Saturday night’s loss was the perfect encapsulation of this 2016 season. If you could point to one game, one singular game, you would pick this one to provide a back-of-the-book summary to contextualize the complexity and movement of these last eighteen weeks of life. Again, Romeo Crennel had an incredible game plan, again the defense trampled and attacked, and again the offense and special teams were lifeless sores, something that had been popped weeks ago, but still remained, blemishing and tarnishing skin.
Crennel is a genius. Because of the difficulty of exterior rushes getting to Tom Brady in enough to time to frustrate him, and the lack of talent on the Texans’ line to generate a rush on the interior, Crennel moved Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney to inside linebacker. With a flurry of spins and bullrushes, they tore up New England’s interior pass blocking, combining for five quarterback hits, one sack, one batted pass, and two tackles for a loss. For the first time this season, Tom Brady was actually frustrated, screaming at the referee because his pizza crust wasn’t stuffed with constipating cheese. Brady threw as many interceptions on Saturday night as he had all year—two. He missed throws and bounced passes to the tune of a 47.36% completion percentage. He was flummoxed and unable to get the ball out immediately, instead forced to sift through the tea leaves, all while letting pressure seep its way in.
For the first time, the Patriots actually made mistakes against Houston. They weren’t this perfect being incapable of doing nothing incorrectly. It was inconceivable. They fumbled a kickoff that Houston recovered, A slant bounced into A.J. Bouye’s hands. Both those turnovers occurred inside New England’s 27 yard line. The Patriots also had five penalties for 50 yards. They had trouble moving the ball. They were suffocated at the goal line. The Texans actually had a chance to beat the monster they had been subservient to for so long.
Yet it was all wasted. The opportunity to attain the first AFC Championship in franchise history was wasted because of the same problems the Texans battled all year—offense, poor in-game decisions, and special teams play.
With even average quarterback play, like if Matt Moore was Houston’s quarterback, the Texans would have at a minimum lost in some sort of one score passage. Brock Osweiler was wretched. He was awful. Dealing with zero pass rush, he completed 23 of his 40 attempts for 198 yards, averaging 4.9 yards an attempt, and threw 1, no 2, no 3—three!—interceptions. He was flummoxed by two safeties. He didn’t attack single high safety looks downfield with any regularity; the one time he did, Will Fuller V let it fall through his hands, a play that was a season in the making. Osweiler made terrible decisions. He showed again, for the seventeenth time this season, that he doesn’t have the accuracy to be a starting NFL quarterback.
If you wanted one singular play instead of a game to summarize the Texans’ season, it would have been the game-ending interception Osweiler threw. DeAndre Hopkins broke open across the middle of the field, getting behind the first layer of skin in the zone defense. Osweiler threw the ball high. It grazed the upper limits of Hopkins’ Spiderman catch radius and squealed into Logan Ryan’s arms. Two plays later, New England stomped their boot onto the cockroach when Dion Lewis fell a yard forward to make the game 31-16.
Additionally, all of those little tiny inexcusable decisions Bill O’Brien made finally affected a game. They had real consequences instead of being some shadow overhanging everything. He claimed to be okay with three and outs. He consistently punted on manageable fourth downs in New England territory. He chose to kick field goals on 4th and 4 at New England’s 15 when down 7-0, on 4th and 3 at New England’s 9 when down 14-3, and one that I actually could understand, down 24-13 on 4th and 4 at New England’s 28. These were decisions that don’t look as bad when you go through the entire game script, but unless O’Brien is a soothsaying witch who can see into later minutes, they were sheepish decisions that made Houston worse off. It was a game where the Texans had to maximize points at every opportunity with the putrid offense they had. Instead, the Texans left points sitting there. O’Brien wasn’t aggressive enough. He played to not lose instead of trying to win. He did the exact opposite of what you have to do to pull of an upset of this magnitude.
Finally, the worst special teams unit in the NFL was here again to blow it. Dion Lewis returned a kick 98 yards for a touchdown where Houston’s defenders were blocked and sent scattered, Those few chasing were stuck in mud when Lewis cut to the right sideline. Somehow, someway, every year, no matter who the coordinator is, the Texans have the worst special teams in the league. In the biggest game of the season, this facet gagged on its own bile.
