A personal story that is eventually about David Johnson’s Texans career

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.

***

In 1865, the Civil War ended. Lee surrendered at Appomattox. The war was over. But not everybody wanted to believe that in Texas. The Battle of Palmito Ranch occurred in May even though the war had officially ended. The union commanding officer knew that the war was over. He fought the battle anyway.

It happens to be that, sometimes in our lives, logic is a spectator. Emotion is a driving force. Just as I can sit here and quote to you that there’s not much statistical support to the idea that momentum exists, but that a vast majority of the people who have played in the NFL will tell you that it exists and impacts the game. Logic is what we know to be right. Emotion is often driven by what we want to be right and, more importantly, what we feel.

We live in a world where the wide spread of information on the internet has created a scenario where emotion is more powerful than logic. People have so many different factoids or supporting pieces of evidence to back on to that they can present any side of a story they want to — the emotion of what they want to believe is right is more important than the logic of what is right. One informs the other, and not in the way it should most of the time.

***

I’m gonna type out one of the worst moments of my life here. You are going to think I’m an idiot after you read this and I am not going to argue with you. But it shows you the power of emotion.

Both of my parents passed away in 2010 (father, drug overdose) and 2011 (mother, stroke). I was 25. I have some well-meaning family members, but for the most part, we are ships passing in the night — someone would keep me from being homeless if I asked, but conversations are rare. What I mean to say is: I was left on my own, for the first time in my life, and I was emotionally alone. Nobody that had a big impact on my life, who made it a point to involve themselves or keep tabs on me, was alive. I am very grateful, in fact, for the few friends that I had made just by writing Texans stuff. Because in a sense, that’s all I had at times.

In late 2011 and building up to 2012, I began talking to a woman that I had known for a while. I was always a big fan. When I was growing up, I tended to prefer relationships that I could pursue online. I liked that distance in it, that distance was safe. I had been hurt a lot by a lot of people growing up — some inadvertently, others not — and so I approached any kind of relationship by starting with distance, then gradually closing the gap. I knew that wasn’t logical by this point, and really harbored little hope that this woman would come into my life, but it was fun to flirt and I was quite lonely so I ate up whatever little chunks of anybody’s attention I was given. At some point there was a plan where she and her roommate were going to move to a small Texas beach town on the gulf coast, and then hey, we’d meet up a few times and see what happened. Sounded fun.

The Friday of the NFL Draft that year, I go out with some friends to watch the draft and get tanked on the belief that DeVier Posey is going to save us. (I wanted the Texans to draft Russell Wilson.) I wake up to a string of text messages from this woman panicking about her situation. That her roommate is throwing out her stuff. That she had to go find her cat in the ditch outside the place they were renting. That she has nowhere to go. And so, I made an extremely emotional decision: Nobody helps me, OK, but I will help you. I had never met this woman before.

She drives from Florida to Texas over what has to be 22 straight hours. She can’t even stop at a hotel because she has lost any form of real identification. She gets here, I steer her in from my neighbor’s driveway to my actual driveway. We embrace. It’s one of the few moments that is unforgettable in my life.

Two weeks later, maybe even less than that, it’s very clear that this isn’t going to work and that we want very different things. I’m hopped up on this idea that I finally just took a risk and let my guard down and so, well, the way that story ends in my mind is that this is The One, right? Right. So, of course, dumb things ensue. We officially “break up” in late June, a couple of days after my birthday.

I would love to tell you that this break up was amicable, but it wasn’t. It was me desecrating myself in the service of the outcome I’d already pre-determined in my head. Me inventing reasons she should stay. Me going out of my way to try to help out. She moved with me to a new place I got in late July. We fought constantly, because she believed I was not listening and because she was right that I was not listening. It’s hard to really remember now how many grievances I felt. I could have asked her to leave at any time, yet I never did.

I guess the best way to sum this up is to say that my major memory of the last couple months was me taking time off of a Monday football editing grind to take her to a (small) exploratory surgery for stomach issues (suspected Chron’s disease) that I was paying for. I pulled the car out. I asked her if she was ready for this. She screamed at me: “You’re only doing this because you want to fuck me!” I pulled back in front of the place and shouted back something along the lines of “then I have to be the dumbest fucking person on the planet,” before I left to head back inside. And reader, well, I might have been in the running.

She left in November. I was so consumed with the idea of keeping her that I assumed I would be crushed when she left. So I was startled when I felt … relief. Hours after the process. That it was just my house again. I had given up so much in an attempt to convince this woman that I cared about her, which was something she obviously never bought or considered possible. It was all I thought about for months. My car was broken during Texans training camp, which I’d finally convinced them to give me credentials for, and I just never showed up while I was dealing with all this. I look back at things like that and wonder what life could have been like had I not been so emotionally invested in trying to change something that — SO, so obviously — was never going to change. Who knows what one connection I could have made there could have meant?

Time has colored those memories and aged them in a way that made it feel less like the torture it felt in real time, when I was living it every day for four months, just someone in my house, rent-free, who wanted nothing to do with me, while I was trying to convince them otherwise. I’m glad things ended up going the way they did. At the same time, in some ways, it was almost more traumatic than losing my parents. I had never fought for something like that before, and just almost bathing in that struggle on a daily basis changed a lot about who I am. I learned a lot about how easy it is to blind yourself. I learned that none of my angst about this was worth holding on to, even in the slightest.

I learned that there are battles worth fighting, and that there are battles you need to lose.

***

There are four games left in this Texans season. The team has a 0.0% chance of making the playoffs. It would require a Titans lose-out, a Ravens lose-out, a Raiders lose-out, among other things. They’re not actually eliminated. But they’re effectively eliminated. Even in the scenario where COVID-19 forces an extra playoff team, they’re far behind several teams right now.

David Johnson has rushed for 452 yards in nine games. Be it him, his line, or the schemes, his production has been empirically amongst the worst in the NFL. The Texans are dead-last in rushing DVOA by almost 10%: -35.0% to 26.2% for the 31st-place Falcons. The trend in NFL football is such that rushing becomes less and less valuable every year — even the best teams in rushing DVOA are rushing at like 8.7% instead of say, Green Bay’s 52.2% passing DVOA — but that’s a remarkably bad number.

