In the future we will never have to watch an actual football game. We can watch the little circles and exes run around a digital grid, and see the play better than we can with our own eyes. Immediately after the game, there will be PFF grades, win probability added, route separation yards, and whatever else you could want, drilled into the side of your skull and poured directly in there. Then, directly afterwards, you can go on whatever time wasting online endeavor that is as misrepresentation of reality that there every was, to post the same numbers, have the same insight, and run around in the same circles. In the future, football will all be numbers.
We aren’t there yet. We are still over here. And over here, the best way to understand the game is to watch the games, shocking concept I know, and look at the numbers. It’s not one or the other. Each do different things. The numbers provide context to what happened. The video shows you why it happened. It’s the combination of both that provides the entire landscape. You need the rocks, the trees, and the sky.
What we have here isn’t the entire picture. It’s just all the numbers that best depicts the Texans’ 2018 season.
The 2017 Texans were a talented team shredded apart by injuries. J.J. Watt was lost for the season because of back surgery, or a broken leg, I don’t remember, I really don’t care, and it doesn’t matter. It was one of those things. Will Fuller V missed time. Deshaun Watson tore his ACL, Tom Savage started once again (people forget Bill O’Brien actually named Tom Savage the starter over Deshaun Watson), and the Texans no longer had the defense to make up for the offense like it had in 2016. The secondary was terrible, so was the run game, the Texans lost a lot of games.
Yet, despite the 4-12 record, Houston wasn’t a talentless husk that needed to rebuild, just like how it was after the 2013 season. The team couldn’t catch a break. They lost five less games than they did in 2016. Their one possession record was 1-5. Their turnover differential was -12. They won 1.7 less games than expected. They played the 11th toughest schedule. Now, the team wasn’t good, they finished 27th in DVOA, but they should have won more games, and the reason why they were abysmal was injury luck, not overall roster talent.
This season everything swung back to how it has been. Even a little bit better. After going 9-7 every year somehow, Bill O’Brien was able to get his team to 11 wins after starting 0-3. They won seven more games than the previous year. Their one possession record was 5-5. They were second in turnover differential at +13. They won 0.8 more wins than expected. They played the 29th toughest schedule, their average opponent had a DVOA of -3.5%. Unlike last year’s team, they played well, and finished 11th in DVOA at 7.1%.
I don’t want to bore you with something you already know about and go into what these numbers mean, and how they work. That would be like watching an underpants movie where a new chiseled jaw puts on the cape and the movie begins with another origin story. We get it. Spiderman gets bit by a spider. Superman is an alien. Batman’s parents died. My dad died when I was a young age too, but you don’t see me starting every conversation with it.
Yet, there are three pieces from this section of numbers to take a closer look at. The one possession record, the strength of schedule, and Deshaun Watson’s touchdown rate.
If you want to know why the Texans saw their record improve from 0-3 to 10-3 at one point, the first place to start is the team’s one possession record. They lost a Pyrite game to New England 27-20. The Patriots went up 24-6 and then hung out after that. They lost a hilarious game to the Tennessee Titans, where Mike Vrabel outled Bill O’Brien by scoring on a fake punt touchdown, a screen pass where Tyrann Mathieu missed a touchdown saving tackle (sorry I had to ), and used a blitz heavy defensive scheme to create open rushers and devour Watson. And despite J.J. Watt’s best efforts, they lost 27-22 to the New York Giants after Eli Manning led a late game winning drive by throwing it to wide open inside crossing receivers.
After this, Fortuna poured her buckets onto Houston and bathed by the men in her glowing light. During the ten game win streak Houston went 5-0 in one score games. They won because Frank Reich went for it on fourth and four, Dallas didn’t go for it on 4th and 1 in overtime, Johnathan Joseph pick sixed Nathan Peterman after Josh Allen smashed his elbow, Vance Joseph settled for a 51 yard field goal, and Jadeveon Clowney sacked Colt McCoy out of field goal range on the drive before the impossible 63 yard attempt.
Sure, there are other differences. The Texans finally figured out their offensive tackles and started to chip on the outside to help them out. Deshaun Watson was used as a runner and occasionally was allowed to throw the ball downfield. Both J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney awoke from their sweltering end of summer slumber. And better young players started playing over crusty old men. These are the football reasons why. But really, the reason why, is that the Texans had better luck in close games. With a different flap of wings Houston goes 2-3 in these games instead and the Texans fall right back to the usual 9-7.
