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Incompletions: We Learned Some Stuff In 2015

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A few members of the masthead join forces to deliver the knowledge that entered their skulls during the Houston Texans' 2015 season.

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Tim:

I learned that, to his credit, Bill O'Brien doesn't let salary or the possibility of embarrassment dictate who plays for the Houston Texans.  Rahim Moore and Garrett Graham, the two highest-paid players at their respective positions, were benched and healthy scratches for much of the 2015 season.  They weren't getting it done, so O'Brien inserted other players into the lineup.  He didn't let external nonsense factor into doing what was best for the team.  That's an admirable character trait.

That said, O'Brien did a horrendous job handling the quarterback position.  That's not to say he didn't squeeze every last drop of competency out of the guys on his roster.  I believe Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett, T.J. Yates, and Brandon Weeden reached the peak of their respective abilities under O'Brien (though with Mallett, said peak came in 2014 versus the Browns).  With what he's done with the QBs on the roster over his two years in Houston, O'Brien has shown he is capable of getting the absolute best out of his signal-callers.

And yet, to paraphrase James Ingram, Brian Hoyer's best wasn't good enough, and the fact that the Texans had to count on Hoyer's best being good enough to win (while simultaneously Hoyer's well documented shortcomings wouldn't torpedo their efforts) is an indictment of O'Brien. Acquiring a long-term solution at QB is a heady task. The VAST majority of the guys you bring in are going to fall short. That's precisely why teams should keep taking shots instead of relying on veterans with middling or wholly lacking records of success.  Given the natural shortage of quality quarterbacks, that means devoting premium resources toward the search.  It doesn't mean drafting a developmental quarterback in the fourth round or looking to recreate the magic the Raiders stumbled upon with Rich Gannon fifteen years ago.

The good news is that I believe Bill O'Brien knows this now.  I believe he learns from his mistakes.  After trying to MacGyver his way through the position for the last two years, I believe OB is going to do everything in his power in the 2016 NFL Draft to find a sustainable answer to this quarterback quandary.  Whether he'll actually succeed is anyone's guess, but I have a feeling it won't be for lack of trying from this point forward.  That's progress.

Brett Kollmann:

I learned that no matter how good DeAndre Hopkins, Bill O'Brien, and this defense are at their respective jobs, this team does not stand a chance in hell at achieving relevance until they start caring about the quarterback position. I thought they might be able to pull it off towards the end of the regular season, but that was a fool's hope from the beginning. Ryan Mallett was a false savior, Tom Savage has never stayed healthy, and Brian Hoyer just flat out sucks. I obviously prefer that the team take Christian Hackenberg in first round of the draft later this spring, but I'll accept anyone at this point. I don't care which quarterback is selected; I just want at least some high priority investment into the position for once.

Oh, and I also learned that Mike Vrabel is a phenomenal position coach who I fully expect to be running his own team within the next five to six years, if not sooner.

kdentify:

I learned that we need to draft better, manage the salary cap better, coach better, teach better, and protect our guys from themselves better.

No team is going to have 25 All-Pros. That's unrealistic and it's unreasonable to expect that all 25 starting players on any team will be at that level. However, I question how many of the Texans' starters would start on other teams that run our same scheme, and how many men on our roster would even make other teams' final 53. I know nobody in our quarterback room would. That's kind of depressing, because it's hard to get where we want to get without improving throughout the roster. The roster can improved in three ways--drafting better prospects, managing the cap so that we can extend or sign quality players, and finding those diamonds in the rough through undrafted free agency that just need some time on the practice squad before they're ready to play.

I was reading last week about how the new CBA is designed to further protect players' bodies through limiting the number of practices they have to endure.  I have also read in the past that part of the reason we see such substandard play from those players that are rough around the edges is that there's not enough time to teach them the position anymore. They don't get that teaching in high school or college, and the pros don't have enough hours in the week for position coaches to help those guys at the bottom of the roster out like they used to. While limiting the amount of times a guy gets hit should help him not break down as quickly, there are some players who need that time on the field with their coaches so they can truly learn how to play that position. How many guys are being lost in the shuffle of the NFL because they haven't had the coaching rather than because they just can't hack it?

