On a standard 400m lap track, it takes four laps to get to a full mile. If the NFL regular season a four-lap track session, then we’ve hit the quarter mark (yes, it is 17 games, and yeah, four doesn’t fit into 17 perfectly, but not we’re not here to debate the concept of prime numbers/etc...ya want that, get back to your grade-school math books). To make it, it is a balance of intensity and endurance. How often have some started out so strong, but then fell off just as fast at the end? Still, a good start is important to run an effective race/navigate a NFL season.
So, with that out of the way, some observations about the first quarter of the season:
Breakout Player of the first Quarter: Nico Collins. Coming into the season, a major concern for the Houston Texans was who would be the top WR on the field. With the trade of Brandin Cooks, the team seemingly lacked a true #1 WR. While it is debatable if Cooks was ever a real #1 for Houston, he was perhaps the most talented one, and with him gone, who was left? Robert Woods’ best days are behind him and the rest of the roster are youngsters and also-rans. While Metchie was the feel-good, underdog sort of tale, most eyes turned to Nico Collins. Thus far, Collins showed some flashes, but was not exactly making people think that the Texans had a #1 WR candidate.
Well, maybe it was due to the mediocre-to-suck QB situation, but with Stroud throwing the rock, Collins has emerged into a top target. In particular, Collins has turned NRG Stadium into his own pitch-and-catch yard. In two home games, Collins has contributed the following: 14 receptions, 314 yards, three TDs. Perhaps Indy and Pittsburgh don’t make you think of the 1980-1990s San Francisco 49ers secondary, but Collins torched them in a way Battle Red fans at NRG have not seen since peak Nuk. Stroud is a big part of that, but given that the Texans need all the help they can get at home (1-10-1 over the last two seasons), if Collins is playing great at home, so much the better.
The run defense is not that bad: A major liability for the 2020s Texans has been their inability to stop the run. While the modern NFL is predicated on the passing game, you cannot forget about the run. On offense, you have to run the football, or attempt to, just to keep defenses honest. On defense, if you can’t stop the run, you will be in for a long day. For Houston, especially last season, they could not stop the run for anything. They surrendered the most yards on the ground last season, allowing an unheard of 170+ yards/game. It is hard, if not impossible, to win games surrendering that kind of ground yardage.
This season, through four games, the Texans allow 117 yards/game on the ground. This places them in the middle of the pack for the league. Are they perfect? No. While their defensive tackles are making a few more plays, opposing running backs can and will get their yards against the team when the game is in a competitive phase. However, the team, even with their 0-2 start against running stalwarts like Baltimore and Indy, did not get completely gashed on the ground, relative to last season. It will be hard to match the 2018 season, when they held teams to barely 83 yards/game on the ground, and they still have need of a dominant run-stuffer on the D-line. Yet, if the team can mitigate the run to manageable levels, then good things should follow.
Complementary Football. It is a thing...and it’s working: Under the BO’B regime, we would often hear the term “Complementary Football.” This was usually followed by a significant uptick in nausea. While very early in the Ryans’ regime, the squad is actually demonstrating effective complementary football. The linchpin is the passing game. Stroud is among the betting favorites for Offensive Rookie of the Year, with his 1,212 yards passing, with six TD and zero INTs. However, that is having some significant impacts beyond the passing stats. While the offensive line allowed 11 sacks in the 1st two games, Stroud has not been sacked since. His mobility helped, but the scheme and the o-line is showing just enough ability to help get the ball out to the receivers to spur forward offensive movement. The running game is still stuck in neutral, but with the evolution of the passing game and the return to the lineups of starting-capable O-linemen, that should improve.
Then we go beyond the offense. The defense can’t win games by itself. However, the strength of the passing game and the offensive moving the ball towards early leads helps the defense to hold opposing teams in check. Back-to-back 1st half shutouts are testaments to that ability. With strong leads, teams will have to abandon a run-heavy approach to try to get back into a game, thus, helping the run defense. Oh, and now is a good time to remind everyone that the Texans actually have one of the better special teams units out there. Throw all of that together, and you have the makings of a team that is playing stronger than the sum of its parts.
Long Way to Go: While a 2-2 start seems worthy of a parade in Houston, it is helpful to remember that this is still a young team and a major work in progress. While the O-line has navigated the depth issues to this point, the team doesn’t have the complete depth to survive a bunch of injuries. If anything happens to Stroud for an extended period, then the team is likely to revert to the bad ol’ days of the past couple of years. Teams can still move the ball on the Texans’ defense, and the benefits of complementary football can just as quickly fall apart as it has been built up. Then there are the questions of just how will the squad respond to increased expectations from the fanbase as well as increased attention from their opponents, as Houston will no longer be sneaking up on playoff contending squads.
Still, the first quarter of the 2023 season reveals a Texans’ team that if nothing else, is actually fun to watch. The NFL is all about the entertainment business, and on that front, the Texans were assuredly not fun to watch this decade. While the rest of the season will evolve, for better or worse, there is hope that the team will be a source of entertainment for the short-term and intermediate-term future.