In a game that neither coach seemed interesting in winning, the Texans, mercifully, beat the Cowboys in overtime, 19-16, in a matchup that will be best remembered for questionable play calls from Bill O’Brien and Jason Garrett. O’Brien, the Texans’ fifth-year coach, got in on the action early (we get into the details below) while Garrett, in his ninth year with the Cowboys, saved his worst for last.
After getting the ball first in overtime, the Cowboys moved 33 yards on six plays, down to the Texans’ 42-yard line. On fourth and 1, with one of the league’s most dynamic backs in Ezekiel Elliott, and a chance at victory on the line, Garrett decided that punting would give his team the best chance to win.
Four plays later, this happened:
And four plays after that, Houston kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn striped the game-winner. The loss isn’t squarely on Garrett, but he did his team no favors with his conservative late-game decisions.
The Texans probably aren’t winning the division
This will no doubt follow us for the rest of the season and possibly beyond, but here it is: We picked the Texans to win the AFC South. Our thinking was sound (or at least we like to think as much): Deshaun Watson threw 19 touchdowns in seven games before he tore his ACL in November 2017, ending his Rookie of the Year campaign.
Not only that, but J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus were finally healthy, Tyrann Mathieu joined the team in free agency, and Romeo Crennel was resuming defensive play-calling duties. And the offensive line, which was a looming issue last season, had several new faces. But we didn’t account for Bill O’Brien, the fifth-year coach whose curious in-game decisions have a lot to do with why Texans aren’t better than their 2-3 record.
Bill O’Brien isn’t helping his young quarterback
Those questionable calls were on full display on Sunday night, the lowlight coming late in the first half when — to his credit! — O’Brien went for it on fourth-and-goal from inside the 1-yard line. But instead of having Watson under center where he could easily run the quarterback sneak and give the Texans a 17-6 halftime lead, O’Brien instead had Watson in the shotgun, trying to find an open receiver in an end zone full of Cowboys defenders. Watson eventually tried to scramble for the score and instead met his untimely demise at the hands of linebacker Jaylon Smith.
This was a recurring theme, by the way; Smith spent much of the evening shadowing Watson, who spent much of the evening absorbing brutal hits and peeling himself off the turf. By the end of regulation, the second-year quarterback, battered and exhausted, was on the sidelines getting examined by the medical staff. And this isn’t to say Watson didn’t play well, all things considered, just that his coach did him no favors with the play-calling.
Put another way: There’s no reason the Texans shouldn’t have easily won this game. Outside of Elliott, the Cowboys have no offense to speak of. They came into Week 5 ranked 23rd in offense, according to Football Outsiders, third in rushing and 28th in passing. So naturally, you’d think Dallas would just lean on Elliott. One problem: Houston’s 18th-ranked overall defense is 29th against the pass but second against the run. Immovable object, irresistible force and all that.
That drive ended in a field goal.
That drive also ended in a field goal.
But on the next drive, the Cowboys threw three passes to wide receivers, all three were incomplete, and they punted. The drive after that, late in the first half that set up O’Brien’s weird fourth-and-goal decision we mentioned above, was good for 10 plays, and ended when Prescott misfired in Tavon Austin’s direction:
If the Cowboys can’t take advantage of the Texans’ porous pass defense, they should have no chance to win, right?
You’d think. But again, we’d point you to O’Brien. Apparently having learned nothing from the goal-line series just before the half, O’Brien and the Texans again found themselves first-and-goal from the Cowboys’ 1-yard line with 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter and the game tied, 13-13. A normal person might think to try Watson under center on first down, to facilitate a quarterback sneak.
Nope. Watson lined up in shotgun, handed off and Alfred Blue went for no gain. On second down, Watson finally was under center where he was stopped for no gain. That was enough for O’Brien, apparently, who had Watson in shotgun again on third down, and again he threw incomplete and it wasn’t even close. The Texans settled for a field goal.
So instead of being up seven with 8:31 to go, Houston led by a field goal. And on the very first play of the next drive, Prescott did this:
Prescott spent much of the evening breaking tackles in the backfield and willing balls downfield. Some throws were ill-advised; others, like this one, were jaw-dropping. Thing is, it shouldn’t have mattered. Yes, the Cowboys’ drive stalled at the Houston 30, and yes they had to settle for a field goal, but if O’Brien hadn’t so terribly botched the play-calling, the Texans would’ve led by no fewer than four points (and, realistically, they could’ve been up by two touchdowns).
The Cowboys still don’t have reliable wide receivers
This isn’t news; the team cut Dez Bryant in the spring, and no real plan to replace him ever materialized. Coming into the game, Cole Beasley led the team with 16 receptions, followed by Elliott (15), Swaim (11), Deonte Thompson (9) and Allen Hurns (7). Against the Texans, the Cowboys leading receiver? Elliott, with six grabs, followed by Swaim, who had three. Hurns made his one catch count — it was Dallas’ only touchdown:
We mention that because of this:
And we’ll take this opportunity to bring home the same point we’ve been making since the offseason: After the Cowboys’ success in 2016, it sure looked like they were following the same strategy as the Eagles and Rams. Take advantage of a young quarterback on his rookie deal, and use that salary-cap surplus stock the roster with talent and depth at other positions. Philadelphia parlayed that into its first Lombardi Trophy and Los Angeles spent the offseason making the case that it’s the NFC’s best team despite the Eagles‘ recent title. Dallas has opted for a different, less successful path, and now find themselves at 2-3 with no short-term solutions in sight.
The Texans (2-3) host the the NFL’s most unpredictable team, the Buffalo Bills (2-3), who are fresh off their second win of the season, courtesy of the Titans in a game that set football back 100 years.