All-in Texans Are Not Ready to Join NFL's Elite—Yet

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystSeptember 10, 2019

Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson (4) scrambles as New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan (94) pursues in the first half of an NFL football game in New Orleans, Monday, Sept. 9, 2019. (AP Photo/Bill Feig)
Bill Feig/Associated Press

No one is laughing at the Houston Texans and head coach/de facto general manager Bill O'Brien now.

The Texans took the New Orleans Saints to the limit in one of the league's most hostile venues nine days after two stunning trades. The Saints required last-second heroics from quarterback Drew Brees and a career-long 58-yard field goal from kicker Wil Lutz to secure a 30-28 victory as time expired.

"We came so close," Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson told reporters after the loss, "but we didn't do enough." 

Even in a loss, the Texans looked like the AFC South's best team with the potential to become something more. The turnaround has detractors' heads spinning faster than Michael Keaton's in Beetlejuice

Decisions to send Jadeveon Clowney to the Seattle Seahawks while acquiring left tackle Laremy Tunsil and wide receiver Kenny Stills from the Miami Dolphins for an exorbitant price raised questions about the organizational hierarchy. The general manager-less Texans looked directionless.

They waited too long to maximize Clowney's value and received pennies on the dollar for their designated franchise player. Then they flipped a pair of first-round picks and some change to get who the organization really wanted all along: Tunsil (with Stills thrown in for good measure). But O'Brien and Co. made the deal without the assurance of a long-term extension from the blindside protector. 

Butch Dill/Associated Press

Previously, the Texans made lesser trades for running backs Duke Johnson Jr. and Carlos Hyde. 

All four of the team's recent acquisitions played well in their first action despite a lack of time working together. Therein lies the important lesson from Monday's contest: The Texans nearly took down an elite NFC squad without their roster having much time together. Houston isn't nearly as good today as it will be in a few weeks. 

The claim might sound outlandish after O'Brien's offense amassed 414 total yards. A non-aggressive defensive approach on the final drive snatched a loss from the jaws of victory. That's fixable, though. Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel is a seasoned coach who learns from his mistakes. Plus, the offense will get better. 

That sounds impossible, right? 

But the expected growth between the offensive line, Watson's comfort level behind his front five and the continued integration of offensive weapons allows for the potential of an elite offense and dynamic squad. 

The Texans' offensive line drew the ire of everyone outside the organization's walls after Watson endured a league-high 62 sacks last season. Houston entered Monday's contest with four of the same starters and Tunsil inserted at left tackle. The Saints sacked Watson six times, but the box score doesn't tell the entire story. 

Tunsil, who entered the lineup and started to practice this past week, played well through three quarters. Most of the pressure came from other areas until the 25-year-old blocker surrendered a sack. Well, sort of.

Yes, the Saints' Trey Hendrickson beat Tunsil off the snap and sped around the corner to clobber Watson. The play wasn't entirely Tunsil's fault, though, as Kansas City Chiefs right tackle Mitchell Schwartz noted while watching the game: 

To be fair, the Texans' offensive line struggled to pick up movement—stunts, blitzes, etc.—especially early in the contest. But quarterback play can contribute to a front's misgivings depending on the play. 

Furthermore, first-round rookie guard Tytus Howard didn't play thanks to a broken finger. Howard projected as the Texans' starting left guard. He and Tunsil are the future of the offensive line. Instead, the offense endured Senio Kelemete being overwhelmed in his stead. 

Yes, Watson again faced plenty of pressure (six sacks plus 11 more quarterback hits). However, the pieces are in place to improve greatly. The overall talent level has grown, and Houston's offensive line simply needs time to build continuity and start playing as a cohesive unit. 

Until then, Watson serves as the great equalizer.

"We're never out of it," O'Brien told reporters when asked about his quarterback's poise. 

The rest of his team might not have reached elite status yet, but the third-year quarterback is already there, and it showed during the Texans' final drive. Watson made two of the most cold-blooded throws you'll ever see from the position, courtesy of The Checkdown:

The passes themselves are exceptional. Watson standing tall in the pocket with pressure bearing down on him while still throwing darts makes them truly special. His mobility will give the offensive line time to jell.

The 23-year-old signal-caller threw for 268 yards and three touchdowns Monday night. In doing so, he became the third quarterback in NFL history with 6,000 passing yards and 45 touchdowns in his first 24 games, according to Texans PR

The new weapons around Watson made the performance even more exciting. 

Stills caught what the Texans thought was the game-winning 37-yard touchdown. His speed adds another deep threat alongside DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller V. O'Brien also called a couple of fly sweeps for his new receiver. 

In the backfield, Hyde looked like a much different back against the Saints than the one who bounced between three teams in the last 11 months. He appeared leaner and far more explosive during his 10 carries for 83 yards. 

Butch Dill/Associated Press

Johnson, meanwhile, brings a level of versatility the Texans backfield lacked last season. The 25-year-old contributed 90 total yards and helped in pass protection. Lamar Miller's season-ending torn ACL may have changed the complexion of Houston's backfield, but it's in good hands.

Defensively, Whitney Mercilus filled the void created by Clowney's departure. Obviously, Clowney can't be replaced because he has too much talent. But Mercilus is a former second-team All-Pro, and he made two crucial plays Monday with an interception and a sack. 

All these positives in a loss point toward another division crown. 

The Tennessee Titans are the AFC South's only 1-0 team, but the Cleveland Browns handed head coach Mike Vrabel's squad a victory Sunday with their embarrassingly undisciplined play. The Jacksonville Jaguars must turn to rookie sixth-round quarterback Gardner Minshew II after starter Nick Foles suffered a fractured clavicle. The Indianapolis Colts' Jacoby Brissett looked solid against the Los Angeles Chargers, but he's not Andrew Luck

The Texans were good enough to win the division last year despite their deficiencies. They struggled in big games, but they positioned themselves to make a run. This year's team is improved. All anyone has to do is put on the tape of Monday's contest to see the difference. 

"We've got a good football team. One game isn't going to define us," O'Brien told reporters

Maybe it did. 

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @brentsobleski.

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