As optimal conditions go, it's hard to concoct a better scenario than the one the football gods cooked up for Bill O'Brien and the Houston Texans in Nashville on Sunday afternoon. Aside from the venue and finding out a couple hours before kickoff that Jadeveon Clowney would be sitting this one out (well, almost), everything else laid out in about as choice a fashion for the Texans to get their first win of the 2018 season.
For one thing, the Titans were about as undermanned offensively as a Houstonian could reasonably dream. If you were allowed to choose four Titan players to miss this game with injury, you'd probably choose QB Marcus Mariota, TE Delanie Walker, and bookend tackles Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin. Well, they were all sidelined with injuries yesterday.
For another thing, you would think that going against a rookie head coach in his second career game would yield an advantage for a seasoned head coach, like Bill O'Brien. Well, let's just say if you thought that, you thought wrong. Way wrong. For the second straight week, O'Brien stumbled ass over eyeballs on his own decision, indecision, and general lack of self awareness. His team was unprepared and uninspired until they were down 14-0, and even after that, it wasn't all that great.
Indeed, the Texans fell in inexcusable fashion to an undermanned, but motivated Titans team by a final score of 20-17. The Texans are now 0-2 on the season, and in eight days O'Brien has sucked all the life out of the season and rendered the fan base numb knowing he is still making the same mistakes now (sans Rick Smith and slathered in alignment with Brian Gaine) that he's been making since 2014.
All that alignment doesn't mean squat if you don't cover gunners of the opposing punt team, which brings us to winners and losers from yesterday's debacle....
4. Mike Vrabel
It's been hotly debated throughout the offseason as to whether or not Vrabel deserved a head coaching gig in the NFl with his resume. In the end, it doesn't really matter — the Titans think he's ready to be a head coach, and that's all that's relevant. If you're Titans fan, you should be highly encouraged by yesterday's game. Vrabel did the things an undermanned coach should do in this situation, like call high variance plays (fake punt, an easy pitch and catch) and roll out some offensive creativity (Derrick Henry wildcat), all while minimizing exposure to weakness (Blaine Gabbert, 20 pass attempts). When presented with chances to be aggressive, Vrabel did that — can you imagine O'Brien going for it on 4th and inches on his own 37 yard line in that spot? Me neither. Vrabel TOOK that game yesterday. He may have won that game for his team. Good for him.
3. Will Fuller
While it was hotly bad on Sunday afternoon, it wasn't ALL bad. Fuller thankfully seceded from Hamstring Pull Nation (living behind a citizenry of Keke Coutee and Sammie Coates) and promptly picked up right where he and Deshaun Watson left off in Seattle last October. Fuller hauled in eight catches on nine targets for 113 yards and the go ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter. Fuller looked good running a variety of routes and Watson did a nice job taking what the defense was giving Fuller in the way of cushion. If Watson gets time to throw, this offense is going to be fine, especially the way they're running the football. Speaking of which...
2. Alfred Blue
....apologies to Blue for my constant written and verbal criticism of his inclusion on this team. I figured his signing, late as it was in the whole offseason process, was a matter of settling for someone who "knew the system" and "helped on special teams" and [insert any of a number of O'Brien cliches]. I hated what felt like the team mistaking Blue's underwhelming running style for steadiness. Well, he's been a perfect backup tailback so far this season, showing a decisiveness and explosion that came in super sporadic bursts his first four years in the league. He's showing that on every run so far this year. So, my bad, Blue. You're my boy!
1. Ryan Fitzpatrick
Fitzy is maybe the best story of the NFL season so far, throwing for over 400 yards and four touchdown passes in BOTH of his starts thus far, against the Saints and yesterday against the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles. He may be stealing Jameis Winston's starting job, and he is, for sure, winning the press conference game.....
Never change, Ryan Fitzpatrick. pic.twitter.com/lMJ6HoXgMM— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) September 16, 2018
4. Brad Seely
Seely's special teams were a real bright spot in Week 1 against the Patriots. In Week 2? Not so much. For the second straight week, the Texans made a crucial mistake that forfeited momentum and pulled the opposing crowd into the game, each time right after the defense was able to get off the field. Last week, it was Deshaun Watson's fumble on the first play from scrimmage, and this week, it was this 66 yard pass by Kevin Byard when the Texans inexplicably let some guy named Dane Cruikshank uncovered....
Inexcusable. Also, the Texans had a missed field goal, a net punt of 18 yards setting up the Titans' final drive, and more than their share of penalties on special teams. The pretty-much-every-year-in-team-history special teams showed up yesterday.
3. Whitney Mercilus
Hey, if anybody knows where Mercilus is, can you let the Texans know? At some point, they're going to learn he's missing, and I think they'll really be concerned. Thank you for your help!
2. Jadeveon Clowney
So we found out during the pregame show on Sunday that Clowney would not be playing on Sunday, due to back and elbow injuries. At least those were the injuries noted on the injury report throughout the week. Any time Clowney misses time with injuries, it shines a light on the decisions that the Texans will need to make relative to the 2014 No. 1 overall pick after the season, and with every game missed due to random dings and bruises, the odds on the Texans moving on from him increase. Add to that an absurdly stupid mistake by Clowney on Sunday — a 15-yard penalty for trash talking a Titans player who was tackled into the bench area, a mistake that led to the tying field goal — and it was a bad Sunday for Clowney. And yes, Clowney had more of an impact on the outcome of a game in which he was in street clothes than he did in playing 60-plus snaps in Week 1 at New England.
1. Bill O'Brien
No preamble needed, here are all of the things that are on Bill O'Brien's "loss contribution" tab for Sunday:
* General unpreparedness
The Texans allowed the aforementioned fake punt, and played with a general malaise and lack of fire for the first quarter and a half of the game, as they allowed the Titans to build a 14-0 lead and, more importantly, believe (correctly) they could win that game.
* Lack of discipline
The Texans committed 11 penalties for 88 yards, and the worst of all of them was the Clowney unsportsmanlike penalty, which yields an impression that O'Brien lacks control of his sideline, or at the very least, Clowney has zero respect for his head coach.
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* Lack of rules knowledge
On the Titans' final drive, on a 2nd and 7 on the fringe of field goal range, Brennan Scarlett blocked a Gabbert forward pass into the arms of Gabbert, and with Texans defenders closing in, Gabbert tossed the ball forward and out of bounds. The referees correctly called a five-yard penalty, and a rally of second down. O'Brien was INCORRECTLY screaming for a loss of down. Bad look for O'Brien.
* Play calling
O'Brien was actually decent for most of the game in this area — the Texans did rack up nearly 450 yards of total offense — but there was one sequence in the Texans' possession after the Titans tied the game at 17 where O'Brien, frankly, screwed up. The Texans had been moving the ball on the ground and in vertical chunk plays through the air for the entire second half. Yet on a 1st and 10 at the Tennessee 39 yard line, he decided to call back to back missile screens to Fuller and Hopkins, followed by a futile, rushed deep ball to Fuller on 3rd and 8. It's little things like this, O'Brien not being able to resist getting cute, that undermine his offense sometimes. This was one of those times.
At this point, winning the next three games — home for the Giants, at the Colts, home for Dallas — has become a virtual necessity for O'Brien to merely get the fan base back to guarded skepticism about his ability to just guide this team in the right direction, let alone any type of deep playoff run.
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.