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The good news for Texans fans is that FO's numbers still like Houston to win the division, with a 73 percent chance the team wins at least eight games and is a playoff contender. The bad news is that they see some holes in the roster, and the win total projected for the Texans is not exactly lofty.
McCown, who also writes for the Battle Red Blog, helps us dig into those numbers.
B/R: You guys are little lower on the Texans than some prognosticators but still have them as slight favorites in the division. What's the good news for Houston fans?
McCown: Charlie Casserly is no longer around.
Okay, seriously, the good news is that good football teams are not built overnight. I think the natural thought in Houston is the equation:
2011 Texans + Matt Schaub = possible Super Bowl team
Thus, in the natural progression of things, this is the year that it all finally goes their way now that Schaub is back. Even if that doesn't happen, the Texans have hit in a big way early in the draft with J.J. Watt, Duane Brown and Brian Cushing recently.
Building a sustainable franchise is, ultimately, more desirable than building a one-year wonder. The fact that the Texans faced decisions about Mario Williams, Eric Winston and others this year was a good thing, because it meant that rather than having a no-brainer decision to pay their most productive players over the past few seasons, they could start to afford to be picky.
The decisions that Houston made may also have been influenced by the lack of short-term competition they appear to have in the division. Given recent runs by the Giants, Cardinals, Colts and Steelers in the playoffs, it's hard to fault a team for balancing long-term planning with short-term thoughts of just trying to make it into the dance rather than being outright favorites.
B/R: I've written that I expect serious defensive regression from the Texans back toward the middle of the pack (around 15th in DVOA give or take). It seems as though FO might suspect a similar result. Am I right on that?
McCown: There are two very different aspects of this question.
Yes, Football Outsiders Almanac 2012 forecasts regression for the Texans defense. However, when you build a model based primarily on regression analysis, then feed it the data that Houston made the sixth-biggest jump in defensive DVOA since 1991, it is almost certainly going to find in favor of historical precedent.
The other side of the coin is the anecdotal evidence: Did the Texans lose much in free agency, did they have anyone playing completely over his head, and did they deal with fewer injuries than an average team?
Williams was a great Texans pass-rusher and, on talent, worth every penny Buffalo paid for him. Perhaps he could have been a monster in Wade Phillips' defense. But he wasn't last year—the regression of him leaving is five sacks in five starts. DeMeco Ryans was one of the best linebackers of the mid-2000s, but replacing a two-down linebacker isn't exactly a task that keeps 3-4 teams up at night.
The names are big, but there wasn't a lot to replace from how those two performed in the 2011 season. Honestly, their biggest loss may be second corner Jason Allen—and that's more about how shaky Kareem Jackson has looked over the past two years than a real endorsement of Allen's skill.
I don't see any anecdotal reason for the Texans to expect regression from most of their starters next season. Cushing and Johnathan Joseph have played that well before. Watt and Connor Barwin are excellent scheme fits that didn't slow down near the end of the season.
If there is one person to expect regression from, I'd say it's probably nickelback Brice McCain—a player who had no history of ever playing well before last season. Injury-wise, the Texans had very normal health outside of defensive back, where they finished in the top eight of our adjusted games-lost stat.
While acknowledging the fact that teams that take this sort of leap forward are at risk for regression, I don't think there's anything about the actual scenario that screams that it will happen. If key cogs get injured, the Texans will play worse, and if they don't, I think it's fair to expect only slightly worse from the defense next year.
B/R: What needs to happen for Houston pass the 8.8 wins they are slotted for?
McCown: Well, asides from the usual stuff (e.g. pristine health from their stars), I think the biggest key to the season will be the development of the young receiving corps.
We've seen receivers step in and become instant contributors in offenses with increased frequency over the past couple of years. With Kevin Walter's ability to do more than catch balls in zones and off picks fading, the Texans desperately need someone to deliver an effortless and effective rookie season.
DeVier Posey's year away from the competitive grind could be a disadvantage as far as playing early, and they didn't address the position in free agency or earlier in the draft. Just one more credible receiver from among Posey, Keshawn Martin and Lestar Jean would go a long way. If they can't find that guy and Andre Johnson misses time with injury for a third straight year, this team is going to turtle up like the mid-90s Steelers.
One other thing that would be helpful? If the Texans could actually win some close games for once. Over the past two seasons, the Texans are 2-7 in games decided by less than a touchdown.
Many thanks to McCown, who will be doing similar previews on the other teams in the South in the days to come. Make sure to buy your copy of FOA 2012 today.