Texans 18, Broncos 17: 4 Winners, 4 Losers
I don't think I'm breaking any new ground with that white-hot take. Unless you're completely into the 90-to-75 cutdown bubble, or you're a degenerate gambler, there's not a whole lot of compelling stuff going on in the fourth quarter of a Preseason Week 3 game.
And so it was on Saturday night that me and my Sports Radio 610 colleagues, Mike Meltser and Seth Payne, sat in the studio watching the fourth quarter seconds tediously fall off of the clock, every one second feeling like it took ten seconds, as we waited to host the post game show for the Texans-Broncos preseason "game."
At the time, the Broncos led 17-10, and were lining up for a 36 yard field goal that would give them a 20-10 lead, effectively icing the game. I stared at the television with the same blank stare I'd had the entire second half, wondering what compelling angle we could possibly pull from this snooze for a three hour post game show.
"This is what it must feel like to write a eulogy for one of those weird recluses on Hoarders," I thought to myself.
Then, it happened.
Something called a Mitch Ewald missed the 36 yard field goal, leaving the "Hey, this is still a one score game!" door open for the Texans.
Out trotted young Tom Savage (It's a rule that any rookie quarterback drafted after the third round shall have the word "young" placed in front of his name for the entirety of the preseason. Live it, know it, love it, people.).
Throughout the preseason, the Texans have handled Savage with kid gloves, not really allowing him to throw the ball down the field, bringing him in mostly just to hand the ball off to any of the number of guys vying for carries behind a still dormant-in-games Arian Foster. Up until Saturday, Savage's preseason had been noteworthy only because a) he almost was decapitated by a sack on a blitz late in the Arizona game (a play that got non-blitz-picking-up Dennis Johnson fired) and b) he was brought in during the second quarter in the Atlanta game as a "let's see what the rookie can do when we surprise him with PLAYING TIME" substitution.
Well, that all changed Saturday night.
Looking like a wily veteran, Tom Savage drove the Texans 74 yards in nine plays, going 5 for 6 on the drive, including a third down conversion and a fourth down conversion (and a TWO POINT conversion -- shit ton of converting going on) to lead the Texans on a late game comeback and steal an 18-17 win from the Denver Broncos
It was five minutes of football that was either surprising, refreshing, clarifying, or terrifying, depending on who you are (and likely, where you graduated from -- #WhoseHouse). Winners and losers in that moment, winners and losers all game long.
Here are a few...
4. Tom Savage
Now more than ever, with the Texans' clearly viewing practice (especially these practices with other NFL teams) as a suitable substitute for actual preseason games (more on this in a second), we have to temper just how much we feel the game performances count toward the final grade of a player. Now, Savage has never been in danger of losing his spot on this team. The Texans invested a fourth round pick in him, and Savage has enough NFL skills to where they would never cut him nor expose him by putting him on the practice squad (and essentially making him available for the other 31 teams). But up until now, in games at least (and publicly in practice) we'd really seen nothing from Savage. Nothing really good, nothing really terrible. Just a big null set. Until Saturday. Granted, it was against the Broncos scrubs, but hey, 5-6 for 68 yards with two huge "elimination down" type conversions is pretty encouraging. Of the storylines remaining in the preseason, "quarterbacks behind Ryan Fitzpatrick" was already a compelling one -- Savage firmly put "only carry two QB's on the 53-man roster" in play on Saturday. (Bad news, Coogs. More on this, too, in a second.)
3. Travis Labhart
I said this in my Broncos game preview Friday:
Aggie on Aggie violence! This is what it felt like when the Hardy Brothers split up and fought each other at Wrestlemania 25 here in Houston! EXACT. SAME. THING. So what are the stakes? Well, if the Texans opt to take a sixth wide receiver into the regular season, it'll likely be one of these two -- Nwachukwu, who's played consistently throughout the preseason and gives the Texans a downfield threat, and Labhart, who just seems to get open all the damn time and embodies every cliche of a white slot receiver that you can invoke (i.e. sure hands, high football IQ, runs precise routes, high motor, etc.).
Well, Labhart won this battle with his finisher (which would definitely be called the "Precise Route" if he were an actual WWE superstar), a two point conversion to put the Texans ahead. Add to that a clutch catch on fourth down, along with a training camp where he's been consistent the entire month, and I would have a hard time leaving him off the 53-man roster. (I have zero clue if anyone important agrees with me, it's just how I feel.)
