What constitutes a successful season?
Objectively, making the playoffs is the only goal of the NFL season. The reason why every team plays sixteen games is to make the tournament at the end of the year. That's it. Subjectively, this monomaniacal focus can be misconstrued. If the arranged marriage between Derek Carr and rookie wide receiver Amari Cooper is met with tilted heads and raised eyebrows as the Raiders win seven games, it's a success. If the old men Ryan Grigson brought in don't get the Colts over the metaphorical hump that is the Patriots, it's a failure. If the Bengals lose in the first round of the playoffs for the fifth straight year, well, this one may actually be a failure.
Although the Houston Texans improved by seven wins and almost, but not quite made the playoffs, last season was a failure. It was better than the putrid and fetid 2013 that preceded it. Yet, in the end it didn't even matter. After Week 17, they too joined the morally victorious of the league and the athletically inferior on couches around the country watching the playoffs.
Even if you do look at the season subjectively to warm the heart and soul, last season should still be looked at in a disappointing light. The 2013 Texans were a disaster. Matt Schaub's arm fell off and completions turned into pick-sixes, Gary Kubiak's offense became stale when it was stuck operating in a fifteen yard closet, star players were lost for the season, and more often than not they were on the losing end of one possession games. As a result, a twelve win team became a two win team.
The 2013 Texans did not have the talent level of a two win team, and so by default they were going to be better in 2014. When comparing the production of both seasons, we see the following numbers:
|One Possession Record||2-9||2-4|
|Turnover Differential||-20 (32nd)||+12 (2nd)|
|Fumble Recovery Rate||44.4% (23rd)||55.8% (5th)|
|Pyth Wins vs. Actual||4.2/2||9.8/9|
|Schedule Strength||1.4% (10th)||-6.2% (32nd)|
|DVOA||-26.5% (30th)||-4.5% (19th)|
|Off DVOA||-18.9% (29th)||-6.8% (21st)|
|Def DVOA||2.5% (18th)||-6.2% (6th)|
|St DVOA||-5.1% (29th)||-3.9% (28th)|
In nearly every category-luck or performance-the 2014 Houston Texans were better than their 2013 counterpart. The improvements from one year to the next can mostly be attributed to simple regression to the mean. The forced turnovers propelled a good defense into one of the best in the league. They recovered fumbles better than twenty-seven other teams. They were better on offense, defense, and special teams. But most importantly, they played the easiest schedule in the NFL as well. They had wins against Tennessee, Oakland, Cleveland, Jacksonville, Washington, Baltimore, and Buffalo, whose combined record was 38-74. This led to Houston improving by seven wins with a nearly identical roster and a horde of terrible quarterbacks that were better than Matt Schaub.
The Houston Texans in 2014 were in a perfect position to make the jump from the cellar to the Divisional Round and squandered it. So now, because of narratives, the Texans are an up-and-coming team who need adequate quarterback play to challenge the Colts in the AFC South. Even though the truth is this always was a talented team who simply endured one of the worst seasons in recent history.
Can the Texans '2015 season end with a successful playoff berth rather than failure?
Let's Do It Again
Last season, the Texans' offense started and ended with Arian Foster. Their game plan was simple. Hand the ball off to Foster, and then hand the ball off to Foster, and then hand the ball off to Foster, and then hope and pray Ryan Fitzpatrick can catch the defense off guard with a twelve yard pass.
|Plays||Yards||Yards to go||Y/C||Tds||1st Downs||DVOA|
The Texans ran the ball more often than Seattle and Dallas, two teams known around the league for their run heaviness. The numbers show a team that ran a lot, but were not efficient. It's not like they faced a ton of stacked boxes either. According to Football Outsiders, Houston faced 6.28 defenders in the box per play, which ranks 15th. The main reason why the run game's numbers look more like nose-picking mindlessness instead of an offensive asset is because of the other players who carried the ball.
|Foster||167 (9th)||7.5% (10th)||260 (7th)||1,246 (6th)||4.8 (8th)||8 (10th)||46%|
|Blue||-88 (43rd)||-21.3% (43rd)||169 (24th)||528 (38th)||3.1 (45th)||3 (T-38th)||39%|
Football statistics are all about context. In this case , ach running back played in the same offense behind the same offensive line so we can accurately see the difference between Foster and Blue, and the difference is enormous. Blue was the worst running back in football last season. The worst. And now Foster is coming back from groin surgery and could be back somewhere between Weeks Two and Four. This is sweet and sour. Even if he gets back soon, it's still not certain what type of player Foster is going to be when he arrives. I'm not a doctor, but groin and hamstring injuries can nag players for an entire season. Foster even said this in a recent interview:
"There's things that you can push through, but like muscle injuries, there's nothing you can do because it literally hinders your movement. As soon as I can feel like the movement isn't hindered and I'm not going to reinjure it, I'll be out there."
