Eye-popping context for CJ Stroud’s ascendance puts Texans on the clock

Eye-popping context for CJ Stroud’s ascendance puts Texans on the clock
Houston will be a popular destination for free agents moving forward. Composite Getty Image.

One of my favorite quotes that I try to use somewhere at least once per year comes from 19th century author and poet Robert Louis Stevenson. Among many other things Stevenson said “It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive.” As a fan of any sports team the ultimate desire of course is to see your team win a championship. But even more than that, as a sports fan what you really want is hope. The hopeful journey toward greatness and/or a title is ongoing pleasure and entertainment. A pot of gold is a great thing to come across, but the rainbow is where the beauty lies. Even without getting the pot of gold the rainbow should still be savored.

For the last three seasons the Houston Texans were hopeless. The product was unenjoyably lousy, the leadership was routinely inept. As an expansion team in 2002 the Texans won four games and then won five the following season. The last three seasons produced 4-12, 4-13, and 3-13-1 clown shows. Check my math: that's 50 games played, 11 wins. The Texans were not in total tanking mode a la the Astros of the early 2010s, more than anything else they were flat wretched.

Enter C.J. Stroud.

The Texans’ return to being a legitimate NFL operation isn’t entirely about C.J. Stroud, but it is vastly more about him than any other component. Thanks Lovie Smith! The Texans take the field in Cincinnati Sunday already having posted as many victories as they mustered in any of the last three seasons. The matchup with the Bengals is one that in either of the last two seasons would have been a pretty much no chance proposition. They are unlikely to beat the Bengals, but Stroud’s presence means there is a chance. Stroud has revived a franchise’s hope and the fan base’s hope in it. Early DeShaun Watson offered much of the same before things unraveled, Watson mutinied, and did whatever else he did that in the end saw him pay millions of dollars to settle plentiful sexual misconduct lawsuits. Stroud may be the talent and character combination to lift the Texans to heights Watson could not.

Eight games into his NFL career Stroud has thrown 14 touchdown passes and just one interception. That is an incredible parlay. A 14:1 TD to INT ratio won’t hold up, unless Stroud is to equal or better the best single season ratio in NFL history. That Tom Brady fella posted it in 2016 throwing 28 touchdown passes and only two interceptions (Brady only played 12 games in 2016, missing the first four while suspended because of "Deflategate.") A number of quarterbacks have had stretches where they have thrown for 14 TDs while mixing in just one pick. To do it at the outset of one’s career is eye-popping.

The Texans are not a very good team yet, but as opposed to wallowing in mediocrity they have risen quickly to the middle of the pack. Their best window to make the leap to genuine excellence and Super Bowl contending status is the next three years. Stroud’s salary cap figure over those three years averages under 10 million dollars. Within the AFC over those same three years Joe Burrow’s cap hit averages over 40 million per season, Josh Allen’s and Lamar Jackson’s over 50 million per season, Patrick Mahomes’s over 60 million per season. There will be contract restructures with cap dollars kicked down the road, but the Texans have a huge financial roster-building advantage over the Bengals, Bills, Ravens, and Chiefs.

Unless something career-altering occurs, Stroud’s cap number will jump massively after 2026 when his megadollar extension kicks in, worth more than 50 million dollars per season. In the coming offseason the Texans sit in the top five in most salary cap space available. Stroud’s presence along with the freshness and excitement of DeMeco Ryans as head coach should be difference makers. Money always talks of course but with credibility restored and the Stroud/Ryans one-two, the Texans have something to sell beyond overpaying to land some of the better talent on the market.

The NFL is structured to enable quick turnarounds. On average over the last decade one team wins its division that finished in last place the season prior. The Bengals went from 4-11-1 in 2020 to playing in the Super Bowl the next season. During Bill O’Brien’s tenure as head coach and Reign of Error as general manager, the Texans watched all three of their division competitors reach an AFC Championship game. This is the Texans’ 22nd season. They have never gotten that far. If Nick Caserio is good at his job, Stroud is a bonafide star quarterback, and some good fortune goes their way, the Texans offer real potential of going where they have never gone before. Travel hopefully.

Looking for more Texans coverage?

Texans on Tap is the weekly Texan-centric podcast I am part of alongside Brandon Strange and Josh Jordan. On our regular schedule a first video segment goes up Monday on the SportsMapTexans YouTube channel.

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The Texans will have to shuffle the o-line once again. Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images.

“Another one!”- DJ Khaled

That's the first thing that came to mind when I heard the news of Tytus Howard being shut down for the season because of a knee injury. They've had more injuries on the offensive line this season than Nick Cannon has Father's Day cards. Almost every member of the offensive line has spent time on the injury report. Howard went down in the same game in which Juice Scruggs was finally on the active roster. He missed the first 10 games due to a hamstring injury. The irony of next man up has never been so in your face.

The other thing that came to mind was the soap opera As the World Turns.

Howard had just signed an extension this offseason. So did Laremy Tunsil and Shaq Mason. They drafted Juice Scruggs, and signed a few guys too. Those moves, along with other holdovers, were expected to fill out the depth chart. Then a rash of injuries struck. At one point, only one of the original five guys expected to start was playing! In fact, they beat the Steelers 30-6 with that backup offensive line!

One can't have the expectation of backups to perform as good as the starters. They're professionals and are on an NFL roster for a reason. However, the talent gap is evident. One thing coaching, technique, and preparation can't cover is lack of ability or talent. The Texans have done a good job of navigating the injury minefield this season. While the Howard injury will hurt, I have faith in the guys there still.

As of this writing, the Texans are in the eighth spot in the AFC playoff picture. The Steelers, Browns, and Colts are all in front of them at the fifth through seventh spots respectfully. They've beaten the Steelers already. They play the Browns on Christmas Eve and their starting quarterback is out for the season. The Colts are relying on the ghost of Gardner Minshew to steer their ship into the last game of the season vs. the Texans with a possible playoff trip on the line. The Broncos and Bills are the two teams immediately behind them. They play the Broncos this weekend. Even though they're on a hot streak, this is the same team that got 70 put on them by the Dolphins. The Bills are the old veteran boxer who still has some skill, but is now a stepping stone for up & comers.

To say this team should still make the playoffs would be an understatement in my opinion. I believe in them and what they have going on more than I believe in the teams I listed above. That includes teams around them in the playoff race that aren't on their schedule. The one thing that scares me a little moving forward is the sustainability of this line. When guys get up in age as athletes, it becomes harder to come back from injuries. The injuries also tend to occur more frequently when it's a knee, foot, ankle, shoulder, elbow, or another body part critical to blocking for C.J. Stroud.

I know they just re-signed three of those guys and drafted one they believe can be a starter, but depth and contingency plans are a way of life in the NFL. We see how important depth was this season. Why not plan ahead? Don't be surprised if the Texans spend valuable draft capital on the offensive line. By valuable, I'm talking about first through third or fourth rounders. Those are prime spots to draft quality offensive lineman. Whether day one starters or quality depth, those are the sweet spots. The only guy on the two deep depth chart for this offensive line that wasn't drafted in one of those rounds was George Fant, who was an undrafted rookie free agent. While I highly doubt they spend any significant free agency dollars on the group, I'm not totally ruling it out.

The bottom line is, this team will be okay on the line for the remainder of this season. The only way that doesn't happen, more injuries. Stroud is clearly the franchise guy. Protecting that investment is a top priority. I don't care about a number one receiver, or a stud stable or singular running back if the quarterback won't have time to get them the ball. If the pilot can't fly the plane, you know what happens. So making sure he's happy, healthy, and has a great crew is of the utmost importance.

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