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2014 NFL Draft: The Houston Texans' QB Question

Matt Weston tackles 2014 optimism, Keenumania, Rick Smith's ability to draft a QB, and the case for the Houston Texans tanking the 2013 season.

A view from above.
A view from above.
Bob Levey

It has been 70 days since the Houston Texans last won a professional football game. This joyous event last occurred when Matt Schuab threw a fade at the goal line to DeAndre Hopkins as they attacked the sideline in a come from behind victory against the Titans. Since then, we all have groaned and griped in horror through this nine game stretch as we watched pick six after pick six, missed game winning/game tying field goals, Gary Kubiak collapsing, second half meltdowns, zero pass rush, Schaub failing to throw the ball over fifteen yards, slathers of boos and the rise and fall of Keenumania. This entire season has been a series of unfortunate events game in and game out. Now, instead of discussing how Sunday's game against New England will be monumental with regard to playoff position in the AFC, we are left wondering about the uncertainty of the offseason and what joys the NFL Draft will bring.

Despite his year being more horrific than a streak of teeth-grinding spells of sleep paralysis, the team is much more talented than its 2-9 record indicates. J.J. Watt, Brian Cushing, Andre Johnson, Arian Foster, Duane Brown, DeAndre Hopkins, Kareem Jackson, Johnathan Joseph, Brooks Reed, Chris Myers, Owen Daniels and a slew of others from the playoff teams of two years' past are still around, whether on the sideline or on the field. The core group of guys that won 24 games these past two years are still there. The performance simply hasn't been.

This season Houston has allowed 289 points (119 of those points can be attributed to penalties, turnovers, and plays where the defense wasn't on the field), scored 195 points, has a Pythagorean win-loss record of 3.2-7.8, and a turnover differential of -12 (good for 30th in the league). When we look at numbers that measure a team's efficiency, instead of looking at just yardage and points, Houston has a DVOA of -26.2% (30th), a offensive DVOA of -19% (29th), a 6.2% DVOA on defense (23rd), and a special teams DVOA of -6.3% (28th). The Texans have not simply been unlucky (though they have been that); they have also played putrid football as well. Most of this blame can be placed on quarterback play, glaring holes that weren't filled in the offseason, and coaching.

All of these problems that have hurt the Texans this season can be corrected in one offseason. With the talent the Texans have, a Kansas City Chiefs-esque turnaround can be made. Last year's Chiefs team is almost identical to the team that won two games last year except for a few vital differences. The 2013 Chiefs had seven Pro Bowlers, but they played every game with either Matt Cassel or Brady Quinn under center, each of whom needs to call Webster's Dictionary to create a new word to describe their play last season. "Abysmal" doesn't do it justice. Below are their numbers last year:

Player Record Cmp Att Cmp% TDs INTs AY/A QBR
Matt Cassel 1-7 161 277 58.1 6 12 5 36.54
Brady Quinn 1-7 112 197 56.9 2 8 4.2 27.4

These two skidmarks led Kansas City to a league worst 211 points. The Chiefs were last in every traditional offensive category other than rushing yards and yards per attempt.

With nearly the same offensive personnel as last season, the Chiefs have seen their offense score 69 more points than last season (270 points on the year (11th in the league)), with a respectable offensive DVOA of -1.5% (17th). The only thing that has changed from this year to last year is that they have improved at QB and head coach while seeing their turnover differential improve from -24 (31st) to +13 (1st). Say what you will about Alex Smith, but going from Quinnsel to Smith is like going from driving an Oldsmobile Bravada to a Honda Accord (that's exactly what happened to me, and I know firsthand what a difference it is). Additionally, their new coach, Andy Reid, has taken advantage of the players he has and has created an efficient grind-it-out offense that capitalizes on the team's strengths. Run the ball, don't make mistakes, use screens and short passes to get the ball out to their speedy skill players in space (Kansas City is the best short passing team in the league) and take advantage of opportunities when they arrive.

The coaching doesn't stop on the offense either. Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton has created a defense that uses exotic blitz schemes to attack opposing offenses and forces them to make mistakes. This scheme change has taken Kansas City from 25th to 2nd in the league in points allowed in just one year. Every player is having a career year under the new system. Justin Houston had 10 sacks last year and already has 11 this year, Tamba Hali has matched his sack total from last year, and Dontari Poe has gone from potential bust to Pro Bowler.