Johnson is set to take up $9 million in cap space in 2021. It’s very hard to imagine a scenario in which keeping him makes sense for a team that is projected to be $11 million over a $176 million cap before they even worry about what they do with Will Fuller. I’m not saying it’s impossible — Jack Easterby has a lot of dreams and he’s got more power than anybody with his track record should — but keeping Johnson for next season would be irresponsible. You could argue that certain bits of this offense make him look worse than he is, but there have been almost zero special back flashes this season. His cap figure of $9 million would rate sixth in the NFL, sandwiched between backs who have shown special flashes a lot more recently — that’s a remarkably bad number.

Yet, there he is, off IR and ready to be given a workhorse role. Even beyond that, for the beleaguered fans of this franchise, the last thing anyone needs is the constant reminder that the DeAndre Hopkins trade happened. We don’t need any reason to create more graphics ala the one FOX ran in the Green Bay game. The games don’t matter, Johnson is unlikely to play a role on the 2021 Houston Texans. I have said over and over again, I have nothing against David Johnson — it’s not his fault he’s declined, and it’s not his fault that he was involved in a franchise-crippling trade. He was trying to rehabilitate his career here and it didn’t work out. Nothing will change that now.

There’s no logical reason for him — particularly on the franchise that suddenly found Arian Foster in 2009 as a UDFA — to continue playing for this team. There’s nothing to be gained here. There are no milestones to hit. There’s no film that’s suddenly going to be weighted against his full season of performance. The die has been cast.

Hiring Romeo Crennel was a stab at trying to steer the Texans back to their normal BOB ways, and that stab failed. It has nothing to do with Romeo, because none of the problems were problems he created. He can’t make Vernon Hargreaves and Phillip Gaines into outside cornerbacks. It’s not his fault Fuller and Bradley Roby got themselves suspended. It’s not his fault the team can’t run, and the run defense finally stabilized later into his watch.

But the mindset that this team has inflicted on itself reminds me a lot of four months I lived in 2012. You see Chad Hansen and Keke Coutee come in and have some measure of success and it’s exciting. It’s all anybody wants to talk about. In a lost season, the best thing for the long-term success of the football team is to let young players play and see what they can do. This team is pathologically opposed to that.

Jon Greenard comes in and has a good 10 snaps of run defense and it doesn’t matter, because Whitney Mercilus is Our Guy. Romeo stands up at the podium and says the snaps have really helped Greenard out, but can’t just take that leap to “hm, maybe it would help everybody!” or “what if snaps but for young player?” John Reid can’t get on the field. Ross Blacklock hasn’t had a great rookie season, but Carlos Watkins is a free agent. Who knows what Watkins will do this offseason? I know that Blacklock will be here. Isaiah Coulter isn’t even allowed on the active roster.

There are many, many opportunities to create more stories like Hansen and Coutee. Tyrell Adams came out of nowhere this year and is leading the NFL in tackles since he became a starter. But this team is just stubbornly clinging to its priors in the face of — hilariously — players they didn’t think much of continually proving them wrong. Heck, when Keion Crossen has played corner, that hasn’t even been all bad.

But the heads are down, the drive to finish the season with as respectable a record as possible is in place, to own the Dolphins, or maybe to make Jack Easterby’s stock go up half a point. It’s hard to even say that what they’re doing is ruining the future, because given what we’ve seen so far with players that have been off the playing time radar, they’re actually ruining the present too. It’s prime NFL cocoon hours, and we have to have been right that David Johnson can get 100 rushing yards in an NFL game still. We can’t just accept that this is a battle worth abandoning. The only opportunity is the one in front of us: moving to 5-8 for … some reason.

These last four games of the season — outside of just having fun watching Deshaun Watson dunking on some blitzes and bad coverages or whatever — are among the most meaningless games in franchise history. All I want to see as someone who covers the team is some good performances from young players who are going to be here next year. Something to dream on. We appear to be being denied even that. They’ve already decided who was tough, smart, and dependable. We just have to live with the consequences.

I can’t wait until someone who actually cares about the future of this franchise on the football side is in the building again. That will be a relief.

More battles will be fought. The war is over.

***

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Rivers McCown’s 2021 Texans Head Coach Interview List

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

***

This is part two of a two-part series. Yeah, you got it.

As I mentioned in the first post of the two-part series, I would cast a wide net on these coaches, meaning that I would be looking to interview up to 15-20 different coaches. I went over most of my criteria in that post as well, so have a look before you complain to me that the guy you want isn’t in the spot you want him in. My biases are at play here and inform a lot of the list.

Between Cal McNair, Jed Hughes of Korn Ferry, and (sigh) Jack Easterby, we have the main players in the room. They mentioned wanting to get a general manager first on both the telecast of the first Texans-Jags game and several times thereafter — I’m mostly going to stay out of that because there’s no real way for me as an outsider to pre-evaluate a general manager without prior experience. I think John Dorsey’s work has aged well in Cleveland though he’s not someone who I would consider a great cap guy. I think Scot McCloughan is to blame for most of Washington’s most recent playoff push. I’m happy to poach a newcomer from a good front office. I don’t hold strong opinions on most general managers until they start making bad trades.

But, let me do the work of Korn Ferry for Korn Ferry and put some good thoughts into the world about who I want to see as head coach. Come with a good cup of coffee.

A major thing I will say before we begin is that as long as the Texans hire someone I’d consider interviewing, I’m not going to get mad about who they pick. I think there’s a certain level of detail that, as an outsider, I don’t get the full gist of. I’m willing to give some credit there. I don’t come at this full of hubris and my-guy-is-better-than-your-guy. I just have leans and those leans produce the number of guys I want to talk to.

I’ve produced this list using a) my own biases and b) a list of most-mentioned names by people in a Twitter post asking other Texans fans to name their own five guys. If you’ve got someone that wasn’t named on this post, well, I’m sorry I can’t cover literally everyone. If I did, the post would be 20,000 words instead of 5,000.

