6 Things That Must Change for the Houston Texans in 2014
It goes without saying that the Houston Texans must improve their won-loss record in 2014. The 2013 team was the first in NFL history to start off 2-0 and then lose its next 14 games, ending up with the worst mark in the league.
Replacing Gary Kubiak with Bill O’Brien as the head coach is the first step towards that end. Bill Barnwell of Grantland.com judged the Texans’ coaching post as the most attractive job opening in the league and O’Brien as the likeliest candidate for it.
According to Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com, the former Penn State head coach accepted the offer of owner Bob McNair on Dec. 31, just two days after the regular season finale. The hiring was formally announced on Jan. 4 at a Reliant Stadium press conference.
Other changes have included blowing out most of the coaching staff from the Kubiak era. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who had interviewed for the head coach opening, was the most notable casualty. It was announced on Jan. 7 that defensive line coach Bill Kollar would be retained and will be joined by six of O’Brien’s assistants from Penn State.
General manager Rick Smith was fortunate to survive the firing of Kubiak, the man who helped get him the job. Smith also has the first pick in the draft to play with this year. The Texans' need to select a quarterback seems so obvious that it is hard to imagine any other position getting serious consideration.
No matter who is selected at the top of the first round by Houston, the 2014 roster will be impacted by almost as much turnover as the amount of Texans turnovers on the field last season.
The arrival of a new coach, combined with some painful financial realities, will result in a squad that bears only a partial resemblance to the one that disappointed so many of its fans in 2013.
Rick Smith Must Ace the Draft
Rick Smith has hit his share of home runs in the first round of the draft during his tenure.
Duane Brown, Brian Cushing and J.J. Watt are certifiably great players chosen by Smith. Meanwhile, Kareem Jackson had a down year after putting together a breakout season in 2012 while the jury is still out on DeAndre Hopkins and Whitney Mercilus, even if Hopkins was named to Mel Kiper's NFL all-rookie team.
General managers make their money in the lower rounds, and that is where Smith has fallen short. From 2006 through 2012, just 16 of the 47 selections Smith has made in rounds 2-7 can be considered consistent starters. Names like DeMeco Ryans, Eric Winston, Connor Barwin and Glover Quin fall into this category.
Unfortunately, none of them were still with the organization last season. Those who are still under contract for 2014 include Owen Daniels, Earl Mitchell, Garrett Graham, Brandon Brooks, and Shiloh Keo.
If they continue to improve, 2013 additions D.J. Swearinger and Ryan Griffin could be added to this list. However, the rest of the class—outside of Hopkins—either spent their rookie seasons on injured reserve (Brennan Williams, Trevardo Williams, David Quessenberry, Alan Bonner) or were released (Sam Montgomery, Chris Jones).
Given his recent record, it is incumbent upon Smith to add more than just one true franchise player with the first overall pick. If he cannot find producers at right tackle, outside linebacker, cornerback and safety among the upcoming draftees and last year’s leftovers, this will be Smith's final season with the Texans.
The GM and Head Coach Must Establish the Proper Relationship
When Houston’s record sank to 2-6 at midseason, the front office staff started running for the lifeboats.
Ian Rapoport of NFL Network reported on the NFL GameDay Morning show for Week 10 that “the Texans' front office is ‘a bit frustrated’ with Kubiak and the rest of his coaching staff.“ Their complaints were summed up in this tweet by Rapoport:
#Texans front office a bit frustrated with Kubiak/coaches (4-10 in last 14). Coaches have too much draft input, keep stars on field too long
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) November 10, 2013
Let’s put aside who runs the Texans' draft and how many snaps J.J. Watt should have. Questions have hovered around the Texans’ chain of command since Gary Kubiak was hired as head coach on Jan. 26, 2006.
When Rick Smith came on board as general manager on June 5, 2006, it was logical to assume that Kubiak had influenced the decision to bring his former colleague from the Denver Broncos to Houston. More to the point, because Kubiak preceded Smith by several months, appearances indicated the coach was responsible for the job being awarded to the new GM.
NFL head coaches typically serve at the pleasure of the owner and general manager, respectively. But the head coach has more interaction with the press, which can present the public with a confusing picture of the organizational hierarchy.
Kubiak was no exception, and was the more visible member of management. He had a weekly radio show during the season, gave postgame press conferences and was available for questions after practice on a regular basis.
If the unattributed rumor revealed by Rapaport was accurate, the situation in Houston had lapsed into a dysfunctional state. Or was it just a case of people covering their backsides in the hope of keeping their jobs?
Regardless of which explanation was the truth, who will be the boss this time around is more clearly defined.
Brett Kohlmann, of the Battle Red Blog, asked Smith what qualities he sought in a new coach. While the answers may have been “intelligence, innovative, flexibility,” this time, it was the general manager who was instrumental in hiring the coach and not the other way around.
As long as the relationship between Smith and Bill O’Brien proceeds along these lines, the rebirth of the Houston Texans will be well underway.
The New System Must Be “A-OK”
When Bob McNair formally introduced Bill O’Brien as head coach, Jerome Solomon of the Houston Chronicle listed two words that described what the Texans owner was looking for in a new head coach: “adaptability and accountability.”
These two qualities were sorely lacking in the modus operandi of Gary Kubiak. The lack of adaptability was never more obvious than in the first series of the Texans' Week 5 game against the San Francisco 49ers.
Matt Schaub threw the same pass on the same pattern that Richard Sherman of the Seattle Seahawks intercepted and returned for a game-tying touchdown the previous week. This time, Tramaine Brock of the 49ers took this unintended gift to the house on hjs way to a 31-point backbreaker that hastened the Texans’ collapse.
