McClain: No rest for the weary Texans run defense

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The tie with Indianapolis that began what’s been another exasperating season for the Texans has kept Lovie Smith from matching the worst start of his 12-year career as an NFL head coach with three teams.

The Texans are 1-7-1 – the worst record in the NFL – going into Sunday’s game against Washington at NRG Stadium. The Commanders are the third NFC East team the Texans have played, and they come to Houston with a 5-5 record, including three victories in their last four games.

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The Texans are three-point underdogs, so the oddsmakers believe they’re headed for a 1-8-1 record that would keep them in line for the first overall pick in the draft and a franchise quarterback.

Smith isn’t the first Texans coach to get off to a bad start. They were 1-8 in 2021, their only season under coach David Culley. They were 2-7 in 2020, when Bill O’Brien was fired after an 0-4 start and Romeo Crennel finished the season as interim coach.

It took Gary Kubiak four seasons to have a winning record after nine games. His last team in 2013 that finished 2-14 started 2-7. Kubiak also orchestrated the best nine-game record in team history – 8-1 in 2012 when they finished a franchise-best 12-4.

To see where Smith is as a head coach through nine games and the possibilities over the last eight games, let’s look at his career from a historical perspective.

Only once has Smith had a worse start to a season, and that was in 2014 with Tampa Bay. He was saddled with an inferior roster as he is this season.

Smith, who took over a 4-12 team that got coach Greg Schiano fired, returned to Tampa Bay, where he’d been an assistant under Tony Dungy. With Josh McCown and Mike Glennon as his starting quarterbacks in 2014, the Bucs started 1-8 – still the worst start of Smith’s career. They finished with an NFL-worst 2-14 record, earning the first pick in the draft that was used on quarterback Jameis Winston.

With Winston as a rookie starter in 2015, the Bucs began with a 4-5 record and finished 6-10 – a four-game improvement. Smith was fired, anyway, by first-year general manager Jason Licht so he could promote offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter to head coach.

Before he returned to the Bucs, Smith spent nine years with the Bears. In 2012, his last season, Chicago started 7-2 and finished 10-6. Smith was fired by another first-year general manager, Phil Emery, and replaced by Marc Trestman.

During his career coaching the Bears, Smith’s worst nine-game record was 4-5 three times. His best was 8-1 in 2006 when the Bears finished 13-3 and lost Super Bowl XLI to Indianapolis.

For fans who want Smith fired barring a dramatic improvement over the last eight games, I don’t see general manager Nick Caserio – with the  McNair family’s approval -- giving him a pink slip. I don’t think the Texans will have a second consecutive one-and-done head coach. Who’d want to work for an organization that operates like that?

Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton could be fired. Smith could hire a defensive coordinator from outside the organization. Obviously, when a team is an embarrassment, changes are going to be made.

The McNairs, Caserio and Smith understand why the Texans are in their current predicament. It begins with a lack of talent. Players can protest all they want, but, as Bill Parcells used to say, you are what your record says you are.

And the Texans are the worst team in the league. If you need any evidence, check this out: Over the last three seasons, the Texans are 9-32-1. Five of those victories have been over Jacksonville. That means the Texans are 4-32-1 against every other team during that period.

That’s four victories over non-Jacksonville teams in more than 2 ½ seasons. Now that’s embarrassing!

There are two things the Texans have consistently been unable to do – stop the run and keep from collapsing in the fourth quarter.

I can’t put their lack of success solely on quarterback Davis Mills. Smith has coached with some quarterbacks who’ve put up mediocre numbers and still been better than the Texans are this season.

Their inability to stop the run is mystifying. This is the third season in a row in which they’ve been pathetic against opposing running games. They allow a league-worst 181.8 yards a game rushing. That’s by far the most of Smith’s career as a head coach.

Smith’s previous worst was 128.1 in 2004, his first season with the Bears, who finished 5-11. His two Tampa Bay teams allowed 113.7 in 2014 and 100.4 in 2015.

The Texans are on pace to surrender 3,091 yards rushing. That would be the most in the NFL since the Saints gave up 3,106 (194.1 a game) in 16 games in 1980. In 1978, the Bills allowed 3,228 – 201.7 a game.

Smith’s run defense is capable of being even worse. After trying to contain Washington’s Brian Robinson Jr. and Antonio Gibson on Sunday, the Texans can look forward to Tennessee’s Derrick Henry and Indianapolis’ Jonathan Taylor for a second time.

Cleveland’s Nick Chubb is licking his chops for a shot at the Texans’ run defense. Dallas will throw out Tony Pollard and Ezekiel Elliott. Jacksonville’s Travis Etienne will get a second chance against them.

When it comes to stopping the run, there’s just no rest for the weary.

As for their frequent fourth-quarter collapses, they’ve been outscored 72-30. In their first three quarters, the Texans are plus-4 in turnover differential. In the fourth quarter, they’re minus-4.

If a team can’t stop the run and coughs up the ball in the fourth quarter, it’s destined to lose and plummet so far down it earns the first pick in the draft.

John McClain can be heard Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday on SportsRadio 610 and Monday and Thursday on Texans Radio. He writes three times a week and does three weekly Houtopia Podcasts for SportsRadio610.com. He also can be read four times a week on GallerySports.com.

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