About a month ago, the Houston Texans were in last place, 32nd overall, in the NFL in the Football Outsiders DVOA measurement (the metric of choice for many these days in judging the efficiency with which a unit plays American football) on offense and special teams. They were managing to hang round the fringe of the top ten in overall defense, but still, their 6-3 record belied their overall team statistical efficiency.
Three games later, the Texans's record seems to be finding its appropriate water level, as the offense and special teams still rank among the bottom in the league (both 31st on Sunday morning), the defense has regressed slightly (14th overall), and not surprisingly, they have fallen to 6-6 on the season, following a 21-13 loss in Green Bay to the Packers on Sunday.
We knew when we looked at the schedule before the season that the four games from Week 11 through 14 would be a brutal stretch for the Texans defense to contain, considering the four quarterbacks on the other side are Derek Carr, Philip Rivers, Aaron Rodgers and Andrew Luck. However, the defense has, for the most part, done its job. Sure, a few more sacks and a few more turnovers would be nice, but the issue with this team remains the offense's inability to run much of anything that would strike fear into the hearts of opposing defenses and fans.
Put it this way — throughout the Kubiak Era, Texan fans hated the draw play on 3rd and long because it was essentially conceding the possession and was the epitome of uber-conservative. Now? Texan fans welcome draw plays on 3rd and long because, at this point, it's their best chance at getting a first down.
6-6 has never felt so inept, and at this point, the only thing saving the Texans's hopes of defending their AFC South title (an outcome that you could debate only deludes management into thinking things are on the right track) is what should be a fairly easy schedule down the stretch and a 3-0 record in the division.
On Sunday, there were winners and losers. Let's take a look...
4. Romeo Crennel
Of the two sides of the ball for the Texans, the one that has clearly sustained the more devastating injuries this season has been the defensive side of the ball — J.J. Watt and Kevin Johnson both out for the year, and Jadeveon Clowney and John Simon both out on Sunday. Yet Crennel keeps finding a way, mixing and matching his remaining veteran players with some of his young depth, to play good enough defense to win these games if his team had any of about 85 percent of the offenses in the league. Unfortunately, the Texans are saddled with an offense in that other 15 percent. Sunday, Crennel's defense had another admirable afternoon against the run, even without their best run defender (Clowney), and held a Rodgers-led offense to just over 300 total yards. Granted, the conditions probably helped a little bit, but aside from their mostly anemic pass rush, the Texans have nothing to be ashamed of defensively. Speaking of Clowney...
3. Jadeveon Clowney
...he actually practiced on Friday, laughing and joking around while wearing Vince Wilfork's jersey:
And then on Saturday afternoon, we learned that Clowney didn't make the trip to Green Bay because of his elbow and wrist injuries. As it turns out, according to Bill O'Brien after the game, the team basically exercised some discretion, choosing to rest Clowney this week so he would be ready for the stretch run, including a battle for the division lead next Sunday in Indy. While most fans will freak out about this, thinking if a guy can go, he must go, I will defend this move with the following:
A few Texans players switched jerseys at practice today, but the Vince Wilfork and Jadeveon Clowney swap is probably the best. pic.twitter.com/NxWoTp2lue— Sarah Barshop (@sarahbarshop) December 2, 2016
— Clowney would not have been the difference in a win or loss on Sunday, the way that game played out
— Clowney has been playing 3-4 defensive end all season, a position usually manned by humans about 30 pounds heavier than he is, so he is beat to hell right now
— By definition, because it's an NFC game, the Green Bay game is the least important of the Texans' final five games by far
— Clowney reportedly wanted to play on Sunday, so this was the coach's decision
— Of all the players on this roster, the one to be careful with medically is Jadeveon Clowney
So I'm actually okay with it. Now, please O'Brien, don't try to tell me how you "only look at that week's game" and that you "don't look ahead." Also, don't tell me all games are created equal, because if the game yesterday were the Indy game, I'm guessing Clowney would have played.
2. Jonathan Grimes
On a rough afternoon for Lamar Miller (14 carries, 22 yards), Grimes was the leading Texans rusher, with 43 yards on five carries. As I mentioned above, Houston's most effective third down play offensively (okay, tinge of sarcasm, but kind of not) was Grimes's running the draw-play-when-the-opponent-is-only-partially-paying-attention. He converted a 3rd and 7 and a 3rd and 12, and even set up the 4th and 1 on which the Texans scored their first touchdown by getting five yards on 3rd and 6. Grimes is a master of the "take what the soft defense gives you" run!
1. Aaron Rodgers
Playing on one bad leg, Rodgers did enough to show why he is still one of the five quarterbacks you'd most want if you had to win a game, making at least four or five throws for which he is on the short list of the only guys who can make plays like that. Also, notably, after Johnathan Joseph went down with a rib injury, Rodgers did a great job of finding the soft spots in the Texans secondary, completing 5 of 8 passes for 108 yards and leading two touchdown drives. For the game, Rodgers finished with a workmanlike 209 yards on 20 of 30 passing.
4. Charles James
Unfortunately, there is a flip side to the Texans' losing Joseph for the game, and that's that Charles James, a special teams fixture, all of a sudden becomes your nickel corner, basically a giant target with two legs for opposing quarterbacks to target. That's precisely what happened when Jordy Nelson got behind James for the go-ahead touchdown. On top of that, James will probably have a head cold by Tuesday...
The people still love you, Charles. And your socks!
I learned a long time ago to take the good with the bad. You make a play you're the man you give up a play you're horrible #ItsTwitter— Charles James II (@CJDeuce_) December 5, 2016
3. Penn State
We interrupt this Texans analysis for a thought on the College Football Playoff pairings. In case you missed it, here are the semifinal matchups for New Year's Eve:
No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Washington (Peach Bowl)
No. 2 Clemson vs. No. 3 Ohio State (Fiesta Bowl)
First two out were Penn State and Michigan, in 5th and 6th, respectively.
After the unveiling there was a lot of handwringing over the exclusion of Penn State, because of a) their Big Ten title win on Saturday over Wisconsin and b) their head-to-head win over Ohio State. It was amazing how people arguing on Penn State's behalf just continually ignored the fact that one of Penn State's two losses was by 39 points to Michigan. THIRTY-NINE. I get that it happened in September and this is figuratively a different Penn State team now, but anyone who says the Big Ten title game is being ignored is doing just as good a job of ignoring a total meltdown earlier in the season.
2. DeAndre Hopkins
The Texans are a team with a razor-thin margin for error, so if you're looking for one play where this game turned back into Green Bay's favor, here it is — tied at 7, 2nd and 5 on the Green Bay 36 yard line, shortly after the Texans had just stopped Green Bay on downs around midfield, Osweiler throws a slant route to Hopkins that bounced off his chest, a drop that cost the Texans a first down, momentum and, at a minimum, a field goal attempt to go up 10-7. Two plays later, the Texans punted back to Green Bay, and two possessions later, Green Bay was up 21-7. Game over.
1. Brock Osweiler, the forlorn salesperson
Before I got into radio (and writing for the Houston Press), I was in sales for about 15 years, as both a salesperson and a manager of salespeople. As a salesperson, one of the most important skills is forecasting what you're going to bring in each month to your boss. As a boss, there is no greater bane of one's existence than inaccurate forecasters. Taking it a step further, there is no one more annoying than the salesperson who is overly rosy and optimistic about his future output, when every shred of evidence suggests he's just not very good at closing business.
I say all of this to say that Brock Osweiler has officially become the QB equivalent of the completely ineffective salesperson who is telling his boss about all the business he is going to close "soon"... (NOTE: Most of the time, "soon" means "never.")...
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.