How C.J. Stroud, DeMeco Ryans have elevated Texans’ standard in Year 1

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After a home victory over the Broncos on Dec. 3, Texans defensive end Jonathan Greenard couldn’t help but notice the fans as he drove away from NRG Stadium.

Some were hanging out of their cars, with music blaring, repping their Texans jerseys from the parking lot. Others were doing the same on the highway. 

It encapsulated a buzz that Greenard never saw in his previous three seasons in Houston. 

“These things all matter to me as a defender and obviously as a player,” Greenard told FOX Sports. “When you have fans out there that are just ready to cheer somebody on and that are die-hard and just ready to have that winning feeling back again, it makes you want to go a little bit harder for them.” 

There’s an aura around the Texans that had been missing for years. And it starts with the foundation laid by their first-year coach and quarterback tandem.

After years of dysfunction — constant losing, back-to-back one-and-done coaches, controversy in the front office ranks, Deshaun Watson’s trade request and eventual fall from grace amid sexual misconduct allegations — Houston has been re-energized by the arrival of C.J. Stroud and DeMeco Ryans. 

Stroud, the No. 2 overall pick, has already established himself as one of the league’s best quarterbacks. The odds-on favorite to win NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, who at one point even gained MVP buzz, Stroud will return this week vs. Tennessee after a two-game absence due to a concussion. He announced on Thursday that he has cleared the protocol.

“I feel back to myself,” he said. 

Then there’s the 39-year-old Ryans, a Texans Pro-Bowl linebacker in his playing days, who has returned to Houston and is a candidate for Coach of the Year in his first season. The former 49ers defensive coordinator has the Texans in a three-way tie for first place in the AFC South. Even if the team doesn’t make the playoffs, Houston (8-7) already has more victories than in its previous two seasons combined

With Stroud and Ryan, the team has gotten a taste of what’s possible. 

“We wanted to be relevant and talking about important games in November, and here we are in December tied for first,” Texans chairman and CEO Cal McNair told reporters last week. “It’s really a special season for us. DeMeco coming back, the quarterback, the team coming together — they’re all contributing, and they’re all part of this great season. 

“We’ll see where it goes.”

“When you see it, you know it”

Case Keenum refers to his first stint with the Texans — from 2012 to 2014 — as the “good ole days.”

That’s when J.J. Watt was at the peak of his powers, wreaking havoc on opposing offenses. When Andre Johnson and Arian Foster were still dominant. When DeAndre Hopkins first entered the league. 

The Texans won the AFC South title in 2012. And from 2014-16, Houston had three straight winning seasons (the only time in franchise history it’s done so), including back-to-back division crowns in 2015 and ‘16. 

Keenum remembers how the stadium was rocking then. He feels the same energy in NRG Stadium now with Stroud leading the offense. 

Through Week 14, before his two-game absence, the rookie ranked second in the NFL in passing yards (3,631), fourth in yards per attempt (8.2), sixth in passer rating (98.7), eighth in EPA per dropback (.04) and tied for 10th in passing touchdowns (20), according to Next Gen Stats. 

Dave Helman and Ben Arthur break down Houston’s playoff prospects

Dave Helman and Ben Arthur break down Houston's playoff prospects

Stroud has led two game-winning drives, including one against the Buccaneers in Week 9, when he threw for 470 yards — an NFL single-game record for a rookie — and five touchdowns. He became just the second rookie ever with at least 400 passing yards and five touchdowns in a game. 

“Man, if he didn’t just light everybody on fire with hope,” Keenum told FOX Sports of Stroud’s impact. “I think that hope turns into a healthy expectation. Not just to hope to win, but an expectation to win and succeed. No matter the play that is called, no matter what the time of game left is or the score on the scoreboard, we still have a chance. And not just that we still have a chance, but we’re not just hoping but expecting to win. 

“That’s not very easy to put your finger on what exactly it is. But when you see it, you know it. And I think not only his teammates — who’ve seen it day in and day out for a long time — I think the city, the nation and the league are starting to see it now.”

It’s not uncommon for NFL starting quarterbacks to have some detachment from teammates because of their unique responsibilities. But Stroud regularly talks to everyone in all three phases of the game in the locker room.

