HOUSTON – For weeks, head coach Bill O’Brien and the Houston Texans have felt some version of shook, just like most of the city surrounding them. Communities are wrecked, families displaced and there is a long, expensive cleanup ahead. But the Texans – like many NFL teams after a disaster – have been clutched as a three-hour side door to reality. A hopeful escape.
But looking at O’Brien on Sunday afternoon, there wasn’t much of a diversion. And even less gratification in distraction.
Instead, the Texans coach retained that familiar expression after a stunningly one-sided 29-7 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars. It was the face of a coach absorbing the reality that this is an NFL franchise still grappling with some familiar and lasting problems. And like the story has gone for so long in Houston, it starts with the quarterback. The position in which O’Brien’s endorsement is – at best – shaky.
For the second time in three years, O’Brien’s chosen starting quarterback didn’t survive the hook through the first game of the season. In 2015, it was Brian Hoyer yanked for Ryan Mallett in the fourth quarter of a home-opening loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. On Sunday, it was Tom Savage – who had earned the starting job in O’Brien’s eyes – pulled at halftime for rookie Deshaun Watson, after the Texans fell behind 19-0.
And like the Hoyer/Mallett dustup of two seasons ago, it comes with no realistic spin. Either O’Brien was admitting that he made a mistake in endorsing Savage as the starter, or he’s sending the message that he can’t be patient enough to let the guy who earned the job work his way through one bad game (in this case, a lousy half). And it might be a little of both.
As O’Brien framed it Sunday, “I thought [Savage] was trying to do the best that he could. [The benching] was just a decision I made to try to get something going.”
To be fair, Savage was bad in the first half. He often held the ball too long and had almost no ability to extend the play when the pocket eroded – which it frequently did. His six sacks were partially his fault, along with an offensive line that looks like it needs the Texans to resolve the holdout of left tackle Duane Brown immediately. As in, get Brown back in the fold before Thursday’s game against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Beyond the quarterback and offensive line, Houston still looks like it’s lacking big playmakers on offense. The return of injured wideout Will Fuller (collarbone) could help that, eventually. As for the defense, well, it had issues tackling and making big stops consistently. Even when it had an opportunity to turn the game after Watson opened the second half with a touchdown drive to pull the score to 19-7, the unit wilted.
That was surprising because the talent suggests the defense is the most emotional driving barometer of this team. Particularly on an afternoon charged with emotion, most evident when defensive end J.J. Watt’s entrance to the stadium brought down the house with a roar before kickoff. Even coming off that emotional wave, Watt and the defense was uncharacteristically flat.
“It’s not good when that’s the highlight of your day,” Watt said of his entrance. “Obviously that was a good moment and it was downhill from there for the rest of the day. … There’s only one way to go from here and that’s up. Can’t play much worse.”
Some of those problems look fixable through scheme or simply getting all the personnel healthy and on the field. But there’s no denying that this comes down to what has always bedeviled O’Brien: his lack of a consistent belief in a starting quarterback. From Ryan Fitzpatrick to Brian Hoyer to Ryan Mallett to Brock Osweiler, O’Brien’s faith and patience has never lasted.
And now it has claimed Savage. Or maybe Savage never had it in the first place. But at least one thing is clear now – Savage is done as the starter. Whether O’Brien puts him back into the saddle or not, he’s done long term. And that is the reality no matter how reticent O’Brien will be in the next few hours, days or weeks.
“I don’t know,” O’Brien said when asked who would start Thursday night against the Bengals. “I’ll think about it a long time tonight and try to continue to work on Cincinnati and see what the best approach is versus them.”
For one game, that’s what most coaches would say. But ultimately, this isn’t about the Bengals on Thursday or the road game against the New England Patriots on Sept. 24, or the thirteen games after that. This is about O’Brien and the Texans biting down and making a hard decision on Watson. The team invested in moving up to get him in the draft, and despite a plethora of negative plays against the Jaguars, he brought some semblance of life to the Texans.
Watson was sacked four times but he also showed enough movement in the pocket to extend plays and make something happen. He also didn’t appear to hold the ball nearly as long as Savage, which is helpful for an offensive line that may struggle to hold back the pass rush all season. Maybe Watson isn’t the answer, but Savage certainly doesn’t appear to be. If he was, O’Brien might have let him try to dig his way out of two terrible quarters.
Whether a season of Watson means success or 4-12 – or something in between – the Texans have to move into a real quarterback commitment and stick with it. He’s got a significant amount of talent to work with and no shortage of leadership. Those are qualities that veterans will swing toward so long as there is progress to be had. One only needs to look at how the Dallas Cowboys veterans fell in line behind Dak Prescott last season to understand it. And as O’Brien said Sunday afternoon, “The only choice is to just keep working and try to figure out what we can do to get better.”
That choice is Watson. No more flip-flopping based on the win-loss record. No more trying to light a spark in a game that is already out of hand.
There is no side door here. No escape. No distraction or instant gratification. Just straight ahead, into the thick of the long, difficult build of a lasting quarterback.
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