In the true spirit of Houston football, the Texans have dug themselves a deep hole halfway through the season. Gary Kubiak is (once again) on the hot seat, and the benching of Matt Schaub for Case Keenum signals major changes coming for a franchise that was looking to compete for a championship just a few short months ago. In the even Kubiak loses his job, which is still very much up in the air, the Houston vacancy would instantly become one of the more sought after positions in the football coaching world. It is very rare to see a team with so much talent, a (presumably) high draft pick, a strong veteran locker room, and a great front office already in place in the market for a new head coach. The opportunity to slide into such a "stable" position immediately is extremely attractive to the best and brightest coaching candidates, and I expect Bob McNair will have no difficulties getting people to pick up the phone.
One potential future Texans coach that I have kept my eye on is Kevin Sumlin, who is currently running the Johnny Manziel rodeo up at Texas A&M. Sumlin, who shares his playing and coaching roots with Texans' GM Rick Smith at Purdue, has become a local Texas hero. In just a few years, Sumlin has taken the University of Houston to an undefeated regular season record and a Conference USA Championship appearance. He then lead the Aggies to a strong opening season in the SEC, capped off with their first Heisman Trophy winner in over a half century. Seeing such immediate success in not just one but two programs in less than seven years is astounding, and it is no secret that Sumlin’s recent resume has landed him at the top of many wish lists for coach-needy teams.
It is rumored that Sumlin has already turned down one coaching job with the Eagles, who favored Sumlin over their eventual choice of Oregon’s Chip Kelly. Some have speculated that Sumlin’s decision was rooted in not wanting to move his family out of Texas. It would not be farfetched to say that coaching the Texans might be at the top of Sumlin’s wish list, considering that Houston is only an hour and a half from College Station and he is already intimately familiar with the area.
Sumlin is not the only man on the A&M staff with ties to Houston. The Aggies' offensive coordinator, Clarence McKinney, grew up in the city’s Third Ward as a high school quarterback running Bill Yeoman’s old split-back Veer offense, which was popularized at the University of Houston. Sumlin first met McKinney, then an assistant coach at Booker T. Washington High School, over two decades ago on a recruiting trip during his stint at Purdue. The two formed a great relationship as more recruiting trips followed, and Sumlin hired McKinney as his running backs coach and recruiting coordinator upon landing his first head coaching gig at Houston. Since then, the duo has stuck together and run some of the most dynamic offenses in college football. Kevin Sumlin has a recent history of spitting out offensive coordinators into head coaching positions, with Dana Holgorsen at West Virginia and Kliff Kingsbury at Texas Tech, and there is no doubt that McKinney could be in consideration for a few head coaching positions around the country after this season. That being said, if Sumlin did in fact ask his old friend to join him under the bright lights of the NFL in his hometown, I imagine it would be very, very hard to say no.
Even more enticing for Sumlin and McKinney, the Texans' offensive personnel fits the current A&M offense like a glove. It was not long ago when Sumlin commanded a clock-killing, power run-oriented attack as the offensive coordinator for both the Aggies (2001-2002) and the Oklahoma
Adrian Petersons Sooners (2006-2007). When making the transition to the high-flying offensive atmosphere of Conference USA in 2008, adjustments had to be made. Sumlin suddenly went from the world of grinding his opponents into submission with seven minute drives to having weekly scoreboard races and ludicrous passing totals.
In addition, with the downgrade in offensive line talent level from the Big 12 to Conference USA, coaches have to switch from two back power attacks to zone schemes that can create space for running backs even when blockers get beat. Not only that, but zone blocking concepts are one of the pillars of the veer offense, which some people may know by another name – the triple option. Option football has traditionally been used to augment the ground game by using the threat of a quarterback run as an extra "blocker" to freeze a pursuing defensive end on the back side of the play. When twisted and morphed by the track meet mentality of C-USA, however, something much more dangerous is born. By combining up-tempo spread passing concepts with veer option/zone run concepts, opposing defensive coordinators are given an impossible choice. Either the defense gives the offense a "soft box" with four down linemen and a single linebacker (generally the Mike backer), which gives the offensive line a five on five blocking advantage in the run game, or they put six men in the box and give all four wide receivers single coverage across the board with just one safety deep to try to contain the damage. No matter what, the defense is gambling with the odds stacked heavily against them.
Sumlin and McKinney did not really have a mobile quarterback to work with in Houston (Case Keenum) to run a true spread option offense. What they did have was one of the more recent evolutions of option football – the package play. The package play, to put it simply, is having three or four plays all going at the exact same time on different parts of the field; the quarterback has the "option" to execute any one of them based on his pre-snap read. For instance, from a single back/four wide shotgun set, Sumlin might have put a wide receiver screen on both sides of the field, an inside zone run up front, with a fourth option of a quarterback run. If the box is "hard" with six defenders on five blockers, throwing the screen to either side of the field off of play-action becomes a safe play with the potential for a huge gain. If the box is "soft" with both safeties deep to stop the passing game, both the inside zone run and the quarterback keeper become viable choices based on the read from the back side defensive end.
