Wednesday, October 28, 2020

It's time for the Texans to trade J.J. Watt

I've said this on multiple occasions now (most recently, just a couple of weeks ago): the Texans need to trade J.J. Watt to a team where he a chance to win the Super Bowl ring he so richly deserves in the relatively short time he has left as an NFL athlete. His amazing talent is wasted with the Texans, who are currently 1-6 and have no prospects of improvement in the near-to-mid future.

But don't take my word for it. Here's the Chronicle's Matt Young, drawing a potential parallel between Watt and another Houston fan favorite whose time in this city had come to an end:

The Oilers once were in a similar situation and Bud Adams, who will receive no praises here, signed off on an unpopular deal that had to be done. The Oilers were off to an 0-6 start in 1984 and knew former coach Bum Phillips would jump at the chance to add Earl Campbell to his Saints offense. On Trade Deadline day, the Saints gave the Oilers a first-round pick for the 29-year-old Campbell.

To this day, Campbell is probably THE most popular football player Houston has ever known, but the deal made too much sense. Campbell would go on to rush for just 833 yards in 18 games with the Saints before retiring after the 1985 season. The Oilers used that Saints’ draft pick to select Richard Johnson, who would go on to play eight seasons for some of the most successful teams in franchise history.

Looking back 36 years later, we all remember Earl Campbell as an Oiler. And, if the Texans do the right thing and ship him off in the next week, everyone in the city will always remember J.J. Watt as a Texan.

Although Watt likely would never publicly admit it, giving him the Earl Campbell treatment would be doing him a huge favor. Give something to the man who has given so much to this city both on and off the field. Let him celebrate somewhere he can win and give him a chance to win a Super Bowl ring that will look nice when he slips on that gold jacket in Canton and thanks the city of Houston for a tremendous 10 seasons.

J.J. will always be not just one of the greatest athletes, but one of the best persons overall, to ever have played for a Houston sports team. Trading him will do nothing to diminish that fact. The Texans need to do right by him and let him move on to a franchise that gives him the chance to end his career on a high note.

The NFL trade deadline is November 3. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Houston 37, Navy 21

The Coogs made the trip to Annapolis, Maryland and came back home with a win.

The Good: Clayton Tune completed 24 of 34 passes for 316 yards, three scores and no interceptions. Marquez Stevenson scored on passes of 51 and 24 yards, while Kyle Porter had a beautiful 33-yard pass-and-scramble and ran in another score. The UH defense notched its first interception of the year. Kicker Dalton Witherspoon was three for three in field goal attempts (including one from 53 yards), which kept the Coogs in the game early and earned him AAC Special Teams Player of the Week honors.

The Bad: For the third game in a row, the Cougars started off slow; while Navy scored touchdowns, the Cougars could only score field goals and at one point were trailing 9-13. They also fumbled for the first time this season and were only 6 of 13 on third down attempts. The UH run game was anemic, gaining only 86 yards on the ground. If the Cougars can't get more out of their ground game, they're going to be in a lot of trouble against some of their upcoming opponents.

The Ugly: Penalties continue to be a problem for the Coogs. They were flagged 9 times for 77 yards.

Navy kicker Bijan Nichols had a really bad day; he missed two field goals and had an extra point attempt blocked. 

What it Means: The Cougars notch their first road win, exact revenge on a team they lost to last season, and remain undefeated in conference. 

That conference unbeaten streak will be severely tested when Central Florida comes to TDECU Stadium on Saturday for a Halloween day game. 

Coronavirus cases rise in Houston once again as COVID fatigue sets in

 Not good, but not completely surprising, either:

Houston-area COVID-19 numbers, which declined significantly in late summer, are creeping up again, a concern given the spike predicted when the weather turns colder and people gather indoors for the holidays.

The increases aren’t near the level being seen in many parts of the state, nation and globe, but the number of new cases and hospitalizations and the positive test rate and disease spread the last three weeks represent a turn for the worse after a period that gave many hope the worst might be over.

“The trends are going in the wrong direction,” said William McKeon, president of the Texas Medical Center. “You hate to see the sacrifices we made and the successes we achieved lost because people let their guard down.”

Dr. Marc Boom, president of Houston Methodist, said, “We’ve definitely turned the wrong corner. The numbers aren’t growing in an out-of-control fashion, but there’s no doubt we’re in a significant growth trend that we need to stop before the holiday season.”

Though experts acknowledged it’s difficult to pinpoint the causes of the uptick, many used the same phrase to describe one big culprit: COVID fatigue. Seven months of staying indoors, unable to resume everyday lives, has left a weary public, many increasingly willing to risk get-togethers, they say. In a daily medical center Zoom call, most of the leaders report they routinely see gatherings of people not wearing masks, said McKeon.

