on the right sideline. It gave Jordan almost no room to actually do anything and forced a tight contested catch. He did so against Kevin Byard, one of the NFL’s best:

The ball was not quite as clean against Elijah Molden later in the drive and that led to an incompletion:

A third pass at Jordan was broken up on the exact same sideline. I want to be excited about him, can we see him run a play that isn’t

Collins only got two targets, and the one everyone was left buzzing about was his red-zone non-touchdown that David Culley challenged:

Matt Harmon, who watches wideouts as closely as anybody, came out and wrote that he thinks Collins is even being undervalued this year. It’s kind of a shame that Collins ends the game with just two targets. What we’ve seen from Collins is that he can play bully ball on a tight catch and that he can take a play-action slant a long way. What I still want to see before I decide my interpretation of his ceiling is some deeper routes. The Texans seem almost pathologically opposed to their offense doing this — and I get it — but it makes it harder to evaluate what they have here and the season is a lost cause.

4) The Tyrod Taylor red zone offense: get the hell out of my way because this isn’t working

One thing that Davis Mills would never be able to offer to an offense is what Taylor did on each of his two touchdown runs. Let’s look at the dots on them:

Taylor said after the game that Burkhead was running an option route on this play, which was his primary read. But by the time that option was chosen, Denico Autry and Jeffery Simmons had already pushed Taylor out of the pocket to his left. At that point the only receiver drifiting on his side, Pharaoh Brown, was double-covered. Thus began his journey to dunk on Amani Hooker:

On his second touchdown run, Charlie Heck actually falls right on his ass, which I think is beautifully shown by the stagnant dot:

The Titans bracket Brandin Cooks, who looks to be the first read. David Johnson blocks nobody, and so six-on-four becomes four-on-four, with Autry winning enough on the edge to push Taylor outside. While there was probably a flip to Cooks or Jordan available on the run, Taylor didn’t take it and just out-ran Simmons to the pylon.

In a game where the Texans had goal-to-go on eight snaps, these were the only two plays that gained more than three yards. They are out of structure and unreliable, but unreliable is a better play call for this team than their standard red zone plans.

It’s great to see Tyrod fly again. I cringe just a little bit every time I see it happen because that’s how the first hamstring injury happened, and I don’t want to see another injury. What I’d really like is if there was a way for this to be easier for everyone involved. But it doesn’t seem like that will happen any time soon.

***

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Seven lessons learned from covering a terrible football team

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.

***

Since 2020 started, the Texans have beaten the Jaguars three times, the Lions once, and the Patriots once. They have won five of their last 25 games, and beaten exactly one team that finished with more than five wins in a season over that timespan. Coming into Week 10, they have the worst point differential in the NFL, are 30th in DVOA, and have a playoff chance of roughly 0.0%. They are somehow doing this while being one of the oldest teams in the NFL.

This is on top of a cataclysmic couple of offseasons that saw them trade away DeAndre Hopkins, lose J.J. Watt, lose Will Fuller, and piss off their franchise quarterback and most talented player to ever play for the franchise while he spent the offseason becoming a pariah and wrecking his own trade value. They signed Zach Cunningham to a massive extension and he’s now a two-down linebacker who plays 15 snaps a game when everyone is healthy. They signed Whitney Mercilus to an extension that he could never live up to and released him when he didn’t. They signed Randall Cobb to a contract he could never live up to and traded him only because Aaron Rodgers cosplayed as GM for a spell. Eric Murray’s contract was bad the moment it was signed. Limiting it to just the last two offseasons doesn’t even get into trading for Laremy Tunsil and trading away Jadeveon Clowney while paying his entire salary. They have $39 million of dead cap this season, and have $22 million lined up for 2022 before they even get around to trading Deshaun Watson. The product on the field is anchored by a coach who mostly seems to be out of his depth at anything beyond motivating:

Simply put: This has been a disaster to cover and a disaster to live through. While the Texans were never a legitimate contender under Bill O’Brien and had an extremely short window as one during the Gary Kubiak years, they were still entertaining. The only season they’ve out-and-out stunk for before these last two was a cursed 2013 that fell into an avalanche of pick-sixes. The team O’Brien took over still had a ton of raw talent. This team? Doesn’t have a lot of it. It’s hard to find angles to discuss the future of the team because the team itself doesn’t really seem all that interested in creating one of those. Maybe they’ll get around to it this offseason. In the meantime, people don’t want to read the truth about this team unless it’s in a rubbernecker-stares-at-accident sort of portal. The fans that are left want to read about how turning Jon Greenard into a capable edge rusher (by actually playing him) means the Texans can fix anybody, and how many all-pro players Nick Caserio will draft this offseason while ignoring his entire draft history. The fans that were turned off by (broadly gestures) all of this don’t read a lot anymore.