“There’s nobody in here that he’s not cool with,” Greenard said. “And not just on the surface level. He really, really knows us. And whenever he does say something, to get us going for anything — pregame, just before practice, whatever the case may be — everybody is all ears because we know it’s about business when he locks in.

“His mentality is to be a perfectionist.” 

Keenum said Stroud’s maturity level is much higher than he expected from someone so young (Stroud turned 22 in October). He’s confident in who he is and in his ability, which inspires teammates to follow his lead. 

That confidence was on display when the Texans routed the Steelers 30-6 at NRG Stadium on Oct. 6, Houston’s first home victory since Week 16 of the 2021 season. 

Afterward, Stroud put the new standard into words.

“That ain’t flying for me, for anybody in this building,” he said of Houston’s recent history of losing. “I want [the fans] to know we’re fighting our tails off every day to make sure y’all walk around with Texans pride. So y’all can walk around with that swagger that we walk around with when we get a dub. For me, I take that real personal. I don’t like being bagged on by my teams. When my Lakers lose, I be pissed. So I take that stuff real seriously, man. 

“I just want to say we’re going to keep fighting every day just so y’all can walk around with that swag,” he added. “I think that’s huge, man, for this team. That’s something that we want to keep building on.”

“You don’t want to let him down”

When the Texans hired Ryans in January, he had instant credibility with players because of his résumé. He had a 10-year NFL career that included two Pro Bowls and the 2006 AP Defensive Player of the Year award. He had experience coordinating an elite 49ers defense for two years. 

According to Greenard and Keenum, Ryans immediately demanded a new level of accountability. And the results have followed. Defensive-line injuries and coverage miscues have hurt Houston’s defense in recent weeks, but the unit has made big strides from last season in several categories, most notably in stopping the run. 

Under Lovie Smith in 2022, Houston allowed a league-worst 170.2 rushing yards per game. It’s allowing just 90.9 rushing yards per contest this season, ranking sixth in the league, a dramatic improvement. The 2023 Texans are also better than last year’s team in scoring defense (22.1 points allowed per game this year; 24.7 last year) and pressure rate (40.2% this year; 36.5% last year). 

Dave Helman and Ben Arthur discuss DeMeco Ryans’ impact

Dave Helman and Ben Arthur discuss DeMeco Ryans' impact

Greenard, who has a career-high 12.5 sacks and counting this season under Ryans, said the first-year coach will “work you to death” to maximize your potential. 

“He’s going to shoot it to you straight and not beat around the bush,” the fourth-year defensive end said. “It’s the expectation and self-awareness that you have to have while dealing with him. You have to ask yourself, ‘Who’s the best version of myself?’ and, ‘How am I going to get it out of myself?’ And then … if you show it once, he’s going to expect that every time — and that’s how you should think as well.

“Honestly, you feel like you don’t want to let him down in a sense,” Greenard added. “And not let yourself down. You don’t want to let him down because you know what he’s expecting and what he’s demanding.” 

Ryans’ character also stands out to Keenum, who said family and faith are more important to the Texans coach than football. 

“I think that creates more of a family environment within the team, which brings us together,” Keenum said. “So no matter what anybody is going through, he’s there for us. He looks out for us first. He protects the team first. It’s everybody vs. the Texans.”  

“Now we always have a chance to win”

Just as Texans fans have been reinvigorated this season, the players have been, too. 

For Greenard, it’s just that sense of confidence and the understanding that stability plays a key role in the NFL. And now the Texans have a coach and a franchise quarterback to rally behind. That empowers Greenard to go harder, knowing that all he has to do is focus on his job. 

“I’ve been here for a good bit,” Greenard said, “and [I’m] seeing how they’ve already kind of changed the culture a little bit. [They’re] changing the expectations around here.”

It boils down to hope.

“There’s a buzz and excitement,” Keenum said. “Now we always have a chance to win. All we need is time and downs with C.J. And then we’re gonna get the stop on defense, too.

“It’s a lot of things they give us.” 

Ben Arthur is the AFC South reporter for FOX Sports. He previously worked for The Tennessean/USA TODAY Network, where he was the Titans beat writer for a year and a half. He covered the Seattle Seahawks for for three seasons (2018-20) prior to moving to Tennessee. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @benyarthur.

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