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TE Darren Fells on his return to the Texans, "It's awesome to have a home"

TE Darren Fells on his return to the Texans, "It's awesome to have a home"
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Up 14-0 with 1:27 left in the first quarter, the Houston Texans stood 2nd and goal after recovering a muffed punt by Chiefs' wide receiver, Tyreek Hill. With a chance to capitalize on Kansas City's misfortune, Deshaun Watson connected with tight end Darren Fells to complete a four-yard touchdown pass.

It was Fells' eighth touchdown of the season, as the Texans took a 21-0 lead over the Chiefs. By the time Houston walked off the field at Arrowhead Stadium, the Chiefs mounted a 51-31 comeback victory to advance to the AFC Championship Game.

"We let one get away," Fells told Houston SportsMap. "It was a lot of shock at the beginning, as we did not expect the game to go the way it did in the first quarter. The biggest thing was we lost focus too soon, and it is extremely tough to play against a team like Kansas City when you let them score too many points so fast. It is one of the most heartbreaking ways to end your season, but I know for sure we will be more hungry this upcoming year."

The Texans postseason elimination marked a bitter end to a career year for Fells. In 2019, he started 14 out of a possible 16 games played and finished the season with 34 receptions for 341 yards. With a career-high seven touchdowns, Fells set a franchise record for the most end-zone receptions by a tight end and finished the year ranked third in the league at his position.

For the first time since his departure from the Cardinals in 2017, the 33-year-old California native is entering a season with a sense of stability. Fells played for two different organizations (Lions and Browns) before he arrived in Houston during the spring of 2019. He exceeded expectations on a one-year contract, which led to the Texans' decision to retain his services on a two-year deal worth $7 million.

"It meant a lot to me and my family," he said. "We love Houston and the Texans. They were like a family to us, and being able to come back to our family in a sense is awesome. Talking with [Bill] O'Brien and how excited they are to have me back, it's just awesome being able to come back and have a home."

Under the stewardship of O'Brien, the former pro basketball player flourished during his first season in Houston. Unlike his previous two stops, the Texans game-plan to utilize Fells on the field allowed him to showcase his full potential as a versatile tight end, and one who could contribute beyond his blocking.

"The Texans wanted to use me differently than the other teams," Fells said. "Every other team I've been on I was a blocking tight end, and that was first and foremost. Houston felt I could help them out in different ways, and during OTAs and training camp, they saw me more as a complete tight end versus just a blocker. I always felt I had all the aspects of a tight end, and this was the first time a team wanted to utilize that part of my game."

The biggest beneficiary from Fells' game play was that of Watson. An on-field relationship based on trust, Fells provided Watson with a reliable target each week — most notably due to their connection in the red zone. On a Sunday afternoon inside NRG Stadium in Houston, the Watson to Fells tandem was on full display during the Texans' 27-24 victory against the then-Oakland Raiders.

Down by four midway through the fourth quarter, Watson threw a nine-yard touchdown pass to Fells as the Texans took their first lead of the game. It was the second time the duo connected in the end zone, as two of Watson's three touchdown passes came from Fells — who ended the day with six catches for 58 yards on six targets.

Deshaun Watson's TD pass to Darren Fells media.giphy.com

"That play is the definition of who Deshaun Watson is," he said. "With his skill sets, he is one of those guys where the play is never over, and he can make things happen out of nothing. And his knowledge of the game is amazing as well. For him to get kicked in the eye and still manage to throw that touchdown pass — it shows what kind of player and person he is."

The chemistry and familiarity built with Fells is one Watson may rely heavily on to start the 2020 season. The Texans made some drastic changes to their roster this offseason, including parting ways with their All-Pro receiver, DeAndre Hopkins. With Hopkins delt to the Cardinals, the trade will reunite Fells with his former teammate — running back David Johnson (2014-2017).

"I am extremely excited to be back with my former Cardinal teammate [Johnson]," Fells said. "He's an extremely dynamic running back who can do a little bit of it all. If you look back at his highlights on what he has done in the past, when he is out there healthy and feeling good, he is an extremely dominant running back."

As Fells tries to build off the success of a career season, he is met with the same challenges and hurdles millions of Americans are facing in their day-to-day lives due to the on-going pandemic of COVID-19.

Residing in Arizona at the moment, the closing of gyms and facilities across the state has hindered Fells' capability to train for the upcoming season. While trying to prepare for the 2020 season, the uncertainties surrounding the NFL are far from his daily concerns as a husband and a father.

"My biggest worry right now isn't the season," Fells said. "My biggest concern right now is my family and making sure everyone is okay. If the season is cut in half by any chance, I know my teammates and I will make the best of it."