How bored was I during portions of this game? Well, at one point, I tried to put together an entire defensive formation in which the Texans could field an all-dreadlocks eleven. I came close. The secondary is easy -- Marcus Williams and Josh Victorian at cornerback, D.J. Swearinger and Kendrick Lewis at safety. At linebacker, we may have to get creative and just put our "four best LB's with dreadlocks" out there regardless of "inside" or "outside" skill sets -- Jadeveon Clowney, Justin Tuggle, Quentin Groves, and Jason Ankrah. The problem is the defensive line, where only Ricardo Mathews rocks the dreads. Hopefully, when teams are cutting their rosters down the next two days, a few lineman with the slithery snakes emerging from their scalps come available, and Rick Smith takes my boredom into account. (I am winking at the fourth wall and making the "air pistol bro" gesture to Rick Smithright now, in case you're wondering.)
1. Brandon Brooks
It was a pleasant surprise when Brooks was activated earlier this week, an even more pleasant surprise to see him starting on Saturday night, and an even more pleasant surprise to see him take the second most snaps on offense (55 snaps!). What I'm saying is, BRANDON BROOKS, YOU'RE JUST FULL OF SURPRISES! And we love you for that! (In all seriousness, Brooks' return before the regular season is huge.)
4. Case Keenum
Hey look, I love Case Keenum (despite what some of you claim), and I totally understand the Coog faithful backing him until the bitter end (despite what some of you have threatened to do to my dog), but this just isn't working out. Keenum's numbers again weren't terrible (11-18, 74 yards), but he didn't get the team into the end zone, and the eyeball test tells you that he's always one synapse away from a back breaking, soul crushing turnover or negative play. There may be a spot in this league for Keenum (I hear Baltimore is hiring!), I just think at this point that a) a quarterback on the waiver wire or b) any of players 50 through 53 on this roster will be a better alternative for Houston. No harm, no foul.
3. D.J. Swearinger
With his constant yapping and trash talking, how annoying is D.J. Swearinger? Well, annoying enough to bait Peyton Manning into an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Saturday night. Granted, it was with five seconds left in the half, so it was a freebie (acknowledged as such by Peyton after the game), but still. My guess is Peyton's run at D.J. right after his second touchdown pass in about a minute on the Texans' secondary had as much to do with the three days of practice (in which Swearinger was his usual geyser of trash-babble) as it did the hit Swearinger put on Wes Welker the play before, a marginal penalty that left Welker concussed. And here's the problem -- in addition to the league wide scorn of his peers gathering steam (Hard Knocks fueled a lot of that), Swearinger is becoming a number that refs look for on plays like the Welker hit. He's becoming a guy who will never get the benefit of the doubt. And the problem with that is that Swearinger's performance play-to-play has not caught up to where it cancels out the perpetual risk of crippling 15 yard "reputation" penalties. It's gotten better, but my concern is he'll need to become a near Pro Bowler to make it a wash.
2. Fans who only get to see the Texans live in the preseason
At the Atlanta game last week, the second game of the Texans' preseason, our station had a bunch of listeners up in the CBS suite, winners of a contest that week. In talking to all of them, I was amazed at how many of these folks were attending their first ever Texans game. I understand tickets are expensive and money is tight, but most of these folks were lifelong Houstonians, so I guess I figured they'd have fallen into tickets at some point. Regardless, I was glad they got to go! However, it got me thinking that it had to be disappointing for them to not see J.J. Watt or Arian Foster or Andre Johnson in person, even if it would've only been for ten or twelve plays. In the past, the Texans would've played relatively healthy starters a full half in that game (and three quarters on Saturday against Denver). Clearly, Bill O'Brien sees the intersquad practices with Atlanta and Denver as suitable game replacements, as is his right. It just sucks for the people who never, ever get to games and hope to see their favorites for a few plays. I'm guessing the stadium was full of Texan fans a couple weeks ago who can only afford the broker prices on a preseason game to bring their family (tickets reportedly dipped online to around twenty bucks before kickoff), and instead of seeing J.J. Watt chase passers for a quarter, they watch him clowning with teammates on the bench. I don't think there's a fix for this either. This is how it's going to be. The fix may, unfortunately, be for fans to recalibrate their expectations of what they'll see in the preseason when they buy a ticket.
1. National pundits who backed Matt Schaub
This might deserve a separate post, but suffice it to say that any national (or local, actually especially local) talking heads out there who decided to spew the rhetoric that Matt Schaub just needed a "change of scenery," like he was somehow swept under by the Texans' 2-14 season in 2013, and not the root cause of it, well you all suck at watching football. Friday night, Schaub went an entirely underwhelming and pedestrian 13-27 for 110 yards, a positively boring dump off of a game to cap off a preseason where he has compiled a wretched 55.1 passer rating. At this point, I'm just hoping Oakland waits until Week 3 to bench Schaub. (NOTE: Texans...Raiders...WEEK 2! ON CBS!!)
But hey, we will always have the Raiders' 2014 marketing campaign...