Every year, I’ll write a season review, reflecting on just what happened to provide a foundation to bounce off of for the offseason. Awards, film rooms, and numbers. That was in a normal football environment, back when the Texans were a football team instead of a megachurch where seats are donation baskets, and football is secondary to the culture sailed by the USS Olive Garden. Tough, smart, dependable, as ridiculous as it was, has since been replaced by faith, family, and football.
That being said, the numbers are still important, to continue to drive and understand, the 2020 season wasn’t an unfortunate one, it was a season that was the result from previous failures, the results of older atrocities. It’s forcing you, dear loyal reader, to face this team’s existence, and the cellar they have floundered into. After this, bookmark it, tattoo these numbers to keep your brain fresh, the hard drive inside your skull light, and as Houston trudges through an impossible offseason, it will provide some sort of framework, if that’s even possible, for the decisions the Texans will make, even if they aren’t football decisions at all.
Overall, the Texans 2019 season wasn’t something to build on. There were moments of domination they can jump off of to build their team next season, but over the course of last year, Houston was mediocre. What they did have was Deshaun Watson, a quarterback with elite talent, who repeatedly made spectacular plays that turned the incredible mundane and carried Houston in these close games. Houston has to get better this offseason. Resigning the same players and running it back next season won’t see the same results.
Last season the Texans went 9-3 in one score games when including the postseason win against Buffalo. A game where Bill O’Brien schemed a beautiful play call that allowed two free rushers to crush Deshaun Watson, and leave Taiwan Jones wide open. They won 2.2 more games than expected based on their point differential. Houston finished 19th in DVOA. Their performance was mediocre. The offense, average, the defense, terrible, and the special teams, great.
Fast forward a season later. Houston went 2-8 in the same games they went 9-3 in. The team didn’t allow Watson to throw touchdown passes with his eyeball dangling like a loose tooth tied to a doorknob. Matt Feilier pulls carried an awful Steelers running attack to ice Houston. Will Fuller dropped the same one handed touchdown pass DeAndre Hopkins made dozens of times in his career. Derrick Henry and A.J. Brown happened. Nick Chubb laid down in front of the goalline after an asinine punk Justin Reid tackle attempt. Nick Martin skidded a snap. Keke Coutee fumbled into the endzone. Charlie Heck was finally beat around the edge after pass protecting well. Two deep defensive backs threw the game so Sam Sloman could seal it. Watson didn’t even get the chance to comeback and win games. His teammates own personal failures prevented Watson from pulling off what he did in 2019.
The only two one score games Houston won were against Jacksonville and New England. Jake Luton couldn’t convert a two point conversion. Cam Newton was crushed by double safety blitzes. That was it.
You can’t complain about one score record only to claim the Texans just know how to win games the year before. That wasn’t a reflection of a gritty intelligent football team. This year wasn’t an aberration. It was a return to normalcy. The seesaw just tilted deeper than .500. Bill O’Brien’s mantra of keeping things close and pulling it out in the end failed him and crushed the 2020 Houston Texans.
As a result, Houston’s win loss-record dropped by six wins, the second highest plexiglass measure in the NFL, behind only San Francisco who won seven less games. Houston also finished tied 28th in turnover differential at -9. The defense forced only nine turnovers. Their atrocious secondary intercepted only two passes. The difference in their actual and Pythagorean record was -2.1, which was the third worst in the NFL. Again, the same measures that aided the Texans in 2019 dismantled them in 2020.
Teams are usually great in close games for one season until they fall off the following year. When their performance doesn’t match their record, the record usually plummets the following season. It’s up to the general manager to understand this to have an accurate depiction of his roster. Bill O’Brien didn’t. Instead of improving the roster in 2020 the only veteran they added to their defense was Eric Murray, they turned DeAndre Hopkins into Brandin Cooks and David Johnson, they cut Tashaun Gipson, lost D.J. Reader to free agency, and added the old and expensive Randall Cobb to play the slot. The Texans weren’t close. They weren’t tough, smart, and dependable, away from competing. They went 4-12 as a result.
