KEEP YOUR EYES PEELED

Houston Texans are entering the minefield portion of the rebuild

Houston Texans are entering the minefield portion of the rebuild
The Texans are trying their best to get the No. 1 draft pick next April. Composite image by Jack Brame.
Houston Texans move up in NFL Draft after making trade with Patriots

What are the Houston Texans waiting for? They’re sitting at 1-8-1, last place, the worst record in the entire NFL (by a lot), the head coach is getting into squabbles with the media at press conferences, the stadium is pessimistically half-empty, the mopey quarterback seems to get worse each week, and the only player who’s made headlines recently is disgruntled current employee, star receiver Brandin Cooks.

What is Cooks' beef? Is he complaining that he’s been cut from the team? Making too little money? Benched?

No, Cooks, the best player on the team, who recently signed a two-year $39 million contract, is unhappy because the Texans didn’t trade him earlier this month. Now he’s stuck starting in the NFL, and making more than a million dollars every time he takes the field. Tough gig.

If the Texans are headed for their seemingly annual rebuild, why not start now? Top to bottom, a total house cleaning, like the last 15 minutes of the TV show Hoarders.

Let’s get it on, starting with firing coach Lovie Smith and benching quarterback Davis Mills and taking a good hard look at general manager Nick Caserio. What do the Texans have to lose, except the remaining seven games of 2022, which the late Queen Elizabeth would describe as “annus horribilis.”

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. At the beginning of the season, football “experts” were predicting that the Texans could win five or six or even seven or eight games. Las Vegas had their over/under win total at 4.5. Easy money taking the over, right?

You can look it up right here on SportsMap, I predicted that the Texans would be underdogs all 17 games and lose ‘em all. The Texans are sitting at 1-8-1. I’ll be close when the dust settles.

Just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse, the Texans hit rock bottom last Sunday. The NFC East’s Washington Commanders visited NRG Stadium and clobbered the Texans into merciless submission. The Texans had only five yards of offense at the half, an achievement of historic lousiness. You can fumble the ball forward six yards.

At least fans in the stadium were still practicing social distancing. Fans posted photos of wide swaths of empty seats, asking “does anybody care if the Texans win or lose?” The answer is a whispered no. The opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference. And it makes no difference to Texans fans these days.

Why, just a few years ago, the Texans roster boasted nationally admired superstars like Deshaun Watson, DeAndre Hopkins and folk hero J.J. Watt. Now, other than Cooks, the roster is mostly filled with underperforming, unrecognizable “big toe guys,” as ESPN 97.5 talk host John Granato calls them. You wouldn’t know them if they were standing on your big toe.

Two years ago, J.J. Watt hosted Saturday Night Live. Now there isn’t a Texans player who could get hired to demonstrate Vitamix blenders on the Home Shopping Network.

After Sunday’s crushing loss to the Commanders, columnist Brian T. Smith asked coach Lovie Smith (no relation) what he thought about the home crowd jeering the Texans, why doesn’t he bench quarterback Davis Mills already and does he realize that trotting out the same players with the same game plan each week is, as the saying goes, the definition of insanity? All perfectly valid questions. The coach seemed at a loss to explain the loss.

To make matters worse, if that’s even possible at this point, ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith, also not related, accused the columnist of going too rough on the coach and wondered if the press conference would have gone differently if Bill O’Brien were still the coach.

Actually the columnist did get into a public disagreement with O’Brien a few years ago. So there.

The only thing O’Brien and Lovie Smith have in common these days is they’re both being paid by the Texans. Add last year’s coach David Culley to the active payroll, and you have the Texans currently paying three different head coaches. If Smith gets fired, that will be four different head coaches in four consecutive years. Is this any away to run a business?

Remaining Texans fans argue there’s a silver lining to all this futility. The Texans have one win, a Week 5 victory over the Jaguars, everybody else has at least three W’s. The Texans are trying their best (translation: worst) to get the prized No. 1 draft pick next April.

They’ll most likely select a quarterback and it looks like there will be a bumper crop available, including Bryce Young of Alabama, C.J. Stroud of Ohio State, Will Levis of Kentucky and Tanner McKee from Davis Mills’ alma mater Stanford. What did Abe Lincoln say, fool me once …?

Spending the No. 1 pick, or even Top 3, on a franchise-saving quarterback is a crapshoot at best. For every Joe Burrow there’s a Mitchell Trubisky. Let’s look at some of the quarterbacks who were drafted in the Top 3 between 2010 and 2020, when they presumably should be in the prime of their careers.

