C.J. Stroud, Houston Texans are ahead of schedule despite playoff loss

In his first season with the Houston Texans, DeMeco Ryans won as many games as the team had won in the previous three years combined. Even if it took Ryans three years to win 10 games, a playoff game, and the AFC South division title, Texans fans would have understood that patience was necessary after going 11-38-1 since 2020. But then Ryans accomplished all three of those things and he did it in his first year on the job.

Houston can’t be happy with their 34-10 loss to the Baltimore Ravens in Saturday’s divisional playoff game. But the Texans must be elated that not long after being cited as having one of the worst rosters in the NFL, the team has rising stars at head coach, quarterback, and all over general manager Nick Caserio’s roster.

The Great

Most quarterbacks wait years until their first taste of playoff success—and playoff failures that create necessary wounds to learn from—but C.J. Stroud enters his second season with a little bit of both.

Stroud concludes one of the best rookie seasons ever by a quarterback with a dominant playoff win over the Browns and a difficult playoff loss to the Ravens in which Houston offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik lost a showdown to Baltimore defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald.

In fact, if Slowik doesn’t get a head coaching job after these playoffs and returns to the Texans, it’s another reason to believe that Stroud’s development curve this season will continue on an upward trajectory in 2024.

Stroud went 19-of-33 for 175 yards against Baltimore, one of the top defenses in the NFL, but can still work off of the three-touchdown performance he had in the Wild Card win and the NFL-best 1% interception rate he posted in the regular season. Stroud also led the NFL in passing yards per game as a rookie.

But Stroud’s return next season will hardly be the only reason to expect the Texans offense to continue to get better.

Receivers Nico Collins and Tank Dell are on rookie contracts, although Collins may get an extension this offseason after posting 80 catches and 1,297 yards in 15 games. Dell, a third-round pick out of Houston who had his own run at rookie of the year prior to being injured and missing the last six games, will also be back for another season and we’ll never know what kind of impact he could have had in these playoffs.

The Texans will probably want to bring back free agents Dalton Schultz and Devin Singletary and with $71 million in cap space—third-most in the NFL—Houston should be able to do that and continue to add beyond them to lift up an offense that ranked 14th in points per drive, 29th in yards per carry, eighth in net yards per pass attempt, and 19th in third down conversion rate.

The other great besides Stroud and the bright future of Slowik’s offense is DeMeco Ryans. The Texans defense improved tremendously in Ryans’ first season as head coach after previously being the 49ers defensive coordinator in one of their most dominant seasons, but there will be more room to improve after ranking 13th in points per drive allowed and 27th in net yards per pass attempt allowed.

The Texans had their struggles against Lamar Jackson on Saturday, but at least that was a common theme during the 2023 season. If your defense loses to the probable MVP, maybe the biggest lesson to learn is that you should try to avoid playing against the MVP.

Jackson had by far the best playoff game of his career, going 16-of-22 for 152 yards with two touchdowns, but also rushing for 100 yards and two touchdowns.

The Texans went from one of the five worst defenses in football to one of the 15-best, which is a tremendous improvement already. But Ryans can see from losses like this one, including against a team that might have the best defense in the NFL, that Houston has plenty of room left to grow on that side of the ball.

The Good

There is more hope for the defense than there would have been 1-2 years ago because the Texans have been putting in work to replenish that side of the ball. In 2024, cornerback Derek Stingley, linebacker Christian Harris, and safety Jalen Pitre will be going into their third seasons, while edge rusher Will Anderson will be going into his second.

Anderson, the third overall pick, had seven sacks on the season but has room to improve. Harris, a star during the playoffs, is a perfect match for Ryans as head coach. Stingley has become one of the stingiest corners in the NFL already, allowing a passer rating of only 41.3 on throws in his direction.

There were glimpses of how good the Texans defense could be in the playoffs and reason to suspect that between them and the other three teams in their division, Houston could have the best defense, the best quarterback, and the best head coach in the AFC South.

The Future

The Houston Texans lost on Saturday, but probably “won the season” as much as any other team in football other than the team that wins the Super Bowl.

In the last 12 months, the Texans added DeMeco Ryans as a head coach, drafted the best rookie quarterback of this or any of the previous five classes, went from four wins to 10 wins, won the division, won a playoff game, kept their GM from leaving for the Patriots, added Will Anderson and Tank Dell, and they still even have a first round pick in 2024 despite trading up for Anderson last year.

Houston didn’t win the AFC or even get to the AFC Championship, but they definitely aren’t losers.

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