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With C.J. Stroud and DeMeco Ryans, the Texans aren’t waiting for the future

Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud won his playoff debut Saturday. (Matt Patterson/AP)
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HOUSTON — Deshaun Watson stood on the sideline opposite the Houston Texans on Saturday night, a reminder of how far and how fast the franchise had risen. Watson’s trade demand and the horrid saga that followed depleted Houston of hope. The Texans won 11 games over three years under three coaches (plus an interim). The quarterback meant to be a pillar became a pariah and a Cleveland Brown. Any promise was purely hypothetical and probably delusional.

Last offseason, the Texans hired DeMeco Ryans and drafted C.J. Stroud. Together, they have executed a football miracle. Watson’s presence Saturday was hardly noticed. He is ancient history, not worth thinking about. The past is irrelevant when the present is so joyful, when the future is limitless.

The Texans’ destruction of the Browns on Saturday delivered another milestone in a season beyond Houston’s dreams. In Ryans, the Texans found a defensive mastermind whose intellect and will reversed a broken culture. In Stroud, they have a 22-year-old quarterback who has an elastic right arm, uncommon vision and the awe of veteran teammates.

“He gave this city hope,” said backup quarterback Case Keenum, a Texas native who attended the University of Houston. “He gave this team hope. He gave everybody hope. When he’s back there, we got a chance versus anybody. When the lights come on, man, something just clicks. He’s one of the best physical, mental operators of playing quarterback I’ve ever seen.”

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Before Ryans’s defense returned two Joe Flacco interceptions for touchdowns to seal the win, Stroud hovered above Houston’s 45-14 demolition of the Browns. He passed for 274 yards — 236 before halftime — and three touchdowns without so much as flirting with an interception. Stroud became the youngest quarterback to win an NFL playoff game. He took the record from Michael Vick, his favorite quarterback growing up.

Ryans and Stroud have executed a one-year transformation that makes the Texans dangerous now and a potential powerhouse later. Do not overlook the part about being dangerous now. How many quarterbacks would you take over Stroud? Not to build a team around — to win a game next week. Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen for sure. Joe Burrow if he was healthy. Maybe Dak Prescott. And then … anyone else?

Anyone at all?

“I’m taking him, bro,” Keenum said. “You just have to get hot at the right time. Let him keep getting hot.”

Stroud and Ryans became the first rookie quarterback/first-year coach combination to win a playoff game since the New York Jets’ Mark Sanchez and Rex Ryan in the 2009 season. It’s telling that Sanchez (fifth overall) had been the highest-drafted quarterback to win a playoff game as a rookie. A quarterback drafted so early inherently heads to a losing team, and the qualities needed to lead a good NFL team — let alone a bad one — are rare for a player that young to have.

Brock Purdy quarterbacked the 49ers to the NFC championship game as a rookie last season, but his task was not the same as Stroud’s. Purdy carried zero expectations as the last pick of the draft, and he played for an experienced coach and play caller while surrounded by all-pro talent. Stroud entered the NFL with the weight of a franchise on his shoulders, and he elevated an offense bereft of players with prior achievement under a first-year coach and, in Bobby Slowik, an offensive coordinator calling plays for the first time.

“C.J. is the reason why we’re in this position,” Ryans said. “Our whole team is leaning on him, and he has the shoulders to carry that weight.”

From the moment Stroud arrived, Texans veterans understood they had been gifted a precocious quarterback. He organized throwing sessions with older receivers. They saw an arm capable of magic — off-balance throws, perfect deep balls, precise short passes. But they also noticed a magnetism just as essential for a great quarterback.

“I wish you guys could be in the huddle and just around him,” said tight end Brevin Jordan, who had a 76-yard touchdown catch Saturday. “The dude is unbelievable how he moves, how he talks, just everything. You could tell from training camp — he was a captain; he was our starting quarterback. You could just tell how he moved.”

Jordan clarified he did not mean how Stroud moved on the field. His demeanor, a mix of humility and confidence, united the locker room behind him.

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Teammates uniformly describe Stroud as humble, but he is also assertive. He voiced his opinion to teammates about what he expected from them and to Slowik and Ryans about what kind of offense he wanted. At one point early in the season, he told Slowik he wanted a running back to shuffle when he went in motion rather than turn and run. He requested extra walk-throughs during the week and faster tempo during games.

“It’s C.J.’s team,” wide receiver Robert Woods said. “It’s been that way since Day 1.”

“I feel like it’s how I am as a person,” Stroud said. “I’ve been this way since I’ve been a child. I’ve always been the youngest in my family, kind of the one to get picked on. That made me tough, you know? I thank God for my family. What I’ve been through in my life has prepared me to be in a locker room full of men and being a man amongst men. I’m honestly just being myself. I’m not trying to hold people to a standard I’m not holding myself.”

In the biggest game of his life, Stroud carved apart one of the NFL’s best defenses. Browns defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, a 57-year-old lifer, is the kind of grizzled wizard who dines out on rookie quarterbacks. “He whooped my ass multiple times,” Keenum said.

Schwartz couldn’t solve Stroud, though. “They threw everything at him once we were rolling, and he has a plan for it,” Keenum said.

One play late in the second quarter exemplified Stroud’s mastery. A penalty had backed the Texans into second and 20. Stroud rolled right and saw wide receiver John Metchie III wide open in the flat. A lot of quarterbacks — most young quarterbacks — might have taken the easy, short gain. But Stroud knew the play coverage dictated that tight end Dalton Schultz would come open deep downfield on a crossing route. (“I just had to be patient and let Dalton work,” Stroud said.) As Schultz sneaked past two defensive backs, Stroud heaved a perfect pass to Schultz about 45 yards on the other side of the field for a 37-yard touchdown.

“His eyes are constantly working,” Woods said. “Guys are constantly running and trying to stay open, because you never know … if he’s going to take the shot.”

The play also displayed the synchronicity of Stroud and Slowik, who in lieu of taking the many head coaching interviews he has been offered could simply mail team owners the film from Saturday.

“What he call,” Stroud said, “we ball.”

Ryans is the other half of Houston’s transformation. He showed his defensive acumen by creating pressure on Flacco, attacking his weakness after the Texans struggled to stop his play-action passes. But Ryans’s impact extends far beyond game day. He brought his natural confidence to a franchise at the bottom of the NFL, and “that confidence rubbed off on everybody,” Woods said.

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Ryans fostered profound togetherness. He involved players’ families in team events. At the entrance of the Texans’ locker room Saturday, a slide on a monitor was titled “January Birthdays.” It detailed which days players were born so teammates could wish one another a happy birthday.

“It goes down to, like, our bathroom stalls, our shower pressure,” Woods said. “He’s listening to everything from the players. He came and changed this culture right away.”

On Saturday, as NRG Stadium erupted, Ryans walked down the tunnel toward the locker room. He carried his son in his arms, and his daughter walked in front of him. He hugged his wife, then paced into the locker room and told his players they had dominated.

Later, Stroud would walk down a hallway after he finished his news conference. His mother strode next to him before Stroud ducked back into the locker room. He had more football to play this season. The city around him didn’t even have to hope. All it had to do was watch.