On a rainy Monday night last week in Charlotte, Carolina Panthers kicker Graham Gano sent a 52-yard field goal end-over-end through the uprights, giving the Panthers a 26-23 overtime win against the Indianapolis Colts. The kick kept Carolina undefeated on the season at 7-0, but perhaps more significant, and certainly more surreally, the kick sent the Colts careering to 3-5 on the season.
Oddly enough, back here in Houston, the city watched Gano’s kick, and that entire fourth quarter and overtime, with bated breath, for in the bizarre TV drama that’s been the 2015 NFL season, the Houston Texans somehow, amid a sea of cataclysmic, franchise-defining failure, find themselves tied with the Colts atop the football wreckage in the AFC South with an identical 3-5 record.
On Tuesday afternoon, following the Colts’ loss, Texans players were all of a sudden cautiously optimistic about the direction of the season. Given how poorly they’ve played so far, being tied for first at 3-5 had to feel like house money at the blackjack table.
“It’s not necessarily where you want to be record-wise, but you’re sitting here at your bye week, halfway through the year, with everything in front of you,” said defensive end J.J. Watt. “So we have a chance to go out there in the second half of the season, look at it as a new season. A season of one-game seasons, like we’ve always talked about, and go out there and control what we can control and see what happens.”
“It’s exciting, it’s exciting,” said wide receiver Cecil Shorts. “We really don’t care about the record; we’re focused on ‘We’re 0-0.’ We’re just going to move forward from here.”
While it’s a fact that the Texans’ 3-5 record is good enough for a first-place tie in the wretched AFC South headed into their bye week, the sobering truth is that geography and whatever the hell is ailing Colts quarterback Andrew Luck are the two biggest things keeping the Texans’ 2015 on life support. The Texans’ survival has almost nothing to do with what the Texans are doing.
In a season in which they’ve trailed 42-0 and 41-0 during losses within the last month, the Texans’ good fortune of sharing a division with three other franchise disasters right now is a mere masking agent for major foundational issues with this team’s roster, and reported rifts between those running the show, specifically head coach Bill O’Brien and general manager Rick Smith.
How much O’Brien and Smith trust each other is an issue that both men have publicly dismissed as media-generated drama. However, how much this city can trust the collective brain trust of both men to fix this team’s core issues is a very real concern, especially when you consider that virtually all the decay on this roster has occurred since O’Brien’s hire in January 2014.
The Texans’ 3-5 record in 2015 merely tells us that they were better than Tampa Bay and Tennessee at home, and Jacksonville in Jacksonville, on those given days. That’s all it tells us. A deeper dive off the cliff where this whole thing is truly headed is far more harrowing and leads to the question “Do we trust a regime that has committed so much egregious football personnel malpractice over the past 18 months to actually fix those problems?”
Put simply, if your surgeon butchered a major procedure, would you actually go back to that doctor to have him or her try again? Because right about now, Dr. O’Brien and Dr. Smith look like a couple of NFL quacks.
In examining where exactly this roster stands, first assess the good. It doesn’t take long. Ask yourself, “What players on this team would, without a doubt, be starting for 31 other NFL teams?” Right now, there are two — J.J. Watt and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. Last I checked, both were already here when O’Brien got here in January 2014, so he gets zero credit for their existence on this team.
Now comes the ugly part. It’s in assessing the rest of this dilapidated mess where faith in O’Brien and Smith can probably be found only at the bottom of a bottle of strong whiskey. Consider the handling of the following key personnel decisions and roster areas:
2014 Draft. To be fair to O’Brien, the Texans’ getting the draft right was an issue before he got here (which makes Smith’s ability to maintain employment as a GM something remarkable enough to warrant its own 30 for 30). However, roster issues at very specific positions (which we will cover shortly) and questionable strategic decisions with this particular draft are a major reason this team has no depth. The Texans’ second-round pick was a guard (Xavier Su’a-Filo) who can’t get on the field. Their two third-round picks were a tight end (C.J. Fiedorowicz) with 13 catches in 23 games and a nose tackle (Louis Nix III) whom they cut in the 2015 preseason. Their fourth-round pick was a quarterback (Tom Savage) who couldn’t nose his way into a Brian Hoyer-Ryan Mallett quarterback competition in the preseason. It’s also worth mentioning that O’Brien passed on realistic chances to take quarterbacks Teddy Bridgewater, Derek Carr or Jimmy Garoppolo in favor of selecting Su’a-Filo, a decision that looks more and more as if it will be the one that eventually defines O’Brien’s tenure in Houston.