That being said, Houston should be more fortunate next season. They morphed from a horsehoe into a black cat, when in reality, they should be more of a cracked mirror. If Houston keeps Watson, hits on their bargain bin free agents, develops the internal talent they failed to develop, and finds a starter or two in the draft, they could and should be a playoff caliber team in 2021.
Over the course of the Bill O’Brien era the Texans fanbase was fractured. There were those who were wrong and hung onto this absurd notion that the Texans were really good—they weren’t—and O’Brien was the coach to lead them to championship contention—he wasn’t. And there were those who pointed out the absurdity of the decisions they made, and waited for the dam to burst. This season all those loose threads finally shredded Houston, leaving O’Brien exposed and and naked, and atoning for his past eighteen months of sinning.
During this course of time there were only a few rare moments where the fanbase was in unison. One of which was the day DeAndre Hopkins was traded for David Johnson and the 40th overall pick. They then traded their second round pick for Brandin Cooks. Houston was able to turn a true number one wide receiver, a future Hall of Famer, into Johnson, Cooks, and what would become the opportunity to select Ross Blacklock. This unison only lasted a few days. Immediately, Hopkins became too expensive, Cooks became a true number one wide receiver, and Watson would improve because he could finally spread the ball around.
Hopkins carried the Cardinals mediocre passing offense when the ball was in the air. Arizona had two consistent sources of offense. Kyler Murray scrambles until New England showed the world how to defend them, and DeAndre Hopkins speed outs and slants against man coverage. Hopkins ended up with 115 catches, 1,150 yards, 12.2 yards a catch, 6 touchdowns, including a Hail Mary game winner over three Bills, and most importantly, he had 76 first downs, which trailed only Travis Kelce. His efficiency plummeted though. He dropped to 38th in receiving DVOA at 3.4%. This isn’t on Hopkins. This is on Kliff Kingsbury using him similarly to how O’Brien used him in 2019. Both coaches leaned on him to create easy offense, instead of bursts of points.
O’Brien started the season relying on David Johnson, and used him in a similar fashion as he used Carlos Hyde the year before. The results were disastrous. Johnson had 51 carries for 197 yards, which comes out to 3.86 yards a carry, including a 13 carries for 23 yard performance against Pittsburgh, where O’Brien refused to utilize the spread quick passing attack that worked so well at the end of the first half. Every Johnson carry was an atrocity aside from his jump cut against Kansas City to score in week one. Houston’s run offense DVOA in these four games was 15.5%, -42.9%, -44.1%, and -47.1%. They scored 20, 16, 21, and 23 points. The vision was murky, tackles weren’t broken, yards weren’t made after contact between the tackles, and even the pass game connection was missing.
It’s nice and square and beautiful that after making this trade, and his attempt to make Johnson a focal point in the offense, was one of the reasons why Houston started 0-4, and led to his own firing. These are the offensive results the supergenius was able to pull off over the years, and, yes, the 2020 numbers include Tim Kelly’s take over.
Bill O’Brien Offensive Performance
|2014||23.3 P/G (14th)||-6.8% (21st)|
|2015||21.2 P/G (21st)||-8.5% (24th)|
|2016||17.4 P/G (28th)||-21.2% (30th)|
|2017||21.1 P/G (21st)||-9.9% (24th)|
|2018||25.1 P/G (11th)||-3.5% (21st)|
|2019||23.6 P/G (14th)||0.3% (17th)|
|2020||24 P/G (18th)||2.7% (13th)|
After this four game skid, and recovering from a concussion, Johnson was better in Tim Kelly’s offense. Kelly did what O’Brien hated. Operate in spread and empty sets. These light boxes improved Johnson’s game down the stretch. He was able to cutback against five and six man fronts and make some plays happen. His 12 carry 128 yard game against the Bengals was the high water mark. Johnson should be a ten touch back. Not the offensive driver O’Brien envisioned.
Cooks was Houston’s most productive receiver thanks to Will Fuller’s suspension. He had 81 catches on 119 targets for 1,150 yards, and averaged 14.2 yards a catch. His DVOA was 8.9%. He isn’t a receiver who can carry a passing attack though. He only had 51 first downs, which was tied for 22nd.