Who do I __NOT__ want to be head coach?

I respect to various degrees the work that David Shaw, Dabo Swinney, and Pat Fitzgerald have done as college coaches. I don’t think Dabo or Pat have an attitude that meshes well with the NFL vis a vis enlightenment about players. I think they’d stage their own versions of the Hopkins trade at some point. That doesn’t mean they aren’t good head coaches, but they’re not fits to me in a post-BOB landscape. Shaw is a good egg with a big track record of success, but I think they’ve faded recently and I don’t believe the system the Cardinal run is a great one for Deshaun Watson. Matt Campbell gets thrown around by some people who are interested in finding a young superstar coach, but I think I’d like to see what he can do at a place where there are no built-in excuses. (That reminds me a lot of hiring O’Brien from a sanctioned Penn State team.) I would say the same thing for Baylor’s Dave Aranda. Florida’s Dan Mullen has been pretty good, but I want a longer track record at a big program — he’s probably the guy on this list I feel the worst about not writing more about. Urban Meyer will quit this team in a hot minute. I think Jim Harbaugh needs to rehabilitate his image somewhere before he’s ready to be a professional head coach again.

Because of my clarification in the last post about hiring anyone that Jack Easterby knows, obviously, I am not interested in Josh McDaniels, Matt Patricia, or Jerod Mayo. No, I don’t care how fawning the Chronicle article was about Mayo.

Some guys who got mentioned to me in the post are guys I just don’t think have any reason to leave for the Texans. I don’t think Ryan Day should leave Ohio State to go to the Texans. They’re not hiring John Harbaugh. Some of them I just don’t think are ready to be head coaches — I saw a lot of 49ers underlings like Mike McDaniels being thrown around as potential hires. Maybe that will happen, but it wouldn’t be my focus. There are plenty of guys with coordinator experience who I’d give a shot first. I haven’t been particularly impressed with Byron Leftwich in his stints as Arizona OC or, now, with Tampa Bay.

I am very grateful for his best years, but no thanks on Gary Kubiak as a reunion. I can’t believe I have to say this, but because people have asked — no, I don’t want Tim Kelly to be the head coach. Great job this year after BOB bit the dust, but that’s an elevation that makes me squeamish.

Who am I interviewing despite some reservations?

Todd Bowles
Last five years by the numbers:
2020: Bucs DC, -16.1% def. DVOA (3rd)
2019: Bucs DC, -10.5% def. DVOA (6th)
2018: Jets HC, -17.0% total DVOA (25th)
2017: Jets HC, -19.2% total DVOA (27th)
2016: Jets HC, -34.5% total DVOA (32nd)

Bowles’ defenses with the Jets were similarly not good, never rising above 22nd place after 2015. While I admit that those Jets teams were lacking talent — by the end it was Jamal Adams and Leonard Williams playing around stopgaps at best — I think if you look at his Tampa teams you can say that he inherited a ton of talent. The fact that when given control to pick an offensive coordinator the team wound up with Chan Gailey and guys who would never coordinate again is also not optimism-inducing.

Bowles’ defensive blueprint is to turn up the heat. Tampa is fifth in blitz rate as of Week 12’s games at 39.3%. They were second in 2019 with a 43.4% blitz rate. The Jets were top-six in blitz rate in 2018.

Bowles’ first season with the Jets was some good lightning in a bottle. I do think he deserves a second chance somewhere, particularly with how Tampa’s defense has showed up under him. But I would question the offensive direction of the franchise and think his defensive blue-print winds up being a bit one-dimensional.

Steve Spagnuolo
Last five years by the numbers:
2020: Chiefs DC, 3.2% def. DVOA (17th)
2019: Chiefs DC, -2.6% def. DVOA (14th)
2018: n/a
2017: Giants DC, 7.6% def. DVOA (25th)
2016: Giants DC, -13.9% def. DVOA (3rd)

One thing I’ve thought a lot about since I heard it was from a For The Win podcast that Steven Ruiz did with Chris Vasseur, and Vasseur (I’m paraphrasing) defended Matt Patricia and said something along the lines of Patricia has good ideas even if the results haven’t been there.

I think Spagnuolo has some great ideas. I think he’s extremely creative. I don’t doubt that he’s in the upper echelon of defensive coaches in the NFL. But that track record? Just not enough for me to want to bank on him to turn it around. And it’s not like his 11-41 head coaching record has been all that impressive either.

(It’s funny that his two offensive coordinators in St. Louis were … Josh McDaniels and Pat Shurmur.)

Kellen Moore
Last five years by the numbers:
2020: Cowboys OC, -13.0% off. DVOA (26th)
2019: Cowboys OC, 24.5% off. DVOA (2nd)
2018: Cowboys QB, -6.3% off. DVOA (24th)
2017: Still playing
2016: Still playing

Well, you certainly can’t hold his year against him without Dak Prescott. Coming into Week 5 the Cowboys led the NFL in passing yards and that’s without the benefit of most of the vaunted offensive line. Without Prescott, the Cowboys are basically in free-fall on offense, trying to make Andy Dalton hit three receivers who can get open in the very brief window of time they have before someone runs over a backup lineman.

That said, I don’t know if I can justify going out and banking on just one year of production, and it’s not like there are a ton of hidden upsides to the Cowboys this year. Maybe you get someone like Kris Richard as defensive coordinator out of the deal and that’s not so bad, but it feels like a big projection at this point and making Prescott and Amari Cooper torch the league isn’t exactly ground-breaking stuff — those are good players.

Moore’s on a good track to becoming a head coach, it just feels about two years too soon to me.

