Top tier defense? Check. Explosive offense? Check again. "Special" teams? Well, maybe not.
Over the last several years, the Texans' special teams has been a lot like the Dallas Cowboys – no matter the coach, players, schemes, opportunities, motivation or anything else, they always seem to fall flat when the chance to shine presents itself.
In that time span, the Texans have had a future Hall of Fame punter, a return man who scored in the Super Bowl (for the team he joined after Houston cut him, naturally), multiple blocking schemes, and three different coordinators (counting the newest head honcho). Yet every year, the product on the field has been met with a resounding, "Meh".
The folks at Football Outsiders ran a graphic displaying the overall effectiveness of each franchise’s special teams unit last season, based on how many points they contributed to the overall success of their team in each regular season game.
Houston ranked dead last.
And 28th the year before...
Based on Football Outsiders' algorithm, the Texans special teamers actually cost the team 5.7 points per game.
While there weren’t any games last year decided by 5.7 points or less, the x-factor in this exercise comes down to momentum and motivation. Very few things fire up an offense like a huge return game. A defense gets a huge emotional lift from blocked punts, field goals, and special teams takeaways. All that momentum and emotion often results in more big plays from the other units while deflating the emotional and mental firepower of the opponent.
This year, things seem to be trending differently. There’s a lot of buzz about putting the "special" back in special teams. There's a new coach in Larry Izzo (described as the Mike Vrabel of special teams coaches), a dynamic crop of potential return men, and a new, young kicker who seems to have a cannon attached to his foot.
But, as the saying goes, "Everyone’s a champion in the offseason."
The Texans brought in Ka’imi Fairbairn to challenge incumbent Nick Novak in the kicking department, and reports from camp having him nailing 55 yarders with ease. Knowing he can do that, touchbacks become more common, long field goals are back on the table, and the kicking team is no longer putting the offense or defense behind the eight ball.
The other facet of the kicking game, Hall of Famer Shane Lechler, returns to continue booming his way past Ray Guy on the all-time punting leaders list. If Coach Izzo’s blocking and coverage schemes live up to the hype, this could be a special year for Lechler.
However, the one area that usually excites fans the most is the return game.
So far, the Texans have a healthy list of candidates. Healthier than they possibly ever have.
Braxton Miller. Tyler Ervin. Wendall Williams. Will Fuller.
Braxton Miller Fielding Punts
In most collegiate conferences, that’s the core of a championship track team.
The thing with this group that’s so special is not just the elite speed and dexterity, but the elite football speed. These guys aren’t just sprinters in pads. They’re bona fide greased gridiron lightning. With the right blockers, schemes, and one tiny mistake from the opposing unit, any one of these guys can take it to the house with ease.
Add in Bill O’Brien’s newfound dedication to putting the special back into special teams, and fans really do have reason for excitement.
In a recent Q&A session with the press, the Texans' head coach mentioned J.J. Watt, Kareem Jackson, Johnathan Joseph and some of the other stars as possible contributors to the kicking and return games.
"We’ve got to be better on special teams," said O’Brien. "If that means some starters need to be on special teams, they’re willing to do it…"
So, while we aren’t assured that this will be the season where Houston’s special teams play becomes epic, we can get excited with the knowledge that OB and Rick Smith are determined to make them special.