The 2013 Houston Texans' season was the gloomiest one in franchise history. It was worse than 2008 when hordes of Texans fans booed and crooned for Sage Rosenfels to replace Matt Schaub in his second year in Houston. It was worse than 2008 when the Bengals let the Jets tromp over their limbs and knock Houston out of playoff contention in Week 17. It was worse than every David Carr season, especially the infamous one where Carr completed 68.3% of his passes.
There were two one possession wins that sucked us in.
There was Matt Schaub going Full Delhomme (You never go Full Delhomme) as he threw pick sixes in four straight games.
There was the choke job against Seattle.
There was a 38-13 loss to the Rams overshadowed by joyful bedlam when Matt Schaub tumbled on the turf and was replaced by T.J Yates whose pick six of his own put the bow on the turd covered box.
There was Keenumania--a cult resulting from finally witnessing a quarterback who could heave the ball further than fifteen yards even if he couldn't do anything else right.
There was Brian Cushing's broken leg.
There was Arian Foster's back surgery.
There was #420Gate.
There were Fat Randy misses.
There was Jeff Tarpinian, Shiloh Keo, and Ryan Harris playing a significant number of snaps.
There was the death of Bum.
There was Kubiak's stroke.
There was bamboozling.
There was Peyton Manning breaking the single season touchdown record, previously owned by Tom Brady, against his favorite punching bag by throwing touchdowns number 48, 49, 50, and 51 in Houston.
There were two repugnant losses to the Jaguars.
There was Mommy and Daddy fighting on the sideline after Schaub lost the game by throwing an interception into the endzone against the Matt McGloin led Raiders.
There was an even more baffled Wade Phillips taking over for the already incoherent Gary Kubiak.
There were fourteen atrocities in a row, and we watched every single one.
2013 was a series of maledictions and unfortunate events.
Yet, the river of time keeps flowing, and here we are, just one night of sleep away from waking up to a real life Texans football game. With a new head coach, quarterback, and scheme changes, we get the first chance to see the newest iteration of the Texans this Sunday. But before then, what should we expect for the 2014 season?
Broken Mirrors and Marathons Take Place Underneath Ladders
Football is a weird game. Each team only plays sixteen games, and, as a result of the small sample size, luck has a greater affect in the regular season than other sports that play 82 and 162 games. One can't begin to talk about the two win Texans of 2013 entering 2014 without talking about the regression to the mean that is about to take place. I feel like it's lazy writing to type a sentence like this, but here it goes: I wrote about the improved luck the Texans will have here and here and discussed it on numerous episodes of Battle Red Radio. Also, Bill Barnwell, like the Simpsons, did it here and here.
As a refresher, here are Houston's "luck" stats in 2012 compared to 2013.
|One Possession Wins||6-0||2-9|
|Fumble Recovery %||38.7%||44.4% (23rd)|
|Opp Field Goals % (83% Average)||87.5%||85.7%|
|Schedule Strength||-4% (26th Hardest)||1.4% (10th Hardest)|
|Non Offensive TDs Allowed||1||8|
In 2012, Houston wasn't extremely lucky, but their record was greater than their performance by nearly two wins. They were eleventh in DVOA, had a large positive turnover differential, went undefeated in one possession games, and played an easy schedule. The Texans were a ten win team in 2012, not a twelve win team.
The following year, the luck swung the other way. Houston played a tougher schedule, gave up 48 points (not including extra points) where the opposing offense wasn't on the field, couldn't recover fumbles, had a grossly imbalanced turnover differential, and couldn't win close games. Add this to the fall of Schaubiak, and we see a talented team with nearly identical personnel lose ten more games than it had the previous year. Someone on the Texans staff bathed in a pool of blood drained from a horde of black cats while sitting underneath a ladder as he/she battered a drum set made from mirrors. Or someone else asked the gods to trade in a Texans win against Seattle for a Rangers win that day and brought upon disarray to both franchises. I wonder who would do something like that?
