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Rams-Texans: A battle of the NFL’s haves and have-nots at a time of great talent disparity

Has there ever been a time of greater difference between the league’s good teams and bad teams?

Carolina Panthers v Houston Texans Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

The NFC features five teams with zero or one loss and that is five more such teams than the AFC. Over in that conference, the Cincinnati Bengals currently hold the number one seed with a 5-2 record, while playoff mainstays like the New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, Kansas City Chiefs, Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos find themselves on the outside-looking-in after seven weeks.

There’s been a lot more surface-level “parity” in the AFC this season and it’s not that hard to diagnose why: with Tom Brady’s New England exit, the retirements of players like Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers, and the early “on-field retirement” of Ben Roethlisberger, the balance of power has shifted.

The top-six seeds currently belong to Justin Herbert, Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson, Ryan Tannehill, Derek Carr, and Joe Burrow. Other than a down season by Patrick Mahomes, that all makes sense. Mahomes leads the NFL in interceptions right now but is also on pace to throw more than 40 touchdowns and the Chiefs are surely still a contender because of his presence.

The balance of power in the NFC is also not hard to figure out, it’s just that the disparity between the haves and have-nots is so much more clear to the naked eye.

There isn’t a team below .500 that is getting good play out of its quarterback (Bears, Panthers, Eagles, WFT, Giants, 49ers, Seahawks, Lions) and the near-.500 teams (Falcons, Vikings, Saints) are also a clear step below the five teams that are 7-0, 6-1, or 5-1:

The Cardinals and Kyler Murray.

The Packers and Aaron Rodgers.

The Bucs and Tom Brady.

The Cowboys and Dak Prescott.

The Rams and Matthew Stafford.

Most of these teams don’t just have good quarterbacks, they’ve also attracted many other talented players away from the NFL’s have-nots because perhaps never before have players had this much of an opportunity to chase the chance to play for a good team.

Tom Brady chose the Bucs, then so did Rob Gronkowski and Antonio Brown. New England lost Brady and they’re now 10-13 without him. Their three wins this season are over the Texans once and the Jets twice.

Since drafting Murray, the Cardinals plucked DeAndre Hopkins from the Texans, A.J. Green from the Bengals, J.J. Watt from the Texans, Kelvin Beachum and James Conner from the Steelers, and Rodney Hudson from the Raiders. Arizona also recently traded for Zach Ertz.

So too, have the Rams benefited from the model of getting better by making other teams worse, adding Jalen Ramsey from the Jaguars, Matthew Stafford from the Lions, Leonard Floyd from the Bears, also adding Andrew Whitworth from the Bengals, Sony Michel from the Patriots, Robert Woods from the Bills, and A’Shawn Robinson from Detroit.

Whether you find this to be “standard practice” or not, the end result is that the LA Rams are clearly trying to win the Super Bowl.

The Houston Texans are clearly trying to lose every game as if it carried the same energy as getting to the Super Bowl.

And over the last couple of years, teams like the Texans have intentionally or unintentionally served as minor league clubs that are just warming up good football prospects for better organizations.

It was barely more than a year ago that Bill O’Brien was Houston’s head coach, and less than a year ago that Deshaun Watson was the starting quarterback. Dating back to the 2019 Texans team that beat the Buffalo Bills in a wild card playoff game, that roster had Watson, Hopkins, Laremy Tunsil, Will Fuller, Watt, Whitney Mercilus, D.J. Reader, and Bernardrick McKinney.

All of those players are now gone, with the exceptions of Tunsil and Watson, the latter of which will be traded or released before he ever plays for Houston.

The former of which was a monumental error—perhaps by both franchises, given what the Dolphins did with the return on investment.

When the Rams face the Texans this Sunday in Week 8, it might even make you pine a little bit for the 0-7 Detroit Lions who posed little threat to LA’s win-loss record last weekend. We all tune in for the competition of football, even as we try to keep the fear of losing at bay for 60 minutes. There’s no greater feeling as a sports fan than feeling like you’re watching the best against the best.

So many NFL games in 2021 instead feel like you’re watching one team race to the Super Bowl against a franchise that is cutting dead weight for a chance at the highest possible draft pick. In the NFC, the regular season especially seems to be a formality until we reach the playoffs.