The offense, O’Brien, and the special teams once again failed a defense that was so beautiful, a defense that was third in weighted DVOA, learned to play without J.J. Watt, and saw the growth of so many players. Because of that, the Texans lost to New England when the opportunity broke perfectly for them to advance to the AFC Championship Game for the very first time.
All things considered, the Texans did better than most expected them to last night. Take back Will Fuller's dropped touchdown, the trifecta of Brockerceptions, and a few of the bogus penalties, and Houston could have won that game.
Clowney rose up as a leader on the sideline. Romeo Crennel cemented his place as arguably the best defensive coordinator in NFL history. The offensive line mitigated some of the criticism they've earned this season. While they failed to pull it all together amidst a litany of critical injuries and other stumbling blocks, the game was truly a moral victory for the team and the season was an improvement over last year.
Now, all the uncertainties of the off season await...
Well, I went into Saturday’s game just wanting the Texans to remain competitive, and they were able to do that until Brock remembered who and what he is. The defense was able to get turnovers against the Patriots. Sadly, the offense remained unwilling to get into the end zone, so instead of converting those turnovers into touchdowns, they were settling for field goals. The Patriots are a team against whom you have to score every time you get the ball, and you have to take full advantage of every mistake they make, and the Texans are not a team currently configured to do either of those things, hence the result. With a less anemic offense, this game should have been a win for us, but our offensive mastermind head coach has yet to design an offense that functions in the playoffs, so the Texans will, yet again, be watching the Super Bowl from home.
My hope is that for the 2017 season, our offense is led by a quarterback who is average (because even that would be an upgrade over Ryan Fitzpatrick, Brian Hoyer and Brock Osweiler), our defense remains stout (and the big dude from Wisconsin recovers), and our special teams learns to love itself and us.
I wrote it in the post-game recap that the defense gave this season life and the offense took it away. As melodramatic as that sentiment is, it's nonetheless still true.
We saw it in that Week 3 game that the Texans were going to die by the offense’s hand. It was bad. They'll be plenty of time to dissect the many many failings. For now, let's just say that while the performance as a whole against the Patriots was lacking in certain departments, it was on the whole a great improvement over the previous destruction that the Texans have suffered at the hands of the Patriots. Saturday's game had a lot of positives, and those should be celebrated as at least one point of progression from this team’s development.
There was a sense of inevitability when it came to the Texans season starting after the Vikings’ loss. We'd back our way to the AFC South title, only to eventually be wiped out in the playoffs. That it happened to be the Patriots who knocked us out made the entire scenario and final loss absolutely apropos.
Unfortunately, we head into 2017 with the same Sword of Damocles hovering above, just as we did in 2014, 2015, and 2016: who's going to play QB for the Texans?
But let's end on a positive note, shall we? How glorious is our defense? Better yet, with another year of improvement from the likes of Jadeveon Clowney and Benardrick McKinney, healthy versions of J.J. Watt and Kevin Johnson, and, with Vince Wilfork's probable retirement, increased snaps for D.J. Reader, this Texans defense has the chance to be otherworldly in 2017.
Bring on the off-season talk.
This latest game against the Patriots showed me that THIS Houston defense, even without J.J. Watt and Kevin Johnson, was dominant enough to have won the franchise's first NFL Championship and also notch an NFL record by being the first team to win a Super Bowl in their own home stadium. I don't ever recall seeing Tom Brady and the Patriots as vulnerable as they were while down range last night against this defense directed by Crennel, Mike Vrabel and John Butler. Stars like Clowney, Mercilus, Cushing, Bouye, Wilfork and so many other players made the season and this last game incredible to experience. What an fantastic season for the defensive coaches and players. They deserve to be paired with a better roster for the other two-thirds of the game.
Houston's special teams unit finished the regular season ranked dead last, and they showed exactly why as they allowed a kickoff to be returned for a touchdown. All year the coverage has been bad, and the fact that it didn't improve is on the coaches as much as the players. They all owe a huge apology to their defensive unit for failing spectacularly and contributing to end the season prematurely.
Over the last three seasons, I have yet to see the Texans' offense produce consistently and effectively. The quarterback play continues to be the cornerstone of performance-related failures, but the whole design, orchestration (play-calling) and execution is abysmal. No more excuses! Even a slightly-below-league-average offense last night would have given Houston a shot at advancing to the AFC Championship Game. Brock is terrible, and I don't see him improving next season. Fuller's profiled weakness was bad hands, and he showed exactly that in the end zone last night on one of the few good passes by Osweiler. I get that he's a rookie, but a player HAS to make that catch in a game this important. The offensive unit should take out a full-page ad and provide an apology to their fans and their teammates on the defensive side of the roster. THEY are the reason this team isn't hosting their own Super Bowl.
