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C.J. Stroud’s Dramatic Texans Turnaround Is On The Cusp Of A Playoff Berth – Thanks, In Part, To A Basketball | TheSportsDay C.J. Stroud’s Dramatic Texans Turnaround Is On The Cusp Of A Playoff Berth – Thanks, In Part, To A Basketball | TheSportsDay

C.J. Stroud’s dramatic Texans turnaround is on the cusp of a playoff berth – thanks, in part, to a basketball

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Here's how Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud is spinning storybook rookie season — with a basketball. (Bruno Rouby/Yahoo Sports)

The equipment will be ready Saturday afternoon.

Hours before kickoff at the Indianapolis Colts’ Lucas Oil Stadium, Houston Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud will lob a weighted ball into a net on the sideline. Stroud will head between the hashes to swing a golf club-like flexible stick with another weighted ball at its end, and he’ll thrust his hips right and left while flinging a towel. Stroud will even shoot a basketball into the air on repeat.

A basketball?

Yes, the quarterback who’s nearly a lock to win Offensive Rookie of the Year will warm up for his high-stakes regular season finale with a basketball. On the field. At the Colts’ stadium.

Just like he has before each game of his record-setting rookie season.

Creative rotational work for NFL quarterbacks has increasingly diversified in recent years, but Stroud’s decision to incorporate a full-sized basketball into his gameday warm-ups is nonetheless a sight that coaches, players and executives across the league tell Yahoo Sports they have not seen before.

And yet – this entertaining spin on quarterback mechanics makes sense, they say. As the trend draws traction, it could become more prominent in seasons to come.

Especially if the sideline ballers continue to find as much on-field success as Stroud.

Stroud is 156 yards away from becoming the fifth rookie in NFL history to throw for 4,000 yards (his 274.6 yards per game suggests the benchmark is comfortably within reach). He and DeMeco Ryans are one win away from becoming the first rookie quarterback and first-year head coach duo to advance to the postseason since Andrew Luck and Chuck Pagano in 2012.

Stroud says he has operated all along with the plan to lead the Texans here, and “it wasn’t ever in my mind that we’re (not) going to win.”

But confidence doesn’t eliminate anticipation.

“I’m naturally nervous every game,” Stroud told reporters Wednesday, “but I think that’s probably the reason why I just lock into my preparation.”

And his basketball.

Why C.J. Stroud’s bringing a basketball game to pro football games

Credit for Stroud’s superb rookie year extends far beyond his atypical warmup. But the routine undoubtedly contributes to a season in which Stroud ranks third in passing yards per game, sixth in passer rating and first in pass interception percentage – among all quarterbacks, not just rookies.

Stroud first began integrating basketball into football warm-ups while training for the combine last spring with quarterback coaches at California-based 3DQB. Stroud, Carolina Panthers quarterback Bryce Young and New Orleans Saints quarterback Jake Haener were among the prospects training there, when Stroud and Young’s love of basketball gave trainers an idea: Why not emphasize their shared passion in cross-training drills?

“Basketball, there’s just a sequence from your shoulder to your elbow to your wrist to your fingertips, a connection that really helps throwers,” 3DQB trainer Taylor Kelly told Yahoo Sports. “All those things translate to a quarterback because they’re rotational and they’re throwers.

“That’s a different way to get activated and they love doing it.”

Stroud hadn’t yet proven his NFL readiness when arriving in Houston for rookie minicamp in May. That didn’t stop him from rolling with what he believed worked.

“From Day 1, he asked our equipment guys for a basketball, the golf sticks with the heavy ball at the end,” Texans quarterbacks coach Jerrod Johnson told Yahoo Sports. “He kinda had all that down. I was like, ‘Look, man: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Who am I to tell you anything different? Until I see an issue with it, man, do what you wanna do to warm up and I’ll be here to facilitate and help you when I can.’”

The issues haven’t surfaced.

By training camp, video circulated of Stroud’s chest passes, overhead passes and side-arm passes.

In pregame warm-ups, his full equipment collection is turning heads.

Stroud throws a weighted blue ball into a net on sidelines across the country, reminiscent of how 3DQB’s baseball foundation shapes their system. 3DQB throwers alternate between a one-pound ball, a two-pound ball and a typical baseball (which is roughly 5/8 of a pound) to incorporate strength and speed components that improve arm and shoulder health, Kelly said. Stroud knows which cues he’s targeting in his arm and shoulder as he activates his upper body for the volume and depth of throws that positioned him as the league’s leading passer through 14 weeks before he sustained a concussion.

“Putting me in situations to make my body dissociate from my shoulder to my hip,” Stroud explained recently on the Pat McAfee Show. “That helps my zip on the ball and taking a lot of pressure off my arm.”