I have known for a while now that we're not going anywhere without an answer at quarterback. Mr. McNair has made it clear that he expects that position to be addressed, somehow, this offseason. So I guess I learned that the clock starts now for OB. If his guy is Tom Savage, Tom is going to have to finally play in a regular season game and not get killed by a sh.t OL. If his guy is someone else, that guy is going to have to show that he's worth the investment and the time and effort. Next season, three seasons in to the OB Experience/Experiment, we'll finally see what OB's answer is under center.

I also learned that we might need to employ some offseason rugby player to teach form tackling, because, erm, we tend to lose our fundamentals under pressure, which is so not okay. And OB's dreams of two TE sets remain a dream, because we have a black hole at that position right now.

bfMFd:

What I learned about da foosballs this year: offensive line play is really super important.  Now, that's not to say I didn't already know this, but it was truly seared into my brain this year.

First, let's take a quick step back.  When listening to the Combine commentators and reading various columns and comments, there seems to be a feeling the NFL has moved away from being a passing league back to a running and defensive league.  No.  No no no no no no no.  No.  The Broncos beat the New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers because the latter two teams had giant sieves as offensive lines.  They couldn't keep Tom Brady and Cam Newton clean to get passes downfield.

Look at the first few games from your Houston Texans this year.  Because of injuries, we were shuffling the offensive line like a drunk monkey with a deck of cards and a handful of feces.  There was little rhyme or reason to our strategy.  Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett really struggled in large part because they had no time.  To worsen the issue, our run game flat out sucked.

But people got healthy!  The offensive line even made Alfred Blue look occasionally competent!  The team played much better offensively - not because of Axel Hoyer (LOL!  Remember those days!) - but due to the line being healthy and playing together consistently.

If the Patriots or Panthers had our offensive line, they would've won the Super Bowl, not the Broncos.

Even in a passing league, football is still won or lost in the trenches.  The 2015 season, highlighted by the playoffs and the Texans, further stressed that point for me.

Diehard Chris:

Although I was not happy with the signing of Brian Hoyer, I do respect Bill O'Brien's apparent insistence that he'd rather go with a bridge quarterback over a high draft pick that he just plain doesn't think is the answer.  My main criticism was that he already had a (cheaper) guy who fit that bill in Ryan Fitzpatrick, but I've complained about that quite enough.

I've heard for years that aside from talent, chemistry is the number one factor for good offensive line play, and I think O'Brien got way too cute with his shuffling in 2015.  That said, I think you can blame some of that shuffling squarely on the talent evaluation (both his and Rick Smith's), which forced O'Brien to decide between talent and familiarity on the line.  Toward the end of the season, the line seemed to step up its play, and it's no coincidence (I think) that this was due to the fact they were able to cut down on the shuffling late-season.

Another hard lesson to learn this year is that, like Arian Foster, J.J. Watt sure has a lot of tread off the tires already.  When there's no Watt, there's not much of anything going on with that defensive line until Clowney can consistently stay in the mix.  All we can do is hope Watt has a couple more years in him as dominant as the last few before he starts to naturally tail off a bit.

Lastly, there seems to be a growing distinction between O'Brien's quarterback coaching ability and his ability to evaluate talent.  Looking back, getting what he got out of Hoyer and Fitzpatrick is fairly remarkable, but that doesn't trump his inability (so far) to bring in a guy who actually is the answer, as I can only presume he thought was the case with Ryan Mallett.  Admittedly, that may be a bit harsh.

O'Brien's quarterback decision this offseason will no doubt define his career in Houston, and we'll see if he'll continue to do what he thinks is best versus what anyone else (including Bob McNair) thinks is best - and if he can turn the corner on quarterback evaluation as well.

Matt Weston:

The first semester of college is silly. Everyone starts off in gilded bubbles awaiting to devour knowledge. Freshmen will read every chapter, hang onto a professor's every word, scour for extra readings, and embrace the culture of learning. Then a few weeks go by. Those adolescent minds starving for information begin to skip class to drink four Four Lokos, throw alley-oops at the rec center, and try to just get by in school while savoring every second of free time they have.

