Manziel Mirage Hides True Star
Overblown Johnny Manziel mirage overshadows NFL's real breakout star: DeAndre Hopkins goes Dez Bryant
DeAndre Hopkins stands in the middle of the Houston Texans locker room, dressed in his usual soccer friendly postgame attire, glancing at his cellphone. Team communications manager Evan Koch is running through a list of national outlets interested in talking to the NFL's true 2014 breakout receiving star (sorry Mike Evans, your stats don't quite stack up).
Jim Rome wants an interview for sure and Hopkins looks at his phone to see which afternoon will work.
The scene's confirmation that even on a day when the NFL goes completely Johnny Manziel crazy — with NFL halftime shows totally dominated by a too-late substitution from floundering Cleveland Browns coach Mike Pettine — there is still important life under the oxygen-sucking surface of Johnny Football. DeAndre Hopkins' monster game won't even get 1/1000th of the attention that Manziel's brief cameo does.
But it means volumes to the Texans' future and the viability of first year coach Bill O'Brien's vision.
This 45-21 wipeout of the Tennessee Titans might turn out to only be a last shot playoff tease. The Texans (6-6) still need to win at Jacksonville — the site of many unexpected torments for Bob McNair's franchise — next week and in Indy where they never win in Week 15 to have any chance.
The new star accounts for 66.5 percent of Fitzpatrick's 358 total passing yards and four of his five passes over 30 yards. It's impossible to overstate how much Hopkins dominates this game.
Resurrected journeyman quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick's franchise record six touchdown passes is surely a feel-good fluke. If Fitzpatrick played against the Titans team he's upset with for releasing him every week, he might be a Pro Bowler. But he can't and his NFL limitations are always looming.
But Hopkins' 238 receiving yards are no mirage. Instead, it's the stuff future superstars are made of. It goes almost completely unnoticed in the overblown national frenzy over Johnny Manziel and the deserved local one over J.J. Watt, but Hopkins now quietly owns the single highest receiving yardage game in the entire NFL this year.
That's right, no player's racked up more receiving yards in any game in 2014 than the 238 Hopkins collects against the Titans. Demaryius Thomas — Peyton Manning's well-known top target — has come the closest with a 226-yard game. Superstar wideouts like Dez Bryant and Antonio Brown have never even approached a 200-yard game this season.
Hopkins beat them all, on an afternoon when his brilliance clearly lifts Fitzpatrick. The new star accounts for 66.5 percent of Fitzpatrick's 358 total passing yards and four of his five passes over 30 yards. It's impossible to overstate how much DeAndre Hopkins dominates this game.
"He is one of the top receivers in the league," says O'Brien who doles out that type of praise . . . well, never. "He is a really good player. He's a dynamic player. He gets better and better every time we go out there.
"He wants the ball."
Witness the 56-yard catch in the fourth quarter (not to be confused with his 58-yard touchdown reception at the end of the first half) that Hopkins snags in-between Titan cornerbacks Jason McCourty and Blidi Wreh-Wilson. Tennessee is doing anything not to be embarrassed by Hopkins anymore at this point. And he still finds a way to go up and get the football.
That's near Randy Moss level stuff.
"DeAndre is phenomenal," McNair says, outside the Texans locker room. "He’s got as good a pair of hands as anybody in the league. If you get the ball close to him, then he’s going to catch it. He’s playing great.
"And I can’t say that I’m surprised because we see that in practice."
Johnny Manziel has shown plenty in Browns practice — and he has the talent to be an NFL game changer. But Hopkins already is. Overhyping Manziel's meaningless late play in a resounding Browns loss to another AFC playoff contender — and underplaying Hopkins monster game in a 24-point win — is more than a tad ridiculous.
But it's the way of pro sports today.
Bill O'Brien's Greatest Success
It seems to be in fashion to bash Texans general manager Rick Smith for his drafts these days. But you have to give him credit for Hopkins, a 27th pick in 2013 who is playing like a Top 10 talent. Would you really want Sammy Watkins, the fourth overall pick in this year's draft, over Hopkins at this point?
Hopkins is Smith's draft pick, but he's also Bill O'Brien's biggest success story of his early Texans coaching career. Gary Kubiak never really got through to the talented, but guarded Hopkins. O'Brien clearly has — and the transformation's been striking.
O'Brien, most known for his razor sharp tongue (see "Dr. Foster"), has nurtured Hopkins in a manner that goes against type.
"You could see this coming," Texans receiver Keshawn Martin tells CultureMap. "He's been building toward this. DeAndre's been putting the work in and he's just so talented."
"I’m just happy to see the kid grow as a player," Andre Johnson, the guy whose records Hopkins will be looking to break one day, says. "Comparing this year to last year, it’s amazing. It’s fun to watch. I’m glad I can be here and just see it."
When Andre Freaking Johnson just wants to be your witness, you've done something. What Hopkins has done is become a pro, setting a foundation that lets his talent come out.
"Coming in last year, (Johnson) told me that this isn’t college," Hopkins says. "You have to take care of your body and do the things off the field to be able to come out and have a productive day of practice. I kind of took that for granted last year a little bit."
Now Hopkins draws O'Brien's praise for his work in OTAs, his work in training camp, his work throughout the regular season grind. Kubiak tried benching Hopkins a few times last season to drive home attention-to-detail points to No. 10. It failed miserably. O'Brien, most known for his razor sharp tongue (see "Dr. Foster"), has nurtured Hopkins in a manner that goes against type. He's shown respect for a young guy who's been through some horrific real-life experiences in his 22 years.
It's another sign that O'Brien may not be as easy to pigeonhole as many think.
Now O'Brien has at least one new star on the rise. If the playoff longshot flames out in Indianapolis or even Jacksonville and DeAndre Hopkins is the best thing that comes out of this season, that's hardly a loss.
No. 10 is already lifting a mediocre quarterback. Just imagine what's possible for him when the Texans finally do find their franchise quarterback? Hopkins' how-low-can-you-go catches of several early Fitzpatrick misfires, with Hopkins knuckles seemingly scrapping the NRG Stadium grass to cradle the balls in, help build up the seven-lives Fitzpatrick's confidence. Those underrated grabs get the ball rolling on this franchise record 45 point explosion and the ultra-aggressive O'Brien play calling that follows.
"We went for the daggers and never let up," safety Danieal Manning says. "That's great to see."
It all starts with the new star. DeAndre Hopkins is not Johnny Manziel and that's more than all right. He doesn't need to win the Week 13 hype war. He'll be in demand for years to come.
There's no way to say that about The Other Guy yet.