With the Texans celebrating 20 years on the field, this series of articles looks back at the history of the Texans, examining possible alternative histories for the team.
2017, the year the Texans didn’t really act like the Texans. From making a massive draft day deal to land Deshaun Watson, arguably the best QB prospect in team history, to seeing the offense perform at Madden-type levels, to seeing a stout defense crumble, to dealing with previously unknown personnel drama from player holdouts to even the owner creating a media firestorm, this was not your usual Texans team. The 4-12 finish snapped a 3-year streak of 9-7 seasons. However, the collapse of the 2017 season did not threaten the jobs of Bill O’Brien or Rick Smith, nor the optimism of the Texans’ fanbase. It probably didn’t hurt that there were significant other activities outside of football that shunted the Texans to the background, from the devastation of Harvey to the Houston Astros bringing in the city’s 1st World Series title.
For the Texans, the 2017 season showed that the future could be something special. As for the present of 2017, it turned on one thing: injuries. Houston suffered 3 significant ones in the early part of the season, altering the course of the year. In Week 5, one 1st quarter drive against Kansas City saw the Texans effectively lose their pass rush for the season, when Whitney Mercilus (torn pectoral) and JJ Watt (tibial plateau fracture) both went down with injuries. It would be a game where Watson showed his potential to put up big numbers against a playoff contender, but where he had to, as the degraded defense showed no ability to halt Kansas City’s offense. The team did well enough to get to the bye at 3-3, still in play for a playoff berth. Seeing Watson evolve into the clubhouse leader for Rookie of the Year. 2017 promised to be nothing if not exciting. The first game out of the bye saw Watson go thermonuclear against the “Legion of Boom” secondary of Seattle, and while the Texans fell to 3-4, Watson looked like he would be the answer to all the Texans’ QB woes.
Fast forward later in the week, and during a routine practice play, where Watson was practicing an RPO handoff, the type he had done for years, he suffered an ACL tear. Suddenly, any hope for excitement or post-season opportunity died. The really-not-good offensive line, mitigated by the scrambling ability of Watson, was of no use for the traditional pocket passer Tom Savage or the Texans’ ground game. The defense, shorn of two top players, lacked an explosive offense to keep it afloat. The last nine games of the 2017 are best not dwelt upon.
Counterfactuals involving injuries are difficult. Every team deals with them. Given the violent nature of the game as well as the sheer stresses it puts on all parts of the body, they are an inevitable part of the game. However, it is worth asking that if Houston could have avoided those injuries to any, if not all three players, what would the 2017 season have ultimately looked like?
First for discussion is JJ Watt. The 3 time Defensive Player of the Year was already coming off two season-ending injuries (from the 2015 Wild Card Abomination when Watt left the game due to a shoulder injury, and then missing but 3 games of the 2016 season due to a herniated disk). He was and still is quite the physical specimen, but his body was starting to pay the price for such early success. When healthy, he was the most dangerous player on the Texans roster. An offense that did not focus on negating Watt risked ruin. His 2017 season started slow, as he was coming off a significant injury and he did not log a sack in his 1st five games. However, it is likely that Watt would have warmed up as the season moved forward. A 20 or even 17.5 sack season (as he did in 2015) was unlikely given the start, but Watt would eventually end up with a few sacks and would be among the team leaders in tackles for loss.
The injury to Whitney Mercilus also loomed large. Mercilus posted a career-best 12 sacks in 2015, and even with Watt gone, and more attention focused on him, he still managed 7.5 sacks and did much to make Houston the #1 defense in 2016. He too had a slow start to 2017, logging only 1 sack before his year ended. Mercilus was never going to be the alpha pass rusher on the DL, but he would be a solid to-at-times spectacular pass rushing complement to Clowney/Watt.
If Watt and Mercilus remained healthy, then the 2017 defensive line/pass rush could have evolved into a dangerous group for the second half of the season. If it is just Mercilus or just Watt, the numbers are lower in sacks and TFLs, but you would still have some semblance of pass rushing threats to keep an offense honest. Without Watt and Mercilus, Clowney could only do so much.
