Twenty-one months. For fans of the Houston Texans, too well aware of what happened in the late afternoon of Jan. 12, 2020, it must seem like an eternity. And no time at all.
Early in the second quarter of the 2019 AFC Divisional playoffs, their team, which had never reached an AFC Championship, had a 24-0 lead at Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium.
Theretofore known for a star-studded defense, journeyman quarterbacks and playoff disappointments, the Texans were headlined by two of the NFL’s most dynamic offensive talents, 24-year-old DeShaun Watson and his favorite 27-year-old target, DeAndre Hopkins.
But within a span of the next 2 1/2 minutes of game time, Houston allowed a play and made a decision on special teams that ignited a spark for the Chiefs and an implosion of themselves.
First, Mecole Hardman returned a kickoff 58 yards to set up a two-play, 42-yard lightning strike from thunderbolt Patrick Mahomes. Twenty-five yards to Travis Kelce. Seventeen more to Damien Williams. Touchdown, Chiefs.
Next, and much more egregiously infamous, facing a fourth down from his own 31-yard line on the ensuing series, Texans head coach Bill O’Brien called for a fake punt. Safety Justin Reid caught the direct snap, needing four yards. He gained only two.
“We really wanted to find a situation where we could steal back momentum,” Reid later said. “In the National Football League, momentum is everything.”
In Kansas City, Mahomes’s momentum was everything. He led the Chiefs to a second touchdown, then a third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh. By halftime, they led, 28-24. In the end, they won, 51-31. Three weeks later, they were crowned Super Bowl LIV champs.
Meanwhile in Houston, months after O’Brien became de facto personnel chief with the firing of general manager Brian Gaine and traded away stud linebacker Jadeveon Clowney, he was officially appointed G.M. At the same time, another ex-member of the Patriots organization, Jack Easterby, was named executive vice president of football operations.
Between mid-March 2020 and the same point of 2021, Hopkins was traded to Arizona; O’Brien was fired; longtime New England player personnel director Nick Caserio relocated for a promotion in Houston; franchise icon J.J. Watt was released; the first lawsuit from 22 women alleging sexual assault and harassment against Watson was filed; and a venerable coach without experience as a coordinator, David Culley, was hired as the franchise’s fourth head coach.
Now, four weeks into the season, Houston is coming off a 40-0 loss at Buffalo, the most lopsided defeat in a franchise history that dates to 2002. Including the aforementioned collapse at KC, the Texans have lost 16 of their last 21 games.
Out of the rubble of a 4-12 record in 2020 and an offseason of off-field messiness, they are in a total rebuild. Their roster features 31 newcomers, including rookie quarterback Davis Mills.
With Watson expected to be inactive, as he continues in legal limbo while his employer waits for another team to meet its trade demands, Mills makes his third pro start after being thrust into the lineup by veteran Tyrod Taylor’s leg injury.
Recent history of the Patriots confounding rookie quarterbacks is well documented. Bill Belichick-led Pats teams are now 22-6 against novices behind center. One of them, the Jets’ Zach Wilson, was picked off four times in Week 2.
As the next rook up, Mills is coming off his own four-interception outing, which he began by fumbling while simply losing his grip on the ball in a rainy Orchard Park, N.Y. Overall, Mills went 11-for-21 for 87 yards against the Bills.
When he gets the ball out of his hand as intended, Mills is most likely aiming for former Patriot Brandin Cooks. A third (32.5 percent) of the passes thrown by Mills and Taylor have targeted Cooks, who’s coming off a 1,000-yard receiving season for a fifth time and fourth team in his career.
Clearly the Texans’ top option, Cooks is expected to draw J.C. Jackson in coverage. During last Sunday’s prime-time thriller vs. Tampa Bay, Jackson became a dad. Daughter, Jream, was born sometime in the second quarter. A few days later, he became the Pats’ undisputed No. 1 cornerback, when Stephen Gilmore was traded.
Jackson had two of the four interceptions vs. Wilson in the Pats’ road opener. But besides picks by Adrian Phillips and Devin McCourty in the same game, they have just one other takeaway — Jonathan Jones’ interception of Miami’s Tua Tagovailoa in Week 1.