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It's not time to panic, yet. Composite Getty Image.

This is not a column for fanboys or sugarcoating. To this point in the season the Astros stink like rotten eggs. They stink like Angel Hernandez’s umpiring. They stink like Bill O'Brien's general manager skills. The Astros are a bad team right now. That’s notably different from being a bad team. Their 4-10 record is well-earned and it is definitely possible that the Astros’ run of high quality and annual playoff appearances crashes and burns this season. But it’s laughable to declare so after just 14 games of the 162 scheduled have been played.

Last June the Astros had a lousy window in which they went 3-10. In August they had a 4-8 funk. In September it was a 3-9 stretch of collapse. The 2022 World Series Champions had a 3-8 hiccup in April, and a 2-6 blotch overlapping July and August that included getting swept in a three-game series by the then and now awful Oakland A’s.

Now the Astros are back home (Oh No!) for six games, three vs. the Rangers then three with the Braves. The Rangers lead the American League West but are just 7-6, so despite their cellar-dwelling status, the Astros are just three and a half games out of first. A winning homestand is obviously the goal. No, really. 3-3 would be ok, even though that would just about clinch a losing record heading into May.

Mandatory aside: spectacular weather is the Friday night forecast. Stop being stubborn and lame, Astros. Open the roof! I don’t mean just for the postgame fireworks.

On the mend?

The Astros’ track record of downplaying pitching injuries that turned out to be major certainly causes angst as we await Framber Valdez’s return from a sore elbow. If Valdez ultimately winds up out for months, the Astros’ starting rotation is in deep trouble. Even more so if upon the approaching delayed start to his season, 41-year-old Justin Verlander pitches to his age in terms of results and/or durability. However, if Valdez is ok within a month and JV is solid, those two, and Cristian Javier can stabilize the rotation quite nicely.

The Astros started three guys in the last four games who belong in the minor leagues. It was a sad sign of the times that the Astros were reduced to calling up Blair Henley to make the start Monday in Arlington. Except for Rangers fans and Astros haters, it grew uncomfortable watching Henley give up four hits, walk three, record just one out, and wind up charged with seven earned runs. But it’s not Henley’s fault that he was thrust into a role for which he was utterly unqualified.

Last season at Double-A Corpus Christi, Henley’s earned run average was 5.06. Because of the crummy state of the Astros’ farm system, Henley failed up to Triple-A Sugar Land to start this season. After one not good start for the Space Cowboys, “Hey, go get out big leaguers Blair!” Henley turns 27 next month, he is not a prospect of any note. If he never again pitches in the majors Henley forever carries a 135.00 ERA.

But you know what? It was still a great day for the guy. Even if undeserved, Henley made “The Show.” For one day on the Astros’ 26-man roster, Henley made over four thousand dollars. To make him eligible for call up, the Astros first had to put Henley on their 40-man roster and sign him to a split contract. That means that until/unless the Astros release him, Henley’s AAA salary jumps from approximately $36,000 for the season to over 60K.

Lastly, while Henley’s ERA could remain 135.00 in perpetuity, at least he’s no Fred Bruckbauer. In 1961 Bruckbauer made his big league debut and bade his big league farewell in the same game. He faced four batters, giving up three earned runs on three hits and one walk. Career ERA: Infinity! Bruckbauer is the most recent of the more than a dozen pitchers to retire with the infinity ERA.

Spencer Arrighetti’s debut start went much better. For two innings, before it unraveled in a seven run Royals third. Arrighetti has good stuff, but not great stuff. Control has been an issue for him in the minor leagues. Without better command Arrighetti cannot be a plus starter in the majors.

Then there’s Hunter Brown. We could go decades without seeing another pitcher give up nine runs and 11 hits in two-thirds of an inning as Brown did Thursday. It had never happened in MLB history! To this point, Brown is an overhyped hope. ERA last July: 5.92, August: 6.23, September 1 on: 8.74. Three starts into 2024: 16.43.

Jose Abreu watch

It's still early enough in the season that even just a couple of big games can markedly improve a stat line but Jose Abreu continues to look washed up at the plate. Three hits in 37 at bats (.081 batting average), with the most recent hit a questionable official scoring decision. Manager Joe Espada has already dropped Abreu from fifth in the lineup to sixth, then seventh, then eighth. Two more slots down to go, Joe! Continuing to act like Jon Singleton could be a competent bat in the lineup is just silly though.

Catch the weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week now generally goes up after Sunday’s game (second part released Tuesday, sometimes a third part Wednesday) via YouTube: stone cold stros - YouTubewith the complete audio available via Apple Podcast, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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