One of the hardest things to do in sports at any level is establish an identity. When it happens it can be something beautiful. For much of their history, the New England Patriots were a laughingstock. They made it to one Super Bowl in 1985, but otherwise were also rans going back to their inception. Suddenly, they won three Super Bowls in the 2000s and several more the next decade. Now, they are the evil empire.
Go back in history and you can see similar patterns with teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers, San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys, and Las Vegas Raiders. What is particularly interesting is that when you get beyond the winning, each franchise put a slightly different spin on their success. The 49ers were known for the West Coast offense and great quarterback play. The Steelers and Raiders were more rugged and known for defense. The Cowboys were obviously a combination with literal star power.
Expansion teams have difficult times establishing identities. Yet, the Houston Texans probably have established an identity over their 20 year history. As one of the only teams not to advance to a conference title game it isn’t a good one. However, as the Patriots demonstrated above, identities can be changed dramatically under the right circumstances. In particular, the Texans defense has struggled with identity over the years.
Three main stats matter for team defense. Points allowed is the Holy Grail of defense as the scoreboard is all that matters. Yet, we end up correlating that with yards allowed and turnovers. Lovie Smith has identified turnovers as his key point of emphasis. They finished 12th last season with 25 turnovers created. They generated three turnovers in the first preseason game, so hopefully those trends continue.
Points Allowed — 372.9 per season (average team rank 19.5)
Yards Allowed — 5536 per season (18.6)
Turnovers Generated — 22.4 per season (21.2)
Aggregate scores can tell you only so much. Most teams over an extended period of time will find themselves near the middle of the pack. The teams that don’t are likely the ones that have established a positive or negative identity. So, the scores here may not tell us a whole heck of a lot except for the fact that the Texans haven’t really established a lasting identity on defense.
Yet, there is more than one way to skin a cat. We can also look at individual seasons to see how many times the team fell in the top five and bottom five of a category. Those are the seasons that are usually memorable one way or the other. Are the Texans usually good or usually bad?
Top Five Points Allowed: 2011, 2018
Bottom Five Points Allowed: 2005, 2010, 2017*
The asterisks identify when the team was either first or dead-ass last. Interesting enough, two of those three bad seasons were seasons where there was a shift in the history of the franchise. We saw Capers canned after 2005 and we saw Wade Phillips come in as the defensive coordinator in 2010. On the flip side, most fans consider that 2011 team to be the best in franchise history.
Top Five Turnovers Generated: 2014*
Bottom Five Turnovers Generated: 2002, 2005*, 2006, 2010, 2013*, 2017, 2020*
We see a significant story here. The Texans finished dead-ass last (DAL) in turnovers generated three times in their franchise history. With 32 teams in the league the odds of that happening through random luck is not significant. They did lead the league in 2014, so it isn’t all bad news, but I think we can see a definite narrative here.
Top Five Yards Allowed: 2011, 2015, 2016*
Bottom Five Yards Allowed: 2003, 2005, 2010, 2019, 2020, 2021
Obviously, the defense hasn’t been good lately and that makes perfect sense with two consecutive four win seasons. However, they have never been dead last in yards allowed. So, on balance the defense has been worse in yards allowed than not, but it is not as glaring as the turnovers.
Numbers are numbers. I often get accused of being overly negative when I am reporting numbers and drawing conclusions. I suppose I can help improve my tone some. In this case, I consider history to be history and it doesn’t have to be a harbinger of things to come. This is particularly true when you consider the fact that Lovie Smith gets a fresh start as the new head coach.
One of the frustrating things about the New England system is that there never seemed to be an identity from week to week. Some weeks we would run the ball. Some weeks we’d pass the ball. On defense, we seemed to vacillate from week to week and seemed to land on a bend but don’t break approach. There is a certain amount of luck in generating turnovers, but a comprehensive study of successful franchises will likely show that it can be replicated.
I know many of us are tired of hearing the phrase “complementary football” but it really is a thing. For the first time in nearly a decade it feels like this team has an identity on both sides of the ball. Identities take time to establish, but the fact that they are trying is encouraging enough. The fact that these identities are complementary on purpose is encouraging. Run the football, take care of the ball on offense, and take it away on defense. If you do that successfully you win more games than you lose.