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The Texans Appear Stuck in a Mess of Their Own Making

Four games into the season, the Texans are a winless team without their own top draft picks. Now 100 games into the Bill O'Brien era, let's look at the good and the bad of his tenure.

Back in 2018, Bill O’Brien and the Texans proved that starting the year 0–3 wasn’t quite a death sentence. That team, buoyed by brilliant seasons from Deshaun Watson, DeAndre Hopkins and J.J. Watt, won its next nine games and rolled into the playoffs as a wild card. Those Texans are one of six teams in the modern era to reach the postseason after losing their first three games.

This year, after a loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday sunk them to 0–4, they’ve apparently decided to up the ante. Only one team, the 1992 San Diego Chargers, has ever reached the postseason after starting the year 0–4. And while there is always hope, especially when 2020 brings with it an additional wild card spot, Houston’s luck seems to have run out in a profound way.

Here is the reality of life in Houston as the Texans head into a divisional matchup against the one-win Jaguars this coming weekend:

The Texans are, at the moment, in line for the third pick in the draft. Only the 0–4 Giants and the 0–4 Jets are in a more favorable poll position (with the league’s fourth winless team, the Falcons, traveling to Green Bay Monday night). If the Texans, under any other circumstances had an unexpectedly bad year, it could have turned out in their favor, given that they already possess a quarterback of the future and could deal their high pick to someone in the quarterback market, accumulating some much-needed assets in the process.

Except …

The Texans traded both their first- and second-round picks in 2021 to the Dolphins in the Laremy Tunsil deal. As it stands, the Dolphins are set to have five picks in the top 70. A Texans team that essentially spent the previous three years reverse mortgaging itself to maximize the remaining window of Watt and the athletic prime of Watson is absolutely stripped of draft capital and won’t be selecting until the 65th pick.


O’Brien has been quite the wheeler and dealer over the last three seasons and, in exchange for a 2020 first-round pick (No. 26, where the Packers ultimately traded up to take Jordan Love), a 2020 second-round pick (No. 57, Van Jefferson to the Los Angeles Rams), a 2020-third-round pick (No. 91, Devin Asiasi to the Patriots), No. 3 (for now) in 2021, No. 34 (for now) in 2021, DeAndre Hopkins, Johnson Bademosi, Julien Davenport and Jadeveon Clowney, he has received:

Jacob Martin. In 2019: 3.5 sacks, one forced fumble, six solo tackles, 11 QB hits. In 2020: Seven tackles, one sack.

Barkevious Mingo. In 2019: Six tackles, two QB hits. In 2020: Plays for the Bears.

Laremy Tunsil. Arguably one of the best offensive linemen in football this year. In 2019: 14 games started, a career-high 17 penalties generated, and he almost single-handedly boosted the Texans from the NFL’s 31st-best offensive line in 2018 (according to Pro Football Focus) to its 20th-best after another top-five performance.

Kenny Stills. In 2019: 40 catches for 561 yards and four touchdowns. In 2020: Seven catches for 90 yards.

David Johnson. 197 rushing yards, 100 receiving yards, two total touchdowns.

John Reid. Seven solo tackles (one on special teams), 51% of defensive snaps played in Week 1, zero appearances on defense in Weeks 2 and 3, and a return to defensive action in the Vikings game.

Ross Blacklock. One tackle, one assisted tackle, 14% of team snaps heading into the Vikings game.

Brandin Cooks. 21 targets, 10 catches, 138 yards.

Gareon Conley. In 2019: Eight games played, 52.2% completion rate allowed, two touchdowns, 87.1 opposing QB rating allowed. In 2020: Currently on IR.

Two draft picks. A 2021 fourth-round pick (currently No. 110) and a 2021 sixth-round pick (currently No. 172)

On the broadcast Sunday, much of Houston’s woes were blamed on the schedule this year. It’s true that the Texans’ opening slate was brutal, with dates against the Ravens, Chiefs and Steelers to open the season. Week 4 was a date with a winless Vikings team that had been performing under expectation. They still have games against the undefeated Titans and Packers before their bye week. Though one might wonder why O’Brien, who had already sacrificed so much to make the team immediately better, would then trade away Hopkins, his second-best offensive player, knowing that these teams were coming down the pike (Hopkins was traded before the schedule release, but Houston’s opponents were known).

A second question: With Watson being pressured at a rate of 37.5% this season, which, while it’s still early, is higher than the 31.7% pressure rate he faced during the 2018 season that prompted the desperation to secure him a top-tier left tackle in the first place, how will the Tunsil trade ultimately be viewed? Put another way: If you poured so much equity into one offensive lineman but the rest of the offensive line remains troublesome enough to keep the pressure rate high, was it worth the investment? As of the moment, Tunsil's individual performance seems to be the one pillar keeping O'Brien's house of cards standing.

O’Brien seized power and is creating a football team in his vision. Now, there is no one else to blame. Former general manager Brian Gaine is gone and is now a senior personnel executive with the undefeated Bills.

Sunday’s loss to the Vikings was O’Brien’s 100th regular season game in charge of the Texans. In that time, he is 51–48 with four division titles and five winning seasons in six full years. Two of his team’s playoff losses were in the divisional round and two were in the wild-card round. One-hundred is a nice round number to take stock in the good and the bad, and wonder about the immediate future.

Should Houston stun us all, come back from 0–4 and reach the postseason with O’Brien’s tapestry of traded-for veterans gelling together, then the Texans can dig in comfortably knowing that they have their long-term answer.

Should Houston continue this freefall, they’ll run into several major red flags, the most serious of which becomes: What will be left of this roster, including draft equity, if the Texans might want to go in a different direction? If the team wanted to make a major change, would it even be able to land its top candidate, knowing that there is a long way to go from here?