HOUSTON — This was supposed to be the year the Houston Texans join the elite. They would step up to the plateau of Patriots, Broncos, Seahawks, Panthers, Packers and Steelers, the teams that year after year make serious bids for the Super Bowl and sometimes win it.
The Texans last season had a stout defense led by NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt. They had a dynamic pass receiver in DeAndre Hopkins, second-team All-Pro. Then they added the fastest receiver in the draft, William Fuller the Fifth.
They splurged in the free agency market for the game’s fastest running back, Lamar Miller, and the most cherished available quarterback, the ascending Brock Osweiler.
Optimism was bubbling over like this was another Spindletop. The Houston Chronicle’s John McClain, the local folk hero known as The General, forecasted an 11-5 record. It didn’t seem a reach to think they’d be playing in the next Super Bowl in NRG Stadium, site of their regular-season home games.
Thursday night’s game at New England was supposed to be a Texan win, with Patriot superstar Tom Brady in suspension for not letting Roger Goodell peek at his cellphone messages.
So the Texans, looking for a coming-out party on CBS, go out and lay an ostrich egg. They get nilled 27-0 by a team starting its No. 3 quarterback, a third-round rookie. Who played better than the five-year veteran Osweiler.
It was not Jacoby Brissett who threw the game’s lone interception but Osweiler – his fourth pick in three games. This one came at a critical juncture, when the Texans were down 10-0 in the second quarter.
Osweiler was staring down Hopkins, and the defenders followed his gaze. Easy pick for Jamie Collins, who’s something the Texans wish they had: a linebacker who can cover.
The problem with the Texans was not that they threw too often to Hopkins, but too rarely. Head coach Bill O’Brien and coordinator George Godsey built their game plan around nondescript tight end Ryan Griffin, who was targeted twice more than Hopkins, with his eight catches good for all of 52 yards.
Bill Belichick did what he always does, takes away the deep pass by dropping safety Devin McCourty to just inside the Norfolk County line.
That left the short zones open, but Griffin isn’t fast enough to take advantage, and Fuller has such shaky hands you don’t trust him in the heavy traffic where he might bat the ball up into the air.
Hopkins, for all his downfield ability, is not much of a threat on shorter routes. He doesn’t have a quick first step to provide yards after catch.
It would be nice to have a slot receiver, but third-rounder Braxton Miller is indefinitely hamstrung.
And the third-round pick of the previous draft, Jaelen Strong (4 targets, 1 catch, 1 drop, 1 penalty vs. the Pats) is as confused as a stray dog in a busy intersection.
Nor has Lamar Miller had impact as either a runner or receiver. If he’s so fast, how could the linebacker Collins run him down so easily?
Not that many offenses can succeed against a defense as cohesive as New England’s. Ex-nose tackle Mike Golic succinctly analyzed it for ESPN: “They’re always in perfect position. . . . They’re like a picket fence holding together.”
Leave it to Belichick, who tutored O’Brien for five years in Foxborough, to expose the flaws in his student’s work. But the flaws extend beyond the field and sidelines, into the front office. General manager Rick Smith committed $72 million — $37 mil guaranteed – to Osweiler, who’s 25 and a work in progress.
And so far in Houston, scant progress. He has no rhythm with Hopkins, and he’s not reading defenses with speed or clarity. The Brockster is completing 59 percent of his passes, in a league where 62 is average.
To his credit, he’s fully accountable: “I’ll take the blame for this.” He will be blamed whether he takes it or not, but surely there is much of that to go around.
GM Smith opened a gaping hole at center when he let Ben Jones walk in free agency to division rival Tennessee. Now Jones is digging holes for DeMarco Murray, whom the Texans face Sunday afternoon in NRG. Murray is averaging 82 yards rushing per game and 6.0 per carry.
Jones signed a 4-year contract in Nashville with relatively modest numbers: $4.4 million per year, only a third of it guaranteed.
Smith paid much more to lure guard Jeff Allen from Kansas City. Allen and Co. have yet to spring Miller for anything longer than a 15-yard gain.
Smith’s plan was to replace the 27-year-old Jones with a second-round draft pick, Nick Martin, who’s lost for the season after suffering a broken ankle in training camp.
Martin’s stand-in, undrafted and overmatched sophomore Greg Mancz, is a factor in Miller averaging a mere 3.6 per carry. Another factor is the running back’s preference for dancing over running.
“We need to make some corrections and just get better,” Miller said. And it could happen. O’Brien is an inspiring, if overly profane, leader. He may be able to coach up what was looking like the most overhyped team in the NFL until the Steelers laid their own egg in Philadelphia on Sunday, getting smashed 34-3.
The Texans could have trouble with the Titans, who are 6½-point underdogs. Jones will lead Murray’s charges up the middle, into a defense that misses tackling machine Brian Cushing. The fiery linebacker is out for another month recovering from knee surgery. And whenever he returns, it’s usually not for long.
Along that injury front, Duane Brown, Osweiler’s blindside protector at left tackle, has been out with a torn quad and is at least another week away from returning.
But by far the most concerning rehab issue is Watt, valiantly storming back from spinal surgery but not the indomitable force he was and may never be again. The team is considering putting him on injured reserve to give him more time for healing.
Even without Watt the defense is better than the offense, which is somehow both fast and sluggish. And the special teams have lost their grip, literally. Kick returners twice fumbled away the ball to set up Patriot scores.
The season has barely begun and optimism has fled in this ever futuristic city, which is painfully experiencing the flop of another would-be contender, the Astros. The Texans, the team Houston most cares about, are 2-1 and stuck on the plateau where they’ve spent two seasons with O’Brien. Again, 9-7 looms. Or worse.
Alan Truex formerly covered the NFL for the Atlanta Journal and Houston Chronicle.