The problem with being a quarterback-challenged team playing the New England Patriots on the road in the playoffs, with Tom Brady and Bill Belichick standing ominously waiting to devour you whole, is that your chances of winning the game boil down to a six or seven proposition parlay of things that absolutely ALL must happen in order for you to have even a CHANCE to win.
Prior to Saturday night's divisional round playoff game in Foxborough, I jotted down a few non-negotiable things, many of them uncharacteristic of this Texans team, that HAD to happen in order for the Texans to pull off the upset:
1. Score a non-standard TD. In other words, a defensive or special teams score or a short TD set up by a play on defense or special teams. The Texans only TD drive was 12 yards long, set up by a fumble recovery on a kickoff.
2. Play solid, fundamental defense while punishing Tom Brady. The defense actually got a goal line stand to close out the half, and overall, there's not much more you could ask from that side of the ball (save maybe covering a ruling back out of the backfield). They held Brady to a sub fifty percent completion rate. That's remarkable.
3. Put Will Fuller back there to return punts. Fuller was back there (granted, after a Tyler Ervin concussion) and averaged 17 yards on two returns. Not bad.
4. Clowney and Mercilus must ball out for 60 minutes. They did.
5. Win the turnover battle... and THEREIN LIES THE RUB.
Three picks from Osweiler, all in the second half... which is the exact chunk of the game he is being paid $18 million a year to merely MANAGE. At this point, I've given up on the notion that the Texans are paying Brock Osweiler to actually go WIN a game. No, at this point, they're paying Osweiler to merely stay the hell out of the way while men are working.
Sure, the Texans did a lot of things right on Saturday night. A LOT of things, especially on defense. They made mistakes, too. You can't allow a kickoff return for a touchdown. You can't drop a touchdown pass when your team is trailing by 11 in the second half, Will Fuller.
But in the end, Brock Osweiler is the quarterback for this team, and that depressing fact overshadows any singular mistakes made by an individual or a unit of this team. All season long, Osweiler's presence under center has methodically created a low, concrete ceiling over top of this team, a ceiling far too unbreakable to be overcome by gargantuan efforts from an overworked defense and the superstar ascension of Jadeveon Clowney. In the fraction that is an NFL football team, Osweiler is the magical numerator that cancels out anything and everything positive that might exist in the denominator.
He is terrible at football.
More on Osweiler in a minute, and more on the whole season and upcoming offseason (which may be the most fascinating one in Texans history) later this week.
Winners and losers...
4. Jadeveon Clowney
If we are looking for positives in this season, and there were certainly a few of those, none is bigger than the rise of Clowney from beleaguered athletic freak to productive NFL player to certifiably scary monster. It was another game where the stat sheet may not have been stuffed to the gills (two tackles, one for loss), but just watch the game and Clowney's presence was noticeable, with a couple of monster hits on Tom Brady, as well. Not all QBH's are created equally — Clowney's count as like three or four with the punishment that he unleashes. Also, it was great to see Clowney laying into the kickoff coverage unit when their boneheaded mistake of allowing a return for a touchdown and a 14-3 lead put the team into a huge hole early. LEADERSHIP! Which brings me to one storyline that some Texan fans, especially diehard J.J. Watt-o-maniacs, are going to be hesitant to examine honestly next season — how J.J. Watt now exists in this world where he may not be the biggest star on his own defense anymore. J.J. Watt is empirically about as good a person as you'll find — hard working, generous, kind. But good people have egos. There's a very good chance it may be Watt existing in Clowney's world next season, not vice versa. (The hope, obviously, is that they co-exist as a two-headed, collective, freaky alien named J.J. Deveon Clownwatt, but people are funny.)
3. A.J. Bouye
The other rise to stardom on the defensive side of the ball this season was far less forecastable and grown from seeds planted in an entirely different garden than Clowney's. On the one end, Clowney was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 draft. On the other end, A.J. Bouye was an undrafted free agent in 2013 who's been trying to hang onto a roster spot for three seasons. However, this year, he made the jump from "gimmicky coverer of tight ends" to "legit smothering NFL cornerback" right before our very eyes! Saturday was actually not one of Bouye's best games, as he gave up a few intermediate level passing plays and had a chance to make a game changing pick to start the second half, but dropped the ball. However, his interception in the first quarter was the punch back that took the Texans off life support when they were down 14-3, and since this is the last 4W4L of the season, I want to mention Bouye here — he is going to cash in HUGE this offseason in free agency, and it will be fascinating to see what the Texans do to keep him. With Osweiler's contract mowing down so much underperforming cap space, you hope that it doesn't cost them a player like Bouye, or a solid veteran like, say, Johnathan Joseph ($7 million 2017 cap hit), in order to keep Bouye.
2. Patriot running backs
Before the game, in talking to some Patriot friends, the question came up — which of Tom Brady's weapons concern you the most as a Texans fan? While Martellus Bennett has been great in making up for Rob Gronkowski's absence, and while Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan and Danny Amendola have all had their moments, my biggest fear was the combination of James White and Dion Lewis sneaking out of the backfield. Sure enough, Tom Brady was able to game each of them into space against Bernardrick McKinney for a touchdown. The Texans have to add an athletic linebacker/safety type to their shopping list this offseason to nullify mismatches created by the lack of coverage ability in their linebacking corps. (Jabril Peppers, anyone?)
