FALCON POINTS

An open apology (sort of) to Texans coach Bill O'Brien

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Editor's note: This post contains something called "sarcasm." Some of you are not familiar with that term, so here is the definition. Technically, the editor is also the writer, so maybe this is really a writer's note. Or just a note. Regardless, you have been warned.

No one has been harder on Texans coach Bill O'Brien than me. After all, for six years, we have seen shaky play calling, poor game plans, mediocre coaching, bad challenges and terrible clock management. It never changes.

Let's not even get started on his say nothing press conferences. Yes, we get it, you have to "coach better, play better."

His surly, arrogant, bully attitude. His power mad climb to the top of the organization. His stubborn refusal to add coaches from outside his sphere of influence to try new ideas. His inability to learn from his mistakes. His apparent wasting of Deshaun Watson.

Today, we apologize for bringing all these things up.

And yes, we apologize for saying O'Brien is Andy Reid's "sex robot." Because over the last two weeks, it has been hard to find fault with O'Brien. Maybe - finally - he is learning from his mistakes?

It's one thing to run up yards on a bad Falcons team. It's another to go into Kansas City and take down Reid and the Chiefs.

And make no mistake, O'Brien outcoached Reid on Sunday. His offense was lively and operated at a good pace. His team ran the ball effectively, keeping the Chiefs off the field. He did not panic when the Texans got down 17-3 and stuck with his game plan.

He even made a good challenge right off the bat on what was obvious offensive pass interference. No, it was not overturned, but he quickly got a makeup call out of it. Apparently, no pass interference call is ever going to be overturned, because this one was obvious.

The Texans have so many likable players, but they are hard to root for because of O'Brien's many failings.

But now The Texans are 4-2, with good road wins over San Diego and Kansas City, a close loss in New Orleans against perhaps the best team in the NFC when Drew Brees is healthy, and a rough loss to a Carolina team that has turned out to be pretty good.

There is still much to prove. A trip to Indy looms, and the Colts had the Texans number last season. But there are reasons for optimism.

The offense has gone to quicker passes, misdirection and has utilized Watson much better over the past two weeks. The result has been a 50-plus point output (six from the defense) and a 31-point effort. The Texans also left points on the field against the Chiefs, throwing an ill advised pick in the end zone and getting yet another missed field goal from the suddenly shaky Ka'imi Fairbairn.

They kept KC off the field with long drives and an effective running game, putting pressure on Patrick Mahomes to be flawless. He wasn't.

The defense, well rested, came up with two big turnovers, pressured Mahomes and did its job. O'Brien and Romeo Crennel tweaked the secondary, and the result was Mahomes having his lowest passing output of the season, even when top CB Bradley Roby went out with an injury.

O'Brien even showed guts going for it up 31-24 on fourth and three instead of letting his struggling kicker try to put the game out of reach. It worked and game over. Whether it had worked or not, it was the right call.

In short, O'Brien has made changes. And they are working. The new offense has gone two games without allowing a sack. Watson is performing at a high level. Coaching is a simple thing - put your players in the best positions to succeed. O'Brien is suddenly doing that.

Of course, things can always revert. The Texans followed up a good win in LA with a brutal performance against the Panthers. But since then, they have looked like a different team.

And O'Brien has looked like a different coach. After six years, has he finally learned to be a coach that can take the Texans to the next level? Realistically, probably not. A six-year sample size doesn't change in two weeks. Then again, maybe he has suddenly transformed into the coach he has emulated for so long - Bill Belichick.*

*-Sarcasm alert.

Still, if you are going to be critical, you should be fair and give credit where it is due. So here it is.

Now, about how Frank Reich and the Colts made you look last season in two of the three meetings...

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Cristian Javier has proven he's a quality starting pitcher. Composite image by Jack Brame.

The 2022 regular season is nearing its end and while for the Houston Astros the true test will begin in the postseason, now is a good time to look ahead at what the team’s starting rotation could look like in 2023.

The big question will be whether long-time ace Justin Verlander returns to the team. Heading into 2022, there was doubt whether he would even be with the Astros coming off Tommy John surgery. Verlander re-signed with Houston on a two-year deal with a player option for 2023.

His production in 2022 has been nothing short of sensational. Verlander has the most wins for the Astros with a week left in the season. He has a 1.82 ERA, 0.84 WHIP and 5.2 wins above replacement. More importantly for both Verlander and the Astros, is that he has played in 26 games and counting this season.

Whether Verlander remains with the Astros will likely depend on whether Houston is willing to spend. It is highly likely Verlander opts out of his player option following the strong 2022 campaign he has put together and looks for a bigger payday. Houston has shown it is not afraid to let key players walk in the offseason, so let’s take a look at a potential rotation with and without Verlander.

If the 39-year-old, who will be 40 by the time the 2023 regular season starts, stays with the Astros, he will undoubtedly be either the No. 1 or No. 2 pitcher in the rotation along with Framber Valdez, who is right behind Verlander in wins this season at 16. If Verlander leaves, Valdez should be the new Astros ace at No. 1.

Behind those two should be pitcher Lance McCullers Jr., who in seven games in 2022 has a 2.38 ERA and has cooled the concerns about his right flexor tendon strain being a long-term concern. He suffered the injury last postseason.

After those three, things begin to get interesting. Let’s say Houston opts to stay with a six-man rotation. The fourth starter could be Luis Garcia, who has a 3.90 ERA in 2022. The 25-year-old has shown he is more than a capable starter for the Astros.

The big question is if Hunter Brown can lock himself a spot in the rotation. Numbers wise, he makes a solid case to be more than Houston’s fifth starter as he has garnered 1.13 ERA through four appearances and two starts.

Brown’s starts have been against the Texas Rangers and Detroit Tigers, so there is a bit of a caveat there, but the upside undoubtedly should put him in the conversation for a starting role in 2023.

If Verlander leaves Houston, it should be more of a guarantee that a spot in the rotation as a starter for Brown is locked. Another factor in whether Brown is a starter could be if the Astros keep Dusty Baker as manager. Baker has shown at times he is willing to side with veterans over younger talent.

Other factors in Brown’s role will also be Jose Urquidy and Cristian Javier. Urquidy has a 3.88 ERA in 28 games, all of which have been starts. Javier has a 2.65 ERA in 29 appearances, 24 of which have been starts.

Javier’s role for the Astros the last couple of years has involved starting and coming out of the bullpen, but this season he has shown that he is a capable starter. Based on this season’s play, Javier should have the edge for a starting spot, which leaves the question, what should the Astros do with Urquidy?

If Verlander walks, and Houston opts to keep a six-man rotation, then he just slides in and becomes starter No. 6. If Verlander stays, then is he willing to accept a role out of the bullpen, or do the Astros continue to use Brown out of the bullpen? Over the course of the season, both Brown and Urquidy will undoubtedly have chances to start throughout 2023.

Because of the long grind of an MLB schedule, the Astros should not trade whoever doesn’t get a starting role if Verlander stays, but how likely is it that it is even a problem for Houston? Regardless of who leaves or stays, the Astros should also continue with a six-man rotation because over the course of 162 games, it is what is best for your starters.

If the Astros bring back general manager James Click, based on how the Astros have seen players like George Springer and Carlos Correa walk in the past under his leadership, it is likely Verlander leaves Houston, but at the same time, many didn’t believe he was going to be back at all for 2022.

One thing is for sure, the Astros have a great problem to have. So many starting pitcher candidates, many of whom can be under team control for several years. So even if Verlander walks, an unforeseen injury happens, or a player ends up being disgruntled, Houston has more than enough flexibility to remain among the American Leagues’s best.

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