Houston Texans: Recapping the Latest Buzz Heading into Training Camp
The start of training camp for the 2014 Houston Texans is coming up fast, with the rookies scheduled to arrive July 21 followed by the veterans on July 25. Going by the NFL calendar, the buildup to camp has its unofficial start with the draft and its associated hoopla.
For the Texans, the buildup really began while the team was in the midst of a 14-game losing streak in 2013. This dismal performance led to the firing of former head coach Gary Kubiak and landing the No. 1 overall pick.
The hiring of Bill O’Brien and the selection of Jadeveon Clowney kept the team in the news. The acquisition of quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick as the replacement for Matt Schaub stirred further speculation as to what might have caused Andre Johnson to question his future with the organization.
All this activity and more have been swirling around during the offseason. What follows are the most relevant topics and the buzz they have created.
Andre Johnson and Training Camp
The first outward sign of Johnson’s frustration came during his sideline spat with Matt Schaub near the end of the Oakland Raiders game in Week 11. When asked if he was up for another rebuild, the reply was, “"I'm under contract, so I have to play my contract out. I can't do anything about that."
After six months of reflection, Johnson decided what he could do was skip the voluntary OTAs, then ditch the mandatory minicamp at the cost of a $1 million roster bonus. The only word from his people during this time came from his uncle, Andre Melton, who said, “Right now, that’s all that he can do. We’ve done what we can do, so we’re just sitting there waiting.”
What they did has yet to be revealed, which is consistent with a Texans front office that is one of the most leakproof in the league and a player who is nearly as taciturn as the Great Sphinx of Giza.
While Arian Foster begged him to return with a comical Instagram post, most observers were convinced that Johnson had it right back in November. Former Texan Chester Pitts provided some insights into the possible motives of his ex-teammate in an interview by MAD Radio hosts Mike Meltser and Seth Payne on Sports Radio 610 in Houston.
Andre Johnson, 12 years in the league, recognizes there is only so much tread on the tires. And Andre Johnson did not want to take part in any of this offseason program. It’s nothing against the new coach or anything like that. But at the end of the day, when you have new people you have to perform for, he is probably going to be held to a standard that is going to push his body to limits his body is not going to be able to be pushed to during the offseason.
During the real season, when it counts…you don’t want to waste or burn cartilage when it doesn’t count. You want to burn it when it does count. That’s why I believe Andre Johnson will be there for training camp, will be ready to go for the season (opener).
Tania Ganguli of ESPN.com agrees with Pitts: There is nothing personal about Johnson’s reluctance to rejoin a team that is undergoing a major makeover. Ganguli noted, "Of course there's one player notably absent from that process, but Andre Johnson's holdout isn't really about the new regime so much as the tiresome prospect of starting over again."
Whether the desire to spare his body the hardships of training camp is his real motivation, Johnson realizes a player of his stature had little leverage in this matter. The cap hit for the three years remaining on his contract is over $45 million, according to Spotrac.
This makes him virtually untradeable despite speculation the Cleveland Browns could be shopping for a wide receiver to replace the troubled Josh Gordon.
NFL trades of productive players with eight-figure pacts are rare. If a player’s career seems to have bottomed out, then dumping that much salary makes sense. The trade of Schaub to the Raiders for a sixth-round pick is a recent example.
Johnson shows no signs of slowing down, having caught more passes in the last two seasons than any other player between the ages of 31 and 32. If new head coach Bill O’Brien diversifies the passing offense and displays a willingness to use Johnson near the goal line, sticking around could extend his career and increase his scoring opportunities.
Just prior to publication, Ian Rapaport reported that Johnson ended his silence on the prospects of attending training camp.
While not an ironclad commitment, the ice seems to be breaking in the glacial progress of the most pressing issue in this Texans offseason.
Ryan Fitzpatrick and His Generosity
We are not talking about the charity Fitzpatrick shows to his fellow man, but his tendency to relinquish the ball to opponents. Since getting his first starting job with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2008, the starting quarterback of the Texans has thrown 85 interceptions and surrendered 46 fumbles.
These ghastly figures must have contributed to the New York Post naming him the “winner of the NFL’s worst QB competition.” In reality, neither total tops the NFL over the last six seasons. Eli Manning leads the pack with 107 interceptions while Joe Flacco has the worst fumble mark with 56 over that period.
On a per-game basis, Fitzpatrick is admittedly dreadful. While Manning and Flacco spread their miscues out over 96 games, it took 79 games for Fitzpatrick to record his 1.7 average.