So in the interest of creating content that spans beyond the very depressing circumstances that this team have created and built a nest in, I wanted to share some thoughts about covering this bad team. I want to be clear that outside of exchanging DMs or texts with players, people in the building, or people that have talked to people in the building, I haven’t been on the ground for any of this. The Texans don’t really seem all that interested in extending me press credentials (personal parenthetical aside below*), so I don’t ask the questions in these interviews. At the same time, nobody has really approached me with a good offer to be a beat reporter full-time or anything like that, so there’s no reason for me to push for these credentials and waste a ton of gas money. It doesn’t pay my bills, and the few positions that exist that have shown any interest will pay you a Happy Meal per post.

(*-I was getting into the press box in 2011 when I was with Football Outsiders. The Texans started to crack down on that a bit after the season, I think partially in response to me never showing up for training camp after my car died during the worst summer of my life. I didn’t get credentialed again (tried a few times) until I joined The Athletic late in the 2018 offseason. They had me commute from Humble to NRG an additional time every week to go pick up a weekly parking pass just so I could go to the games — that’s like an 80 minute back-and-forth commute if you’re not a native — and no matter how many times I approached and was like “this is kind of unreasonable,” nobody actually helped.

I also have my own personal demons around this where I kind of never feel like I belong anywhere. I don’t have a lot of living family that talks to me. I can count on one hand the number of people in all my years writing about football who have actually been happy to see me in a press box. I don’t say this as like a “Houston media has never accepted me!” sort of thing — I’m just not very outgoing and don’t make easy friends, so it’s easy for me to convince myself that I’m not really desired. As a person I am kind of stuck in my own head and aloof when I don’t fight those feelings, so the people that are closest to me tend to be the ones who keep messaging me or engaging with me through that. There’s a reason that my wife is a chatterbox. Therapy over.)

Anyway, that has put me in an interesting situation. I’m not wired in enough to ask questions to players and coaches in pressers, but nobody has absorbed as much of this team’s dumbass content as I have. I’ve suffered through Easterby sermons looking for clues to the way he’d run a team. I’ve listened to probably 80% of the team’s in-house radio content since 2020 started. I’ve listened to every scrap of an interview I can get my hands on. I know that David Culley likes horror movies, I know that David Johnson prays before every game, I know that Kamu Grugier-Hill was a terrible high school student, and I know that Davis Mills knows what sous-vide is. I know things that nobody who follows this team should know, because I have let myself drown in the content spigot.

Let me tell you what the last 22 months of these Texans has taught me about covering terrible football teams.

1) When teams say they’re going to correct something, but don’t offer a real reason why things would change, they’re not going to correct anything.

The Texans have offered essentially three different messages over the last two seasons for their inability to run the football:

-“We’ll get it corrected.”
-“We have to stick to it and we’ll get better, we have to be more consistent.”
-“We have to execute better.”

I have lost count of the number of times I have heard the team trot out that they will get something corrected.

When they don’t give you a specific reason that they’ll get something corrected, what that means is that they don’t have one. They are caught up in a reactionary id cycle. We all have these. The Texans and their players — rightfully, I’ll add! — have a lot of pride in themselves as competitors. That is commendable. But when you don’t have the right mix of players and coaching, you don’t have the right mix of players and coaching.

You can’t make Laremy Tunsil a fierce run blocker. You can’t make Max Scharping pick up a stunt correctly. You can’t make Tytus Howard reach his man across a few gaps. You can’t stop getting penalties with the click of a pen. Those guys can talk a great game, they are smart as hell, and they are among the top 98% of all football players in the world. But … that doesn’t mean they’re going to improve, because football is as much a sport of ingrained reactions as it is a test of memory and thought. You don’t get to spend ten seconds in the middle of a play remembering that the coach doesn’t want you to hold. You can hold and win the down and hope it doesn’t get called, or you can potentially let the running back get killed.

When you hear a coach say that they’re going to get it corrected without offering a real reason to believe that they are, that coach is just hoping and praying that it will work out. Sometimes it works! Sometimes a player takes a step forward or someone takes over that is better. But it’s hope, not an answer.

2) Curiosity may have killed the cat, but a lack of it kills the football team.

To this day, the Texans have no public acknowledgement of the reasons that they are bad. They chalked up 2020 to bad luck and will chalk up 2021 to Deshaun Watson ruining the season before it began. They’re not really interested in any kind of self-examination or outside ideas of why they’re bad, all they’re going to do is fall back on the new crutch of every bad team: “We’re trusting the process,” while they put their fingers in their ears and ignore any outside noise.