What other storylines are you waiting for other than a “Brady-Dak-Stafford-Murray-Rodgers” postseason tournament? There doesn’t seem to be anything else on the horizon, barring an unexpected eruption of talent from Justin Fields or Trey Lance, a midseason comeback of the ages for Russell Wilson, or the unlikely improvement of Jameis Winston to be good enough to win a wild card playoff game on the road.

It’s a five-team race in the NFC to get to the Super Bowl, and the Rams are in the thick of it.

Meanwhile, it’s at least a five-team race to the number one pick (the Jets may get two lottery balls in that raffle) and since embarrassing Jacksonville in Week 1, the Houston Texans are doing everything possible to not field a professional football team.

While Week 7’s game against the Lions gave us D’Andre Swift, T.J. Hockenson, Penei Sewell, and some surprisingly good seasons by Kalif Raymond (the next Robby Anderson?), Amon-Ra St. Brown, Quintez Cephus, and Jamaal Williams, you won’t see near the offensive talent from the Texans on Sunday. Even Jared Goff gives his team a better chance to win than Houston’s offerings, whether it is Tyrod Taylor returning after a six-week absence, or Davis Mills, a third round rookie QB who only threw 18 touchdowns in his college career at Stanford.

By comparison, Goff is Stafford.

The decision to make Deshaun Watson a healthy scratch every week is as much about business as it is about the allegations against him. The Texans want to trade Watson for as much as they can get and there’s no reason to put him at risk when there’s no other goal besides rebuilding for the future. Taylor was outstanding to begin the season, but it’s never been surprising to see him play well against teams like Jacksonville.

Texans head coach David Culley said that the team will see how Taylor plays in practice this week and evaluate his status again on Wednesday. Whether it is Taylor or Mills, this is the supporting cast:

OT: Charlie Heck (four career starts), Tytus Howard (29 career starts) (Tunsil on IR)

G: Max Scharping (29 career starts), Geron Christian (10 career starts)

C: Justin Britt (released by Seahawks, didn’t play in 2020)

WR: Brandin Cooks

WR: Chris Conley (7 catches on 298 snaps played)

WR: Chris Moore (3 receptions with Ravens over previous 2 seasons)

TE: Pharoah Brown (was unsigned last September, working way up from practice squad)

RB: Mark Ingram (92 carries, 294 yards, 1 TD, 3.2 YPC, seven catches, 24 yards)

Brandin Cooks has 502 receiving yards, but the next-most on the team is 154 by running back David Johnson. Tight end Jordan Akins and receiver Nico Collins may also be involved this Sunday, but realistically, the majority of Houston’s starters probably won’t be starting one year from now. Not just for the Texans, but anywhere in the league.

Many of Houston’s starters may not be rostered at all in two years. Which is fine by the Texans, because they can’t wait to start building a new team and for this one to do their part in getting the franchise a high draft pick.

Defensively, the Texans may have found a winner in defensive end Jonathan Greenard, as the 2020 third round pick has six sacks in only five games. In large part because of the Laremy Tunsil trade though, there just isn’t much else to build around.

The Houston Texans rank 31st in scoring and points per drive, 32nd in yards per carry and first downs, 30th in yards per drive and rushing yards, 29th in total yards and passing yards and rushing touchdowns, 28th in turnovers. They are also 32nd in DVOA on offense and 30th overall.

Defensively, the Texans rank 31st in rushing yards allowed, 29th in points per drive and yards per pass attempt allowed, 27th in points allowed, and 26th in yards allowed.

This is not to say that Houston can’t win. It is maybe to say that Houston—in the greater sense of the word and not in the matter of the players or coaches—doesn’t want to win. They don’t seem to be alone or lonely on that mission.

Because as easy as it can feel to turn the light on when you acquire Tom Brady or Matthew Stafford, there is also the other side to the switch; light can’t exist without darkness. Rams-Texans is just one of many games this year that will highlight that vast disparity in talent as teams attempt to both rebuild and reload.

Can the Texans players override Texans management this weekend?