So even when Foster gets back in the lineup, it may take a few weeks for him to get back to the heavenly, gliding force the Texans know him to be. But even then, at age twenty-nine, Foster usually gets dinged up as the season progresses and misses games here and there.
With an emphasis on the passing game in the postmodern NFL, a loss of a running back shouldn't be a big deal, but the Texans HAVE to run the ball because of the sludge they have at quarterback. I was hoping for Ryan Mallett, not because I think he's a good quarterback (accuracy issues and poor decision making are issues), but because he can push the ball down the field with his arm, and we don't know exactly what he can do. With a sample of two starts, there is an unknown factor to Mallett. Instead, Bill O'Brien opted for the known in Brian Hoyer because of "consistency".
All Hoyer has been in his career is consistently bad. He is coming from Cleveland, where he led the most inconsistent offense in the NFL with a variance of 13.7% (32nd) and was eventually benched for Johnny Manziel.
In the Browns' chapter of the 2015 Football Outsiders Almanac (every person who watches football should buy this book), Cian Fahey has the following to say:
Shanahan's scheme worked. It consistently allowed receivers to find the wide open space down the field. Yet, Hoyer's accuracy couldn't even make those plays. He repeatedly underthrew, overthrew, and just plain missed receivers on throws that every NFL passer should make.
We could just as easily substitute Shanahan with Bill O'Brien and Hoyer with Ryan Fitzpatrick, and the paragraph would read the same. After watching one league journeyman bounce passes to open receivers, get bailed out by DeAndre Hopkins and Andre Johnson due to horrific throws, and ping-pong footballs off lineman's heads, we are about to do the same thing all over again. So far the Texans' quarterback decisions have been like a build your own six pack, but instead of selecting a cornucopia of anything that tingles the tongue, Houston grabbed six Mickeys and called it a day.
The only arguments for Hoyer and the Houston offense are Bill O'Brien's ability to squeeze every drop of ability out of a quarterback and the Texans' skill players being better than what he had in Cleveland. Despite the subjective awfulness of Gritzpatrick, he did have the best season of his career last year and was an above-average player according to the numbers...
|2012||BUF||306||505||60.6%||3,400||24||16/21||6.1 (20th)||-7.6% (23rd)||120 (23rd)|
|2013||TEN||217||350||62%||2,454||14||12/13||6.4 (14th)||-3.6% (20th)||179 (21st)|
|2014||HOU||197||312||63.1%||2,483||17||8/13||7.2 (16th)||6.7% (12th)||383 (17th)|
...AND HE WAS STILL BENCHED.
What the numbers can't tell you are all the easy throws Fitzpatrick missed. The easy completions that ended up becoming drive-sputtering incompletions. The dropped interceptions. The ghastly throws made complete because of DeAndre Hopkins circus catches. The decisions to throw short rather than take a chance on the open man down field.
Brian Hoyer was in a similar situation as Fitzpatrick. He played in an offense developed for him to throw in only advantageous situations. He was supposed to bask in the glory of easy throws. Here we are again. Another middling quarterback who leaves plays on the field, can't make the offense run on his own and makes everyone ponder what if rather than enjoy what is. The Texans didn't move forward at the quarterback position this offseason or get better. They simply just went with another player who's shiny and bald rather than gritty and grizzled.
If this is gloomy, it's only going to get worse. Through the first five games of last season, he Cleveland Browns actually fielded a decent offense, and Brian Hoyer was a quarterback best described as adequate.
Cleveland Rush Offense, Games 1-5:
Brian Hoyer, Games 1-5:
(Ranks are a minimum of 50 passes)
Cleveland DVOA by Week, Games 1-5:
After this part of the schedule, Cleveland was 3-2 and starting to turn into Believeland. They had wins against New Orleans, Tennessee, and Pittsburgh. The games they lost to Pittsburgh and Baltimore were one possession games that they lost by a total of five points. With a run game rummaging play after play and Hoyer making easy throws, smart decisions, and taking chances down the field, things were coming together.
Then Alex Mack broke his leg and everything went to hell.
Cleveland Run Offense, Games 6-16:
Brian Hoyer, Games 6-16
(Ranks are a minimum of 175 throws)
Cleveland DVOA, By Game:
This isn't a case of arbitrary end points weaved together to create a false narrative. Mack's injury had a significant impact on the run game. The Browns dropped from 13th to last in the league in yards per carry and ran for only 271 more yards than they had in the five games with Mack. This in turn dismantled the opportunistic passing game that focused on deep passes to open receivers. Hoyer's TD:INT ratio went from 7:1 to 12:13, he completed passes 8% less often, and he threw the ball shorter. Additionally, the offense as a whole only posted one positive DVOA in games 6-16 after being above 10% in the first five.
