These are trying times for the Houston Texans. They just finished a 4-13 season, bad enough to earn them the dubious distinction of owning the third overall pick in the upcoming NFL Draft.
It was the second year in a row the team won only four games, resulting in the team firing its head coach for the second year in a row.
With all that, there is the continuing legal matters confronting who had been their starting quarterback, DeShaun Watson. It seems inevitable that Watson will be traded, but what kind of return can the Texans get?
Then there was the matter of hiring the replacement for David Culley, who was fired after one season as head coach. The Texans flirted with the idea of hiring Josh McCown, a former quarterback whose only qualification for being an NFL head coach is being friendly with a key member of the Texans’ front office.
The ridicule of the notion turned to outright concern when the other known candidate for the job, Brian Flores, filed a lawsuit against the NFL for its lack of minority head-coaching hires.
It all culminated with the Texans hiring from within, promoting defensive coordinator Lovie Smith, who once coached the Chicago Bears to the Super Bowl.
And for all the chaos and criticism swirling around Texans, Smith is resolute in his belief that the Texans are on the precipice of something special.
Smith sees what happened with the 2021 Bengals and poses a simple question: ‘Why not us?’
There was another team besides the Texans that won only four games in 2020.
The Cincinnati Bengals had already drafted Joe Burrow before the 2020 season, then brought in Ja’Marr Chase to catch Burrow’s passes in 2021. The rest was history. The Bengals improved to 10-7 in 2021, won the AFC North division title, then pulled off clutch victory after clutch victory to reach Super Bowl 56, before falling one last-minute drive short of the title.
The ability to make such a rapid turnaround was not lost on Smith.
“We won four games this year. The Bengals won four the year before, and this was a big year for them,” Smith told NBC Sports’ Peter King earlier this week. “We don’t have to wonder — we just saw a team do it. Someone’s going to make that jump. Someone always does. Why not us?”
When it comes to turnarounds, Smith has been there, done that with Chicago
Smith does know a little something about returning a franchise from the ashes to championship glory.
The Chicago Bears had endured seven losing seasons in a span of eight years before Smith was named head coach before the 2004 season. And though Smith — who had earned his coaching reputation as defensive coordinator of the great St. Louis Rams teams that went to two Super Bowls and won one in 1999 — endured another losing year in his inaugural season as an NFL head coach, the struggle did not last long.
In Smith’s second season in Chicago, the Bears improved from 5-11 to 11-5. Then in 2006, Smith took the 13-3 Bears all the way to the Super Bowl with Rex Grossman as his quarterback. Smith would get the Bears back to the NFC Championship Game in 2010 and had a 10-6 season in 2012
Is Davis Mills the next Burrow? Smith will settle for another Grossman
Is Davis Mills the 2022 version of Grossman? Mills, a third-round pick out of Stanford in 2021, gave the Texans solid play at the quarterback position, leading the team to half its wins over the final five games of the season as the starter, throwing nine touchdowns against two interceptions.
The Texans are likely to use the No. 3 pick on a defensive stud, a player who could evoke memories of Brian Urlacher in Chicago, as the 2006 Bears relied on defense, special-teams standout Devin Hester, and a running back combo of Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson to reach the Super Bowl.
If the Texans are able to acquire draft picks for Watson, building a winning unit around Mills becomes more realistic.
“What gives me optimism is … I got a chance to see Davis Mills,” Smith told King. “How many special quarterbacks are there out there? There’s a few. But there’s a lot of good quarterbacks. I think we will have a good quarterback for the Houston Texans. We have the third pick in the draft right now. There’s a possibility of us getting a great quarterback added to our team, or a lot of draft picks to get in more players. Something positive’s going to come out of that.”
Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference