Houston Texans: Blueprint for a Lost Season
Now that the Houston Texans have fallen from contenders to pretenders, everyone is out to identify the culprit. The chief suspect has been embattled quarterback Matt Schaub. His record-setting string of four interception returns for touchdowns appears to make him the most obvious candidate.
Head coach Gary Kubiak has taken his share of the fallout, with many insisting his play calls have become so predictable these easy pickoffs were inevitable. The 15 turnovers committed by the Texans has further accelerated their fall from grace.
How else can a team that has gained 863 more yards than their opponents be 2-4 in the AFC South standings? A record that could easily be 0-6 without a couple of lucky walk-off wins.
The season has yet to reach the halfway point, so their fortunes could be resurrected. Looking forward, the elevation of Case Keenum to starting quarterback could be the spark that lifts this squad out of its malaise.
But the present has its roots in the past. What has transpired to this point has its origins in a series of decisions that occurred before the preseason even began.
Welcome to the 2010 Redux
Unless you jumped on the bandwagon after Wade Phillips was hired in 2011, your memories of the 2010 season may be too traumatic to recall.
Shall we recollect the premise for that forgettable year? In 2009, the Texans had their first winning season at 9-7. They were in contention for a playoff berth up until the final Sunday. However, the New York Jets also had a 9-7 record and the tiebreaker based on their 24-7 win over Houston on opening day.
Matt Schaub had a career-high 29 touchdowns and 4770 passing yards thanks to a deep receiving corps led by Andre Johnson and his best-ever nine scores. Arian Foster had over 200 rushing yards in the final two games and looked like the answer at running back.
On defense, Brian Cushing was Defensive Rookie of the Year, and accompanied Mario Williams and Demeco Ryans to the Pro Bowl. All they had to do was keep improving upon their 4-0 play down the stretch that propelled them over the .500 mark for the first time.
What promised to be the most successful season in franchise history was undone by the schizoid nature of the team. The offense was more balanced than ever, as Schaub threw for over 4,000 yards again and Foster led the league in rushing.
When free-agent cornerback Dunta Robinson was not re-signed, Kareem Jackson was drafted with the team’s first pick to take his place. Jackson was clearly not ready for the pros as he was lit up more often than a tiki torch. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) had him tied with teammate Glover Quin for the fourth-most receiving yards allowed at 924 apiece.
The struggles of the defense were never more evident than in miraculous reception by Mike Thomas as depicted above. They finished dead last in passing yards allowed and 30th in overall defensive yardage. Instead of progressing to a 10-6 record, they ended up a frustrating 6-10.
Injuries to Ryans, Cushing and Williams did not help matters. But the inability to defend the pass started from the very first game when Peyton Manning had 419 passing yards in a 34-24 Texans’ win.
The parallels between 2010 and 2013 are superficial but eerily familiar. The best won-loss record in franchise history is followed by a lopsided performance that clearly showed something significant was lacking. Except in 2013, it’s the offense that is not holding up its side of the bargain.
The reasons for that can be found in both the personnel department and in the framework of the unit that is supposed to move the ball more often than it gives it away.
Wide Receiver Neglect
The acknowledged best player in Texans history, Andre Johnson, was drafted with the team’s first selection in 2003. It would take another 10 years before the team would dare to risk their top pick on a wide receiver.
In between, general manager Rick Smith would never look higher than the third round for someone to complement Johnson. His two reaches were Jacoby Jones, taken with the 73rd pick in 2007, and DeVier Posey, the 68th choice in the 2012 draft.
Jones is the very definition of “mercurial,” in more ways than one. As difficult to control as mercury, he can also be impossible to contain once he gets his hands on the ball. That is, if he could keep the ball in his hands. For all his shortcomings, his kind of speed has been sorely lacking since being released prior to the 2012 season.
Posey had two five-game suspensions during his time at Ohio State, leaving him physically unprepared to immediately help the Texans after he was drafted as a replacement for Jones. An Achilles tendon injury late in his rookie season put him further behind the curve.
Smith and Kubiak put their faith in Kevin Walter for seven seasons, a free agent signed in 2006. His production peaked in 2008, but remained on the team until 2012 because his hands were sure and his blocking crisp.
He physically resembled Ed McCaffrey, an impressive possession receiver during Kubiak’s heyday with the Denver Broncos in their Super Bowl winning years. But Walter never approached McCaffrey’s numbers.
When DeAndre Hopkins was finally taken in the first round, the team finally had a player who was good enough start alongside Johnson. Without the speed that can blow the top off a defense, is Hopkins really the answer?
Teams like the Denver Broncos and Green Bay Packers have been able to stockpile receivers through the draft by a combination of persistence and luck. It takes the former to garner some of the latter. Drafting eight receivers in eight years, as the Texans have done, shows little evidence of either right now.
