In some ways, it feels like an eternity since the season started all those (eight) weeks ago in Reliant. And yet, in other ways it seems like the season only started yesterday. This amazing compression of time is among both the best and the worst things about the circus that is the NFL. We wait an eternity for the off- and preseason to end so that we can watch our team play real games, and then we wait what feels like an even longer time in between Sundays, micro-analyzing every single thing that happens during games while waiting for the following Sunday to shine on us and give another week's worth of fodder. And yet, in hindsight, it seems like the season finishes in the blink of an eye. Even last season, which seemed never-ending once the Texans turned on the fountain of suck, flew by in retrospect.
So here we are, with half of our regular season games behind us. Now is as good a time as any to take stock of what the Texans have accomplished, what they've done well, and what they've done poorly. With that in mind, I'm going to take you all on a perilous journey through the last eight weeks and maybe we can find some clues about the riddle that is your Houston Texans' 2011 campaign. So what are you waiting for? Let's make like Dan Osman and hit the jump!
I believe that we, as Texans fans, should feel a lot better about our team at this point in the season than at any time in the past. The only other season that I think is comparable would be 2009, when we were also 5-3 after Week Eight. The main differences between this year and that were that we were 1-1 in the division in 2009 after Week Eight, as opposed to 3-0 this year, and our division was much, much stronger in '09 (Jacksonville finished in last place at 7-9 that year, whereas it is possible that 7-9 could be the record of the second place team in the division this year).
So we've established that we are much stronger relative to the rest of the AFC South this year. Why is that, and what does it mean for the Texans as we look at the second half of the season? I'm glad you asked.
Let me lay it on you like this, man. I'm going to divvy up the Texans' first half in the following ways: things that were good ("The Bacon," because it's awesome as hell), bad ("The Bud Light," because, my god it sucks) and shit I just didn't understand (which I will call "The Fascination With Vampires," because I just don't get that shit at all. Vampires in this day and age are this stupid combination of bloodsucking killing machines - good! - and emo self-absorbed wankerness - bad! They were so much better when they were merely strangely-charismatic-yet-silent-and-unstoppable stalkers. And when Ethan Hawke makes a movie about you, you know you've jumped way the hell over the shark). Anywho...let's start with the good stuff. Everyone likes bacon, amirite?
(A/K/A, the awesome. Because you know bacon is where it's at.)
(Full credit to MDC for finding this. It's so awesome, I had to bring it back.)
Does this really need any explanation? I mean, it's not enough for a dude to speak pterodactyl and make fun of fantasy football geeks. And it's not enough for that same guy to approach opposing defensive lines like the Twins approach a brick wall. And if it isn't enough for the same guy who does all this also to be able to outrun defensive backs on the way to the endzone and have 100+ receiving and rushing yards in the same game...well then, I don't suppose you'll like bacon either.
Remember those days when our starting cornerbacks were Jacques Reeves and Fred Bennett? Or when we actually employed and frequently played Petey Faggins? Remember those days when you would get that sickening feeling in your gut when opposing quarterbacks would launch deep balls, knowing that they were certain completions unless there was a pass interference penalty? Remember that one time that Faggins lined up directly across from Megatron, who was laughing so hard he almost tripped while running the eighty yards to the Lions' endzone? Do you have any idea how mad thinking about all this makes me? HOLY GOD IT STILL PISSES ME OFF TO THIS DAY. SO VERY ANGRY RIGHT NOW.
Wait. Where was I going with this? Oh, yeah. Johnathan Joseph. Dude is good. Scary good. Before he arrived in town, I had no idea how it felt to have a lockdown corner on your team. I have to say, it feels damn good. Like eating bacon wrapped in bacon.
Remember that day a few years ago, when Kris Jenkins picked Chris Myers up and bludgeoned Matt Schaub with him? Seems like a long time ago. But since that time, Myers has become, according to some metrics, one of the very best centers in the game. He still isn't the best pass-blocker in the league, but he is a top-notch run-blocker and one of the very best second-level blockers in the game. He is a big reason why our offensive line is considered one of the better units in the league.
Sure, the guy has small testicles and, uh, trains too hard. And he looks like the bad guy in a John Hughes 1980s comedy film. But he is having a season on par with his 2009 rookie year. I've watched a lot of film on him, and in some ways I'd say he's even better than he was in 2009. His tackling, for instance, has improved to the point that he's no longer getting dragged a few yards by opposing running backs. His ability to shed blockers has returned, and his aggressiveness in pursuit of the ball carrier is fearsome. I'm glad he's back to his old self, although I worry about his nuts.
According to Football Outsiders, we have three of the top fifteen tight ends in the league. Aside from Arian Foster, the other major reason for our continued success without Andre Johnson is our tight ends. In the four games since 'Dre went down, our tight ends have combined for approximately 400 yards receiving and four touchdowns. I believe that the tight ends' ability to rise to the occasion has covered up the fact that, after 'Dre, our receiving corps is average at best.