All that being said, I'm done with this terribly broken offensive system. It's time for a new offensive coordinator, and/or head coach who can do more with these weapons. Watching Kyle Shanahan's offensive system in Atlanta just makes me lust for even a fraction of that performance here in Houston. It's time for a change after three years of abysmal nonsense, and it isn't JUST the quarterback that needs to be changed. J.J. Watt and company are being wasted away while this offense flounders around and holds the franchise back from collecting championship rings.
I'm going to skip the Bob McNair "we sure tried hard and did better than expected" portion of this.
The Texans are a team with no direction on offense, despite having an offensive-minded coach. The offense has regressed three years straight under Bill O'Brien.
Their quarterback is irredeemably awful, and they're tied to him for another season (at least his salary, if not his play). This SHOULD be the prevailing story of the offseason, whether or not the Texans should move on from Osweiler despite the fact that cutting him is worse for the cap than letting him languish on the sideline as a crazy-expensive backup. O'Brien no doubt will be under pressure to replace George Godsey. Will he do it? Well, it might Rick Smith's call and not O'Brien's, and we may have another public spat on our hands.
The Texans' special teams, again, were laugh-out-loud awful too often—maybe even worse than the Joe Marciano years. Certainly better as far as fewer penalties, but without researching it, I'm guessing worse when it comes to giving up big plays. Either way we're talking about the difference between a wet turd and a soft turd. Does O'Brien give his guy Larry Izzo another year to fix it?
Once the team figured out the issues against the run post-bye week, the defense was elite even without the undisputed best defensive player in the NFL. J.D. Clowney came into his own despite a position change, and he fought through nagging injuries all year to become a guy that offenses have to game-plan against. The idea of a healthy Watt, Clowney, and Mercilus is quite enticing, but September is a long way away.
What it all equates to is this—eventually, the AFC South won't be so damn easy. It shouldn't matter one lick that the Texans won a division and won a playoff game against a weakened opponent. Not if the goal is winning the Super Bowl.
The Texans have a long way to go and not getting there is fine (31 teams don't every season)... but they need to legitimately be on the path. Not "on the right track," but legitimately on the path. Right now they are not. Not in two of the three phases of the game. Not even close.
I was ready for the Texans to be non-competitive in the game against the Patriots. I accepted that as the cost of getting into the playoffs with a sub-standard offense and special teams unit. That the Texans managed to stay in it for three-ish quarters of the game is a testament to how great the defense was. I said it before and I'll say it again: I will remember that goal-line stand by this defense until the day I die. It was just that amazing.
I am salivating over what could be an all-time great defense come next year once Kevin Johnson and J.J. Watt are fully healthy and operational.
That said, as long as this offense remains as it is and as long as the special teams remain what they are (jokes), I do not see this team getting markedly better overall come next year. The AFC South will be more competitive, and our defense will be better, but there's only so much a great defense can mask.
As for next year, I fully expect to see Brock Osweiler as the starter. He doesn't deserve to start because he is objectively terrible at his job, but he will. I want to believe that this team will find a way to keep him on the bench or get rid of him (spoiler alert: they won't get rid of him), but I've seen what this team has done ever since Matt Schaub disintegrated before our very eyes. Fitzpatrick, Hoyer, Mallett, Osweiler, Keenum, Yates...all have been our starters and none of them are starting-caliber quarterbacks. If the Texans draft a quarterback next year, it won't be an early pick, and it more than likely won't be another Dak Prescott or Russell Wilson.
Even if they do draft a QB, what are the chances that said drafted quarterback actually starts? Between the politicking and power plays between BOB and Rick Smith, not to mention Bob McNair's ever more readily apparent disinterest in fielding a truly competitive team/tacit acceptance of poor performance, I have no reason to believe that anything is going to change come next year. I love the Houston Texans, but when it comes to finding and putting a good product on the field, I give these people zero credit simply because they have not earned it.
