With training camp just a week away and the doldrums of an NFL July coming to a close, fan bases across 32 NFL cities are beaming with optimism and expectations for the 2015 season. Few fan bases have more reason to be excited than the fan base of the Houston Texans. Ever on the cusp of greatness, and forever in the shadow of the Indianapolis Colts, just two short years ago at this time the Texans were coming off of back to back AFC South championships and appeared poised to extend their ascent as the AFC representative in Super Bowl XLVIII. What came to pass could only be described as a colossal disappointment for Texans fans as the 2013 season resulted in a 14 game losing streak, scorching the Earth under the Texans organization, prompting the team to tear down and build anew.
The moderately successful Kubiak era ended, and the Texans turned to Head Coach Bill O'Brien with his New England roots, and mantra of competition and complimentary football to reshape the team around a new vision. The team would transition away from Kubiak's Zone Blocking Scheme and turn their attention towards rebuilding the roster around versatility and athleticism that would allow the Texans to shift their game plan to attack their opponents weakness and maximize their success. The results were a quick turnaround back to a winning record, as the Texans finish 2014 9-7, winning 4 of their last 5 games and falling just a half of a game short of playoffs.
Much of the focus of the AFC South this off-season has been on the rival Indianapolis Colts, who finished 2014 as the proud runner up in the AFC Championship game, and have added pieces around Andrew Luck (including former Texans great, Andre Johnson) in an effort to make a Super Bowl push in 2015. Lost in the "Super Bowl or bust" noise coming out of Indianapolis, is how much competition they'll have just to escape their own division, where they'll have to overcome a Houston Texans team that is doing a lot of the right things championship teams do, to build for lasting success in the NFL. Below are 4 reasons, why the Houston Texans will return to the top of the AFC South in 2015, and why every Texans fan should prepare themselves for a special season.
Reason 1: The QB's are better than you think. Many believe the key to the Texans success begins and ends with the QB position. Last season, Ryan Fitzpatrick led a valiant effort to bring stability to the QB position for the Houston Texans, but in 2014 the position was anything but stable. The Texans started 3 different QB's in 2014 (and played 4), including 2 games by Case Keenum who was cut from the team last August, only to be re-signed from the Rams practice squad when injury put the Texans out of options at QB. This season the Texans journey begins with a QB battle between two former Patriots back ups, Ryan Mallett and Brian Hoyer. There is an old NFL cliche that "if you have a QB competition, you don't have a QB", but in the Texans case one may beg to differ. Brian Hoyer, despite being named the worst passer in the NFL, is returning to the system that he has spent the majority of his NFL career mastering, with a 10-6 record in 16 games as the starting QB of the Cleveland Browns. Head Coach, Bill O'Brien, showed as recently as last season that his reputation for getting the best out of a QB is warranted as Ryan Fitzpatrick posted a career best 95.3 QB rating which was a full 12 points higher than his previous best. Given a QB's success is often a product of what the coach puts in place around him, there is reason for optimism that Hoyer will prove better than advertised should he win the Texans starting job out of training camp in 2015.
Competing with Hoyer is another under respected signal caller in Ryan Mallett. Playing behind Tom Brady in New England for the majority of his career, most of the mainstream media doesn't really know what to make out of Ryan Mallett. There is plenty of reason to believe that Mallett, a former 3rd round pick with a 1st round grade, has the makings of a franchise QB. With just two career starts, however, most aren't giving him a real chance to stick. The Texans traded for Mallett last year, in the hopes he could become their franchise QB. In week 11 last season, Mallett was magnificent in his first career start versus a tough Cleveland defense, leading the Texans to a smooth and dominant victory. The follow up performance versus Cincinnati, however, wasn't nearly as impressive as the Texans lost both their QB for the season. The question remains, which Ryan Mallett is real? The first game star versus the Browns or the second game dud versus the Bengals? Texans fans should be watching training camp closely to see if Mallett can build upon the success he had in Cleveland last season and seize the starting job from Hoyer for 2015. Whoever wins the QB battle, however, Texans fans should be confident that they are in good hands given the success O'Brien has had in helping to maximize his QB's success.