Let's also talk about Matt Schaub. His performance in a league with an ever increasing emphasis on the passing game was the conductor on this derailed train.
|2012||350/544||64.3%||4008||22||12||5.2%||6.7 (12)||7.5% (14th)||697 (12th)|
|2013||219/358||61.2%||2310||10||14||6.1%||5.7 (33)||-16.2% (34)||-123 (35)|
In every measure, he was criminally worse in 2013 than in 2012. He was less accurate, threw more interceptions, attempted shorter passes, was sacked more, and when he threw he was inefficient. When you watch the film you see a quarterback devoid of all arm strength. His inability to throw the ball down field led to teams playing press coverage and stacking the box. Without the threat of a deep passing game, corners were able to sit back on routes and make jumps on the ball when throws were made. This tighter window became even more of an issue when you add the lazy, flying pigs, Schaub fluttered like a plastic bag in the wind when he dropped back to pass. As a result, the Texans passing game was the 30th in the NFL.
The good news is that neither of the quarterbacks from last year's team are on the roster. T.J. Yates was traded to Atlanta for a backup linebacker. Matt Schaub was traded to Oakland for a sixth round pick, where he has already been benched for Derek Carr. This by a coach who's trying to save his job and can blame a rookie quarterback if things go bad, which they will. Case Keenum was cut and will wear golden swirls on his helmet in St. Louis. Finally, Gary Kubiak was fired and has moved on to be the offensive coordinator in Baltimore, where he will run the same offense that was so 1998.
In the NFL, we see the same narrative every year. Team X is unlucky, they remove their quarterback and head coach for better iterations, and make the playoffs the next year. The law is fairly simple:
Improved Luck + Better Quarterback Play + Improved Coaching = Playoffs
See last year's Philadelphia Eagles and Kansas City Chiefs as examples. The Texans will be luckier in 2014, and they made changes at quarterback and head coach, but it remains to be seen if enough of an improvement occurred to see a dramatic increase in performance this season.
Bill O'Brien and Ryan Fitzpatrick Sitting in a Tree
So far this off-season, everything written and said about Bill O'Brien has been words about how awesome and unKubiak he is. He's hard nosed. He's no nonsense. He doesn't allow stickers on helmets. He's all about the team. He's exactly what the Texans need. But no one has any idea if he is going to be any good as a NFL head coach.
He moved from an assistant coach at Georgia Tech to offensive coordinator at Duke to assistant coach at New England. With the evil empire, he worked up the food chain and was promoted all the way up to offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach. We all have seen how Belichick's coaching tree has worked out as head coaches in the NFL, and it's not good. Josh McDaniels, Eric Mangini, and Romeo Crennel have a combined record of 72-119 as leaders in the NFL. Also, I'm sure my eighth grade head coach could be Tom Brady's quarterback coach.
O'Brien then left New England to the wasteland of University Park to become the head coach at scandal ridden Penn State. There, the Nittany Lions went 15-9 despite dealing with Joe Paterno's shadow, Jerry Sandusky's scandal, loss of scholarships, sanctions, and the inability to play in bowl games. His reasons for wanting to jump to the NFL aren't entirely known, but it seems like a case of O'Brien not seeing eye to eye with the athletic director and the board of trustees for various reasons explained in this article.
Now, he's entering his first season as head coach of the Texans, and despite the Chicken Soup For the Soul-esque articles written by the Houston media about him, we have no idea if he knows when to go for it on fourth down, how to manage the clock, when to challenge plays, how to game plan against NFL teams, and if he can make in-game adjustments. I'm not saying he's a terrible coach. I'm just stating, regardless of what's been said, we have no idea how he will perform at the next level. This aspect of the worst to first equation is murkier than the Virgin River during a flash flood.
