With the 2013 season officially in the books the Eye on Football staff is looking ahead to the offseason for all 32 NFL teams. Up now: The Houston Texans.
Boy that really got out of hand quickly didn't it? The Texans went from rising perennial contender to the worst team in football overnight. Houston finished with the second-worst point differential (-152) in the NFL and got swept by the Jaguars, the team with the worst point differential (-202) in the league.
Fast forward five months and they're still looking for their next win.
Matt Schaub took most of the blame, getting benched for Case Keenum at various points in the season after hosting what felt like a weekly pick-six party. The good news is Schaub got his own burger. Unfortunately the bad news is he got his own burger ...
Even if not every fan agreed with the menu call.
Things got so bad that Gary Kubiak was fired just slightly over a month after he suffered a mini-stroke before halftime of a game against the Colts. Marinate on that for a second.
It says some crazy stuff about the NFL that 1) Kubiak came back to work, 2) Kubiak got fired from his job a few weeks after suffering a stroke on national televisionand 3) no one really flinched much about any of this once he survived.
Wade Phillips took over but didn't fare much better and never likely received much consideration for the full-time job. That went to ex-Patriots offensive coordinator and former Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien.
O'Brien was the first coach hired this offseason and the Texans snatched him from Happy Valley on New Year's Eve.
What Went Right
Not much ever goes right on a two-win team. But J.J. Watt was a diamond among a coal-filled rough in 2013. There's little question that he left everything on the field.
Watt would've won Defensive Player of the Year again in 2013, but we don't give out awards to players on bad teams. (Ironically, the argument for Houston not taking Jadeveon Clowney No. 1 overall this year is Watt's very presence on a team that won just two games, largely because they didn't have a high-end quarterback.)
The stats in 2013 weren't there like they were for Watt in 2012. His sacks dipped from 20.5 to 10.5 and his pass deflections dipped from 16 to 7. But remember that the Jaguars (by drafting Luke Joeckel), the Titans (signing Andy Levitre and drafting Chance Warmack) and the Colts (signing Gosder Cherilus) all made sure to try and mitigate Watt's impact. Teams also gameplanned against him more in 2013, running plays specifically designed to go in any direction that didn't involve the dominant end. Plus, sacks can be fickle; there are lots of pressures that tremendously impact a play and don't count for anything.
There's a couple other pieces of good news too. The Texans found another impact first-round receiver in DeAndre Hopkins. Hopkins has nuke-like hops:
And also flashed an innate ability to track the ball and make impressive, veteran use of his hands:
Give Hopkins and Andre Johnson -- who had a really underrated and impressive year as well, catching 109 balls for 1,407 yards and five touchdowns -- a quality quarterback and this offense can get back on track.
The other good thing that happened to Houston? They stunk bad enough to land the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft.
What Went Wrong
Of course, landing the No. 1 pick means a LOT went bad. And pretty much everything went bad for the Texans.
Arian Foster suffered a back injury that put him on injured reserve in November with just 542 rushing yards. Assuming he's not released, is healthy and adapts to the Texans new offensive scheme, Foster is a good bounceback candidate. Ben Tate stepped in for Foster but was banged up most of the year while running for 771 yards and four touchdowns. Those totals aren't terrible until you consider how rush-heavy the Texans offense was supposed to be last year.
Schaub had the worst season of his career, by far. He was the object of scorn for plenty of Texans fans, including at least one enterprising restaurant in Houston.
As a whole, the defense was down too. Houston fell from 4th in Defensive DVOA at Football Outsiders all the way to 18th. Defensive performance can very much be a trickle-down effect type of thing in football. With the Texans unable to generate much of a pass rush (Antonio Smith, Whitney Mercilus, Brooks Reed and Brian Cushing, the Texans top pass-rush options behind Watt, netted just 16.5 sacks combined), the secondary struggled to cover guys.
Only twice after their Week 8 bye did the Texans hold opponents to less than 20 points. Look at this impressively bad stretch of games in November and December:
Yes, points allowed are on the far right.
Not that points scored are much better. Foster and Tate being hurt didn't help and Dennis Johnson didn't really surprise anyone the way it looked like he might. Andre and DeAndre were very good but Schaub really was an abject disaster. No one thought he was a "franchise quarterback" or an "elite arm strength passing person" but no one thought he was the Benjamin Button of quarterbacks either.
When the Texans are sixth in the league in passing attempts and 20th in rushing attempts, you know something's gone horribly awry.
