It’s been about a year since Bill O’Brien and trusted sidekick Jack Easterby began reshaping the Texans roster into a reflection of their cherished and often talked-about core values:
Tough, smart, dependable.
Oh, what a year it’s been. O’Brien and Easterby haven’t exactly made a lot of fans or earned high praise with their series of controversial moves. But always, there was at least one thing even O’Brien’s harshest critics couldn’t doubt.
Their intentions were in the right place – namely quarterback Deshaun Watson’s back. They may have overspent and overreached, but at least it was with the franchise in mind.
Has it paid off? More specifically, has the offensive line been anything close to the impenetrable fortress it’s been made out to be?
In their view, O’Brien’s and Easterby’s head-shaking moves over the past year ultimately always allowed the club to better equip Watson with the protection he needs.
And if it rid the roster of personalities they believed were detrimental to the club’s future, all the better. What do critics know, anyway?
They traded Jadeveon Clowney. They traded DeAndre Hopkins. Those moves alone were Richter-scale types of moments that shook NRG Stadium to its foundation and sent fans reeling. But O’Brien and Easterby also brought in offensive line help, using premium picks, casting away coveted draft resources and spending freely in order to secure Watson’s future.
Laremy Tunsil cost two first-round picks, a second-rounder and the richest contract a tackle ever has received. Nick Martin signed a three-year extension for $18 million guaranteed.
They spent first- and second-round draft picks on Tytus Howard and Max Scharping. Zach Fulton even reworked his deal, earning $5 million in guaranteed money.
On most fronts, O’Brien earned league-wide criticism for being in over his head as a general manager and, really, thus far it’s been a warranted knock.
Among O’Brien’s acquisitions were Randall Cobb ($18 million guaranteed) and Brandin Cooks ($8 million guaranteed), for whom the Texans traded a second-round draft pick. Both were proven receivers, but arrived to Houston with durability issues or questions.
The O’Brien-Easterby brain trust also brought in unproven safety Eric Murray for a price-gouged $10.7 million guaranteed, and aging, once-benched David Johnson and his $17.5 million guarantee in the Hopkins trade.
Add-in cutting ties with Pro Bowl-caliber defensive tackle D.J. Reader and reliable defensive lineman Angelo Blackson, and it’s easy to see why O’Brien’s roster-building acumen repeatedly was questioned.
But despite it all, there was the one saving grace. There was the, “yeah, but” that seemed to make O’Brien’s roster-building sins a bit more understandable.
He prioritized the offensive line. He invested heavily. Sure, he may have gashed draft equity and hindered Watson’s complementary pieces, but it was all in the name of protecting the most important asset in the building.
Then the 2020 season-opener dropped.
And as you sifted through the debris of an altogether gawd-awful performance by the Texans offensive line in a humbling loss to the Chiefs, something else came into focus, too. It wasn’t just the 2020 opener that should cause some alarm.
Thus far, this Texans line has proved to be more hype than hope. Look closer. It’s more than just one game against the defending Super Bowl champions that’s cause for concern.
While the remade Texans offensive line has been decent in rushing offense, there are startling trends in recent outings.
Deshaun Watson was sacked four-times in the 2020 opener. In the final two games of the 2019 season, playoff games against the Bills and Chiefs, he was sacked seven-times and five times. Altogether in 2019, Watson was sacked 44-times – not exactly the stuff of an impenetrable fortress.
In the 2020 opener, Watson was pressured, according to Pro Football Focus, on 42 percent of his dropbacks.
But that wasn’t altogether an aberration. Last year, Tunsil by far ranked as the best Texans lineman in pass protection, but also was the most-penalized player in the league.
Outside of Tunsil, the Texans line posted mostly pedestrian numbers in pass protection and below-average in run-blocking. Hence, there was an improved ranking by PFF up to No. 20 in the league, but it wasn’t exactly the mid-‘90s Cowboys or 1980s Washington Hogs.
It got worse last Thursday night.
On six pass attempts, Watson was pressured in less than two seconds. That’s a head-spinning, literally, revelation if you’re Watson. It also dispels the common notion that many sacks arrive from Watson holding the ball too long.
Right tackle Tytus Howard and right guard Zach Fulton proved to be the worst of the group. Tunsil was the only Texan offensive lineman to grade higher than 54.8 in pass protection. And pass protection was almost comically bad across the board.
There also were severe missed assignments from Texans tight ends, and at least two plays that Watson extended past the line-of-scrimmage, otherwise also would have been recorded sacks.
The Texans’ next three opponents are the Ravens, Steelers and Vikings – all known for pressuring opposing QBs, with the Steelers and Vikings finishing first and sixth in the NFL in total sacks in 2019. Just Monday night, the Steelers pass rush flexed mightily in a season-opening win over the Giants.
Tough? Smart? Dependable?
If things don’t change and change soon, O’Brien’s big investment and one saving grace may go the way of another once-bullish Houston institution. Enron.