When we last left off dedicating bandwidth on this site to discuss Special Teams, the narrative was not exactly the most positive out there. At the near halfway mark, the Texans rated near the absolute bottom when it came to special teams. If you went by DVOA calculations, the Texans rated 31st, and at one point during the season, the squad managed to rate dead last. While the Texans were expected to rate just about dead last in every known category, there was a modicum of hope that perhaps, just perhaps, the team might be somewhat adequate in that department. There was certainly all the reason in the world to expect that this would continue throughout the duration of the season.
Yet, an interesting thing happened: The Texans didn’t quite suck as badly as projected. After the bye, the Texans managed to go 3-5, which is not great, but compared to 1-8, that would qualify as a step up in performance. Along the way, the team showed some improvement in various areas. The offense wasn’t quite as offensive with Davis Mills at the helm. While the jury is still out on his final future, he actually showed some improvement in his play. The defense…well, that formula didn’t change, as they still lived and died on getting the key turnovers to mitigate their lack of talent. However, the special teams saw some remarkable improvement.
By the end of the season, the Texans’ DVOA special teams rose from the depths to rate in the top 10 (9th). For comparison, the offense rated 30th in DVOA and the aforementioned defense, which had a higher DVOA rating at one point in the season, checked in at 23rd. Yet, that special teams DVOA can really stand out. For a team with the 3rd worst record in the league and who perhaps played some of the most unwatchable games in this or any season, that sort of achievement is commendable.
How did the team get from here to there? Perhaps one area involves points off of special teams actions. Fairbairn didn’t not garner any significant Pro Bowl accolades, and while he did actually hammer a legit 61 yard field goal, he also had some untimely misses (the momentum-breaking miss against San Francisco perhaps his least valuable moment). On second thought, maybe don’t look to the kicking game with Fairbairn. Ok, Fairbairn wasn’t responsible for ALL of the kicking for the team this season (the squad employed 3 kickers this season). However, the team rated deep in the bottom tier for FG and XP kicking this season.
A major component of any special teams improvement must come from the kick return game. Against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Tremon Smith did something that had not been done by ANY Houston player since 2009: Return a kickoff for a Touchdown. That will certainly help the ol’ DVOA rating. That Smith ran that particular kick back for a touchdown did much to mitigate the loss of Andre Roberts, who somehow managed to find the endzone as a kick returner for the San Diego Los Angeles Chargers. It also helped mitigate the success of the loss of Andre Carter, who found the endzone as a kick returner for Washington. Otherwise, the squad finished fourth in the league in kick return yardage. One has to factor in the offensive ineptitude and the multiple opportunities to return kickoffs after the opponents scored, but as we saw in the second half of the season, some of that yardage is actually a good thing.
Moving on to kickoff coverage, the Texans rated very highly in that department. They were 11th in the number of actual kick returns. That number might need to be taken with a grain of salt, given the offensive struggles of the squad and how they didn’t exactly have a lot of kickoffs to cover. However, when teams actually got the chance to return a kickoff that they didn’t take the touchback, the Texans rated 9th in the league in kick coverage. Perhaps all of those depth signings did pay off on the special teams front after all.
As for other areas of the squad, the punting game could be rated as a plus for the team. You could make an argument that the best free agent pick up for the Texans was the punter Cam Johnston. He demonstrated his punting prowess, even during the dark times of the first part of the season. By the time the season ended, the squad boasted the 11th best punting average in the league, and the 7th best net punting average. Not too terrible. Although, in the realm of statistical variances, the squad actually rated 30th in punt return yards allowed. Go figure that the team was better covering kickoffs, which they had less exposure to vs. punt coverage, which they got a LOT of practice doing.
All in all, the special teams, aside from the questions about the kicking game, did manage to have a decent season, looking at some of the statistics and DVOA calculations. Frank Ross could make a case for being the top coordinator for the team (insert joke about pride among certain workers here). If nothing else, he might have the strongest case to remain in his current coaching position, especially given the recent purges by the team. It probably means nothing that looking at his background, Ross logged some time in New England.
Will that continue into next season? TBD. Many of the players involved with special teams, and most of the squad for that matter, were on short-term deals, so it is not a given that they will return to the team. Johnston should be back. As for the kicker, well, that is not quite as certain. If nothing else, the special teams will have a few positives to look back on going into the off-season.