Houston Texans' Super Bowl Window Has Slammed Shut

Use your ← → (arrow) keys to browse more stories
Houston Texans' Super Bowl Window Has Slammed Shut

There was no more quotable NFL coach in the 93-year history of the league than the recently departed Bum Phillips. After the Houston Oilers lost the AFC championship to the Pittsburgh Steelers for the second year in a row in 1979, he made the most celebrated declaration of his coaching career.  

"Last year we knocked on the door. This year we beat on it. Next year we're going to kick the son of a bitch in!"

After that second loss, the Oilers took the radical step of trading their long-time quarterback Dan Pastorini for Kenny Stabler (a.k.a. “The Snake”) of the Oakland Raiders. Pastorini had grown weary of the abuse Houston fans had heaped upon him and The Snake had a Super Bowl win on his resume. 

The only problem was Stabler’s arm had lost its zip as he threw for 28 interceptions against a paltry 13 touchdowns. Coincidentally, the Oilers ended up dropping the Wild Card game to the Raiders, who would end up victorious in Super Bowl XV. And it would be Jim Plunkett, not Pastorini, who ended up being named MVP. 

Phillips was fired after the Raiders loss, and the Oilers would not sniff the postseason again until 1987. The Super Bowl window for Bum and that Houston team was brief but legendary for the way Luv Ya Blue brought a growing city together.    

The Houston Texans have been on a comparable trajectory over the last three seasons. They have not advanced as far in the playoffs as those Oilers teams, but were convinced the pieces were in place to take things to the next level this year. 

All they needed was a little tweak here and there. First of all, Matt Schaub had to snap out of the slump that plagued him over the last six games of last year. To that end, they devoted their first round draft pick to a sticky-fingered wide receiver that had second-most touchdown receptions in the NCAA. 

As events have unfolded, it would take more than the addition of DeAndre Hopkins to complete this puzzle. The Schaub slump has turned into a death spiral that threatens to sink not just this season, but the immediate future of the entire organization. 

In its broadest terms, most NFL observers understand what constitutes a “window” of success. In the study of political science, there is a concept known as the “Overton Window.” Defined as “relatively narrow range of potential policies (that) will be considered politically acceptable,” the football equivalent has its own components. 

When a team has the appropriate combination of talent, experience, coaching and management, the window can be said to be “open.” What typifies the Overton Window is its narrow range. Since the adoption of unrestricted free agency in 1993, there has been only two back-to-back champions in 20 years (Denver Broncos 1997-98, New England Patriots 2003-04). 

In the 28 seasons before that, there were six repeat champs. “Narrow” seems to also be the operative description for range of the current NFL window.

 

The Quarterback

Vincent Frank of our very own Bleacher Report asked “Is There Any Validity to a 'Super Bowl Window'?” during the 2013 offseason. Just as our own comparison of two eras in Houston’s football history demonstrated, Frank agreed that nothing is more important than having a franchise quarterback. 

It is also critical to have that quarterback in the peak portion of his career arc. By the time Stabler joined the Oilers, he was all used up. And his play continued to decline over the final four years of his career. 

When Schaub suffered his Lisfranc injury in 2011, his overall numbers were projected to be down from his two previous 4,000 passing yard seasons. But his 5.1 touchdown percentage, 13.9 yards per completion and adjusted net yards per attempt of 7.83 were the highest of his career as a starter.   

While he did have some some top-flight outings against Denver, Baltimore and Jacksonville during 2012, the letterman jacket game versus the Patriots in Week 14 looks like Schaub’s breaking point. As if the 14 interceptions and the four consecutive games with a pick-six were not bad enough, his 4-8 won-loss record since that game is in Carson Palmer territory

Right now, he is just another broken quarterback praying for a Kurt Warner resurrection. It appears that when Schaub’s window was shut, it came down on his throwing hand. 

If the thought of Case Keenum brightens your day, consider this. Only two second-year quarterbacks have won Super Bowls, Tom Brady in 2001 and Ben Roethlisberger in 2005. He may improve enough by next season to be an effective starter, but do you really think this undrafted free agent is in their class?

 

The Offense

Just after the final cutdown of the preseason, Jimmy Kempski of Philly.com calculated the average age of every NFL team. Your Houston Texans came in at the 20th spot 26.22 years. That looks a nice Goldilocks figure: not too young or too old, but just right. 

One look at the birthdays of the offensive starters will change your mind. Using the depth chart from opening day, the average age of this unit is 28.37 years. This is older than any single team in the league, with only five of its 11 members under 30. The relative youth of DeAndre Hopkins (21), Brandon Brooks (24) and Derek Newton (26) really helps. 

Arian Foster is 27, with just over three full seasons as the starter at running back. The most frequently quoted figure for the career length of this position is 2.57 years, though it is based on an NFLPA study from 1987-96. Given the abuse these players take, it probably makes sense to measure their longevity like dog years. 

Which means Foster could be just a year or so from slip-sliding away. With over 390 touches in both 2010 and 2012, the Curse of 370 almost guarantees it

Andre Johnson had a remarkable campaign last season, catching 112 passes and not missing a game. He has yet to miss a game, but that concussion against the Tennessee Titans was followed by a nagging shin problem. He leads the league with 48 receptions, but you know this level of production cannot go on indefinitely.   

The same holds true for Owen Daniels, Chris Myers and Wade Smith. Maybe Garrett Graham, Ben Jones and David Quessenberry can take over for them. But then your depth is gone, and who else is there in the pipeline to take their place?

 

The Defense 

It could be argued J.J. Watt is the most dominant defensive player at any position. But as Cushing goes, so goes the Texans defense. And when Cush goes out, the defense goes bye-bye. 

