Fact or Fiction for Houston Texans' Biggest Offseason Question Marks
The Houston Texans and their fans find themselves “in the desert” at the present time. It is that dead place in the NFL year between the end of the first mandatory minicamp and the beginning of training camp.
It also a place to decide which lingering question marks regarding the team have any validity and which are without merit. Almost everything is on the table when it comes to getting a feel for where this organization stands.
There is an entirely new coaching staff save for two holdovers from the Gary Kubiak administration. The starting quarterback is an offseason pickup with a checkered past. A league-worst 2-14 record in 2013 led to the first pick in the draft, a potentially transformational defensive talent with his own share of baggage.
It will take all 16 games of the 2014 regular season and then some to resolve the concerns surrounding the latest rebuilding project of this underachieving franchise. But some questions are worth exploring even at this early stage.
The Texans Have the Worst Starting Quarterback in the NFL
Apparently, the New York media consider themselves experts on bad quarterback play. Five seasons of watching Mark Sanchez fail to deliver on his potential does gives them a frame of reference.
First, Zach Braziller of the New York Post named Ryan Fitzpatrick as “the winner of the NFL’s worst QB competition.” Then Matt Reevy of the Wall Street Cheat Sheet awarded Fitzpatrick the No. 1 slot in “The 7 Worst Quarterbacks Set to Start in 2014.”
A check of Fitzpatrick’s rap sheet reads like the report card of a C-minus student. A 27-49 record as a starter, a passer rating of 77.5 for his career and 68 interceptions thrown in the last four seasons all give credence to the critiques.
Eli Manning has thrown more interceptions (83) over the same period and at a higher percentage rate (3.7) than Fitzpatrick (3.5). But Peyton’s bro gets a pass because he has two rings. However, he has two rings because the younger Manning played on better teams than Fitzpatrick, who has never played on a winning team in his nine-year career.
At 31, the man who has been named the starter for the 2014 Houston Texans has probably reached his ceiling. That ceiling included three consecutive seasons of 20 or more touchdown passes as a Buffalo Bill and only one season with an unacceptable interception count (23 in 2011). If he keeps his picks in the mid-teens and throws for 20-plus scores on this team, Bill O’Brien should be more than satisfied under the circumstances.
Reevy placed the most qualified candidate for “worst” consideration at No. 7: Matt Schaub. He gave every impression of being a broken-beyond-repair player in 2013.
Sage Rosenfels, a teammate of Schaub’s at the time, related how it took one game against the Indianapolis Colts in 2008 to ruin his career. The four-game pick-six string that Schaub endured in 2013 was far more egregious than the “Rosencopter” fumble that cost the Texans that Colts game.
A 21st Century NFL Offense Cannot Succeed by Running the Football
A further explanation is necessary before proceeding. The actual question is, Can an offense that runs the ball more often than it passes succeed in today’s NFL?
The chart above would indicate that may not be the case. It was taken from Ty Schalter’s article in Bleacher Report published on May 30 titled “How Pass-Heavy Offenses Continue to Reshape NFL Operations.”
It indicates the ratio of pass to run is tilting more heavily in the pass direction than ever before. When comparing 2003 to 2012, the number of rushing attempts decreased by nearly 600, while the passing attempts increased by almost 1,300.
Schalter's ultimate conclusion is the emphasis on throwing the ball is being reflected in personnel decisions. Teams are devoting more draft selections than ever before to acquiring quarterbacks, receivers and offensive linemen in the first four rounds.
There is no dispute about the importance being placed on these resources. According to Tony Pauline of Draft Insider, quarterback Blake Bortles could have just as easily been the first overall choice of the Texans in this year’s draft. As it was, he went two picks later to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The chart lumps together all 32 teams in the league and does not provide for any consideration of the outliers. And those aberrations demonstrate that the correlation between passing and winning is not definitive.
In 2013 five teams ran the ball more than they passed it: the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers, Carolina Panthers, Buffalo Bills and New York Jets. The 49ers and Panthers made the playoffs, and the Seahawks captured the Lombardi Trophy. These three teams had quality quarterbacks who could scramble and complete enough passes to keep the offense humming along.
The Bills and Jets were both breaking in rookie quarterbacks, which partially contributed to them finishing 6-10 and 8-8, respectively. Without breaking down their seasons into great detail, suffice to say EJ Manuel and Geno Smith did not have inaugural campaigns approaching the one enjoyed by Russell Wilson in 2012.
When the Texans did not trade up into the first round of the 2014 draft in pursuit of Johnny Manziel or Teddy Bridgewater, many observers thought Jimmy Garoppolo, Zach Mettenberger or Aaron Murray must be in their plans for the second or third. Once they took offensive guard Xavier Su’a-Filo at the top of the second round, their intentions became clearer.
When power-blocking tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz was taken in the third, then running back Alfred Blue and fullback Jay Prosch in the sixth, the overall plan crystallized. The Texans would look to be a run-first team, at least in the short term.
And why not? Recent history has shown it is vital part of the path to success in today’s NFL.
Andre Johnson Will Be Back
The impasse between the greatest Texan of them all and management lingers on with no resolution in sight. Andre Johnson’s comments on his state of mind are replayed time and again, while listeners try to divine his intentions.
