HOUSTON – Before the uncharacteristic interceptions, Texans rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud showed why he’s a lock to be named NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and remains a legitimate league Most Valuable Player candidate.
Stroud escaped the pocket, improvising as he scrambled to his right and launched a perfect 40-yard bomb on a “backyard play” that connected with leaping rookie wide receiver Tank Dell, his close friend, for an electrifying touchdown.
The crowd at NRG Stadium chanted ‘M-V-P! M-V-P!’ in a nod of respect for the star first-year player and two-time Heisman Trophy finalist from Ohio State.
Although Stroud threw a season-high three interceptions, more than his previous combined two interceptions all season, the Texans still beat the Arizona Cardinals 21-16, as veteran corner Steven Nelson batted away a Kyler Murray pass on fourth down intended for wide receiver Hollywood Brown.
Stroud threw two interceptions that were his fault. He forced a throw into heavy traffic in the end zone to wide receiver Nico Collins, and he was errant on a sideline throw that Cardinals cornerback Antonio Hamilton dove to pick off, injuring himself in the process. Another pick was on wide receiver Robert Woods as an accurate throw ricocheted off his hands.
Stroud still passed for 336 yards and two touchdowns in his third consecutive 300-yard game.
Behind the leadership of first-year coach DeMeco Ryans, the Texans doubled their victory total from last year’s 3-13-1 campaign under Lovie Smith. The team also racked up a three-game winning streak for first time since the 2018 season.
And Stroud, who had plenty of good moments against the Cardinals, was unfazed by the interceptions or getting the wind knocked out of him and leaving the game for one play with backup quarterback Davis Mills replacing him before going back in to finish the game. Stroud has an unflappable, determined personality and has overcome more difficult things off the field than having a few turnovers in a football game.
“Man, Steph Curry don’t ever stop shooting,” Stroud said. “I’m going to keep letting it ride, and I’ve got no shame in my game. I’ve definitely got to be smarter, but no confidence has been taken away from me. I’m going to keep letting it fly. I’m going to keep shooting it. That’s what makes me great is that those times where you either get away with it, or you don’t. I’ve been blessed enough to have plays where nobody talks about it because they don’t make the play. This game, they made the plays and that’s not going to skew my confidence one bit.”
Stroud manufactured his fifth 300-yard passing performance. He completed 27 of 37 passes for an 85.0 passer rating. He passed for 259 yards and two touchdowns in the first half. The Texans didn’t score in the second half.
“For C.J., we continue to highlight the good that he’s doing,” Texans coach DeMeco Ryans said. “You’re talking about a young guy who can move the football down the field. You’re going to have miscues, you’re going to have bad plays, but it’s all about how you respond to those plays.
“We’ll continue to highlight all the positive things that C.J. is doing, and then we’ll also coach him up around those negative plays. And C.J. knows, that’s what I love about C.J. He knows when he makes a mistake, and he already knows what he needs to do to fix it. Very coachable, but I know he’ll be dialed in on getting better this week.”
The Texans improved to 6-4 and are riding a three-game winning streak. They’re one game behind the Jacksonville Jaguars (7-3) before hosting them in a pivotal AFC South showdown next Sunday at NRG Stadium. If the season ended today, the Texans would qualify for the postseason as the sixth seed.
And the defense and an improving running game are big reasons why the Texans are a dangerous football team.
They’ve become more than Stroud and an exciting passing game engineered by offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik with quarterbacks coach Jerrod Johnson and assistant coaches Bill Lazor, Shane Day and Ben McDaniels.
“He doesn’t flinch,” offensive guard Shaq Mason said of Stroud. “He’s the ultimate competitor. We had no doubt he was going to fight back.”
On the pass intended for Woods, the wide receiver was tightly covered, and linebacker Krys Barnes intercepted the football.
On the interception by Hamilton, Stroud appeared to throw off his back foot.
Those are all teachable moments for the 22-year-old California native.
“I think I’m very confident,” Stroud said. “I’m not going to let my emotions and things get in front of that. This is football. This is not tennis or anything like that. I’m out there with 11 guys. Those guys have always picked me up, and I appreciate that. I’m still learning as I’m going, and I’m really blessed to be able to do it with such a special group of guys. No man, my confidence is still there. I’ll just keep doing what I do.”
Stroud threw a touchdown to sliding tight end Dalton Schultz. His throw to Dell prompted the ‘M-V-P’ chants. “I really didn’t hear it,” Stroud said. “I appreciate it. That’s cool. Hopefully, I keep playing well and keep putting wins together.”
As for the MVP conversation, Stroud is generally regarded as fifth on the list of candidates behind Patrick Mahomes, Jalen Hurts, Lamar Jackson and Tua Tagovailoa.
“You know how people are so wishy-washy, I don’t know if I’m still in that race,” Stroud said. “I’m kidding.”
Stroud had six completions of 20 yards or more.
He connected with Dell eight times for 149 yards.
“Seven, he’s the best player whenever he steps on the field,” Dell said. “He’s a special man. He’s a special football player.”
Aaron Wilson is a Texans and NFL reporter for KPRC 2 and click2houston.com.