Even by the Houston Texans’ short but painful franchise history, the 2020s are shaping up as the worst time in franchise history. Since 2020, the team is a scintillating 11-38-1. They have been through four head coaches, three general managers and myriad of assistant coaches and staff. The team, when local media even bother to cover them, usually produces negative headlines. The Watson saga, the reign of Jack Easterby, Cal McNair living up (down?) to the “Tommy Boy” comparisons, the strange head coaching hires, followed by the just-as-strange quick firings…if there was a NFL team in desperate need of a reboot, the Texans are the best (worst?) example. Fortunately, the team seems to realize that it can’t keep sucking forever. The hire of DeMeco Ryans, followed by the hires of a new defensive and offensive coordinator portend a needed change in leadership. With plenty of cap room and lots of great draft picks, the team seems well-position to reset and move forward.
Yet, even with all of the upheaval, there remains one good (yes, you read that right) constant. The team decided to retain Frank Ross as special teams coordinator. While special teams does not generate the headlines of the offense or defense, special teams has a significant role in games. Granted, having world-class special teams does not equate to a winning team. However, bad special teams can very likely cost a team some all-important wins. Looking back at the history of Texans’ special teams, you likely find more failures than successes. The name “Marciano” still equates to a four-letter word around Texans fans. Brad Seely did well enough in his two seasons as the special teams overlord in 2018-2019. Still, the naming of a special teams coordinator doesn’t usually move the needle in terms of fan passions.
So it was when Frank Ross, one-time New England cohort of GM Nick Caserio and previously on the staff a successful special teams unit in Indianapolis, came down south to Houston. 2021 didn’t seem to be a year when anything would stand out for Houston. So long as special teams didn’t figure to turn into a raging dumpster fire inside of a cluster[Easterby] of a [Easterby]show, then Ross could play on spending a couple of seasons in Houston.
After a somewhat slow start, the special teams emerged into a legitimate strength of the team. Ka’imi Fairbarin recovered from a pre-season injury and played decently, highlighted by a career-long 61 yard of a FG bomb. Cameron Johnston, brought in as a cheaper replacement for Bryan Anger, morphed into one of the better punters in the league. The Texans coverage units ended the season as one of the stronger units in the league. The squad even managed to score its first kickoff return for a TD in 12 years in a game against Jacksonville. While sometimes it is hard to know what role a coordinator plays in the individual successes of a unit, if enough good performances happen on an aspect of a team, then perhaps there is something to the coach.
When the Culley regime came to an abrupt end at the conclusion of the 2021 season, the Texans decided to leave special teams well-enough alone. Ross didn’t have to change anything about his job title or office. 2022 didn’t figure to be a season burdened by major expectations, and the Texans played to form (i.e. practically unwatchable football).
Yet, while the offense regressed to near 2002 levels of scoring and the defense developed a significant allergy to stopping the run, the Texans special teams continued to play well. Fairbairn had his most successful season as a kicker, missing only two kicks all year and garnering a Pro Bowl Alternate slot. Cam Johnston also received a Pro Bowl Alternate accolade, as he continued his quality performance from 2021. The coverage units continued to offer the Texans solid play. Granted, it wasn’t all perfect for the Texans. The onside attempt against the
New York Giants New Jersey Giants was a comedy of errors, and while successful recovery rates for such plays are at historic lows, the Texans bungled that badly. They got decent return yardage from punts and kicks, but on a team that needed all the points they could get, special teams needed to offer more.
Still, comparing the triad of NFL units for the Texans in the past two seasons, special teams comes out at the clear winner in overall performance. The current roster design saw Houston play with a lot of guys that don’t rate much about back-ups in a regular staring offense/defense, but they had high special teams abilities, and that bore out in the course of the past 34 games. Sometimes special teams coaches don’t always get the credit they deserve, but some can evolve into strong head coaches. Mike Ditka who parlayed his special teams work with Tom Landry into a dominant stretch with the mid-1980s Chicago Bears and John Harbaugh, who built his NFL resume as the long-time special teams coordinator for the Andy Reid-led Philadelphia Eagles before Baltimore to hired him as head coach are two examples that come to mind. Even the Sith Lord Bill Belichick got his start as a special teams coordinator for the Detroit Lions and the Bill Parcells-era New Jersey Giants.
Does this mean that Ross will eventually be prowling the sidelines as the man overseeing all three aspects of the game? Maybe a bit too early for that. However, Ross can make his case for being one of the better special teams coordinators in the game. Ross’ first two seasons producing positive results during the worst two-year stretch in Texans history show that he has some good coaching skills. Few could take issue with Ryans keeping Ross on-staff to run the special teams. To date, hiring Ross as special teams coach must rate as the best move produced by the McNair-Caserio partnership. For Texans’ fans, the hope is that the good special teams under Ross continue their strong performance.