In a strange way, it feels like neither team won the Hopkins trade, even after the ridiculous decision Houston made, and the nonsensical package they received. DeAndre missed Deshaun, and was visibly frustrated throughout the second half of the season. The Texans lost their easy source of offense, and flailed at times because of it. Johnson was bad in 2019, he was another year older and bad once again in 2020, and now has an appointment with the glue factory. Cooks was fine, but wasn’t worth a second round pick. Most of his successful routes were deep crossing patterns that took time to open up, and because of his small hit box, Watson had to be absolutely ridiculous to hit him.
Speaking of ridiculous, Watson was one of the five best quarterbacks in the NFL, even after losing a Hall of Fame wide receiver, playing behind an offensive line that still couldn’t pick up rudimentary blitzes, having zero run game, and dealing with wide receiver injuries and Will Fuller’s suspension. Despite these manacles, Watson finished fifth in DVOA, DYAR, seventh in touchdowns thrown, and led the NFL in passing yards.
By segment, there wasn’t a hole in Watson’s game. He improved in every facet as a passer.
Watson 2020 By Segment
If you want to pick nits, the Texans screen game was once again atrocious, and Watson had some misses throwing crossing routes to the short part of the field, but it can be hard when your receivers are 5’10”, limbs are in your way, and the pass rush is in your face.
Watson completed 78.42% of his passes from 0-10 yards, 64.19% of his passes from 10-20 yards, and 50% of his passes from 20+. In every segment of the field he was nearly automatic. He’s one of the best intermediate and deep passers in the NFL at only the age of 25. He’s only going to get better.
The pass protection was a problem again this season though. After hoping Houston finally found an offensive line configuration that would last throughout the season, the Texans started five different offensive lines. Max Scharping was weak and unprepared to play. He was benched for Senio Kelemete and Brent Qvale, and it took injuries to each to get him back in the game. Injuries to Tytus Howard and Laremy Tunsil put the tackle position out of sorts at times too.
Watson was sacked 49 times, he was pressured on 26.6% of his dropbacks (9th highest), and was hit 50 times (13th most). Of course, part of this is the result of how Watson plays the game. The spectacular has its drawbacks. But Watson didn’t hold onto the ball for an egregious amount of time. The offensive line that had three first round picks, three second round picks, and $32 million invested into it, came together to create a run offense that finished last in DVOA, and provided below average pass protection once again. Peace out Mike Devlin.
Will Fuller had the best season of his career. After various maladies melted his wings, he finally started every game until a suspension ended his season. Talent won out. He broke through with 53 catches on 75 targets for 879 yards and 16.58 yards a reception. He also led the NFL in receiving DVOA. He’s a no doubt deep threat and game changer. The problem of course is the optics. The end of his rookie contract, one healthy season, and the suspension.
And, most importantly, Kahale Warring finally played. He has 3 catches on 7 targets for 35 yards. His biceps lifted our souls. I can’t wait to see what he can do with David Culley catching him.
Let’s play the hits. Here’s the Texans defensive performance over the last three years:
Texans Defense From 2018 to 2020
|Defense DVOA||14.3% (30th)||8.9% (26th)||-7.1% (7th)|
|Points Allowed||384 (27th)||385 (19th)||316 (4th)|
|Pass Defense DVOA||25.2% (29th)||19.5% (26th)||8.8% (19th)|
|NY/A||7.1 (28th)||6.9 (25th)||6.5 (12th)|
|Adjusted Sack Rate||6.9% (11th)||5.2% (29th)||7.4% (13th)|
|Sacks||34 (18th)||31 (T-26)||43 (T-11)|
|QB Hits||47 (24th)||42 (28)||92 (17th)|
|Pressure Rate||7.8% (T-26th)||27.6% (25)||29% (20th)|
|Blitz Rate||35.9% (7th)||32.9% (8)||24.9% (15th)|
|Run Defense DVOA||1.6% (29th)||-5.1% (22nd)||-30.1% (1st)|
|Yards Per Carry||5.2 (32nd)||4.8 (27th)||3.4 (1st)|
|Tackles for No Gain/Less||90 (T-6th)||64 (30th)||92 (11th)|
|Missed Tackles||125 (6th)||115 (T-11th)||134 (3rd)|
The Texans’ defensive attrition has continued. After watching roster mainstays like Whitney Mercilus and J.J. Watt get older and slower, players like Jadeveon Clowney, Tashaun Gipson, D.J. Reader, and Tyrann Mathieu leave in free agency, and defensive selections aside from Justin Reid failing to provide any semblance of competent performance, the Texans found themselves in the cellar. The talent has been drained. Only a swamp is left.