Schaub was not held accountable and finished out the game, then was allowed to start the next week against the St. Louis Rams. This pattern might have persisted for the entire season if he had not injured his ankle against the Rams.
T.J. Yates took over for Schaub, then made sure that a Houston quarterback threw a fifth pick-six in as many weeks. At least he was held accountable, as Case Keenum was named the starter the following week against Kansas City.
The experience that Bill O’Brien gained as quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator with the New England Patriots is thought to be the perfect antidote to such pigheaded stubbornness. The Patriots have run the Ron Erhardt-Ray Perkins offensive scheme for most of the Bill Belichick era, which is well known for making adjustments.
These adjustments are not a function of the offense, but are what the defense has to do to react to what the quarterback calls. The plays in this scheme do not rely on a route tree or specific play for a certain receiver.
Instead, this type of offense relies on concepts that are flexible enough to be run out of any formation or combination of personnel. It sounds complex, but is actually a simpler approach than the West Coast system that the Texans ran under Kubiak.
Chris B. Brown of Grantland.com, who is a wizard at explaining the inner workings of both offensive and defensive systems, described in finer detail the adaptability of this approach among different teams.
As far as accountability goes, the video above demonstrates how O’Brien was willing to take Tom Brady down a notch when necessary. Anyone who is willing to go toe-to-toe with Tom Terrific is the kind of taskmaster that the “aw shucks, it’s on me” Kubiak was not.
New Coaches Must Avoid Reinventing the Wheel
If adaptability is one of the watchwords for the Texans players, the coaches should also heed their own advice.
The Houston Texans had their greatest success by using zone-stretch blocking in the run game and a one-gap 3-4 defense that depended on man-to-man coverage by the corners and a lot of Cover 1 by the safeties.
It could be argued that the two most critical players on the Texans, outside of the quarterback, are running back Arian Foster and defensive end J.J. Watt. While few would disagree with the choice of Watt, many would insist Andre Johnson has the numbers and longevity to be the key offensive piece.
Andre's supporters should recall 2011, when Johnson missed nine regular-season games. If that team represents the best version of the Texans to date, remember it relied heavily upon the running and receiving skills of Foster while their best outside receiver was sidelined.
Foster is the ideal back for the zone system, where the idea is to pick your hole, make one move and go. If O’Brien continues to follow the Patriot way, he will have his offensive line run-block the same way they block on passing downs. It is difficult to say just what effect this will have on Foster’s running style.
It is unfortunate that unrestricted free agent Ben Tate, a more elusive back than Foster, will have to sign with another team due to salary cap restrictions. But Foster is the show pony and you are going to have to ride him for now. O’Brien and running backs coach Charles London will have to find a way to get the most out of Foster, who led the NFL in touches from 2010-12 with 1,115 carries, per Pro-Football-Reference.com.
As soon as O’Brien was hired, Romeo Crennel was named the frontrunner for being named O'Brien's defensive coordinator. Crennel was interviewed on Wednesday for the opening, according to John McClain of the Houston Chronicle.
"Rac," as Crennel is known, has run a 3-4 defensive scheme with two-gap responsibilities for most of his career. This requires his linemen to occupy two blockers whenever possible, which would limit Watt’s ability to make plays in the backfield.
The upside is thjat Watt has adapted to being double-teamed much of the time and still be able to penetrate. This burden did not prevent Pro Football Focus (subscription required) from naming him its Defensive Player of the Year for a second straight season.
Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus noted that Watt captured the award by grading out 10 points higher than his breakout 2012 season. His sacks and tipped passes may have been down, but his overall play was up.
Crennel has shown a preference for boulder-sized nose tackles like Ted Washington (6’5”, 365 pounds) and Keith Traylor (6’2”, 340 pounds). If the plan is to find the equivalent for the Texans so that Watt can continue shoot the gap at will, all the better.
The Texans Must Lose Their Second-Half Blues
There is not much to say about just how ineffective this team was over the final 30 minutes of games this season. It is all spelled out in the numbers:
- Eight of Houston's 14 losses were by a total of 47 points
- The Texans led six of those eight games at the half
- The Texans scored a total of 48 second-half points in 12 games
- Houston’s opponents had 218 points after halftime versus 119 for the Texans
If O’Brien can fix this problem, he’s worth every dollar of the $6.5 million buyout that Texans owner Bob McNair had to pay Penn State to get O'Brien.
Bill O’Brien Must Learn to Tune-out the Fans
There is a significant faction of Penn State fans who will forever worship at the shrine of Joe Paterno. Texans fans may not match them in sheer idolatry, but this is the Lone Star State, after all.
If social security is the third rail of American politics, Houston’s NFL team provides the third rail of life in Texas, where the order is faith, family and football.
No college football program in Houston is competitive at a BCS level, the Astros have one of the worst three-year records in the history of baseball and the Rockets are still trying to find the right pieces to put around Dwight Howard.
The Texans are it for the majority of Houston sports aficionados, who outnumber the residents of Happy Valley by more than 100-to-1. None of those fans in Houston expected the 2013 season to turn out the way it did, and the shock has yet to wear off.
If the 2014 campaign gets off to a rough start, the venom could start flying from more directions than the wind can blow. The diehards will start to question everything about their new coach, ranging from his qualifications to the cleft in his chin.
If O’Brien’s skin has not been thickened by his two years in State College, Pa., then he might end up threatening more than just the windshield of a reporter’s car. If push comes to shove, O'Brien should follow his plan and pay heed to the one thing that Raiders late owner Al Davis once said which still makes sense: "Just win, baby."