Houston Texans quarterback Brock Osweiler is quick to accept the blame.
“It starts with me,” he said after Sunday’s 31-13 loss at Minnesota.
But Texans head coach Bill O’Brien used almost the same words to put the burden of another humbling road trip on his shoulders.
“It starts and ends with me,” the coach said.
What’s clear after five uneven games is the Texans (3-2) haven’t started or ended well away from the friendly confines of NRG Stadium. Two weeks after a 27-0 loss at New England, Osweiler struggled again against a Vikings defense that ended the day No. 1 in the league in fewest yards allowed.
While O’Brien is obviously sensitive to his new $72 million quarterback being the whipping boy for what’s wrong with the defending AFC South Division champions, it would be misleading to suggest the offensive woes don’t start at quarterback.
The Texans trailed 24-6 at halftime and didn’t manage a first down other than by penalty until just before intermission. Osweiler finished 19 of 42 passing for 184 yards with 1 touchdown and 1 interception, but most of the positive numbers came after the game was decided and the Vikings defense shifted back into prevent mode. His 56.1 passer rating was a season low.
After his first three games, Osweiler considered criticism of his play as “hilarious.” But nobody is laughing much now.
Although it was fair to expect an adjustment period for a 25-year-old quarterback who had started just seven games for the Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos, few would have anticipated Osweiler having more interceptions (7) than touchdowns (6) in an offense with Pro Bowl wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and emerging rookie wide receiver Will Fuller.
The Texans enter Sunday night’s home game against the AFC South rival Indianapolis Colts (2-3) with an offense that ranks 31st in points scored (16.4 per game), 29th in passing yards (208.6) and 27th in total yards (310.4).
Osweiler boiled over on the sideline against the Vikings as a camera showed him cursing and slamming his fist down in frustration after speaking with O’Brien.
“I need to do my job better,” Osweiler said. “I need to play better. Especially on the road.”
O’Brien tried to sound reassuring.
“I thought he battled,” the coach said. “Again, I think it starts and ends with me.”
That’s what a coach is supposed to say. But in the NFL, a head coach and team is often only as good as the quarterback. And Osweiler knows he’s not getting it done. The Texans knew they were going to need more offense, too, after their top-notch defense lost three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt to a season-ending back injury.
“It’s disappointing,” Osweiler said. “I felt like I had a great week of practice. I felt like our entire football team had a great week of practice. I was very confident coming into this game. I knew we had a great challenge ahead of us, but I felt confident with what we could do.”
What should be alarming is Osweiler’s inability to throw the ball consistently well down the field. Too often he’s quick to accept a safe checkdown pass. He is averaging just 6.04 yards per pass attempt, including 4.4 yards per attempt against the Vikings.
Hopkins, who went to his first Pro Bowl last year, had only a 4-yard catch in a home win against Tennessee the previous week. Against the Vikings, “Hop” padded his stats with a late touchdown catch to finish with 5 catches for 56 yards.
Hopkins has 22 receptions for 283 yards, a 12.8-yard average, with 3 scores. Fuller, a first-round pick from Notre Dame, has 20 receptions for 327 yards, a 16.4-yard average, with 2 scores. But the rookie managed only a 4-yard catch against the Vikings.
Osweiler’s overall passer rating of 70.6 ranks 31st among NFL quarterbacks with at least two starts. He’s had three Texans games with a passer rating below 70. He didn’t experience any such numbers in Denver. His decision to spurn Denver’s offer to stay prompted Broncos executive vice president/general manager John Elway to suggest in a radio interview, “A lot of times those deals you don’t make are the best ones.”
What makes the Osweiler experiment even more frustrating for fans is the quarterback they didn’t keep, Brian Hoyer, appears to have unseated the injured Jay Cutler as the Chicago Bears’ starter. Hoyer, whose $2 million salary is $16 million less than Osweiler’s, has passed for 1,094 yards and 6 touchdowns without an interception.
And it’s not like the Texans can’t run the ball to provide offensive balance and take some of the pressure off their passer. A rushing attack led by Lamar Miller, signed as a free agent, is 15th in the league (101.8 per game). Miller is averaging 3.7 yards on his 101 carries and backup Alfred Blue is averaging 5 yards on his 17 carries.
Offensive left tackle Duane Brown, who made his first start of the season, insisted Osweiler isn’t the reason the Texans have sputtered.
“Nah, it’s not his fault,” Brown said. “No one person can take the blame for this. We have to continue to do a better job protecting him, giving him time back there. We have to do a better job of running the ball when it’s time to run the ball.”