The other variable to this equation, quarterback play, is one that we have a sample to look at rather than having to draw from the well of the unknown. The Texans signed Ryan Fitzpatrick as their stereotypical veteran quarterback to add for depth, but all of us hoped he would either start a few games for a talented rookie quarterback to learn from (Tom Savage doesn't count) or play back-up. Few wanted him to be staring down a gun held by Ryan Fitzpatrick starting quarterback this season, especially since the opportunity to make the playoffs is ripe for the plucking. Even if the Ryan Mallet trade has stirred the waters of this notion, Fitzpatrick is the starter and will remain so for at least the next five games. If he's benched, then it means the Texans are buried in a coffin so sturdy that even The Bride couldn't punch her way out it. The back of Ryan Fitzpatrick's football card looks like this:
Houston's newest starting quarterback - to put it bluntly - isn't very good. He lives in the short part of the field, makes numerous mistakes despite his Harvard education, has trouble dealing with pressure even if he is a sneaky good runner, and has been a below average QB in every city he's lived in. Adequate quarterback play would be a welcome sign for Houston, but with Fitzpatrick, even that is too much to ask. This preseason, his inadequacy has already been on full display. Despite the fact that preseason play is as indicative of future performance as one day of choosing to eat broccoli instead of fried Oreos is for weight loss, Fitzpatrick has been Fitztragic in meaningless games.
He's been the Rugrats All Growed Up version of Case Keenum. If you don't get that reference, he's an older and bearded version of Keenum. And If that doesn't worry you, go back, pop in the Game Rewind, and re-watch last season. Everyone is so mortified of Ryan Fitzpatrick starting quarterback that Ryan Mallett has excited souls from hopeless to hopeful. Ryan Mallett.
Even though Fitzpatrick is below average, decrepit quarterbacks have made the playoffs in the past. If we look at the last five years of playoff teams (I picked the last five years because of the rule changes and increased importance the passing game has in today's NFL) there are six teams who made the playoffs with impotent passing attacks.
|Team||Year||QB||Wins||Pass DVOA||Rush DVOA||Def DVOA||Schedule Strength||TO Differential|
|NYJ||2009||Mark Sanchez||9||-21.4% (28)||1.9% (11)||-25.5% (1)||1.7% (11)||+1|
|NYJ||2010||Mark Sanchez||11||6.5% (19)||6.3% (5)||-10.9% (5)||6.0% (5)||+9|
|KC||2010||Matt Cassel||10||2.4% (21)||11.1% (4)||2.1% (27)||-7.9% (29)||+9|
|7||-12.3% (29)||-11.3% (28)||12% (29)||-8.3% (30)||-9|
|MIN||2012||Christian Ponder||10||.3% (22)||7.8% (6)||3.1% (23)||4.0% (5)||-1|
|KC||2013||Alex Smith||11||6.7% (18th)||11.1% (2)||-6.7% (9)||-7.0% (32)||+18|
Here are their basic quarterback stats.
|Mark Sanchez (2009)||196/364||53.8%||2,249||12||20||5.77||-383||-26.6%|
|Mark Sanchez (2010)||278/507||54.8%||3,105||17||13||5.85||234||-4.3%|
As we see in the second chart, none of these quarterbacks had great years. Some had decent ones, like Matt Cassel, and then there's Mark Sanchez. These quarterbacks struggled to complete 60% of their passes, threw the ball short, and were inefficient. Yet, all of these teams except for Seattle won at least nine games and each made the playoffs while their quarterbacks posted seasons similar to what we have seen Fitzpatrick produce in his career.
In the first table we get the context of the entire team. Each of these teams won games because they were "elite" (ugh, I feel gross writing "elite") in one facet of the game. The Jets had the best defense in the NFL in 2009 and the fifth best the year after while utilizing a top ten run game to go along with the "Sanchize" before he became the "Butt Fumbler." Both Kansas City teams and Minnesota also had great rushing attacks. Seattle just farted their way into a NFC West title by beating the Rams Sam Bradford's rookie year in Week 17 and were put in that position due to an easy schedule and by playing in the worst division of all time.
So it isn't impossible to hear the words Ryan Fitzpatrick playoff quarterback or Ryan Mallett playoff quarterback flutter out of Phil Simms mouth in January, but it's going to take a lot of luck and Houston being the cream of the league in one aspect of the game. The good news is they will be luckier as discussed earlier and Football Outsiders has predicted Houston to have the easiest schedule in the NFL with a strength of schedule of -5.4%. Additionally, the AFC South is the worst division in the league and eight or nine wins could take the crown.
