Championship aspirations are new to the Houston Texans.
The expansion Texans entered the NFL in 2002 in the beautiful Reliant Park stadium with their future entrusted to the first overall pick, David Carr. Nine years later the team had tallied a ghoulish 55-89 record, and their fanbase was clamoring for Gary Kubiak’s head.
However, the Texans stuck with their guy and over the next two seasons pulled off an impressive 22-10 record regular season record, winning two AFC South championships and two playoff games to boot.
But now, with the taste of success fresh on their breath, the Texans have admirably developed championship ambitions. After repeat dismissals in the divisional round of the playoffs, they’re ready to take the next step.
How will they accomplish this?
First, let’s review their offseason thus far.
Imports: Safety Ed Reed, Punter Shane Lechler and FB Greg Jones.
Exports: Safety Glover Quinn, OLB Connor Barwin, TE James Casey, CB Alan Ball and WR Kevin Walter.
Draft Picks: 7
At a quick glance the offseason looks like a failure for the Texans, but considering the cap limitations they entered free agency with, they did a pretty solid job. Ed Reed will provide leadership and experience for Houston’s young budding defense and will match Glover Quinn’s production—at least for this next season.
Greg Jones is a great signing for the Texans as he is a very strong blocking back who will help Ben Tate and Arian Foster in the running game. Barwin’s departure hurts, but the Texans have proven to have an excellent eye for pass-rushers and can find a cheaper replacement in the draft.
In 2012 the Texans defense elevated itself with the emergence of J.J Watt as an elite interior linemen. Houston suffered a serious blow when star middle linebacker Brian Cushing was injured in Week 5. Despite his absence, the Texans defense played at an above average level, ranking seventh against the run and 16th against the pass.
The return of Cushing in 2013 alone should improve the already strong defense. To aspire to become championship contenders, the Texans simply need to add a pass-rusher in the draft, and stabilize the defensive roster with depth.
The Texans offense slowly wears down opposing defenses. They employ zone-blocking schemes in the run, attacking both the interior and perimeter of the defense. In the air, the Texans largely rely on intermediate routes utilizing Matt Schaub’s excellent short distance accuracy.
Schaub, after all, is a very generic verison of Peyton Manning. His athletic skills are limited as well as his arm strength, but he compensates with awareness and accuracy.
Over the course of a game, the combination of the versatile running attack and short-passing game chews up the opponent’s defense, both mentally and physically. It is this style of offense that allowed the Texans to lead the NFL in time of possession per game in 2012. The strategy is simple: control the game’s tempo.
They are nearly impossible to beat when they control the tempo and play their style of football, as evident by their impressive regular-season record over the past two seasons.
But what happens when they can’t control the tempo?
The best way to derail the Texans offense is to suffocate the run. Stopping Arian Foster is no easy task; in fact, only four teams were able to hold him to under 50 yards rushing last season. In those games the Texans were 1-3. Below are the performances by Matt Schaub in those games.
|Opposing Team and Result||Total QBR||Touchdowns||Interceptions|
|Green Bay: lost 42-24||37.9||0||2|
|Tennessee: won 24-10||45.6||2||0|
|New England: lost 42-14||19.1||0||1|
|Minnesota: lost 23-6||46.2||0||0|
Clearly, the Texans' passing attack wasn’t spectacular in these games. Then again, it only occurred four times last season, including playoff games. So it would be melodramatic to expect major change in response to these games, wouldn’t it?
Yes, it would. But in combination with another troubling pattern, it may not be.
Another way to disrupt Houston’s game plan is to speed up the pace of the game and engage the Texans in a shootout. It may seem redundant to slowing down their rushing attack, but an opposing team can capture the tempo through their own offensive play-calling. I’m going to arbitrarily determine that a shootout is defined by any time an opposing team scores 28 or more points.
