With the Texans about to celebrate 20 years of playing on the field, we are taking a look back at the previous seasons, looking at various “What If?” scenarios that might have altered the course of the team’s history. Next up, the 2014 Texans:
2014 Texans: After the sudden and complete collapse of the Kubiak/Schaub Era, the Texans move forward with Bill O'Brien, previously of Penn State and Offensive Coordinator of the New England Patriots. The talent cupboard is far from barren though, and the Texans quickly bounce back to a 9-7 record, just missing a playoff berth. JJ Watt takes the next step in his great career. He logs his second Defensive Player of the Year Award in 3 years and finishes second in the MVP voting. Given a 20.5 sack season, it is hard to imagine him with many regrets, but there just might have been one...a play that could have had impact on more than just the game.
Key Play: JJ Watt’s Missed Sack of Tony Romo at Dallas
Quick Review of Play/Situation: The Texans come into this rivalry game with a 3-1 record. Dallas had a matching 3-1 record and was the slight favorite to win. In the third quarter, Dallas faces a 2nd and 4 at the Texans’ 43 yard line. On a drop-back pass, Watt beats Dallas’ LT Smith and Tony Romo is in for a bad play. Somehow, Romo's evasive action sees Watt on the ground and Romo, sliding left, completes a 43 yard touchdown pass to Terrance Williams to put Dallas up 10-7. In a back and forth affair, Dallas would win in overtime, 20-17, sending the Texans to the first of 3 straight defeats in a critical stretch of games that season. Given that the Texans missed the playoffs due to a series of multiple tie-breakers, that one win might have made a significant difference in Houston’s fortunes.
What if JJ Watt makes that sack on Tony Romo?
Suppose that JJ Watt does not whiff on that sack, but finds the mark and drops Romo for a huge play? Assuming that Romo still holds on to the football after such a devastating hit (given the season that Watt had, it would not be too fanciful to rule out a strip sack/forced fumble/defensive touchdown), the Cowboys most likely do not convert the subsequent third down, and Dallas punts, down 7-3. On the sidelines, the Cowboy receivers are furious at a squandered opportunity “If Romo gets me the ball, I have the touchdown, easy” noted Williams after the game. The Texans’ defense continues its early season trend of tough, but not invincible, defense. The Cowboys get another chance and score a touchdown early in the fourth quarter to go up 10-7. However, Houston, mostly on the strength of Arian Foster’s huge day on the ground, manages to go up 14-10 with less than two minutes remaining. Romo moves the Cowboys back into Houston territory again, only to stall at the Texans 40-yard line. Houston logs its first regular season win at Dallas and moves to 4-1.
The close win at Dallas opens a key three game stretch for the Texans. They have a short turnaround to prepare for a week against the Colts in a Thursday night match-up. Unfortunately, the team is still on a major high from the previous close win and falls behind early, but it is not a huge deficit. The second half, capped by JJ Watt’s second defensive touchdown in as many home games, cuts the lead to 6 early in the 4th. The Texans, continuing a trend of pulling out close victories, score the go-ahead touchdown later in the fourth, using a monstrous JJ Watt sack to seal the victory, 35-34. At 5-1, the Texans have seemingly put to bed the demons of 2013. They proceed to lose the subsequent Monday night game against Pittsburgh. However, by going 2-1 in that stretch, the Texans are in great shape for the rest of the season.
The other consideration is the status of the starting quarterbacks. Ever since Ryan Mallett came over in a trade just before the start of the regular season, Bill O’Brien faces multiple questions about when he will yank Fitzpatrick for Mallett. However, given that the Texans continue to maintain a winning record, going into the bye week at 7-3, Bill O’Brien keeps Fitzpatrick in as the Texans go into Cleveland. After a decisive win, Fitzpatrick appears to have the job well in hand. His numbers aren’t always pretty, but combined with a strong defense and a solid running game, Fitzpatrick captains a winning squad, going into the Indy game at 9-4.
Then comes the game at Indy. After a controversial play where Fitzpatrick breaks his leg, the Texans press Mallett into service. After a rough first half, Mallett settles down. However, the Texans still can’t quite get over the hump, and fall in Indy, again, 20-17. The team comes home to host Baltimore, but Mallett, after starting well, goes down with a disappointing pectoral injury. Tom Savage gets the call, and while he shows some early nerves, the home field advantage plus Arian Foster and a stellar defensive effort lead to a close Texans win, 28-25. Unfortunately, Savage also gets injured, and the Texans, in sheer desperation mode, place a call to Case Keenum. He departs his deer hunting stand, starting the final game against Jacksonville. The offense, consisting of mostly Foster runs (until injured) and passing to Andre Johnson, puts up 21 points, and JJ Watt adds a safety. The Texans finish a remarkable turnaround season at 11-5, winning the division and being the 3rd straight team to go from the #1 pick to a playoff spot.
Post-Season: By virtue of finishing 11-5, the Texans open up the playoffs like they always have…hosting the [10-5-1] Bengals. Cincinnati did manage to overcome their recent failures at Houston, winning a 22-13 slugfest where Fitzpatrick had one of his less-than-spectacular games, throwing three ill-timed interceptions. Yet, Fitzpatrick will not get the chance for revenge, nor will many other Texans, as the team comes into the game with many key injuries. Foster is out, and critical injuries to Jackson and Joseph leave the secondary severely limited. The Bengals defense, with no Foster to worry about, tee off on Keenum and the offense stalls. The Texans defense proceeds to make life a living hell for Dalton, sacking him six times and forcing two second half interceptions. The Bengals, who appeared to have the best chance to finally win a playoff game in over two decades, find a way to once again derp a playoff game, losing a 16-13 heartbreaker.
This sets up another playoff return trip to New England, thus cueing up the whole student (O’Brien) vs the master (Belichick) motif. Throughout the game, the Patriots try out a series of unique formations, whereby wide receivers line up at OL positions, and O-Linemen become eligible receivers. However, there is little real attention focused on this, given that the plays come deep in a second half of a major blowout. The Texans, sans Foster and a healthy secondary, cannot keep up with the Pats’ offense. The Texans do well to avoid a shut-out, but the 47-10 slaughter slightly dampens their rebound season. JJ Watt takes the DPOY by unanimous vote. By virtue of getting the Texans to the playoffs, JJ Watt strengthens his case for MVP. There are discussions of co-league MVPs. However, the league is still a QB league, and Rodgers still edges Watt.
Conclusion: In creating counterfactual history, it quickly becomes apparent order will be restored, whereby the alternate future will start to mirror the actual reality. During the DAL-IND-PIT stretch of games, the team could have just as easily won all three. If Houston holds on against Dallas, the mindset against the Colts is completely different and the team, while trailing, does not succumb to defeat. Given the history of injuries at the QB position for the team, it is inevitable that the team would have gone through multiple personnel taking snaps for the Texans. Unfortunately, the quarterback situation gains no additional clarity in the alternate timeline, thus the Texans still face the QB question for 2015.