The experience of watching the Texans play should be defined by the joy of watching Deshaun Watson. Houston is blessed with one of the sport’s budding superstars, a 24-year-old dynamo quarterback with skills that rank among the league’s best and the heart of a lion. He’s the reason the Texans were put in Thursday’s season-opening spotlight game against the Super Bowl champion Chiefs. For most of Watson’s career, it seemed like he singlehandedly guaranteed a compelling game. Watson didn’t lose a game by more than a touchdown throughout his entire college career and his first two seasons in the pros. Put Alabama, the Patriots, or Satan across the line of scrimmage, and it didn’t matter—Watson was good enough to keep his team competitive.
Following Houston’s 34-20 loss to the Chiefs, though, the Texans’ past five losses have come by multiple scores. And that final is misleading: Houston allowed 31 consecutive points after going ahead 7-0, making the score look respectable only by putting up two touchdowns once a win was already out of reach. Although the Texans won the AFC South in each of Watson’s first two full seasons as the starter, oddsmakers project the team to finish third this year, behind the Colts and Titans. A promising young core seems to have dissolved before Watson even hit his prime. For that, everyone knows who is to blame: Bill O’Brien, Houston’s head coach and general manager.
O’Brien has secured a reputation as the league’s worst front office decision-maker. In 2019, the Texans went without a full-time GM after firing Brian Gaine; in January 2020, O’Brien was given the role in addition to his head-coaching duties. He proceeded to have a bad offseason for the ages, and was widely mocked for his moves. Perhaps that could be forgiven if he were an unimpeachable on-field genius, but O’Brien’s coaching decisions have proved questionable as well. On Thursday, all of the flaws in the O’Brien blueprint were on display.
The good news for O’Brien is that his big offseason acquisition looked good in Kansas City. Running back David Johnson carried 11 times for 77 yards, highlighted by a nifty 19-yard dash for the first touchdown of the season. When O’Brien traded for Johnson in March, it looked like he had brought in a player with limited upside; Johnson failed to break 100 yards rushing in a game last season. But against the Chiefs, Johnson was spry. The problem was that the game also made apparent that the Texans need a star wide receiver more than a star running back—and O’Brien got Johnson by giving up DeAndre Hopkins, one of the league’s premier pass catchers.
In 2019, Watson was one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks on deep balls, recording the second-highest grade on passes deeper than 20 yards, according to Pro Football Focus. On Thursday, he went just 2-of-8 on throws longer than 15 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Will Fuller was productive in spite of this, catching eight balls for 112 yards. But when paired with Hopkins last season, Fuller was Houston’s primary deep threat; his average depth of target was 14.2 yards, the 15th-highest mark in the league. In Kansas City, six of Fuller’s eight catches came on targets inside of 10 yards. Meanwhile, the two players to whom O’Brien gave $33 million in guaranteed contracts to replace Hopkins were mostly invisible in the opener. Brandin Cooks and Randall Cobb combined to make just four catches for 43 yards. Cobb was on the field for 46 of 59 offensive snaps, but he wasn’t targeted until there were less than five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
The Texans offensive line also faltered Thursday. O’Brien tried shoring this unit up last year by trading two first-round picks (and a second-rounder, for good measure) as part of a package to land left tackle Laremy Tunsil. In April, O’Brien made Tunsil the highest-paid offensive lineman ever. Tunsil was named to the Pro Bowl last season, but one man does not an offensive line make. Every starting lineman for the Texans allowed multiple pressures against the Chiefs. Some of them were comically bad:
Not 71's best rep. pic.twitter.com/7VImKxlBjq— Rivers McCown (@riversmccown) September 11, 2020
Can someone explain to me what 74 and 78 for Houston are doing on this play? pic.twitter.com/2gIl6bX4pf— Chris B. Brown (@smartfootball) September 11, 2020
Poor pass protection led to Watson’s lone interception of the night too. In that case, tight end Darren Fells was to blame:
Honey Badger can do it all— B/R Gridiron (@brgridiron) September 11, 2020
O’Brien’s roster-building shortcomings could seem like a smaller deal if he were a brilliant in-game decision-maker. But that’s not the case. Playing against one of the greatest offenses in football history, O’Brien opted to punt in a tie game on a fourth-and-4 at the 50-yard line early in the second quarter. Field position doesn’t matter against the Chiefs, who took the ball 91 yards on 16 plays to score a touchdown after the Texans punted from plus position. Kansas City scored on five of its first seven drives Thursday, and had a touchdown called back on an end zone drop in one of the other two. As a general rule, teams facing off with Patrick Mahomes just can’t give away possessions. Maybe O’Brien was overcorrecting after infamously calling a fake punt against the Chiefs in last season’s divisional round, but at least the fake represented O’Brien trying.
Teams trailing by multiple scores also generally can’t get back in games by running the football, but that didn’t stop O’Brien either. The Texans had the ball for 10 plays during the third quarter, trailing by 17 points on all of them. O’Brien ran the ball on seven of those plays, and an eighth resulted in a sack. It was brutal coaching. Trying to stage a double-digit comeback by running the ball is like trying to eat soup with a fork. That would be damning for any head coach in the league, but it’s especially so when the head coach eating the soup is also in charge of acquiring the cutlery.
The best justification for some of O’Brien’s moves as a GM is the NFL salary cap. He shipped Hopkins out of town so that he could give Watson an extension. After agreeing to a deal last week, Watson now makes $39 million a year; Hopkins agreed to a deal with the Cardinals that will pay him $27 million a year. O’Brien might tell you that he couldn’t pay both of them while also paying J.J. Watt and Tunsil.
But that feels like a poor explanation when contrasting the Texans with their Week 1 opponent. The Chiefs are paying Mahomes more than the Texans are paying Watson, and they’re paying defensive end Frank Clark more than the Texans are paying Watt. Kansas City is doing this while it’s also paying Chris Jones, Travis Kelce, and Tyreek Hill. And the Chiefs were still able to field competent players at other positions.
Even Johnson’s performance Thursday was overshadowed by a better one by Chiefs running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire. The rookie out of LSU ran for 138 yards with a touchdown in his professional debut. Edwards-Helaire was Kansas City’s first-round pick in the 2020 draft. Houston didn’t have a first-round pick in this year’s draft, nor does it have one in next year’s draft, because it traded them all for Tunsil. So to improve at running back it traded one the sport’s best receivers, and the player it got in return is older, worse, and more expensive than Edwards-Helaire. The Chiefs have signed good players and made good draft picks; the Texans have overcommitted to mediocre skill-position players and traded their most valuable picks.
Watson is uniquely built to carry teams. In the College Football Playoff and NFL playoffs, he has shed massive hits in critical moments to will his side to victory. But O’Brien’s front office and coaching mistakes have left him with too much weight to bear.