On Wednesday night, Houston Texans owner Bob McNair was receiving an award at a charity function for M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, and, as will happen sometimes at an event like this, he spent a few minutes meeting with the media to talk football. The nice thing about Bob McNair when he talks football is that he says what's on his mind and expresses his true feelings. There is no filter.
So I sat in front of my Twitter feed, got some popcorn, and waited to see what the Texans owner had to say about a massively disappointing, and at times, abjectly embarrassing 2015 season. Soon, from the Twitter accounts of John McClain and Mark Berman, the quotes came rolling in...
On the 41-0 halftime deficit in Miami: "Yeah, I was mad. I was unhappy. We didn't put out the effort we should have. Everybody recognized it. It was pathetic. Miserable. Everybody was (embarrassed). We just can't have that sort of thing."
OK, lots of mean and nasty adjectives. I liked that. Good work, Bob.
On the reports of Rick Smith and Bill O'Brien not getting along: "I don't know where those reports came from. They're totally inaccurate. There's nothing to it. They work well together. If they disagree on something, they come to me. They've never come to me. I don't like to have these anonymous sources, people saying something and they don't know what they're talking about. That bothers me. I don't like it."
All right, whatever. Not surprising that this is McNair's stance, but I think there's some smoke there. Continuing….
On the Texans place in the standings: "The good news is that this is a new season, and we're tied for first place with Indianapolis (in the AFC South Division). We're still in it, but we have to play better."
Wait….what??? ….. NOOOOOO! Not YOU, BOB!!
Let me say this right now — the Texans should have some sort of kangaroo court or swear jar for when people use the words "first place" to describe their spot on the NFL landscape. Even if it's factual, the unwritten rules of evaluation should state that you can't describe a team that is under .500 as "first place" (even if they actually are) until the final two weeks of the season. Any description of the Texans should focus on the fact that they're 3-5 and have played like they're 0-8 for large chunks of the season, not on their first place standing, which is really more of an indictment of the Colts than it is an accurate view of the Texans.
By the way, don't think that this whole "Hey, we're 3-5 but tied for first!" myopia can't have a detrimental effect. Do you think true, accurate assessment of a team with foundational issues can really happen while that team is conducting its business like it has a chance at something? I personally do not. Also, God forbid they win the division, then the Texans' first round pick would be 21st overall as opposed to around tenth somewhere. Those ten or so spots matter when you're quarterback shopping. They really do.
So let's not allow the fortunate geography that's placed the Texans in the utterly crappy AFC South to impede our ability to assess this team. Let's do some midseason report card action!
If there's one player who is the perfect metaphor for the Texans' uneven play this season, it's Brian Hoyer. As a team, the Texans signature this year has been to fall behind in the first half of games and then pile up stats in the second half of games while making the scores look a lot closer than they really were. As for Hoyer, his season was put on hold three quarters in when he turned the ball over deep in Texans territory twice against the Chiefs in the opener. So he was benched for a guy who couldn't complete 54 percent of his passes nor make the charter to Miami on time. So Hoyer got his job back and he's won a couple games against bad teams and piled up meaningless second half numbers against the Colts and Dolphins. In short, Hoyer's 97.1 passer rating is every bit as deceptive as the Texans' -31 point differential.
RUNNING BACKS: D
This is the one position that is thoroughly depressing to grade knowing that Arian Foster's career as a Texan is probably over. Through eight games, the Texans have gotten one noteworthy performance from their entire stable of running-backs-not-named-Arian-Foster — Alfred Blue's 31 carry, 139 yard game against Tampa Bay's massive sieve of a defense. Take that performance out and the non-Foster running backs have rushed 109 times for 372 yards (3.4 yards per carry). The Texans backfield strikes zero fear into opposing defenses. In fact, if they were a guard dog, they'd be a Yorkie. Speaking of Yorkies….
WIDE RECEIVERS: C+
If the running backs were Arian Foster and a bunch of guys, the wide receiving corps is most certainly the DeAndre Hopkins Show (featuring occasional guest star Nate Washington). Through eight games, Hopkins is on pace to shatter all sorts of Texans records and make his first Pro Bowl. Cecil Shorts and Nate Washington have both been productive when healthy, the problem is that they can't synch up their respective healths. If Hoyer had all three to throw to then the total lack of running game would be less of an issue. The grade for this group is held down by a) the disappointing output from the two rookies, Jaelen Strong and Keith Mumphrey, b) the glut of garbage time yards piled up by Hopkins and Washington, and c) a slew of drops, especially early in the season.
