Two sounds from the CBS broadcast of the Texans’ 21–13 loss to the Chargers in Week 12 perfectly encapsulate the past three months for the Houston offense. Early in the fourth quarter, on a first-and-10 from his 41-yard line, quarterback Brock Osweiler took a shotgun snap and lofted a pass for tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz up the seam. About a half-second after Osweiler released the ball, CBS color man Rich Gannon let out an “Oooh,” the type of reaction that’s at once empathetic and involuntary. You know the one. It’s the same noise onlookers made a few weeks ago when that cross-country runner was annihilated by a deer.
Texans fans weren’t quite so sympathetic. The throw resulted in Osweiler’s second interception of the afternoon and all but sealed another Houston loss. They booed lustily, and with purpose.
The defeat was the team’s second of three straight, and after the Colts’ blowout win over the Jets on Monday night, the Texans are no longer in sole possession of first place in their division. With the same 6–6 record as Indianapolis and Tennessee, though, Houston remains very much in the thick of the playoff hunt. That’s all that really needs to be said about the AFC South, which has devolved into an absurdist art installation on the limits of humanity’s potential.
Among NFL fans who aren’t masochists, the hope has to be that either Andrew Luck and the Colts or Marcus Mariota and the Titans emerge from this season-long slap fight to secure a playoff berth — because the prospect of watching Houston’s offense come wild-card weekend feels like a form of punishment. Yet for the degenerates among us, it could present a unique opportunity. If the Texans make the postseason, they’d enter some rare, putrid air alongside the worst playoff offenses of the past decade-plus. In the process, Osweiler could become one of the more attractive first-round quarterbacks to wager against in recent memory.
When viewed in the context of the four-year, $72 million deal he signed this offseason, Osweiler’s 2016 campaign (59.8 completion rate, 14 touchdowns, 13 interceptions, 5.8 yards per attempt) has been heinous. Even without a qualifier, Houston’s offense has been futile through 12 games. The Texans rank 31st in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA and 28th in points per game (17.3), and that latter figure is inflated by two defensive and special teams scores. Houston’s 18 offensive touchdowns rank dead last in the NFL; at their current pace, the Texans are on track to become the first team since the 2012 Chiefs (22) to score fewer than 25 on the season.
Since 2000, no team that’s finished lower than 28th in offensive DVOA has reached the playoffs. That’s where the Bears finished in 2010, when they had one of the league’s best defenses and a guy named Devin Hester, who conjured scoring “drives” that lasted about eight seconds. But figuring out where Osweiler would potentially fit among the most enticing wild-card weekend quarterbacks to bet against is complicated. Injuries and shuffling depth charts make it an inexact science: For 15 games in 2005, rookie Kyle Orton averaged 5.1 yards per attempt for a horrid Bears offense that limped to the postseason. By playoff time, Rex Grossman was back in the lineup.
Regardless, as much of the football-watching public roots for the Texans to falter, much of the gambling public will pray for the opposite. As the 2016 regular season enters its home stretch, it’s worth considering if Osweiler has a chance to become the least frightening starting QB to start in an NFL game since 2000. Before providing an answer, let’s look back at five players who could challenge him for that crown.
Joe Webb, Vikings (2012)
Webb has started three games as an NFL quarterback, and they have to make up the most bizarre set of starts in NFL history. A sixth-round pick out of the University of Alabama-Birmingham, Webb — who, again, was a quarterback — made his pro debut by returning the opening kickoff in Minnesota’s 38–14 win over the Bills in December 2010.
After Brett Favre (seriously, Brett fucking Favre) was injured later in that season, Webb took over under center midway through a Week 15 matchup against Chicago. His first start was slated to come against the Eagles the following Sunday, but the NFL postponed the game for two days to avoid a massive blizzard that was headed for Philadelphia. So Webb’s first start came (a) in relief of a man who had made a record 297 consecutive starts, and (b) in the first NFL game played on a Tuesday since 1946. Webb’s third — and most recent — start came on 2012 wild-card weekend.