Would that be enough to allow the Texans to follow the formula of winning with defense? Given the schedule and deficiencies in the secondary, not as likely. Even if Watt and Mercilus found their extra gear in the second half of the season, it is hard to envision the defense being enough to carry the team to a winning season and the playoffs. Certainly the defense in 2017 could not carry the team like it had in seasons past. The presence of Watt and Mercilus, but without Watson, would likely see the Texans gain a couple more wins, but again facing a losing record.
This now leads to the offense and Deshaun Watson. The 6 games Watson started, especially starting with the Week 3 near-miss against New England, showed fans the BO’B many expected since 2014. Everything opened up in the passing and running games. As for a weakened defense, they didn’t have to win every possession. They just had to hold on long enough for the offense to win it. With Watson’s freak ACL tear, that all went away. The offensive numbers without Watson are just too horrid to review, no matter the level of intoxication.
Yet, what if Watson is still healthy and plays out the season? If we hold that the defense is sans Watt and/or Mercilus, then the team’s primary hope for victory would be riding the legs and arms of Watson to victory. While he had a stellar 6 games as a starter, it is unlikely he would perform that way every week. Teams would start to pick up on the schemes and tendencies, and some regression could be expected. That said, Watson proved such a dynamic playmaker that it would hard to see him yield more great offensive performances. Given the state of the offensive line, especially after Duane Brown was traded, Watson is likely to be sacked and hit a lot, so an injury might have felled his season anyway. Rookie of the Year is in play if he can manage to play most of the last 9 games and at a high level. Yet, it is just as likely the team would not see as many victories, maybe only 3-4 more the rest of the way. It would be a losing record, but the optimism seeing Watson and looking forward to a healthy Watt/Mercilus for 2018 would be off the charts.
Now what if the Texans avoid all three injuries, and the Texans go into the second half of the season with Mercilus, Watson and Watt? The Texans may yet find themselves at 3-4 after Seattle, given the difficulty of that stadium, but given how poor the real defense played that game, a healthy Watt/Mercilus could have been just enough to tip the balance, flipping the script to 4-3. At that point, the schedule starts to open up a little. The Colts are sans Andrew Luck, and Jacoby Brissett is a capable backup, but the Colts are not sweeping a Texans squad with the injured stars healthy and back on the field. The home game against the Colts seems like a sure win. The home dates against San Francisco, Cardinals and the road game against the Titans would likely be wins.
With that slate, the team has at least 7-8 wins. The home game against Pittsburgh and the road contest against Baltimore are swing games. Split those, and the squad is now at 8-9 wins. Then there are the road games against Jacksonville and Indianapolis. The 2017 Jags might be a little too strong that year for the Texans, but it would be a far closer game than the 45-7 blasting. The Colts always haunt the Texans, and a loss is possibly in play, but if the Texans are coming into that game at 9-6, with a potential playoff berth at stake, a fired up Watt, Mercilus and Watson could be enough to swing the result, In this case, the 2017 breaks the 9-7 streak, but with a 10-6 regular season.
If the team finished 10-6, then it likely wins the division, finishing as either the 3rd or 4th seed. At 9-7, they are in play for a wild card berth, but may a likely be on the outside looking in between conference tie-breakers. If the team manages to play Buffalo, then Watson is likely to get his first NFL playoff win. If they have to travel to play Kansas City, it would be a great playoff duel between Smith and Watson, but probably a loss. All told, it is not likely that the team would go beyond the Division round, especially if they have to face New England or Pittsburgh. This is the best case scenario and that is with perfect health.
In the bigger picture, 2017 could be seen a “house money” year for the team, primarily due to the emergence of Watson. Whether the team finished with 4 or 10 wins, also-ran status or playoff run, the foundations of the franchise for the next several years seemed set (or they did at the time). For perhaps the only time in Houston sports history would a constant playoff team suffer a huge drop in winning percentage over one season, and no one would be horribly depressed by it.