The Houston Texans were one franchise before January 31, 2023, and a completely different one after. Seldom can such a stunning transformation be traced so definitively. Plenty happened after that—the team drafted quarterback C. J. Stroud, who became an instant star; it notched a string of close wins; and, in the end, it went from being a 3–13–1 laughingstock to a tough, smart, and cohesive 10–7 playoff team.

But it was the hiring, nearly one year ago, of former Texans linebacker DeMeco Ryans as the franchise’s fifth head coach in four seasons that turned the page. The Texans had lost 31 of 39 games at the time, and after years of sellouts, apathy had replaced anger, along with a belief that the Texans front office would never get it right.

“The genesis of this turnaround was hiring DeMeco Ryans, even when most so-called experts thought he’d never return to such a downtrodden franchise,” Sean Pendergast, morning cohost on Houston’s SportsRadio 610 told me over email. “DeMeco wanted to be here, we all felt wanted again, and happiness reigned supreme.”

The other shoe dropped three months later when the Texans took Stroud with the second overall pick of the 2023 NFL Draft, then traded up for Alabama pass rusher Will Anderson Jr. with the number three pick. One of the pre-draft topics for sports talk shows had been whether a team would be better off selecting Stroud or Anderson. Houston general manager Nick Caserio got both.

Stroud has received more attention as a rookie (rightfully so, thanks to the importance of his position and his outstanding play), but Anderson has also been exactly the disruptive force on defense that the Texans hoped he’d be.

“I’ve never seen a more transformative night for a franchise than Draft night 2023 for the Texans,” Pendergast wrote. “That was the day it all changed. Two college studs, who both said they wanted to get picked by the Texans. Add in that, as it turns out, both guys are insanely good football players and wonderful young men. This is a team that is likable at every level.”

Ryans had given the Texans instant credibility, in part because Houston fans saw him as one of their own—the team’s starting linebacker for six seasons and a de facto team captain when the franchise made its first playoff appearance in 2011. During Ryans’s rookie training camp, in 2006, coaches had been immediately impressed by his understanding of defensive schemes and by the positive impact he had on his teammates’ performance. They came to trust him as a coach on the field and lauded his work ethic and communication skills.

Still only 39, Ryans finished his playing career in 2016 and began earning his coaching stripes the following year with the San Francisco 49ers. He spent six seasons with the team, the last two as defensive coordinator. He garnered so much respect in San Francisco—and the Niners were winning—that by the end of last season, his name was high on the list of almost every team seeking a new head coach.

“DeMeco is the perfect guy for this job,” Stroud told reporters after the Texans closed the regular season Saturday with a 23–19 win over the Indianapolis Colts. “He brings something out of his players, and it’s indescribable. Just like that strain, the mental stability, that toughness that he talks about. I can do nothing but just be appreciative and just be thankful for where I was picked and this situation right now. It’s just been a blessing.”

The Texans’ opening wasn’t considered a marquee job for coaches last season, but Houston was where Ryans wanted to be, and when he walked into an introductory press conference at NRG Stadium after his hiring last winter, it was easy to believe that something had changed with the franchise. “DeMeco’s football IQ was second to none,” said Travis Johnson, one of Ryans’s former teammates in Houston. “He was always that guy to put you in your place when you were wrong and pat you on the back when you were right. DeMeco was one of those guys who always led by example and had that leadership quality about him.” After years of ugly losses and boneheaded decisions by the Texans, Ryans reawakened something in a Houston fan base that was yearning to believe in its football team. 

When the Texans play the Cleveland Browns on Saturday in their first playoff game in four years, only seven players will still be around from the roster Caserio inherited when Houston hired him in 2021. So plenty of the heavy lifting had been done by the time Ryans and Stroud arrived.

But still, the team was not going to be a contender until it acquired a playoff-caliber quarterback. 

Stroud has met all those standards. He averaged 273.9 passing yards per game and worked his way into the MVP conversation until a concussion sidelined him for two games. He finished the regular season with 23 touchdown passes and just five interceptions. If anyone still doubted Stroud midway through this season, his eighth NFL start probably won them over. The Texans trailed Tampa Bay 37–33 with forty seconds remaining when he completed five straight passes, including a fifteen-yard touchdown throw to Tank Dell with six seconds left in the game.

