Richard Justice: Lovie may have lost his nerve at the end, but the Texans have us curious to see more

NFL team Houston Texans logo on waving jersey fabric. Editorial 3D rendering

Richard Justice: Lovie may have lost his nerve at the end, but the Texans have us curious to see more

   This being the Texans first game of a new season and all, how’s about we keep things positive?

   Once when Darrell Royal was lecturing some of us about always looking for the negative, one of my peers offered this:

   “Well, coach, people don’t want to know about the thousand cats that didn’t get stuck in a tree.”

   That one brought the conversation to a halt, and as I remember it, Royal got the blankest of blank looks on his face and said nothing.

   At that moment, one of the wisest of wise crackers got bested by a kid from The Daily Texan.

   We digress.

   The Texans and Colts played to a 20-20 tie on Sunday, and while the oddsmakers say that’s an upset, it feels way different to Texans fans.

   The Texans had a 20-3 lead midway through the third quarter when two things happened. Actually three things happened:

   1. The Texans offense was stopped in its tracks by the Colts. On their next four possessions, the Texans went punt, fumble, punt, punt. Only the first of those drives—the one that chewed 6:30 off the clock—was productive.

   2. One lousy turnover. The killer was Colts pass-rusher EJ Speed barreling into Davis Mills and forcing the football loose at 20-6. That’s the gift that sent the game in the wrong direction. Indianapolis had to go just 20 yards for the touchdown that made it 20-13, and everyone in the stadium sensed where this one was headed.

   3. As head coach Lovie Smith said later, the Texans defense was pretty close to gassed by that point. But the Colts had to work for what they got: 76 yards for a field goal and 80 for the tying touchdown. If the Texans had mustered a couple of decent drives, the defense might have had more left in the tank. 

   That’s why Smith lost his nerve in overtime and settled for a tie when he punted the ball away on fourth-and-three at the Indy 49 with 26 seconds left in overtime rather than risk giving the Colts a final possession near midfield.

   On the morning after, I’m guessing every single Texans fan would disagree with that decision. This is the start of a new era. This organization says winning matters.

   So why not go for it? In a rebuilding season, in a game in which three rookies were in the starting lineup, show us a little swagger and tell your players you belief three yards is doable.

   In the end, win or lose, this game is another brick in the wall. Also, this: rookie Dameon Pierce should have been on the field for the third-and-one play in which Rex Burkhead was dropped for a two-yard loss.

   Pierce was the biggest reason Texans fans toted some optimism into this season because he’d had an electrifying preseason. He carried just 11 times for 33 yards as the Texans offensive line got manhandled up front by the Colts.

   That why the Texans got smoked in the numbers game: 90 plays and 517 total yards for the Colts and 68 plays and 299 yards for the Texans. The Texans averaged just 2.8 yards per rush, and if that number doesn’t improve, defenses will simply line up and tee off on Mills with no concern for the run. Pierce may not change those numbers, but that’s what rebuilding seasons are about.

   Smith said Burkhead is a better receiver, and therefore offered a better option than Pierce in the overtime. I’d still take the potential game breaker. What do you have to lose?

    Strip it all away, and there was lots to like: Mills did not throw an interception and showed poise in a pocket that seemed to collapse around him in an instant. Wide receiver Brandon Cooks was excellent in catching seven balls. Two of general manager Nick Caserio’s additions—defensive tackle Jerry Hughes and tight end O.J. Howard—were excellent. 

   Even when the Texans were up 17 points, it still felt as if they were down by a touchdown. That’s probably a byproduct of all those year of watching Peyton Manning and the Colts calmly take control of games even when the Texans occasionally ran up a lead.

   In 37-year-old Matt Ryan, the Colts have a veteran presence who, while not exactly Manning, gives his team a sense of calm even when all heck is breaking loose around him.

 Ryan is the guy a team with Super Bowl aspirations signs. He’s also one of the players Mills aspires to be. Did you see the Indy sideline? Even when, it was 20-3, there was no panic. It was one play at a time, keep grinding, keep playing.

The Colts withstood a nice burst from the Texans, made adjustments, plugged holes, stayed after it. One missed field goal—a 42-yarder by Rodrigo Blankenship with two minutes remaining in overtime—cost them a win.

In that way, the Texans got lucky, and that may be why Lovie Smith lost his nerve and punted at the end. It’ll be interesting to see how the Texans handled a brutal stretch that begins with back-to-back road games against the Broncos and Bears followed by a home game against a Chargers team that is a popular Super Bowl pick. These games will offer some context for an opening Sunday that surely made all of us curious for more.

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