COVID fatigue is absolutely a real thing. Humans, after all, are social animals, and we're all weary of month after month of social distancing measures and other restrictions that are intended to stop the spread of the Coronavirus but are having overwhelmingly negative effects on our lives and livelihoods. We want this to be over. We want to move on.

To be sure, my wife and I are among those who are experiencing COVID fatigue, and it's resulted in our having engaged in behaviors that could be considered risky: having our wedding and going on a honeymoon, attending football games, even dining out at local restaurants on occasion. While we try to be careful - we wear our masks, we maintain social distance, and we obsessively slather on the hand sanitizer  - we know we're still not being nearly as safe as we would be if we remained inside our apartment. And that's the thing: we don't want to be locked in our apartment all the time. We want to live a somewhat-normal life. 

The problem is, the Coronavirus doesn't care what any of us want. All it cares about is finding hosts to infect so that it can replicate. And when COVID fatigue sets in and people begin taking more risks or otherwise become lax in taking precautions, opportunities for the virus to spread increase. 

This already happened earlier this summer, when people emerged from lockdown eager to resume their normal activities and flocked to parties, beaches and bars. This resulted in a surge of COVID cases here in Houston that overwhelmed hospitals. After local elected officials and health experts pleaded with the public to take the threat seriously and implemented new restrictions, the number of cases began to decrease. Now, cases are beginning to increase once again, as this graph from indicates:

Harris County COVID-19 case trend as of 10/27/2020. Sources:

To be sure, the increase in cases isn't as bad here in Houston as they are in other parts of the state, nation, or world, but the worst nevertheless may be yet to come: 
The increase comes as experts predict a major U.S. surge expected to begin around Thanksgiving, a spike one expert recently said will produce “the darkest weeks of the entire pandemic.” Houston infectious disease specialist Peter Hotez said “that train is already rolling in the upper Midwest and should arrive in the Northeast in a few weeks.”

Hotez said Houston’s numbers will go up — “I’m pretty confident of that” — but added that North Texas likely will be hit much harder.

The surge is expected because winter will drive people indoors, particularly for the holidays, and because coronaviruses — including this one, according to a recent journal article — survive best in the cold weather.
(Halloween, in fact, is going to be a massive superspreader event: it's on a Saturday, under a full moon, kids will trick-or-treat no matter what authorities decree, and people who choose to go out will get an extra hour to party due to the end of Daylight Saving Time.) 
“We’ve worked hard to bring our numbers down, but we haven’t been able to crush the virus,” said Dr. Eric Boerwinkle, dean of the UTHealth School of Public Health. “When you see numbers creeping up like they are now is when people need to be most vigilant, practice social distance, wear face masks, wash their hands. Now is not the time to let our guard down.”
We're not done with this, nor will we be until a vaccine becomes widely available (and that's many months away). I know it sucks, but be patient and stay safe.

The Texas Medical Center's daily COVID-19 updates are easy to understand and are a useful way to track the local progress of the pandemic.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Houston 26, #14 BYU 43

The Houston Cougars fought back from a 11-point deficit early in the game, and more or less dominated the BYU Cougars during the second and third quarters as they jumped out to to a 14-26 lead. But Houston faded down the stretch, allowing BYU to score the game's final four touchdowns and make the score look more lospsided than the game actually was.

The Good: Quarterback Clayton Tune completed 21 of 31 passes for 310 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. He also avoided what looked to be a certain sack on second-and-goal to scrambled for a score to give Houston its largest lead. Running back Kyle Porter racked up 94 rushing yards of his own. For the second week in a row, the UH run defense held their opponent to less than 100 yards on the ground. 

The Bad: UH's passing defense was embarrassed by BYU QB Zach Wilson and his receivers to the tune of 400 yards and four touchdowns. The UH defense also did not force any turnovers for the second game in a row. Houston's offense in the fourth quarter was abysmal, gaining only 8 yards and one first down.  

The Ugly: Cougar special teams were a disaster. After scoring to cut UH's lead to five points, BYU recovered an onside kick that the Coogs simply weren't prepared for. That seemed to be the turning point in the game. The Cougars also fair-caught a BYU punt at their own two-yard line (!), shanked a punt of their own, and were flagged for interfering with a catch on another punt.

It was also a sloppy, undisciplined game: both teams combined for 19 penalties.