One-Sided Approach to Offensive Line
Your left tackle is a converted tight end that has been among the best at his position for several years. The left guard and center were signed as castoff free agents at bargain prices, and have been considered Pro Bowl worthy a various times in their careers.
Duane Brown, Wade Smith and Chris Myers are as solid a foundation for an offensive line as there is in the NFL. On the other side of the line, the methodology is nothing short of musical chairs.
The parade on the right flank over the last two seasons has included Antoine Caldwell, Ben Jones and Brandon Brooks at guard. Tackle has been intermittently manned by Rashad Butler, Derek Newton and Ryan Harris.
This was made necessary when right guard Mike Brisiel and right tackle Eric Winston became cap casualties after the breakthrough season in 2011. Brisiel was a too-expensive free agent that eventually signed with the Oakland Raiders, and Winston was deemed too expensive altogether and given his outright release.
Caldwell was simply too injury prone and is out of the league. Jones is a center masquerading as a guard who can be overpowered on occasion. He has filled in for Smith at times and has been adequate given his limitations.
Brooks is ostensibly the starter and is surprisingly nimble for his size (325 pounds) when going forward in run blocking. Going backwards on pass plays is barely a break-even proposition for him.
Butler was cut by Houston and has played eight snaps for the Cleveland Browns this year. Derek Newton is a better run blocker than many realize, since he is inevitably compared to the All-Pro D. Brown. His right knee, which had surgery in the offseason, has nagged him since the middle of last season, as per KFFL.com.
Newton cannot kick-slide on pass blocking to save his life or that of his quarterback. Even though he played slightly better against the St. Louis Rams, he is still the lowest-rated OT in the Pro Football Focus rankings (subscription required).
Ryan Harris keeps getting a handful of snaps in relief of his hobbled partner at the position. If Newton is not physically able to do the job, Harris should take over full-time. Brooks is being touted as the long-term solution at guard, and needs to work with just one player to maintain the continuity zone blocking requires.
The patchwork nature of this group is a function of the same lack of attention paid the wide receivers. Rick Smith should be grateful Wade Smith and Chris Myers were available, because his draft history on the OL has generated even fewer returns.
Of his 10 draft picks through 2012, only five are still playing in the NFL and just two have been starters for a good portion of their careers: Brown and Newton. The GM tried to address this deficiency in 2013 when he grabbed tackles Brennan Williams and David Quessenberry.
Fate did not cooperate as Williams was hurt from the moment he joined the Texans and Quessenberry went on season-ending injured reserve just before the start of the season.
It should be noted that Brown came into training camp about 20 pounds under his 2012 playing weight. This decision may not be on a par with Arian Foster going vegan last season, but he has gone from top-drawer to merely average. His turf toe injury may have more to do with the decline, but greybeard Dwight Freeney was giving him fits in the opener before the toe was even an issue.
What’s Wrong With Matt?
The title of this slide is also the title of an article by Sage Rosenfels from the Monday Morning Quarterback website. In this rather personal piece, Rosenfels described how one play changed his career.
Known to Texans fans as the “Rosencopter,” it was a heroic attempt by a reserve quarterback to run for a first down in a 2008 game against the Indianapolis Colts. While attempting to go airborne for the needed yardage, he collides with Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, and his fumble is returned for a touchdown.
Rosenfels coughs up the ball one more time for another defensive touchdown, and he effectively loses the game in singlehanded fashion.
The effect of this sequence of events is so devastating he never throws another pass in the NFL. Very revealing stuff, and the ultimate in buzzkill for those Texans fans who are just trying to hang on in these trying times.
Rosenfels implies it took just one signature failure on his part to undo the career of an above-average backup quarterback. If that was his threshold, and Schaub fits the same psychological profile, then it is time to stick a fork in No. 8.
The breakdown of the Texans’ offensive leader has been multiple games in the making, stretching back to the Week 6 loss in 2012 to the Green Bay Packers. That 42-14 drubbing demonstrated skills that Aaron Rodgers possessed and Schaub clearly did not.
The obvious physical aspect lacking was the ability to put the ball in tight spaces. Schaub must have understood that about himself, but it had never been so apparent before.
One play early in the game made it clear. On a 3rd-and-15, Rodgers is flushed out of the pocket to his right. He is running at a fair clip when just a flick of his wrist pitches a rope to Randall Cobb just inside the sideline as Johnathan Joseph is closing in. The pass is 16 yards, just enough for the first down.
It was a throw that very few quarterbacks have ever been able to make. One of them was John Elway, a player Gary Kubiak in quite familiar with. Kubiak was Elway’s quarterback coach as his career was winding down and at the same time was winning back-to-back Super Bowls.
Schaub has never been blessed with that kind of velocity, but has been able to get the ball where he needed to. His completion percentage is ranked seventh all-time, and his interception percentage is still top-20 even after the disastrous recent mistakes.