TIGHT ENDS: F
If you're looking for one position to completely ruin your faith in the ability of Bill O'Brien and Rick Smith to evaluate talent (as if there aren't enough positions that fit that bill), look no further than the tight ends. Prior to the 2014 season, the Texans decided to re-sign Garrett Graham to a three year, $11 million deal, even though he had shown just sporadic spurts of productivity and a general lack of ability to block. They then used their third round pick in the 2014 draft on C.J. Fiedorowicz. Ryan Griffin would be their third tight end. Last season, the three combined for 32 catches. This year, they're on pace for 28 catches. Can we just move J.J. Watt over there, have him go two ways, and get it over with?
OFFENSIVE LINE: C-
If there's one position group where I feel compelled to give them an "Incomplete," it's the offensive line, where the Texans have started six different combinations through the first eight games, and have had to deal with multiple injuries to Duane Brown and Brandon Brooks, and season ending injuries to Jeff Adams and backup Greg Mancz. On top of that, Xavier Su'a-Filo still shows no signs of being able to grasp playing in the NFL, which is a major issue considering Teddy Bridgewater was taken one pick before him and Derek Carr two picks later. The run blocking by this entire group has been horrendous, and is easily the one thing I would fix if a football genie came down from the heavens and granted me three wishes. (NOTE: The other two wishes would be for WWE style entrances for all players, and no more shooting off cannons after field goals.)
DEFENSIVE LINE: B-
That J.J. Watt is having a better season statistically though eight games this season than he did through eight games last season and this group can still only nab a B- tells you everything you need to know about how the rest of the group is performing. Vince Wilfork is getting bulldozed on a fairly routine basis in the run game, and I'm not totally sure if Jared Crick is still on the team. Is it a dated take to say that I wouldn't mind seeing more snaps for Christian Covington?
This group's grade is adversely effected by three things — 1) shoddy coverage of backs and tight ends, especially early in the season, 2) Brian Cushing's return to the "old Cush" being drastically overstated, and 3) the group's inability to take advantage of double and triple teams on the world's best defensive player (at least until Whitney Mercilus' 3.5 sack game against Tennessee).
Kareem Jackson hasn't lived up to his new deal, Johnathan Joseph has been inconsistent, Kevin Johnson has been a revelation, and A.J. Bouye may or may not have pictures of somebody. Thus, a C.
While everyone was going gaga in the preseason over the front seven that the Texans had assembled, it seemed as though the safety position was being totally ignored. The signing of Rahim Moore was met with chuckles from media colleagues of mine in Denver, and they all turned out to be justified. Watching Moore take angles on ball carriers is like watching a blindfolded kid try to swing a piñata at a birthday party. The strong safety position, meanwhile, has been handled (mostly not so well) by a street free agent (Quintin Demps), a penalty machine (Eddie Pleasant), and a converted cornerback (Andre Hal). It's working out about how you'd expect.
SPECIAL TEAMS: D
Through five-plus games, the Texans had not started a drive in opposing territory, a direct reflection of the shoddy special teams play which practically never gave the Texans a field position advantage. On top of that, the amount of penalties the Texans would commit (looking at you, Pleasant!) in the return game and still not break a long return, even with the benefit of a penalty, was fairly infuriating. Also, they cut their kicker after three games.
Butchering the quarterback situation, poor special teams play, penalties on all sides of the ball, defensive effort that borders on sabotage …. this season has not been Bill O'Brien's (or Romeo Crennel's) finest hour.
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER, Offense (not named "DeAndre Hopkins"): NATE WASHINGTON
Holy shit, was this an eye opening process, trying to find the Texans' second most valuable offensive player now that Arian Foster is out for the season. I even posed the question to Twitter because, quite frankly, I needed help. Twitter's consensus was that the speed element Washington brings, along with the modicum of actual success he's had this season (yes, merely a couple good games is a HUGE differentiator with this group), make him the 2MVP (second most valuable player). (If you want a true measure of where this team is offensively, just know that Shane Lechler got the second most votes.)
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MOST VALUABLE PLAYER, Defense (not named "J.J. Watt"): KEVIN JOHNSON
I was tempted to put Jadeveon Clowney's name in here, but then considered that in the two games Clowney has either missed all or most of this season, the Texans are 2-0 and Whitney Mercilus has actually been more productive than Clowney in those games. So I went with Johnson, the precocious and perfect-amount-of-cocky rookie who has rapidly become the Texans best all around defensive back, with superb ability in coverage and extremely sure tackling.
MOST PLEASANT SURPRISE: The Colts sucking.
Indeed, it's been awfully nice of Andrew Luck to pick a season in which the Texans' roster is springing leaks everywhere to suddenly have his soul possessed by Ryan Leaf, but that said…..
BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Not beating a Matt Hasselbeck-led Colts team.
If the Texans wind up losing the division by one game, the game they will look back on and say "What in the blue hell were we doing?" will be the Thursday prime time 27-20 loss to the Matt Hasselbeck-led Colts.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 7 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.