Dave Toub
Last five years by the numbers:
2020: Chiefs ST Coordinator, -1.7% ST DVOA (23rd)
2019: Chiefs ST Coordinator, 4.1% ST DVOA (2nd)
2018: Chiefs ST Coordinator, 5.6% ST DVOA (2nd)
2017: Chiefs ST Coordinator, 5.3% ST DVOA (4th)
2016: Chiefs ST Coordinator, 7.8% ST DVOA (1st)

Back in the day — by the day I mean like, 2016 — Toub used to get a lot of steam as a John Harbaugh guy — someone who can oversee an entire team well because they’re used to dealing with special teams and the detail-level work that takes. Now I feel like maybe his time has passed a little? Nobody interviews him anymore. But you can’t say he’s not a maestro at what he does — I’m sure the Chiefs special teams DVOA will be on the up-and-up these last four weeks, and other than that it’s an instant top-five unit every year he’s in charge, mostly working with UDFA guys outside of Tyreek Hill. He’s been running special teams since 2004 between the Bears and Chiefs.

I know it’s a little outside the box of what I’m preferring, but maybe he’s a guy who wows in his interview and has a plan for everything, like Harbaugh did. I’m a big fan of his work and I’d absolutely take an interview with him.

Matt Eberflus
Last five years by the numbers:
2020: Colts DC, -11.4% def. DVOA (8th)
2019: Colts DC, 3.0% def. DVOA (19th)
2018: Colts DC, -3.5% def. DVOA (11th)
2017: Cowboys LBs, 1.9% def. DVOA (16th)
2016: Cowboys LBs, -2.2% def. DVOA (14th)

This is the one I expect to be a major disagreement between me and the lists I’ve seen from everyone else — I just don’t think Eberflus is some kind of rising star. I think he has coached a steady, passive defense that has done extremely well at times. But if you look at the elevation this year, I think a lot of it is about bringing in DeForest Buckner and, breaking news, DeForest Buckner does not get hired with Eberflus as head coach.

If you listen to Colts fans, you’ll hear plenty of complaints about Eberflus. They’ll talk about how his zones allowed the only Jaguars win of this season to date, one where Gardner Minshew completed 19-of-20 passes. Drew Brees completed 29-of-30 against the Colts last year. I think where I stand on defense in general right now is that I want someone who isn’t afraid to mix up multiple mindsets, but I prefer the defense be aggressive rather than passive, and there are times over the past few years where Eberflus has played passive and gotten burned. After years of watching Romeo Crennel zones on third-and-long get torched, I’m not yearning for more of that. The underlying numbers are good, not great. I want great if someone is going to be the head coach.

Now, does that mean that I have no interest in him? No. But rather than being a presumptive top candidate for the job, he’s gotta come in and wow me in an interview.


Don Martindale
Last five years by the numbers:
2020: Ravens DC, -11.4% def. DVOA (7th)
2019: Ravens DC, -11.5% def. DVOA (5th)
2018: Ravens DC, -11.7% def. DVOA (4th)
2017: Ravens LBs, -13.4% def. DVOA (4th)
2016: Ravens LBs, -9.5% def. DVOA (6th)

Here is the yin to Eberflus’ yang. Nobody has sent more blitzes over the last few years than Martindale, and because the Ravens run an organizational philosophy that stacks the roster with good defensive backs, the Ravens have generated a ton of pressure without much in the way of investing in star edge rushers. It’s been Matt Judon for most of his reign, and the results have empirically been quite good.

However, as much as I like Martindale and prefer his operating philosophy to Eberflus, I think Martindale needs to find the off switch sometimes. I think his game plan against the Chiefs — blitzing Mahomes early and often — has been destroyed every time the two teams play. He’s the major reason I have no faith in the Ravens to make that a fair fight right now. It’s a minor quibble to a unit that has, overall, been very successful. This is where the Yannick Ngakoue trade came from — a desire to be able to beat Mahomes with pressure that isn’t schemed.

I do believe in Martindale a little more than I believe in Eberflus. But there may be a little more Rex Ryan in here than you’d really want in a head coach.

Jim Caldwell
Last five years by the numbers:
2020: n/a
2019: Dolphins assistant head coach/quarterbacks, -14.5% DVOA (28th)
2018: n/a
2017: Lions HC, 9.0% total DVOA (12th)
2016: Lions HC, -11.2% total DVOA (26th)

I have no idea if Caldwell actually wants a job — and I’m not saying that in a coded way, I haven’t read anything about him interviewing anywhere — he recently said he might be interested on Adam Schefter’s podcast. I think you have to look at him seriously. He’s the only person in years to turn that Lions franchise into something respectable. He won 14 games when he had a healthy Peyton Manning. His 2-14 season — the thing that makes his career record 112-62 instead of something obscene — came with Manning sidelined and him hung out to dry with a retirement-worthy Kerry Collins.

Caldwell’s offenses routinely were among the league’s least interested in running, which fits well with Watson. His job as interim offensive coordinator in Baltimore culminated in the Joe Flacco Super Bowl explosion. Even what happened in Miami in 2019 is mostly above expectations for what you might have thought from an offense with DeVante Parker, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and company.

I’m not saying there’s no downside here — it’s not like we know of Caldwell as some master innovator or anything — but someone who has put up the records he has and been involved in some overperforming teams should be on the radar.

Doug Pederson
Last five years by the numbers:
2020: Eagles HC, -18.5% total DVOA (27th)
2019: Eagles HC, 5.5% total DVOA (11th)
I2018: Eagles HC, -1.0% total DVOA (15th)
2017: Eagles HC, 23.7% total DVOA (5th)
2016: Eagles HC, 13.3% total DVOA (6th)

This is assuming he’s fired — Super Bowl-winning head coach available. Who is to blame for the collapse of the Eagles? Is it Carson Wentz, is it Pederson, is it the talent around both of them? I think the easy answer is that it’s a mix of the three. Brett Kollman did a video on Wentz that I found enlightening. I agree on most of the points of it.

At the same time, Pederson’s offense in and of itself hasn’t struck me as especially innovative or anything. Neither Travis Fulgham nor Zach Ertz gets easy separation often out of it. Is that a groceries thing or is it about the schemes? I think when I watch the Eagles there’s just been something lacking in the calls. I’m not saying that Wentz isn’t to blame — he is — but even when he’s played decently in it, the offense hasn’t been dominant in any year since 2017. 2017, of course, was dominated by an obscenely great third-down offense.

