For virtually the entire 2016 NFL season, the Houston Texans have been operating with a cushion. It's been a combination of a mathematical cushion thanks to the avoidance of losing streaks, and the cushion of residing in the worst division in football, the AFC South. When you go 2-0, then 3-1, then eventually 6-4 heading into Sunday's game with the Chargers, you can fix a lot of problems — and the Texans have their fair share — under the cloak of winning.
Well, after a 21-13 loss at home to the San Diego Chargers on Sunday, the first Texans loss at home this season, there is no longer a cushion. The Texans are 6-5, the Tennessee Titans are 6-6, and the Texans have road games at Green Bay and Indianapolis the next two weekends. While neither of those teams is what it was, say, two seasons ago, when both lost in their respective conference title games, they still have Aaron Rodgers and Andrew Luck at quarterback, respectively.
In other words, there is no more time for messing around with the worst-ranked offense in the NFL. Bill O'Brien needs to get this Osweiler thing figured out and quickly, or this will be a wasted season. If that means turning the "Osweiler thing" into a "Savage thing," then so be it. As it is, the absolute ceiling for this team is probably a No. 3 in the AFC and one playoff win, but that'd be a valuable experience for a team that should have J.J. Watt (and others) coming back in 2017.
For now, though, Sunday was another painful three hours of Osweiler's zinging scattershot fastballs all over the place, with the occasional "hey, more of that, please!" pass mixed in about once a quarter. It was not good enough to beat the Chargers, who at 4-6 coming into the game are not exactly a great measuring stick against whom to say, "Now, if we could just beat THEM..."
Let's lay out some winners and losers...
4. Will Fuller
One of those "more of THAT, please" throws Osweiler made was a beautiful deep ball down the right sideline to Fuller in the second quarter for 33 yards that set the Texans up with a goal-to-go situation and, eventually, their only touchdown of the game. For the game, Fuller had four catches for 60 yards, which was twice as many catches as he'd had TOTAL since the Denver game, back on October 24. Through a combination of injury and underperformance, Fuller had turned into a virtual non-factor on offense, so on Sunday, it was good to see him once again featured, to some degree. If the Texans are going to win ten games (which requires a 4-1 finish, which feels nuts right now), a healthy, productive Fuller will need to be a big part of the offense.
3. Early Saturday football
One of the big story lines this season has been television ratings, particularly in the NFL, where ratings have generally been sagging for prime-time games. College football ratings have been a mixed bag, but if you're looking for a referendum on brand strength, look no further than the numbers for Ohio State's 30-27 overtime win over Michigan on Saturday afternoon:
ABC earned a 10.4 overnight rating for Saturday’s Michigan/Ohio State college football game, up 53% from the same matchup last year (6.8), up 89% from the teams’ 2014 meeting (5.5) and the highest non-bowl overnight on any network since LSU/Alabama on CBS in 2011 — a primetime matchup of the nation’s top two teams (11.9).
Keep in mind, those numbers are for a game that started at NOON Eastern Time! Perhaps this will encourage the networks to keep spreading the good games out throughout the day rather than bunching them up in prime time, as they'd gotten into the habit of doing the past few years (until this season, at least, in which they've balanced things out a little more).
2. Bill O'Brien game management self-awareness
Okay, so pretty much every other week I go off in this space over some sort of game management gaffe that O'Brien has committed with his time-outs, replay challenges or play calling. (Now, to be clear, if he would just stop DOING THEM, I wouldn't have to write about them.) So I will give fair time to game management self-awareness when it is evident. Perhaps O'Brien played some MADDEN this holiday week, or perhaps he hired a new person to feed him in-game strategy tips in his headset, but he did a very good job of giving the Texans a chance at the end of the game, opting for a field goal with around 20 seconds left to cut the Chargers' lead to 21-13, so they could kick an onside kick. The Texans recovered that kick, and then had two Hail Mary shots into the end zone, the last of which was (appropriately) intercepted. It didn't work out, but for once, O'Brien executed late-half/game strategy that gave his team the best chance for success. Baby steps.