A big reason why package offenses like Clemson and Oregon are able to operate so smoothly at such a fast pace is that they might be running literally the same play four or five times in a row while simply executing a different option each time. On top of that, even when not running screens or package plays, the offense can simply pick out whichever opposing defensive back is the worst in man-to-man coverage and exploit him all game long. It is rare for a defense to have two good cover corners, let alone four of them that have to keep their receivers in check with little to no safety help. Finding the most favorable matchup in C-USA is often as simple as throwing at the walk-ons.
Sumlin and McKinney took this shotgun spread/zone read/package play monstrosity to the defensively stout SEC in 2012, where it was expected that the pro-style offenses and defenses of schools like Alabama and LSU would crush the seemingly "gimmicky" Texas A&M attack. What people did not count on, however, was that the math had not changed. A soft box was still a soft box, cornerback depth was still stressed, and this time Sumlin did have a mobile quarterback to take his offense to unspeakable new highs. The modified, up-tempo spread attack of the Aggies put the fear of God in every defense they faced. Do they leave Mike Evans, the gifted 6’5" receiver, in single coverage outside with no help over the top? Do they put five guys in the box and hope that someone gets off a block to stop the run? If Evans is doubled and the run is stopped, who keeps Manziel from just keeping the ball and running wild in the open field? Do they risk going into zone and getting torched by constant seam and smash routes? As everyone quickly figured out, there is no right answer. You play bump and run coverage outside, you put a spy on the quarterback, you have your defensive line fill their gaps as well as they can, and you hold on for dear life.
Seeing an offensive game plan that was previously perceived as a high school fad shred the greatest defenses in the SEC has given me hope that the same concepts can be employed effectively at the professional level. Chip Kelly has had moments of success with package plays this season in Philadelphia, but the lack of a receiving corps that can take advantage of NFL secondaries in man-free coverage has thrown a big wrench in his tried and true game plan. If Sumlin were to apply the same principles to the Texans, however, he would enjoy the benefits of having an elite running back, a future Hall of Fame wide receiver, a great tight end duo, an effective offensive line (minus Derek Newton), and a rookie first round wideout who has potential to be a special talent.
Defenses in the NFL, as they did the college, would have an impossible choice to make. Andre Johnson commands the double team, which then leaves DeAndre Hopkins, DeVier Posey, and Owen Daniels alone to abuse whoever is covering them without help. Arian Foster, Duane Brown, Chris Myers, and Brandon Brooks will make any coordinator who dares leave five men in the box pay for their mistake. Keshawn Martin, for all his worthlessness as a downfield receiver, could actually do some damage in the screen game, where his short area quickness could be put to better use. Throw in a breakneck pace like the one seen at Texas A&M, and you have yourself a recipe for a juggernaut.
The last piece, which Sumlin and Smith would almost assuredly target with a high pick in the draft, would be quarterback. Case Keenum, the Texans' current starter, is familiar with this type of offense, but in my opinion he lacks the physical ability to make the spread/zone read/package offense work to its full potential against elite competition. You could even make an argument that without the phenomenally talented Johnny Manziel making difficult throws against tight man coverage and breaking off crippling runs in the open field, A&M’s offense would not even work in the SEC, let alone the NFL. The scheme itself certainly forces defenses into giving favorable matchups all over the field, but the quarterback still has to make all the throws and still has to have the mobility to pick up yards on the ground. SEC defenders are decidedly more talented than those found in the C-USA. Could Case Keenum have had the same level of success against an Alabama squad that plays bump and run across the board rather than playing 7-10 yards off? Could he have had as much rushing success as Manziel with his inferior speed and quickness? The answer, at least based on what I have seen from Keenum, is no.
Lucky for the Texans, there are a bevy of draft-eligible, big armed, athletic quarterbacks to look forward to in 2014. Brett Hundley, Marcus Mariota, Tajh Boyd, and a slew of other up and comers have made their names in package schemes over the last couple seasons. All of them would likely fit the Sumlin/McKinney offense perfectly while providing a physical upside that Keenum could not match. Perhaps this year’s lucky combination (for the Texans) of a strong quarterback class and a relatively high draft pick plays a small role in coaxing Sumlin out of maroon and into battle red.
Regardless of what happens the rest of this season, there is no chance that Kevin Sumlin, Darrell Bevell, or any other hot name will take over the Texans unless Gary Kubiak is no longer on campus. It is almost impossible to tell the likelihood of a coaching change in Houston, considering that Kubiak has survived some pretty terrible years in the past. If a new era does begin this January, however, there is a strong argument to be made that this should be Kevin Sumlin’s job for the taking.