For the first time since January 2, 2011, the Houston Texans took the field on Sunday afternoon without defensive end/world beater J.J. Watt. He wasn't with the team, he wasn't on the sideline, hell, he wasn't even in Houston. Watt's back surgery earlier this week actually took place in Los Angeles, where he will reportedly be resting for the time being, beginning his long road to recovery (we hope).
So yesterday, the whole day was kind of weird, with a palpable Watt-sized void, which is somewhat odd, considering the Texans played the entire preseason with Watt on the shelf. However, on game days, we all get used to a certain routine and the elimination of even the littlest things — Watt's tossing footballs to kids in the front row about 75 minutes before game time, Watt as the last one out during introductions, "Turn Down For What" playing on the public address system — gets magnified.
However, the one thing the Texans could ultimately count on, something that has been there for them since Bill O'Brien's arrival in 2014, the Tennessee Titans as a get-well game, showed up at NRG Stadium on Sunday afternoon. While the Texans made it a little harder on themselves than they needed to, they did finish the afternoon with a 27-20 win, a 3-1 record and a two-game lead over the entire AFC South.
So overall, it was a good day, but there were winners and losers. Let's go back and take a look...
4. C.J. Fiedorowicz
Holy crap, the Texans have tight ends on the roster! And they were using them! How did that taste, Tennessee, having C.J. Fiedorowicz go all Gronk Lite on your behinds?
Seriously, Fiedorowicz was so good in the first half of the game (4 catches, 48 yards, 1 TD) that two things happened:
a. His touchdown catch was so amazing and possibly out-of-body that it made me tweet this....
The same way that Bran puts his soul inside of a direwolf, that’s what just happened… JJ Watt’s soul is inside CJ Fiedorowicz.#Seanalysis— Sean Pendergast (@SeanTPendergast) October 2, 2016
I stand by this hypothesis. J.J. Watt is watching over the Texans by inhabiting the tangible body of C.J. Fiedorowicz. Somewhere, in a hospital bed in Los Angeles, J.J. Watt sits there with his eyes rolled all the way up into his skull like Bran.
b. Fiedorowicz was so good in that first half, that when he went down with what we all thought was a gruesome knee injury, his possible season ending departure felt palpably BAD, which was ironic because up until Sunday, Fiedorowicz himself had been palpably bad for large portions of his career. It was nice seeing him and Ryan Griffin (3 catches, 54 yards, long play of the day of the Texans on a 45-yard catch and run) contribute Sunday.
3. Jon Weeks
Hey, have you heard the good news? Long snapper Jon Weeks played in his 100th consecutive game as a Texan on Sunday! I'll admit, I had no idea of this until Mark Berman of FOX 26 decided to ask O'Brien for his thoughts on Weeks's streak in the middle of the coach's machine gun barrage of salty one word answers at his Friday press conference. Let me just say that long snappers fascinate me, so therefore, I am an unabashed Jon Weeks fan. In fact, if we could all join our hands in prayer for Jon Weeks's continued health for another eight seasons after this year is over, he will break the all-time record for consecutive games played by a long snapper (some cat named Ethan Allbright who played in 224 straight games from 1996 through 2009). This needs to happen. In fact, any more tweets about Jon Weeks must be tagged with the hashtag #WeeksTo225. It is so decreed!
2. Lamar Miller
Fantasy owners would probably disagree, since it was another Sunday without a trip to the end zone for Miller, but this was Lamar Miller's best game of the four he's played as a Texan. He was the straw that stirred the drink on the team's efficient opening drive of the game, which can't be overstated considering how opening drives have gone for this team this season. On that drive, he had two catches for 16 yards and four carries for 29 yards. Twenty-two touches — 19 carries, 3 catches — for the afternoon is probably the perfect amount of usage for Miller.
1. Will Fuller
After a forgettable Week 3 outing in New England — and let's be fair, it was forgettable for everybody in a Texans uniform — Fuller was right back to where he left off after the Chicago and Kansas City games, picking up seven catches for 81 yards and a touchdown. In the first half, he was the fulcrum of the passing game, with five catches, all for first downs (or a touchdown), including a huge 27-yard tunnel screen that was a replay of his touchdown against the Bears in Week 1. However, Fuller's biggest impact came on special teams. In his one appearance on punt return, standing alongside Tyler Ervin, Fuller took a Brett Kern punt back 67 yards for the final winning margin. Any questions, Josh Doctson fans?
4. J.J. Watt conjecture
So it started with this on Thursday...
The #Texans knew JJ Watt was done for 2016. Surgery was their best choice for recovery, rather than rehab/rest. No concerns for 2017.— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) September 30, 2016
NO concerns? Um, ok... then came a follow up report Sunday morning from Rapaport that included this sentence — "The Texans have no long-term concerns about Watt," which prompted me to tweet this...
