6 Things We Learned from the Houston Texans OTAs
The Houston Texans are into their second session of OTAs, and so far the results have been inconclusive. It is too early in the process to get a firm idea of where this team is headed.
While the participants are in the midst of acclimating themselves to this unfamiliar environment, enough information has accumulated to formulate a few relevant points on where the organization stands. It may be a hazy picture, but some interesting features are starting to emerge.
The Texans Are in Year One
Every new coach wants to start off with a clean slate. “Out with the old and in with the new” is standard operating procedure, as the head man makes every effort to build a new structure out of the ruins left by his failed predecessor.
Usually, those efforts begin at the top of the pyramid with an overhaul of the coaching staff; Bill O’Brien thought it was best to start with the players, however.
Before the new coaching staff was even finalized, O’Brien had all vestiges of individual accomplishments (Pro Bowl awards, Player of the Month honors, etc.) removed from the facility. Names were removed from lockers and replaced with the player’s number.
The most common interpretation is that this was all done to change the prevailing culture and construct a team identity. Radio voice of the Houston Texans Marc Vandermeer thinks otherwise. In his blog entry titled "The O’Brien Way," Vandermeer believes that O'Brien is "simply implementing what he thinks is the right way to do business.”
As far as OTAs are concerned, not much has changed other than the pace. O’Brien felt it was vital to practice at game tempo, per Bret Kollman of SB Nation:
I think it’s really important because the game is played at such a fast pace. The game is really played at a fast pace. I’m not talking about running a ton of plays, I’m just talking about the pace of the game.
J.J. Watt noticed the difference from the way Kubiak conducted practice. “We are definitely moving faster,” according to Watt.
This is just the beginning, and the sense is that more changes are forthcoming. A few will be covered in the remainder of this article, while others will unfold as the head coach sees fit.
As Vandermeer put it, “This is year one.”
Jadeveon Clowney Is Still Catching Up
The Texans top draft pick was one of 35 rookies chosen to attend 20th Annual NFLPA Rookie Premiere, an event sponsored by NFL Players Inc. He was mandated to spend three days in Los Angeles learning the importance of working with the business partners of the marketing arm affiliated with the players union.
Clowney was already behind the curve learning his new position at outside linebacker. Now, he was going to have make up for two missed days of OTAs. “They’re behind on what we covered last week when they weren’t here…now they’re back and they have to catch up” said Bill O’Brien, per David Barron of the Houston Chronicle.
In the run-up to the draft, former NFL defensive end and current SB Nation writer Stephen White was convinced that Clowney was born to be a 3-4 outside linebacker because he is “friggin' amazing in space.” But it was going to take a lot of coaching to overcome his lack of technique in virtually every aspect of pass-rushing:
In many ways, I'm pretty puzzled (and somewhat disappointed) as to how Clowney could have played that much in college and still be this raw technique-wise. It's also because he is still so raw that makes him so attractive as the top overall pick. Unless we find out that Clowney repeatedly refused to learn new things, he should be viewed as a ball of clay just waiting to be molded into an ass-kicking, pass-rushing monster.
He won’t get the coaching if he’s running out to L.A. trying to improve his branding with Panini America and EA SPORTS. This little excursion was just a blip on the radar, and everyone concerned should hope that diversions like this are limited in the future.
This New Offense Is Tough To Pick Up
The offensive players of the Houston Texans are not just trying to learn a new system but a whole new way of thinking when it comes to moving the ball.
A check of the 2014 Houston Texans’ page at Pro Football Reference does not have a Team Info section that classifies the offense. The Texans’ 2013 page lists its former offense as “West Coast.” When the 2013 page is updated it will read “Erhardt-Perkins,” just like the 2013 New England Patriots.
A definition of what the Erhardt-Perkins offense entails is too involved to be covered here. Ryan Fitzpatrick, one of the contenders for quarterbacking this system gave his take, though, per Brain T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle: "It’s definitely a complex system. There’s just a lot of demands. Not only on the quarterback but everybody. You’ve got to be a smart player to play in this offense.”
Brett Kollmann of the Battle Red Blog did an excellent job of explaining some of the basic principles of Erhardt-Perkins (without referring to it by name), and it took him a couple of thousand words just to scratch the surface. Here is just one snippet of the “demands” Fitzpatrick was referring to:
The deep system of "check with me’s" is so much more than just simply changing a pass play to a run play; in fact, the quarterback has the power to turn a pass play into any play. If he smells blitz, it is the quarterback’s job to identify the Mike, call out new protections, adjust routes accordingly based on the direction and manner of the diagnosed pressure package, communicate "hot" assignments to receivers on both sides, receive the snap, look for blitzers to make sure he does not have to throw hot, locate post-snap coverage, determine whether or not your receivers are going to adjust their routes based on that coverage, and then deliver an accurate football somewhere within the span of fifteen seconds.
The “fifteen seconds” Kollman is referring to is the length of the play plus the pre-snap read. This is why, when asked what he looked for in a quarterback, the answer O’Brien gave to Don Banks of Sports Illustrated was: "To me it's really two things. The guy has to be able to throw the ball accurately and a guy has to have intelligence. He has to have a quick mind. He's got to be able to process things in two or three seconds."
The system is not deliberately complicated. On the contrary, the play-calling is simplified to a single name like “Gotti” or “Hoffa” instead of “Right. Y-Mo. 3, 15 O.P. Naked right arrow F. Pump.”
