After a subpar rookie campaign in 2011 and a mediocre sophomore season in 2012, third-year pass-catching tight end Rob Housler was hoping 2013 would be his year to shine in the desert. And with the departure of long-time head coach Ken Whisenhunt, there was growing optimism from Housler that Bruce Arians’ vertical passing attack would accentuate his strengths.
At the conclusion of OTAs this past June, Arians felt exactly the same as Housler did. Even though the tight end position wasn't featured much during Arians’ days as an offensive coordinator, that didn’t matter, because he hasn’t ever coached a tight end who has the same freakish athletic ability as Housler.
Here’s what Arians told Kent Somers of AZCentral.com in regard to Housler this past offseason: "I think the sky is the limit as far as where he can get talent-wise."
He’s right; the sky is the limit for 6’5”, 250-pound Texas native. He has all the physical tools an organization could want out of a receiving tight end.
He has an abrupt release off the line of scrimmage and ran a 4.55 second 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine. He also possesses reliable hands that help him make tough catches in traffic. Despite the fact that he was a small school guy from Florida Atlantic, there’s a reason why the Cardinals made him the team’s third-round pick in 2011.
However, a nagging ankle injury suffered in preseason play lingered and cost him the first two games of the 2013 season. This, in turn, not only hurt his power to perform, but it hurt his chance to build a rapport with Arizona’s starting quarterback, Carson Palmer.
When he returned to the lineup in Week 3, Housler underperformed and continued to do so, week in and week out. Prior to this past Sunday’s game versus the Houston Texans, Palmer had only targeted him 20 times for 14 receptions, 136 yards and no touchdowns. Regardless of preseason predictions, pundits wondered if the big-bodied tight end would ever show his true colors and put together a strong outing.
Lo and behold, Housler played 46-of-69 offensive snaps, caught four passes on five targets, notched the first touchdown of his career and garnered 57 yards receiving against the Texans.
Sure, his numbers don’t exactly rival those of Jimmy Graham and Julius Thomas, yet the breakout performance may prove to be the confidence boost he needed.
Moreover, his best game of the season could spell big things from now until the end of the season. Theoretically, Palmer should now have a higher level of trust with Housler, and Arians may be more apt to call plays where he is the quarterback’s first read. In order to turn the corner, sometimes the only thing a player needs is an eye-opening showing.
Obviously, Housler was happy with his newfound success against the Texans, yet Palmer seemingly went out of his way to praise his tight end when reporters asked him questions in the locker room following the game. Here’s what the 11th-year signal-caller told Scott Bordow of AZCentral.com: "Robby really hadn’t gotten going until today. All season long we’ve been trying to get him involved. He made some great plays and catches."
Nonetheless, we all know one awe-inspiring game against the best defense (statistically) in the NFL doesn’t signal an offensive player's full-blown arrival. Consistency is key, and Housler has to build off of his Week 10 performance and continuously progress on a weekly basis.
The good news is that both Palmer and the offensive coaching staff firmly trust in Housler’s skill set and are confident that the best is yet to come. With the Cardinals in prime contention for a playoff spot in the NFC with seven games left to play, there’s no question Arizona will need to find another consistent receiving option outside of wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd.
Yes, wideout Andre Roberts looks to be that guy based on the fact he is currently the third-most productive pass-catcher on the roster, yet Housler is more talented overall and creates more mismatches as a result of his brute size and strength. That means that he could become Arizona’s secret weapon down the stretch.
To keep the 25-year-old tight end engaged offensively, Arians will have to keep his snap count high, line him up all over the field and call a wide variety of plays that hone in on the things he does well. One play-call that surely needs to be run again is the delayed tight end screen that Housler scored on from 12 yards away.
On that touchdown reception, Housler started out in the backfield as the lead-blocker for running back Rashard Mendenall, but when Palmer dropped back into the gun, Housler motioned to the left, and Mendenhall motioned into the slot on the right side of the formation.
As the play developed, Housler blocked outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus for a split second and then released. When he released, he did a good job of disguising the play and following his blockers all the way into the end zone once the ball was in his hands.
The blocking wasn’t perfect, which meant Housler had to show the ability to make defenders miss in the open-field. Coincidentally enough, he ended up amassing two forced missed tackles on four receptions on the day. The first one came early on in the second quarter, when he scored the first touchdown of his career, and the second one came two catches later on another well-designed screen play.
Even though the second screen play was the same as the first, the Cardinals did a fantastic job of mixing up the offensive packages that were on the field the second time around. Instead of throwing the screen out of “11 personnel,” Arians deployed a “12 personnel” grouping that entailed the same basic concepts and schematic designs.
In addition to delayed screen passes, Housler torched the Texans vertically up the seam. There wasn’t a linebacker nor a safety on defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’ defense that proved he had an answer for the speedy tight end.
When the clock struck zero at the end of the game, No. 84 had managed to catch a pass on four different defenders (strong safety D.J. Swearinger, free safety Shiloh Keo and inside linebackers Joe Mays and Darryl Sharpton).
Heading into Week 11, the Cardinals have a favorable matchup against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Then the following week, they head back home to host the Indianapolis Colts, so it would be wise of Arizona to use the Jacksonville game as another confidence builder for Housler.
If he can go into the Colts game playing the best football of his young career, the "secret weapon" label may have to go to the wayside, because fans and media members alike will undoubtedly start to take notice. For now, Housler can relish in his role as the team’s secret weapon and work hard until he earns his stripes.
Once he earns his stripes, though, Housler will be viewed as a legitimate offensive threat who contributes regularly on the field. Palmer, Arians and the rest of the Cardinals staff hopes this will happen sooner rather than later.
And why is that? So the organization can make its first playoff appearance since the end of the Kurt Warner era in 2009.