If a team wins a division title one year, chances are most of the conditions that propelled them to that triumph remain intact. In the case of the 2011 AFC South champion Houston Texans, there have been some changes over the offseason.
Most pundits will point to the departure of the right side of offensive line in the persons of Mike Brisiel and Eric Winston. The Texans’ brain trust must also compensate for the release of No. 3 receiver Jacoby Jones and the free agent signing by Denver of Joel Dreesen.
Others will note the loss on the defensive side of Pro Bowlers DeMeco Ryans and Mario Williams, even though their overall impact was diminished by a change to the 3-4 defense and a season ending injury in Week 5, respectively.
In general, most of the pieces are still in place in 2012. Anything less than a repeat as AFC South champs will be a disappointment to all involved. Now let us run down the reasons why Houston’s pro football franchise has the upper hand over the rest of their divisional foes.
When a team reaches an important milestone, like their first division crown, everything changes. From being the hunter to the hunted, from trying to find what will work to knowing what does, from wondering if you are good enough to knowing that you are.
Things could have fallen apart when Arian Foster missed a few starts, Mario Williams was lost for the season, Matt Schaub went down for the year, and Andre Johnson missed more than half the games. The Texans let none of this stand in their way.
Whatever questions greet them as they defend what they earned the hard way, this team can look back to 2011 and understand what it takes to persevere. Lessons of this nature will prove invaluable as the setbacks in personnel and good fortune inevitably occur.
Coach Gary Kubiak and GM Rick Smith are in their seventh year on the job. Oh yes, there were times when the fans and the media called for their heads. And it is only by the grace of owner Bob McNair they did not roll.
Mr. McNair’s faith finally paid off, but was it a one-year wonder? The big boss does not think so, as both were signed to contract extensions in the offseason.
Both the Colt’s Bob Pagano and the Jag’s Mike Mularkey are in the first year at their positions. Mike Munchak of the Titans proved he was ready for the promotion as they contended until Week 16.
Ryan Grigson is a rookie GM for the Colts who was previously Director of Player Personnel for the Eagles. If you try to find Gene Smith on the Jaguars’ website, you will find their GM on the “Scouts” page. I’m still trying to figure that out.
Ruston Webster holds the title of Executive VP/GM for the Titans. But everyone knows it is Mike Reinfeldt who really does the bidding of owner Bud Adams on a day-to-day basis. He has the most experience of anyone in this bunch, and he needs every bit of it working for Adams.
Matt Schaub has been at the helm of the Texans for six consecutive seasons now. Matt Hasselbeck of the Tennessee Titans and Blaine Gabbert of the Jacksonville Jaguars are both heading into their second year with their teams. Overall No. 1 draft pick Andrew Luck is facing his baptism of fire in the NFL.
Word out of Titans’ training camp is Jake Locker and Hasselbeck are duking it out for the starting job, to somewhat mixed results. The expectation is for Locker to take over the job at some point. There is nothing like a quarterback controversy to derail any attempt to build upon the promising 9-7 record from last year.
Blaine Gabbert spent his rookie indoctrination impersonating a gun-shy, hyperactive tackling dummy behind the worst pass blocking line in the league per Pro Football Focus.
Given his circumstances with the Colts, Luck’s surname comes off as a cruel joke. Gone is 5-time Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday from an already porous OL, along with the No. 2 receiver Pierre Garcon. And let’s not forget Peyton’s favorite safety valve, Dallas Clark, is now with Tampa Bay. This is your reward for being the first player taken.
Schaub may be recovering from the most oddly named of foot injuries, but his Lisfranc separation is fully healed. He has a proven assemblage of talent around him in Arian Foster, Andre Johnson, and Owen Daniels. If quarterback is the most important position on the field, no one in this division is better prepared than the Texans.
When Arian Foster missed three games in 2011, the potential of Ben Tate was uncovered. A handful of additional carries and the Texans would have had two 1,000 yard rushers.
As far as the Titans go, it’s The Chris Johnson Show. After a horrendous start, he began to return to form in the last few weeks of the season. Javon Ringer may have potential, but lacks enough carries to show it.
The Jaguars are fortunate to have Maurice Jones-Drew. Without him, they might be the worst offensive team since the winless Tampa Bay Bucs of 1976. Rashad Jennings has recovered from the knee injury suffered last preseason. But considering MJD also led the Jags in touchdown receptions a year ago, how can they afford to have him on the sidelines at all?
The Colts are forced to choose between Donald Brown and nine-year vet, Mewelde Moore. A Hobson’s Choice is one where there is only one real option. Mr. Brown, I believe we have a new nickname for you. Mr. Moore, at age 30 you have to prove you can beat out the likes of Deji Karim and Delone Carter. If you fail to pull that off, retirement may be your best option.
Wade Phillips has been an NFL position coach, defensive coordinator (DC), or head coach all but one year since 1976. Here is how his competition stacks up in the AFC South.
Jacksonville Jaguars Mel Tucker: 2011 will be his first year as an NFL DC.
Coach Phillips was not present at the birth of the 3-4 as a base defense when his dad took over the Houston Oilers in 1975. It took him a year to catch on as the defensive line coach for Bum under DC Ed Biles.
Dick LeBeau may have a few birthdays on Son of Bum, but Wade has more direct experience running a defense than any other assistant in football. As far as his compatriots go in this division, it’s clearly no contest.
From the best pair of defensive ends in J.J Watt and Antonio Smith, to the OLB’s with the most sacks in Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed, to the best pass rushing ILB around in Brian Cushing, Houston has the best combination of talent and results.
The Colts had two great DE’s in Dwight Feeney and Robert Mathis. But now they are busy adapting to standing up at OLB in the 3-4 defense. At this late stage in their careers, they may be willing but are they able?
Cory Redding came over from the Ravens to help out at DE, but he is a 4-3 run stuffer not known for his rushing skills. The ILB’s are all young and nondescript.
DE Jeremy Mincey and ILB Paul Posluszny are two standouts for the Jaguars. Leger Douzable could be a great bookend for Mincey but needs more snaps. Daryl Smith is a solid pro at OLB who helped this unit keep Jacksonville in more games than you might think.
The whole is greater than the sum of the parts when it comes to the Titans and their D. They lack a single capable DE, but Jurrell Casey and Karl Krug do their best to make up for it at the DT spots. Will Witherspoon and Akeem Ayers are OK at OLB, but Colin McCarthy sand Barrett Ruud negate their efforts at ILB. How they ranked 8th in points allowed is a testament to Jerry Gray’s coaching ability.
Generally speaking, there are thirteen primary positions in the NFL: QB, RB, WR, TE, C, OG, OT, DE, DT, ILB, OLB, CB, S. The Texans hold the top spot at eight of those positions in the AFC South:
QB: Matt Schaub
No 2 Matt Hasselbeck
RB: Arian Foster
No. 2 Chris Johnson
WR: Andre Johnson
No. 2 Nate Washington
C: Chris Myers
No. 2 Brad Meester
OT: Duane Brown
No. 2 David Stewart
DE: J.J. Watt
No. 2 Jeremy Mincey
ILB: Brian Cushing
No. 2 Paul Posluszny
OLB: Connor Barwin
No. 2 Russell Allen
Statistics provided by Pro Football Focus used for selections. In the case of Duane Brown, David Stewart ranked higher overall but Brown allowed zero sacks as opposed to Stewart’s four.
Players, coaches, executives, blah, blah, blah. When the action lags and the eyes start roving, wouldn’t you love to settle them on some of the finest examples of Lone Star pulchritude?
Let’s see anybody, including the Cowboys cheerleaders, top that!