"I've been thinking about things this offseason. Kind of wonder if this is still the place for me."
It is not as painful as your steady telling you, “Maybe we should see other people.” Still, everyone is trying to parse his meaning while wondering what it will take to make him happy.
Is it more money?
He restructured his contract for the third time in as many years to expedite the re-signing of Brian Cushing last season. If money was the concern, would he have sacrificed a $1 million roster bonus by skipping the mandatory minicamp held from June 17-19?
Is it the quarterback?
Johnson showed he was fed up with Matt Schaub in their heated exchange during the Oakland game, even though they finished the 2013 season with no further outbursts. If he had problems with Schaub, how does he feel about a journeyman like Ryan Fitzpatrick?
Is it the coach?
After Bill O’Brien spoke with Johnson on May 16, the head man said, "The conversations that Andre and I have had have been very positive about what we're doing here as a team," per Pro Football Talk. Johnson has said nothing publicly about that conversation or anything else regarding O’Brien, but his habit has always been to keep his feelings on the down-low.
Houstonian and longtime Green Bay Packer Donald Driver has been in this predicament before. He told James Palmer of CSNHouston.com:
I’ve been through the same situation Andre’s in. You feel like you want more. Normally, the organization knows what they want and the player knows what they want. Sometimes you have to meet in the middle. I think sooner or later they’re going to meet in the middle and Andre is going to be back at camp.
With the dearth of information surrounding this stalemate, Driver’s optimism cannot be discounted.
Johnson's age combined with his price tag makes him too hard to move in a trade. If he is concerned about winning a ring or cementing his status as a Hall of Fame contender, retiring or sitting out will not get him any closer to those goals.
Experiencing only three winning seasons and two playoff victories in his 11 seasons is a tough pill to swallow. Swallowing his pride may be easier for Johnson if the alternative is not playing at all.
Jadeveon Clowney’s Injury Will Not Ruin His Rookie Season
Oh no, not another sports hernia injury!
Johnathan Joseph battled a double dose of this bugaboo in 2012, then had them repaired before the 2013 season. If you’re looking for a reason why his play last season was still substandard, Joseph injured his toe in Week 4 and finally tore the ligament for good in the last game of the year. There is no reason to blame the hernias from 2012 anymore!
In the video above, Bleacher Report’s Will Carroll describes Clowney’s injury as “something to be concerned about but not overly concerned.” It will take six to eight weeks of recovery, and the coaching staff will probably take a gradual approach on what they will allow him to do in the first few weeks of training camp.
The biggest concern should not be the injury but the reps missed on the practice field. Clowney is listed on the roster as linebacker, and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel has him playing on the outside to take advantage of his speed and agility. There are also new responsibilities playing the “Will” or weak-side linebacker in 3-4 defense, such as pass coverage and defending the run over a wider area.
One of the goals at training camp is to throw as much of the playbook as possible at the rookies—not just to acquaint them with all the intricacies of the pro game, but to figure out how to best utilize the skill set of each individual player.
When the regular season rolls around, Crennel will try to simplify things as much as possible for Clowney. John Clayton of ESPN described how this might work in light of his healing hernia.
The worst-case scenario is that he starts just in the subpackage. Houston will ask for more from its pass-defense unit this year than it did in 2013. The Texans' subpackage was on the field for only 392 snaps the past season, the lowest total in the league.
Clayton is implying that Houston’s defense will go with a higher percentage of nickel and dime defenses, something closer to the 60-70 percent most NFL teams go with. In this case, Clowney will have more of a free hand to hound the quarterback and not be overly concerned with covering a tight end or running back.
His former South Carolina teammate D.J. Swearinger could be a big help in this regard. Swearinger is more of an “in the box” safety, someone who loves playing close to the line and is best at covering receivers in the seam and the flat.
Starting out your NFL career nursing a tender groin is not the best way to get rolling in this competitive league, particularly when you are the top pick in the draft. Having an old salt like Crennel leading the way is some assurance that Clowney will be put in a position to succeed.
The Texans Are Poised for a Big Turnaround
The last two seasons have made it look easy. Grab the top pick in the draft: check. Hire a new coach: check. Win 11 games and earn a playoff berth: not so fast, cowboy.
The 2012 Indianapolis Colts and 2013 Kansas City Chiefs managed to pull this off as if it was all scripted in advance. The truth is only one other team in the history of the league had a comparable turnaround: the 2008 Miami Dolphins. They went from 1-15 in 2007 to 11-5 and a playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens the following year.
No other teams outside of these three improved from 14 or more losses to double-digit wins the following year. The Texans will be assisted by a strength of schedule of .441 that ranks 30th in the league. The AFC South is a relatively weak division where the 2013 champion Colts will still field a rather flimsy defense this year.
The one aspect that will prevent the Texans from posting the big turnaround is their quarterback. The Colts changed the entire direction of their franchise once Andrew Luck took the reins of the offense. The Chiefs traded for Alex Smith, and he continued the renaissance of his career in Kansas City.
Unless Ryan Fitzpatrick is transformed by the spells of the Texans’ quarterback whisperer Bill O’Brien, a record of somewhere between 4-12 and 7-9 is a likely outcome.