How did the Texans fare under these circumstances?
|Opposing Team and Result||QBR||Touchdown||Interceptions|
|Green Bay: lost 42-24||37.9||0||2|
|Jacksonville: won 43-37 OT||87||5||2|
|Detroit: won 34-31 OT||52.8||1||1|
|New England: lost 42-14||19.1||0||1|
|Indianpolis: lost 28-16||37.1||0||2|
|New England: lost 41-28||58.2||2||1|
These figures are perhaps more damning then the sub-50-yard rushing games from Arian Foster. Houston is 2-4 in these games, and its two wins were against Detroit and Jacksonville, who combined for a mere six wins, making the 2-4 record substantially less attractive.
When you also factor in the NFL’s growing propensity for scoring, these figures should alarm the Texans and deserve front-office reaction.
What is the appropriate reaction?
It is erroneous to shoulder the blame on Schaub for two reasons. First, there is no one available—free agency or draft—that is in the same breath as Schaub from a talent standpoint, so to entertain replacing him at this time would be foolish. Matt Schaub is not Tom Brady, but he is as good as Joe Flacco, which means he can win a Super Bowl.
Secondly, the most pressing issue with the Houston offense is its lack of a offensive versatility as a whole, which isn’t the fault of Schaub.
Houston must bring in offensive talent this offseason if it wants to be championship contenders.
They desperately need help at wide receiver. Andre Johnson is a bona fide No. 1, but he needs help. DeVier Posey showed promise last season and could be a strong No. 3 option for the Texans offense. Johnson is the team’s lone vertical threat, and given their propensity for short-passing routes, the team would benefit greatly from a solid slot receiver—shucks, Wes Welker went to Denver.
If the team could bring in a versatile No. 2 receiver, or a vertical threat and slot receiver, Houston would alleviate pressure off of Johnson and make the already solid offense more dangerous.
Further evidence of Houston’s need for more offensive talent lies in its third-down struggles. Despite being one of the top-ranking offenses in scoring and yards per game, the Texans were below average on third-down efficiency. They converted 38 percent of their third downs, ranking 17th in the NFL, during the regular season. During the playoffs they also converted only 38 percent, ranking ninth of the 12 playoff teams.
If you look especially at the New England playoff game, also known as the Shane Vereen coming-out party, Houston's struggles were blatant.
Foster was held in check for most of the game, forcing Houston to respond in the passing game. Aqib Talib did a fantastic job limiting Andre Johnson's impact, and Houston couldn't match New England's offensive input. The Texans failed to attack the Patriots secondary deep, and clung to their short passing game, hoping that Foster would spring a massive gain after the catch.
In fact, their 13-point loss who have been substantially worse if not for Daniel Manning's three huge kickoff returns. In playoff football, you have to be able to respond offensively. Last year, with the running game stymied and Andre Johnson covered, Houston could not.
When you look at the successful teams over the past season, all of them have a multiplicity of offensive options. Baltimore had the strong running game as well as Anquan Bolden, Torrey Smith, Dennis Pitta and Jacoby Jones. San Francisco used a blur of running backs, their quarterback, receivers and tight ends during their Super Bowl run. Atlanta recognized the need when they traded half their draft for Julio Jones, who gave its offense yet another threat. New England had the two tight ends, a strong running game with Stevan Ridley and open-field threats in Welker, Brandon Lloyd and Vereen.
Conversely, look at the teams who are just on the cusp of becoming serious playoff contenders, and notice that they, like Houston, need more offensive talent. Green Bay needs a running game and Cincinnati needs a non-A.J Green offensive weapon.
Moreover, some on-the-cusp teams have recognized their offensive talent deficiencies already this offseason—like the Seahawks, who addressed their need for more offensive talent by acquiring Percy Harvin; the Bears, who added Martellus Bennett; and the Vikings, who added Greg Jennings.
Houston has come a long way from the David Carr era, but that is not enough. The Texans are right on the edge of a Super Bowl run, and if they acquire some more offensive weapons in the second half of this offseason, they will leap over the edge and land in Super Bowl contention.