The strength of schedule was fortunate for Houston too. The Jaguars all-time great pass defense regressed and the offense ate itself. The Titans became daytime network television boring and were never good at anything. The Colts bounced back. But with games against the two worst divisions in football, the AFC East and NFC East, and a fourth place schedule that handed them the immediate post-Sashi Browns and poorly coached Broncos, the jump by Indy didn’t dramatically change things.
It wasn’t just that the Texans schedule was easy, it was, it was that it matched up directly with their team strength and masked their weakness. They played teams that had to run the football, not because they were good at it (aside from Denver), but because they had no other options. These mongrels couldn’t do things like attack Shareece Wright. They were instead stuck running directly at J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, D.J. Reader, Benardrick McKinney, Zach Cunningham, and the fine tackling secondary.
Houston beat the following quarterbacks: week four crusty Andrew Luck, Dak Prescott (fine), Josh Allen (sublime) until Nathan Peterman (worst quarterback of all-time) took over, Blake Bortles (lost all ability to throw the ball downfield and had zero run game), [NAME REDACTED] (REDACTED), Case Keenum (regressed, bad pass blocking offensive line), Alex Smith (leg amputated) and Colt McCoy (bad), Marcus Mariota (forever intriguing, never very good), Baker Mayfield (didn’t throw the ball downfield until the second half), Sam Darnold (rough, but played well), and Blake Bortles again (was previously benched for Cody Kessler).
The offenses they beat had an average passing offense DVOA of -6.41%. This offense would finish 28th in pass offense DVOA. The Texans beat eight of the nine worst passing offenses in football. The only one they didn’t get a chance to scoff at was the Arizona Cardinals last ranked passing offense. In losses, the average passing offense they faced had a pass offense DVOA of 17.4%. An overall ranking of 14th. They gave up 25.1 points in losses compared to the 16.9 points they allowed in wins. A nine point difference that can be mainly attributed to the types of teams they played.
I don’t think there is much to gain by looking at future schedules this early in the season, especially when you pull win percentage numbers from the previous year. Football is a game characterized by small sample sizes. Win-loss records can be misleading, and even though they are the only thing that metters, they sometimes aren’t the best indicator of performance. But next season the South should be better with the Colts’ cap space, the Jaguars quarterback change, and the Titans will still be tap water. They have to play the NFC South, AFC West, New England, Kansas City, and Baltimore. So they play the two best divisions around, the Super Bowl champs, an all-time great passing offense, and consistently great defense. Yikes. The Texans are going to need to use every bit of their draft capital, and cap space to improve the roster.
The last thing is Watson’s touchdown rate. In 2017 he had an impossible to replicate 9.3% touchdown rate. Read about it here. I was worried about this figure. I was worried Watson’s 2017 season was over inflated by the inability to do something that was never going to happen again. It was going to drop. I said it was going to drop. It fell all the way down to 5.1%. And you know what? It really doesn’t matter. Watson didn’t throw touchdowns all the time, but proved every bit that he’s a supreme talent, and there isn’t any need to worry about him moving into the future. Sure he can do a better job getting rid of the ball quicker, limiting those mistakes that aren’t devoured as often as they should be, and sliding when he should. It’s all young man problems. He’ll be fine going forward. For the first time since 2012, kind of, the Texans don’t have any issues at the quarterback position moving forward.
The biggest problem with the Texans’ offense was the mastermind behind the Texans’ offense, the head coach, Bill O’Brien himself. Now, I get why O’Brien did what he did after the Buffalo game. The Texans couldn’t pick up blitzes and they struggled at pass protecting, at the tackle positions especially. But maybe you shouldn’t shift Juli’en Davenport from left to right and back to left when he’s always been a left tackle, and put a rookie who didn’t even have a training camp at left tackle, and maybe it shouldn’t take seven weeks to start chipping. After being unable to ride an airplane, with lungs the color of plumbs, O’Brien went hyper 2014-2016 conservative to protect Watson.