Free agency decisions. The last time the Texans were a big player in free agency was in 2011, with the signings of cornerback Johnathan Joseph and safety Danieal Manning. Since then, the signings have been more of the “value shopping” variety. This past offseason, the Texans’ two notable free agent signings were safety Rahim Moore and nose tackle Vince Wilfork, each for around $4 million per year. Moore has been a complete train wreck, taking tackling angles that make him appear inebriated on film. Against the Titans, he was benched, not even on the active roster for the game. Wilfork has been fine as a “beloved, jolly fat guy” in the locker room but lacking much impact as a “fat NFL nose tackle,” proving once again that if Bill Belichick is letting a guy walk in free agency, there’s probably a reason.
Tight end position. If you’re looking for one position with the Texans in the non-quarterback category that can give you hope that you, too, could one day run personnel for an NFL franchise, look no further than the Texans’ tight end position. Prior to the 2014 season, O’Brien and Smith chose to cut Owen Daniels, re-sign Garrett Graham to a nearly $4 million per year deal, draft Fiedorowicz in the third round and hang onto Ryan Griffin as the third tight end. The end result last season? A league-worst 35 catches from the tight end position (and that includes three J.J. Watt touchdown catches!). So what did O’Brien and Smith do heading into this season? Well, bring all three back, of course! Predictably, the Texans are on pace for an even worse 28 catches from the tight end position this season, and Graham is an unmitigated disaster with just four catches on 19 targets. (Meanwhile, Owen Daniels has 65 catches since the Texans released him.)
QB decision follies. Aside from a head coaching job in which a new coach walks into a situation with an established franchise quarterback, the most desirable NFL head coaching jobs are those where you can hand-pick your quarterback for the future. Bill O’Brien has had two drafts to do this now, including one in which he had the first pick in every round, and has collectively come away with Tom Savage. Meanwhile, he has force-fed the city Ryan Fitzpatrick in 2014, and the two-headed beast of mediocrity, Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett, in 2015. But it’s not just whom O’Brien has chosen (and make no mistake, this is the one area where I put it all on O’Brien, not Smith), it’s how he’s handled them. In the 2015 preseason, he browbeat the media over criticism of both quarterbacks, saying the city should be “proud” of Hoyer and Mallett, who to that point had accomplished nothing noteworthy as Houstonians. Then he proceeded to yo-yo the two of them as the starter like a fifth grader playing Madden NFL. Eventually, O’Brien was forced to cut Mallett after he missed the team flight to Miami. At this point, recent history tells us that having O’Brien handle the selection of the team’s next quarterback would be like having Charlie Sheen as your Uber driver.
The dilapidated offensive line, the complete lack of impact running backs with Arian Foster now out for the season, the underperformance of the defense, shoddy special teams…this roster has a mountain of issues that we could dissect for days, far more issues that have been created by the current regime than have been fixed by it.
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In alll but one other division in the AFC, the 2015 Texans would be chasing an undefeated team headed into the bye week, and would be forced to deal with the future. They’d have to face true NFL reality and the fact that this team, despite three wins so far, is fundamentally more flawed than the 2-14 outfit that got Gary Kubiak fired in 2013. That team was bad. This team is worse.
Instead, with the Colts crumbling in a similar fashion, rhetoric about the Texans’ battling for an entirely undeserved playoff spot will distract the media, the fans and the city from the roster’s rotting core and the thin strings holding this team together right now. Rationalizing the standings in 2015 will not make the problems of 2016 go away.
I just don’t know what scares me more, all the issues that plague this team, or whom they’re asking to fix them.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/SeanCablinasian or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.