MINNEAPOLIS — Midway through the second half of the Texans’ lopsided loss to the Vikings on Sunday, Bill O’Brien’s conversation on the sideline was more important than what was happening on the field. While Minnesota marched 65 yards and took a 25-point lead, O’Brien leaned over the bench and huddled with his quarterback, Brock Osweiler, and coordinator George Godsey, to try and get a handle on an offense that hasn’t come close to finding its groove.
Courted away from Denver with a free-agent offer worth $18 million a year (and $37 million guaranteed), Osweiler was supposed to make the Texans a contender, but five games in he’s completed only 58% of his passes (27th in the NFL) and has thrown seven interceptions to six touchdowns—a bumpy start that wouldn’t be good for first place in any division except for the lowly AFC South.
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O’Brien did right by his quarterback following Sunday’s 31-13 loss at U.S. Bank Stadium, saying over and over again that the team’s struggles “start and end with me.” But a $37 million question looms large in Texas: Does Houston have buyer’s remorse?
The Texans were never really sure what they were getting in Osweiler, who, because of cockamamie free agency rules, never spoke with O’Brien before the team offered franchise QB money. The Texans were coming off a playoff debacle in which Brian Hoyer threw four interceptions in a 30-0 loss to the Chiefs, and they believed Osweiler had both a higher ceiling and a higher floor than Hoyer.
The truth: Osweiler’s actual aptitude as a starting quarterback is still very much a projection. Sunday’s game against the Vikings was just his 12 NFL start, but the success of Carson Wentz in Philadelphia, Dak Prescott in Dallas and (gulp) Trevor Siemian in Denver means more people are having less patience with young QBs struggling to find their way.
Osweiler’s frustrations were clear for all to see when TV cameras caught him slamming his fist against a binder of plays following a stalled drive in the first half. “I definitely could tell we were rattling him a little bit,” Vikings defensive end Brian Robison said.
That’s not unusual for quarterbacks facing the Vikings’ ferocious defense. Coach Mike Zimmer’s trademark double A-gap blitz puts a pair of linebackers right in a quarterback’s face, ready to pounce as soon as the ball is snapped. Because the Vikings stuffed tailback Lamar Miller (eight carries for 14 yards) and because the Texans fell into an early hole, Osweiler faced an even tougher challenge because he spent most of the afternoon in obvious passing situations. He was sacked four times for a loss of 29 yards and, by a rough count, was pressured on about half of his dropbacks.
The measure of a NFL quarterback is determined by how well he handles pressure, and Osweiler isn’t handling it very well. Not only is he buckling when a defender bears down on him, he’s also starting to feel pressure before it arrives. Poor footwork and rushed throws are causing inaccurate throws; look no further than the Texans’ first third down on Sunday, when Osweiler missed receiver Jaelen Strong wide. It was the first of four straight three-and-outs for Houston.
“I don’t think he was comfortable,” Robison said. “We did a good job of once we got him in passing situations, we got around him, we got some hits on him, and we didn’t let him just sit there and look downfield. We had seen it all week [in film study] where—if he was comfortable in the pocket—he was able to throw 40-, 50-yard bombs and score TDs, get big gains, move the chains. And when we were able to get around his feet, he can’t look downfield.”
During Osweiler’s seven starts in Denver last season, he more often than not played with a lead—and he never faced a deficit of more than two scores. On Sunday, the Vikings went up 24-0 before the Texans made a first down. Things felt so impossible for Houston’s offense that the coaches resorted to a screen pass on a fourth-and-16 in the second half. Osweiler wasn’t going to have time to throw downfield, so he dumped the ball early and hoped for the best (the Texans didn’t convert).
Meanwhile in Denver, the Broncos have rolled to a 4-1 start (and a 4-0 record with Siemian as the starter). After the Texans were shutout by the Patriots in Week 3, John Elway told a local radio station that sometimes the deals you don’t make turn out to be the best ones. Evidenced by his sideline conversation with Osweiler on Sunday, O’Brien is entirely focused on proving that statement wrong.
1. Minnesota (5-0). LW: 2. The greatest strength of the NFL’s last unbeaten team has been its ability to withstand injuries. Is there a critical mass? On Monday, right tackle Andre Smith became the fourth offensive starter to land on IR.
3. Pittsburgh (4-1). LW: 6. Ben Roethlisberger’s 15 touchdown passes is the most in franchise history through the first five games of a season. That’s on pace for 48 TD passes this season.
4. Atlanta (4-1). LW: 8. We know what happened to the Falcons last season. They started 5-0, only to finish 8-8. But a road win over the Broncos is a pretty good assurance that this year’s hot start is not fool’s gold. The best news for the Falcons is that they seem to have found a pass rush, led by Vic Beasley.
5. Denver (4-1). LW: 2. Paxton Lynch needs more time to develop, but the Broncos knew that when they drafted him. Now they’re hoping Trevor Siemian’s injured shoulder will be ready in time for a Thursday night division game in San Diego.
6. Green Bay (3-1). LW: 4. The Packers haven’t been fun to watch this year. Every now and then Aaron Rodgers will make one of his special throws—there were a few of those Sunday night—but then the offense will languish again. Such a tease.
7. Seattle (3-1). LW: 7. No easing back in after the bye. The Seahawks are preparing for a red-hot Falcons team that is fresh off defeating the defending Super Bowl champs.
8. Dallas (4-1). LW: 12. Forget the potential future QB controversy for a second. How about the defense? The return of DeMarcus Lawrence from suspension certainly boosted the pass rush.
9. Philadelphia (3-1). LW: 5. Carson Wentz hadn’t had to play from behind until Sunday. The game becomes totally different for a young QB when that happens.
10. Oakland (4-1). LW: 9. One thing to really like about this Raiders team: It’s gutsy. The latest example was going for it on a fourth-and-2 late in the third quarter against San Diego. The result was a Carr-to-Crabtree touchdown that was the go-ahead score.
11. Buffalo (3-2). LW: 16. LeSean McCoy has really responded well to his running backs coach, Anthony Lynn, being promoted to OC. His 18 carries for 150 yards in L.A. amounted to a whopping 8.3 yards per carry average on Sunday.
12. Chiefs (2-2). LW: 12. Which team is better suited to challenge the Broncos for the AFC West crown? The Chiefs’ trip to Oakland this week will be a measuring stick.
13. Washington (3-2). LW: 20. The best outcome on Sunday was news from the Washington Post that team owner Dan Snyder would send Haitian players Pierre Garçon and Ricky Jean-François to deliver medical supplies to the hurricane-ravaged country on Monday.
14. Baltimore (3-2). LW: 10. John Harbaugh foreshadowed his coaching shakeup after the game Sunday, when he said, “we have to find our offense.” That job now belongs to Marty Mornhinweg.
15. Cincinnati (2-3). LW: 14. The roster’s talent says they should be better than 2-3, but the offense and defense have both taken big steps backward from last season.