When you take the coaching changes, scheme changes that better utilize the talent, improved quarterback play, a number one pick, improved turnover luck and throw it in a blender, you get a team that improves from a #1 pick taking 2-14 to a 9-2 team on the verge of clinching a playoff spot.

Consequently, there is no reason for Houston not to make a leap like this based on the roster they have. The talent is there. The head coaching and quarterback play isn't. They have a comparable talent level to Kansas City and a turnover differential similar to what the Chiefs had in 2012. For this type of leap to occur, the Texans must improve at quarterback and head coach while filling in the other holes that they have.

The equation is simple. Go from puketastic to above average at the two most pertinent positions with improved luck and voila!, instant success. The problem is the hardest thing to do in the NFL is to find a commendable coach and quarterback. Half of the teams in the league don't have both of these positions filled with adequate warm blooded beings. So the question now isn't can Houston make the leap from 2-14 to 10-6, but if they can.

The coaching carousel is a little murky until after the Super Bowl, so there is not much to analyze in this regard until we know for sure what coaches are dying of thirst for the chance to coach a NFL team. However, we do know what players that can be drafted regardless of who stays and who comes out of the NCAA ranks. After watching the Texans this season and seeing what changed from last year to this year, the most glaring flaw is quarterback play. Nearly every position is filled by the same player now as it was in 2011; the break in the chain is Matt Schaub being unable to throw the ball over 15 yards and turning into Trent Dilfer 2.0. So any talk of a Clowney/Watt wet dream, no matter how gruesomely incredible it would be to witness, should be abolished unless somehow Case Keenum or Matt Schaub cranks out two or three more wins and drops Houston from picking first to picking fourth in this year's draft.

It has been awhile, but we all remember how kittening awful Schaub was as we watched him dink and dunk his way to three and outs earlier this year. His inability to throw the ball over fifteen yards led to Kubiak having to resort to simpler, shorter routes that Schaub could throw. This compressed the field, led to predictable routes where Schaub couldn't get the ball there fast enough, which in turn led to plays like this and this. The problem wasn't that the throws weren't there; the problem was that Schaub lost it and couldn't make the throws he used to be able to make. Then Keenumania came to town, and the deep passes that were on a milk carton started to occur again as Case "Eff It I'm Going Deep" Keenum launched bombs down the field to Andre Johnson and quickly made Texans football fun again. The spotlight then shifted from, "How much does this season suck?" to "Is Case Keenum the answer at quarterback?" The rest of the 2013 season then turned into a starting quarterback job interview for Case Keenum. As of right now the needle is shifting over to NO.

His overall numbers point to a quarterback that could be explained as very good when you look at the following:

Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TDs INTs Y/A
88 160 55% 1161 8 2 7.3

Those are ridiculous numbers for a guy who is pretty much a rookie quarterback learning the ropes of the NFL. If he was a first round raft pick with numbers like that, we would all be ecstatic for the future of Texans football. However, the problem is that these numbers don't mean much by themselves. When you dig deeper into the video and numbers, you learn that Case is merely a Sage Rosenfels/Josh McCown type of backup quarterback.

When you watch Keenum play instead of glossing through the numbers, the one thing that stands out is that everything he does well, he does poorly at the exact same time. Don't believe me? Keenum is creative in the pocket and can use his feet to buy time. However, he still is super slow and lacks the speed to get away from defenders at times. He leaves the pocket way too early and misses receivers because instead of stepping up in the pocket, he turns his shoulders and tries to run outside. Keenum has been sacked thirteen times and has a sack rate of 7.5%. That is higher than Matt Schaub's sack rate of 5.5%, and Schaub plays with cleats made out of lead. 23, 19, 15, 10, 9, 7, 6, and 5 are all examples of the number of yards Keenum has lost when he has been sacked this season. On average, Keenum loses 10.84 yards every time he gets sacked.

Keenum throws a marvelous deep ball that swirls through the air like a horde of crows migrating South in late November. One of the few moments of joy Texans' fans have had this year is watching Case Keenum throw deep to 'Dre. The problem is that Keenum has neither the touch nor the arm strength to throw the intermediate routes that NFL quarterbacks have to make to move the chains.