Next comes the golf club’s heavier cousin, which amounts to a stick with a weighted end. Stroud swings this to create lag and torque, opening up his rotation while feeling the weight. Towel thrusts afterward constitute patterning work to home his rotation.

Even if he’s warmed up his hips, torso and arm, the basketball offers a different benefit.

Haener, who incorporates a basketball into his Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday warmups at the Saints facility, said he exaggerates his extension and wrist flick “to get my rotators all firing.”

“Using your wrist playing quarterback is a big thing in the game today and I feel like it plays into arm talent,” Haener told Yahoo Sports. “You see Aaron Rodgers: The way he flips the ball, it’s very effortless. And I feel like using that basketball can kind of sometimes help get the muscle memory activated and working again.”

Stroud and Kelly echo the sentiment, Stroud describing the importance of “pronation of flicking your wrist” while Kelly says “you’re having more emphasis on flicking the basketball than you necessarily would a football.”

By the time Stroud reunites with the football, its comparative smaller size is empowering.

“I feel like I can throw harder, faster and farther,” he said.

The transition has worked so well that Stroud’s throws even occasionally resemble the arc of a flung basketball. Social media users notice. After a 31-yard completion to receiver Noah Brown during Stroud’s 470-yard, five-touchdown performance to lift Houston to a 39-37 win, one user posted: “C.J. Stroud is playing basketball out there.”

Johnson credits Stroud’s base for opening up his natural deep-ball ability, the bent knees and set feet allowing him to rotate and throw at a powerful clip without much strain.

“It’s just a matter of: What do I need to do to kind of get myself in rhythm to where I feel like my body’s kind of fluid and I’m throwing the ball naturally and effortlessly and everything’s warmed up?’” Johnson said. “I think he’s kind of figured that out.”

Job’s not finished for Stroud, Texans

When the Texans wrapped their 2022 NFL season with a 32-31 win over the Colts, they existed in a different competitive stratosphere.

The win improved Houston to a paltry 3-13-1, far from the postseason hopes now within the franchise’s grasp. The Texans were on the cusp of firing a head coach for the third time in three seasons. Their finale win, by a more impactful standard, was actually a loss: It improved the Texans from the worst to second-worst record in the league, thus bumping the quarterback-needy franchise down a spot in the draft order.

Little did the franchise know then that the quarterback it needed would be waiting at the No. 2 overall pick of the 2023 NFL Draft, ready, from his first year, to take them to the doorstep of a playoff berth.

Win Saturday night, and the Texans are in. Add a Jacksonville Jaguars tie or loss on Sunday, and the Texans will go from worst to first in the division in a single season. (The Texans also can make the playoffs with their own tie, a Jaguars loss and a Steelers loss or tie.)

Stroud is far from the only reason for this dramatic reversal but he’s also an undeniable pillar. His 3,844 passing yards and 21 touchdowns to five interceptions only hint at the rushes he’s slid to avoid and how he’s molded rotational throwing to the rhythm and timing of the Texans’ system. Stats don’t tell the story of the tight-pocket, game-icing touchdown he threw 52 yards to Nico Collins against the Pittsburgh Steelers, nor the 40-yard touchdown to Tank Dell against the Arizona Cardinals in which Stroud simply disregarded the pressure in his face.

Sometimes, Johnson needs to say no more than: “Wow, man. He’s special.”

Stroud could be special in Houston for a long time.

But Stroud isn’t thinking about that. He’s thinking about the work it takes to beat Indianapolis and then, if achieved, he’ll focus next on his postseason aspirations. He’ll think of the game-speed reps he wants during the week and the reads he’ll want to make on gameday.

Then, a few hours before kickoff, Stroud will retrieve the basketball. And with an exaggerated flick of his wrist, he’ll mime a shot in midair as he thinks of another special athlete whom he admires, a player whose face and 1996 draft spot were splashed across the front of Stroud’s postgame shirt Sunday.

Stroud hadn’t planned days earlier to wear his Kobe Bryant T-shirt. But when he saw it, he flashed back to a Bryant playoff interview and realized how it resonated.

Forget worst-to-first, forget the franchise culture change and forget the record books – Stroud’s rookie season isn’t over yet.

Leave it to basketball to remind him that, Stroud citing Bryant’s 2009 NBA Finals interview after the Los Angeles Lakers jumped to a 2-0 series lead over the Orlando Magic. Bryant quipped then: “Job’s not finished.”

“So we’ve had a great season,” Stroud said. “It’s been a complete turnaround from last year. But in my opinion, job’s not finished.

“We have a lot left in the tank, and we need to empty that.”

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