C.J. Stroud — the Texans rookie quarterback out of Ohio State who just turned 22 last month — had just marred his magnificent game with an ill-advised pass that Bengals cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt had intercepted and returned 24 yards to the Texans’ 4-yard line.
Two plays later, Cincinnati’s Joe Mixon had bulled into the end zone from 1 yard and suddenly Houston’s comfortable 10-point advantage was down to three with just over three minutes left.
That’s when Stroud sought out his head coach DeMeco Ryans and made quite a promise.
“He let me know, ‘We got you! We’re gonna make a play!’ ” Ryans remembered.
As Stroud would explain later: “I knew I made a mistake, but one play doesn’t define me, and I was gonna go prove myself again.
“I let him know, ‘I got your back, Man! We’re gonna win this game!’
“And he looked me right in the eye and said, ‘I trust you!’ ”
That trust was warranted.
Although Houston stalled on offense with a quick three and out and the Bengals then tied the game, 27-27, on a 31-yard field goal by Evan McPherson with 93 seconds left, Stroud got one more chance.
He completed two big pressurized passes — 25 yards to tight end Dalton Schultz and 22 yards to receiver Noah Brown — and that put kicker Matt Ammendola in range for his game-winning 38-yard field goal on the game’s final play.
The 30-27 victory was the Texans’ fifth in the past seven games. And the two losses were each by two points.
It was the second week in a row that Stroud orchestrated a victory with heroics in the final minute.
Last Sunday — in a rookie game for the ages — he threw a final seconds touchdown pass to edge Tampa Bay, 39-37.
That game he threw for 470 yards and five touchdowns and had a 147.8 passer rating. Those are all NFL rookie records.
If he entered the game against Cincinnati as a shoo-in for the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, he now has to be in the conversation for MVP.
Ryans was asked how all this can be happening. How he could look the kid quarterback in the eye Sunday and say “I trust you.”
He thought a second and then nodded:
“The thing about C.J., it’s the calmness in the chaos. He doesn’t waver. He’s confident he’s going to make plays. The moment isn’t too big for him.”
He and Stroud both expounded on that after the game.
The coach talked about his quarterback’s “bright lights” days at Ohio State.
Stroud made reference to darker times, though he didn’t actually mention the plight of his father who’s in Folsom Prison serving 38-years-to-life thanks to California’s Three Strikes Law for repeat offenders.
Ryans said Stroud prepped for this rookie NFL season the past two years when he was the Buckeyes’ record-setting quarterback:
“He played in a lot of big games at Ohio State. He’s been under the big lights before, the bright lights. He’s made big plays, so he doesn’t get wide-eyed when the moment comes.”
As the Buckeyes starter in 2021 and 2022, Stroud threw for 8,123 yards and 85 touchdowns. He set over a dozen quarterback records at OSU and twice was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy before being drafted No. 2 overall by the Texans last spring.
Stroud said his calm in chaotic times also was rooted in his life beyond football:
“I’ve been through a lot, not only in football‚but that’s made me kind of chill when things get crazy.”
And since middle school especially, his life has been crazy.
His dad, his namesake, Coleridge Stroud III —the man who taught him how to throw a spiral and was his hero — went to prison when C.J. (Coleridge IV) was just 13.
His dad pleaded guilty to car-jacking, kidnapping, robbery and misdemeanor sexual assault.
The incarceration sent the family into a financial spiral. C.J. is the youngest of four children and their mom moved them into a cramped apartment above a storage unit they managed 40 miles east of Los Angeles. They had little money and little help.
For a half-dozen years, C.J. refused to speak to his father, who would try calling from prison.
Finally, they patched things up and C.J. — who is known for his thoughtfulness and humility and his unabashed embrace of his Christianity — became something of a grassroots advocate for better prison conditions in this country.
Just as he let much of the anger go when it came to his father, he made sure not to immerse himself in the momentary disappointment and failure that came when he threw the late-game interception Sunday:
“I got a little upset, but then I thought, ‘What’s that gonna do?’ I’d had a great game to that point, I’d made a lot of great plays. I knew I can’t harp on one negative play.”
And he didn’t.
He made the big throws at the end and finished the game with 25 completions in 39 attempts for 356 yards and a 6-yard TD pass to Tank Dell in the second quarter. And in the fourth quarter he ran eight yards for another touchdown.
“We all see it,” said Texans center Michael Deiter. “No moment is too big for him. He’s playing beyond his years. We see it from him every week. We heard it in the huddle today.”
Once again, out of the mouth of babes.