When the run game became incompetent and the windows narrowed in the passing game, Brian Hoyer turned into one of the worst quarterbacks in the league. Hoyer is a quarterback covered in limitations. You can win with him, but not because of him.
With an above average run game, DeAndre Hopkins, the off chance that someone from the Nate Washington/Jaelen Strong/Cecil Shorts III bunch emerges as a decent number two receiver, and Bill O'Brien making the most out of the quarterback bargain bin, this could be an average offense on par with what we saw last season. But without Arian Foster on the field, this run offense could be one of the worst in the league unless Alfred Blue turned into a good football player this summer or Chris Polk is another example of why you don't need to use a high draft pick on a running back, let alone one at all. The chance of all of these what-ifs happening are slim. What's most likely is that this run game is going to be a fart salad without Foster, and Brian Hoyer will again be awful until he can lean on the ground game.
J.J. Watt and a Little Bit More This Time
Like last season, make sure to sit on the toilet or pee all over on the seat when the offense is on the field. The defense again is going to be something you mark on your calendar and can't miss. In 2014, the Texans had the sixth best defense in the league, according to DVOA.
|Rank||Team||Def DVOA||Pass Def||Run Def|
|1||SEA||-16.8%||-10.3% (3rd)||-25.1% (2nd)|
|2||BUF||-15.5%||-18.2% (1st)||-12% (12th)|
|3||DET||-13.9%||-3% (8th)||-31.4% (1st)|
|4||DEN||-13.2%||-7.2% (5th)||-23.6 (3rd)|
|5||SF||-10.1%||-7.6% (4th)||-13.5% (10th)|
|6||HOU||-6.2%||-5.3% (6th)||-7.4% (16th)|
The pass defense was one of the best in the league because of the nut-hanging cornerback combination of Kareem Jackson and Johnathan Joseph. After a dismal 2013 by Jackson due to horrific defensive pass interference calls that neutered his physical playing style, Kareem bounced back nicely, ranking 3rd in success rate in Football Outsiders' charting stats. Joseph played all sixteen games, and together these two were one of the best cornerback duos in the league. Houston also saw some surprising play in the slot by waiver wire finds and late draft picks in Darryl Morris, Andre Hal, and A.J. Bouye.
The Texans even improved their secondary this year by taking Kevin Johnson sixteenth overall. He's already looking like another classic Rick Smith first round pick who can mask the errors made in rounds two thru seven. When it comes to safety play, the Texans may become even better thanks to addition by subtraction. Without D.J. Swearinger failing to pick up receivers passed to him in zone coverage, the Texans should fix their issues giving up the deep pass. Last season, they allowed 50 passes over 20 yards, tied for 14th in the league.
The secondary will be even better this season, but when it comes to the pass rush, it looks to be more of the same--J.J. Watt and nothing else. That topic sentence leads us to the annual J.J. Watt worship session. For the third year in a row, Watt was not only the best player on the team, but the greatest player in the league. Last season, Watt posted the following numbers and accounted for nearly all of the team's pass rush.
Watt's 2014 season:
|Category||Total||Rank||+/- Over Second Place|
|Run Tackles For a Loss||17||1st||+3|
Watt's Contribution to the Texans; Pass Rush:
|Category||HOU Total||Watt's Contribution|
Watt's not human. He's a genetically modified freak the NFL cryogenically froze just in case of controversy. The NFL broke him out of the arctic room he shared with Ted Williams to bring light to the musty darkness created by covered-up concussions, CTE, domestic violence, different types of -gates, and Kraft productions. After thawing him out, the league penned a perfect "Dream Big. Work Hard" American dream narrative consisting of pizza deliveries, scout team terrorizing, a scholarship offer, a first round selection, Defensive Player of the Year awards, and backwards hat wearing post practices. So far, Watt has done exactly what the NFL has needed him to do. For a few hours every Sunday, the issues engulfing the league are forgotten as this great white Leviathan "plays the game the right way" and disrupts offenses like a stick in front of a roller-blader.
As said above, when it comes to the pass rush, it looks like it's going to be the same as the last few seasons--Watt and some leftovers. Whitney Mercilus continues to be average and bloats his box score with a couple of sacks he makes thanks to open pass lanes when he's the hammer on stunts. He still can't beat tackles in one-on-one matchups. John Simon is a replacement level player. Jared Crick has improved tremendously and is a good player now instead of an afterthought. All of these guys are known quantities. The real question facing the pass rush is the 2014 number one pick, Jadeveon Clowney. He is all set to play Week One and will be on a post Tommy John-esque pitch count after recovering from microfracture knee surgery.
Most are expecting him to be the sickle to Watt's hammer right away. These ten sack hellion aspirations are more idealistic than probable. Clowney's career so far is one play. A highlight that came in Week One against the Redskins where he bombarded off the snap, flew into the backfield, and was tossed around after a play-fake. That's it.
