5 Mistakes the Houston Texans Can't Afford to Make This Offseason
Any team that goes 2-14 has made more mistakes than Larry King has had wives. For the 2013 Houston Texans, they spanned from signing the aged and declining Ed Reed to sticking with Matt Schaub at quarterback well beyond the point of reason.
Since the owner cannot fire most of the players, the coaches end up bearing the brunt of the failures. Gary Kubiak and the bulk of his staff were certainly deserving of being shown the door.
Whatever tune they were playing, this supposed assemblage of Super Bowl-level talent stopped listening somewhere along the way. Bill O’Brien was hired away from Penn State as the new head coach and is in the final stages of constructing his own ensemble of coaching expertise.
O’Brien is expected to do what Kubiak could not: hold players responsible for their foul-ups on the gridiron and alter the game plan when it stops working. This sounds simple enough, but the details frequently bedevil those who attain such a prominent position of leadership.
There are several pitfalls confronting the Texans as they embark on the rebuilding process. The extent to which they can be avoided will spell the difference between winning and losing.
Do Not Duplicate the Patriot Way, Learn from It
The entirety of O’Brien’s NFL experience was spent with the New England Patriots, rising from offensive assistant in 2007 to a single season as offensive coordinator in 2011. How closely will his template for success resemble what Bill Belichick has done over the years?
One hallmark of the Patriot Way has been letting go of players in a totally ruthless fashion. The list stretches from Drew Beldsoe to Damien Woody to Wes Welker and includes players at the top of their careers such as Ty Law and Adam Vinatieri.
“I think it's just that simply no one player or group of players is bigger than the team or the organization,” is how Bledsoe portrayed it in an ESPN.com article from Greg Garber. This culture of accountability was lacking in the Kubiak administration, with Matt Schaub standing in as Exhibit A.
Bledsoe believes this rule also applies to Tom Brady, but he does not cite any evidence to support his claim. O’Brien had a well-reported confrontation with Brady on the sidelines in 2011, but the incident had no repercussions after the heat of the moment subsided.
The Texans have players of their own who are beyond reproach. Andre Johnson and J.J. Watt top the list, followed closely by Brian Cushing and Duane Brown. The coach should not be afraid to call anybody out, but must realize their contributions put them in a different class.
Money was at the root of most of the departures in New England, and Watt is coming up on an option year in 2015. The read-and-react defense coached by Romeo Crennel could affect his stats, and Watt is keenly aware of securing a place among the all-time greats, per CBS Sports. It would benefit all concerned to keep that in mind when designing the defensive scheme.
The Patriot Way has yielded the most consistent results for any NFL team in the salary cap era. Belichick has the best winning percentage of any coach with 150 or more wins (.726). However, even the best philosophy can be taken too far.
If O’Brien wants to prosper in his new position, he should recall Belichick has not won a Super Bowl in the decade since the Patriot Way has become the business model for this model franchise.
Fall Prey to the Siren Song of Jadeveon Clowney
Clowney is two players in one.
There is the blow-your-doors-off combination of strength and speed that often looks like a man playing against boys. Then there is the layabout who took plays off in his junior season and played like he never learned football fundamentals.
The attraction of the first player is so strong that it threatens to turn a strong trio of quarterbacks into afterthoughts.
Andrew Luck has really fouled things up for the Texans and the rest of the NFL. His stature, mobility and immediate success have created an unapproachable benchmark for future quarterback classes.
The 2013 draft did not offer anyone that came within a light year of the Luck standard. The 2014 prospects are an ambiguous lot with unbalanced skillsets.
Teddy Bridgewater is pro-ready between the ears but not from the neck down due to his slim physique. Johnny Manziel is a tremendous improviser but plays like he is allergic to a structured offense. Blake Bortles is physically similar to Luck but his mechanics and accuracy as a passer need work.
The notion of pairing J.J. Watt with another dominant lineman is so seductive that even Texans owner Bob McNair has weighed in on the transcendent attributes of the defensive end, per the club's official site. “He is a remarkable player," McNair said. "He’s one of these players that’s really a once-in-every-10-years kind of physical specimen that comes along.”
McNair is not alone. Draft experts such as Rob Rang from CBSSports.com, Bucky Brooks and Daniel Jeremiah with NFL.com, in addition to Matthew Fairburn of SB Nation, are all buying into Clowney as the best prospect in the class and best choice for the Texans.
All of them must be fixated on the player with the incredible 2013 Outback Bowl hit that separated Michigan’s Vincent Smith from his helmet. They are conveniently forgetting plays such as the one depicted in the image above.
Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd easily scored on an eight-yard run because Clowney forgot his assignment. The defensive end is supposed to help seal the edge on the open side of the formation. Instead, he has his back to the play flow because the fake caught him looking inside.
It is hard to reconcile Rang’s enthusiasm with his comment, “Disappears for stretches of the game, raising some questions about his level of conditioning.” This is an endorsement for the No. 1 overall pick?!
During an interview on Sports Radio 610’s In The Loop with Nick and Lopez, Bill O’Brien talked about what he looked for in a quarterback:
“Is he a winner…Is he a guy that’s going to study the game morning noon or night, be obsessed with the game. I think those are things that are very important for a quarterback.”
Does this apply to other positions? If it does, someone who considered sitting out his junior year rather than risk injury does not fit the profile.
Believe Arian Foster Can Be a Featured Back Again
The red flags were flying for Foster when he was on the physically unable to perform list for most of training camp last season. He did not appear in any preseason games due to hamstring and back issues.
