In a duel of losers, Jags trending upward over Houston

Alan Truex

HOUSTON — Bill O’Brien. Houston Texans head coach, was channeling his former mentor, Bill Belichick, as he tried to forget how poorly his team is playing.  “We’re moving on to Jacksonville,” he said.  Just like Belichick a year ago turned his New England Patriots around with the mantra. “On to Cincinnati.”

Not that a victory against the toothless Jaguars could be nearly as significant as knocking off the highly talented – if inevitably heartbreaking – Cincinnati Bengals.

What we’ll see Sunday at Jacksonville is the opposite of a Bengals-Patriots matchup.  Here will be perhaps the two worst teams in the NFL, all due disrespect to the Detroit Lions and Miami Dolphins.

The 0-5 Lions and 1-3 Dolphins are not lacking in big-name performers but have been trainwrecked by turnovers, inept coaching and blown calls by officials.

The Texans and Jags, both 1-4, have been trainwrecked by turnovers, inept coaching and blown calls by officials.  But when you look at their starting lineups, you don’t see many names that would interest a successful team.

Aside from the incandescent J.J. Watt, the Texans have no one to build around. 

Arian Foster was once that type of guy, arguably the most impactful running back in the league with his unique combination of rushing, receiving and pass-blocking skills.  But at 29 he looks broken-down, in steady decay, having missed 14 of his team’s past 37 games.  He’s rushed for 51 yards this season, at 1.9 per carry.

I was thinking DeAndre Hopkins was about to blossom as a dominant wide receiver.  But then last Thursday he chucked a football at an Indianapolis player to draw an obvious unsportsmanlike conduct and negate a potentially game-changing first down.   As his last chance for a victory slipped away, O’Brien screamed at the nearby Hopkins, asking, basically, Why-the-bleep did you do that?

I guess Hopkins sees himself as another Dez Bryant, establishing his diva credentials before he can focus on how to win football games – or at least avoid giving them away.

The Texans’ general manager, Rick Smith, has drawn surprisingly little fire from Houston media for nine years of generally unproductive drafting.  You have to wonder how long he can bask for nabbing Watt at No. 10 in 2011.   Except for that prescient call, Smith hasn’t exactly stockpiled O’Brien – or his predecessor, Gary Kubiak — in talent.

Of the Texans’ 17 draft picks since 2014, only two, rush linebacker Jadeveon Clowney and blocking fullback Jay Prosch, are in the starting lineup.

In 2014 they spent the No. 1 overall pick on Clowney, who makes Arian Foster look like Iron Man. 

If they were looking for a pass rusher who can stay on the field, they might have taken Khalil Mack, chosen by Oakland at No. 5.  He’s had three sacks in five games this season, while Clowney is still seeking his first.

With his second pick in 2014, Smith could have drafted Derek Carr, who went to Oakland, three slots behind Houston.  Smith shunned Carr because of a disappointing experience with his brother David Carr, who was another waste of a No. 1 overall.

So the Texans entered this season with a quarterbacking duel between Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett, Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee.  Or vice versa.

The Jaguars, by contrast, are set at quarterback with Blake Bortles, who may have been a reach as the No. 3 overall in 2014 but has become a competent starting quarterback.  He’s 10-4 in the all-important TD/interception ratio.

The Jags hit on all their eight picks in the first six rounds of the 2014 draft.  They also thought they drafted well this year, but first-round pass rusher Dante Fowler Jr. was injured in the spring minicamp, lost for the season long before it began.

Gus Bradley, 8-29 as Jacksonville head coach, has patiently awaited his team’s development.  But his patience ran out with Sunday’s 38-31 loss to Tampa Bay, which is the only team to lose to Houston this season.  Bradley berated his players for getting plundered by the Buccaneers.  “Enough is enough,” he said.

The defining moment of that game was Bernard Pierce being confused about whether he was on the field for the punting team or for the return team. 

As Tampa’s Bobby Rainey was running back a kick 56 yards, he blew past Pierce, who instead of trying to tackle the player with the ball was delivering a block against one of Rainey’s blockers.

In subsequently addressing the media, Bradley blamed himself for his team’s apparent ADHD.  He admitted to being too passive as a coach.   “Maybe I haven’t been as strong or demonstrative on the field as I need to be,” he said.  “We’re not showing the grit we need to sustain things.”

But at least he has some young talent to work with: Bortles, swift receivers Allen Hurd and Allen Robinson, rookie running back T.J. Yeldon and rangy linebacker Telvin Smith.

The Texans 89-124 with two postseason appearances in 13 years, will be rebuilding for a few more.   It may be time to think about tanking.   A loss to Jacksonville could the stepping stone to the No. 1 overall, not that the Texans would know what to do with it if they got it.

And not that owner Bob McNair is fretting much about erosion of the fan base.  The Texans have sold out for the past 100 games at NRG Stadium, and there’s a long waiting list of those wanting to buy the right to buy season tickets.

Jacksonville is much less of a football hotbed, so Bradley and GM David Caldwell are feeling a sense of urgency.  By contrast, Houston is slow to see it has a problem.   A loss Sunday at Jacksonville may be what it takes to get McNair’s attention.

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