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    HomeSportC.J. Stroud has Texans dreaming big, but maybe not big enough

    C.J. Stroud has Texans dreaming big, but maybe not big enough

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

    And with about 10 minutes left in the game, rookie phenom C.J. Stroud’s day was already done. 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’d only really needed the first half, passing for 236 yards against the No. 1 defense in the league, the most yardage the Browns allowed in the first two quarters all season.

    “I ain’t never seen anything like this,” said third-year tight end Brevin Jordan.

    Stroud made Cleveland’s secondary look like fictional characters. He was never sacked and the only time he was really hit, Stroud still completed a 38-yard pass to Nico Collins.

    “That was No. 3 or No. 4 in the progression, 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 is giving to us, and it doesn’t matter if 1 is not open, or 2 is not open, he is going to keep clicking through his progression and trusting our offensive line to hold up in protection and finding a guy out in space.”

    GO DEEPER

    C.J. Stroud dazzles, Joe Flacco crashes as Texans topple Browns in AFC wild-card matchup

    Stroud and Browns quarterback Joe Flacco traded haymakers back and forth for much of the first half. Last week at Indianapolis — in a game the Texans had to win for a chance at the playoffs — Stroud wowed in his first prime-time affair, connecting on a 75-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the game. He had another single-play 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 in the Texans’ longest play this season. Houston took the 24-14 lead when tight end Dalton Schultz broke open on a 37-yard post route late in the half.

    In the second half, DeMeco Ryans’ defense dominated, scoring the team’s first two pick-sixes of the season on back-t0-back plays from cornerback Steven Nelson and linebacker Christian Harris to go up 38-14. Houston’s defense, bolstered by pass rushers Will Anderson Jr. and Jonathan Greenard, who had been limited by injury in recent games, repeatedly pressured Flacco and made him uncomfortable in the pocket. The run defense, meanwhile, held the Browns to just 56 rushing 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 even greater things in his future.

    “I think he’s gonna be the best of all time,” said third-string quarterback Case Keenum, an 11-year NFL veteran. “Like, he truly has the ability to be that way. … I know, it’s very early to say that sort of stuff. But, man, he does some stuff that is just out of this world.”

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

    Keenum said Wednesday that every two minutes he has a new favorite throw from the rookie. Last week, it was the improbable scramble drill that looked like a throwaway before Collins dove and caught the ball; a few minutes later it was Stroud’s 23-yard shot to Collins that got the Texans in scoring position.

    “That is one dude that is locked in,” Collins said. “He’s calm and collected, he’s willing to leave it all out there for the brother. Seven is special.”

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

    “I wish you guys could be in the huddle and around him,” Jordan said. “The dude is unbelievable, how he moves, how he talks, everything, you can tell from training camp that he was a captain and a QB1, since like day two. You could tell how he moved, like how he walks around the locker room and talks to guys. When you have a humble, confident guy who loves to work, the sky’s the limit.”

    “What C.J. has been doing on the field is bringing the city out, man, it’s amazing to be a part of,” running back Dameon 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 just really frustrated in trying to explain how unique an individual he is,” Payne said. “Because you hear this crap all the time from people, like, PR campaigns about what awesome dudes they are. … So I really had to stand on top of tables to tell everyone, like, no, I really mean it. He’s different than other people.”

    Payne was an “old school, grumpy veteran” when the Texans took Ryans in the second round of the 2006 NFL Draft. And he was upset that a rookie linebacker was getting to start early on in training camp.

    “Within a couple of days, I realized what an idiot I was for having that opinion,” he said. “The guy just exudes leadership and maturity. It sticks out now, but it really sticks out when a kid is 22 years old. And you can just tell then that somebody’s an old soul.”

    Payne tells a story about the first time Ryans called plays in the huddle, when the rookie had a hard time getting the play call out and Payne snapped at him. “He looked at me and it was like he was The Beastmaster,” Payne said. “I didn’t even know what happened, I was immediately pacified, like he might as well have shot me with a tranquilizer dart.”

    GO DEEPER

    With the surging Texans, it is and isn’t about coach DeMeco Ryans

    The years-long dysfunction in Houston began under the fiery Bill O’Brien and the mysterious Jack Easterby. After O’Brien was ousted, franchise quarterback Deshaun Watson requested a trade. And then the scandal. Watson sat out the 2021 season, then was traded to Cleveland, and Houston cycled through two one-and-done 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 a sterling run as a defensive assistant in San Francisco. He was a slam-dunk hire for his former team. Or maybe a tranquilizer-dart hire.

    Stroud led the offensive turnaround while Ryans put his stamp on the defense, relying on young flagbearers like Anderson, whom Houston selected one pick after Stroud after trading up. The result? Ten wins and the team’s first division title since 2019. And now, after Saturday’s fireworks, the transformation happened so quickly that it still doesn’t feel real to the players who were here last year and the year before.

    “My last two years here, it wasn’t ideal,” Collins said. “For us to get 10 wins, now 11 wins, playoffs — that’s a big turnaround. It’s hard to explain the feeling. “

    “Uh, 3-13 to a playoff, second round?” Pierce said. “Everybody was doubting us, but rightfully so. We didn’t give them a reason to believe in us last year.”

    Payne has heard the nature of the calls he takes change drastically from a year, or two or three ago.

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

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

    “When Deshaun was here, I thought that was the best that we could get, we’re so lucky to have Deshaun,” Lopez said. “But now, looking back at it … where we are now is way better than what Deshaun ever did for us.

    “This is the new expectation, that we will be here again and again and again. That’s the expectation that Stroud has put upon himself and this team. Just what he’s done year one.”

    (Photo: Michael Owens / Getty Images)

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