Last week was not a good week for the collective psyche of Texans fans.
The defensive questions I'd raised all season, including (especially) the ability of the Texans to shut down an elite spread attack defensively, were answered in the negative. The offense struggled. Arian Foster could not get going, Matt Schaub had some key problems on third down, and for whatever reason, Owen Daniels was completely taken out of the game. The third receiver spot, mostly a mixture of Keshawn Martin and LeStar Jean, has now combined for a 42 percent catch rate through the first 13 games of the season.
Despite that, this is a call for a more collective positive attitude among the fans and followers of the Houston Texans. Do not be lured in by asinine discussions over Schaub's standing among the greats of the quarterback position. (For that matter, do not waste your time giving three shits of a care about how he does in "primetime" games.) Do not start gesticulating wildly about the "second-year" effect that Wade Phillips has. Do not get riled up by people questioning Arian Foster's credentials as one of the best running backs in the NFL. These are false constructs created by people who want to bait you into giving them attention, page hits, and time that they do not really deserve. They don't really have anything to do with what happened on Monday night.
The simple facts are that a) the Patriots are a more talented team than the Texans at the positions that matter the most in today's NFL and b) there is nothing wrong with that.
Most NFL teams do not have Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers. Before Schaub came along, the Texans started David Carr for five years, so you'd think that he'd have a little built in cushion. Not really. The starts and stops that this franchise had on their way to actually fielding a defense gave observers plenty of time to build up narratives about how Schaub wasn't clutch, because the simplest explanation (he was saddled with a terrible defense) can't just continually be right -- media-types must find new attention-grabbing narratives to generate buzz. Schaub can't just be a pretty good quarterback that needs a good team around him to win a Super Bowl. He must be unclutch! He must have cooties! He's not a real leader, not like that dreamy Bernard Pollard!
If you aren't lucky enough to have one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, the best thing you can do is build a team that can do it all. Despite a few rough spots, the Texans did that. They loaded a ton of draft value into their secondary and have one of the better safety tandems in the NFL. They have an ace cornerback in Johnathan Joseph. They came into the year thinking that Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed, who had combined for 17.5 sacks last season, were fine keystones to a good pass rush. They have one of the best running backs in the NFL, and a receiver who should be headed to the Hall of Fame. Chris Myers and Duane Brown are among the best players in the league at their respective positions.
But when you can't concentrate your talent to the extent that a team with that level of quarterback can, you are going to have to cut corners somewhere in the salary cap era. The Texans needed a third receiver to step up. They needed the right side of the offensive line to gel quickly. They needed to deal with makeshift nose tackles and inside linebackers to try and stop the run. They had to let Jacoby Jones and Neil Rackers go, and hoped that special teams wouldn't become a laughingstock. To be sure, they haven't gotten all of those wishes to come true this season. That doesn't mean that this will always be the case.
My point is simply this: put aside last week's asskicking and ask yourself how many fanbases would gladly trade their team for what the Texans have right now. It's a pretty high number. It's not 30 teams, but it might be somewhere between 20 and 25. They have created a sustained winning team from the ashes of a horrendous Charley Casserly roster that included Andre Johnson, Dunta Robinson, and 51 guys who didn't matter. Yet every time they fail to immediately take the next step of the narrative, everyone gets up in arms about how Schaub isn't good enough or Foster is too weird or the Texans aren't ready for prime time. They have no built-up credibility because the culture did not change immediately, and so it seems to me like a lot of Texans fans are always waiting for the other shoe to drop. When it did on Monday night, it wasn't because of anything the Texans did wrong. They got beat by a better team. Deal with it.
That admission might seem like the kind made by someone who is resigned to the Texans not going anywhere in the playoffs. It's not.
This team has earned the benefit of your doubt. Despite a ton of negative factors calling for regression and a pass rush that actually has regressed, Wade Phillips' defense has maintained much of last season's rapid improvement. J.J. Watt has become one of the most valuable players in the NFL. Hell, Kareem Jackson has come out of nowhere to become a perfectly good cornerback -- if you'd told me that would happen in Week 13 of last year, I would have suggested that you were full of excrement. Brandon Harris was abused last week, but he was also playing in what amounted to his third or fourth NFL game ever. If trends hold with the Texans and improving defensive backs, there's a chance he could be better by the time they have to worry about New England again. There's also a chance that Phillips -- a/k/a the best defensive coordinator in Texans history -- builds a better plan for keeping someone like Aaron Hernandez or Rob Gronkowski in check.
Look, the Texans may not be a better team than the Patriots (or the Packers, or maybe the Broncos), but that doesn't really matter. They only have to be better for one week. History has shown that the best teams don't always do well in the playoffs, and that weaker teams can catch fire at the right time. The Cardinals and the Giants both made Super Bowls as 9-7 regular season teams. The Patriots have Tom Brady and haven't won a Super Bowl since 2004 -- even in the year where they romped through the regular season undefeated. The Steelers won a Super Bowl in 2006 as the No. 6 seed (Sorry, UT). So did Green Bay in 2010.
Houston is still in a position, despite the intimidating nature of Andrew Luck and Adrian Peterson, to win out and have the No. 1 seed in the AFC. To have home field all the way to the Super Bowl. To do everything that they can to have an advantage the next time they play a team that is better than they are in the passing game. It's a pretty tremendous opportunity that was concocted by a front office that has been terrific over the past couple of seasons and a coaching staff that generally knows what it is doing.
When everyone wanted to declare the Texans the Super Bowl favorites after their first few games, I dialed it back a little. I still expected the Texans to struggle against these spread attacks. Now, after this game, I find myself having to dial it back a little bit in the opposite direction. One scathing repudiation, no matter how public and thorough it was, does not relegate Houston to the pretenders bin. Assuming the Texans hold on to a first-round bye, there's about a month before they start playing the games that matter the most. A lot can change in that span of time.
As a Texans fan, you are probably used to growing pains. That was what last week is in the long term. Using it as a mandate for change or saying that it means anything beyond the damage it caused to the chances of a first-round bye is a reach.
So, if you want to submit a question to the Battle Red Bag, here is the procedure you should follow:
1) You should shoot an email to rivers (dot) mccown (at) gmail (dot) com.
2) Said e-mail should contain a question. For instance, you could ask me what I'd name a cat. Or, if you have a little more confidence in me, you could ask me a question that has some deeper meaning in your life. Or you could do what you did last week. Again.
3) You should put a subject in your email that is something like "Bag Question," "Battle Red Bag," "Question for Bag," or "So, I Totally Have A Crush On You" to ensure that I read it.
4) You should wait a reasonable number of days. A week. Maybe 8 days. 9 if I really hit a wall.
5) You should read the answers to your questions next week. It will be enlightening. You can do it without pants if you want to. Nobody's judging you here.
(Please, no questions about Football Outsiders-related statistics or content. Thanks!)