To Stay on Top of the AFC South, Houston Has to Step It Up

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The look on Bill O’Brien’s face as he made his way to the podium for his postgame media session the afternoon of October 30, a mix of consternation with a tinge of frustration, belied the results his team had just produced on the field moments earlier. Winning in the NFL, something O’Brien’s Texans had just finished doing, 20-13 over the frisky Detroit Lions, should produce smiles.

But O’Brien’s Irish eyes were not smiling. Instead, when asked about his team’s “up-and-down” 5-3 start to 2016 as compared to his previous two seasons at the helm, both 3-5 starts, O’Brien abruptly cut off the question and sternly pointed out, “Look, it’s been pretty up and down…but there’s five more ‘ups’ than three ‘downs.’”

O’Brien’s demeanor was a stark reminder of how joyless the life of an NFL head coach can be, where winning is more about surviving week to week than enjoying any satisfaction in the moment, where the fluidity of the season and the whimsy of the football gods can turn your world on its ear with zero notice.

To hear the assessment of the 2016 version of the Houston Texans by football’s evaluation food chain, from national pundits all the way down to drunk postgame show callers, you would think the Houston Texans are a team in crisis. Google the Texans’ media coverage and most of it is about what a failure the Brock Osweiler signing is, how much they miss J.J. Watt or how Bill O’Brien is yelling at somebody.

Yet here the Texans sit at their bye week, 5-3 and atop the AFC South. Eight weeks into the season, just eight of the NFL’s 32 teams had five wins or more. The Texans were one of those eight teams. Fifteen of the 32 teams, nearly half the league, were within a game either way of .500. The Texans were sitting better than those teams.

While the nature of their three losses, three horrific road blowouts to playoff teams from last season, has made it evident the Texans have a long way to go to Super Bowl contention, the big picture of what the NFL is right now needs to be taken into account — this is a league in which 31 of the 32 teams are just trying to survive week to week amidst some form of drastic football triage. Ugly as it has been at times, at least the Texans are winning amidst their adversity. Ask fans in Carolina, Arizona and Cincinnati — 2015 playoff teams with sub-.500 records this season — how their year is going.

“We’ve been able to overcome injuries,” O’Brien said. “Injuries do happen but, look, we have lost the three-time Defensive Player of the Year. Those are hard injuries to overcome for some teams but not for this team so far, because we have a resilient locker room. We have a bunch of guys in there that play hard. They play well together. They love football, and there’s a lot of other really good players.”

Generally speaking, O’Brien’s assessment of the roster is accurate. There are indeed other good players on this roster. DeAndre Hopkins, Duane Brown and Johnathan Joseph have all been to the Pro Bowl. C.J. Fiedorowicz, A.J. Bouye and Benardrick McKinney have all made huge leaps this season. Will Fuller and Braxton Miller are promising rookies. There is life after J.J. Watt’s herniated disk.

However, if the Texans are going to navigate the second half of the season successfully, a far less friendly stretch of schedule with just three home games, and somehow turn 2016 into something special (or at least something better than 2014 and 2015), they won’t do it without continued improvement from two players — defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and quarterback Brock Osweiler.

To Clowney’s credit, he has been a difference maker in his first full healthy season, a season in which he’s been asked to move inside from his normal edge rusher spot on the defense to the defensive end spot vacated by Watt’s injury. So far Clowney has not only held up physically, but also overcome the “uneven effort” narratives that dogged him coming out of college at South Carolina.

“[Clowney] plays hard. He chases the plays down,” linebackers coach Mike Vrabel insisted. “You just look at what people had said about him coming in: ‘The guy doesn’t play hard.’ We never felt that way from what we saw in our meeting with him. He has been disruptive for us, been able to make some tackles for loss, get a lot of holding calls. Those are big plays.”

Clowney’s current position coach, defensive line coach Anthony Weaver, has been impressed with Clowney’s diligence and maturity. “After the [win over the Colts], we were in the locker room. Everybody is excited, jumping around,” Weaver recounted. “[Clowney] comes up to me, he’s like, ‘Coach, we got to get on this Denver film. We got to start watching this Denver film.’ Right after the game. Now if that doesn’t show growth and maturity, I don’t know what does.”

While it’s undeniable that Clowney has had an impact on the season thus far, it’s been largely as a run stopper with the semi-frequent disruption of the pocket on passing plays. For all of his God-given physical traits and his underrated motor, Clowney still hasn’t been able to regularly turn those pressures on the quarterback into sacks, with only 7.5 in 25 career games thus far. As a former No. 1 overall pick, Clowney needs to have an impact that’s as obvious in the box score as it is after the film is scoured.

For Osweiler, the first half of the season has been a far bigger maelstrom than it’s been for his teammates. While the credit for the five wins has been largely doled out in varying increments to the defense and some of the skill players on offense, the blame for the three losses has been splattered on the front door of Osweiler. Heavy is the head that wears the $72 million contract.

While putting all of the heat on Osweiler for the three embarrassing losses is probably unfair, his inability to get the passing game into even a “high school” mode in these road games is troublesome, to say the least. Eight games in, Osweiler has as many touchdown passes (and H-E-B commercials, seemingly) as interceptions. That is suboptimal.

Still, while the calls for backup Tom Savage have risen to a dull roar, O’Brien remains steadfast in support of his handpicked quarterback. “I think he’s getting better and better. I have great respect for the guy,” O’Brien said. “I think when you come into a new system that puts a lot on your plate at that position, I don’t think it’s easy.”

O’Brien is quick to note Osweiler’s efficiency in aspects of the game the average fan and media member may not totally see in the quarterback’s role. “At the end of the [Detroit] game, he’s getting us into those plays; he’s directing that blocking scheme,” O’Brien pointed out. “Even though that’s a run, he’s the one who’s setting up those plays. Those are little things that he did in that game to help us control the game, especially at the end. So, I think he’s getting better and better.”

Eight weeks in, Osweiler was rated 29th among the 32 starting quarterbacks in ESPN.com’s QBR rating. (Oddly enough, two of the three below him were Ryan Fitzpatrick and Case Keenum, two graduates of the Bill O’Brien School of the Complicated System.) By most statistical measures, Osweiler has been bad this season. A mere graduation from bad to competent, particularly in road games, should be enough to push the Texans past their 2015 output — a 9-7 record and a first-round thrashing in the playoffs.

And in this strange 2016 season, in which the playoffs, if they started today, would include quarterbacks Trevor Siemian, Dak Prescott, Sam Bradford and, yes, one Brock Alan Osweiler, merely competent quarterback play could mean an even deeper run for a defense-centric team like the Texans. In 2016’s NFL, a winning record is more like a life raft than an accomplishment, and halfway through the season, the Texans’ collective head is above water.

“Look, I think it’s good to have a winning record at the halfway point,” O’Brien reasoned. “I think there’s a lot of season left. I think we all just have to keep trying to improve.

“I think it’s a ‘progress’ league.”

Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/SeanCablinasian or email him at sean.pendergast@cbsradio.com.

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