Playoffs? Playoffs? We Just Hope The Texans Can Win A Game
In all of three hours, the hot topic of the 2009 Texans season might have transitioned from whether they can make the playoffs to whether they can lure Bill Cowher, Mike Shanahan or Jon Gruden as head coach come January.
Remember the Texans' dynamic offense? The league's third-best unit a year ago couldn't score a single point against a New York defense that ranked 16th in the league in 2008.
Remember the Texans' "new and improved" defense -- the one that added first- and second-round draft picks Brian Cushing and Connor Barwin, along with the signing of Antonio Smith at defensive end?
It was shredded for 462 yards and 24 points by a rookie QB (Mark Sanchez) making his first-ever start, on the road.
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It's not as if the Jets' supporting cast is extremely talented, either -- it's largely the same group that ranked 16th in the NFL in offense.
As a result, it'd be difficult to find a more embarrassing performance in Texans history than the 24-7 loss to the Jets on Sunday at Reliant Stadium -- one that brought choruses of boos before even the first half had ended.
Sure, the Texans have been awful before, but never when the talent deck appeared as stacked in their favor as it did this season.
"We were pretty much dominated as a football team across the board," coach Gary Kubiak said. "We obviously weren't ready to play, and that starts with me."
Kubiak's Texans are now 2-9 in September, with losses in six straight games. And these are the ones that reflect particularly on the coaching staff. The Texans had five months to prepare for the Jets, beginning when the schedule was released in April. They also knew, after April's draft, that they would likely face a rookie QB.
Despite this, the Texans' executed a defensive game plan that played away from a young quarterback's typical weaknesses. The Texans routinely sent telegraphed, all-out blitzes, leaving themselves vulnerable to screens and short crossing routes. Instead of forcing Sanchez to read coverages and throw into traffic, they simplified the game for him.
"We were there making [Sanchez] move, and he made a lot of plays off schedule," Kubiak said.
Of course, it's a lot easier to make unscripted plays when the receivers are uncovered and often within five yards of the line of scrimmage. And on rare occasions when the Texans did make the right calls, they beat themselves. Linebacker Zac Diles and defensive end Mario Williams each dropped first-half interceptions, while the Texans were also unable to scoop up two Thomas Jones fumbles.
On offense, the Texans knew the kind of pressure Jets coach Rex Ryan -- formerly defensive coordinator with Baltimore- - would throw at Matt Schaub. They also knew how much they had struggled to run the ball in the preseason, when Steve Slaton rushed for an anemic 2.9 yards per carry. So, what did they do? Naturally, they played to their weakness, running the ball on six of their first nine first downs.
That left them in second- and third-and-longs that were obvious passing situations, allowing the Jets to tee off on Schaub and not giving the Texans' downfield pass patterns time to develop. By the time the Texans opened up the playbook, they were down 17-0 and in too large of a hole. It also rarely worked then because every down was a likely pass, given the score. The offensive balance the team emphasized throughout last season was non-existent.
"We're going to have to go in there and figure out a way we can do it to keep ourselves in a good situation where we get three- and four-yard gains on first and second downs," Schaub said. "Those [mistakes] start to put you behind the eight ball and in tough third-down situations, where it is hard to convert."
Slaton finished with a meager 17 yards on nine carries and a costly fumble, while Andre Johnson caught four passes for only 35 yards. The offensive line's meltdowns had Schaub on his back at the rate of David Carr in 2002.
Even so, the Texans still -- per usual -- found a way to raise fans' hopes, before dashing them all over again. When John Busing and Dominique Barber teamed up on the return of a Sanchez interception for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter, that brought the Texans within 17-7 and had Reliant rocking for the first time since the opening kickoff. Fittingly on this day, the Texans' defense responded by allowing an 80-yard touchdown drive in just four plays, capped by Thomas' Jones untouched 38-yard dash for a score.
A Texan fan in the end zone responded by flipping Jones the bird with both hands, but the gesture was much more fitting for the effort put forth by the home team.
It gets no easier next week, when the beleaguered Houston offense travels to Tennessee to face one of the league's annual defensive powers. The Titans are also angry, coming off a loss to Pittsburgh in Thursday's season opener.
Unless the Texans miraculously get to face Vince Young, a season that began with so much promise seems likely to begin 0-2, just as they were a year ago.
"Unacceptable," Johnson muttered after the game. In his seventh season in Houston, it's a feeling he knows all too well.
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