Houston was worse in every category except sacks, adjusted sack rate, and tackles for no gain or less. Anthony Weaver blitzed slightly more than Romeo Crennel, but the pressure rate didn’t increase, just the end results. The trio of J.J. Watt, Zach Cunningham, and Tyrell Adams, combined for 28 solo tackles for no gain or less, and 41 total.
Aside from this, everything else was hell. Who knew adding only Eric Murray to a terrible defense wasn’t the answer?
The one thing Houston had always been able to count on was their run defense. Without Benardrick McKinney and Reader it fell from average to shambles. The Texans finished last in yards allowed per attempt and 29th in run defense DVOA. It took O’Brien two offseasons to turn all-time great into piss.
I never bought the idea Gareon Conley is a top cornerback. He had a fool’s gold 2019 season that was the result of slapping passes away with his head turned, and flags that were stuck in pockets. His injury cratered an already terrible secondary though. Vernon Hargreaves III took his place. In his spot he was the second most targeted corner in the NFL at 107 targets. He allowed 73 catches (68.2% completion%), 907 yards, and 6 touchdowns.
He still wasn’t even Houston’s worst secondary defender in coverage. That honor belongs to Eric Murray. He allowed 56 catches on 70 targets (80% completion%) for 659 yards, 6 touchdowns, and a quarterbacks had a rating of 134.5 when he was targeted. The Texans defense reaped what they sowed, and turned what was terrible, into something even worse.
As far as the pass rush goes, it was gross once again this season. Enough of the sacks found their way home, but the pressure didn’t match the blitz rate. The Texans finished 29th in third down defense, and tied for 26th in pressure rate. The pass rush was once again all J.J. Watt, but Watt was just really good, instead of an All-Pro caliber player this year. He had 5 sacks, 4 tackles for a loss, 17 hits, and 29 hurries, which was good for 31st. A lack of a secondary pass rush threat, and defenses running away from him, limited his production. He’s still a top ten defensive end. Someone will love him somewhere else.
This should also be a lesson for everyone who touted Anthony Weaver as a defensive fixer. No one has any idea if a new coordinator or coach will be good in a role they haven’t had before. Anthony Weaver said all the right things. Had the pedigree of a good defensive coordinator. But once the season started he actively hurt the defense by having Watt play nose tackle, Jacob Martin rush the interior and drop back, Lonnie Johnson Jr. stand in the deep middle, Eric Murray play slot corner, playing crappy veterans instead of the kids, and praying that a cover three scheme will work that never did. The talent was the biggest problem even if the strategy made it worse. Hopefully Weaver gets another shot one day to make up for the All-Madden difficulty he had to play on.
The other frustrating part of the season was how little anyone learned about the young players on the team. Lonnie Johnson Jr. didn’t do much at safety, and was merely hidden standing in the deep middle. Ross Blacklock had as many punches thrown as tackles for a loss, and ended up with zero sacks, and two quarterback hits. Jacob Martin had three sacks, three tackles for a loss, three quarterback hits, and three pressures, showing again that he isn’t an every down defender, but there’s still a level of pass rushing intrigue that Weaver failed to explore. John Reid didn’t play much. Justin Reid didn’t take the next step. Everything sucks.
Kai’imi Fairbairn didn’t live up to his contract. Surprise! He was once again underwhelming on tough kicks past 50 yards, and had problems with extra points again. The Texans lost 2.4 expected points in their field goal game.
The biggest problem was their return game though. With DIEAndre Carter still back there, until being released after another traumatic fumble, and Houston scrambling from there, the Texans lost 6.5 expected points from punt and kick returns. At least they’ll be in a better starting point next season.
All together, their special teams dropped off. They sunk from 5th in DVOA to 20th in the span of a season. It will be a beautiful day when special teams are once again the biggest problem affecting the team.