Chris B. Brown of Grantland described Erhardt-Perkins as being based on concepts instead of a sequence of terminology that indicates snap counts, play direction, passing routes, blocking assignments or play fakes:
The biggest advantage of the concept-based system is that it operates from the perspective of the most critical player on offense: the quarterback. In other systems, even if the underlying principles are the exact same, the play and its name might be very different. Rather than juggling all this information in real time, an Erhardt-Perkins quarterback only has to read a given arrangement of receivers.
The learning curve doesn’t just apply to quarterbacks. Second-year wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins has had his own struggles assimilating all the new “concepts,” per Smith: "It's not been easy. I'm not going to lie. It's a new playbook. You have to refocus. You have to do everything you did your rookie year all over again."
Yogi Berra once said of baseball, "Ninety percent of this game is half mental." Some might study the Texans this offseason and decide half of this game is ninety percent mental. That would be the offensive half.
The Houston Texans Will Take All Injuries Very Seriously
When Bill O’Brien let the media know that Louis Nix had suffered a minor injury, per Smith, he put everyone’s mind at ease by saying, “I think he’ll be fine. I don’t think it’s life-threatening.”
I think the thing about injuries, to me, it’s very personal to that player. To come in here and just start right away talking about injuries, without knowing too much about it, is probably the wrong thing to do as it relates to the players. I always try to do what’s best for the player.
At least O’Brien assured Nix’s family that the player was not in mortal danger. However, it came off as a flippant way of disclosing nothing about the injury for the moment.
Some must have wondered if this was another example of how followers of the Patriot Way deal with injuries.
Bill Belichick has developed a reputation, whether it is deserved or not, of using an overloaded injury list as a weapon of deception. This tendency is so renowned that John Harbaugh of the Baltimore Ravens vowed to follow Belichick’s lead after the Ravens were fined $20,000 in 2012 for not putting Ed Reed on the injury report.
Harbaugh did not think Reed’s injury met the necessary level of “significance” the NFL uses to require his inclusion on the weekly injury report. Per Jeff Zrebiec of the Baltimore Sun, the fine meant Harbaugh was now going to do it the Patriot Way, stating, "Bill figured it out way before the rest of us did. His injury report is that long. It’s been that way for years. We tried to do it the other way and be straightforward with our injury report and we got fined for it. So we’re moving on."
To avoid the sort of ridiculous exchanges Belichick has had with the media in the past regarding who is injured and how severely, O’Brien laid out some guideline for the media, per Stradley:
The only thing new in the media guidelines for this year is a request not to ask Bill O’Brien about players who are not there. That he is not going to answer those questions. And we’ve been told he does not want to discuss injuries. This is a change in previous years because usually the first question after practice was the injury status of the players. We didn’t always get complete and accurate discussions of injuries from Gary Kubiak, but there was some discussion of it.
Apparently, the best way to curtail any further inquiries about a player’s health is to assure the media that he is not hooked up to life support.
This Army Travels on Its Feet
The lack of a franchise quarterback and the 2014 draft choices the team made should have made it obvious that this edition of the Houston Texans will be dedicated to a ground-based assault. Then the head coach made sure there would be no reliance on mechanized devices, whatsoever.
After the opening of OTAs on May 27, Bill O’Brien announced that players would have to walk from the locker room to the practice field. No more motorized conveyances would be allowed to transport the players from place to place, including the Segways Arian Foster gave to his offensive linemen as Christmas presents in 2012.
As if the removal of awards and other personal touches was not enough, now everyone has to trudge through the Texas heat to go to work. Another exercise in team building no doubt, but it could have been sold as a safety measure.
The then-owner of the Segway company, Jimi Heselden, was killed in 2010 when his Segway plunged off a cliff on his English estate, an irony even Alanis Morissette wouldn't believe.
More than a few players should recall when Matt Schaub was almost run over by a golf cart during practice. Schaub credited his almost non-existent mobility for escaping without harm, per John McClain of the Houston Chronicle:
A golf cart almost hit Matt Schaub during practice. "It's a good thing I've got such nimble feet. That's the youthfulness coach talks about"
— John McClain (@McClain_on_NFL) August 14, 2013
Per Smith, when all this was announced, O’Brien pleaded to the media: “Don’t make that a big deal, please. That is not a big deal.”
Too late, coach, you did that all by yourself.
OTAs Are Not Real Football
If the NFL Scouting Combine is comically referred to as “The Underwear Olympics,” then OTAs should be called “The Shells and Shorts Show.” (Shells is the term used when players practice in just helmets and shoulder pads.)
John McClain of the Houston Chronicle made a video where he answered the question, “People ask me all the time, ‘How do the Texans look in OTAs?’ They look like a bunch of guys running around in helmets and shorts and T-shirts.”
The players are prohibited from participating in any contact drills. Passing drills are 7-on-7 or 8-on-8 contests and only simulate what goes on in a game. Blocking and tackling practice is done on sleds and dummies.
The overall value of OTAs is some light conditioning and a phased installation of the playbook. Coaches judge how comfortable everyone is with the base schemes, and as the sessions progress more sophisticated formations, tactics and strategies are introduced.
On an individual level, players are being assessed on their footwork, technique, stamina and mastery of basic concepts. Someone with exceptional physical skills may get a little leeway on the mental side of the game. The reverse holds true to some extent, but the smart guy who runs like his feet are in mud is likely to get sent home early.
OTAs may not be real football, but they are a means to an end—an essential part of a process that has been instituted to cut down on injuries and progressive brain trauma.
They were not designed to leave everyone hungry for that crack of the pads that only comes in full-contact drills. But that’s exactly what they do.