Friday night's game was a "COVID sellout" of ten thousand fans, but it was clear that a lot of those fans were cheering for the blue Cougars rather than the red ones. I know BYU enjoys an enthusiastic fanbase wherever they go due to the LDS cult church, and obviously most UH fans are staying home because of the pandemic. But it was nevertheless a bit disappointing to be surrounded by screaming BYU fans in your own stadium.  

What it Means: This is the game the Coogs could have won, had they just kept their focus and not committed stupid errors (especially on special teams). But they didn't, and suffer their first loss of 2020. 

BYU will likely be the Coogs' only out-of-conference opponent this year, since there are no available weekends to reschedule any of the games that were canceled in September. 

Next up for the Cougars is a trip to Annapolis to play the Navy Midshipmen.

Southwest returning to IAH

Southwest plans to expand its presence in Chicago and Houston by flying out of both airports in both cities, starting in 2021:
Chicago O'Hare International Airport 
Work is underway to add new service from Chicago O'Hare International Airport (ORD), alongside existing service from the carrier's longtime Chicago home, Midway International Airport (MDW). Midway remains one of the busiest airports in Southwest's network. Since first arriving in Chicago in 1985, Southwest has grown into one of the city's largest employers with more than 4,800 Chicago-based Employees.

George Bush Intercontinental Airport 
As Southwest approaches a commemoration of 50 years of flying, the carrier intends to return to Houston George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH), complementing its substantial operation at Houston Hobby (HOU). Intercontinental served as one of three airports where Southwest operated on its first day in operation, June 18, 1971. The carrier moved to Hobby Airport shortly thereafter though it operated service from both airports between 1980 and 2005. Southwest remains a key employer in the City of Houston, providing nearly 4,000 jobs.
Ben at One Mile at a Time is fascinated by Southwest's decision and wonders about the airline's rationale for this announcement:
  • Are IAH and ORD significantly more convenient for large and lucrative customer bases?
  • Or is there more to this? Is Southwest losing out on significant business because people are only searching to ORD and IAH rather than doing wider searches?
If I had to guess, I'd say it's more the former than the latter (in IAH's case; I can't speak for O'Hare). It's worth noting that Southwest's only destination out of Bush Intercontinental when it previously served that airport was Dallas Love Field. Even so, I recall some grumbling from frequent flyers at the time the service was discontinued because of IAH's convenience to Kingwood, The Woodlands and other communities on the north side of town; these communities have only grown (and added major employment centers, such as the ExxonMobil complex or the Generation Park development) since then. Southwest definitely sees an opportunity that they think makes it worthwhile to go head-to-head with United at IAH. 

We should know more about routes and schedules in the coming months; if I had to guess, Love Field will probably not be the only airport Southwest flies to when it re-establishes its presence at Bush Intercontinental.

Astros fall to Tampa Bay in (mostly meaningless) ALCS

The Astros made it to the American League Championship Series for the fourth year in a row, but could not punch their ticket to another World Series:

The Rays bullpen got a big strikeout of Alex Bregman to strand the potential tying run on base in the eighth inning as Tampa Bay held on to beat the Astros 4-2 in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series on Saturday at San Diego’s Petco Park.

The Rays advance to their second World Series in franchise history, while the Astros will spend the offseason thinking how close they were to becoming just the second Major League Baseball team to come back from a 3-0 series deficit. The 2004 Red Sox, who won the World Series, are the only team to do it.

I can't say I'm too crushed about this. The COVID-shortened 2020 MLB season, with its lack of fans and its gimmicky expanded playoff (that allowed the Astros to participate even with a losing record), is going to have such a huge asterisk next to it that few baseball fans are going to recognize its champion as truly legitimate.

That being said, the team's performance gave Astros faithful much to be happy and hopeful about, especially coming off the devastating fallout of the sign-stealing scandal that cost the squad its manager and GM (who still maintains his innocence) and made them the pariahs of the baseball world. The Astros were plagued by injuries to key players throughout the 60-game regular season - starting pitcher Justin Verlander, closing pitcher Roberto Osuna, and AL Rookie of the Year Yordan Álvarez were among the casualties - and limped into the playoffs with a losing record. 

From there, however, the Astros reverted to their dominant form, knocking off the second- and third-seeded teams in the AL to get to the ALCS, and pushed the top-seeded Rays to a game 7 after falling behind 0-3 (which happened for only the second time in history). You could all but hear the millions of Astros-haters around the country grind their teeth in fury as they watched them almost pull it off.

This was a rare instance of a Houston sports team overachieving, and it bodes well for a 2021 season which will hopefully be more normal for players and fans alike. 