That's why I think we'll have Osweiler starting under center again next year. They'll rationalize the hell out of their decision (he's still on the books for $17 million, he's got starting experience, we don't want a repeat of what happened to David Carr), and we'll have another year of cringe-inducing passes, ineffective Lamar Miller third down draw plays run up the middle, and all the Nick Novak field goals you could possibly hope for.
I want to be wrong. I so desperately want to be wrong about this prediction for 2017, but neither BOB, Smith, or either of the McNairs have given me reason to think otherwise.
Please let me be wrong. Please.
Bill O’Brien, end of 2014: “No question. I just told the team. I think the improvement starts with me. Thinking about things that I could do better, whether it’s changing up the practice schedule, changing up the way we do things during the offseason, being a better evaluator to help in the draft, being a better evaluator to help in free agency. I mean, I guess that’s the way I was brought up. Obviously, I just give my parents a lot of credit there, to never be satisfied and to always understand that there is more out there. I told our team: there is a lot more out there and it starts with the head coach.”
Bill O’Brien in 2015, post-playoff loss: “I think everybody has to look at themselves and figure out what they can do better. I think at that position, it’s a very difficult position. Obviously, he didn’t play well yesterday. I mean, that’s obvious. But you know, nobody on offense really lit it up yesterday, including the coaches. We all have to evaluate ourselves. That’s kind of what this time of the year is about. Only one team at the end of the year is happy, that’s just the way it goes. We have to figure out how to get back to this point, and then do a lot better than we did yesterday.”
Bill O’Brien in 2016, post-playoff loss: “It starts with me,” O’Brien said. “I don’t point fingers. I look in the mirror. I look right square in the mirror and I figure out what I can do better and I’m already thinking about that right now. You can’t have the offense where it’s at in this league and expect to win a championship and so we’ve got to figure it out, we’ve got to improve.”
So look, I know you can't give the media anything of real substance. I get that. But uh, has anything improved? Maybe we should actually do that instead of just saying it.
The New England Patriots do not often provide opportunities for teams to beat them, but they did just that on Saturday night. Tom Brady was mortal. He turned the ball over. The Texans’ defense flustered him and, with a couple of exceptions that featured Benardrick McKinney in space trying to cover or corral a running back, they played nearly mistake-free football. I really don’t think you could reasonably ask more from a defense than what Romeo Crennel’s unit did. They were phenomenal, just as they have been all year.
Unfortunately, the Texans’ offense performed as it has all year as well. That’s why, despite the amazing effort and production of the defense, the Texans’ season has ended. The special teams miscue on the Dion Lewis touchdown return contributed to the loss, but I don’t think it was a back-breaker. No, the back-breaker was Brock Osweiler. He threw three terrible interceptions and, as usual, got lucky that number wasn’t bigger.
Although I do not expect the team to cut Osweiler due to financial constraints, I do not expect him to be the Texans’ starting quarterback next year. His career as a starting QB in the NFL died at Gillette Stadium, and I don’t think it’ll be resurrected. Like Brian Hoyer before him, the stench of his final playoff performance will spell the end of his playing career in Houston.
I believe Week One of the 2017 season will feature either Tom Savage or Jimmy Garoppolo as Houston’s starting quarterback. I also believe they’ll draft a quarterback in April, though I don’t expect whoever it is to be a starter in 2017. Change is once again coming to the most important position on the field for the Texans. One of these years, they’ll get it right.
This thing we wait all year for has finally ended. All those days culminated in last Saturday’s loss. We can now do more important things with our lives while this team tries to talk themselves into a quarterback for the fourth year in a row, maneuvers around their cap space, cuts players that have been indirectly part of our lives for years, and finds new ones.
I just want to say thank you. Thank you for reading all year. It wasn’t always fun, but BRB is a beautiful place to write and talk about the Texans, the NFL, and everything else. It wouldn’t be like this if it wasn’t for you, the person who’s allowing me to put words in your head. Thank you Tim for doing a great job keeping this thing running, working and sticking together, allowing me and all of us to spend patches of our free time like this. Thank you BFD, Diehard Chris, Vega, tGC, UT, kdentify, Capt Ron, Ryan, Brett, and MDC. Thank you to all the babies who had their first year with us, Texans Takeaway, Mike Bullock, Luke Beggs, and Battle Red Coat, for putting out great posts, and talking about this team through the cold internet.
Don’t go anywhere. We’ll still be here as we carry into the speculation and prophesying of the future that the offseason brings.