CJ Stroud has big dreams for the Texans, but maybe not big enough

HOUSTON — It was over before the end of the third quarter. The team that no one thought could make any noise this season had every Houston Texans fan in NRG Stadium standing, screaming and waving their phones like flashlights.

With about 10 minutes left in the game, rookie CJ Stroud's day was already over. Sixteen of 21 for 274 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions, and a 157.2 passer rating in Houston's 45-14 dismantling of the Cleveland Browns in the wild-card round. And he really only needed the first half, as he passed for 236 yards against the league's No. 1 defense, the most yards the Browns have allowed in the first two quarters all season.

“I've never seen anything like this,” Brevin Jordan said at the end of Year 3.

Stroud made Cleveland's minor characters seem like fictional characters. He was never sacked, and the only time he was actually hit, Stroud completed a 38-yard pass to Nico Collins.

“That was No. 3 or No. 4 going forward, depending on how you look at it,” backup quarterback Davis Mills said. “(Stroud) does a really good job of really taking advantage of what the defense gives us, and it doesn’t matter if No. 1’s not open, or No. 2’s not open, he’s going to continue to click into his lead and trust our offensive line to stay protected and find a man in space.

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Stroud and Browns quarterback Joe Flacco traded haymakers back and forth for most of the first half. Last week in Indianapolis — in a game the Texans had to win to have a chance at the playoffs — Stroud dazzled in his first game in prime time, connecting with a 75-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the game. He had another touchdown drive Saturday, this time to Jordan, who took a short pass in the flat 76 yards to the end zone early in the second quarter on Texans' longest play of the season. Houston took a 24-14 lead when tight end Dalton Schultz opened up on a 37-yard postal route late in the first half.

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In the second half, DeMeco Ryans' defense took control, scoring the team's first two picks of the season on running back Steven Nelson and fullback Christian Harris to go up 38-14. Houston's defense, bolstered by pass rushers Will Anderson Jr. and Jonathan Greenard, which has been limited due to injury in recent games, frequently pressured Flacco and made him uncomfortable in the pocket. Meanwhile, the run defense held the Browns to just 56 yards as Cleveland was shut out in the second half.

Stroud on Saturday became the youngest quarterback in NFL history to win a playoff game, but his teammates see bigger things in his future.

“I think he's going to be the best ever,” said third-string quarterback Case Keenum, an 11-year NFL veteran. “Like, he really has the ability to be that way. … I know it's too early to say this kind of stuff. But man, he does some things that are out of this world.”

Part of Keenum's job is to be the hype man up front. He knows this and acknowledges it. But he's serious. “On a good day, there's maybe two or three (throws) I want to get back, and on a bad day, there's 10,” Keenum said. “I can count on one hand the things he missed all year.”

Keenum said Wednesday that every two minutes he has a new favorite throw from the rookie. Last week, it was an improbable scramble that looked like a quick throw before Collins jumped and caught the ball; A few minutes later it was Stroud's 23-yard strike to Collins that put the Texans in scoring position.

“This is a man locked up,” Collins said. “He's calm and collected, and he's willing to leave it all out there for his brother. Special Seven.”

Jordan said Stroud stopped feeling like a rookie during training camp.

“I hope you're in and around the rally,” Jordan said. “The guy is unbelievable, how he moves, how he talks, everything, you could tell from training camp that he was a leader and QB1, from day two. You could tell how he moved, like how he walked around the locker room and talked to guys. When you have a guy Humble, confident and loves to work, the sky is the limit.”

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“What CJ was doing on the field was bringing the city out, man, it's amazing to be a part of,” Damion Pierce said.

When Ryans emerged as a head coaching candidate for the Texans last January, former Texans defensive tackle and current Houston radio host Seth Payne struggled to find the right words to describe Ryans to Payne's radio audience.

“I was really frustrated trying to explain how special he was as an individual,” Payne said. “Because you hear this crap all the time from people, like PR campaigns about how great guys they are. … So I had to stand on top of the tables and tell everyone, 'No, I really mean it. It's different from other people.'

Payne was an “old school, angry veteran” when the Texans took Ryans in the second round of the 2006 NFL draft. He was upset that a rookie was starting early in training camp.

“Within two days, I realized how foolish I was for having that opinion,” he said. “The guy exudes leadership and maturity. He stands out now, but he really stands out when the kid turns 22. You can tell then that someone has an old soul.”

Payne tells a story about the first time Ryans called plays in the huddle, when the rookie had trouble getting the play called and Payne criticized him. “He looked at me and was like he was the master of the beast,” Payne said. “I didn't even know what happened, and I immediately calmed down, as if he might have shot me with a tranquilizer dart.”

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The years-long dysfunction began in Houston under the fiery Bill O'Brien and the enigmatic Jack Easterby. After O'Brien was ousted, quarterback Deshaun Watson requested a trade. And then the scandal. Watson missed the 2021 season, was then traded to Cleveland, and Houston cycled through two solo coaches in 2021 and 2022.

Ryans, who made two Pro Bowls as a six-year starter in Houston, emerged as one of the most sought-after head coaching candidates on the market last offseason after an impressive run as a defensive assistant in San Francisco. He was a tenant of his former team. Or maybe rent tranquilizer darts.

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Stroud led the offensive turnaround while Ryans made his mark on defense, relying on young flag-bearers like Anderson, who Houston picked up one after Stroud after the trade. Results? Ten wins and the team's first division title since 2019. And now, after the fireworks on Saturday, the turnaround has happened so quickly that it still feels unreal for the players who were here last year and the year before.

“The last two years I've been here haven't been ideal,” Collins said. “For us, to have 10 wins, and now 11 wins, and the playoffs — that's a big turnaround. It's hard to explain the feeling.”

“Uh, 3-13 in playoff, second round?” Pierce said. “Everyone was doubting us, but they were right. We didn't give them a reason to believe in us last year.”

Payne has heard the nature of the calls he receives change dramatically from a year, two or three years ago.

“The talk now is much more about actual football than dramatic drama,” he said. “There were so many issues and so much drama — and, frankly, dysfunction — that for a while you started to forget that you could be a football team that was mostly focused on playing football games.”

Carlos Lopez, a 28-year-old Texans fan who has been coming to games most of his life, wore Stroud's No. 7 jersey to his seat in the second level of NRG Stadium on Saturday. Before the game started, he said he realized the Texans' ceiling was much higher than he thought.

“When Deshaun was here, I thought this was the best we could get,” Lopez said. “We're very lucky to have Deshaun.” “But now, looking back, where we are now is much better than what Deshaun did for us.

“That's the new expectation, that we're going to be here over and over again. That's the expectation that Stroud has put on himself and on this team. Just what he did the first year.”

(Photo: Michael Owens/Getty Images)

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