When this point came to me, I was thinking about joining in. My grades were good. I thought I could get around without studying. Then I had lunch with my grandfather. During this talk over french fries and cheap hamburgers, I was told two things.  First, "You are there to get an education. Not to major in sex, drugs, and rock and roll", which my 18 year old self wished was something you could just sign up for. Second, in response to my statement that I really liked my sociology class, "Well, Math-EW, one day you are going to have to get a job and work for a living."

As a result of the words that came out of his droopy mouth, I decided to major in business so I could get a job, I guess. Then once I took a variety of classes, I directed the funnel of my education into economics because management is boring, marketing is sales, computer information systems is for nerds, and accounting seemed miserable at twenty years old.  Economics is the big picture and why of the business curriculum.

Now, I learned a lot of knowledge during my time there, most of which I forgot. Like which direction a Labor Supply Curve shifts when prices go up. Or how to graph a Normal Distribution. Or how monetary policy effects the unemployment rate. But a few core principles of my basic economic training has stuck, and the one that came back into my life this NFL season was scarcity.

Scarcity means that we operate in a world of unlimited human wants, but with limited resources. In the NFL, this is cap space and draft capital. These are the restrictions that create the bounds teams must operate within.

This all started when I wrote about the Carolina Panthers. Dave Gettleman had a team filled with dead money and was forced to try and contend and rebuild at the same time. He ignored the secondary because their defense is based on its front seven. Carolina's linebackers can scatter across the middle of the field, which gives their secondary less field to cover. The defensive line creates pressure with just its front four, and this keeps Carolina's linebackers scampering. Their scheme diminished the value of their secondary. This is why they were able to get away with touch of gray Roman Harper playing free safety.

On offense, they were able to roll with undrafted free agents, mid-round picks, and castoffs (aside from Ryan Khalil) on their offensive line because Cam Newton is the best quarterback in the league at breaking tackles, dealing with pressure, and rushing. Because of his skill-set, they don't need to invest a ton of their resources into the line unless they are forced to play the Denver Broncos every week.

Seattle is similar. No player in the NFL broke as many tackles as Marshawn Lynch did from 2011 to 2014. Seattle could afford to miss blocks up front because Lynch could trample through arm tackles and make defenders look like someone just pressed the pause button. At quarterback, Russell Wilson broke more tackles than any quarterback during this same time period except for Cam Newton. Additionally, Wilson's a slippery otter when defenders have the chance to sack him.  He's incredible at escaping pressure and throwing on the run.

By not spending money on their offensive line, the Seahawks could still win games and have the resources to keep the most valuable players on their defense together. One of the reasons why they could turn cheap rookie contracts into long-term extensions for Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman, Bobby Wagner, and Kam Chancellor is because the only offensive lineman they had to pay was Russell Okung--one of the last dinosaurs residing the earth with a rookie contract from the old CBA.

Tom Brady's stayed upright behind 40,000,000,000,000 different offensive line combinations because his receivers could get open quickly in the short part of the field. Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns' skill-sets masked Blake Bortles' accuracy issues. The Cowboys' offensive line controlled the ground, ate up the clock, and kept their shoddy defense off the field in 2014. Arizona used six athletic defensive backs in a variety of different blitz schemes to create pressure. Andy Reid surrounded Alex Smith with quick passes, screens, and electric skill players who make things happen in space in order to make up for Smith's inability to throw deep. These are all examples of teams utilizing a combination of their resources to make up for the deficiencies.

Smart teams understand what they're good at and build around it. They know not every position can be perfect. They are aware of how their core competency affects the rest of the team and where they can get by without spending money. The best teams are the ones that manage their limited resources the most efficiently and actually paid attention in Introduction to Microeconomics while everyone else was getting stoned and finding out which dining hall had the best desserts and that the Shell just off I-35 doesn't ID.

Anyways, that's what some of us learned in 2015. What about you BRB?