Before yesterday, the Houston Texans had traveled to New England to play the Patriots five times in their franchise history, and five times they came away losers. Not just losers, but blowout losers, falling by an average score of 37-13. In other words, all five losses were hideous, double-digit blowouts.
Well, on Sunday, the Texans solved half of the equation — they still lost to the Patriots, running their winless record in New England to 0-6, but this time around, they stood in toe to toe with the champions, taking shot after shot all afternoon, and holding a five-point lead with a little over two minutes to go in the game.
Unfortunately, a combination of questionable game management by the head coach and an ultra-leaky secondary gave Tom Brady just enough opportunity to eke out a 36-33 win. There's plenty to dig into, and we will do that momentarily, but even in a loss, Sunday afternoon's effort should change the tenor of the season for Texan fans from two weeks ago. Gone, at least for a day, was the futility of zero traction offensively. Plays were made, many of them by rookie QB Deshaun Watson, just not enough of them.
But all of a sudden, Tennessee and Kansas City at home the next two weeks don't feel so futile. A split is very doable. In short, Watson doesn't just represent hope for the future. He represents hope right NOW.
Let's dig into what would have been the best regular season win in franchise history if the Texans had just held on...
4. Ryan Griffin
One of the nice outcomes from Sunday's loss was Deshaun Watson's finding some other targets not named "DeAndre Hopkins" to throw the ball to. Tight end Ryan Griffin returned from concussion protocol, and had five catches (on six targets) for 61 yards and a huge second half touchdown. With incumbent starting tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz on injured reserve with a concussion of his own, Griffin becomes one Houston's key players in the month of October. It should be noted, Bruce Ellington got in on the act as well with four catches for 59 yards and a touchdown catch in HIS return from concussion protocol. All in all, it was a good day for guys whose brains were recently scrambled.
3. Jadeveon Clowney
After two games of running around somewhat confused and routinely giving up the edge as an outside linebacker, Clowney had his best game of the season so far, returning a Brady fumble for a touchdown, and collecting two sacks, the second coming just a few plays after Clowney limped to the sideline as a result of a nasty spill when J.J. Watt and D.J. Reader plowed into his lower body. I'm anxious to rewatch the game and see how truly impactful Clowney was on all the snaps he participated in, but his six tackles (four tackles for loss) is a pretty good indicator of the type of day Clowney had.
2. Deshaun Watson
One thing Texan fans will not have to worry about for a long time, on talk radio or around the water cooler, is discussing who should be this team's quarterback. Deshaun Watson, saddled with a shaky offensive line (which was okay on Sunday, not great, but okay) and very average skill players, stood in and answered Tom Brady's greatness blow for blow for most of the afternoon. Multiple times the Texans had 20 yards or more to go for a first down, and multiple times, Watson found a way to keep moving the chains. I think the best way to sum up how Watson had Texan fans feeling is to ask yourself — after which Week 3 game to you feel better overall about the trajectory of this team? Week 3 in 2016, a 27-0 loss to New England, leaving the Texans 2-1, or yesterday's loss, leaving the team at 1-2? Won-loss record this season be darned, it's not even close, right?
1. Bill O'Brien (first 52 minutes)
One of the biggest concerns I had about the full time flip over to Watson at quarterback was whether or not Bill O'Brien would design the proper playbook to take advantage of Watson's physical gifts. It's a fair concern, given how married O'Brien seems to be to his sacred "system," and how his decisions in playing and acquiring quarterbacks have been so predicated on experience in what O'Brien likes to do offensively (although three seasons and change into the O'Brien Era, it appears the one thing O'Brien likes to do on offense more than anything is suck). That said, on Sunday, I was encouraged by what I saw from a schematic standpoint, from a play design standpoint. Multiple times, O'Brien ran designed draw plays for Watson, and he had plays where he had Watson on the move. O'Brien said after the game that they would continue to build more plays for what Watson does well, so consider me encouraged overall by the direction this marriage of quarterback and coach is going schematically.
4. Texans secondary
Heading into the season, there were a couple positions that the Texans inexcusably rolled into training camp with little change, little outside help, and VERY little talent — offensive tackle and safety. And thus far, I don't think it's a reach to say those two positions were each the biggest reason for the two losses, left tackle in the Jacksonville loss and the horrific safety play on Sunday. Too often, wide receivers and Gronk were just running free, or caught in poorly schemed match-ups (think Corey Moore trying to cover Gronk one on one in the red zone). Moore could have taken the secondary off this "losers" list if he'd come up with the game clinching interception on a deep ball on the final drive, but alas...