Listen, I’m a big fan of the process. But if one of my processes is “I’m not going to order $30 of food from Whataburger,” and then I do it, I generally tend to be curious about why that is and try to get to the bottom of it and how I can fix it. The Texans haven’t been interested in finding out why they’re eating junk food. They’re interested in explaining that the junk food won’t continue because they’re working very hard on that, but that’s about the extent of it.

The Texans have not begun to understand why J.J. Watt left the team. Watt talked about the team as an institution of the past when Texans media met with him before Week 7. They “mutually parted ways,” but that’s just PR-speak for Watt asking for his release so he could compete for a championship. Something like that should spar some real thinking about what exactly it is the team is doing: Why is our long-time star player who by all accounts loves the city unsure of what we are doing as an organization?

But if you close the door, as The Velvet Underground sang, the night could last forever. And that’s an important part of making sure that the Texans are able to maintain the delusions that they have that any of their leadership team is operating with ideas that are going to bear fruit. So that’s where we are. They’re not curious because being curious is going to lead to answers that are self-implicating. Being positive in a toxic way? That’s cheap, and easy, and good junk food for the hangover after yet another ass-kicking.

3) No matter how bad things get, there will always be optimistic fans looking for positive cues

One of the hardest things to understand about the way the world works today is that there are people that, in your opinion, have bad opinions. This goes beyond sports, obviously, but in sports it is a special kind of galling because there’s not even anything at stake. If a Texans homer watches a game and decides that actually Nick Caserio didn’t have a good offseason, their life changes not one iota in reality. But the psychology behind that is so powerful that some people would rather deathgrip that opinion until he’s fired, and sometimes even beyond that.

I think some of you non-Texans fans from the outside might think that with the way that the Texans have been mismanaged over the years, there’s just a settled negative mentality from everyone involved. Let me send you to this post I made a few Tuesdays ago:

In the comments to this alone, I received these varying thoughts of positivity:
-Tyrod Taylor is a good bridge quarterback.
-Davis Mills can be a franchise quarterback.
-The fans who are very excited about the draft and think that (Matt Corral, Malik Willis, etc.) are going to be way better than Tua.
-The fans who have fully embraced the tank and think the Texans will draft well and be a great team in 2023 or 2024.

I’m not trying to shit on anyone’s tastes here. Outside of muting the people who come after me like I’m the antichrist for having my own opinions, I don’t really care if we disagree. But I think it might surprise outside onlookers just how active positivity as a general concept is with this team’s fandom after everything that’s happened. It surprises me how many people still want this team to be a part of their lives after all these years. Some of that might be Twitter-ism — it’s not like these people are filling seats at NRG, so it’s not reflective of the fan culture as a whole — but there are an amazing number of people to me who are willing to be served lemons and make them into lemonade despite the ability to check out at any time.

Fandom is a weird affliction, and for many it survives a lot of bad times. This team also is used to saying things like “this was a close game” and getting away from it after the Bill O’Brien years, where nobody thought they were good and they kept winning games anyway. They built those division titles on a panoply of other bad quarterbacks, and they hung those banners anyway. Wins chase away any ability to recognize something isn’t working. More on that in a couple of hundred words.

I’m not saying that I expect rationality. In a perfect, rational world, I’d simply leave this team behind and do something more productive with my life. But I am still here posting, aren’t I? I still care. (Even if I don’t do it in the way that some people would prefer.)

4) Supporting the greater Houston community is nice, but you’re never going to change a conversation about the team through that alone

Let’s talk about That Football Feeling. The campaign is a filmmaker’s inside joke of propaganda brought to life. The Texans produced a cringe-worthy special full of people defining what exactly a Football Feeling is.

What the Texans have tried to do as they have floundered is try to lean further into their standing as an icon among the community. They’ve tried to do a better job of branding big moments — to the point where they have an all-22 breakdown on some random Cecil Shorts touchdown pass in 2015 because it was the first time they beat the Colts. They want to be thought of as an institution that helps out everyone else here. When they spoke to McNair after the disastrous Nick Caserio presser, one of my major takeaways was McNair saying that he’d finally be able to get back to serving the community. The blueprint of this is set up via a painful old Easterby project called The Bible Out Loud.

Cal McNair literally went into a fire house and told his in-house camera guys that he was here because he was e-mailed. That’s bulletpoint one. To eliminate entitlement they have done this weird thing where the Texans players have “Texans Care” on the back of their jerseys in public events. They still make the numbers the same as they are in reality, so it’s not like it’s an effort of saving on printing costs. What is the point of that? Are the players important here, or is it just the charity?