1. The AFC South (minus the Texans)
(Okay, and minus the Jaguars, who are 2-9 and brutal.) The loss by the Texans has tightened the pack, and creates the following grid down the stretch:
12/4 @ GB
12/11 @ IND
12/18 vs. JAC
12/24 vs. CIN
1/1 @ TEN
12/11 vs. DEN
12/18 @ KC
12/24 @ JAC
1/1 vs. HOU
12/5 @ NYJ
12/11 vs. HOU
12/18 @ MIN
12/24 @ OAK
1/1 vs JAC
So if things go according to form next weekend, with the Titans on a bye, the top three teams in the division would be 6-6, which would be a massive comedown for the Texans after being 6-3 just ten days ago. And all of a sudden, the Week 14 game in Indianapolis is gigantic. These meaningful games are fun, but they'd be a lot more fun if the Texans had a quarterback who was ranked higher than 143rd out of 32 starters in the league. (More on him in a moment.)
4. DeAndre Hopkins
Reportedly, following another ho-hum, "not quite Ivy League now, is it Joel" performance on Sunday (5 catches, 70 yards), a shoeless Hopkins scooted out of the locker room without talking to the media. Yes, that's how little Hopkins cares to discuss the season right now — he left the locker room barefoot. With 55 catches for 610 yards and five games left, Hopkins has some serious work to do just to approach 1,000 yards, after going for more than 1,500 last season. Hopkins's contract negotiations this offseason are going to be very interesting. I clearly don't think Hopkins has gotten worse at football since last season. He still makes spectacular plays occasionally, but he is getting nothing done in the red zone, and there are clear chemistry issues with Osweiler, who threw yet another interception Sunday on a pass intended for Hopkins. This whole thing has some juicy, and potentially depressing, soap opera potential.
3. J.J. Watt
According to Bill O'Brien, Watt was back in the building last week, starting the next phase of his rehab from back surgery. That's GREAT news! The only reason I put him here on the 4W4L summary is, when you look at the schedule, the Texans are in the midst of a three-game stretch that probably had Watt as excited as did any three consecutive games he's ever played in, before he hurt his back — versus Oakland in Mexico City (global star treatment!), home versus San Diego (against baby bro Derek!), and at Green Bay this coming weekend (home state! Lambeau!). Since the Texans don't play in Green Bay again until 2024, there's a decent chance, unless he signs with an NFC team someday (the Packers themselves?), Watt will never play an NFL game in his home state. CURSED HERNIATED DISC!!!
2. Brock Osweiler
This is getting somewhat old, but until...
1. ...the Texans look like something more than a Class 5A high school offense for long stretches;
2. ...we are done being forced to marvel at deep balls to Will Fuller because they're such a drastic exception, rather than something you can count on with normal frequency
3. ...Osweiler and Hopkins are speaking similar dialects of the same football language;
4. ...Osweiler stops putting his team in harm's way with stupid goddamn interceptions.
...until all of this occurs, I will make Osweiler a loser. At this point, I'm not sure what the bigger blow to O'Brien's reputation as an offensive mind is — passing up on the quarterbacks available back in 2014, or trying to convince everybody that the worst QB in football can be "a guy"...yes, forget "THE guy"; we will take "a guy" at this point.
Either way, the quarterback situation with this team has been butchered beyond recognition, and it's fair to ask — and it was asked in O'Brien's postgame press conference yesterday by multiple media members — if we are on the cusp of a change at QB. At this point, it is mathematically and aesthetically impossible for Tom Savage to be anything but an improvement over Osweiler, who is literally the worst starting quarterback in the NFL right now. Now that the AFC South race has tightened to a virtual dead heat, and the Texans are halfway down the barrel to a four-game losing streak, O'Brien is faced with deciding the true purpose of the 2016 season — is it to win football games and make the postseason, or is it to endure the acute pain of grooming a quarterback who is being paid NOT to have to be groomed?
Essentially, for the Texans, is 2016 a real NFL season in which they're trying to win games or is 2016 some sort of Brock Osweiler Petri dish? At 6-3, it could be both. At 6-5 and plummeting, the two are becoming increasingly mutually exclusive.
.....and yet Brock Osweiler probably slept better than every Coog fan who had to see this pic roll across his or her Twitter timeline yesterday:
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They left out #honesty.
It's okay, Coog fan. It gets better, I promise.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.