Ask NFL players what they enjoy about playing prime-time, nationally televised football games, and one of the first things they'll all inevitably bring up is the fact that they know all their peers are watching.
There's added motivation in showing off your wares to the other 30 idle teams around the league, and I would imagine that as an NFL player, when you have two prime-time games in a ten-day span, you would like to look back and say to yourself, "Man, we showed the nation what we're all about."
If you're a Houston Texan, you hope you can look back at the final gun last night in Pittsburgh and say, "That was Houston Texans football."
Well, for better or worse, after an exasperating opening act last Thursday night against the Colts and on the heels of a 30-23 loss to the Steelers last night in Pittsburgh in which the Texans gave up 24 points in the final three minutes of the first half (TWENTY FOUR!), we can all look back and say it together:
That was Houston Texans football. Unfortunately.
They say an NFL team takes on the identity of its head coach and its quarterback. We've seen it here since 2007, as the two-headed monster of Gary Kubiak and Matt Schaub served up, by and large, an eight-year bowl of vanilla soft-serve that ended with both being tossed to the curb, Kubiak in December and Schaub this past March.
Now come Bill O'Brien and Ryan Fitzpatrick, two scrappers with Ivy League degrees who make decisions on the field at times that would have a community college classroom staring at them saying, "That's your answer? Really?" Both give the entirety of themselves for all 60 minutes (and truthfully, several thousand more minutes throughout the week), but both are doing just enough things poorly, at times cataclysmically so, to get you beat.
Good teams can overcome self-inflicted wounds, so the fact that the Texans are not a good football team is certainly an issue. However, even a great team is going to have a hard time overcoming the kind of wounds the Texans masochistically inflict upon themselves. A few paper cuts in the NFL will happen; the Texans are repeatedly severing their limbs with a battle-ax.
So here they sit at 3-4, the slow death march to the 11th pick in the draft (or something along those lines) under way. Let's take a closer look at last night with some winners and losers...
4. Whitney Mercilus If there is one thing positive about the last couple of weeks, it's that it appears Whitney Mercilus, more than two seasons into his NFL career now, is finally starting to show some of the flash that made him the 26th pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. Last night, he followed up his best game of the season against Indianapolis with another high-impact effort in Pittsburgh, forcing a fumble in the first half that the Texans turned into a field goal to make it 10-0 (needed a touchdown there to put more game pressure on the Steelers) and sacking Ben Roethlisberger twice. This is all just in the nick of time for Mercilus, whose fifth-year option will be one of the key decisions for this team in the offseason (a decision that is veering quickly to "ACCEPT" territory).
3. Arian Foster In some ways, it's tough to process the performance of a running back who is playing at the level of Arian Foster right now. Most running backs have a very fixed odometer on their bodies, so when you have one playing at the All Pro level that Foster is (and I use "All Pro" in lieu of "Pro Bowl" for a reason; Pro Bowl means like top 5 or 6, while All Pro is top 2), you'd hope those carries are being used in a worthy cause. When Arian was racking up carries in 2011 and 2012, at least it was for division titles. This season, he's going to wind up with 300-350 touches (including 24 more last night for 115 yards) to finish 6-10. A joy to watch play to play, but a little depressing knowing that this team is nowhere close to turning those carries into anything meaningful. (And after typing all of that, and taking Foster's fumble at the end of the first half into account, I have no idea why I put him in "WINNERS." Oh well, sorry. Late night last night. Post-game show ran until 1:30 a.m.)
2. Pittsburgh's "Big Three" The Texans had an opportunity in the first half to really put their foot on the Steelers' collective throat, and didn't do it. After going up 7-0 on the strength of a near perfect 94-yard drive (Foster, 5 carries for 59 yards), they got the ball back in Steelers territory on the Mercilus forced fumble and could only turn it into a field goal. A subsequent trip into Steelers territory netted only a second field goal. It was one of those 13-0 deficits that the Steelers actually, probably felt okay about, considering they have their troika of Pro Bowl-caliber playmakers on offense. Eventually, the opening was there for all three -- Roethlisberger (265 yards passing, two touchdowns), Le'Veon Bell (145 total yards) and Antonio Brown (90 yards receiving and a touchdown pass) -- to bury the Texans (with the Texans essentially handing them the shovel with three minutes to go in the first half).