Looking up and down the division, there is one team with a better QB situation in 2015 than the Texans. The QB position is highly important when it comes to winning in the NFL, but the importance of that position is often overstated. Winning in the NFL always has always been and always will be a team driven success. Eli Manning has more Super Bowls than Peyton Manning. Bob Griese has more Super Bowls than Dan Marino. The QB touches the ball every play, and you can’t win with a dud under center. But, good teams don’t need a QB to carry them. The Texans are a good team, with a strong running game, and a great defense. They have enough at the position to get the job done.
Reason 2: The Defense may contend as the NFL's best. Last season J.J. Watt became the first player in history to be the unanimous pick for NFL Defensive Player of the Year. The award was Watt's 2nd DPOY in just 3 seasons, and at 26 years old, he is just now entering his physical prime. The Texans have potentially the greatest defensive player in history, and what should be terrifying for the rest of the NFL is that the Texans have spent the 2015 off-season adding pieces around Watt that have the potential to give the Texans one of the games all-time best defensive units. Last season the Texans led the NFL in takeaways largely due to the havoc created by Watt alone. This year, Watt will be joined in the front seven by a lineman eating future Hall of Famer in Vince Wilfork who will swallow blockers whole in the middle of the Texans defense allowing Watt to take on overwhelmed lineman one on one on either side of him. In addition to Wilfork, the Texans will also see the return of 2014 number 1 pick, Jadeveon Clowney, who was one of the most hyped pass rushing prospects in a generation, and is entering 2015 with a big chip on his shoulder after a 2014 season lost to injury. The idea of an offensive line having to protect against a pass rush from Watt and Clowney, is nothing short of a nightmarish proposition for Offensive Coordinators across the league. Add to that front seven mix former 2nd team All-Pro Brian Cushing, who has had his first healthy off-season in years, and 2015 2nd rounder Bernardrick McKinney, and the Texans may have more game wreckers in their front seven than any team in the league.
If this were all the Texans top 10 defense added, they'd contend among the NFL's best, but the Texans also added to their talented secondary. Free Agent signing Rahim Moore has the potential to be best Free Safety in Texans history, and he will have plenty of opportunity to ball hawk with the havoc being unleashed up front. 2015 first round pick, Kevin Johnson will join one of the NFL's premier CB groups with Jonathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson. The 2015 Texans defense is the most talented unit the franchise has ever had, and Texans fans should expect big things from this unit this season. The Seattle Seahawks have shown what a dominant defense brings to an organization, and the Texans unit has the promise to reach their level this season.
The premise that the Colts will run away with the division is built largely on asking how teams will keep up with the Colts high octane offense. The Texans flip that script. They have undoubtedly the best defense in the AFC South, and their defense has the capacity to be dominant. This slows the track for that Formula 1 race car in Indianapolis. The Colts will have to learn to drive in some serious mud if they’re going to put enough points up against the Texans to put the game out of reach. In the second meeting with the Colts last season in Indianapolis, the Texans led 7-0 after the 1st quarter with QB Ryan Mallett already lost for the season due to a torn pectoral muscle. Early in the 2nd, starting QB Ryan Fitzpatrick’s leg was broken, forcing raw and untested rookie Tom Savage under center. With little ability to move the ball, the Texans fell to the Colts 17-10 in disappointing fashion, but this performance showed the Texans ability to slow down the Colts offense. With better QB play in 2015, the Texans should be able sustain drives of their own against a mediocre Colts defense that ranked 18th against the run and 19th in PPG allowed last season, and saw no meaningful upgrade this season.
Reason 3: The Texans can run the football against anybody. The Texans were 5th in rushing yards per game last season, and feature one of the NFL’s premier running backs in Arian Foster. Foster should have fresh legs for the 2015 season after just 260 rushing attempts in 2014, and missing much of 2013 due to back surgery. With a healthy off-season under his belt, Foster is benefiting from the ability to participate in Training Camp this season compared to last year when he was still rehabbing from his back injury. In addition to a healthy Foster, the Texans welcome back Alfred Blue for his second season in Houston. Blue is a former blue chip prospect out of LSU who suffered a significant ACL tear during his time in Baton Rouge. When he came back from injury, he was featured in a more complimentary role to Jeremy Hill during the 2013 season. He was drafted to the Texans last season, and like most rookie running backs, he spent significant time transitioning into NFL life and learning how to be a professional. This season, Blue only had to worry about football, and spent the off-season training with Minnesota Vikings star, Adrian Peterson (another RB who had to come back from an ACL tear). Reports on Blue coming out of OTAs is that his explosion is back, and he looks primed to take a big step forward in 2015. His role is still that of a compliment to Arian Foster, but his improvement this season will allow the Texans to keep their identity on offense while keeping Foster legs fresh throughout the season. Blue has shown some big play ability of his own with a 46 yard run vs the Giants in week 3.