My read of Pederson? He’s someone who was strategically ahead of the game on fourth-down conversions. The rest of the league caught up to that. Now he doesn’t really have a winning edge. I don’t think he’s bad, I’m happy to interview him, but I think the recent Super Bowl might draw eyes here that wouldn’t exist if they’d watched just the last three years of Eagles games.

Brian Daboll
Last five years by the numbers:
2020: Bills OC, 7.7% off DVOA (8th)
2019: Bills OC, -7.1% off DVOA (21st)
2018: Bills OC, -27.9% off DVOA (31st)
2017: Alabama OC, 33.5 off S&P+ (11th)
2016: Patriots TE coach, 27.9% off DVOA (1st)

I don’t want to speak ill of what Daboll has done in the past, but what keeps me from giving him a full endorsement for the job he’s done with Josh Allen is that it’s mostly just a six-game sample. Nobody could have made that 2018 Bills defense good, but 2019 could have done quite a bit better. It’s also an inescapable fact in my mind that he has tied himself to Bill Belichick and Nick Saban and that is what is driving a lot of league-wide interest in his services.

That said, what a breakout year this has been for Allen. And Daboll has done an excellent job of using more play-action (122 passes through Week 12, third-most in the NFL) and letting Allen and Stefon Diggs create a real connection. It would look even better if they had an actual run game. I can’t look at what Daboll has created this year and say with a straight face that I thought it would happen. So I’d love to hear more about what made him reinvent things for Allen during quarantine and how that has worked.

Another thing I think Daboll would have going for him is that both the Bills and Alabama defense roots should probably turn up somebody who is a good defensive schemer. (If it’s Matt Patricia, though, kill me.)

Who is clearly in the inner circle?

8. Greg Roman
Last five years by the numbers:
2020: Ravens OC, -6.7% off. DVOA (24th)
2019: Ravens OC, 28.2% off. DVOA (1st)
2018: Ravens assistant, 1.2% off. DVOA (13)
2017: Ravens assistant, -4.6% off. DVOA (21st)
2016: Bills OC, 10.5% off. DVOA (9th)

Recommended further reading: https://blogs.usafootball.com/blog/6977/learn-how-to-adapt-your-quarterback-run-game-like-the-baltimore-ravens

If you want to build a run-first attack, Greg Roman is your man. Roman’s created powerful rushing offenses as Jim Harbaugh’s right-hand man in San Francisco, as Rex Ryan’s counterpoint in Buffalo with Tyrod Taylor, and now with the Ravens. While I don’t think what the Ravens do as a run offense is replicable because Lamar Jackson is a special talent in that regard at the quarterback position, he’s had empirical success with guys like Taylor and Colin Kaepernick who are closer to what Deshaun Watson is. The 2016 Bills had the best rushing DVOA in the NFL.

In trying to decide between Roman and passing-game focused coordinators, I’ve leaned towards the passing game because the NFL is a passing league. The Ravens led the NFL in pass offense DVOA last year, and Jackson was MVP, but I am less sold on Roman’s ability to create pass offense from a negative game-script. I don’t think what’s happening with the Ravens this year is 100% his fault, as I don’t think the team has a good receiving corps, but he definitely hasn’t helped things.

Roman’s past is kind of odd. After being let go by the Ravens in 2006 he didn’t see much of an NFL future and went to call offensive plays at his high school. He was also, weirdly, fired by Rex Ryan in the middle of the 2016 season. It’s hard, as an outsider, to understand why he’s not been in the right circles to keep moving up in the NFL. But it would be a return for Roman — he was on the original Texans staff in 2002 — and I’ll bet he could divvy up a hell of a run game for Watson.


7. Brent Venables
Last five years by the numbers:
2020: Clemson DC, 15.3 def. S&P+ (7th)
2019: Clemson DC, 14.6 def S&P+ (4th)
2018: Clemson DC, 12.6 def S&P+ (3rd)
2017: Clemson DC, 8.3 def S&P+ (2nd)
2016: Clemson DC, 14.1 def S&P+ (6th)

Recommended further reading: https://rileykolstefootball.com/2018/05/26/clemsons-brent-venables-base-defense/

If you want a defensive schemer who is on the forefront of college football right now, there are really two answers: Brent Venables and Dave Aranda. I think Venables could come in to the pros tomorrow and make even this bad Houston defense pretty competitive right away. The track record is unfathomably good. Cut-ups of this guy’s work on defense make film Twitter’s world go round.

Ultimately though, it’s someone who has never been a head coach, so it’s a big leap of faith. I like the idea of him picking an offensive guy to complement Watson because, well, he watched Watson’s college career. I think he has a good idea of how to fit that. This may seem like a wildly aggressive ranking and I’m okay with that, but between the sustained dominance and the connection to Watson, I’d be very excited to grant an interview here and learn more.

Why Venables and not Dabo? I just think it’s all about the personality and ego management — one of them has it, the other one really needs to be in college football for what he does to clear the bar of acceptable.

6. Lincoln Riley
Last five years by the numbers:
2020: HC Oklahoma, 44.4 off. S&P+ (3)
2019: HC Oklahoma, 46.1 off. S&P+ (3)
2018: HC Oklahoma, 54 off. S&P+ (1)
2017: HC Oklahoma, 49.8 off. S&P+ (1)
2016: HC Oklahoma, 48.7 off. S&P+ (1)

Recommended further reading: https://www.footballstudyhall.com/2017/6/8/15760764/the-lincoln-riley-oklahoma-sooners-offense-bob-stoops-legacy

It’s hard to argue with the offensive genius of what Riley has built at Oklahoma. Even in a down year with a new quarterback, they’re still churning out points by the boatload. While I’ve got some coaches higher on this list with less head coaching experience, I would even say that as someone with experience running a program as a whole, and perhaps that breadth of experience of a Riley would be extremely helpful.