1. People who watch post-game press conferences Texans fans have said for the past eight years that they hated Gary Kubiak's bland post-loss press conferences, which consisted of a bunch of "gosh, golly" thinly veiled acceptances of blame with virtually no fire. To Texans fans, Gary Kubiak didn't outwardly take losing as hard as they did (a ludicrous notion, but a staple of fandom). Well, for all of his head-scratching game mismanagement in his first seven weeks on the job, Bill O'Brien is at least going to give you the fire you've wanted, Texans Fan....
This is him at 3-4. If this thing starts to nose-dive like 2013 (and it could), I don't know how hot O'Brien can run all year.
4. Lawrence Timmons's intestines We interrupt this postmortem for a Vine of an NFL player vomiting on the field just before the snap...
I'm fairly certain that similar Vines exist of Texans fans during the final three minutes of the first half. (Send them in, Texans fans! Your Vines of you and your friends vomiting as Bill O'Brien, Ryan Fitzpatrick and the gang flush your season down the drain!)
3. Brian Cushing For the second straight game, not only did Brian Cushing look ordinary and old (to the point where asking if he will ever truly be back from these two knee injuries is a very real concern), but he appeared to be on the business end of a mental error that led to a wide open running back near the goal line waltzing in for a touchdown, the Le'Veon Bell score to make it 24-13 and cap off one of the worst three-minute stints in franchise history. Cushing's situation is the extreme example of an issue that plagues this team right now --- underperformance by the highest dozen or so salary cap figures on the team. Go look at the Texans salary cap grid for the season, and of the veterans in the top 10-12 players on the team, the only ones whose performance you feel really good about in light of their cap figures are Arian Foster and J.J. Watt. It's shaping up to be an interesting offseason around NRG Stadium with many tough (possibly "dead money" expensive) decisions. Cushing, specifically, is probably not going anywhere for at least a couple more years because in 2015, it costs more to cut him than to actually pay him to play.
2. Tight ends Why did this team re-sign Garrett Graham (2 catches, 24 yards) to an $11 million deal this offseason? Why did they draft C.J. Fiedorowicz (more penalties, 1 catch)? Why am I sober right now?
1. Complementary football Bill O'Brien loves to use the phrase "complementary football" to describe what he believes to be the optimal style of play in order to achieve success in the NFL. Offense, defense, special teams and coaching all working in one symbiotic chorus that leads to achievement of a common goal. Well, if "contributions" from all areas to the end result are the basic definition of "complementary football," then O'Brien got some form of complementary football in the final three minutes of last night's first half. Leading 13-3 and taking over at their own 20 with 3:08 left in the half, a couple of first downs from the offense would allow the Texans to, at a minimum, get into the locker room and game plan for the start of the second half (in which they would start with the ball). Instead, here's what happened:
3:08 -- OFFENSE goes three and out and Texans punt the ball back to the Steelers at the Pittsburgh 37 yard line.
1:46 -- DEFENSE gives up a two-play, 65-yard touchdown drive where the linebackers gave up a long catch and run to Bell and Andre Hal gave up a deep ball to Martavis Bryant (his first career NFL catch) for a touchdown. 13-10, Texans.
1:27 -- SPECIAL TEAMS (Danieal Manning) fumbles the kickoff, leaving the Texans with starting field position at their own five yard line. On second down, Arian Foster, who plays on OFFENSE, fumbled the ball, giving it back to the Steelers.
1:10 -- On the first play from scrimmage, the DEFENSE gives up a trick play touchdown pass from Antonio Brown to Lance Moore (who has five catches all year). 17-13, Steelers.
1:03 -- OFFENSE takes over at their own 20 yard line, and for some reason the HEAD COACH decides to chase points like a black jack player doubling down on 14, and Fitzpatrick throws an interception to a defensive lineman (Brett Kiesel).
0:58 -- On the second play of a short series, the Texans DEFENSE looks drunk and doesn't cover Bell in the flat, and the Steelers get an easy touchdown. 24-13, Steelers.
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If you're looking for a Texans signature this season, it's been their propensity to not only make losing plays, but make them on all three sides of the football in a catastrophically close sequence. They don't just inflict pain on themselves, they open gaping wounds on themselves. They did in the Giants game, they did it in the Cowboys game, they did it in the Colts game and they did it again last night.
When the Texans go into a nosedive during games, they can't pull out of it until it's too late. And perhaps, appropriately, these games are each a microcosm of what they're doing to their 2014 season.
And now it's almost too late.