To bullet point three, several of the team’s best players — Brandin Cooks and Justin Reid for starters — did press appearances on Monday where they talked about how nice it will be to get away from football for a while. Football has become an overwhelming part of their lives because the culture demands that you breathe it. I’m all for people taking their jobs seriously, but humans aren’t football robots. They need to eat and talk with other people, have other hobbies and have rest.

When you do ordinary things extraordinarly (sic) well, nobody cares. I’m sorry, but nobody cares! Let’s set aside the fact that Cal decided to Not Be Cancelled during his “witty rejoinder” at charity golf. Let’s set aside the fire house thing. I’ve watched a dozen of these Texans charity things but have no scope for how that compares to the rest of the league. I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt and say that they’re good. Nobody cares! Nobody is talking about this. You might create some long-term Football Feelings in a kid or two? But like even as part of the local conversation, it is broadly irrelevant.

We as a nation are soaked in corporate charity messaging right now. I can’t go to a CVS without having to tell them I don’t want to round up to donate money to something on a pin pad. There are a ton of advertisements about companies doing a civic duty (not by paying taxes, though, not that one) and they also are broadly irrelevant.

I am but a casual onlooker of the Houston Astros. (I’m a Mets fan, my mom’s fault.) I can’t tell you a damn thing they do for charity, but I’m sure they do a lot of it. (I assume the raffles they run at their games help a charity? Well, maybe not actually, but in theory.) What I can tell you is that people are excited about them in the city even despite the cheating allegations. They have a collective goodwill behind them. All they had to do was build a good team and win a lot of games, and nothing else mattered. Speaking of wins…

5) Wins are the life-blood of culture, not people

People are important to a team, I’m not denying that in the slightest. Even though I found Mark Ingram’s public personality a little grating, I am in no way denigrating what he provided to this team in the locker room or what he gave the team as far as leadership. But … those things do not really matter when your team does not win games.

Let me give you an example: The Texans have a show called “Texans Replay.” The tagline is: “Get back in the game, from the line of scrimmage to the locker room, this is Texans Replay, your weekly look back at what happened and why.” Here’s Week 7’s Texans Replay. You’ll notice that it contains an interview with Zach Diles, who last started for the Texans in 2010. They don’t start covering what happened in the actual game until the 36-minute mark, because they’re not proud of it. It is hard to be proud of things when you get cleaned out, as it turns out.

It’s also hard to maintain all the positive energy you are supposed to have and bring when there is no light at the end of the tunnel. It’s easy to shut up and do your job, as Maliek Collins says:

I don’t say this to destroy the idea of culture: it is definitely a good thing to have a good culture. But you can’t maintain a good culture without a constant validation of the culture, and no amount of Easterby retweets about the importance of your struggles is going to change that. The reason that the Culture Vets didn’t turn this around wasn’t that anybody was wrong about them being great locker room guys or leaders — it’s that the team wasn’t good enough for any of that to matter. They hollowed out the core years ago. The culture is now the team.

The Texans’ current culture is very simple: They want to protect leadership, and they want to bring in people who will continue to protect leadership and say things that leadership wants to hear. The people who don’t fit that aren’t here. And as you can see from the turnover, that’s a lot of players.

6) The scheme matters a lot more than you’d think when everyone is an NFL-caliber player

Talent naturally is a big reason that the Texans are where they are, but this team’s inability to embrace any kind of new-world offense or defense are major factors in them getting crushed over the last two seasons.

I lead with the above video to show you that it’s completely possible to put spackle and grout around an untalented offense and make it, well, not good, but feisty. That’s how things went for the Patriots with Cam Newton in 2020. They were a bad offense, but they were a bad offense with a -7.3% DVOA because they knew they were a bad offense. They used Newton’s legs to make the run game better than it was. They used gadget plays often. I’m not saying Josh McDaniels deserves a medal (and please, please, don’t bring him to Houston, I don’t want to see anyone with a Patriots background ever again) — but he did a competent job of understanding his offense’s limitations and working with them.

The Texans do that in an infuriating way: They show that they understand it by creating plays like this, then they forget that they can ever call them again. The Texans have a run-heavy approach that has no prayer of going anywhere. They have had three games of more than 110 net rushing yards against a non-Jaguars team since 2020 started: The Chiefs in Week 1 of 2020, the Bengals in Week 16 of 2020, and the Colts in Week 6 of 2021. They get stuffed in a phone booth on a regular basis, and that’s the identity of the team.

The Texans on defense are married to a system that disguises what it’s doing less than any other NFL team. It is a system that works only if your pass rushers crush an offensive line, and while Jon Greenard’s breakout feels real, they are still extremely light on pass rush against good lines. They don’t tend to bring that up when they’re praising group efforts over Miami and Carolina, who can’t block.