Foster pulled it together and managed to start the first seven games of the season, looking as if his preseason difficulties were behind him. After gaining 141 yards in Week 6 against the St. Louis Rams, he could only handle four carries the following week vs. the Kansas City Chiefs.
A back injury in the first half of the Indianapolis Colts game ended up being so severe it required season-ending surgery. The latest news on the Texans running back has centered around a paternity suit and not about his suitability to resume his football career.
Former head coach Gary Kubiak turned Foster into a star by repeatedly feeding him the ball at a pace of 320 carries a season from 2010-12. Kubiak did not have a multitude of offensive weapons in his arsenal, so he rode the back that signed as a free agent in 2009 into the ground.
His new coach comes at the game from a different direction. During O'Brien's time with the Patriots, the most carries by any back was BenJarvus Green-Ellis with 229 for 1,008 yards in 2010. In fact, that was the first time a Patriots back had gained over 1,000 yards since Corey Dillon did it in 2004.
The Erhardt-Perkins system O’Brien ran in New England uses the pass to set up the run. One back usually gets most of the work, but nothing along the lines of what Foster has previously experienced.
This is good news because Foster is not up to the task, and free agent Ben Tate will no longer be around to pick up the slack. The ball will be spread around to a bevy of backs, including a player that will be groomed as the successor to Foster.
Just where these backs will come from remains the question to be answered. It could be the draft, a street free agent, a veteran from another team, or possibly a combination of all three.
The time has come to move on. this could mean releasing the former All-Pro, eating $2.5 million worth of dead money and gaining $6 million worth of cap space according to Spotrac.
That chunk of cap space could be enough to keep Tate in the fold, but that is not the Patriot Way. Spreading it around to more than one back is, and that is the smart move.
Not Draft for Defense
Most of the discussion on how to fix what's wrong with the Texans has centered around drafting a quarterback. In all the hubbub over whether to take Brigewater, Manziel or Bortles, the only defensive possibility has been the Clowney option.
While the defense did keep the yards allowed at a respectable seventh in the league last season, points allowed were 24th. This discrepancy was a result of placing dead last in red-zone scoring percentage, according to Team Rankings. Quarterback is of paramount importance, but the restocking of the defense should not be neglected in the process.
Teams that run a 3-4 defense must be fully stocked with an array of linebackers. Accordingly, the run-stuffers for defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel should resemble the players from his best defenses with the New England Patriots.
The inside men were Tedy Bruschi (6’1”, 250 pounds) and Ted Johnson (6’4”, 255 pounds). Bruschi was a stocky defensive end from Arizona State who seamlessly made the switch to the second level. Johnson, a radio host with Sports Radio 610 in Houston, has a massive frame that dominates the attention of everyone who catches him at his many public appearances.
Brooks Reed (6’3”, 260 pounds) is no slash-and-dash pass-rusher and is a better fit on the inside where his bulk can be put to better use. Reed could line up with Shayne Skov from Stanford or Chris Borland from Wisconsin, both 245-pound interior linebackers who would be available when the Texans pick at the top of the third round.
Where does Brian Cushing fit in this rearrangement? He goes back to the outside, where his knack for backfield penetration makes him more valuable. His only full season at inside linebacker was 2011, when he had the most combined sacks, hurries and hits of any ILB that year as recorded by Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Whitney Mercilus is long and rangy with a nice burst off the snap. His problem is getting tangled up when he engages blockers because he has not learned how to use his hands to get free.
Mike Vrabel, who played with Bruschi and Johnson, did not have the athleticism that Merculis is blessed with. He just knew how to use his head to outsmart the opposition. As the Texans’ linebackers coach, he will be able to get the most out of Mercilus’ talent.
Danieal Manning is as good as gone and a younger replacement with more potential is needed. Shiloh Keo played better than anyone could have predicted going into 2013. It’s just that his ceiling at free safety has already been reached, and the position demands more athleticism than Keo can offer.
Calvin Pryor of Louisville has the versatility to play over-the-top or underneath at safety, with above-average makeup speed. Many NFL teams use multiple receiver sets that a team’s top three cornerbacks cannot always handle what is coming at them. Therefore safeties need to have the ball skills to play like a cornerback on vertical routes and deep slants.
Pryor is ranked just behind Ha Ha Clinton-Dix among free safeties by CBS Sports and will still be on the board at the start of the second round. He also brings some size to the defensive backfield at 6’2” and 208 pounds, something the Texans have lacked since Bernard Pollard left town.
Fail to Improve Kick Coverage
Bob Ligashesky pulled off a near-miracle by not only remaining on the Texans' staff, but being promoted to special teams coach. His job now is to pull off what seems like a real miracle.
Every kickoff and punt attempt by the 2013 Texans was an invitation to disaster. Shane Lechler may be the best punter in the business, and he is in line to be the first one inducted into the Hall of Fame. Even his golden foot could not prevent the team from ranking a mediocre 12th in net yards per punt.
The real adventure started when the ball fell into the opponents' hands. Lechler’s punts were returned for an average of 12.3 yards, 28th in the league.
Kickoff returns were just as bad, also ranking 28th with 25.7 yards per return. Randy Bullock also had a touchback rate of just 46 percent, which was 20th in the NFL.
Special teams were bad in 2012, and they got worse in 2013 along with everything else. Unless the Texans improve in this most basic of areas, the rest of what they do is unlikely to follow.