This made sense. It was the right move to make. Especially with the schedule breaking and not needing Watson to be spectacular. But he was healthy later on in the season and the offense stayed about the same until Houston went down or played a tie game. According to Football Outsiders’ Premium DVOA database, the Texans had a DVOA that ranked 20th when slightly leading, 25th when winning big, and 17th when the game was tied or when slightly behind. When the team trailed big they were at their best, and ranked 10th in offensive DVOA.
Too often Houston was comfortable on running on first down and not doing much of anything else. The Texans ran the ball 285 times on first time and threw the ball only 182 times. On first down the Texans averaged 3.97 yards per carry (29th), and 6.7 yards per pass (19th). Overall they averaged 5.06 yards per play (28th). On second down they threw the ball to take themselves out of a hole. They threw 212 passes to 140 runs. They averaged 6.5 yards per play, the second highest figure in the league. They then converted on third down 37.3% of the time (21st).
Watson is too good, and the run game was too bad for the offense to put themselves into a hole like this on every drive. Last season Watson completed 68.3% of his passes (8th), averaged 8.2 yards an attempt (8th), and finished 11th and 10th in DVOA and DYAR. It was a fantastic sophomore season. Even more so considering the offensive line. Watson was sacked 62 times, the most in football, which comes out to 10.9%, the 3rd highest mark in the league. The Texans also finished last in adjusted sack rate at 11.5% and last in pressure rate at 38.7%.
As much as I imagine myself as a wolf and Davenport and Rankin as Romulus and Remis, the Texans’ pass protection was terrible. It was a tragedy. It wasn’t devoid completely of talent. The unit was mismanaged, and played better in the second half of the season. These numbers also include the poor pass blocking from the running backs and tight ends, the continuous blitz pick up issues, and Watson’s own faults. More on all these sacks in the near future.
There were two things I wanted to see more of from the passing offense. The first is play action. Houston ran play action on only 23% of their plays. This puts them at 15th. They averaged 8.5 yards a play, ninth, and 7.0 yards a play on other plays. Play action always averages more than non play action plays. It screws with a pass rusher’s timing. It creates open throws. And when you have a mobile quarterback like Watson, it creates easy scrambles for first down.
The second is the downfield passing. Watson attempted 83 passes classified as deep (T-17th). He completed 42 of these throws, averaged 13.2 yards an attempt, and threw 8 touchdowns to 6 interceptions. Most of these throws went to DeAndre Hopkins He caught 20 of 32 of Watson’s attempts for 561 yards and 4 touchdowns. Aside from Hopkins, and Fuller’s brief transit across the sun, no one else was utilized downfield often enough.
The run game struggled once again this year. There was a brief period when Houston was blocking the second level in the outside zone game and having success against Cleveland and Tennessee on the ground. It was short lived though. For the majority of the season the rushing attack was crappy. They averaged 4.3 yards an attempt (19th) and were 26th in DVOA at -13.0%. It wasn’t the type of rush offense you want running the ball 285 times on first down.
They really struggled at picking up yards at the second level. The Texans were 26th in adjusted line yards at 1.09 at this level of the defense, and the team finished 28th in adjusted line yards. I don’t love the stat, but it’s a fine way to separate running backs from run blocking. That future when we don’t have to watch football anymore will revolutionize how these things are quantified. Oh well. The offensive line has been terrible at blocking the second level since 2015, and Houston doesn’t break tackles.
The team finished last in percentage of plays with a broken tackle at 7.5% according to Football Outsiders’ Premium Charting data. They had just 72 plays where a tackle was broken. Lamar Miller had a broken tackle rate of 11.9%, and Alfred Blue had a broken tackle rate of 5.9%. Miller had 210 carries to Blue’s 150. Behind the same offensive line, in the same offense, Miller averaged 1.3 more yards a carry, and 0.89 more yards when you remove that 97 yard Monday Night Football run. Once again, Blue shouldn’t receive any carries, especially not 150 of them.
Watson was the best tackle breaker Houston had. He broke 13 tackles on runs, and avoided 10 sacks with backfield maneuvering. Will Fuller V also managed to snap some legs, that Miami run was nasty, and had a broken tackle rate of 12.5%. Oh, man, if he could ever stay healthy for a year. Hopefully no more Blue, and a healthy Fuller V and Keke Coutee wil skyrocket this troubling and what feels like consistent problem. The Texans don’t create additional yards. They just soak up what’s available to them.