But what has he done with that power? The defense has largely been pretty bad, and that is squarely on his shoulders to fix. That’s giving me some major Kubiak vibes. Kubiak in Houston ran his own guys for five years at DC and basically washed Andre Johnson’s career down the drain because of it. I like what Riley is about as an offensive designer and I’m sure he’d have better talent to work with a defense in the pros, but the combination of no pro game experience and that bad OU defense are big questions I need answers to before I sign up for him as Watson’s coach for the next part of this journey.

That said — you can’t find anybody with his track record in the college game, and if what he does translates, it’s high-reward. High-risk, high-reward. Nobody in the collegiate game does it quite as well as Riley has over this recent stretch.

5. Brandon Staley
Last five years by the numbers:
2020: Rams DC, -12.2% def. DVOA (6th)
2019: Broncos LB coach, -2.8% def. DVOA (13th)
2018: Bears LB coach, -25.4% def. DVOA (1st)
2017: Bears LB coach, -0.4% def. DVOA (14th)
2016: John Carroll DC

Recommended further reading: https://www.pff.com/news/nfl-los-angeles-rams-created-the-leagues-most-unique-defense-jalen-ramsey

I think this is the best stab out there at hiring a long-term defense guy who has already established some roots at the NFL level. Whenever I praise Staley, what inevitably happens is that somebody says “Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey, how hard could it be?” Well, let me read off to you some of the other players that are starting on this defense: Sebastian Joseph, Leonard Floyd, Samson Ekubam, Kenny Young, Troy Reeder, Jordan Fuller. The Rams lost a ton of defensive talent last offseason, and even some of their long-time stalwarts like Michael Brockers are pretty one-dimensional.

Doesn’t matter, Staley’s defense has (through Week 12) held opponents to the lowest net yards/attempt in the NFL and just 3.9 yards per carry. Jalen Ramsey, by the way, has been targeted 46 times in 10 games. Players like Darious Williams (UDFA) and Troy Hill (small stakes free agency) are the ones doing well with a massive amount of targets. Micah Kiser had stepped in and done an excellent job replacing Cory Littleton, a huge free-agent bust for the Raiders.

Honed under Vic Fangio, who has created several of the best defenses of the past decade, I believe importing Staley to Houston would do quite nicely for the bad defense here. And, you know, if they want to bring some of those Rams offensive concepts that have hid Jared Goff so well to Houston too, that’s pretty nice as well.

4. Eric Bieniemy
Last five years by the numbers:
2020: Chiefs OC, 30.0% off. DVOA (1st)
2019: Chiefs OC, 25.6% off. DVOA (2nd)
2018: Chiefs OC, 35.4% off. DVOA (1st)
2017: Chiefs RB coach, 16.4% off. DVOA (4th)
2016: Chiefs RB coach, 3.1% off. DVOA (13th)

Recommended further reading: https://theundefeated.com/features/kansas-city-chiefs-offensive-coordinator-eric-bieniemy-will-just-have-to-wait/

Listen, football media attributes a lot of everything that happens on offense to Andy Reid in Kansas City. Is that fair? I don’t know. I don’t see what Eric Bieniemy does on a daily basis. I don’t know how he prepares the guys. But given the relative success of the Reid coaching tree and the fact that he’s an offensive mind who reportedly already has Deshaun Watson’s eye if you listen to Jason La Canfora, I think it’s important that we consider him seriously.

My main negatives on Bieniemy are things he has no control over. His career as an offensive coordinator has overlapped the career of a generational quarterback talent and a generational play caller as his head coach. From an empirical standpoint, that makes it hard to measure what Bieniemy’s contributions are. There’s also skeletons in the closet about his time in Colorado as offensive coordinator — I have no clue how much they matter to anybody today. The 2011 and 2012 Buffalos were terrible at offense, but Colorado as a program has floundered for years.

Would we consider Matt Nagy’s coaching career a success if he had drafted Deshaun Watson? I have no idea. I definitely believe Bieniemy is worth an interview and has a shot at being a great coach. But I have less evidence of him working well with inferior surroundings to compare him to my top three on.

3. Robert Saleh
Last five years by the numbers:
2020: 49ers DC, -5.8% def. DVOA (9th)
2019: 49ers DC, -20.3% def. DVOA (2nd)
2018: 49ers DC, 6.5% def. DVOA (24th)
2017: 49ers DC, 9.1% def. DVOA (27th)
2016: Jaguars LBs coach, -2.1% def. DVOA (15th)

Recommended further reading: https://www.ninersnation.com/2020/10/22/21522692/film-room-defensive-coordinator-robert-saleh-deserves-more-praise-than-hes-getting

If we had just the last two years of Saleh, I think I’d be more excited about him than any other candidate besides my No. 1. But those first two years with the 49ers were brutal. Yes, they had nobody. I remember how bleak the pre-Shanahan 49ers were. But they were not great years. Saleh checks the leader of men box emphatically, to the point where Richard Sherman continually goes to bat for him.

Schematically, I think he’s done a great job of adjusting to his own weaknesses, and this year in the wake of losing Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, and Buckner, there have been a lot of them. They’ve successfully integrated Javon Kinlaw, which has helped, but for this ragtag unit to be ninth in DVOA is a minor miracle.

Listen to some of the names that have started games for the 49ers this year: Kevin Givens, Kerry Hyder, Jamar Taylor, Jason Verrett. These are scrapheap free agents or UDFA guys. Saleh has helped develop Fred Warner into one of the best linebackers in the NFL. I think he’d be a major upgrade for Houston’s defense, and bringing a Shanaclan-approved OC would be a nice bonus.

2. Arthur Smith
Last five years by the numbers:
2020: Titans OC, 23.7% off. DVOA (3rd)
2019: Titans OC, 13.0% off. DVOA (6th)
2018: Titans TEs, -5.6% off. DVOA (23rd)
2017: Titans TEs, -2.1% off. DVOA (18th)
2016: Titans TEs, 10.8% off. DVOA (32nd)

Recommended further reading: https://www.pff.com/news/nfl-new-nfl-offense-49ers-titans-packers-mike-shanahan-offense

I’m blown away by what the Titans have done over the past two seasons, and I want in.