There is one aspect of quarterback play that Case is truly awful at, and that is blitz protection. Keenum is a dunce when it comes to reading the blitz and makes pre-snap reads about as well as Marky Dubois does. Since he has come into the starting role, the offensive line has continuously let defenders run free, either because (a) Keenum isn't making the right calls at the line of scrimmage or (b) the offensive line is making errors in judgment. I won't know for sure until I get to sit in with Gary and Case as they plow through the film. I would guess the latter at this point because Schaub played behind the exact same line and #8 was sacked less frequently than Keenum. Furthermore, Schaub didn't really get the benefit of Ryan Harris playing for Derek Newton and had to play without Duane Brown at times. The other problem is that Keenum has no idea where to go with the football when the blitz comes. He is unable to make a quick throw to the open man and usually takes a sack for an enormous loss that either kills a drive or changes the field position.

Keenum has now started five games for the Texans, and teams have figured out how to stop him. Additionally, the Texans have been unable to overcome the adjustments opposing defenses have made to douse Keenumania. Case reminds me of a AAA pitcher who was not a high level prospect, but performed well enough in the minor leagues to get the call up for a spot start. He crushed it in his first two starts; in both, he struck out ten, walked two, and gave up no more than two runs. Once hitters started to see him more often and understood what he was doing, he spent most of his time on the mound cursing into his glove as his pitches flooded out of the ball park. This can be seen by Keenum's splits between the first and second half when he plays.

Cmp Att Cmp% YDs TDs INTs Sacks Y/A Rating
1st Half 48 85 56.5% 704 7 1 5 8.3 106.2
2nd Half 40 75 53.3% 457 1 1 8 6.1 70.8

To stop Keenum is fairly simple. You bracket Andre Johnson in coverage by playing press coverage with the corner and have the safety help out over the top. Then you blitz the crap out of Keenum. You take away the deep ball and force Keenum to throw shorter to intermediate routes, where he lacks the accuracy to consistently complete passes. Defenses have already taken away the deep ball, and Keenum has played his worst two games these past two weeks because of it. Keenum is 14/34 for 464 yards and 3 touchdowns when throwing the ball over fifteen yards down the field; he is just 6/20 for 176 yards and 1 touchdown since the Arizona game. Against Jacksonville and Oakland, Case was 2/12 for 55 yards when throwing deep. On third down, you bring the blitz and force him to make reads, which he can't do. All of this is seen in the numbers: the higher sack total despite fewer passes being thrown, the lower completion percentage, and the two yard decrease in yards per attempt.

Despite the fact that Case has been unable to overcome these defensive adjustments and has been found out by opposing defenses, he still is young, probably will improve, and should become better at reading defenses. The problem is that Houston shouldn't waste another season by throwing him out there in 2014 and seeing if he can. Keenum could possibly become a starting quarterback in this league, but it won't happen in Houston. The Texans have too much talent to wait and see if Keenum could become an above average starter. Even then, we already saw that these past two years in Matt Schaub, and I highly doubt any of you want to stare up at that ceiling again.

Really the last question remains for this season now isn't, "Can Keenum sway Houston to draft a QB in the second round?" to, "Will Houston lose every game this season to secure a high draft pick and can Rick Smith evaluate quarterbacks?". As of today, the standings show that Atalanta is 2-9, Minnesota is 2-8-1 (now needs teams to lose because of their silly tie against Green Bay), Jacksonville is 2-9, Washington is 3-8 (St. Louis gets the pick, thanks to the RGIII trade), and Tampa Bay is 3-8. Entering this week, Houston has a 32.6% chance for the #1 pick because of their remaining schedule. The pick will probably rest on the fate of next Thursday's puss-guzzling fest against Jacksonville. If Houston does secure the first overall pick, the obvious selection will be Teddy Bridgewater. If they somehow stop this anaconda sized losing streak, the pick and the most momentous decision the franchise has faced since the Matt Schaub trade will fall onto one man's shoulders. That man is the current general manager of the Houston Texans, Rick Smith.

There have been grumblings that Rick Smith will be beheaded with Kubiak at the end of the season. I think he will stay simply because he can lay blame on the coaching staff and point to Schaub's downfall for the reasons that Houston is 2-9. Smith has made poor picks the past few years in the later rounds, but he has been stellar in the first round since the Amobi Okoye disaster.

