No sport is more like episodic television than professional football. The weekly ebb and flow of the regular season, the player movement of the offseason, and the sport's place on the top shelf of the sporting landscape all lend itself to a fantastic storyline-laden package.
In a perfect world, this season's version of the Houston Texans has their greatest storyline ahead of them, with a deep run in the postseason. (I type that last sentence knowing full well that they're 60 minutes of bad football away from a 6-seed in the AFC, too.) However, the calendar is about to flip from 2018 to 2019, so if we are bound by the calendar, here are the ten most compelling Texans storylines of the 2018 calendar year, in one man's opinion:
10. A productive rookie class
Thanks to the trades to acquire Deshaun Watson and shed Brock Osweiler back in 2017, the Texans went into the 2018 NFL Draft with no picks until the 68th overall selection, toward the beginning of the third round. While acquiring Watson was franchise-changing, and unloading Osweiler was absolutely necessary, trying to further build a young core without high picks is not optimal. However, new GM Brian Gaine had a pretty solid first draft go round as an NFL general manager, with safety Justin Reid the crown jewel of a solid rookie class, which also includes contributors like TE Jordan Akins, TE Jordan Thomas, OLB Duke Ejiofor, and special teamer Peter Kalambayi. If WR Keke Coutee could ever stay healthy, and if T/G Martinas Rankin ever develops, this will be a very, very solid to spectacular class, considering where the Texans were picking in the draft.
9. The Fuller Conundrum
For the second straight year, we got a small taste of what life would be like if WR Will Fuller could ever stay healthy with Deshaun Watson as his QB. Last season, Fuller had seven touchdowns in four games with Watson throwing the ball to him. This season, Fuller was on his way to a 1,000 yard season, before tearing his ACL in a Thursday night win over the Dolphins. The salt burned even more in the wound, given that Fuller had just broken that game open earlier in the half with a 73-yard touchdown catch. The Texans will likely exercise Fuller's fifth year option this coming May, but his health will hang over this team like a dark cloud until he proves he can stay on the field.
8. DeAndre Hopkins, the receiving god
Houston is full of upper tier athletes whose career signatures are their respective abilities to take their games to a higher level when it seems impossible they can go any higher. J.J. Watt was like that from 2012 through 2015. Jose Altuve was like that from 2012 through 2017. James Harden has been that way from the time he became a Rocket in 2012. Add Hopkins' name to that list, as he went from a Pro Bowl caliber wide receiver before 2017, to a first team All-Pro in 2017, to the best receiver in the game this season. Hopkins is the closest thing to a perfect football player this team has.
7. Signing the Honey Badger
Back in March, the Arizona Cardinals decided that Tyrann Mathieu's injury history made his contract a little too pricey, so they released him and tried to re-sign him at a lower number. Instead of returning to the desert, however, Mathieu wound up taking J.J. Watt's advice...
....and signing with the Texans, and he actually did so for less than what Arizona offered him on a reworked deal. Since arriving, Mathieu has been one of the more vocal leaders on this team, and if I had to guess, he will be a Houston Texan beyond his one-year, $7 million deal for this season.
6. The crisis of an 0-3 start
5. Franchise record, nine game winning streak
These two storylines may as well be attached as one, like one of those two-part single seasons of The Sopranos or Game of Thrones. You can't talk about the 0-3 start without acknowledging how incredible the pull out of the tailspin was, and you can't discuss the franchise-record nine game winning streak without pointing out the ashes from whence it came. And now, here we are in Week 17, and the best way to frame the Texans' 2018 season may be this tweet from Brett Kollmann of Battle Red Blog:
Odds of the @HoustonTexans making the playoffs after an 0-3 start: 2.2%— Brett Kollmann (@BrettKollmann) December 25, 2018
Odds of the @Colts making the playoffs after a 1-5 start: 1.0%
The odds of BOTH of them making the playoffs after those starts? 0.00027%
IND @ HOU would literally be the most improbable playoff game ever.
4. The Gaine Era
As the injury-riddled dumpster fire season of 2017 continued to unravel into November and December, it was becoming quite apparent that the city of Houston was not big enough for head coach Bill O'Brien and general manager Rick Smith. One (or both) would have to go. In what some viewed as a major upset, O'Brien ended up winning that battle, with Smith taking what the team called a "leave of absence" to tend to his sick wife. In reality, Smith just faded from public view, Brian Gaine took over as general manager, and the rest is history. Now, we are in a holiday season, and an era of Texans football, that are full of "alignment" and frequent references to "height, weight, speed."
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3. R.I.P. Bob McNair
On the Friday of Thanksgiving weekend, the news came down — Bob McNair, the man who brought NFL football back to Houston, had passed away at age 81 after his latest bout with cancer. McNair's vision and drive allowed Houston to beat out Los Angeles for an NFL expansion team in 1999, and while the team has more work to do on the field to achieve McNair's vision of bringing a Super Bowl title to Houston, the Texans became a gigantic platform for positive community work and McNair's overwhelming philanthropy (over half a BILLION dollars donated to various causes). The Texans celebrated the life of McNair with a 34-17 win over the former Houston Oilers (the Tennessee Titans) the Monday after McNair's passing, in one of the more magical evenings in NRG Stadium history.
2. The return of near peak level Watt
J.J. Watt is a five time Pro Bowler, a four time first team All Pro, and a three time Defensive Player of the Year. He's raised tens of millions of dollars for various charitable causes, including over $40 million for Hurricane Harvey victims. Yet, with all this, his most amazing accomplishment might be his return to Pro Bowl form in 2018, coming off of an horrific broken leg in 2017, and two back surgeries in 2016. Watt enters Week 17 with 14.5 sacks, tied for third in the NFL.
1. Deshaun Watson Show
In 2017, we got a six game taste of what Deshaun Watson was all about, with record setting passing numbers before he tore his ACL in early November. After a shaky start to the 2018 season, in which Watson turned the ball over at least once in each of the first six games, the Texans second year quarterback has retaken the league by storm, with no interceptions thrown in 8 of his last 9 games, and five fourth quarter comeback wins (and it would have been six, if the defense could have held on in Philadelphia last weekend). The biggest key for the Texans, now and forever, is keeping Watson healthy, which makes an upgrade along the offensive line imperative for Gaine this offseason.
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.