There was much at stake in 2012. The Texans had to build on their first AFC South title, even if that meant sacrifices had to be made.
Whether that was the intention or not, it was evident in the play calls. They would ride Arian Foster as long as that would work. By Week 12 against the Tennessee Titans, he gained just 38 yards in a 24-10 win that required six turnovers by the Titans to gain that slim margin of victory.
Going into the Monday night game against the New England Patriots, if Foster and the running game could not gain any more traction, Schaub would have to be the difference.
Then the Texans fell behind 21-0 early in the second quarter, and their quarterback became their only hope. He had done it in the Jacksonville Jaguars and Detroit Lions games, but now he was facing Tom Brady instead of Matt Stafford and Chad Henne.
And instead of trying to counter Rodgers’ laser-like precision, Schaub had to contend with Brady’s mastery of the hurry-up offense that relied on timing passes in the short zones.
Again, this simply was not part of the Texans passing game. Play-action was their key to throwing the ball. When they fell behind 28-0 in the third quarter, Schaub had to throw without any deception coming from a potential running play.
Whatever courage the Texans had to take the occasional deep strike was just about gone by the end of last season. After the New England loss, they attempted just 12 passes of 20 yards or more, completing four for one touchdown.
Even though the Bulls on Parade throttled the Cincinnati Bengals offense in their playoff win, not one pass over 20 yards was even tried. Pro Football Reference provides the epilogue to the dwindling pass attack.
The adjusted net yards per passing attempt for Schaub in 2012 was 6.64, over a yard less than his 7.73 from 2011 and the lowest since his rookie year. That is like a .300 hitter batting .250 for the season.
If Rosenfels felt secure enough to disclose what a quarterback feels in defeat, it’s hard to imagine a coach doing the same. He would let his game plan do the talking.
It Starts at the Top
If the conclusion of the 2012 season left the Texans quarterback reeling, it’s likely the head coach was not far behind.
There may have been plans to loosen up the offense, spread the ball around, stretch the defense a little bit with some vertical passing plays. Those plans went right out the window when the first pass of the new season was intercepted.
The Chargers took a single play to turn that pick into a touchdown. Two series later the Texans tied the score by running eight times and connecting with the tight ends on two passes.
The Chargers scored three more touchdowns, the last coming on a drive that opened the second half. By that point, the run-first approach that resulted in their initial touchdown had to be discarded.
For the rest of the game, nine of Schaub’s 16 completions would go to wide receivers. But only one pass was over 20 yards. Once again, the long pass was deemed too risky or could not be completed at a high enough rate.
The Tennessee Titans game is when the pick-six pandemic begins. Let’s forget whether the quarterback or receiver is to blame for error and look at where the ball is thrown.
The line of scrimmage is the Houston 10-yard line, and the ball is intercepted by Alterraun Verner at the Houston 23 before he takes it to the end zone. It is within the same range for every interception thrown this season. Each pickoff is on a route that goes no further than 15 yards downfield.
Every team’s secondary knows this and do not have to concern themselves with worrying about the Houston quarterback going over the top. They don’t even have to look at any video to figure this out.
Just go to NFL.com and check the stats by player category. Schaub has 16 passes of 20+ yards on 233 attempts, placing him 20th in the league along with one lonely bomb of 40+ yards. By comparison, Drew Brees, Joe Flacco and Peyton Manning all have 27 passes in the 20+ category on a similar number of attempts.
In the more mundane area of third-down conversions, Rivers McCown of the Battle Red Blog noted something unusual last season. Kubiak tended to run in third-and-long situations (7+ yards to go) 22 percent of the time, almost three times the league average.
Using the Pro Football Reference Game Play Finder, this season showed a completely different outcome. In 2012, the Texans played with the lead so often they could afford to run on third-and-long.
They have been behind so much of the time this season, in 43 third-and-long situation they have run just six times. That is just 14 percent, a decrease of over one-third. However, the 37 passes have revealed a more infuriating trend that has not gone unnoticed by the most fans.
Twenty-five of those 37 passes were targeted short of the first-down marker and did not have enough yards after catch, a.k.a. YAC, to earn a fresh set of downs.
McCown detailed the third-down run tendency in an article titled “Third-Down Give-Up Draws, Gary Kubiak, And You.” Apparently in 2013, we are dealing with “Third-Down Give-Up Screens, Gary Kubiak, and I Just Don’t Know Anymore.”
The strategy for the Texans passing game has compressed the coverage zones into confined areas that makes squatting on receivers and jumping routes that much easier.
This is the culmination of not enough speed at the receiver position, inconsistent pass blocking across the line, and a coach that no longer has faith in a quarterback who has lost faith in himself.
Perhaps Case Keenum represents the future, or is just a stepping stone to some brand-new rock-chucker. What we can be sure is the current recipe has failed to yield the intended results and it is time to change both the ingredients and the preparation.