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Texans State of the Union: Optimistic For Improvement

The Texans are mired in a 'roller coaster' season, losing streak

The Texans’ 1-8 start has been defined by disappointment, and the overhauled AFC South franchise is on an eight-game losing streak heading into a bye.

The Texans have the lowest-scoring offense in the NFL with just 128 points and an average of 14.2 points per game. They’re ranked 30th in scoring defense, having allowed 258 points and an average of 28.7 points per game.

It’s hard to define a low point or rock bottom for the Texans, but a 17-9 loss to the previously 1-7 Miami Dolphins last Sunday feels like a place to start given the uncharacteristic three interceptions and overthrows from the usually careful and accurate quarterback Tyrod Taylor, and being defeated despite the defense creating five turnovers.

The most lopsided defeat in Texans franchise history unfolded against the Buffalo Bills: a 40-0 thrashing. The Texans’ offense hasn’t scored a touchdown on the road since the second game of the season against the Cleveland Browns on rookie quarterback Davis Mills’ pass to wide receiver Brandin Cooks.

“It’s been a roller coaster, if you want to look at it from an overview,” Texans veteran safety Justin Reid said. “There’s been games where the defense hasn’t been at its best. There’s been games where the offense hasn’t been at its best. Biggest thing is we have to play a complete game. We haven’t done that yet and we have a lot of ball left to play this season, a lot of pride to play for and to play that complete game.”

Reid is correct in his assessment.

The Texans haven’t played the type of complementary football that leads to victories, at least not since their season-opening win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

While injuries, especially playing without Taylor for six games while Mills, a third-round draft pick from Stanford went 0-6 as the starter, and the offensive line missing veteran tackles Laremy Tunsil and Marcus Cannon and center Justin Britt, are another negative factor, the fact remains that this team lacks scoring punch and doesn’t have the talent on defense it needs to make defensive coordinator Lovie Smith’s 4-3 scheme and Cover 2 concepts truly click.

Effort isn’t the primary issue the Texans are facing. The team does play hard for coach David Culley. That isn’t in question. Execution, talent, and scheme all deserve scrutiny.

Penalties have dogged the Texans all season with 65 flags for 552 yards compared to opponents’ 45 penalties for 362 yards.

“I like the fact that this team will not quit,” Culley said. “I like that this team will always play hard. I’m frustrated that this team doesn’t play as consistent as we need them to play to have success and win football games. That’s on us as coaches. We haven’t done as good a job as we need to do that.

“During this bye week, we are going to assess everything and make sure that we can find things to help us eliminate those things that are keeping us from being consistent offensively, defensively, and special teams to help us win football games. We know what they are. We know the process. We just have to keep coaching it and we are going to keep doing that.”

There are flashes of competence and ability, especially a defensive line led by defensive end Jon Greenard and defensive tackle Maliek Collins’ disruptiveness or linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill’s speed and playmaking skills, along with Cooks’ consistent productivity and ability to get open.

However, there’s been no running game to speak of as none of the backs have displayed they can break tackles, make someone miss, and take it the distance. The Texans rank 31st in rushing offense and last in total offense. They’re averaging 75.8 rushing yards per game and 3.3 yards per carry.

Former Pro Bowl running back Mark Ingram, traded to the New Orleans Saints for a 2024 seventh-round draft pick, is still the Texans’ leading rusher with 294 yards. Phillip Lindsay ranks second with 133 yards, followed by David Johnson’s 119 yards.

Defensively, the Texans rank 28th overall, 31st in rushing defense, and 18th in pass defense.

What’s the answer?

“You evaluate everything,” Culley said. “I evaluate what I’m doing. I evaluate the message that I am giving to them. I know the message I am giving to them is the right message, but am I giving it to them the right way?

“What can I do to maybe give it to them to the point to where they truly understand what it means? But after nine ballgames, they know. They know, and now there is an accountability and responsibility on all of us, us as coaches and them as players, to get this right.”

Being outscored by 130 points through nine games represents a historically worst moment for the Texans. Only four other teams in the past decade have been outscored by that margin or more during the first nine games of the season.

“Nobody’s happy with where we are,” Texans general manager Nick Caserio said prior to the Dolphins game. “I think all of us need to be better, myself included. Myself, players, coaches, we’re all accountable. We all need to do a better job with our performance, and we’re going to try to figure out ways that we can do that. I think any time that you put a program in place, you’re trying to build a program, I think all of us understand there’s going to be some bumps that come along the way.

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“We’ve been competitive in half the games, and in half the games, we haven’t been competitive. Some of that is self-induced, some of it is some of the things that we’ve done. I think there’s a level of accountability in this building that’s refreshing, that everybody realizes we’re all a part of this. We all need to do better, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

The Texans will stick with Taylor as the starter for a Nov. 21 road game against the Tennessee Titans.

Playing under a one-year contract, Taylor is auditioning for the future with the Texans or another NFL team. The Texans hope he’ll play better now that he’s shed the rust accumulated during his recovery from a Grade 2 hamstring injury suffered against the Cleveland Browns in the second game of the season.

Taylor failed to provide a spark against the Dolphins, and now the Texans are in the middle of their longest losing streak since 2013 when they closed the year with 14 consecutive losses.

“I can’t look at the big picture,” Taylor said after the offense went 0 for 4 in the red zone against the Dolphins. “Each time you get out on the field you want to perform at a high level and give your team an opportunity to win. That’s what it really boils down to: take it one game at a time and continue to keep battling.”