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Football at last: Houston 49, Tulane 31

As it turns out, that revised UH football schedule was obsolete from just about the moment I posted it. The game against Baylor that was arranged in record time was canceled just as suddenly, and the following week's game against North Texas was called off as well (although we'll always have a video of the Spirit of Houston and the Green Brigade virtually coming together to perform Deep in the Heart of Texas to make us feel better). The bottom line is that - through no fault of their own - five games that the Cougars expected to play at one point or another during the month of September were canceled (or in Memphis's case, rescheduled to December). ESPN's Sam Khan, Jr recounts the entire frustrating timeline.

Last Thursday, five weeks after their season was supposed to begin, the Cougars finally got to play some football

And, at the beginning of the game, the Cougars certainly looked like a team that hadn't played in five weeks. The Cougars, hosting a Tulane program that already had three games under its belt, fell behind 7-24 early in the second quarter. Two Tulane touchdowns were the direct result of turnovers by UH quarterback Clayton Tune: one was an interception returned for a touchdown, and the other was a sack-and-fumble returned for a touchdown. The Cougars, in fact, would end the evening with five turnovers (although one was a meaningless interception at the end of the first half). 

However, as the game progressed the Cougars began to shake off their rust, and scored three unanswered touchdowns to take a 28-24 lead midway through the third quarter. The Green Wave scored on their next possession to retake the lead. Then wide receiver and kick returner Marquez Stevenson did this:

Stevenson's 97-yard kickoff return broke Tulane; they were unable to score any more points, while the Coogs added two more touchdowns to turn what started out as a rusty, mistake-filled game into a much-needed blowout victory. 

Tune ended the evening 20-of-33 passing for 319 yards and two touchdowns; he also had one rushing score but was sacked four times. Stevenson led receivers with five passes for 118 yards and a touchdown; he was also named the conference's Offensive Player of the Week. The Cougar ground game amassed 157 total yards, with Mulbah Car accounting for two of the Coogs' four rushing TDs. The UH offense ended the evening with 476 yards in spite of their five turnovers.

The UH defense, meanwhile, held Tulane to 211 total yards of offense; they sacked Green Wave quarterback Michael Prattt six times and had 12 tackles for loss. However, the defense was unable to force any turnovers of their own.

Corinne and I were the only members of our regular group to attend the game. Organized tailgating was prohibited, COVID-related restrictions limited the crowd to one-fourth of TDECU Stadium's actual capacity of 40,000 (although it was clear that much fewer than ten thousand fans were there for the Thursday night game), and fans in attendance were also encouraged to wear masks when not eating or drinking. That didn't stop us from enjoying ourselves, although Corinne just had to wear her Tulane shirt to the game...

So yeah: the game atmosphere was weird. The game's start was ugly. But the main thing is that the Cougars started their belated season with a win. As somebody who only a few months ago wasn't expecting to see any football at all this fall, I left the stadium pleased.

Next up for the Coogs is a Friday night game against Brigham Young.

Thursday, October 08, 2020

Bill O'Brien fired from the Texans

Don't let the door hit ya, BOB:

The Houston Texans have started the 2020 regular season with four straight losses. They are 0-4. In the history of the NFL, there has been exactly ONE franchise to start a season 0-4 and go on to make the playoffs. (In case you get into bar trivia duels, that one team was the 1992 San Diego Chargers, led by the immortal Stan Humphries at quarterback!)

This Texans team doesn't look remotely ready to win a football game, let alone win the nine or ten games that would be required to make the NFL's postseason. Perhaps the most frustrating and infuriating part of the Texans' failure this season is that head coach Bill O'Brien was supposed to be an offensive expert (despite six recent seasons of Texans football that display the contrary), and the offense flat out stinks.

Players look confused, Deshaun Watson looks neutered, and in the end, the most productive output through four games was the 23 points they scored on Sunday against Minnesota. By Monday afternoon, Texans owner Cal McNair had seen enough, and he decided to move on from Bill O'Brien, firing the seventh year head coach and naming Romeo Crennel as interim head coach for the remainder of the season.

While O'Brien amassed a (barely) winning 52-48 record and notched four AFC South division titles as head coach of the Texans, his playoff record was a meager 2-4, and his most recent postseason performance was an epic 24-point chokejob against Kansas City. Moreover, as GM he made some truly bizarre personnel moves, such as trading fan favorite and all-pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona for essentially nothing in return. In fact, O'Brien's ineptitude has pretty much screwed the Texans for years to come, as The Guardian's Oliver Connolly explains: 
It is a testament to the job that Bill O’Brien did with the Texans that the firing of a head coach/general manager who led his franchise to four division titles, only one losing record, and back-to-back double-digit win seasons was overdue.