This play demonstrated Clowney's athletic ability and his football issues. He needs to learn how to read offensive linemen in the run game so he gets to the ball rather than chase after ghosts. He needs to learn a counter move to his bullrush and speed rush; something like a spin, or rip inside to catch an offensive lineman off guard when he oversets towards the edge.
Furthermore, in college, Clowney was bigger, faster, and stronger than everyone else on the field. In the NFL, this strength is mitigated by offensive linemen who are almost as quick, strong, and big as he is. The gap between Clowney and the field athletically is considerably smaller at this level of play. Last season was supposed to be the year of refinement so Clowney could make an impact in 2015, but because of the injury, this timetable has been bumped back a year.
This season we should only hope to see glimpses of skill and that athletic ability that made the league drool when Clowney was in college. Anything that shows he has come back from surgery 100% and proves Gosder Cherilus wrong. Fifteen sacks, ten sacks, five sacks...it shouldn't be expected. Any production will be an added bonus if the flashes are there for him to build on so he can become the dreaded monster he was destined to be.
All of this so far has only been about the pass defense even though the run defense had inferior production. Houston went to solve The Leaky Run Defense this summer by signing Vince Wilfork and drafting Benardrick McKinney. I believe the impact, if it comes, will come from McKinney, not Wilfork. Vince is 34 years old nd was in the center of a Patriots run defense that gave up 3.71 adjusted line yards on runs listed as middle/guard. This ranked 25th in the league. Wilfork is still good at this stage in his career, but he's not a revelation. Additionally, Ryan Pickett balled some last year as Houston struggled to find a jersey big enough to fit him. The difference between Jerrell Powe, the worst nose tackle I've ever seen, and Pickett will be noticeably smaller than the one between Pickett and Wilfork this season.
McKinney on the other hand has a chance to change things up. Since DeMeco Ryans, Houston has failed to have a good inside linebacker next to Brian Cushing. They've started Bradie James, Tim Dobbins, Xavier Adibi, Darryl Sharpton, Jeff Tarpinian, Mike Mohamed, Joe Mays, Barrett Ruud (no, I haven't forgot about you, Barrett) and I'm sure others I've blacked out of my memory with liquid Sharpie. Each one has ranged from unplayable to who the hell is that.
From the tape I've watched on McKinney, he looks to be a sure upgrade. He recognizes plays quickly, has the size to take on offensive linemen head on, the ability to maneuver around the trash, and he explodes into the ball carrier. Additionally, Cushing looked creaky last season. He missed tackles and couldn't cover running backs without getting embarrassed. I don't know if McKinney can cover, but I do think he has the ability to improve the run defense more than Wilfork. McKinney can change one of the more miserable traditions in Houston Texans history.
So far all of this #analysis has been subjective words. The biggest problem is rooted in cold, soulless numbers, and the Texans have no control over this. As noted earlier, Houston went from thirty-second to first in turnover differential, and even forced seven red zone turnovers, which tied for best in the league with Detroit. This season, Houston won't force turnovers at the unsustainable rate they had last season. As a result, the defense will suffer.
Yet with an improved secondary, thanks to Kevin Johnson, the loss of D.J. Swearinger, and the additions of Wilfork and McKinney to hopefully stop players like Rashad Jennings from rushing for 176 yards, this defense should be able to combat regression somewhat. A drop-off doesn't seem imminent. Houston will be at least a top ten defense with the potential to be a top five.
Bringing Down the Bull
At the moment, we are a day away from the start of the NFL season, and I still can't believe we are about to do this again. I can't believe I'm about to subject myself to another season of the same, EXACT thing. Again, Houston is going to be a talented but frustrating team because they still have yet to realize you need to have a quarterback to have a good football team. Without one, you're screwed.
The defense will dominate and keep Houston in games, and they are the only hope for a successful season. The only case for the playoffs is if the Texans can squeak out some one possession wins, take advantage of an easy schedule again, and Arian Foster being fully recovered by week three or four. Still, Foster is too important and too much of a question mark to put any faith in. The offense that was body hair tearing frustrating last season with Foster is about to turn excruciating without him. Instead of putting a crappy quarterback in a situation where he can be complementary, they will be putting a crappy quarterback in a situation where he has to make things happen. As a result, Houston will have trouble scoring thirteen points a game until Foster becomes completely healthy.
Whenever Arian starts gliding with the greatest of ease, things may change some, along with the quarterback situation, and maybe then Houston can string together some wins. But by that time it will be too late, and any thoughts of the playoffs will be exchanged for moral victories and a mid-round draft pick that will hopefully lead to a change at quarterback rather than just kicking the can down the sidewalk and hoping Prince Charming falls from the sky.
Like 2014, 2015 will be a failure. Houston misses the playoffs, and finishes...
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