Brad Riter of the Trending Buffalo website broke down every interception thrown by Fitzpatrick in 2012, the season he led the league in that category. Riter concluded, “Of the 23 picks, we’re going to pin 11 directly on Ryan Fitzpatrick. 6 fall on the receiver and 6 more get chalked up to circumstance (situation and/or opponent).”
How this compares with every other NFL quarterback cannot be determined without a more comprehensive analysis. But making the quarterback responsible for about half of them could be in the ballpark of the league-wide average.
The fantasy rankings for quarterbacks compiled by Christopher Harris of ESPN places Fitzpatrick at No. 26, and Fantasy Pros has him near the bottom at No. 31. Both sites put Jay Cutler of the Chicago Bears in the top half, No. 14 for ESPN and No. 13 for Fantasy Pros.
Cutler may be a better player than Fitzpatrick, but the gap between them is not as wide as the rankings would suggest. When it comes to turnovers, they have the same per-game average.
Both have had to contend with mediocre offensive coordinators. Fitzpatrick was stuck with Curtis Modkins for three years in Buffalo. Modkins was so accomplished in that role he is now the running backs coach of the Detroit Lions.
Cutler is on his fourth coordinator in five years. But his head coach, Marc Trestman, is considered an offensive mastermind and one of the league's most innovative coaches in the opinion of Alessandro Miglio of Bleacher Report.
NFL Media columnist Adam Schein published an offseason article titled “Jay Cutler, Chicago Bears primed to realize full potential in 2014.” The prospects of Cutler are bolstered by the league’s most impressive wide receiver tandem, Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery.
As a duo, Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins are not in their class, but neither are they chopped liver. And Fitzpatrick cannot help but benefit from the offensive acumen of a coordinator who worked with Tom Brady for four seasons: head coach Bill O’Brien.
In turn, O’Brien should benefit from the intelligence of a field general who is a Harvard grad. Brett Kollmann of the Battle Red Blog quoted O’Brien speaking at the Nike Coach of the Year Clinic in 2013.
He has to have a great football IQ. And if he doesn’t, if he can’t learn it, then he should play another position. I’m telling you, because nowadays that guy once he’s out on the field has got to be like a coach on the field.
Alex Smith finally blossomed into a Pro Bowl quarterback once he was mentored by Jim Harbaugh. Ryan Fitzpatrick may not undergo the same transformation under the tutelage of O’Brien. He can become good enough to kickstart the next phase of the Houston Texans franchise.
Jadeveon Clowney and His Availability
The questions surrounding Jadeveon Clowney and his sports hernia sounds like a replay of Senator Howard Baker at the Watergate hearings.
The phrasing that Baker made famous, “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” is similar to the curiosity regarding the injury plaguing the first selection in the 2014 NFL draft. The fact that the extent of the injury was revealed on the same day Baker passed away, June 26, is an eerie coincidence.
The athletic marvel who had the term “freak” associated with him more often than Rick James may have played through the injury his final season at South Carolina, per John McClain of the Houston Chronicle. Conversely, Tania Ganguli of ESPN.com related Bill O’Brien “didn't think Clowney had been dealing with the injury too long.”
That kind of confusion may help fill the void between the mandatory minicamp and training camp. What keeps hanging in the air is the effect the recovery from this injury could have on Clowney’s availability going forward.
The recovery “occurs in phases,” according to the Andrews Sports Medicine and Orthopaedic Center, with “sport specific therapy at 3-6 weeks.” Its answer to the question, ”Will I be able to return to sports?” is “Yes, typical return to sport is gradual after 3-6 weeks of therapy.”
For professional athletes under professional care, the return after any injury is gradual. The situation with Clowney could be unusually tricky to deal with.
If his physical prowess is such that he was able to play with the injury for some portion of the 2013 season, then run a 4.53 40-yard time at the combine, can the Texans’ trainers and medical staff treat him like the average NFL player?
Would taking a conservative approach be the smart thing to do? Intentionally or otherwise, Clowney was able to convince the trainers and medical at South Carolina that he was sound enough to play 11 of 13 games last season. The Gamecocks had something at risk in Clowney’s case but nothing near the $22.3 million the Texans have invested.
The multitudes in Houston must be eager to see who the Walter Camp website described as “the best defensive prospect to enter the NFL draft this century” turned loose to wreak havoc on opposing offenses. They may just have to wait a longer than expected to see Clowney operate at full speed.
Brian Cushing Healthy for a Full Season
His 2012 ACL injury was the direct result of a legal but ethically questionable chop block by Matt Slauson of the New York Jets in Week 7. The Texans and head coach Gary Kubiak in particular chose not to make a big stink because the chop block is an integral part of their zone-blocking scheme.