The selling point of the system is that it creates turnovers, but outside of Week 9’s avalanche and Lonnie Johnson randomly being in the right throwing lane at the right time on two clunker throws, they have forced two turnovers in their last seven games. It was a hot start, but once other teams got film of what was happening, they adjusted. There’s been no adjustment back, because Lovie Smith’s defense is extremely rigid. The Dolphins were simply a team that is just as dumb as the Texans are. Houston generates many fumbles on peanut punches and if those don’t work, they are not going to have a good day.

This team could be much more competitive than it was, but the culture of this team is unnecessary suffering. So they keep doing the things that they have come to expect will get them beat, rather than aspire to something greater, because that is how football is supposed to be in a bunch of minds that are closed.

7) Public momentum in terms of perception matters a LOT more than most people are willing to admit

When I was younger, I remember building dream offseasons for the Texans. You sign Nnamdi Asomugha, you re-sign Owen Daniels, you sign up Jason Taylor to provide some pass rush. You make Madden franchise rebuilds. You can draft and dream on players for years and years. I remember thinking that Cordarrelle Patterson was better than Hopkins coming out. I also remember thinking that Russell Wilson should have been the heir apparent to Matt Schaub.

Look at what has broadly happened to this franchise and you’ll see that the entire tenor of these discussions have changed. The top free agents this year are players like Davante Adams and Chris Godwin. Why would they ever want to play here, in a place where they need to constantly kiss the ass of leadership? In a place that is so bereft of talent that winning is an afterthought? In a place where the only talk about the team is about the culture they’re building? The Texans have effectively disqualified themselves from any discussion about upper-level free agents for the next two years by their decisions this offseason. Nobody talks about them like a serious franchise, and players and coaches who have other options will take them.

I think the Texans would have hired Joe Brady last year had Watson not held out. There’s a potentially awesome future that could not exist because Jack Easterby was retained. And the momentum of clinging to the problems has continued to ride this team down. I can control + F “Houston,” “Texans,” on every national NFL column and rarely do I get any hits. They are irrelevant. They played on Thursday Night Football against a team that has its own problems maintaining a fanbase, and 75% of the conversation was about the Panthers as the Texans enabled a short-lived “Sam Darnold is actually good” conversation to surface. Also, nobody really came to the game, and by the end of the game, only Panthers fans were left:

Signing David Culley led to chasing Mark Ingram and Chris Moore, it didn’t give them any inroads on players that would be actually helpful. The slew of Patriots guys the team brought in have largely done nothing.

Imagine sitting down today and trying to even come up with a dream offseason plan for making this team an eight-win team, let alone a playoff contender. There might be a good free agent or two that they’re able to overpay — I doubt it, but I want to be open to the possibility — but why would they want to come here? I would be wishcasting into the void. This team is ostensibly competing for talent in free agency and the draft, but are they really doing that at this point?

The truth is that every NFL team is as good as their talent and coaching currently are. If there were a world where the Laremy Tunsil trade was for a great quarterback in, say, 2014 when the Texans needed one, it would have been fine. That’s what the Rams did, and the Rams are going after a Super Bowl now. This team has developed almost no long-term talent this year, and it has no coaches that put the players in a position to succeed schematically. I can’t speak to how they’re coached individually — maybe someone on the staff is good at that! — but the output is making just about everyone who doesn’t play defensive line look bad.

And the momentum of that decision is … nobody should want to play here if they have a better option. Which makes it hard to see a point where this team is going to have enough NFL talent to compete before 2023. (Realistically, 2024 would be a better fit for how players develop.) The player pool of guys who want to play for this front office is startlingly small and extremely insular. Many teams operate that way, but none have added the layer of culture to it quite like the Texans have. Does Jimmy Garoppolo want to come here and talk about bible study while he loses 17 games in two seasons? He might end up here anyway, but that’s going to be about the other options he has. Careers are short, these guys want to win and they want to play well enough to make more money. This team gives them no chance.

It’s hard to overcome the momentum at place here. It’s hard to understand the escape plan for this team out of talent purgatory if what they have put out there is broadly offputting to the league around them. Not to even mention their own fans.

This is a franchise that is stuck in quicksand and is talking about how smooth it feels between their toes as they continue to sink further and further. Any rational outside observer who wants to offer them a hand out of it is up against the problem that they don’t want to be saved. They already were.

