Based on offensive yards per game, the 2019 Houston Texans ranked 13th in the NFL with an average of 362.0 yards per outing. Based on points per game, Houston landed 14th in the league, with 23.6. In rushing yards, the Texans were 9th with 125.6 per game. They landed 15th in passing with 236.4 yards per game.
Depending on how you prefer to rank offenses, Houston was top ten or middle of the pack. Their inability to score at will seemed far more of a playcalling/game plan concern than a problem with talent and execution, although Laremy Tunsil’s highest amount of false starts in the league certainly decreased total yards per game, as false starts are often drive killers. Averaging their positions together gets us a an offense ranked 12.75, so we’ll round it up for the sake of positivity and call it a Top 12 effort.
In order to take the next step, the Texans need to improve the offense, particularly the play calling and scheme. What have they done? Well, nothing to change the scheme, still preferring to run the overly complex, highly ambiguous Erhardt-Perkins offensive system that doesn’t rely on a core of plays perfected through repetition, instead endeavoring to adapt the game plan each week to what the opponent does, or does not, do well.
Make no mistake, this is next level offensive game planning, but only if your leadership and staff live on the next level. Play calling duties were allegedly handed over to offensive coordinator Tim Kelly. However, Kelly will still have to call plays within the scheme head coach Bill O’Brien brought with him from New England.
In theory, the run game could stand pat; a top ten rushing attack should work well enough in a pass-happy league to control the clock, wear out a defense, and set up opposing defenses for a trigger-happy quarterback to make quick strikes down the field in the passing game. However, Houston chose not to retain last year’s most productive tailback, Carlos Hyde—a player who has arguably been the best fit in O’Brien’s ‘spam the A-gap’ running scheme.
While incoming running back David Johnson (acquired in the universally panned trade that sent quarterback Deshaun Watson’s best receiving target, DeAndre Hopkins, to the Arizona Cardinals) is potentially an upgrade to Carlos Hyde, so was Lamar Miller, who had about the same level of success Hyde had in Houston. At best, we can realistically expect Johnson to generate 1,000 of the Texans’ offensive yards in 2020.
Houston’s passing game definitely regressed with the ill-advised loss of Hopkins. At this juncture, it’s safe to say Kenny Stills, the other player brought over from Miami in the Tunsil trade of 2019, will have to be ‘the guy’ for Watson in 2020. While this is heralded as the deepest wide receiver draft class in recent memory, unless Houston miraculously hits on the second coming of Randy Moss, rookie wide receivers seldom make a big splash their first year, especially if expected to take the WR1 role in a needlessly complex offense.
The alleged rookie WR1 would need time to learn the route trees, playbook vernacular, tendencies of the rest of the offense, build chemistry with Deshaun Watson and the other receivers and tight ends, stay on his toes for game plan changes on Friday afternoon, and mentally toughen up for working with a coach who doesn’t have a play ready for 4th and 1. That’s a lot to put on a rookie stepping into the NFL for the first time. Not to mention going against NFL defenses with NFL level speed. Even if Houston can land one of the top five wide receiver prospects, that’s a tall order for a young player in Year One.
For the sake of mocking the Texans’ 2020 offensive output, let’s be generous and say the rookie receiver amasses 75% of what D-Hop produced in 2020. That rounds up to 875 yards, or a net loss of 292 yards. That would drop the Texans’ passing game into 23rd place.
Thankfully, that only sinks the Texans to an average offensive rank of 14.75, so 14th using the same lens of hope we employed above. But that 14 relies heavily on the 9th ranked rushing attack standing pat or improving.
More importantly for the sake of this discussion, the modern NFL is a passing league, and Houston’s done essentially nothing at all to improve 28th ranked passing defense. They re-signed Bradley Roby, which was a plus, but also re-signed Vernon Hargreaves III, which is a minus. They still have the chance to sign Eric Reid to help out in the safety corps if paired with his brother, Justin Reid. Odds are since Eric is more a ‘speak my mind’ than ‘toe the line’ sort of player, Bill O’Brien the general manager has no interest in saddling Bill O’Brien the coach with a player like that.
What does this mean? It means the AFC divisional round playoff game where Houston was decimated by the Kansas City Chiefs likely becomes a microcosm of Houston’s 2020 season. They can’t stop the pass. They can’t rely on the one strength of the offense—the run game—since the defense is giving away passing yards and touchdowns for anyone with a living, breathing quarterback. They can’t keep up in games where the defense is 19th ranked, surrendering 24.1 points per game when the offense is only scoring 23.6.
And that 23.6 points per game declines without the production of DeAndre Hopkins.
However, just as he did last season, Bill O’Brien loves to make deals post-draft. Maybe he can pull off a trade for Jalen Ramsey, Julio Jones, A.J. Green or Patrick Peterson (the guy he should have landed if he was going to send D-Hop to the desert).
While the Texans are never out of it with Deshaun Watson under center, and the offensive line should no longer be offensive this season, O’Brien still has work to do if he wants to field an offense better than the 2019 unit. This is the first time since 2002 that the Texans haven’t had a future Hall of Fameer at wide receiver, unless you count Andre Johnson’s role as special assistant to the head coach. They’ve finally landed a franchise quarterback, but now they have voluntarily entered uncharted waters with the receiving corps.
All that being said, the projections based on current available data have the Texans’ offense landing middle of the pack in 2020. The defense will fair far worse. But there’s still time to make improvements.
If it were up to you, what would you do to improve the 2020 offense? How would you leverage the draft and remainder of free agency and potential for trades to make this unit better than the 2019 one?