The frighteningly fast fall of the Texans

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2021 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 4, the day before the Hall of Fame Game.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

Hard as it is to believe, the Houston Texans haven’t been the NFL’s biggest joke for that long. 

The league moves fast. Before giving away future Hall of Famers DeAndre Hopkins and J.J. Watt, turning over the franchise to an overmatched team development figure, trading away any draft pick not nailed down and having their star quarterback in the news for all the wrong reasons, the Texans were soundly beating the Kansas City Chiefs in a divisional round playoff game.

This moment was Jan. 12, 2020. Houston led 24-7. The Texans’ win probability peaked at 91.3 percent. Barring a collapse, they were going to the AFC championship game. 

That moment was less than a year-and-a-half ago. Crazy. 

Of course, the Texans did collapse and lost that game. Nothing has gone right since. Usually it takes many years for a franchise to sink to the absolute bottom. Not the Texans.

Even if we remove the Deshaun Watson situation for a moment, the Texans don’t have a lot to feel good about. The roster is shockingly bad. Not counting Watson, the Texans’ best player is … offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil? Well-traveled receiver Brandin Cooks? Safety Justin Reid? Yikes. And somehow, someway, it’s also the oldest roster in the NFL

Poor David Culley. He is 65, a football lifer who has been an assistant all the way back to 1978 at Austin Peay. This is his first chance to be a head coach. He gets to lead the worst team in the NFL, and inherits the Watson mess on top of it all.

The details of Watson’s alleged sexual misconduct are voluminous. Nobody knows how the NFL will handle it. Nobody knows if the Texans will trade Watson when it is settled. (Hey, remember when possibly trading Watson was the big controversial headline of the offseason?) The Houston media seems to believe that Watson will not be back, one way or another. It’s a horrible situation, for everyone. Nobody wins.

Football-wise, even if Watson plays 17 games it’s hard to imagine he does so with a clear head. He’s a magical player but this is not a situation conducive to a normal season. Even when Watson played last year and played very well, the Texans were 4-12. If Tyrod Taylor or rookie Davis Mills starts for the Texans, they aren’t winning 25 percent of their games.

The Texans are a cautionary example of how fast things can fall apart in the NFL. A bad coach in Bill O’Brien is given too much power and makes an all-time bad trade with Hopkins. Incompetent ownership doesn’t know how to right the ship. Bad moves lead to more bad moves. Before you know it, the team is pouring too many resources into signing three mediocre running backs like that’s a viable solution in the modern NFL. 

With Watson the Texans are still probably the worst team in the NFL, which is nearly impossible to do with an elite QB. Without Watson, the Texans could be one of the worst teams we’ve seen in a while. The Texans should be projected to have the worst offense (if no Watson) and worst defense in the NFL.

It took dysfunctional teams like Washington and the New York Jets decades to get to this level of hilarity. The Texans sunk to the bottom and never even had time to take a deep breath on the way down.

David Johnson is one of the few Texans who will return in 2021 (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
David Johnson is one of the few Texans who will return in 2021 (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
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We’ll just leave Deshaun Watson out of this because who knows how it’ll end up. Though it seems fair to note that if Watson is traded, it will be for a lot less than the Texans could have gotten when the offseason started. J.J. Watt was cut, which was a charitable move for a franchise icon but it didn’t help the Texans in any way. Will Fuller also left in free agency. The Texans’ biggest move, in terms of money per year, was signing quarterback Tyrod Taylor at $5.5 million. Then the Texans used their first draft pick and only top 100 pick, in the third round, on Stanford quarterback Davis Mills. If Watson does return, that means the Texans’ two biggest moves of the offseason were on their second- and third-string quarterbacks. The Texans also traded a sixth-round pick to the Cincinnati Bengals for quarterback Ryan Finley and a seventh-round pick in March … then cut Finley in May. The Texans signed running backs Phillip Lindsay and Mark Ingram when they already had David Johnson, who was infamously acquired in the DeAndre Hopkins trade. The Texans made a ton of moves. New general manager Nick Caserio made 79 transactions from Jan. 7 when he was hired through late May. At that point Houston had 27 new offensive players, 22 new defensive players and one new special teams player on the 90-man offseason roster, according to John McClain of the Houston Chronicle. Yet, it’s hard to say the roster is better. This is a statement we’ve all gotten used to: There’s no apparent plan in Houston. 

GRADE: D-

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The Texans signed Tyrod Taylor, drafted Davis Mills when they had limited picks and also added Jeff Driskel. Those are the moves of a team that doesn’t plan to have Deshaun Watson, or the moves of a team that doesn’t know what it’s doing. Either answer is acceptable. Let’s assume Watson moves on, since it seems that’s what Houston is telling us. Watson dragged a horrible Texans team to four wins and a lot of close losses last season. He was so good, on such a bad team, he should have gotten MVP consideration. The only good news for the Texans is if Watson is cleared by the NFL and then traded, they are a practical lock for the first pick in 2022 and can start over at quarterback. Thankfully, Bill O’Brien didn’t trade away that pick before he was fired. It’s very unlikely that whoever the Texans draft in 2022 would be as good as Watson, but this franchise is a debacle and hitting the factory reset button might be for the best. 