Sam Bradford was the No. 1 overall pick by St. Louis in 2010. Cam Newton was drafted No. 1 overall by Carolina in 2011. Robert Griffin III was selected No. 2 by Washington in 2012. Blake Bortles was taken No. 3 by the Jaguars in 2014. All four are out of the league.

Jameis Winston was No. 1 overall by Buccaneers in 2014. Mitchell Trubisky was No. 2 by the Bears in 2017. Baker Mayfield was No. 1 overall in 2018. Sam Darnold No. 3 by the Jets in 2018. None of them is still with their original team.

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The Astros have their work cut out for them. Composite Getty Image.

Through 20 games, the Houston Astros have managed just six wins and are in last place in the AL West.

Their pitching staff trails only Colorado with a 5.24 ERA and big-money new closer Josh Hader has given up the same number of earned runs in 10 games as he did in 61 last year.

Despite this, these veteran Astros, who have reached the AL Championship Series seven consecutive times, have no doubt they’ll turn things around.

“If there’s a team that can do it, it’s this team,” shortstop Jeremy Peña said.

First-year manager Joe Espada, who was hired in January to replace the retired Dusty Baker, discussed his team’s early struggles.

“It’s not ideal,” he said. “It’s not what we expected, to come out of the shoot playing this type of baseball. But you know what, this is where we’re at and we’ve got to pick it up and play better. That’s just the bottom line.”

Many of Houston’s problems have stemmed from a poor performance by a rotation that has been decimated by injuries. Ace Justin Verlander and fellow starter José Urquidy haven’t pitched this season because of injuries and lefty Framber Valdez made just two starts before landing on the injured list with a sore elbow.

Ronel Blanco, who threw a no-hitter in his season debut April 1, has pitched well and is 2-0 with a 0.86 ERA in three starts this season. Cristian Javier is also off to a good start, going 2-0 with a 1.54 ERA in four starts, but the team has won just two games not started by those two pitchers.

However, Espada wouldn’t blame the rotation for Houston’s current position.

“It’s been a little bit of a roller coaster how we've played overall,” he said. “One day we get good starting pitching, some days we don’t. The middle relief has been better and sometimes it hasn’t been. So, we’ve just got to put it all together and then play more as a team. And once we start doing that, we’ll be in good shape.”

The good news for the Astros is that Verlander will make his season debut Friday night when they open a series at Washington and Valdez should return soon after him.

“Framber and Justin have been a great part of our success in the last few years,” second baseman Jose Altuve said. “So, it’s always good to have those two guys back helping the team. We trust them and I think it’s going to be good.”

Hader signed a five-year, $95 million contract this offseason to give the Astros a shutdown 7-8-9 combination at the back end of their bullpen with Bryan Abreu and Ryan Pressly. But the five-time All-Star is off to a bumpy start.

He allowed four runs in the ninth inning of a 6-1 loss to the Braves on Monday night and has yielded eight earned runs this season after giving up the same number in 56 1/3 innings for San Diego last year.

He was much better Wednesday when he struck out the side in the ninth before the Astros fell to Atlanta in 10 innings for their third straight loss.

Houston’s offense, led by Altuve, Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker, ranks third in the majors with a .268 batting average and is tied for third with 24 homers this season. But the Astros have struggled with runners in scoring position and often failed to get a big hit in close games.

While many of Houston’s hitters have thrived this season, one notable exception is first baseman José Abreu. The 37-year-old, who is in the second year of a three-year, $58.5 million contract, is hitting 0.78 with just one extra-base hit in 16 games, raising questions about why he remains in the lineup every day.

To make matters worse, his error on a routine ground ball in the eighth inning Wednesday helped the Braves tie the game before they won in extra innings.

Espada brushed off criticism of Abreu and said he knows the 2020 AL MVP can break out of his early slump.

“Because (of) history,” Espada said. “The back of his baseball card. He can do it.”

Though things haven’t gone well for the Astros so far, everyone insists there’s no panic in this team which won its second World Series in 2022.

Altuve added that he doesn’t have to say anything to his teammates during this tough time.

“I think they’ve played enough baseball to know how to control themselves and how to come back to the plan we have, which is winning games,” he said.

The clubhouse was quiet and somber Wednesday after the Astros suffered their third series sweep of the season and second at home. While not panicking about the slow start, this team, which has won at least 90 games in each of the last three seasons, is certainly not happy with its record.

“We need to do everything better,” third baseman Alex Bregman said. “I feel like we’re in a lot of games, but we just haven’t found a way to win them. And good teams find a way to win games. So we need to find a way to win games.”

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