I still have trouble wrapping my brain around Rapoport’s reporting the Texans “have no long term concerns” about Watt. How can they not?? https://t.co/SEmeoJfXE8— Sean Pendergast (@SeanTPendergast) October 2, 2016
Which led to former Texans tight end (and Watt teammate) Joel Dreessen tweeting this sage piece of advice for J.J. Watt...
Back injuries r no joke. Only so many athletic bullets in ones gun. He can't shoot em all flipping tires in off season. Must train smarter. https://t.co/Mqbd71y62Q— JoelDreessen (@JoelDreessen) October 2, 2016
I write and post all of this to say that it seems absurd that the Texans would have "no concerns" over their $100 million star defensive end undergoing a second back surgery in around two months. Whoever is feeding Rapoport his information either has their head buried in the sand or is totally cool with whistling past the graveyard. Watt may very well be fine after his rehab is over, but not having any concern over what the future holds for him implies they know with 100 percent certainty (or close to is) that he will be back to his old level of play with no complications. No one knows this.
3. The sanity of University of Houston fans
Ultimately, the most important part of the puzzle for the University of Houston's 2016 football season occurred on Thursday when they exacted revenge on the UCONN Huskies for handing them their only loss last season. However, the rest of the weekend saw some future hits to the Coogs' strength of schedule. The big one was Louisville's losing to Clemson, meaning the big battle of undefeated teams on November 17 at TDECU Stadium is not happening. Other small ones — Navy, next week's opponent, falling from the undefeated ranks, in a loss to Air Force, and Memphis, who was buoyed last season by a win over Ole Miss, losing to Ole Miss this season — hurt, too. None of these outcomes is a resume deal breaker for UH; they're more like annoying fees that show up on your bank statement.
Oh, also... Coog fans, the guy dancing in this video straight up does NOT want you in the Big XII....
When your mullet game too strong pic.twitter.com/yxIqMSWHsS— Andrew HammondAP (@ahammsportsgeek) October 1, 2016
How does THAT make you feel?
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2. Bill O'Brien game management
It's undeniable — Bill O'Brien has a massive blind spot in game management (timeouts, clock, replay, final two minute situations). This is very frustrating because a) O'Brien has a degree from an Ivy League institution, and b) O'BRIEN IS A GOOD COACH, and yet I almost feel like we have to accept this as part of the O'Brien Experience, much the same way Chiefs fans do with Andy Reid. (Maybe some of you Chiefs fans who read this want to go in halfsies on some therapy? Maybe?) On Sunday, with 10:05 to go in the fourth quarter, the Texans were on a drive that was going exactly as they needed it to — 9 plays, 43 yards and burning off five minutes of clock time. Perfect! Then, on 3rd and 7 just inside Tennessee Territory, Jaelen Strong caught a pass in the flat and took it close to the first down marker, marked just short. So on 4th and 1, with all three timeouts and all his challenges in his pocket, instead of calling for a challenge (or just using a timeout), O'Brien had his guys get to the line quickly and run an inside handoff with fullback Jay Prosch — JAY PROSCH! — that was stuffed. To O'Brien's credit, he owned his poor management of that situation after the game, but it's fair to wonder how O'Brien will avoid these strategic mistakes with even more tactical responsibility on his plate with play calling duties. The head coach is the CEO of his sideline — imagine if the CEO of your company began going on multiple sales calls every day because sales are down, or spent his days in Accounts Receivable making collection calls because revenue was down. Probably detrimental, right?
1. Marcus Mariota
The Texans were lucky to avoid Mariota in both of their games last season versus the Titans, but mostly because he was merely better than Zach Mettenberger, not because Mariota was a guy who could singlehandedly win games. If we learned anything on Sunday, it's that Mariota has a long way to go as a passer, completing 13 of 29 and missing targets on several very basic throws. Also, Mariota only had 4 rushes for 20 yards, and if there were any area of his game that could have theoretically made up for his inaccuracy throwing the ball, it's a little improvisation in the run game. However, this isn't just an issue yesterday for the Titans. People seem to recall Mariota's 87-yard touchdown run last season and think he could run all over teams, but did you know that, if you remove that one play, the ultra-mobile-new-age-weapon Mariota, for his career, has only carried the ball 42 times for 217 yards in 16 games? For a guy who was supposed to help usher in the new additional-spread-concepts era, Mariota sure is being used fairly normally. And that's bad for him.
(HYPOTHETICAL TRADE ALERT — Just putting this out there, since they're both 1-3 and on their way to likely top five picks in the draft again, if San Francisco were picking, say, first or second in the 2017 draft, and Tennessee were picking, say, sixth or seventh, could you see Chip Kelly agreeing to flip flop picks with the Titans in exchange for Mariota? The Titans get to start over again building around a new young QB like DeShaun Watson or DeShone Kizer — so many DeSean spellings!! — and Chip gets his dude, albeit on Year 3 of his rookie deal. Because of that, my guess is the Titans would have to sweeten the pot a little with a player or draft picks, but if it happens, you heard it here first!)
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.