The 2012 Vikings went 10–6 with Christian Ponder as their starting QB, something that should be considered akin to a cosmic event. It helped that Adrian Peterson, and not Hugh Jackman, played the role of Wolverine that season. Coming off ACL surgery, Peterson rushed for 2,097 yards — on a post-human 6.0 yards per carry — on his way to being named MVP. After knocking off the Packers in Week 17 to sneak into the playoffs, Minnesota faced Green Bay in a rematch the following week. Ponder, who was dealing with elbow bursitis, tested his arm but ultimately couldn’t go. Webb started in his place and went a dismal 11-of-30 in a 24–10 loss.
Ryan Lindley, Cardinals (2014)
The 2014 Cardinals are the last team to finish 32nd in the league in offensive touchdowns scored (they had 28) and still reach the playoffs. Already without Carson Palmer, who tore his ACL six games into that campaign, Arizona lost backup Drew Stanton to a knee injury during the third quarter of a Week 15 win over the Rams.
With six starts to his name before taking the field against the Panthers in the wild-card round, Lindley was a seasoned veteran at the time of his playoff start, at least relative to Webb. According to Elias, though, Lindley was just the seventh QB since the merger with one or fewer regular-season wins to start a playoff game. By that point, Lindley had appeared in nine career games, and the returns were about as uninspiring as they could be for a quarterback in the modern era: Among QBs with at least 250 pass attempts, Lindley’s average of 5.0 yards per attempt was the fourth worst since the merger. His 51 percent completion rate was the worst since Mike McMahon (2001–05). No QB since Ryan Leaf had had a worse rating (52.4).
In the Cardinals’ eventual 27–16 loss to Carolina, Lindley finished 16-of-28 passing, which, you know, is not all that bad. He also threw for 82 yards. Somehow, his 2.9 yards per attempt is only the fifth-worst mark among quarterbacks with at least 25 attempts in a playoff game. Lindley hasn’t started in the NFL since.
T.J. Yates, Texans (2011)
As someone who had Houston at 30/1 odds to win the Super Bowl that season — in the days before I covered the NFL — the Yates scenario was heartbreaking. By mid-November 2011, the Texans were rolling. They were 6–3 and winners of three straight when they went to Tampa Bay in Week 10.
For most of the first half, starter Matt Schaub lit the Buccaneers’ secondary on fire, completing nine of his first 12 passes for 222 yards with two scores.
Then, late in the second quarter, in an effort to give the Texans breathing room near their own end zone, Schaub plowed into a pile on a quarterback sneak from Houston’s 1-yard line. He’d stay in the game, but attempt only three more passes in the second half. The following week, it was announced that Schaub had suffered a Lisfranc injury and would miss the remainder of the season. Apologies to any Texans fans out there who may have repressed this memory for their own well-being.
Schaub’s backup at the time was Matt Leinart (a weird footnote in its own right), then in his second campaign with the Texans. Leinart’s first — and only — start with the team lasted 28 plays, before a hit from Jacksonville defensive end Jeremy Mincey injured his shoulder and knocked him out for the year. That left quarterback duties to rookie fifth-round pick T.J. Yates, who had never attempted a pass in his NFL career.
To his credit, Yates wasn’t that bad! He completed 61.2 percent of his passes and threw three touchdowns and three picks over a 3–3 stretch that helped Houston get to the playoffs. Thanks to a ferocious defense (and the arrival of J.J. Watt, destroyer of worlds), the Texans defeated the Bengals, 31–10, in the wild-card round. A trip to Baltimore, though — where Houston had to go against a Ravens defense that allowed 16.6 points per game and finished first in DVOA — was enough to turn Yates back into a pumpkin. He threw three interceptions in a 20–13 loss.
Tim Tebow, Broncos (2011)
Yates’s playoff victory barely registered in the moment, because a day later Tebow performed more of the inexplicable magic that became the norm in Denver’s 2011 campaign. After opening 1–4 with Orton under center, the Broncos turned to Tebow — whom they had taken with the no. 25 pick in the 2010 draft — to be their quarterback. Denver won seven of its final 11 games, including three in overtime, and its 8–8 finish won a doughy AFC West.