I got one final thing. Kendall Lamm has evolved from unplayable, and impossibly bad to slightly incompetent. It’s the Blaine Gabbart career arc. It’s amazing how much he’s improved from week one 2017 to week ten 2018, but he’s still a detriment. He’s at his worst in the run game. I saw Jabaal Sheard, Leonard Williams and others, move the line of scrimmage two yards back on him too many times. Last season the Texans had 57 carries classified as right tackle runs, the fourth most in football. They averaged 1.98 yards per play (32nd), and had 2.27 adjusted line yards (also 32nd). Yes, the Texans did something the fourth most times in the league they were also the worst at doing.
Let’s say it one more time. The Texans should have franchise ta—, whoops wrong season. Let’s start over again. Don’t run the ball at the Houston Texans. The 2018 Houston Texans were led by their run defense. It was the best part of the team. They were able to overtake Chicago and finish first in run defense DVOA at -30.1% and beat out the best defense by 3.8%. They also finished first in yards per carry at 3.4 yards an attempt. Do something, do anything else, but don’t run the ball at the Houston Texans.
The bulk of the tackles went to McKinney and Cunningham. They had 74 and 63 run tackles each, and accounted for 35.58% of the team’s run plays. Watt somehow was third on the team with 42 run tackles, with safeties Kareem Jackson and Justin Reid behind him with 40 and 36. Houston finished second and first in adjusted line yards at the second level and open field.
Watt and Clowney were the best part of the defense. Watt had 61 tackles, 18 tackles for a loss, 45 pressures, 16 sacks, 25 quarterback hits, and 7! forced fumbles. Clowney had 47 tackles, 16 tackles for a loss, 35.5 pressures, 9 sacks, and 21 quarterback hits. They accounted for 42.5% of the team’s tackles for a loss, 46.9% of their pressures, 58.1% of their sacks, and 57.5 of their sacks. Houston finished 21st in pressure rate at 29.6% and 13th in adjusted sack rate at 7.4%. Somehow, Whitney Mercilus was credited with 30.5 pressures, but I don’t remember any of them. Watt and Clowney were the entire source of the team’s pass rush. They were most of the team’s disruption. Without them this defense is nothing. All those years of waiting for both to be healthy has finally paid off.
This is pretty much all that matters. The run defense was spectacular. Watt and Clowney were the entirety of the pass rush. They couldn’t cover at all when teams actually attacked them. Johnathan Joseph was the team’s best cornerback and was fortunate to not have to play very many true deep threats. He can still sit and react, but can beat by anyone who can run really fast really far. The rest was gross. Joseph finished 43rd in success rate, Jackson finished 92nd, Aaron Colvin finished 95th, Shareece Wright finished 127th, Kevin Johnson 185th, DeAnte Burton 192nd, and Johnson Bademosi 198th. I don’t care Johnson faced only 4 targets, and Burton 5, I like the way it all looks on digital paper.
Hey! Look. It finally wasn’t the worst in football. They blasted off from 26th to 5th in special teams DVOA. There were so many things to love here. Ka’imi Fairbairn didn’t miss a kick less than 40 yards, and went 37/42 overall and missed only 2 extra points. Houston was also first in expected points added on kick offs at 7.8. Hell yeah.
They didn’t haven any negative expected points this year. Every part of the special teams was a positive. The biggest change was the punting game. Who knew that Shane Lechler was terrible? Who knew there was something to more to punting than just kicking the ball as far as you could? Since 2014 the Texans have finished around the bottom of every punting metric except yards per punt, and the one constant was Lechler. Players and special teams coaches came and went, and yet he remained. In 2017 the Texans allowed 44 punt returns, and allowed 12.3 yards per punt return. Both were the highest marks in football. Last season a Trevor Daniel led punting unit allowed 32 punt returns (10th), but the team only allowed 7.5 yards per punt return (23rd). Their expected points added on punts popped off from -10.7 to 4.5. I’ve waited years to type this.
Oh, and the average Texans’ drive started at their own 31.3 yard line, this was the 2nd best staring position in football. This is one of my favorite figure stuff to measure healthy special teams. The push and pull of it.