While they did not completely fold after his LCL injury, it allowed the Kansas City Chiefs to control the clock and turn the game over to their defense. 

Let’s not forget the Seattle Seahawks game, where Russell Wilson gained 53 yards on the ground during that fourth quarter drive that cut Houston’s lead to seven. With Cushing in the game, that becomes more problematic. And Richard Sherman’s pick-six does not tie the score. 

The fortunes of this year turned on that interception return as surely as Tom Brady’s dissection of the Texans defense in that Monday night game changed the course of last season. Brian Cushing was not on the field during either of those critical situations. 

His injuries are coming from actual contact, meaning there is no indication his body is injury-prone in any way. That is little consolation when the players understand his absence has a multiplier effect in the negative direction. 

The linebacker corps coming into 2013 was as thin as Anthony Weiner’s sexting excuses. Darryl Sharpton is supposed to take Cushing’s place when he cannot even be counted on for spot duty. 

Both draft picks were busts, with Sam Montgomery being demoted to defensive end before his release. Football Outsiders recorded just 18 defensive snaps for Willie Jefferson, so it is hard to tell if he was any great loss at all. 

Brooks Reed is destined for inside linebacker since he is a liability on the outside both rushing the passer and covering receivers. This means Whitney Mercilus is the only player bringing pressure from the edge in a defense designed to turn speed rushers into stars. 

Somebody had the notion this would all take care of itself. It may sound trite, but failure to prepare is preparing to fail. 

 

Contracts

General manager Rick Smith pays his players well, but every team that has been successful ends up facing the collision of deferred compensation with decreasing performance.

 

Player Age in 2014  2014 Cap Hit 2015 Cap Hit
Andre Johnson 33 11,944,583 15,944,583
Matt Schaub 33 14,500,000 17,000,000
Duane Brown 29 8,500,000 9,500,000
Brian Cushing 27 6,250,000 8,250,000
Johnathan Joseph 30 11,250,000 12,250,000
Arian Foster 28 8,750,000 9,000,000
Chris Myers 33 7,000,000 8,000,000
Owen Daniels 32 6,250,000 UFA
Danieal Manning 32 5,500,000 UFA
Shane Lechler 38 2,083,333 2,083,334
  Total: 82,207,916  

 

According to the NFLPA website, the average salary cap per team is $123,063,694, with an average $6,194,123 of available cap room. The figures differ from team to team due to carryover cap space from previous years. 

The Sports Business Journal projects the 2014 salary cap at $122 million, which does not include any carryover amounts. Using this as a base figure, the Texans have 67.6 percent of their cap space allocated to 10 players. This does not include unrestricted free agents (UFA) Antonio Smith and Wade Smith, whose 2013 cap hits were $9,147,059 and $3,750,000, respectively. 

Obviously, some tough decisions lay ahead. These figures can be affected by renegotiation, releases and unpursued UFAs. The biggest concern is the players over 30 that are taking up the majority of the cap room. 

Some of them are going to take less money or face their outright release. Most eyes are cast on Matt Schaub and his $14,500,000. As explained by Joel Corry of Yahoo Sports, if Schaub were released after June 1, 2014, his cap hit would be just $3.5 million of his prorated signing bonus. This is just one example of the wiggle-room that is built into many of these megabuck deals. 

The fact remains that a lot of funds are locked up in just a handful of players. If you let them go, is there someone on the roster to take their place or an affordable free agent that can do the job? 

This dilemma explains why the Texans offensive line gave up four sacks in the fourth quarter of the Kansas City game. It also explains why Houston’s quarterbacks have already been sacked 22 times through seven games as opposed to 27 for all of 2012.

 

Coaching

Those of us who watch the Texans can quibble about individual play calls, personnel packages and sloppy execution. This was intended to be a big picture look, so we will not nitpick the details. 

There are two specific areas that have prevented this team from getting more out of the talent they have, which is considerable. 

The zone blocking system as designed by Alex Gibbs is intended to be run the same way regardless of the defensive formation. The same techniques are consistently utilized to aid in refining the execution of the scheme and to disguise the intent of the play. In other words, if the offensive line does not change its look the defense will not be tipped off as to what play is coming. 

This approach worked for most of the Gary Kubiak era, but recent results indicate its day has past. Defense are not biting on the boot anymore, and too many horizontal passing routes have allowed Cover 2 safeties to sit back and let the play come to them. 

The changeover from Schaub to Keenum seemed to open up some vertical plays. Hopkins gets the go-ahead to blow by Kendrick Lewis of the Kansas City Chiefs on a “9” route straight to the end zone. Nothing fancy, and no tapering off the route to keep it safe. 

On defense, Wade Phillips has relied on man coverage for so long even an average quarterback can pick it apart with adequate pass protection. On this 34-yard pass to the St. Louis Rams’ Jared Cook, Joe Mays has no responsibility once Sam Bradford brings the ball above his waist.   

By the time Mays sees what’s happening, Shiloh Keo is all by his lonesome as the tight end cuts inside, then out. An easy completion when one player has to cover all that space. 

Mixing in some zone to disguise the man assignments might cause enough confusion to buy the defensive backs a little time. When the receivers can single up just about any time, they will get open more often than not. 

Both these coaches have been running the same system for so long it might be too late for them to try something new. And too late for the Texans to find a way to jimmy that Super Bowl window open again.

 

 

 

 

 

Load More Stories

Follow Houston Texans from B/R on Facebook

Follow Houston Texans from B/R on Facebook and get the latest updates straight to your newsfeed!

Houston Texans

Subscribe Now

We will never share your email address

Thanks for signing up.