Smith has created an outside-zone heavy system that runs a ton of effective play-action (per SportsRadar, nobody has more play-action passing yards than the Titans this year through Week 12’s games.) Yes, Derrick Henry isn’t on this roster and is a special flower, I agree. But I don’t think that what he does in getting to those holes is all that special — he’s special because he’s running over your safety and corner after he reaches them. He’s rejuvenated Ryan Tannehill from a nobody into a franchise quarterback with nothing more than the second-round stab at A.J. Brown and a bunch of nonsense.

There’s a secret allure here in my eyes because, well, I’m not a huge Mike Vrabel guy as far as the schemes go. I think he’s a great leader of men. I think he’s heady as far as creating timeouts and exploiting rules. I give him a lot of credit there. But I think his defense has been rough this year without Dean Pees. If you take away his advantage with Smith, well, are the Titans necessarily going to be able to recreate that? Is that guy in the building? I don’t know. I’m not positive about that.

Smith’s background isn’t much — he’s a quick-riser with almost no direct control before the 2019 season — but what he’s put out so far has been so good that it’s hard to ignore. The idea of pairing Watson on a bootleg sort of game appeals to me, and with no direct Kyle Shanahan availability, I think this is the guy that reminds me the most of him in this class.


Who would I most like to see as Texans head coach?

  1. Joe Brady
    Last five years by the numbers:
    2020: OC, Carolina Panthers (5.8% DVOA, 10th)
    2019: OC, LSU (48.9 S&P+ O, 1st)
    2018: Saints offensive assistant (27.0% DVOA, 1st)
    2017: Saints offensive assistant (16.1% DVOA, 2nd)
    2016: Grad assistant, Penn State

Recommended further reading: https://www.pff.com/news/college-football-study-in-social-distancing-how-lsu-isolated-jamarr-chase-in-unique-environment

Everyone wants to find the next Sean McVay or Kyle Shanahan. I think Brady is the best fit for that. It is a goddamn miracle that the Panthers offense is in the top 10 in offensive DVOA. Teddy Bridgewater was left for dead. Christian McCaffrey has been out for weeks, they’ve plugged in Mike Davis and lost nothing. The offensive line that the Panthers have rolled out is Taylor Moton and some hot garbage. Do they have good receivers? Sure. You know who else has good receivers right now? The Houston Texans. A big part of what elevates Brady above the best of the rest to me is that he’s done what he’s done this year with the NFL equivalent of table scraps.

Last year at LSU, Brady was the main author of one of the best offenses in the history of college football. With a transfer quarterback leading the way — one who his offense would help elevate to the No. 1 overall pick — LSU scored 36 or more points in every game but one for the entire season. They faced a worthy Clemson defense in the championship game and dropped 42. The year before, with mostly the same team, LSU scored 36 or more points just six times in 13 games. His deeper history has Sean Payton/Saints roots, which are also wildly successful at the NFL level.

Is he a perfect, 100% flawless candidate? No. I have no idea what he would do at DC. I don’t know much about his talent evaluation or his GM acumen. (I know the Texans will hire a real GM, spoiler alert to fans: head coach evaluations matter a lot in the GM process.) What I do know is that you’ve got a guy with a history of elevating even janky talent to good places and that you can pair him with Deshaun Watson. That seems to be the cleanest fit on the board to me.


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Four Downs: Colts 26, Texans 20

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

***

The Texans have spent this season pissing away a series of MVP-caliber performances by Deshaun Watson. Call a spade a spade. With the game on the line, down six and at the Indianapolis 2 with 1:28 remaining, center Nick Martin snapped a ball low and away, and failed to block anybody as the Colts recovered the aborted snap.

As usual, Watson absorbed that pain. He waited roughly 30 minutes before his presser and gave a raw account of the facts, blaming himself for not picking up the snap and saying he felt like he let the entire city of Houston down.

This is how a leader acts. This is the kind of thing fans want to see: players taking accountability, speaking openly of greatness and their journey to get there, and trying to learn from their mistakes. Meanwhile, because of injuries and suspensions, he’s creating 100-yard receiving days for Chad Hansen and Keke Coutee.

In a month most of us aren’t going to remember this game. The Texans have had a nice little comeback here, but the writing was kind of on the wall that the miracle comeback was dead when Bradley Roby and Will Fuller got suspended heading into this five-game stretch. We’re going to move on to the actual business of the Texans, which is rebooting from a lost season. But I know one person in the building who is going to remember it, he wears No. 4. Even in a down year for the franchise, with his head coach fired, his heart and soul is so deep into everything he does.

That’s what makes this as depressing as it is.

1) T.Y. Hilton is the true owner of the Houston Texans

Janice and Cal McNair may have their name on the papers, but the man who had racked up 85 catches for 1537 yards and 10 touchdowns in 16 regular season games against the Texans torched backup plan Texans corners Phillip Gaines and Vernon Hargreaves relentlessly in the first half. Hilton had seven catches for 100 yards and a score in the first half. Most of the plays that he made, Texans defensive backs were barely even in his area code.

There were some very strange things about this game to me that mostly shook out in a surprising way. Run defense was better than I thought it would be. Run offense was better than I thought it would be. But God forbid the Texans actually figure out a way to shut down a No. 1 receiver. Doubling them? Unthinkable. Playing enough zone to keep them from going off? Unthinkable.

Why the Colts went away from Hilton in the second half? I have no idea. I suspect they were trying to run clock at some points. They kept getting in bad down-and-distance situations (third-and-18, third-and-10, third-and-13) and not being able to hide Rivers’ deteriorated arm strength. But there were only three targets that were at Hilton that weren’t caught, and one of them was a dropped screen.

When we talk about how stubborn this franchise is, there are a lot of things that come to mind immediately from just the last few years. Refusal to fire Bill O’Brien after he’d taken the Texans as far as he could. Refusal to deal with whatever irrational hatred they had of DeAndre Hopkins’ personality and practice habits.

But for my money, it’s amazing that they still haven’t figured out that they have nobody that can defend T.Y. Hilton and continue to just look on in amazement as he dusts them game after game after game, regardless of quarterback, place in standings, or anything else.

