“Often the lonely one finds grace for himself,” is the opening line of the famous Old English poem The Wanderer, and a fitting epitaph for the 2018 Houston Texans season, as star quarterback Deshaun Watson found himself alone, frantically paddling against the frost-cold sea, his line collapsing, his running backs floundering, and his receivers long since injured off the field, and unable to single-handedly drag the Texans past the Colts on Saturday.
Sume wig fornom ferede in forðwege
“War took some, carried them on their way.”
The injuries suffered by Will Fuller and Demaryius Thomas hobbled the team, which relied heavily on Watson’s arm all season; it’s near impossible to complete a lot of passes if you can’t trust the guys catching the ball, and Watson’s 59% completion percentage and 69.7 passer rating against the Colts were both his third-lowest marks of the season.
Fuller, in particular, is no stranger to being dragged off by the bird, or ripped between the wolf and death, having suffered a broken collarbone, dodgy hamstring, and now torn ACL in his first three years in the league. He remains a promising receiver, and the prospect of a Fuller – Deandre Hopkins combination on the outside, the latter’s perfect hands and the former’s two-tone dreads hauling in passes from Watson in the pocked has been lighting up the imagination of Texans fans for years, but rarely have we seen it on the field. For what it’s worth, Fuller was on pace to break a thousand yards receiving for the season and record eight touchdowns, despite only playing in seven games, and the Texans missed him in a passing game that relied disappointingly heavily on rookie Keke Coutee who, to his credit, put up over a hundred yards and a score, but had just 28 catches to his name coming into the game.
The Thomas injury was particularly harsh for the team; five days after the Fuller injury, the Texans traded for the former first round pick, bringing in the Broncos’ leading all-time single-season receiver in both yards and touchdowns. Two touchdowns and just three weeks later, he joined Fuller on injured reserve with a torn Achilles, and raised the curtain on the Keke Coutee show. The ancient work of Bill O’Brien stood empty, three-receiver sets padded out with Coutee and, inexplicably, Alfred Blue.
Beyond Coutee’s career game, Watson recorded 125 yards through the air, numbers that would make a home crowd clamour for the idiotic insertion of Joe Flacco into the game. Even Hopkins, the last man standing in the Texans’ receiver room, was hobbled in the game, the dreary-faced man buried in a mound as the Colts strolled to victory.
Her bið mon læne, her bið mæg læne
“Here man is fleeting; here kinsman is fleeting.”
Remember when Lamar Miller was a factor on offence? Neither do I, his career dark under the cover of night, a back who has only recorded two thousand-yard seasons on the ground in his career, and not reached that milestone since 2016. While Houston’s pass-first offence doesn’t need to feature a prominent running back by any stretch, a decent running back, who can score more than thirteen times in three years, or crack 350 yards through the air more than once in his career, would certainly not go amiss. Most worryingly for the Texans, however, is that Miller was completely shut down in all three games against the Colts this year, putting up 90 yards off 33 carries in three games for just one score. This, combined with a painful 10-yard performance against the Giants, and a feeble 8-yard game against Jets, has made him into, at best, an inconsistent back in an attack that desperately needs more balance.
But it’s not all on Miller and the backs – although at least some blame must be laid at the feet of a front office that considers Alfred Blue a serviceable player – for the Texans had one of the worst offensive lines in football this season. The line allowed a 126 quarterback hits and 62 sacks in the regular season, both figures that led the NFL, and was bowled over to give up 17 negative rushing plays on the year, the 11th-worst record in the league.
Most strikingly, the team’s line boasts 168 of what the NFL’s website calls ‘experience’, the total number of career starts for the starting five linemen. That figure is the league’s worst by some distance, 40 fewer than the Colts in 31st place, and orders of magnitude lower than the 508 starts alongside the Rams’ league-leading line. While this metric is an imperfect measurement of a unit’s ability – almost half of the Rams’ experience comes from 13-year veteran Andrew Whitworth alone – a score of 168 suggests a line filled with rookies and players with high potential, who haven’t quite had the experience to back it up.
The Texans’ line, however, is both inexperienced, and lacking in obvious future stars. None of the five starters on Saturday were rookies, and working across the line, from left to right, these players were drafted in the fourth, fifth, second and sixth rounds, with right tackle Kendall Lamm an undrafted four-year veteran. The only other lineman dressed for the game was a rookie, third rounder Martinas Rankin, who featured in all 16 games this season, but hasn’t impressed along one of the league’s worst lines.
Þæt biþ in eorle indryhten þeaw, þæt he his ferðlocan fæste binde, healde his hordcofan
“It is a noble custom in men, that he binds fast his spirit-chest, and guards his treasure-chamber.”
There will be some comforts, however, for the Texans going into next season. A shallow playoff run has given them the 26th overall pick, and Over The Cap has them down to be $72m under the cap next season, provided they don’t make any additional moves on the contract front between now and the start of the new league year. They have the pieces for a playoff-calibre team, with quarterback, receivers and defensive line all among the league’s best units, health allowing, and the cap space to add exactly the kind of veteran presence they lacked most obviously along the offensive line.
O’Brien has been one of the league’s best coaches, at least in the regular season, since taking the reins in 2014, wringing a 9-win season out of a team quarterbacked by a pre-2015 Ryan Fitzpatrick and Ryan Mallet, and he finally has the core of a team that he wants, and he trusts. Good is he who keeps his faith, and the Texans brass would be remiss to make wholesale changes to a good team whose destiny was briefly tied to the performance of TJ Yates prior to O’Brien’s arrival. But O’Brien was tight-lipped in his press conference after the Indianapolis loss, as valid questions about his play-calling and disappointing 1-3 postseason record circled.
Perhaps he is binding fast his spirit-chest, and guarding the chamber within which he keeps his plans, printed on laminated cards and scrawled over in red ink; or maybe he’s feeling the heat of a job where nothing, not even a proven track record of success and a contract until 2022, means security. Watson cut a lonely figure on Saturday, a sparkling individual struggling impossibly to play a team sport; it remains to be seen if the Texans can give him the support he needs.
Wyrd bið ful aræd!