1. Rumor and innuendo
I have to give credit to whoever is running Bill O'Brien's public relations. Somehow, even with the backdrop of his team's getting bounced from the playoffs largely because of an offense that is completely broken (keep in mind O'Brien's background — OFFENSIVE "GURU"), O'Brien's camp has managed to a) use the media to let everyone know that he is not entirely enthralled with his current position and b) further some narrative that he would be a white-hot candidate for any openings that may arise. Not surprisingly, as the game of NFL head coach "musical chairs" ran out of seats over the past week, O'Brien publicly became more and more settled in his current position. My take on this is multilayered — first, I think it's very possible and plausible that O'Brien isn't totally happy in his current job, and isn't all that pumped at ultimately being at the mercy of Rick Smith's personnel decisions. Second, I think that if things didn't work out here, O'Brien would be a head coach again somewhere.
That said, if I were arguing the heat level of O'Brien as a head coaching candidate in a court of law, I'd rather be arguing against O'Brien than for him. In my opinion, his game management issues (which you have to watch this team weekly to understand, another reason he benefits from big-picture versus granular analysis) and the abomination that is his offense cancel out three 9-7 seasons in a bad division. O'Brien's fixing the offensive issues would go a long way to making him an ACTUAL top head coach as opposed to a perceived one, and to that end, I think he needs to fire George Godsey and Brock Osweiler, find a real, truly innovative offensive mind to delegate the offense to, draft a quarterback and act/function more like a CEO. This topic deserves its own column, but those are the broad strokes.
(Sidebar — I stole the phrase "rumor and innuendo" from my friend and fellow Houstonian Bruce Prichard, whom you may know as Brother Love from the old WWF days. He and his co-host, Conrad Thompson, have an outstanding podcast called "Something To Wrestle With Bruce Prichard." If you're a wrestling fan who is into fantastic storytelling of behind-the-scenes stuff from the past of couple decades, subscribe to it. Really, really good chemistry between both guys, great humor and super informative. Highly recommend... it's the anti-Osweiler of podcasts.)
4. Will Fuller's hands
Damn, poor Will Fuller. The rookie wide receiver hasn't been able to get loose for a deep ball since Week 2 against the Chiefs, but he has done an admirable job of improving his shaky hands throughout the season, and within the constraints of an offense skippered by Osweiler, he's managed to find ways to make a play or two each game in the intermediate passing game. On Saturday, we saw the perfect storm of things we hadn't seen in two months — Fuller getting behind a defensive back on a go route, a perfectly thrown deep ball to Fuller from Osweiler, and (unfortunately) Fuller's letting the ball go right through his hands. And it came at the worst possible time, as a touchdown and a possible two point conversion there would have made the score 24-21 and really applied some game pressure on the Patriots. I think Fuller will be fine, but he needs to basically begin dating a JUGS machine for the next six months. (Sidebar — if the phrase "dating a JUGS machine" doesn't make you giggle, we can't be friends. Sorry.)
3. Texans special teams
Bill O'Brien's postseason record as a head coach is 1-2. In the two losses, his special teams have allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown. Stop giving up kickoff returns for touchdowns.
2. Chris Clark
In a way, I feel bad putting Clark here because, truthfully, he is just a backup being forced to start at a high leverage position along the offensive line. The problem is he's been terrible, routinely allowing about a half dozen QB pressures per game and tacking on a penalty or two to boot. On Sunday, his holding penalty on 1st and 10 from the Patriots 16 yard line, down 14-3, made it 1st and 20 and essentially ended a drive on which the Texans desperately could have used a touchdown. If you measure a player's "value" by the level of drop-off from him to the guy they replace him with, there is an argument to be made that Derek Newton, in retrospect, might have been the most valuable Texan in 2016. (I don't mean like the MVP of the team, but I think you see where I'm going... they may need to draft a right tackle this spring.)
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1. Brock Osweiler
I'm not sure what's left to say that I didn't say up above when I ultimately called Brock "terrible at football." (Man, what a way with words I have!) I'll just add this — the Texans need to exhaust any and every avenue in order to get a COMPETENT starting quarterback next season. They signed Osweiler to all this money so they would not have to withstand the learning curve of a rookie, and then six weeks into the season, Bob McNair is saying, "Well, he's basically a rookie!" I mean... dear God.
The fact is that ANY of the rookies you could have drafted in the first four rounds last May would have been more capable than Osweiler. And I guess that's the silver lining here — Brock Osweiler was SO bad in 2016 that anything will be an improvement. I mean, there is literally no solution you can propose — from Tony Romo to a drafted rookie to a monkey wearing a bucket for a helmet — that isn't a better solution than trotting Brock "Nobody's gonna work harder than me, by gosh, by golly!" Osweiler back out there.
See you all in July...
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.