As a reminder of the state of play when O’Brien was fired on Monday:

-- The Texans have the NFL’s highest payroll this year at $248m.

-- They are projected to be $6m over the salary cap this offseason.

-- Over the past 12 months, they have traded away Jadeveon Clowney and DeAndre Hopkins, two bonafide All-Pros, for a bag of nothing.

-- They do not have a first- or second-round pick in the next draft because of a trade that brought Laremy Tunsil from the Dolphins.

-- They have only four picks in the 2021 draft.

-- They are 0-4.

-- FiveThirtyEight projects them to finish the season with a 4-12 record, and gives them a 2% chance of making the playoffs.

It is about as grim a outlook as any team in the league. O’Brien leaves the team devoid of talent – or the assets to get any in the immediate future.

Indeed, the only question about Bill O'Brien's firing is why it occurred when it did. It would have made more sense to have given him the boot following last January's meltdown against Kansas City, when O'Brien proved beyond a doubt that - his four division titles in the weak AFC South notwithstanding - the AFC Divisional round was the furthest he would ever be able to take the team. 

Instead, the McNair family stuck with him, formally appointed him GM, and allowed him to make the boneheaded Hopkins trade, only to finally realize their mistake four games into the 2020 season. Now, the McNairs are stuck with open general manager and head coaching positions few people are going to want to fill, given the mess the franchise now finds itself in. ESPN's Bill Barnwell explains:
In the end, there was nobody left for O'Brien to use as an excuse, no power to grab and no promotion to achieve. The only person more powerful than O'Brien in the organization, McNair, is the one who made the decision to cut ties with O'Brien and his plan for the team after a month of bad football. I can understand why McNair made his decision, but it seems impossible to separate what O'Brien has done from the opportunity McNair gave him to make those decisions. McNair can right the ship and turn things around if the Texans make the right hires for O'Brien's old positions this offseason, but neither job looks particularly appealing. McNair also has proved he's not up to his job over the past two years, but as O'Brien was reminded Monday, you can't fire an owner.
Apparently, a recent altercation between O'Brien and J.J. Watt in practice may have been the final straw.  I feel badly for J.J. and think the Texans should trade him to a team where he has a chance to win the ring he so deserves. 

The Texans, meanwhile, are going to be a disaster for the next several years to come.

Wednesday, October 07, 2020

Houston sees surge in bicycling

More locals are traveling on two wheels, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic:

Coupled with the effects of a warming planet, Covid-19 has produced little good news this year. Yet the two crises did pave the way for one positive social shift: a bike boom, including in some unlikely places. New data from Strava, the fitness tracking app used by 68 million global users, shows that several U.S. cities saw significant year-over-year growth in both bike trips and cyclists in much of 2020. 

Among the six U.S. cities for which Strava provided data, Houston and Los Angeles, two sprawling metropolises where just .5% and 1% of the respective populations biked to work in pre-pandemic times, stand out. In Houston, the total volume of cycling trips in Houston was 138% higher in May 2020 than in May 2019. In Los Angeles, the jump was 93%. Unlike their peers, these two places also saw cycling increases in April, the first full month of widespread stay-at-home order and economic shutdowns. 

Given that riding a bicycle is a socially-distanced, outdoor activity, it should come as no surprise that  Houstonians tired of being locked into their homes began to hop aboard their bikes. Activity on the Houston BCycle bike share system saw dramatic increases shortly after the pandemic began, and people wanting bicycles of their own wiped out the inventories of places like Academy and Bike Barn. 

Cycling experts on the ground confirmed that the new Strava numbers are consistent with data from local bike-counters and bike-share systems. In Houston, one popular trail has seen a 162% increase in trips from January to August of this year, said Susan Jaworski*, an active transportation planner for the Houston-Galveston Area Council, a consortium of regional cities that helps coordinate bike networks.

“I think it was the pandemic’s stay-home, stay-safe orders, where people who were remote-working had a chance to discover their bikes,” she said. “When congestion disappeared overnight, I think more folks felt comfortable exploring to get fresh air.”

The big question is if automobile-oriented cities such as Houston will be able to keep people on their bikes even after the pandemic ends and regular commuting and exercising activity resumes. Houston has aggressively been trying to expand its investment in bike-friendly infrastructure, but the city's long-standing affinity for the automobile, as well as its harsh summertime climate, remain to be overcome.

Bicycling is a healthy, inexpensive, ecologically-friendly way to travel and recreate. If anything good comes out of this pandemic, it's that more Houstonians discovered this for themselves.

* Full disclosure: Susan Jaworski is a co-worker of mine at H-GAC.