It's not like this guy needs more bacon, as I'm sure he gets more than his fair share at home. But there is no denying that Wade Phillips has been a huge reason (if not the single greatest) reason that our team is in the position in which he currently finds itself. Yes, he has some more talent to work with than his predecessors. He has Johnathan Joseph and J.J. Watt. He had Danieal Manning and G-Lover Quin at safety. But the improvement in talent only counts for so much. Does anyone honestly think our defense would be this good if Frank Bush had the same level of talent at his disposal? Not a chance. It's also important to point out that, according to Football Outsiders, our defense continues to get better, even though Mario Williams is out for the season. That comes down to coaching, both when it comes to schemes and getting the players to buy into what's going on. We all expected Phillips to improve the defense, but I don't think many of us expected it to improve as much as it has so far.
Yes. Matt Schaub. I know there is a sizable section of the fanbase and BRB readership that downgrades Schaub due to his tendency to throw the occasional poorly-timed interception, but let's look at the numbers: 2,000+ yards, 13 touchdowns against only five interceptions. He hasn't thrown a pick in his last three games. If contextual stats are your thing, Football Outsiders has Schaub ranked as the fifth-best quarterback in the NFL right now. The only relatively disappointing thing about Schaub this year is that his completion percentage is about 5-6 percentage points below his career average. It would be great if Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady were under center for the Texans, but at this point in time, Schaub is pretty much the next best thing.
The Bud Light
(A/K/A, the bad.) Before I start, can I just say again how hideous Bud Light is? It's even worse than Coors Light. I would rather drink fermented cat vomit strained through Rex Ryan's boxers.
Obviously, the team doesn't have a lot of control about injuries (for the most part). Nonetheless, injuries have had a significant impact on the team this year. The injury that comes to mind first is Mario's pectoral injury, which was a huge shame, considering how well Mario was playing. After that, of course, is the injury to AJ, which at least is not season-ending. Arian Foster. Danieal Manning. Ben Tate. James Casey. All of these injuries have had an impact on the Texans this year, to say nothing of DeMeco's injury from last year, which has clearly also taken its toll. The silver lining in all of this is that the team has been able to overcome these losses.
Kareem Jackson, Cornerback
Is there any doubt that Jackson, he of the one pass defensed, is in the starting lineup over Jason Allen, of three interceptions fame, because Jackson is a first round pick and Allen a free agent? Because I can't find any other reality-based explanation (note: having pictures of Gary Kubiak and AMR getting down in the equipment shed does not count as reality-based) to this most important issue. Jackson can't cover deep routes and isn't particularly good at covering short routes either. When you're giving up a touchdown pass to Blaine Gabbert and whatever stiff the Jags signed as a wide receiver, you are not a good cornerback. He is a good tackler, however. I'll give him that much.
Wade Phillips in shorts
Need I say more? Thank god that only happened in the preseason.
The Strange Fascination With Vampires
(A/K/A, stuff I'm not too sure about and can't explain.)
(All vampires should be this cool.)
Is there a more frustrating player on the roster? I can't recall a single other player in the history of the Texans who could piss you off so badly with terrible play and then turn around and pull some amazing, manna-from-heaven catch out of the ether. His horrible game against Oakland was followed by much better play. He even had a few decent punt returns in his last game. He has the talent to be almost as good as 'Dre, yet he is not half as good as 'Dre. The coaching staff has shown more faith in him than I ever would have. And he repays it with just enough performance to keep his spot on the team, but never enough to live up to his potential.
You may be wondering why I didn't put our nose tackles in the Bud Light category. I'll tell you why. Because while they are among the weaker links on our team (up there with CB2 and safety), they have shown improvement. Instead of being horrible, they have progressed under the guidance of Wade Phillips to the point where now, they are merely below average. But the reason that they wind up here in the Strange Fascination With Vampires category is that I am still at a loss to understand why we are playing these two slugs at NT. Perhaps our defensive brain trust truly thought that it could make a good nose tackle out of Shawn Cody and/or Earl Mitchell. Perhaps they figured they had so many other areas to improve upon that nose tackle was a secondary priority. In any event, I hope they address it in the offseason, because our defense could go from stout to legendary with a good nose tackle.
Kubiak's Ability to Challenge Calls
Am I beating a dead horse here? Probably, so I'll be brief. I could have listed this under Bud Light, but for me the issue isn't that he's bad at it, it's that I have absolutely no clue what Kubiak is thinking when he challenges play calls. I can think of at least three occasions where his guiding thoughts have not been to compare the game situation with the odds of winning the challenge and performing some kind of cost-benefit analysis, but rather to smooth the ego of one of his players (the Dreessen drop against Oakland, the Walter catch against Jacksonville and the Tate fumble in the same game). That's a ridiculous reason to challenge calls on the field. Sadly, I don't have any faith that Kubes will get better at this.
Putting Games Away
It's been a hallmark of the Kubiak years, but never more frustrating than this year. Fortunately, over the last two games, there is evidence that the Texans are starting to develop the ability to pull ahead when they need to. One of the frustrating things about the Steelers game was that it should have been a lot more lopsided, score-wise, than it was. Ditto the first half of the Jags game. But the Titans game and the play of Schaub, Foster and the defense down the stretch against the Jags gives me hope. Now that we're in a softer stretch of the schedule, I hope the Texans develop the ability to be a bit more clinical than they were in the first few games of the season.
That's where I see the team after eight games. What about you?