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Texans Coach David Culley Made a Truly Baffling Fourth Down Decision vs. the Browns

In Monday’s Hot Clicks: one of the strangest punts you’ll ever see, Kyler Murray’s incredible highlights and more.

Excuse me, what?

Everyone thought the Texans would be the laughingstock of the league without Deshaun Watson, but they’ve exceeded expectations in their first two games under new coach David Culley. Houston secured a 16-point win over the Jaguars in Week 1, despite being a three-point underdog at home, and managed to hang around with the Browns in Cleveland in Week 2 even after starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor was injured and replaced by Davis Mills. (The Browns won 31–21, but the Texans covered the 13.5-point spread.)

Texans fans have to be pleased with the job Culley has done thus far, but he also made a fourth down call in Sunday’s game that was as confounding as any I’ve ever seen.

Early in the second quarter, Houston was faced with a third-and-15 from its own 38 yard line. Taylor found Brandin Cooks for a 13-yard gain, setting up fourth-and-2 from the Cleveland 49. But the Texans were thrown a potential lifeline. Browns defensive end Takk McKinley had jumped offsides on the play, meaning the Texans could have another shot at picking up the first on a third-and-10, or they could decline the penalty and roll the dice on fourth-and-2 from midfield. Culley picked a shocking third option.

He declined the penalty—and then punted. It went for a touchback.

Excuse me? He basically punted on third down. When have you ever seen a coach willingly pass up a risk-free opportunity to pick up a first down in favor of giving the ball to the other team? It doesn’t make any sense. And after listening to Culley’s explanation, it doesn’t make any more sense.

“We felt like that, at that point, we felt like we could have a chance to be able to get better field position to hold them,” Culley said. “We didn’t make it. We didn’t get it.”

Couldn’t you have just gone for it on third down again and then punted, a reporter asked?

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“We could have done that,” Culley said. “And looking at it again, I’ll have to just look at the situation and see what I would do the next time.”

Culley’s “field position” explanation is nonsense. You’re talking about a difference of eight yards if he accepts the penalty. The fact that Cameron Johnston’s kick went into the end zone shows you how small of a difference that makes.

I really can’t stop thinking about this move. There is an interesting discussion to be had about choosing to go for a third-and-10 versus going for a fourth-and-2. If you pick the first option, you run the risk of failing to pick up significant yardage and being faced with a fourth-and-long that you have no hope of converting. If Culley had picked the fourth-and-2 over the third-and-10 and gone for it, he would have become every analytics guru’s favorite coach. But punting? When the defense gifted you with another opportunity to pick up the first? That’s astonishing. 

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