On Friday afternoon, the Texans announced that Andre Hal was suffering from Hodgkins Lymphoma, a cancer that starts in the lymphatic system—a system I just learned about. The lymphatic system marks and devours germs and viruses. It’s not exactly the same sort of cancer that stalled David Quessenberry’s newborn NFL career; DQ had non-Hodkin’s lymphoma. As you’d expect, Hal will be out indefinitely.
At 26 years old and in the prime of his life, or any age really, Hal shouldn’t be stuck dealing with a pain in his belly, exhaustion, chest pain, fevers, and swollen lymph nodes. He shouldn’t be living in hospital rooms, getting zapped with radiation and getting shot up with stem cells. He should be out there running around under a sweltering orb.
Cancer sucks. No matter what type it is, who it happens to, or how well the recovery goes, it sucks. From a purely being alive perspective, this is a damn shame. From a far less important, I want Hal to play well and the Texans to win football games and be entertaining while winning football games perspective, it’s a stomach-churning bummer.
After being a seventh round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Hal carved out a starting role, moved from the slot corner position to starting at free safety, and did it all well enough to get a contract extension. Hal has been the only competent safety Houston has had during the Bill O’Brien era. D.J. Swearinger, Rahim Moore; Corey Moore, Kendrick Lewis, Marcus Gilchrist, AFC Defensive Player of the Month Quintin Demps...all of them have been inadequate options.
To play free safety in the NFL competently, you have to do three things: cover the middle of the field, be able to range from the center of the field to the short middle or sideline, and tackle in the open field to keep 30 yard gains from becoming touchdowns. Hal has been able to complete two of these aspects well. He’s a quick player who can cover the center of the field on his own, and he can help out linebackers who become crisp and blackened by opposing tight ends. He can also roam from the center of the field to the sideline to defend high-arching, sky-grazing, fade routes, and he can sit and jump on routes in the short center of the field.
Hal’s biggest limitation is his size. At 5’10” and less than 200 pounds, tackling is a lot of leg grabbing and holding on. Sometimes it works. Other times, Hal looks like a squabbling child who isn’t getting his way in the big box retail store. The Raiders game in Mexico City from 2016 comes to mind. Watching him blitz in Mike Vrabel’s ‘don’t let the players do what they do best’ defense is another. Too often, Hal has allowed extra yards to accumulate past him, and too often has he missed tackles he needed to make.
However, this season, with two new safeties, Tyrann Mathieu and Justin Reid, Hal wouldn’t have been stuck mashing around in all that riff-raff as often. With quality strong safety play blitzing, killing screens, making tackles before they get to Hal, and covering the slot occasionally, Hal could do what he does best—fly around the center of the field and attack the ball as it travels to receivers. Add Romeo Crennel master maneuvering to that, and this could have been the year Hal jumped from competent but flawed player to a focal point of Houston’s secondary.
Entering the 2018 season, Hal was one of the players I was really excited to watch. The potential for growth was there. Defended passes turn a negative into a positive for the defense. Interceptions are fun, game-changing plays. The possibility of Hal nabbing a lot of both was possible.
Instead, being alive is a sad thing sometimes. Andre Hal is sick, and the 2018 season probably won’t happen for him. It’s terrible he lost one year. He shouldn’t have to lose another. Hopefully his body is working normally as soon as possible, and he can maximize his talents in a slightly different defense in 2019. Hal playing in, and us watching him in this defense, is something that we should have seen happen this year. Hopefully it will happen in 2019.