3. Texans punt coverage
At this point, I don't know what to do. The Texans' piss-poorness at covering kickoffs and punts now spans three different position coaches, two head coaches, and about a half dozen seasons, if not longer. Yesterday, the Texans gave up two punt returns for 53 yards to Danny Amendola. I don't know how Larry Izzo sleeps at night. My guess is he doesn't.
2. Brian Cushing
Even with Tom Brady's throwing for 378 yards and the Patriots putting up 36 points, you know what I heard exactly zero people saying? "Ya know, if they had Brian Cushing out there today, the Texans win that game." That's because, if Cushing were out there, Brady probably cracks the 400 yard mark, and then some. Cushing's replacement, Zach Cunningham, was the team's leading tackler on Sunday with seven.
1. Bill O'Brien (last 8 minutes)
Okay, remember that part a few paragraphs ago when I was praising Bill O'Brien? Good. Go back and soak it in, if you need to, because now comes the rough part. As good as O'Brien was for the first 50 minutes or so of this game — and make no mistake, he coached his ass off for most of the afternoon — unfortunately, the last few minutes were like a 30 for 30 short on all of the things that have placed a concrete ceiling on how good O'Brien can be as a head coach. It was a litany of very basic game management errors that makes it almost impossible to trust O'Brien in close games where the team has no margin for error (a category which Sunday's game undoubtedly fell in, given the opponent). Here are a few examples:
7:46 remaining in the game, Texans lead 30-28: With the defense having just gotten a three and out on Brady, and the offense picking up two first downs, including three runs on four plays, and burned off nearly three minutes of clock, at his own 41 yard line, O'Brien inexplicably decided to let Watson throw the ball three times in a row. All three fell incomplete and the Texans were forced to punt. The Texans ran seven plays on this drive — on the first four, they burned 2:42; on the last three, they burned 0:14. (Amazingly, the Texans defense would get another three and out on the next series.)
2:34 remaining in the game, Texans lead 30-28: On 3rd and 1 at the New England 18 yard line, O'Brien runs Lamar Miller up the middle and he is predictably stuffed for no gain. Can we get a law passed that Miller never touch the ball on 3rd and short? Conversion here makes it almost impossible for the Patriots to win the game, given their timeout situation and a fresh set of downs for the Texans.
2:28 remaining in the game, Texans lead 30-28: So on the subsequent 4th and 1, O'Brien decides to kick the field goal, go up 33-28, and make the Patriots score a touchdown to win the game. All very sound, except for one small thing — the Patriots employ Tom Brady as their quarterback. Going for it on 4th and 1, even with the Texans short yardage struggles, was the call here. A conversion effectively ends the game, and never puts Brady back on the field. A miss on 4th and 1, and Brady needs just a field goal to win the game, not a touchdown, but let's face it, if Brady gets the football, considering how leaky the Texans secondary was all day, Brady gets whatever he needs to win the game. Field goal? Fine. Touchdown? No problem. When the upside of a coin flip type decision is "the is game over," you go with that, especially when you're a huge underdog on the road.
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0:23 remaining in the game, Texans trail 36-33: With one timeout left and first and 10 at their own 25 yard line, the Texans put what was left of the game in Watson's hands. On the first play, he hit DeAndre Hopkins for 21 yards to the Texans 46 yard line. Hopkins was tackled with 13 seconds remaining. Right there, the final timeout should have been called. It would have given the Texans one more play to get into field goal range for Ka'imi Fairbairn. Instead, the whole thing was a clusterBLEEP. O'Brien apparently called for a time-consuming spike at the line of scrimmage, Watson was confused, calling for a spike and then time out, and finally the refs gave them a time out with three seconds left. Ten seconds vaporized. THIS is vintage O'Brien. He has been doing this for four years. For a head coach who spends large chunks of training camp working on situational football, he is mind numbingly inept at coaching situational football.
BONUS AUDIO: I think this call from "Larry in Stafford" to the Texans postgame show sums up the feelings of many...
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