Watt and it's not even remotely close. His impact on the game can't be felt in the standings and it can't really be felt in statistics. He impacted the game by disrupting the pocket or, at the very least, forcing teams to purposely push their gameplan away from him. It's not his fault that his teammates couldn't step up and fill the void.
Schaub because this team's better with a decent quarterback. 2013 wasn't remotely all his fault and he actually took more blame than he should have. Bob McNair falling in love with Case Keenum, even though the second-year undrafted free agent never won a game, didn't help Schaub much. Neither did the fact that his interceptions were oftentimes returned for touchdowns. Sometimes that's flukish -- and sometimes it's a result of poor playcalling, as it was with Schaub -- which is why it's unfair to completely blame him. But still, there's lots of blame to go around.
What Has Happened Since the End of the Season
Bill O'Brien was hired away from Penn State to save this franchise. The Texans blew up their staff and replaced Phillips with former Patriots defensive guru Romeo Crennel, brought in Mike Vrabel as linebackers coach and hired George Godsey (with UCF connections, COMMENCE BORTLE POPPING) as quarterbacks coach. O'Brien's going with no offensive coordinator so there's a lot of pressure on him early. Aside from wholesale coaching changes, Houston's been pretty quiet and handled their biz before the new year even really began. That's a good thing.
Impending Free Agents
Tate's the most notable name as it's unlikely the Texans will franchise tag him if they're going to keep paying Foster. It's not like either one of them set the world on fire, but Antonio Smith's departure would weaken the defensive line while guard Wade Smith bouncing would hurt the offense in the trenches. There's a slew of guys who could find their way on this list, including Schaub, Foster and Owen Daniels, who didn't sound super confident about returning to Houston when we spoke to him at the Super Bowl.
Houston's also got Joe Mays, Greg Jones, Earl Mitchell, Darryl Sharpton, Garrett Graham, Andrew Gardner, Ryan Harris, Lestar Jean, Bryan Braman, Terrell McClain, Elbert Mack, Deji Karim, Ricky Sapp and Jarvis Green.
Spotrac.com has the Texans snugly up against the cap ($1.4 million worth of space) so some moves to free up space wouldn't be surprising at all.
Free-Agency Game Plan
Just a hunch, but it would be surprising to see the Texans get super aggressive in free agency. They don't have a ton of space (yet), so clearing up room by releasing guys like Schaub or even Foster makes a lot of sense. Schaub is almost a lock to be gone; his $14 million cap hit isn't acceptable for someone who clearly isn't the starter going forward.
O'Brien's specializes in making chicken salad out of a less appetizing substance; look at the work he did in Happy Valley when the Nittany Lions were completely handcuffed. Shoring up the defensive line with veteran free agents makes a lot of sense.
They also have to find someone at quarterback ...
Draft Game Plan
Which leads us here. The Texans have the No. 1 overall pick. Personally I can't imagine passing on Jadeveon Clowney up top. I think he's just too good a talent and the idea of pairing him with Watt will keep quarterbacks up at night.
But I can't imagine that O'Brien, an offensive guy who understands the importance of a good quarterback, would jump all over this job without having a clear-cut idea of what quarterback he wanted at No. 1 overall.
The Texans have the option to trade down, obviously, but they also don't have the fear of being jumped for the guy they want. Maybe it's Teddy Bridgewater, maybe it's Johnny Manziel ... maybe it's Blake Bortles. Bortles, in particular, is a massive, strong-armed, prototypical quarterback that just seems to fit what O'Brien does.
Whatever the case, it'll make for a spicy mock draft season. And it might be even funnier if the Texans didn't make a change at quarterback, just for the fans rioting.
Houston's also got the top pick in the second round, where plenty of talent should sit as well. That gives them a lot of flexibility to move back into the first round or sit and wait for a talented defensive player (or one of the second-tier quarterbacks) to fall to them on Day 2.
Ridiculously Premature Prediction for 2014
There's enough talent on offense, minus a quarterback, and enough available assets for this team that a bounceback looks completely concievable. The Texans play in perhaps the weakest division in the NFL and O'Brien should be able to fix the offense quickly. Romeo Crennel's been real bad as a head coach, but he's had success as a defensive coordinator. It's not a stretch to see the Texans returning to a 2012-level-ish of success if they can put some pieces around Watt.
Expecting double-digit wins is out of the question but that should apply to just about every team in the league at this time of year. It's much harder to win 10 games in the NFL than people would like to think. I want to be optimistic given the changes but getting burned by 2013 holds me back until we see who they've got under center.
Predicted Record: 8-8