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The Company You Keep: Part 1

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Since Week 17 of the 2008 NFL season, I have been concentrating on the changes necessary to take the Texans from mediocrity to our first ever winning season and playoff contention.  Coaching fires/hires, draft speculation and free agent evaluation have taken up most of my free time (otherwise known as dead time at work).  It dawned on me, however, that we can’t just concentrate on our team; we have to also concentrate on our surroundings.

As I stated before and as all of us know, the Texans have failed to record a winning season.  Early bad decisions with both coaching and player personnel stymied the growth of the team, but the new regime of Gary Kubiak and Rick Smith seem to be on the way to righting the ship.  But they took over three years ago.  Why haven’t we seen a nine win season yet?  One reason is that altering a team through the draft rather than free agency, as they have chosen to do, takes time to pay dividends.  Another cause is the company you keep, which in our case is the AFC South.

The AFC South has been one of the toughest divisions in football since Kubiak and Smith took over.  In fact, it has been the toughest.  Since the current Head Coach/General Manager combo took over in 2006, the combined 114 wins of the AFC South is the most in that span.  That’s not a flash in the pan statistic either.  Not only was the AFC South tied for the second most wins out of all the divisions in both 2006 and 2008; in 2007, it’s 40 combined wins was the most and it was the first time since the divisional realignment that none of the four teams in a division had a losing record.

While facing this competition year in and year out is daunting, I believe it has improved the character of our team and will be beneficial in the long run.  Still, it’s hard to produce a season above .500 when you automatically play six of your games against that kind of consistently tough opposition.  Oddly enough, our best year against the division in Kubiak’s tenure was his first.  In 2006, we were 3-3 against the division, but we only managed to win three games against the rest of our opponents.  In 2007, we were a measly 1-5 against the division, while going 7-3 against the rest of our opponents, which is made even worse by the fact that our win against Jacksonville was in Week 17 when they had nothing to play for.

While the Texans only won one more game in the division in 2008 than they did the year before, it was a bigger improvement than it seemed.  Our first chance to show the country what we were about came in Week 13 on Monday Night Football.  The 30-17 score was misleading of the actual closeness of the game; everyone knew that it was over after the Texans went up 23-3 in the beginning of the fourth quarter.  Yes, it was an off year for Jacksonville, and they mailed in the second half of the season, but it was still important for us to win that game to gain momentum for next season.  Even though we had Rosencopter at the helm, three of our franchise players stepped up like you would hope; Mario had three solo sacks, Andre Johnson had 75 yards with a TD, and Steve Slaton exploded for 130 yards on 21 rushes with 2 TD’s.

Then came Week 15 when we hosted Tennessee.  The Titans had already clinched the division but were still playing for the #1 seed.  That game was the closest thing Houston has had to a playoff game since the Texans were introduced to the league.  I was proud to see Reliant Stadium more energized than I had ever seen it, and the Texans didn’t let the fans down.  Andre Johnson proved that he is the best WR in the league by catching 11 passes for 207 yards and a TD against the second-best defense in the NFL.  The Texans' defense showed that the talent was there to shut down the run effectively shutting down the Titans' offense (even if the scheme had been lacking for the last three years).  The most important thing about this game was that it proved to Texans fans and players alike that they could win games not only against teams we should beat, but also teams that the rest of the league doesn't think we have a chance of beating.

For us to be able to be taken serious as a playoff contender by the rest of the league, we have to use last year’s victories in our own division as a springboard.  Our first winning season will most likely come in conjunction with our first winning divisional record under the Kubiak administration.  Having said that, I think it’s important to take a close look at the teams who we will have to beat in order to take that next step.  This will be the first of two posts analyzing the rest of the AFC South.  This one will concentrate on the teams as they are now and what they have to do in the offseason.

Tennessee Titans:

2008 Season Recap – Upon first glance, the Titans’ 13-3 record is impressive.  Many unpredictable things had to occur for Tennessee’s season to be so successful.  Kerry Collins emerged from obscurity to start all but one of the Titans regular season games and had a great season.  Or did he?  If you saw the stat line of 58% completion percentage, 2600 yards passing and a 12/7 TD to INT ratio, would you think that was a Pro Bowl QB?  The combination of an explosive running game and a dominant defense is what propelled the team to the best record in the AFC.  The early playoff exit was a disappointment to fans, but it could have been predicted after the Titans started strong but finished the last six games of the season with a .500 record. 

2009 Free Agent Concerns – The key to not only free agency but the entire offseason strategy for the Titans is DT Albert Haynesworth, who is now an unrestricted free agent.  After his exceptional play the last four years, Albert is in for a big payday, and he knows it.  Albert has stated an interest in receiving more than the current richest contract for a defensive player, therefore surpassing the dirtiest player in the NFL (a/k/a Jared Allen).  That means he is looking for a contract in excess of $12.2 million a year and $32 million guaranteed (yes, that’s how the Vikings reward play like this).  Even though Albert was a Volunteer in college and has played his entire career for the Titans, he has already let it be known that he will not offer a hometown discount, but that's what you come to expect from such a gentleman.  This doesn’t leave much of the estimated $29.75 million dollars in cap space for any other free agent acquisitions, or for their other key FA currently on their roster, QB Kerry Collins.  Collins wouldn’t normally demand very much money with his kind of performance (see stat line above), but with a trip to the Pro Bowl and the media continuously bestowing titles like “winner” and “game manager” to his name, his agent is going to be able to ask for more, which they will pay because Jeff Fisher already proclaimed him next year’s starter.  All this doesn’t leave much room for many other off season moves, unless they don’t sign Haynesworth, which means the anchor of their defensive line and maybe even their entire defense, will be gone.

