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Houston Texans Q&A With Football Outsiders

Wondering what the wise souls of Football Outsiders are projecting for your 2013 Houston Texans? Read this post for a glimpse at the answer to that question, and then buy their always tremendous Almanac.

Never forget:  Football Outsiders did love them some Fred Bennett.
Never forget: Football Outsiders did love them some Fred Bennett.
Bob Levey

Have you bought your copy of the 2013 Football Outsiders Almanac?

If you answered that question in the affirmative, well done. You're a great person and an asset to the human race. We're proud to have you as a member of the BRB community.

If you answered that question in the negative, your life has spiraled out of control. Fortunately, I know precisely how you can get your tattered existence back on track. All you have to do is buy the 2013 Football Outsiders Almanac (available in hard copy for $22.95 or PDF format for $12.50), and all will be right in your world once again.

In all seriousness, I highly recommend you buy yourself a copy of FO's latest work. It's chock full of analysis and facts you won't find anywhere else, and our own Rivers McCown contributed heavily to the effort. You like Rivers, don't you? Of course you do. Buy the book.

In conjunction with the Almanac, Football Outsiders made their authors available for a brief Q&A with each SB Nation NFL site. Tom Gower, the man behind the Texans' chapter in the book, was kind enough to answer five questions I threw at him. My queries and Tom's learned responses are below for your perusal.

1. Coming off a 12-4 season, Football Outsiders ("FO") has the Texans projected to win 9.3 games in 2013 despite the return of Brian Cushing, a hopefully healthy Johnathan Joseph, and J.J. Watt still doing what J.J. Watt does. What's the basis for the downturn in optimism, particularly with FO predicting less than 8 wins for each of the other AFC South teams?

FO: For one, our numbers did not see the Texans as a 12-4 team last year. They ranked 11th in DVOA. They had 10.2 Pythagorean wins. They only had 8.3 Estimated Wins, which emphasizes consistency and key performance indicators, like red zone defense, and assumes an average schedule and fumble lock.

Second, our projections are based on thousands of simulations, which tends to result in greater compression of records toward 8 wins than you see in an actual NFL season. No team is projected to have more than 10.6 wins. That does not mean we think no team will finish with a record better than 10-5-1. That 9.3 projected wins is the ninth-most in the NFL. Most years, the team that finishes ninth in wins is more like 10-6.

While going from 12-4 to 9.3 projected wins seems like a big downfall, I think viewed in the light of those things, we're projecting to the 2013 Texans to be a little bit worse and a little less lucky than the 2012 Texans.

2. Speaking of J.J. Watt, FO made it clear that Watt's historic production last year, coupled with his small sample size as a pro, makes it awfully hard to forecast what he'll do this year. If you had to give an estimate, though, what do you think Watt does in 2013?

FO: What you see in the Texans' chapter of FOA13 is the written equivalent of me tearing my hair out over how to answer this question. The outlook is pretty good for sacks-he feasted on the AFC South and the Colts, Jaguars, and Titans upgraded their offensive lines, but he terrorized the rest of the league too. Guys don't get 20 sacks without being really good. He did not have an excessive number of sacks relative to hurries. Double-digit sacks is a reasonable expectation.

Batted passes? Having 18 is such a statistical outlier relative to what every other defensive lineman in the league has done that it's hard to see him getting anywhere close to that total again.

I'm really curious to see what opposing offenses due to prevent him from shutting down run plays, especially in the backside pursuit where he excelled last year. One thing I noticed in last year's playoffs game is the Patriots seemed to have their backs take wider angles to the hole to make it harder for Watt to catch them. He was a little late when it came to making a tackle I saw him make plenty in previous games.

3. The Texans' special teams were horrific last year, with their kickoff unit ranking dead last in the entire league under FO's metrics. Do you expect an improvement in that respect this year, now that Randy Bullock and Shane Lechler have taken the place of Shayne Graham and Donnie Jones? How about from Keshawn Martin?

