David Culley explained his reasoning behind a critical decision during the Texans’ loss to the Carolina Panthers.
Faced with a 4th-and-4 at the Panthers’ 39-yard line and trailing by one point in the third quarter, Culley determined that the Texans weren’t within kicker Joey Slye’s range.
Instead of attempting a 56-yard field goal or going for it on 4th-and-4, Culley had Cameron Johnston punt following a delay-of-game penalty.
What happened next effectively decided the outcome of the game.
The Panthers marched 91 yards on nine plays, a scoring drive capped by tight end Tommy Tremble’s touchdown run. The Texans never challenged the Panthers again during a 24-9 defeat at NRG Stadium.
Culley has said he relies more on gut instincts than analytics when making decisions about going for it or not on fourth downs. Most analytical models advocate for a more aggressive approach in that situation.
Culley said that because the Texans didn’t gain any yards on third down before the decision to punt he ultimately decided to call Johnston onto the field.
“If we would have got anything on that play at all, we got it down to 4t-a or fourth and one, we would have went for it. But with fourth and five, I wanted to back them up, and felt like we would get them backed up and get a stop and then get them off the field and get good field position.
“At that point, we’re still just playing the game right there. I just felt like we needed to do what we did to be able to just continue to be able to have some momentum, and we didn’t get any. We didn’t have any.”
Culley acknowledged it was a potential scoring opportunity, but he was adamant that was what he felt was the right strategy at the time.
Slye, who missed an extra point in the first half, later made a 53-yard field goal.
“We were not at that point,” Culley said. “We just didn't feel like in practice, that it hadn't gone quite as well as it had been, and we felt like we had a range for him and we kept him in his range. Obviously, the one that he hit was the max that we had for him.”
Rookie quarterback Davis Mills, making his first NFL start, didn’t express an opinion on whether the Texans should have handled the situation differently.
“I probably need to make some more plays and gain some more respect before I can weigh in a lot on that,” said Mills, who threw one touchdown pass and no interceptions as the replacement for injured quarterback Tyrod Taylor.
Veteran wide receiver Brandin Cooks stated what most players say about that kind of situation.
“To be honest with you, that was one of those things that you just trust in (Tim Kelly), you trust coach Culley,” Cooks said. “Obviously, you ask the aoffensive player, we always want to go for it. But at the end of the day, you just got to play smart and trust in your coaches to put you in the best position.”
Mills completed 18 of 28 passes and has made strides as a passer, becoming a more efficient quarterback.
What does that mean going forward?
The Texans are expected to be less conservative going forward with Mills.
“Well, I think when Tyrod went out and Davis came in, things changed a little bit with what we were doing because of Davis not having reps and whatnot,” Culley said. “Going into this ballgame, obviously, with Davis and it being his first game getting a full-time start, is that we wanted to make sure that we kind of kept it to the vest in what we were doing for him. I think what we end up doing is, we got to the point that we probably felt like we kind of went too far with trying to protect him and just kind of doing what we feel like we need to do.
“What we did find out coming out of this game is that he can handle a lot more than what we felt like, because of the way he handled himself in this ballgame. Moving forward, we’ll just get back to doing the things that we had started doing in that first game and a half when Tyrod was our starting quarterback.”
That’s basically what offensive coordinator Tim Kelly did as the game went on and Mills showed he could handle things.
“Well, when we started the game, it was important that we get him off to a good start, and he got off to a good start from that standpoint,” Culley said. “And then once we got going, Tim (Kelly) just called the game as if he was calling the game if Tyrod was in there. We just did not run the ball as well as we needed to run the ball because of the mistakes that we made. Obviously, that had a lot to do with the inconsistency and what we were doing offensively, and being able to do what we would have liked to have done with him in the passing game because a lot of our passing game comes off of what we do in the running game. We weren’t very good at doing that.”
Aaron Wilson has covered the NFL for 20 seasons, including the Texans, Baltimore Ravens, Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars. He has previously written for The Houston Chronicle and The Baltimore Sun. He’s on Twitter: @AaronWilson_NFL and Instagram: @aaronwilson7128.