2009 Draft Needs – Once again, it all depends on if they sign Haynesworth or not.  If they don’t, they have to target a DT to replace him, possibly Peria Jerry if he’s still there at pick 30 in the first round, which he probably won’t be.  Many NFL scouts believe that there are not any DTs worth taking in the first round besides Raji and Jerry.  If the Titans also prescribe to this theory and decide not to take a DT, they could use some young talent on an aging D-line in general, so maybe they take a DE.  If they do sign Fat Albert, then WR is definitely the biggest need.  I also wouldn’t put it past them to take a QB here, which would allow them to cut VY and his salary, which is escalating every year and is way too much for a backup.  If they go QB in the first round, Josh Freeman of Kansas St. might be a nice value.

Indianapolis Colts:

2008 Season Recap – The season looked to be the first losing season in quite some time for the Colts, who had won the AFC South the previous five years.  A lingering knee injury to the team’s unquestioned MVP, Peyton Manning, had the team sputtering in the beginning of the season.  After starting the season with a 3-4 record (which should have been 2-5, had we not given them an early Christmas present) it looked like Tony Dungy’s streak of 9 playoff seasons was finally going to be snapped.  Then, out of nowhere, the Colts put together a 9 game winning streak to end the season, clinching the first wild card spot.  The Colts were the sexy pick to make a deep playoff run all the way to the Super Bowl, and it was hard to argue.  Much to the fans' chagrin, however, the Colts ran into another hot team and lost in the first round at San Diego.

2009 Free Agent Concerns – The Colts got started on their offseason early, but not in the way that they would have preferred, when Tony Dungy announced his retirement.  Their first move was to convince offensive coordinator Tom Moore and offensive line coach Howard Mudd not to follow in Tony’s footsteps.  After they convinced them to stay, they could turn their focus to player offseason issues.  There’s not much that GM Bill Polian can do with only $12 million in cap space, but he has stated that CB Kelvin Hayden will be re-signed.  RB Domanic Rhodes will probably be re-signed as well to fill the role of backup RB.  Many people are speculating that WR Marvin Harrison might be cut, which would free up some much needed cap room, but either way, the Colts aren’t known for building through free agency.  One FA flying under the radar though is C Jeff Saturday.  If I was Polian, he would be my #1 FA priority, given the O-Line’s poor play when he was injured.

2009 Draft Needs – If the Colts can avoid the rebuilding years that seem to be on the horizon, it will be impressive.  The addition of Larry Coyer as defensive coordinator was a smart one.  Coyer came from Tampa, where he coached under Monte Kiffin, so by hiring him they can keep their defensive scheme the same.  Even so, they have to draft extremely well this year to remain competitive.  DT is at the top of the list, as the Colts have lost several in the last few years, due to reasons ranging from injury and premature retirement.  Peria Jerry seems like the most logical choice at pick 27 in the first round.  Polian has also publicly stated that finding Harrison’s replacement is a top priority.  Florida's Percy Harvin might be a nice fit for the Colts, who value speed and athleticism over the prototypical tall body type that most teams target.  I think it would be smarter for the Colts to draft for the future rather than for immediate impact, as new coach Jim Caldwell will have more slack from the fans in his first year or two than he will for the rest of his time in Indy.

Jacksonville Jaguars:

2008 Season Recap – After a successful 2007 regular season and playoff run, the Jaguars were a popular pick to win the AFC South.  Unfortunately for them, poor offensive line play and caustic locker room problems took them from first place projections to a last place reality.  The team seemed to give up on the season, as evidenced by the fact that Jacksonville only won two games after their bye in Week 8, and one didn’t count because it was against Detroit.  The one bright spot for the team was RB Maurice Jones-Drew.  MoJo’s 1,385 all-purpose yards and 14 total TDs showed that he wouldn’t quit no matter what was going on around him.  More importantly, when Fred Taylor was placed on the IR towards the end of the season, MoJo showed that he could take the pounding associated with being the every-down back.

2009 Free Agent Concerns – You might be wondering why I was touting MoJo like he was my own.  While he was on my fantasy football team (I already admitted that I’m a football dork), the reason I highlighted Jones-Drew was because he is scheduled to be an UFA in 2010.  Although the Jags probably won’t try to sign him to a new deal before the 2009 season, they will have to get a deal done some time during the season.  The other big question mark for the team is QB David Garrard.  I, like many people, would be shocked if Garrard is not back, but the fact that the deal doesn’t seem to have any traction yet is interesting.  There are also several O-Linemen entering free agency, but I’m not sure what the Jags are going to do about them considering the unit’s terrible play last year.  Overall, the Jags have a healthy proportion between their re-signing needs and their cap space of $15.5 million dollars, but I doubt they’ll make a big splash on the open market.

2009 Draft Needs – The Jags have been known recently for their sub-par drafts.  This is one of the reasons for new GM Gene Smith to have final say with player personnel issues.  First priority is a dominant OT, which Jacksonville lacked last year.  Some have speculated that they might bite on WR Jeremy Maclin of Missouri, but I think they will end up picking one of the top OTs, a position which is plentiful in this year’s draft class, because of their inability to protect David Garrard last year.  Many draft speculators think that the Jags will end up selecting OT Eugene Monroe of UVA.  The Jags might also be looking for DE help in the rounds after the first because last year’s picks of Derrick Harvey and Quentin Groves didn’t play well in 2008.

Each team in the AFC South has major needs and questions to answer in the offseason, the Texans included.  I’m sure we will all continue to ponder, speculate and argue over the best offseason courses of action for our beloved football team, but it will also be beneficial to pay attention to those teams around us as well.  I will post Part 2 of this article after the draft in order to discuss how different the AFC South could be not only in 2009, but also in years to come.

Note: I would like to take this opportunity to thank BigBlueShoe, editor-in-chief and head writer of Stampede Blue for his help while I was researching this post.