FO: The good news is Shayne Graham was so awful last year it's not very hard to find an upgrade. The bad news is, well, who knows what kind of kicker Randy Bullock is. Some college kickers handle the NFL's shorter tee and narrower uprights well. Others do not. I'm not aware of any study we've done that reliably translates collegiate kicking performance into NFL projections. He could be great, like Justin Tucker was for the Ravens last year. He could struggle like so many other kickers have.

For years, Shane Lechler ranked at the top of our numbers by gross punt value (i.e., excluding returns). He was below average in 2012. Is that just a one-year fluke, or was it a sign of age-related decline? We'll see. Donnie Jones was above-average in 2012 by gross punt value, but he had a reverse-Bret Saberhagen thing going where he was good in even years and bad in odd years so maybe the Texans were worried about that. By our numbers, at least, punts were neither a strength nor a problem area for the Texans last year.

Keshawn Martin was good on punts and bad on kickoffs. Subjectively, that seems right to me based on his skills and likely to continue to be the case. What Joe Marciano thinks about Martin on kickoffs and guys like Alan Bonner and Dennis Johnson and their chances of making the team, well, you'd have to ask him that.

4. It's commonplace to see analysts and fans alike disparage Matt Schaub. FO has Schaub projected to complete 63.7% of his passes for 4,018 yards, 24 TDs, 12 INTs, and a DVOA of 13.9% in 2013. Those counting stats are roughly the same as what he tallied in 2012, but FO has his DVOA jumping from 7.5% to 13.9%. What gives? Is it as simple as FO believing Schaub won't tail off as badly as he did in the last quarter of the 2012 regular season?

FO: There's not a big difference between a quarterback with 7.5% DVOA and 13.9% DVOA. They're both shades of what you might think of as "better than average but not one of the league's elite quarterbacks." As I note in the Schaub player comment in FOA13, he was awful in the red zone late in the year. Red zone performance tends to be a little inconsistent from year to year. He should be closer to where he was from the rest of the field. In 2011, he had an excellent DVOA of 24.4%; obviously, that was in part a function of a better team situation than he had in 2012, but I'm sure that helps pull up his projection.

5. "That 2012 could still be regarded as perhaps the best season in team history looks more like a sad joke than a testament to the success of a long franchise-building period." Words hurt, FO. Statistically speaking, is there reason for Texans fans to hope that 2013 will be better than 2012? If so, what are the reasons?

FO: I was not trying to be cruel, but how many Texans fans found 2012 on the whole a more satisfying season than 2011 and/or are more optimistic about the upcoming season now than they were this time a year ago?

Here's the thing, though. The Texans have won the division, twice now. That's not an interesting accomplishment. The goal isn't winning 10 or 12 or 14 games, but winning the Super Bowl. To win the Super Bowl, you have to first make the playoffs. We project the Texans to have 1.7 more wins than the second-place Colts and give them a 67% chance of making the playoffs, sixth-best in the league. That is step one.

For step two, well, the Texans won't be the best team in the league, but so what? The team that wins the Super Bowl is the team that wins consecutive games in January and February. The Ravens weren't the best team in the league last year. The Giants weren't the best team in the league in 2011. The last best team in the league by DVOA to win the Super Bowl was the 2002 Buccaneers, and they didn't even have home field advantage.

One thing the Ravens and Giants did have was high-variance skills and/or strategies that worked well in a small sample size tournament. For the Ravens, this was deep passing; Joe Flacco threw a lot of deep passes, completed an above-average amount (even though his overall completion percentage seemed low), and didn't throw any interceptions. For the Giants, Eli Manning played well and the pass rush was particularly good in the postseason.

Do the Texans have similar things that could be strengths? This is tough to identify statistically. I think one key wild card is veteran health. They'll need some luck there, as they probably can't win the Super Bowl without both Andre Johnson and Ed Reed healthy and major contributors. They need to fix the offensive line, especially the right side, and probably get Ben Tate more involved in the offense to keep Arian Foster fresher (he was awful after the bye). Maybe Matt Schaub transcends his essential Matt Schaub-ness for four games.

Thanks again to Tom Gower for taking the time to answer my inane questions. Do yourself a favor and buy the 2013 Football Outsiders Almanac. It's always an informative and entertaining read, and there aren't many publications you can say that about. Treat. Yo. self.