When we look past quarterback play and at what Houston could possibly be the best at in the NFL, the run game, is unlikely. Last year they posted a run DVOA of -8.9% (24th). This occurred with Wade Smith at left guard and without Arian Foster. Smith is replaced by Ben Jones at the moment, who has been nothing more than a back-up his entire career. Second round pick Xavier Su'a-Filo is waiting on the bench, but even then, he was inconsistent in college and rookie offensive lineman usually have a rough and tough start to their career. Brewton (Brandon Brooks + Derek Newon = Brewton) on the right side decimates defenders in the run game, but the rest of the line has had issues run blocking. Duane Brown was credited with 6.5 blown blocks in the run game last season, 0.5 less than Wade Smith, and lacked the ability to move guys down field. However, he did gain weight this off-season to improve in this area. Chris Myers is already undersized and was perfect as a down blocker in the zone run game, but he isn't an Ace blocking mauler Houston may need him to be if they continue to shy away from the zone.
Foster is going to be back, but this pre-season, Houston has been more of a power running team. What makes Foster great is his vision. He's spectacular at floating one way, reading the hole and cutting back the other way like a ninja. He lacks the power and speed to be a player who excels at plowing through the hole. Even then he may not even be his old self after back surgery, and we have no idea if Jonathan Grimes and Alfred Blue are anything more than change of pace backs.
It's unrealistic to assume the run game is going to be any better than mediocre this season.
Romeo, Oh! Romeo
When Houston made the playoffs in 2011 and 2012, they had the sixth and fourth best defenses according to DVOA. Last year, they were the 18th best with a DVOA of 2.5%. For Houston to go from fourth to first in the AFC South, the defense needs to be top notch again.
There was a menagerie of problems on the defensive side of the ball last season. The defensive line consisted of the destroyer of offensive lineman's souls, J.J Watt, an old Antonio Smith, and replacement level players in Jared Crick and Earl Mitchell (#WAEM). This year, they let Mitchell walk to Miami, where he signed a comical contract, and the Texans finally quenched bfd's nose tackle lust by signing 331 pound Jerrell Powe. We also drafted the seemingly perpetually injured Louis Nix III. Smith left for Oakland, and Crick will take his place as being just a guy. Watt was an animal last year. In the run game, he made 87 plays and accounted for 11.3% of the defense's plays, which was first in the NFL. He also accumulated 79 stops and 35 defeats while missing only 4 tackles.
Since Houston mostly runs a 3-4 defense, most of their pass rush is supposed to come from their outside linebackers, but they were nonexistent last season. The biggest issue when it came to rushing the passer was it was all Watt and nobody else. Offensive lines would slide their protections towards Watt to double and triple team him and dare the rest of the defense to win their one on one match-ups. Sadly, it usually ended with the quarterback having plenty of time. Whitney Mercilus isn't a good football player. Brooks Reed is too slow to be an edge rusher, and yet he is going to play outside linebacker again this season. The pass rush table in Houston's chapter in the 2014 FOA is the following:
It was a flaccid group aside from Watt.
They did (hopefully) improve this unit dramatically by taking Jadeveon Clowney, a once in a generation pass rushing prospect with the #1 overall pick, and Brian Cushing will start week one. Cushing is one of the best blitzing inside linebackers in the game. For Houston's defense to become a top unit, it's going to have to start with these three guys making plays in the backfield. Crennel is in the perfect situation to tune in, drop out, and harness his creativity to use stunts and blitzes to free up these three.
I do have two hesitations though. Crennel is known to run a two gap system where the down lineman take on a man, not a gap, and it's their job to control blockers while the linebackers wreak havoc. They have the best non-quarterback in the game who now makes $100,000,000 by attacking one gap. It would be devastating to see a leash on Watt because of a system. It took Phillips a year to understand how to harness Watt's ability to the fullest.
The start of his rookie season was unspectacular — some scattered sacks but little pointing to what we see now. "Some of it was us," Phillips says, laughing. It took Phillips about 15 weeks to learn the same lesson Watt’s coaches had in Madison. The only way to unleash J.J. Watt is by letting him break the rules.