The Dallas Cowboys showed last season, that there is still tremendous value in being able to run the football in the NFL. The Patriots dominated the Colts running the football in the AFC Championship game last season, and the Colts simply couldn’t stop them. Given the Texans strength in running the football, they should be able to use the ground game to control the pace of the game and work from short yardage situations on offense. This will help to keep their defense fresh, and help their QBs succeed. Because the AFC South looks like a two team race, between Indianapolis and Houston, the head to head matchups between these teams will likely dictate who wins the AFC South. The Colts have shown a weakness in defending the run, and Foster has outright dominated the Colts head to head. In 6 career games vs Indy, Foster has averaged 141.8 yards per game vs the Colts. With better help from the defense and passing game this season, the Texans should finally be able to exploit the Colts greatest weakness, and run past them to victory, much the same way New England has proven to be capable of in recent years.
Reason 4: Year Two of the Bill O’Brien era, should be much smoother than year one. With all due praise to the Texans for a 2014 season where they made significant progress back to contention, the 2014 season was largely a challenging year. The Texans went through 4 QBs in in 2014, and at times there was glaring evidence of a team that was still figuring out the fundamentals of a new system. Sloppy offensive line play, poor turnovers, and coverage miscues often cost the Texans winnable football games throughout the season. The 2014 season included some dominant performances over Redskins, Raiders, Titans, Browns, Ravens, and Jaguars, where the Texans controlled the game from the jump, and forced their opponent to play from behind the entire game.
There were also some missed opportunities along the way. The Texans were flat out dominated by the Giants in week 3. Unable to stop the run, and embarrassed, the Texans had to take measures as drastic as signing street free agent Ryan Pickett to stop the bleeding at Nose Tackle, after the Giants ran right over the players already on the roster. Against the Colts in week 6, the Texans had multiple blown assignments in coverage and on special teams including a 1st quarter on-side kick audible, that allowed the Colts to jump out to a very big lead. The Texans battled back, but ultimately fumbles by Ryan Fitzpatrick and Andre Johnson sealed their fate. Against the Steelers in week 7, the Texans were dominating before sloppy tackling sparked a TD drive from the Steelers. What followed was possibly the worst two minutes in NFL history, as the Texans gave the Steelers consecutive possessions inside their own 10 yard line, including a fumbled kickoff return, and a fluke interception.
It was clear at times that the Texans were still on the learning curve throughout the 2014 season. Over the first 9 games of the 2014 season, the Texans allowed 30 points or more four times, and failed to score above 21 points four times on the way to a 4-5 record. However, after their bye in week 10, the Texans showed signs of things starting to click for the team. The Texans allowed just under 16 points per game over the final 7 games of the season, and no more than 22 points in any game after the break. The Texans finished the season 5-2 after the break and were playing their best football down the stretch falling just a tie breaker short of the playoffs.
In 2015, reports out of OTAs is that the offense and defense are coming much easier than it had come in 2014. Bill O’Brien brought in two QBs who are familiar with the system he wants to run, and the team as a whole has a full year of experience in this system now. Competition, versatility, and teamwork are the message coming out NRG these days, and Bill O’Brien’s stamp is all over this team.
The Texans had 100% participation in OTAs and there has been a lot of confidence from needed contributors that spent most of 2014 learning the system. A healthy off-season for Cushing and Foster, along with several rookies taking a step forward has the Texans poised for a breakout 2015. With more polished play from the Texans this season, they should be able to eliminate many of the mistakes that cost them games in 2014. The outlook for the Texans in year two of the O’Brien era appears to be that of a team that should finish 11-5 or better, and become a serious threat in the AFC for years to come.
It’s early, still. Training camp is still a week away. But, Texans fans should be excited for the 2015 season, as this is a team filled with promise. The Houston Texans appear poised for a special season, and nobody should be handing anything to the Colts just yet. I for one, will be watching every step of the Texans journey this season, beginning with HBO’s Hard Knocks and hopefully following all the way to some big time games in January. I’m picking the Texans to win the AFC South, and if we’re lucky, maybe a whole lot more than that.