Of all the hard-to-explain spectacles in recent NFL history, Tebowmania still makes the least amount of sense. Over those 11 games, he completed 46.5 percent of his passes. Among QBs with at least 250 attempts, only 13 since the merger were worse in a single season; no one had dipped that low since Akili Smith in 2000 (44.2).
Tebow’s playoff debut against Pittsburgh might have been the moment when the frenzy became a phenomenon. The 12–4 Steelers came into the contest as eight-point favorites on the road. They had allowed a ridiculous 14.2 points per game that season, the best mark in the league. All Tebow proceeded to do was throw for 316 yards — on 10 completions!
These are the yardage totals for Tebow’s completions in that game, against the best defense in football: 21, 51, 30, 58, 6, 40, 13, 6, 7, 15, 17, and 80. That’s real. Tebow’s absurd, game-winning overtime touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas was clearly the most memorable play of Denver’s 29–23 triumph, but it was just one in a sea of incomprehensible events. It stands to reason that the Broncos lost the following week — a 45–10 drubbing at the hands of the Patriots in which Tebow went 9-of-26 passing — only because Tebow finally encountered someone, Bill Belichick, with supernatural powers rivaling his own. Denver signed Peyton Manning a few months later, and we all know what happened next.
Anthony Wright, Ravens (2003)
Wright was hardly the only historical oddity in the 2003 playoffs. Dallas quarterback Quincy Carter, who threw 21 interceptions that season, also made his lone postseason start. Still, Carter had been a second-round pick, and he started all 16 games for the 2003 Cowboys. Wright had been an undrafted free agent, and he entered that fall as Baltimore’s third-string QB.
When rookie first-round pick Kyle Boller went down nine games into the season, though, Baltimore felt that Wright’s blend of arm strength and mobility would be a good complement to the bruising work of running back Jamal Lewis (who finished that year with 2,066 rushing yards). Wright leapfrogged backup Chris Redman on the depth chart.
He completed just 52.8 percent of his passes in Boller’s stead, but that was enough to ignite Baltimore: After starting 5–4, it closed by going 5–2 with Wright under center. Wright went 20-of-37 with one touchdown and two picks as the Ravens fell to the Titans, 20–17, in the wild-card round. That was also the last time that Jeff Fisher won a playoff game.
In trying to find an apt comparison for Osweiler and this year’s Texans, the 2003 Ravens work quite well. Baltimore’s QB rotation of Boller, Wright, and Redman averaged a combined 6.1 yards per attempt on the season. Osweiler’s mark of 5.8 is worse (especially given the uptick in passing efficiency over the past 13 years), but in range. If Houston manages to sneak into the playoffs, it would have the lowest-ranked passing DVOA (30th) of any playoff team since those Ravens, who finished 31st.
When comparing Wright and the 2003 Ravens (or any of the names on this list) to the 2016 Texans, though, there’s one key distinction to make. Almost every awful passing offense that’s caused bettors to salivate on the eve of the playoffs has featured either a QB starting some of the first games of his career (Tebow, Orton in 2005) or a break-in-case-of-emergency option.
Osweiler is neither. The Texans’ hope in signing him this offseason was to stabilize a position that’s cycled through six different starters since Schaub was benched in 2013. Well, they have found consistency, but of the wrong sort. The Texans have managed to squander the talents of receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who racked up 1,521 yards in 2015 with Yates, Brandon Weeden, Brian Hoyer, and Ryan Mallett throwing to him. That seems impossible.
If the Texans win the AFC South, they’ll do so behind the worst passing offense that’s stayed intact from Week 1 to season’s end in the past decade and a half. If it seems tough to reconcile that team making the playoffs, it should be. A quarterback with a fully guaranteed $16 million salary this season (and another $18 million next year) — the guy who his franchise chose — could be the one people fall over themselves to bet against come wild-card weekend. Nothing like that has happened this millennium.