HOUSTON -- The Houston Texans' postseason aspirations have been inversely proportional to their number of bodies on the injured reserve list, which continues to swell as playoff hopes fade.
First the injuries hit defensively, with the Texans losing end J.J. Watt (left tibial plateau fracture) and linebacker Whitney Mercilus (torn pectoral) against the Kansas City Chiefs on Oct. 8. Ever since, the offense has sustained a series of blows ranging from devastating (rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson) to depth-sapping (rookie running back D'Onta Foreman).
The bottom fell out last week in a loss at Tennessee when tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz, running back Alfred Blue, and receiver Braxton Miller were lost to concussions. They joined the list of wounded that not only included Watson and Foreman, but also receivers Will Fuller (ribs) and Bruce Ellington (hamstring), and tackles Chris Clark (ankle) and Julie'n Davenport (shoulder).
When the Texans (4-8) host the San Francisco 49ers (2-10) on Sunday at NRG Stadium, their roster will represent a motley mix of hobbled replacements and off-the-street signees. With four losses in the five games since Tom Savage replaced Watson under center, the Texans have long been a playoff afterthought. After consecutive AFC South titles and three successive nine-win seasons under fourth-year coach Bill O'Brien, that reality represents a tough pill to swallow.
"We're disappointed that we're not where we want to be record-wise," O'Brien said. "We know the fans are disappointed. Can't really do much about that. All we can do is come to work every day and try to figure out how to win a game."
How the Texans conclude the schedule might shape their organizational direction during the offseason. Given their recent success under O'Brien, their overwhelming injuries, and modest point differential (minus-13), it's apparent that the Texans won't require complete teardown.
Still, Houston doesn't appear poised to take a significant leap forward even when fully healthy, and the franchise entered this season amid rumblings that O'Brien might be poised to depart. His future in Houston likely isn't tied to wins and losses over the final four weeks, but rather the fight and preparedness the Texans showcase starting this weekend against the 49ers.
"I think the big thing is winning," O'Brien said of straddling the line of late-season development. "I think within winning you may, within the goal of winning, you may be able to do certain things, but at the end of the day, if it doesn't point toward winning, you're not doing it, if that makes sense. I think if you're in a different level of football maybe you're thinking of it in a different way, but at this level, it's all about trying to figure out how to get a win."
San Francisco took a big step toward determining part of its long-term future when quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo delivered a steady performance in his first start since joining the organization via trade from the New England Patriots on Oct. 31. Although Garoppolo didn't set the field ablaze statistically, completing 26 of 37 attempts for 293 yards and an interception, he was instrumental in leading the offense on a game-winning drive in a 15-14 victory at Chicago.
On the heels of that effort, Garoppolo earned the starting nod against the Texans and appears well-positioned to supplant rookie third-rounder C.J. Beathard for the remainder of the season. Long considered an intriguing asset blocked by Tom Brady in New England, Garoppolo has finally discovered a situation where his potential dovetails with the needs of his employer.
"He showed a lot of his ability and why people see him the way that we do," 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. "It was fun working with him on game day and it also made it a lot more fun to coach this week, now that we have a game under our belt and he has a better understanding how we spend a game and I've got a little bit better understanding of how he is throughout a game."
Stripping how the 49ers progress under Garoppolo from their wins and losses presents a challenge familiar to talent-strapped teams seeking growth and development yet risk-averse to surrendering prime draft positioning. Only the winless Cleveland Browns own a worse record than San Francisco, however the rudderless New York Giants are tied with the 49ers in the NFC basement with three other teams (Chicago, Denver and Indianapolis) just one victory ahead.
The higher the 49ers' select next spring the better. Unimpeded toward a third consecutive last-place finish in the NFC West, their roster is in dire need of an upgrade. Garoppolo flourishing while the 49ers lose might represent the best of both worlds moving forward.