2) Zone-heavy coverages left Watson peppering the middle of the field

This was a big game for Chad Hansen, the former practice-squad receiver, and Keke Coutee — but what this really was to me was a game that showcased Watson’s growth as a thrower and his understanding of defenses. Both Coutee and Hansen made great adjustments to balls thrown in zone coverage.

Hansen’s line is a little inflated on a ball that was tipped off of Xavier Rhodes to him, but he still showcased good instincts to catch it as it fluttered towards him. Here’s Coutee adjusting to a ball that had to be thrown where it was because of the zone coverage:

Finally, I want to appreciate this rocket throw to Brandin Cooks that nearly pushed him backwards. This is a tight-window throw you have to push at an NFL level, and Watson checked that box:

In his career against the Colts, Watson has had some big games — notably Week 4 in Indianapolis in 2018. He’s also had games that were a little more muted. He’s taken 16 sacks against the Colts, and with three more in today’s game, that ties for the most he’s had against any team — in just five games. They destroyed him and the O’Brien offense in the 2018 playoffs. In this one, he showed a lot of poise from the pocket and attacked the middle of the field zones:

The one interception here was, in my opinion, total bullshit. Not to say that Watson didn’t make some risky throws that deserved to get picked off, but I think the Texans got hosed on that call. That looked like Cooks was down and then the ball was wrested from his grasp. Watson tore up the middle of this field with only one of the receivers he played with circa Week 5.

It’s an encouraging long-term sign for his development and where he’s at, and I’ll stop to appreciate it even as the result of this game leaves a bitter taste to it.

3) “You just don’t normally see this at this level.”

To their credit, Houston’s defense played pretty well outside of Hilton’s explosion. J.J. Watt and Jacob Martin both got sacks through backup backup tackle Chaz Green. Charles Omenihu broke up a pass. The run defense came to play other than a small stretch of the fourth quarter.

But in a game where a lot of what came to the Colts was hard-earned, what stood out to me on remembrance was this garbage fourth-and-3 play. Stop them right here and you win this game, and the Texans completely lost Jonathan Taylor. Rich Gannon’s words were: “Somebody has to account for the running back in the passing game, you just don’t normally see that at this level. Just a blown assignment on the part of this Texans defense.”

Well, you know what I remembered? When the Texans left Juju Smith-Schuster completely uncovered in Pittsburgh for a touchdown, in a game they lost by one touchdown. When Adam Humphries was left completely uncovered in a coverage snafu, in a game that Rich Gannon also covered:

When Jake Luton threw a touchdown to D.J. Chark. When Adam Thielen was left completely uncovered on play-action in the Minnesota game. When the linebackers didn’t cover Derrick Henry in overtime in Tennessee.

This defense busts coverage figuratively at least once per game. It’s a major problem. I don’t know how you address it — I would guess off-hand that moving your corner to safety before the season might not help — but these mental mistakes show up constantly. They are, as Gannon points out, college mistakes. They do happen often. They can make a big difference in close games!

The players have talked about Anthony Weaver simplifying things over the last couple of weeks. I think they’ve clearly improved. But plays like this are just far, far too common this year. Someone’s got to answer for it.

4) The interior offensive line got their asses kicked

If I had written a preview of this game, the majority of it would have focused on the return of DeForest Buckner and how the interior of the Colts line is loaded for bear against a Texans interior that has had a challenging season. Sure enough, the three sacks that the Colts picked up are mostly on the interior. Zach Fulton — in particular — just can’t seem to pick up stunts effectively. Here’s the safety:

After the game Watson would say that he knew that Akins was cutting across the field here, but didn’t want to throw the ball blind. He couldn’t see him through the rush and didn’t want to risk getting intercepted this deep in his own territory. Four-man rush, Justin Houston was barely touched on his way to the quarterback.

Watson did his best to make what the interior gave him look good. I still have no idea how he avoided a sack on this play:

Here’s one of the other two sacks, with Kelemete getting beat one-on-one, Fulton and Martin … what the hell are they doing on this one?

I am not going to use this column to shovel shit on Nick Martin. He’ll hear plenty about the big error. He’s honestly not the biggest problem this interior has. But that play … woof. I don’t know if both he and Fulton got fooled into thinking this was a fake rush and both thought they could let the guy go or what. It was a disaster. This is a game where the Texans honestly could have taken five or six sacks easy had Watson not made it his personal goal to dunk on them:

There aren’t many areas for evaluation on offense for whoever takes over this team’s day-to-day. Watson is set. You’re probably keeping Fuller. The tackles are set. You probably get another running back. But other than Fulton, I am very curious how they decide to deal with the offensive line. I actually want to see Hjalte Froholdt get some run down the stretch just to see what’s going on back there.

It was another game where the Texans juggled Scharping and Kelemete. The biggest weak link all year has been at right guard, which makes the fact that they keep punishing Scharping feel extra weird.

But, you know, nothing about this season is normal. So join me this time next week when we discuss how another top-notch performance by Watson was ruined by, oh, I dunno, an Eric Murray bobbled pick-six that winds up in Allen Robinson’s hands for a touchdown somehow.

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What should the Texans want in a head coaching candidate?

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

1) The head coach must (_MUST_) be ambitious

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speaking of which…

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

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

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

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

I need a fully-rounded plan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7) The small things

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

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

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

***

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

See you in a few days for the list.


***

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Four Downs: Texans 41, Lions 25

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Texans of the last two weeks can do that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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The sanitization of Jack Easterby and the necessary atonement

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Here’s my list:

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

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

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

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

Yup. He does.

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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Four Downs: Texans 27, Patriots 20

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4) The run game continues to flounder

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

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

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

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

Luckily, he has that ability sometimes.

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The idea of Gareon Conley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Four Downs: Browns 10, Texans 7

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

***

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

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

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

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

1) Third-and-18.

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

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

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

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

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

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

2) I.O.U. one pass rush

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4) The theory of Vernon Hargreaves

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

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

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

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

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

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


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