Defensively, the Texans have 14 turnovers, tied for 10th in the NFL. The Texans have shown improvement in this category after ranking last in the NFL last season with only nine turnovers for the season.

Whether it’s highly paid kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn missing a pair of extra points and a 56-yard field goal against the New England Patriots to fall short in a winnable game, or the pass blocking being overwhelmed by the Dolphins, or the defense missing tackles in other games, this team hasn’t put it all together since the first week of the season.

“One big thing I think we can do better coming back is just playing complementary football,” Cooks said. “We haven’t had a game yet where all three phases were on the same page, playing at a high level. It’s kind of been one here, one there. If we can come back and all do that, that’ll give us a great shot to be able to win some games.”

The Texans have churned through a lot of personnel combinations, especially in the secondary where communication and coverage breakdowns have been a constant issue. Reid has been a presence and has two interceptions and one forced fumble, but the pending unrestricted free agent can’t do it alone. The Texans benched free safety Lonnie Johnson Jr., who leads the defense with three interceptions, and who also allowed a lot of deep passes against Miami, and replaced him with Eric Murray who intercepted Jacoby Brissett once last Sunday.

“A lot of it is just consistency,” Reid said. “Some of it is we’ve had personnel changes every week, guys going down, guys coming back, getting into the groove of things. I think it’s just trying to find our groove. This is the first time we’ve had all these guys play together on the same team so a lot of it is chemistry-related. Guys moving around on the rotation on the starting lineup, too. Kind of slows down the chemistry a bit, too. That’s just part of the growth process of us building a new team.

“I think we are still just trying to find the right formula to put the right guys out there and the right combination to go out and put the best product on the field, and see if we can score touchdowns on offense and stop touchdowns on defense. I just play my role, whatever they ask me to do what part, free safety, strong safety. Whatever that is, I’m up for it to help the team get to our ultimate goal of winning and that’s what I do. I focus on my part.”

At least there hasn’t been the finger-pointing that can cause rifts in the locker room. By all accounts, under Culley’s leadership, the Texans have maintained a positive, supportive atmosphere. That hasn’t translated into victories, though.

“I knew signing here I was coming into a place where we were going to have a lot of guys,” Grugier-Hill said. “We have a lot of guys in the locker room where you would think our record would be better. It’s crazy because we are 1-8 now and the sky is falling, but at the same time we understand.

“We just have to fix so many little things and when we do, we are going to be fine. It doesn’t feel like a toxic environment. It doesn’t feel like an environment where people are like ‘I need to get out of here.’ We’re still together. We’re still trying to just figure it out.”

As Caserio emphasized before the first game of the season, this year is about the process as much as the results. The Texans are trying to build a winning culture. Accomplishing that goal takes time and patience.

Not to mention navigating the Deshaun Watson situation Caserio inherited with the Pro Bowl quarterback issuing a standing trade request and dealing with legal problems (22 civil lawsuits, 10 criminal complaints alleging sexual misconduct surfacing months after he asked for a trade). The Texans got close to trading Watson at the trade deadline, but no deal with the Dolphins could ultimately get worked out due to his unresolved legal situation and the Texans’ appropriately high trade demands in exchange for the NFL’s passing yardage champion from last season.

“I think everybody kind of gets caught up in culture, like what does that exactly mean?” Caserio said. “I think there are a lot of different definitions of how that’s interpreted. Culture’s about habits and about action. It’s about work. That’s what culture’s about. It’s being able to build up a series of habits, a series of actions, and putting those in place so you have something sustainable for a long period of time. That’s what we’re trying to do. There’s a lot of work that goes into it, it’s not going to happen all at once. It’s going to take a lot of purposeful effort, purposeful work.

“What are the Houston Texans trying to be? We’re looking for good players who are good people that care about winning, that put the team first, that put the team above themselves, and are committed to work through purposeful action. If you’re asking me, ‘What are we trying to do?’ That’s what we’re trying to do. Now, does that happen all at once? No, not necessarily. There’s always a lot of moving parts, but the goal is to put some of those parameters in place, and to place something place we can sustain for a long period of time. I’d say right now, we’re in a rough spot. We haven’t played as well as we had hoped, and we’re all accountable. The most important thing is to focus on the next step and what we can do moving forward, and that’s what we’re going to try to do.”

In studying other professional sports organizations, including the Astros, Atlanta Braves, and Phoenix Suns, among others, the Texans see hopeful reminders of how a turnaround can be engineered.

It starts with a plan and requires a lot of hard work to build a winning program.

“I don’t have a crystal ball,” Caserio said. “It’s going to take a lot of work. There’s a different arc. They’re not all the same, there are some similarities. When you just study organizational behavior, study organizations, study the leadership models, look at different teams, There’s no crystal ball, there’s no timetable. That’s all we can do is stack up the days, put some building blocks in place and try to make a continual improvement on a day-to-day basis. And then, the results will take care of themselves, but it takes a comprehensive effort from essentially everyone in the building.

“Are we there yet? Absolutely not. Do we have a lot of work in front of us? You bet. But no one here I’ll speak for myself is afraid to roll up their sleeves, and understands the massive amount of work that it’s going to take. That’s the beauty of it, that’s the challenge of it. I’ve been in football 30 years going back to high school, college and however many years, 21st year in the league. I’ve had two losing seasons my whole entire career. That’s the reality of life. Sometimes you’re going to have to face some challenges, sometimes you’re going to have to deal with things, that’s okay. That’s why we’re here. We’re trying to improve, try to fix problems, try to find solutions, and try to move forward, and that’s what we’re going to try to do.”