Pick # Player Games Played Approximate Value AV Rank
10 Amobi Okoye 87 24 47th
26 Duane Brown 84 44 9th
15 Brian Cushing 56 31 10th
20 Kareem Jackson 56 17 32nd
11 J.J. Watt 43 30 3rd
26 Whitney Mercilus 27 3 60th

I know approximate value is an extremely rough estimate, but this table exemplifies Rick Smith's ability to identify top notch talent. He's made great picks at spots where you can't miss; each of these players has played at a Pro Bowl level except for Mercilus and Okoye. However, the troublesome trend heading into this year's draft is that these players are a defensive tackle, an offensive tackle, a middle linebacker, a cornerback, a defensive end, an outside linebacker and a wide receiver (Hopkins isn't included above because AV can't be measured until after the season). None of these guys are quarterbacks.

In Smith's tenure, he has taken two quarterbacks--he one and only Alex Brink and the franchise's first playoff winning quarterback, T.J. Yates. In the past, I would assume that Smith would work closely with the head coach to find the perfect quarterback. Then I started to hear rumblings on the internet that Smith believes the coaches have too much control in the draft process and that he has been frustrated with the entire coaching staff this season.

So now it seems that Smith wants to take full control and this decision, with the first round pick mostly up to him. This is a harrowing thought because none of us know if he can evaluate talent at the quarterback position.

What this realization does is just add more diesel to the tank fire that is going on next to the hobo who is passed out in piss-soaked sweat pants. To help make up for the unknown that is Smith's quarterback drafting ability, Houston needs to do everything it can to get the number one pick. They need to remove any type of game theory scenario where you have to wait and see who some other team takes. Give Smith the chance to take whichever quarterback he likes the most. We have already established the fact that Houston needs to take a quarterback with the first pick. Why not be put in the greatest possible situation there is?

Additionally, quarterbacks taken higher in the draft tend to have better careers than quarterbacks taken lower in the draft. Weird concept, right? Here is the performance for quarterbacks taken with the first pick rather than the second, third, fourth, or fifth pick.

Pick # Selected Hall of Famers/Notable Players
1 32

4-Troy Aikman, John Elway, Terry Bradshaw,

Joe Namath, and eventual H.O.F Peyton Manning

2 17 1-Sid Luckman 1939, Donovan McNabb most notable
3 14 1-Bobby Layne 1948, Steve McNair most notable
4 11 2- Bob Griese, Otto Graham
5 10 1- Len Dawson

It is fairly obvious that higher drafted quarterbacks usually perform better, despite the JaMarcus Russells and David Carrs of the world that give #1 picks a bad name. There is a high amount of risk taking a quarterback with the first pick, but the reward is worth it. Those of you who are hoping for Houston to win another game this year, ponder this: Would you rather have Andrew Luck or RGIII. Would you rather have Peyton Manning or Ryan Leaf? Would you rather have Drew Bledsoe or Rick Mirer. Would you rather have Jim Plunkett or Archie Manning. Would you rather have David Carr or Joey Harrington? The only time in the history of the NFL that a #2 pick quarterback exceeded the play of the #1 pick quarterback was when Tim Couch was chosen over Donovan McNabb. When we look at the difference between the first pick and the fifth pick, we can expand this even further. Would you rather have Matthew Stafford or Mark Sanchez? Would you rather have Steve McNair or Kerry Collins. Would you rather have Terry Bradshaw or Mike Phipps? Smile on that when Houston is getting trounced by New England or when you feel like pouring hydrochloric acid into your retinas during the Jacksonville-Houston game next week.

Whatever happens between here and April will be fascinating. I will enjoy each Randy Bullock missed game-tying field goal with blood drooling from my mouth and a smile cracked wide open. The Texans have the talent to make a leap back into the playoffs in a weak division. It will be dependent on if they can improve at quarterback and head coach. The Texans should go for 14 in a row and make Smith's job much easier so he can evaluate and pick whatever quarterback he wants. Remove the dread of uncertainty from a man who has never had to make a decision this difficult. As a result, the key here is simple: 2013 is the worst ever, so why should 2014 be? So...


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