Through four games, their turnover margin is minus-2. At home, where they are 0-3 for the first time since 1993, the Patriots are minus-6. No, that’s not an error. One takeaway. Seven giveaways.
A team’s takeaway-giveaway ratio is annually one of the best predictors of success or failure in football. Currently, the Pats are tied for 24th in TO differential, right behind Houston at minus-1.
Not coincidentally, they’re both 1-3. Which, given preseason expectations — outside and, you have to believe, internal — is very surprising.
Yes, it’s true, both teams underwent significant offseason roster turnover. But while Houston spent a lot of short money on stop-gap signings looking to win in the future, New England invested heavily with the intent of winning now.
Also true, both teams start rookies at the sport’s most important spot; with similarly limited college careers and similar skillsets, according to most pre-draft scouting reports. Smart. Poised. Accurate. Each a pocket passer.
But while Mac Jones was selected 15th overall after only 17 career starts at Alabama — he was 16-1 as a starter, including an unbeaten, national championship in 2020 — he outplayed veteran Cam Newton in the preseason. Meanwhile, Mills was chosen 67th overall following 14 games at Stanford — he was 6-5 in 11 starts — and would be the third quarterback on Houston’s roster if Watson and Taylor weren’t sidelined by their situations.
Each team has been unable to protect its young quarterback; struggling to establish a running attack, failing to adequately pass protect; and often falling ‘behind the sticks.’
Let’s start with the Patriots. The season’s first two weeks, they rushed 54 times for 226 yards and an average of 4.2 yards per carry. The past two weeks — granted, against very good run defenses — they gained a mere 48 yards on 25 attempts for a 1.9 average.
Their -1 yard total (eight carries) vs. Tampa Bay marked the first time since 2007 (Detroit) that an NFL team finished a game with negative rushing yardage. In addition, three different running backs have lost fumbles in one-score losses.
Last season the Pats ranked 4th in rushing yards per game and 8th in rushing yards per carry. This season they rank 31st (ahead of only Pittsburgh) and 29th in those categories, respectively.
The Texans, who had the second-worst rushing offense in the NFL a year ago, sought significant improvement by adding a couple of high-mileage vets on one-year deals in the offseason. Mark Ingram and Phillip Lindsay, who’ve combined for five 1,000-yard rushing seasons, were brought in to join dual-purpose David Johnson. All three rank among the NFL’s top 25 active rushers.
In their opening win over Jacksonville, the Texans gained 160 yards on the ground. They have since mustered 82, 42 and 48 rushing yards in three straight losses.
Less success running leads to more dependence on passing. And more potential exposure to punishment in the pocket.
Against New Orleans and Tampa Bay, Jones dropped back nearly 100 times, attempting 91 passes. He was subjected to six sacks and 23 quarterback hits (officially). All of which makes Jones’s performance sharing last Sunday’s prime-time stage with Tom Brady more remarkable. He stood in for 19 straight completions at one point and, according to CBS Sports, completed 16-of-19 passes when the Bucs blitzed.
Still, Jones and the Pats converted just 2-of-9 third-down tries. The distances on the seven failed attempts were nine, 14, 10, 17, 12, nine and three yards. That averages out to be third-and-10.57 yards to go.
In all, the Patriots are 23-of-56 (.411) on third down. In 30 of those instances (4-for-26), per CBS, they faced third-and-seven or more yards to go.
The state of the Texans against the Bills was the same. Their average third-down distance exceeded 11 yards to go. Overall, Mills presided over 11 possessions (not counting final play of the second quarter). Seven series ended in ‘three-and-out.’ Six were in the first half, when Mills had -23 net passing yards due to three sacks.
Rather than single out Mills, Culley called out his entire offense, especially the line.
“The quarterback handles the ball,” he said. “(Mills) made a couple of throws I wish he’d had back, but you can put Joe Montana out there, and the way we played, we’re not going to have success on offense.”
In Foxborough, circumstances singled out center David Andrews, as the lone starter available to the offensive line in Houston, while Bill Belichick called on practice-squad reserves.
James Ferentz, Alex Redmond and Will Sherman were elevated on Saturday, after Trent Brown (calf), Shaq Mason (abdomen), Isaiah Wynn (reserve/COVID) and Michael Onwenu (reserve/COVID) were ruled out.