When DeMeco Ryans returned to where it all started, there was a fuss about the Texans. But few expected this young team to be competitive so quickly.
The former linebacker is a hero in Houston. Drafted in 2006, he immediately made an impact on an expansion team — the NFL’s youngest team after its founding in 2002 — and quickly earned the nickname “Cap.”
He was subsequently named defensive rookie of the year. His command of the defense and his desire to set a good example were so great that he inspired a unit and a city. In 2011, his last season with the Texans, Houston reached the playoffs for the first time.
Ryans also made an immediate impact in his first year as head coach. And the stars are aligned for a return to the postseason.
The Texans haven’t won more than four games in a season since 2019 and have toiled under one-and-done head coaches David Culley and Lovie Smith, whose 3-13 in 2022 paved the way for change.
Ryans is in his first year as Texans coach, but Houston is already thinking about the playoffs
Houston Texans Head Coach DeMeco Ryans celebrates a play with Tavierre Thomas
After ending his playing career in 2015, Ryans learned the ropes under the great Kyle Shanahan and spent six years in San Francisco; the last two as defensive coordinator.
He turned the 49ers’ defense into a formidable unit that ranked No. 1 in the NFL last season. In a packed room, Ryans said at his unveiling in February: ‘To the players who are here, the current players, I can’t wait to get started.
‘I can’t wait to get started with you. I’m excited. This is a young team. We’re on the verge. We’ve got to add some pieces to what we’re doing here, but I’m so excited to get started and get started with the young guys and get started building a winning program with the Texans.
“And I’m excited. The excitement is real and I can’t wait to get started, to start coaching. We want to create a winning team. That’s what we want to bring to Houston.”
It’s easy to sound motivated in such circumstances, but after Sunday’s win over Cincinnati, the Texans are 5-4 and nicely poised for a wild-card spot.
They have won in many ways, beating teams with winning records and sealing close games.
Their season has been enhanced by two factors: the March 2022 trade that saw troubled quarterback Deshaun Watson join Cleveland in exchange for major draft capital — including first-round picks in 2022, 2023 and 2024 — and the recent draft success.
The Houston Texans have not regretted their decision to sign the oft-injured Watson
Watson — who didn’t play the entire 2021 season after allegations of sexual misconduct against him forced a trade from Houston — has played just 12 games for Cleveland after signing a deal worth $230 million guaranteed.
In retrospect, that’s great, but the deal is getting worse by the day. Watson was suspended for the first eleven games of last season. And after his only win in a Browns jersey during Sunday’s dramatic 33-31 come-from-behind victory over Baltimore, he was ruled out for the rest of the season with a shoulder injury.
It means the future looks even brighter for Houston. Although Cleveland has a Super Bowl defense, without their starting quarterback they will likely fall away from the playoff race in a fiercely competitive conference and division.
And the worse they are, the better the Texans’ first-round draft pick will be next year. After a strong draft class in 2022, the Texans also played a blinder this year. The Texans picked second and third overall and saw Alabama quarterback Bryce Young taken by the Carolina Panthers.
Ohio State’s CJ Stroud fell into their lap and defensive end Will Anderson followed. It’s too early to write Young off — he has yet to live up to the hype — as the woeful Panthers have numerous holes, including the offensive line and wide receiver, and play-calling issues.
CJ Stoud has been a sensation thus far, passing for 2,626 yards in his first nine NFL starts
But Stroud has no such problems. While Ryans keeps the pressure off his franchise quarterback (“I’m not asking anyone to come in and be this savior for our team. We’re asking him to come in and put his head down and just work,” he said), Stroud is flourishing.
His 2,626 passing yards are third-most after a rookie’s first nine starts. Only Justin Herbert (2,699 in 2020) and Andrew Luck (2,631 in 2012) have thrown more.
If he continues at this pace, Stroud will be on pace to throw for nearly 5,000 yards and be a shoo-in for Offensive Rookie of the Year – and possibly more. Houston legend JJ Watt – who played a role in Ryan’s appointment – told the Pat McAfee Show: “They now have a franchise quarterback who not only plays the game at an incredibly high level, but also legitimately puts himself in MVP contention.” posted a conversation.
“When you have that and a head coach who is extremely smart, diligent and young and who leads the team and the city in the right way. When you put these pieces together, it’s an incredibly exciting time.”
For sure. Houston (5-3) is a game behind the Jaguars (6-3), but the race for the AFC South is about to get interesting.
The Texans’ next six games are at home against Arizona, Jacksonville and Denver and then on the road at the Jets, Titans and the Watson-less Browns. That gentle schedule is certainly something to be excited about.