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Four Downs: Texans 9, Dolphins 17

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If I had written a preview for this game, I would have made an embarrassment of myself. I thought that the Texans would come out emboldened after watching their general manager get roasted by the local media on Wednesday. I wouldn’t have necessarily prepared a win in that prediction, but I also hadn’t factored in the Dolphins losing Tua Tagovailoa before the game started. Get a load of these circumstances:

– Jacoby Brissett was 12-23 as a starting quarterback, 0-3 with the Dolphins, and can’t even pretend to throw a deep ball. The Dolphins didn’t even try, as Brissett’s longest completed throw of the game was 28.6 yards.
– The Dolphins turned the ball over to the Texans five times. Not two, not three. Five. Since the Texans came into the NFL, only five teams have won with five or more turnovers in a game. The most recent was the 2019 49ers. That was the only game like that in the last ten years.
– The Texans, who have been just miserable at running the ball, found an opponent that also couldn’t run the ball. They held the Dolphins to 1.9 yards per carry. The Texans were at 15 non-quarterback carries for 50 yards, which isn’t good, but certainly isn’t as bad as it has sometimes been this season.

When I wrote about the Texans in the preseason, and I projected three wins, the reason I went there in spite of the talent is because there were going to be games like this that perfect-stormed for them. They’d have a bad opponent facing some adversity, they’d force some turnovers, and even though I don’t think their offense is all that great, they’re not always going to be at a marked disadvantage.

It is a testament to this team’s ability to never even attempt to have an answer to real glaring problems that we are here today talking about a 17-9 loss that might have been one of the worst Texans games in the history of the franchise in terms of pure watchability. The Dolphins suck out loud. But you have to hand it to them, they suck out loud in a way that just can’t match what the great people the Texans have in the building are putting together.

The juggernaut rolls into the bye week at 1-8, essentially eliminated from even dreaming about the playoffs, and behind the Jaguars in the win column in the AFC South basement. Let’s have some discourse.

1) Tyrod Taylor joins the Rosencopter and the Chris Brown halfback pass in vaunted embarrassing Texans play history

There are many plays that are scarred into my memory from a lifetime of watching Houston Texans football. Some of them are great — the J.J. Watt pick-six against the Bengals — but because of the circumstances, most of them are bad. Only a few of them are downright embarrassing. I will list the ones that immediately come to mind in that category:

The RosenCopter
– DeMarcus Faggins getting called for DPI and defensive holding on a play he still allowed Roddy White to catch.
– Chris Brown halfback pass picked off in the end zone against the Jaguars
– Glover Quin’s Q-Tip touchdown to the Jaguars.
– Kris Brown’s wild shank in the Bush Bowl.

We have a new contender today in Tyrod Taylor’s amazing interception that he was attempting to throw away:

Now, all of those other plays have something in common: They have someone daring greatly. Glover Quin was absolutely trying his damndest to knock the ball down, but sometimes things happen. DeMarcus Faggins was not very good, but he was trying his best. The Texans have a history of attempting incredibly stupid things and not succeeding.

This is an attempt to do nothing that is somehow still intercepted, and that meant I could only stare on at disbelief. It sums up where this team is at right now better than anything I could ever write.

This team wasn’t built with a real purpose beyond “gather all the best culture players in the NFL together,” and that means it’s not trying to tank or bereft of a certain baseline level of NFL talent. It doesn’t really matter though, because it shoots itself in the foot at nearly every occasion. It turns the ball over at the worst time, can’t convert in the red zone, and finds new ways every week to have flags thrown just when things are starting to get better.

This team is an attempt at an incompletion (spinning wheels with older average players that are holding on, trying to be a working man’s NFL team) that somehow still manages to embarrass itself every week.

2) The Texans have absolutely no plan to actually deal with a blitz-heavy Dolphins defense

It became very evident early on in the game that the Dolphins had one strategy for dealing with Tyrod Taylor: blitz the hell out of him. Taylor and Tim Kelly did not respond to this well, and it was the major place the game was lost.

Taylor’s Texans went 6-of-17 on third downs, none of which were running plays. Only two of them were deeper than third-and-7. By the second half, Taylor looked notably slow to react to the blitz and then we got downs like this:

Some of your favorite box score-reading fans who didn’t watch the game will say things like “he still threw for 248 yards!” Do not fall for the bait. This was an abysmal game for Taylor and the ability to escape pressure as he did against the Jaguars was non-existent. Maybe that’s on his hamstring, or maybe what happened against the Jaguars was a fluke. I certainly have my lean on fluke. To be fair to Taylor, it’s not his fault that the offensive line decided to part ways with him on third-and-goal, but other than that, most of the pressure came late in the down or off the edge.

This isn’t all on Taylor because Tim Kelly has never really developed a good way to beat a blitz with this receiving corps, probably because that’s something Bill O’Brien was never any good at either. Kelly has wideout screens — you’ve seen how that goes with Davis Mills and Taylor bounced one in the first quarter on a third down for good measure. Beyond that, nobody can win one-on-one.