The 2013 injury was purely accidental when Jamaal Charles of the Kansas City Chiefs went to put a low block on Cushing and instead planted his helmet directly on the linebacker’s knee. A broken leg and torn LCL has sidelined the emotional leader of the Texans defense ever since Week 5 of last season.
Both injuries were caused by player-on-player contact and not from any muscular imbalance, joint weakness or other abnormality. Cushing plays the inside linebacker position with no thought for his own safety, flying around the field in the desperate search for someone to hit.
He has lost enough playing time over his athletic career due to physical damage that the “injury-prone” label has been hard to avoid.
His combine profile leading up to the 2009 draft brought up the tenuous nature of his health at USC: “Has struggled with injuries throughout his career, missing five games due to a shoulder separation in 2005 and three games in 2007 due to a high ankle sprain, as well as undergoing surgery after the 2006 (shoulder) and 2007 (knee) spring practices.”
In training camp of his rookie year Cushing sprained his knee, which kept him watching from the sidelines most of the time. The inactivity had no effect on his play during the regular season, after which he was named The Associated Press NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Coming back from injury is a familiar position for Cushing to be in, but each injury is a different. He told Drew Dougherty of the Houston Texans that he’s certain he will be prepared when the time comes.
I know I’ll be ready. I know when it’s go-time, and I need to ramp it up and get on the field, I’ll be there. I’m just trying to be the best I can possibly be, come time for the camp. Come time for the season. The training staff’s done an unbelievable job.
Though certain he will be prepared, John McClain of the Houston Chronicle was given a bit of a qualifier on when that will be.
Brian Cushing said he's not sure when he'll be able to go full speed but he knows he'll be ready for opener against Washington.
— John McClain (@McClain_on_NFL) July 9, 2014
Cushing knows his presence is sorely needed. He is the only sure thing in his position group from a talent standpoint. His primary task in this defense is stuffing the run and providing coverage over the middle. There is more grunt work involved than in previous seasons, but he won’t care as long as there is someone to hit.
Arian Foster over the Long Haul
Foster had a rough start in 2013, not playing in a single preseason game due to calf and back problems. After gaining just 190 yards in the first three regular-season games, he recorded 341 yards in the next three.
Even though there was only one touchdown to his name so far, the chance was he would start scoring as soon as the offense broke its turnover habit. Then the blow came that would end his season. The back problems became serious enough that Foster was placed on injured reserve.
The 2014 Houston Texans do not care how much of a passing league the NFL has become; this team is going to run the ball. Four of its 10 draft choices were taken to ramp up the running game.
The Texans filled the hole at left guard with Xavier Su’a-Filo, added another brawny tight end in C.J. Fiedorowicz along with a burly fullback named Jay Prosch and a big running back Alfred Blue. No matter how many rookies were selected, Foster was going to be the focus of the offense.
But was he ready to take on the job? Here was a player who had 1,115 touches over three full seasons. And he was always nicked in one way or another during those workhorse campaigns.
Will Carroll, the injury expert at Bleacher Report, sounded the alarm before the 2013 season.
Foster has never made it through a season without some level of injury, usually a muscular injury, though his availability has often hidden these issues. All the way back to high school, Foster has been tagged as injury-prone and for good reason. While much credit must go to the Texans' medical staff, Foster remains a very risky player.
Then there is the Curse of 370 to take into account. An ESPN article by Tristan H. Cockcroft recounted the implications of the curse and how nearly every running back who had 370 touches in one season paid the price soon after. But that recounting only covered the curse through 2008.
There have been 10 more qualifiers since 2009, and only Stephen Jackson has been able to sustain that pace in back-to-back seasons. Does this make Foster damaged goods and therefore unfit to be the centerpiece of the rushing attack?
The answer is in the hands of Bill O’Brien, who will rely on the methods of Bill Belichick. The coach of the New England Patriots has insisted on the “running back by committee” since Corey Dillon had 360 touches in 2004. The most carries by any Patriot running back since that season was 229 carries by BenJarvus Green-Ellis in 2010.
Belichick also kept his backs deeply involved in the passing game. Those who can recall Shane Vereen burning the Texans for five receptions and two touchdowns in the playoffs will appreciate the significance of that strategy.
Foster is already aware of his coach’s interest in getting him the ball via the air. “Coach O’Brien has expressed to me how he wants to use me out of the backfield. That’s one of my strengths.”
The key to the longevity of Foster and the success of the offense is finding someone else to carry the rock. Ben Tate used to be the convenient solution, but he is now a Cleveland Brown. Who among Andre Brown, Dennis Johnson and Jonathan Grimes is going to step forward? One of them has to come through.