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Houston’s win total at BetMGM opened at 4.5 and was bet down to 4. If Watson plays all season (that still has to be among the potential outcomes in this crazy story), then getting to 4-13 is possible. Watson is that good. If the Texans’ quarterback is Tyrod Taylor or Davis Mills, how could you ever predict them to get four wins? This roster is as bad as you’ll ever find in the NFL. Take the under, which might be in play even if Watson plays for Houston. It seems like a near lock without Watson. 

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From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “The Texans are getting ignored at most fantasy tables, in part because of Deshaun Watson’s uncertain status, but also because of a glaring lack of talent on the roster and a stunning lack of common sense in the front office. David Johnson is the only player sneaking into the Top 100, slotting right at the century mark in early Yahoo drafts

“Johnson quietly played solid football last year, posting his career-best YPC and checking in as fantasy’s RB19 despite missing four games. He’s a long way from the player that dominated fantasy back in 2016, but running backs commonly have very short runs of relevance.

“In simplest terms, I’m likely to fade Johnson, along with his teammates. The Texans have brought in layers of backfield competition, both young (Phillip Lindsay) and old (Mark Ingram). And it’s generally a bad idea to invest in a fantasy back if you don’t believe in his team as a whole; game script is unlikely to be your friend. Johnson was considered a dynamic receiver early in his career, but we haven’t seen that player recently. I can’t in good faith pitch any of the Texans to you.”  

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Three teams in NFL history have intercepted three or fewer passes in a season. The 1982 Houston Oilers, who played nine games due to a strike, had three. The 2018 San Francisco 49ers intercepted only two. And the Texans last season had just three picks on 541 opponent passing attempts. One was by defensive end J.J. Watt, who isn’t around anymore. The Texans have very few playmakers on defense, and it won’t get better without Watt disrupting opponents up front. The Texans’ defense ranked 30th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA last season, and it could drop two spots this season unless new coordinator Lovie Smith can pull off a miracle. 

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Who is David Culley?

Culley was a surprise hire, and is a great story. 

Culley, 65, is the oldest first-time head coach in NFL history. He worked for 27 years as an NFL assistant, with a few more years in college, but never got a shot to be a head coach or even an offensive coordinator. Culley spent the past two seasons as assistant head coach/pass coordinator/receivers coach with the Baltimore Ravens. The Texans were impressed with Culley’s character and his positive attitude, which could come in handy this season. 

“When you listen to people talk about David Culley, there are themes that continually repeat themselves,” Texans GM Nick Caserio said at Culley’s introductory news conference. “Themes such as what a special person he is, how much positive energy he emanates, a prime example of an individual that believes in servant leadership, someone who conducts himself in a way that brings out the best in others, and an outstanding communicator and teacher.” 

Culley has a hard job ahead of him. During his introductory news conference, most of the questions were about Deshaun Watson, and that was long before any of the accusations were made against the quarterback. But he has a shot, finally. 

“Guys are going to rally behind him and support him, and they’ll want to play their best for him,” running back Mark Ingram said, according to the Houston Chronicle. “That’s the type of guy he is. He’s going to be a player’s coach who’s real and will support his players and his team. You want to go hard for a guy like that.”

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Maybe David Culley’s positive attitude rubs off, the Deshaun Watson situation gets settled and the Texans don’t finish in last place of the AFC South. It’s hard to expect anything more than that. The biggest win this year would be finding some solid young pieces, Culley proving he was the right hire and getting an answer to the future at quarterback whether it’s Watson, Davis Mills or the first pick of the 2022 draft. Any positive news in Houston would be welcomed. 

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It’s hard to predict an 0-17 season for any team, but it can’t be ruled out. If Deshaun Watson doesn’t play for Houston, the Texans could have the worst offense and the worst defense in the NFL, with a first-time head coach and one of the hardest schedules in the NFL. And if Watson is traded it could be for far less than a team should get for an elite QB, for reasons we all understand. This season could be historically ugly. 

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I’d like to offer some prediction on what will happen with Deshaun Watson, but I have no idea how it turns out. No matter if Watson plays all season, some of the season, none of the season or for another team, I can’t figure out how the Texans win more than four games. They went 4-12 last season with a quarterback playing at an elite level; what would they have been without him? And the roster as a whole is worse this season. This is a long-term rebuild, and Texans fans would probably be happy with any signs the franchise knows how to dig out of this mess. 

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