This team never has conceived of the idea of a backup plan. They have one way of doing things, and if you beat them schematically, you’re going to win. That’s about as simple as I can put it at this point. I don’t think the Dolphins did anything legendarily great, and I don’t think their blitz schemes were so majestic that Taylor had no chance. The Texans just never considered that their plan wouldn’t work, because that is the level of obstinate they are willing to be.

David Culley was non-committal about another Taylor start after the game. I think Taylor’s the better quarterback of the two despite this game. But we’re at the point where it doesn’t really matter, and I’m not going to complain about either quarterback because I don’t think either of them is an answer.

3) This game is not really the defense’s fault, but they’re incredibly soft on third down

OK, so Brissett is the opposing quarterback. He’s yet to go above 3.3 completed air yards per pass attempt in a season in his career. When he does glitch out of the matrix and attempt to throw deep, things like this happen:

But in spite of that, Houston’s coverage on third down against Brissett just made it too easy for him in underneath coverage over and over again, particularly when the Dolphins were trying to salt away a lead and it would make sense to be aggressive. The Dolphins were 9-of-16 on third-down attempts. With Jacoby Brissett! And they either found easy open spots or they made Texans underneath defenders look silly. Take a bow, Zach Cunningham:

There are just too many plays where nature finds a way to allow Lovie Smith to give up third downs with the game on the line. And when they happen, they’re so easy that even a Brissett or a Sam Darnold can see them:

This game’s not on the defense, as I said, but it remains alarming that they continue to make the mediocre quarterback class rich on underneath throws.

4) David Culley’s a placeholder

There’s a certain baseline level of empathy I have for a head coach. It’s a terrible job with long hours, you’re accountable for so many people who aren’t you, and your reward is usually getting fired. This particular situation would have tested any head coach’s resolve. That said, the idea that David Culley came out of halftime and was happy with what he saw on the field in the first half outside of the turnovers is just completely baffling to me.

It was okay that they couldn’t throw the ball? It was okay that they looked schematically defeated? It was okay that after Tim Kelly’s opening script faded the offense couldn’t run the ball at all? It was just all execution?

The process is doomed. The process is the idea that the Texans are doing anything right to be here in this moment of time. They are not. There is no read of this team that is improving. They will have more promising players next season because they’ll have a high draft pick, and probably a Deshaun Watson trade, but nothing about what has happened this season outside of Roy Lopez winning a starting spot should give anyone a lot of hope that those players will be used in the right way or anything like that.

Culley spent a timeout to avoid a Delay of Game penalty near his goal line that might have saved two yards. He didn’t go for it on fourth-and-2 at the goal line when his team needed a touchdown desperately. There’s no fight in him. He’s happy to be here, happy to say one day that he was an NFL head coach. Perhaps there was no one better that would take this job in this specific set of circumstances — I’m not involved in those meetings — but it’s hard to believe that someone who wanted to be a head coach for as long as Culley did became one to just babysit this team and talk about doing things the right way for 17 games. There’s no backup plan. There’s not even an ounce of curiosity about why the team is 1-8. Just a straight “we’re gonna keep doing what we know works in the past,” while losses continue to stockpile.

The entire team just has its head in the sand, and they’re all waiting for the 2021 season to be over.

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The Deshaun Watson watch goes into hibernation and other thoughts from Houston’s trade deadline

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As I tried to say when I wrote last week’s post on the only situation with the team any non-Texans fan cares about, I didn’t really see much of a way forward for the Texans and Dolphins if there was an insistence on the civil lawsuits being settled. Of the flood of reports that came out as the hopes of a deal officially ended on Tuesday afternoon, the only new twist was that Dolphins owner Stephen Ross had tried to establish contact with Watson through the Texans and that this had only been granted very recently in the process.

I don’t necessarily know that reading into this needs to be a conspiratorial exercise (i.e. I don’t think this lack of speaking was a malicious thing, but perhaps an unexpected part of the process in what is very much an unexpected situation), but it does sound like there were bits of the process that just were never going to come together in-season while a football team is focusing on it’s football things. The Dolphins did get permission whereas the Panthers did not. Watson started to try to settle but didn’t know he’d need to until it was a bit late. It’s a complex deal. And so our watch continues.

I don’t blame the Texans at all for holding on for a better deal. I am very curious if they’ll actually get it. Watson showing at least some desire to settle the cases per various reporters (including Houston ones) is probably a good sign for the future of his trade value. That leads us to the most divisive bit that went up, from Pro Football Talk:

It is only good business for Watson to settle the cases. I don’t know that this is ultimately what will happen, or if doing so will wipe away all the other criminal complaints, FBI involvement, and so on. I do think it makes sense that Houston’s price would go up given that happening. I also think that Watson taking any of the cases to court could potentially sabotage his own trade value — and that’s something that he actually controls — just on the pure shock value of what is revealed. It just adds another complex cog to a situation you already needed a doctorate in to talk about. I agree that waiting on a trade makes sense given these conditions, I commend the Texans for not jumping the gun as well as getting clarity on where the picks are going to be, but I do want to point out that there is at least some downside inherent in that play. It relies on Watson to be a rational actor about his legal situation when he has not really done much of that without incentive to date.