My other concern is Jadeveon Clowney. No, I don't think he's going to be a bust, but I believe there will be some growing pains for him this year. In college he was able to run right around offensive lineman and use a swim move play after play with success. This was the result of him being an incredible athlete, not an incredible football player. In the NFL, his athleticism is going to be mitigated when he goes up against other elite athletes instead of college kids. He's going to need to learn a counter move, how to read an offensive lineman's feet rather than guessing, and how to succeed when the easy plays of the past aren't there anymore. Additionally, he's moving from a down lineman to outside linebacker which has its own wrinkles for him to learn, as well. I'm expecting a confusing year for Clowney sparked with highlights here and there and glimpses of the future. The problem is, for Houston to win this year, they can't wait for these types of growing pains on this side of the ball.
One more note when it comes to the linebacker corps. They still don't have an inside linebacker. Brooks Reed is playing on the outside and Clowney has pushed Mercilus to the bench. Darryl Sharpton and Joe Mays have moved on for good reasons. At the moment, the depth chart has Mike Mohamed starting next to Brian Cushing. Mohamed is a sixth round pick who has three total tackles in his career. He will add to the legacy of crappy inside linebackers who have played next to Cushing, which includes Bradie James, Tim Dobbins, Barrett Ruud, Jeff Tarpinian, Joe Mays, and Sharpton. It's Houston's version of the Cleveland Browns and Oakland Raiders' quarterback carousel.
In the secondary, they have a great cornerback duo in Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson, neither of whom played up to their standard last season. When Joseph is healthy, he's a top ten corner. He was bruised and battered throughout most of last year and is at the distinguished age of 30 years old. Jackson followed up his breakthrough season where he ranked 12th in success rate by dropping down to 81st with a success rate of 42%. in 2013. With Jackson, it isn't an issue of talent. Last year, his physicality and not turning around for the ball soon enough led to penalties. This zapped his confidence, and for the rest of the season, he played like a shell of himself. Hopefully this season, he's corrected these issues and comes out swinging again as he fights for a big pay day in his contract year.
The biggest problem in the secondary is the depth at cornerback. Houston has been tattered and battered by spread offenses. Last season, they had a DVOA of 14.1% when the offense used three receivers or more. Subjectively, there are reminders of the lashings Green Bay, Denver, and New England had unleashed on Houston. They used the off-season to cut Brice McCain and Brandon Harris, and now have A.J. Bouye, Elbert Mack, Darryl Morris, and Andre Hal to play corner in their nickle and dime packages. None of these guys have received a substantial amount of playing time. The only good news is Dallas is the only team Houston plays this season that runs a spread attack comparable to those that have demolished Houston in the past.
Each aspect of the defense - defensive line, linebacker, and secondary - has major question marks despite the talent that Watt, Cushing, Clowney, Jackson, and Joseph bring. Having two replacement level defensive linemen, no second inside linebacker, no established edge rusher, and a series of question marks in the slot bring serious doubt to the idea Houston will have the great defense it needs to make the playoffs. I also expect the defense to take some time to gel together in the new system Crenell is running and for Romeo himself to get a feel for the personnel he has so he can get the most out of the talent available. I believe this will be an above average unit, but not the the top-seven defense Houston needs in 2014 to be a successful football team.
Last October, I predicted that Houston would make the playoffs in 2014. Back then, when I was young and naive, I thought they would actually fix the quarterback position instead of just taking out the duct tape and super glue. If they traded a third round pick to take Teddy Bridgewater at the end of the first round instead of using their picks on Su'a-Filo and C.J Fiedorowicz then, yes, I would think this team could win ten games and make the playoffs. I already promised Rumpelstiltskin my first born that Bridgewater is going to be the best quarterback in this class. Fitzpatrick or Mallett could be good enough to lead the right team to the playoffs, but the defense and running game isn't going to be excellent enough to make up for the problems in the passing game. It's a damn shame for everything to fall together this perfectly this year and for them to kick the quarterback position down the aisle. This talented team will be luckier, they are playing in the worst division since the NFC West several years ago, have the easiest predicted schedule in football, and added the number one overall pick only for the opportunity to be squandered.
Oh well, at least it won't be as bad as 2013.
Houston goes 6-10 and finishes third in the AFC South behind Indianapolis and Jacksonville and ahead of Tennessee.
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