Stroud somehow lofted the football over two defenders and into Dell’s arms in the back of the end zone. So efficient was that final drive, so sudden was the payoff, that plenty of Texans fans had trouble wrapping their minds around what they’d seen. I know because I received a text from a friend that asked: “Did that really just happen?”

That was the kind of play other teams used to make against the Texans. And the heroics kept on coming from Stroud. The following week, Houston was tied 27–27 on the road against the Cincinnati Bengals when Stroud took his team 55 yards in 93 seconds for kicker Matt Ammendola’s 38-yard game-winning field goal.

Stroud would make plays like this again and again throughout the season. “C. J., he doesn’t surprise me,” Ryans said. “We talked about it earlier in the week with C. J. being special in these big-time moments when you need it most, to step up and make plays. He’s done it time after time, he’s done it the entire year. It’s not surprising to anyone, that’s who he is. He’s one of the best passers in the league and he shows it consistently game in and game out.”

One year after entering the final weekend of last season with a chance to have the league’s worst record and snag the Draft’s number one pick, the Texans closed this season with a winning record and a playoff berth on the line. If they won, they were back in the playoffs for the first time since 2019. If they lost, they were out. Once again, Stroud was excellent, completing 20 of 26 passes for 264 yards and two touchdowns. The score was knotted at 17–17 in the fourth quarter,  when Stroud led a clutch twelve-play, 73-yard drive that was capped by running back Devin Singletary’s three-yard touchdown run with six minutes and twenty seconds remaining. Stroud threw seven passes on the drive and completed all of them for 82 yards. The Texans got the score despite being whistled for penalties that forced the Houston offense to gain extra yards.

“Every play, even when we moved backward,” Stroud said after the game, “we still persevered through that. And that’s a testimony to the work we put in, the type of guys we brought into the system, the coaching staff who called a great game. A multitude of an organization just putting it together. And I’m just blessed to be a part of it.”

The Texans also got lucky when Colts quarterback Gardner Minshew and running back Tyler Goodson failed to connect on a fourth-and-one pass play near the Houston goal line with 63 seconds remaining. The win guaranteed the Texans a playoff berth, and a Jacksonville Jaguars loss on Sunday made Houston the AFC South Champions, which means Houston will host Cleveland in the Wild Card round next weekend.

After the game, after Ryans had greeted each of his players as they entered the locker room, he leaned alone against a wall and seemed to choke back tears. Hannah McNair, the wife of Texans chairman and CEO Cal McNair, rushed past a reporter and said: “I can’t stop crying.”  She surely understood that the Texans had done more than improve on last season’s record. They’d changed the way fans see the franchise.

To go from three victories last season to ten wins this one, to draft a young quarterback and watch him quickly become one of the NFL’s best, to weather injuries up and down the roster, the Texans delivered on virtually every level. “This is probably one of the best feelings ever,” defensive end Jerry Hughes said. “Just to see this team turn around from where we were last year.”

The Texans’ locker room smelled of victory cigars on Saturday as Ryans gave an emotional post-game chat in which he attempted to celebrate the team’s accomplishments while remaining focused on the postseason. “Love you guys, man,” he said. “Proud of the determination, man. You talk about determination? Pure grit? Everybody fighting until that last play? That’s what it’s about, man. And we punched our ticket. Hey, now everything starts, right? Everybody oh-and-oh right now.”

Texas’s second professional football team has often been an afterthought. That’s life in the shadow of the Dallas Cowboys, but the Texans have mostly been forgettable throughout their 22 NFL seasons. They’ve been in the playoffs seven times and won four Wild Card games. They’re 0–4 in division-round games.

But it still beats having no team at all. Houston lacked an NFL franchise for the five seasons after the Oilers bolted for Tennessee before the 1997 season. “It’s really an unbelievable feeling to turn around, the 180 switch that we’ve had,” tight end Brevin Jordan told reporters on Saturday. “From last year, we won three games, to being in the playoffs, it’s a huge thing. It’s why you put in all the work.”