Ultimately, there will likely be some deal as we get more legal clarity at the start of the new league year or around draft time. In the meantime, we can get a respite from focusing on the delicious draft picks and get to the depressing business of the 2021 Texans.

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Texans deal Charles Omenihu for beans

The Texans dealt Charles Omenihu to the 49ers for a future sixth-round pick in a move that was not all that surprising. It’s a move that also doesn’t make any sense without the context of the very binary yes/no culture this team is installing.

Whatever happened behind closed doors here, the Texans failed spectacularly with Omenihu this year. They played him as a 4-3 end, in a role that he should not have been anticipated to succeed at on run downs, then got mad when he didn’t do it well. They deactivated him for two games. Lovie Smith spoke to trying to find a new role for him, and Omenihu came back and did a fairly decent job with the Texans against Arizona as a pass rusher. He’s an interior pass rusher who may or may not be playable there on run downs — probably not.

Omenihu was one of the only players on the team under 25 years old with any real playing time in the past. It’s really hard to understand this move on paper for a team that is 1-7. The only way to view it rationally is to point out that he was not a personality fit with this team for whatever reason. And isn’t it interesting how this is the only team that has those problems on the scale that the Texans do?

I don’t think this is a move worth setting NRG on fire over. I don’t think Omenihu is ultimately an NFL star or anything. But he should have been a promising piece on the inside after his first two years, and they simply don’t have much to show for it. My belief is that the NFL draft is about four rounds long. That sixth might pay for some freight, and I don’t care that it’s a future pick. But it’s probably at most going to be feeding a special teams need or traded for the next Anthony Miller, that’s just the rational big picture view of it.

The Mark Ingram trade

So this was an interesting change of pace: the Texans regarded Ingram as a key culture piece, but after being pushed by the Saints multiple times, Houston apparently relented and asked Ingram if he wanted the trade. Ingram, as I think anyone with a rational brain would have, said yes. He even got a contract extension out of it.

The Texans received a 2024 seventh-round pick from the Saints. I don’t necessarily disagree with the Texans that Mark Ingram is a beloved locker room guy and culture leader; I just question what it was worth to have him here if the team is 1-7. I would have taken seven games of Scottie Phillips carries and an understanding of what he is as a player over the seventh-round pick — you can always find UDFAs at running back. That probably wasn’t going to happen anyway given David Johnson’s existence, but it’s hard for me to understand the divide between “this guy is super important for our culture” and “we’ll trade him for a seventh-round pick as a favor to him.”

I would love to learn more about what exactly facilitated that and how that relates to the other culture players on their roster, but ultimately I applaud the move to trade Ingram. He wasn’t going to be a part of the next good Houston Texans team. The return is light, but his value was never going to be high. I would love to say I carried some memories of Ingram beyond the few long carries he had, but I really don’t beyond just how deep the team went in on him in terms of words, actions, and posts, and how jarring it is that they just up and dropped him for nothing.

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In sum, the first year of Nick Caserio’s tenure was pretty much a waste. The team is 1-7. The coaching pick has devolved from bad in practice to bad in actuality, to the point where David Culley continues to say things that any rational eyes can dispute and has turtled so hard as a head coach that it’s easy for people to believe he’s tanking on purpose. The only players Caserio has brought in or brought back that are playing well are Roy Lopez, 15 snaps of Brevin Jordan and six quarters of Tyrod Taylor. Maybe Tavierre Thomas, Nico Collins, and Maliek Collins crack that list by season’s end. They were only able to bring in a sixth-rounder for Shaq Lawson and a seventh-rounder for Ingram.

The only argument that anything is actually happening in a positive way is something vague and generic about a culture, one where the best player on the team continues to be called a leader even as he gets pissed off enough to dog the team weekly, and where one of the other leaders can be dealt for a seventh-round pick:

It remains a dark time to try to find optimism in Houston. About all I can give you is that the situation Caserio entered into was unprecedented and that it was unlikely that anybody would have succeeded with the start that he did. But when you break it down move-by-move, there’s just not a lot happening with this roster beyond their young players, and those young players have been held back behind culture veterans all season.

I’m sorry. I’d like it to be better too. Maybe next offseason will have an actual plan for creating future value for the Texans. I sure hope so.

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