The energy in the locker room was palpable postgame, as DeMeco Ryans addressed his Texans squad. And the pop came when the first-year coach affirmed his players of one thing: They’d come to Cincinnati to challenge an AFC power. What followed was no fluke.
“We come on the road to beat a really good team,” Ryans said, his trademark, megawatt smile stretching ear to ear. “But guess what? We’re a good team, too!”
With each passing week, that much has become clear. There have been hiccups along the way. But there have also been convincing wins over teams such as the Jaguars and Steelers. There were last week’s heroics against a proud, veteran Buccaneers team. And then there was this Week 10 matchup, where the rubber would meet the road: Houston could no longer sneak up and pop an unsuspecting contender.
The Bengals came into Week 10, finally, rolling. Joe Burrow was healthy. Their offensive line had come together. Their defense had won games on its own as the quarterback worked his way back. Hell, I stuck with my pick that they’d win the Super Bowl. And I still think Cincinnati is that good.
But, as Ryans said, the Texans are, for sure, a good team, too—one that came in and ran up 544 yards from scrimmage, created a couple of crucial turnovers, survived three of its own, and outlasted a powerhouse on the road, 30–27. This, again, felt like no fluke.
And yet, less than an hour after Sunday’s game was complete, and as Ryans and I spoke, the coach seemed intent on sidestepping the idea that those three hours in Ohio marked any sort of arrival for the program he’s building in Houston. Since his previous coaching experience came in a slower build with the 49ers, it’s natural there would be the temptation to declare that, yes, these Texans are well ahead of schedule. But Ryans wouldn’t go there either.
There’s a reason for it, of course.
“I don’t think we’re putting a schedule on it,” Ryans says. “For me, in this league, it’s one game at a time, one year at a time. I never put a time frame on it. I honestly just want the guys to go out and play good football. Whatever happens. I remember telling the guys in the spring, every game in this league comes down to the last possession. I don’t know how many games came within nine points, but you’re going to have a chance every week.
“It’s just, can you make those plays at the end of games to be on the positive side?”
Ryans, along with GM Nick Caserio, has quickly put together a group that can make those plays. And, as the coach says, the Texans aren’t waiting on anyone’s schedule to do it.
How did it happen this fast? A few things played into it.
• The first thing is the Texans seem to have hit a grand slam in taking C.J. Stroud with the No. 2 pick. The 22-year-old led a breakneck, game-winning drive for the second straight week, and over the last two games has thrown for 826 yards and six touchdowns. And even still, with the rookie, there hasn’t been a singular, we-got-this-one-right moment. Instead, Stroud has been getting better and better since arriving in May.
“It was a gradual process of seeing him from his first day of rookie minicamp throughout training camp, seeing him grow,” Ryans says. “That’s the biggest thing is seeing him grow and seeing the leadership, seeing how his teammates continue to believe in him, seeing how his teammates rally behind him. That’s the thing that really did it for me. To be a quarterback in this league, you have to have the talent. I knew that he has the talent. But you also have to have the locker room.
“That’s what he has and that’s what’s set him apart. All the guys in that locker room believe in him.”
And maybe the biggest thing, Ryans says, is how Stroud handles failure: “When he makes a mistake, he corrects it and gets better.” That, in fact, happened in-game Sunday against one of the league’s toughest defenses, both schematically and talent-wise.
With less than four minutes left and the Texans up by 10, Stroud came right on a bootleg and threw in the direction of Tank Dell. Bengals corner Cam Taylor-Britt undercut the route and returned it to Houston’s 4-yard line.The Bengals scored three plays later; the Texans went three-and-out; and then Cincinnati drove for a game-tying field goal.
How did Stroud respond? With strikes of 25 and 22 yards to Dalton Schultz and Noah Brown in the final 42 seconds to set up the game-winning field goal.
“It was definitely a big moment for him to make it out of a critical error in a tight football game,” Ryans says. “He knew the mistakes he made. He can learn from that, and he can fix it. He fixed it within the game. When you can fix your mistakes within games, and also come out and win a tight football game like that, it just shows the growth that he’s been on this trajectory all year.”
• Then, there’s what the players on the other end of those strikes represent. Schultz, the once franchise-tagged Cowboy tight end, had to wait more than a week into free agency before the Texans swooped in and signed him. Brown, another former Cowboy, always had physical ability—and slowly improved over six years in Dallas—but never quite broke through.
Both arrived in Houston hungry and with something to prove, which has come to typify Ryans’s first team back with the franchise that drafted him in 2006.
“The thing with Noah, with Dalton, what I’ve seen with those guys is just they’ve been consistent from the first day they hit the grass here,” Ryans says. “Through training camp, through OTAs, they’ve been consistent. The quarterback, C.J., he feels that. He’s consistent getting the ball to the guys, and they continue to make plays. We’re happy to have Noah back. Noah had his career day today after he had his career day last week, and he tops it this week. Noah’s having a big-time year for us.”
• From there, you can go to the buy-in that Ryans has gotten across the board from players, again, who are hungry to grow—which may be most evident in how fast his team is playing in general.
“Guys are starting to get used to what we’re asking them to do,” the coach says. “They’re playing faster, playing with more confidence. It just comes to time on task. The more we do it, the guys will continue to get better as the season goes along.”
And Sunday, it really showed up on defense, with two fourth-quarter interceptions (thrown by one of the best quarterbacks in football) helping to nail down the win. The first came at Houston’s 35-yard line, with Burrow missing high on tight end Drew Sample, and Texans’ safety DeAndre Houston-Carson there to collect it. The second came at Houston’s 14-yard line, with Burrow chased from the pocket and then picked in the end zone by Shaq Griffin, who was waiting in the right place at the right time.
Both, as Ryans saw it, were about a lot more than just the player catching the ball.
“I think the interceptions are the pressure we got on him with the defensive line, with [Sheldon] Rankins, Will [Anderson Jr.], Jonathan Greenard,” Ryans says. “The pressure that they put on Joe, I think that really got him antsy, and we were able to cause a few overthrows there. Great job by DHC and Shaq for coming up with those picks.”
Of course, all that starts with those in the locker room believing in what they’re being sold, which—from Stroud to Brown and Schultz to all those players on defense—they truly do.
Ryans knows getting to 5–4 won’t do much on its own.
But for now, for a franchise that went through a moribund post–Deshaun Watson phase, with older coaches (in David Culley and Lovie Smith) who seemed like Band-Aid solutions from the start, the blast of energy and optimism is welcome. And for a lot of guys in the locker room, it was needed.
Add that to what Ryans has brought as a unifying force, and you get the scene you saw in the locker room in Cincinnati late Sunday afternoon.
“You feel a true connection in the locker room,” Ryans says. “Guys are connected; guys fight for each other. You see the love; you see the joy in our locker room. Guys are truly excited to see each other make plays. Winning definitely creates a ton of excitement. That’s what you saw this afternoon.”
Has it happened faster than they expected it to? Ryans was never going to put a timetable on that either. But, as the look on his face Sunday showed, he sure is happy with where he, and his team, are at.