Continuing this series that looks back at the 20 years of Houston Texans football. For this iteration, we look back at 2021, hardly one of the greatest seasons in Texans history:
When looking at the 2021 Texans season, there seems little that could have gone right for this team. All the bills from a disastrous 2019-2020 stretch came due with interest. Bad cap management, poor drafting of the few draft picks, injuries, too much palace intrigue…all conspired to create a nightmare for the Texans. A constant playoff team and darkhorse Super Bowl contender devolved into a laughing stock. The team had its franchise quarterback, but between distrust with team management and massive off-field issues, that quickly vanished. JJ Watt, seeing the contending window close in Houston, called for and received an outright release from his only team. Throw in a first-time GM (albeit one of the most coveted GM prospects out there) and a first time head coach, who no one ever even considered as a coaching prospect, and the 2021 season shaped up to be one of the most uncertain in Texans’ history.
When the season actually arrived, the team affirmed its place as among the league’s worst. More than a few sites saw the Texans becoming the first 0-17 team in league history. However, a convincing Week 1 win over traditional punching bag Jacksonville briefly changed the narrative. The following week, the Texans went toe-to-toe with pre-season contender Cleveland, keeping the game level at 14 at the half. However, starting QB Tyrod Taylor got injured, and the team fell on the wrong end of a double-digit loss. From there, the team endured eight straight losses, from a near-miss against New England to massive beatdowns in Buffalo and Indianapolis.
Davis Mills, the “headliner” of the 2021 draft class, showed some signs of talent, but also showed why most third round QB rookies don’t set the NFL on fire. When Taylor finally recovered from his torn hamstring, Mills went back to the bench. However, Mills would not stay there long, as Taylor struggled to recapture his early season performance. Mills went back in for the final five games, and the Texans somehow went 2-3, taking down a playoff contending Los Angeles Chargers squad and making eventual playoff teams San Francisco and Tennessee struggle to put them away.
Some might argue that the 4-13 record for Houston was better than expected. Some would say it was right on schedule. Yet, was there anything that might have altered this? Could the team have performed better, or could it have been even worse?
Suppose Tyrod Taylor doesn’t injure his hamstring in Game 2: A big reason that the Texans stunned Jacksonville in Week 1 was the play of Tyrod Taylor. Throwing for nearly 300 yards and two TDs offered a pleasant surprise to a fanbase that had little reason to expect much. The following week, Taylor kept the Texans close in a road tilt with Cleveland. Yet, on a 15-yard TD scramble that tied the game at 14, Taylor injured his hamstring, which would put him out of action for several weeks. In came the third round draft pick “headliner” Davis Mills, and predictably, the young QB struggled against a dangerous Cleveland defense. The Texans went on to lose that game 31-21. Mills would lose the next 7 starts.
However, the plan probably did not call for Mills to start only seven quarters into the season. Still, it probably could be expected that Mills would get in soon enough, even if just accounting for Taylor’s injury history. Likely before the bye, Mills would log some time under center in games that counted. The Texans went into the bye 1-8. If Taylor somehow managed to stay healthy, would it still be 1-8? Possible, but not a guarantee. Games against Carolina and New England swung on inexperienced QB play. Best case, the Texans enter the bye at 3-6, with the Carolina and New England games as wins, with perhaps some better performances against teams like Buffalo and Arizona.
However, Taylor, in addition to injures, never produced consistently great quarterback play. The struggles against Miami, when Taylor was back to health, showed his limitations. In this alternate timeline, Houston still drops that game and during the bye week, the front office leans on Culley to make the switch to Mills to see what they have in the young prospect. Perhaps other coaches might push back on such a move, but as history shows, Culley was very open to suggestion from the front office.
In this timeline, Mills loses to Tennessee, and struggles mightily against New York and Indianapolis. There is pressure to pull Mills against Seattle, but the team wants to see the youngster play it out. Houston still falls by double digits to Seattle, but Mills is starting to show some promise, especially in the later stages of the game. The final four games end with a 2-2 run by the Texans, as Mills impresses many with his potential. The team sees enough to decide that they won’t have to use their high draft picks on a quarterback in what is looking like a quarterback-weak draft class. Taylor is not retained and moves on to other pastures. The Texans, with a 5-12 record, still have a top 10 draft choice, although they fall all the way to the seventh slot. Cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. is likely off the board, but a player like Evan Neal or Ikem Ekwonu might be in play. Even with the positive finish, the Texans still have needs all over the board. Perhaps someone like Kyle Hamilton or Jordan Davis becomes more viable at seven. There are still plenty of good opportunities for the team to get two quality prospects (as this timeline also has Houston trading Deshaun Watson to Cleveland).
What if Deshaun Watson didn’t voluntarily sit out the season: Likely, Watson would never take a snap for the Texans in 2021. Even if Watson had gotten over the team’s decision to sign Nick Caserio without his blessing, the off-field issues that came up in late spring, which made him untradeable, would likely keep him on the sidelines. If Watson decided that he would help his trade value by wanting to play, he would then force the hand of Roger Goodell. The public outcry of Watson taking snaps and playing on Sundays in front of thousands of people could be a bridge too far, and Watson would likely end up on the Commissioner’s Exempt List. If Watson did overcome his ire at the Texans’ leadership and the NFL didn’t move to keep him off the field, then the Texans might have been even more of a surprise team. Then again, an improved Watson could have damaged the rebuild prospects of the Texans as they would finish with a better record and/or Watson suffers an injury and his trade value nose-dives. Ultimately, it may have been best for the Texans and Watson that he didn’t play at all in 2021.
What if the Texans did not hire Nick Caserio: If that is the case, then we likely do not see the Culley regime, we may not care about the name Davis Mills, and the Texans are more blindsided by the news of Watson’s off-field actions than actually happened. Would Watt still stay with the Texans? In this case, likely not. Whoever would take the helm of GM, a rebuild was in order, and it would not be a fast turnaround. Perhaps the new guy would use 2021 as a bridge year, restructuring the cap so that it would set the stage for 2022 to be a year with massive cap space and plenty of high draft picks. If Cal went with Omar Khan from the Pittsburgh Steelers (the reported recommendation from the consulting firm Korn Ferry), then maybe the Steeler mindset takes hold, where stability and reasonable contracts are a cornerstone to continued success. Likely Easterby is gone far sooner than fall of 2022.
The on-field product for 2021 might be historically bad, but given all that had and would transpire, the fanbase might forgive, or not care that much about a painful 2021 if there was the promise of an upwardly mobile franchise in 2022. Perhaps just as critical, having seen that Pittsburgh would rid itself of distractions sooner rather than later, as with Antonio Brown and Leveon Bell, maybe Khan can get Watson traded to a place like Miami before the 2022 draft, and before all of the allegations come to the surface. In that case, Houston would be armed with much more draft capital to bring in even more younger talent on a faster timeline, and with perhaps just as many options for 2022. Maybe the team can get their future franchise QB in 2021? Who they might take if they had more draft picks in 2021 would depend on the inevitable GM/Head Coach combination. Still, optimism from the fanbase, if armed with multiple high round draft picks in 2021 and 2022, would be higher, as there would be increased hopes for a faster turnaround.
Overall, the 2021 season was not going to be all that great on the field for so many reasons. Forget playoffs or even a winning record. The goal would be to get through the rough spots as quickly as possible. Maybe a couple more wins could have been on the table if Taylor is healthy, but a top-10 first round draft pick is still very much in Houston’s 2022 future. The best outcome would be Houston posturing itself to make the inevitable rebuild happen in as short a timeline as possible.