CINCINNATI — It felt like it was slipping away, their lead and maybe their moment, when C.J. Stroud jogged to the sideline, found his coach and left him with three words: “I got you.”
It was a bold thing coming from a rookie quarterback, especially at this point in the afternoon, minutes after Stroud had thrown a brutal, game-turning interception that gave the home team a second life it didn’t deserve. The Houston Texans’ starter had been all but spotless to that point, his team up 10 with four minutes left, the fans filing to the exits in disgust.
Then came Stroud’s first real mistake all day, and while a suddenly-less-than-packed Paycor Stadium reveled in the stunning turn of events it’d just witnessed, the 22-year-old oozed a quiet confidence on the sideline.
His first-year coach looked him in the eyes.
“I trust you,” DeMeco Ryans told him.
Deep down, Ryans loved the spot his team was in: close game on the road against a Super Bowl contender, the type who would test every ounce of its resolve.
He wanted to see if the Texans would blink. Great teams don’t blink.
Sparked by the interception, the Bengals ripped off 10 consecutive points to tie the game. Joe Burrow was heating up. The fans could smell a stunning comeback taking shape.
Problem was, Stroud wouldn’t blink. “He doesn’t waver,” his coach said. His word was good, his nerves unshaken. Six plays. Fifty-five yards. Ninety-three seconds. After Matt Ammendola’s 38-yard field goal sneaked through the uprights as time expired, the Texans had their second game-winning drive in as many weeks, a 30-27 victory against the Bengals that stamps them as legitimate playoff contenders halfway into a season in which they were written off before ever playing a snap.
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“To win tight games, you gotta have a quarterback who can make big-time plays,” Ryans said. “It starts there.”
“Ice in his veins, that’s all I’ll say,” cornerback Shaquill Griffin said. “For a guy to make a mistake like that, then immediately tell his coach, ‘Put the game back on me,’ then go out and win it? That’s a guy I can go to battle with any day of the week.”
“If we got the ball last, good luck, that’s all I’m gonna say,” defensive end Jonathan Greenard added.
While Stroud further cemented his sizable lead in the NFL’s offensive rookie of the year race — he’s thrown for 826 yards and six touchdowns the last two games, adding another on the ground — Ryans is quietly doing as good a job as any coach in football, lifting a lost franchise that won all of 11 games the last three seasons and churned through four coaches in the process.
The Texans now have a present and a future, and central to everything was the arrival of Ryans last winter, the team’s former linebacker who felt a pull to return to the city where his NFL career began. As a sought-after defensive coordinator in San Francisco the past two seasons, he had options. Teams were lining up to interview him. As good a leader as Ryans is — and as respected as he is around the league — those calls weren’t going to stop.
Still, he always had one franchise ranked above the rest.
When Houston called, he made it known: He wanted this one.
“I like the fact that this is my team,” Ryans told The Athletic. “And to have the chance to come back and help my team? I’ve always followed them. I heard all the negative things said about them, and this wasn’t just an opportunity to become a head coach, this was an opportunity to help my team.”
His team needed it. Desperately. Before his arrival, and before the drafting of Stroud in the spring, this was a franchise going nowhere, the talent thin, the city indifferent. After an exhausting process, Deshaun Watson was finally traded. The losses kept piling up. Fan interest faded. The Texans hadn’t given them a reason to care or believe.
David Culley was fired after one season. Same for Lovie Smith.
Ryans showed up and changed everything.
First up, in his mind, was a style of play he wanted his team to become known for. Swarm. He had the slogan printed on every slide of his PowerPoints. On T-shirts he handed out in training camp. On a wristband he wears everywhere he goes. It would become the backbone of his blueprint — a relentless, attacking style of play that would infuse newfound belief throughout the entire building.
“That’s what I wanted to imprint on the team,” Ryans said. “All teams don’t work the same. A lot of people don’t put the work in and just show up on Sunday. That wasn’t going to be us.”
It’s not. The Texans (5-4) are overachieving as much as any team in football, above .500 for the first time since Week 1 of the 2021 season and suddenly just a game behind the Jaguars (6-3) in the AFC South race. (The Colts are also 5-4.) The Texans upset a Bengals team on the road Sunday that entered the game as legitimate Super Bowl contenders, having won four straight, by outgaining Burrow and Cincy’s high-powered offense in total yards 544-380.
Most satisfying for Ryans? The fact that after last week’s thrilling, last-second win against the Buccaneers, his team simply moved on. That spoke to a budding maturity it’ll need as the stakes heighten over the final few months of the regular season.
“No one was feeling themselves, no one got a big head,” the coach said proudly. “We just worked in silence, like we should.”
That’s how he prefers it. The players have come to love Ryans’ no-nonsense style; he routinely rips into them for a lack of effort or focus, refusing to let it slide, even for a single rep. Practices are intense, nothing sugarcoated.
“He’s gonna give us the hard truth,” Griffin said, “and that’s what we need. I can respect a guy like that.”
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That respect is inherent: Ryans is one of the best players in franchise history. He was named captain as a rookie and ended that season as the NFL’s defensive rookie of the year. He’s worn the uniform. He’s sat in the locker room. He knows what it’s like in a way few coaches do, especially in Houston.
“He’s evolved, but at times, I still see the fiery middle linebacker who used to run this locker room,” said long snapper Jon Weeks, the longest-tenured Texan who spent two seasons as Ryans’ teammate at the beginning of his career. “I see it in moments … ‘Oh, I remember this DeMeco.’
“Anytime you can get a locker room to realize that, hey, our coach has been there, he’s done that, he’s been in our shoes, he’s sat in our seats, he gets it, that matters,” Weeks continued. “Coach holds everybody accountable regardless of who you are. That’s been awesome to watch. I love playing for the man. I’m ecstatic that he’s here.”
Ryans’ team has won three of four and owns victories over Jacksonville, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, who are a combined 17-10. The coach has started to notice a buzz building in the city, fans taking an interest in the team they’d forgotten about. Ryans will get stopped when he’s out to dinner, fans simply wanting to thank him for what he’s doing and how he’s doing it.
Stroud’s at the forefront, the new face of the franchise, but the coach has been just as essential. It was his vision, his belief, that spurred the change.
“People are genuinely excited,” he said. “And that’s what excites me.”
On Saturday night, Ryans left his team with this as their meeting wrapped up. “Finish every snap,” he told them, “because it might come down to the last one.”
Less than 24 hours later, it did. A 10-point lead vanished in a little more than two minutes late in the fourth, and with his team on the ropes and Paycor Stadium on its feet, the Texans silenced the crowd.
The Texans didn’t blink. They passed another test.
Twenty minutes later, while the music thumped in the locker room a few feet away, Ryans was asked about some of his players’ bold proclamations in the preseason, predictions that they were about to “shock the world” this season.
He shrugged it off.
“For me, it’s not about shocking the world, it’s about the guys in the locker room believing in each other,” he said. “That’s all that matters.”
Then he was asked if the confidence his team is playing with starts with him.
“It’s about them,” he said, “not me.”
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(Top photo: Grant Halvorsen / Getty Images)
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