Houston Texans: 1st Impressions from Training Camp
Training camp is officially here!
Like a batch of fresh cookies out of the oven, the start of the football season just brings a smile to my face and the faces of football fans across the country. While we won't see the Texans on the field in preseason until August 9, there is still plenty to discuss and potentially get excited about.
With free agents coming and going, a new group of rookies and a new coaching staff, the Texans aren't short on storylines going into training camp.
How do stars recovering from injury like Brian Cushing and Arian Foster look with their return to the practice field? Are the new quarterbacks developing and playing better than Matt Schaub did in 2013? Does the defense—especially Jadeveon Clowney—look like it's ready to have a dominate season?
Of course there is also the obligatory question about Andre Johnson and his status with the team; does he look happy to be back on the field?
At the time I'm writing this article the Texans are only two days into training camp, so there is still a long way to go before any final decisions or conclusions should be made, but it's never too early to check their pulse and give a progress report.
Andre Johnson Is Happy to Be Back
I've said it what seems like a hundred times in articles for this site and during interviews whenever I was a guest on a talk show, but Andre Johnson was always going to report to training camp. He was unhappy—for reasons most of us can understand—but he's a professional, and he wasn't going to sit out all year to get his way.
I seriously doubt Johnson was ever considering holding out so long that he missed a game check or damaged his long-term value with the franchise or his value in the trade market.
The losing and the quarterback situation might have been an issue with him, but the impression I've had since this whole thing started was that the heart of the matter was his guaranteed money and the fear of being cut once the 2014 season concluded.
John McClain of the Houston Chronicle talked about how Texans' owner Bob McNair eased Johnson's fear of being released and convinced him to join the team for training camp.
McNair assured Johnson the Texans have no intentions of cutting him after this season and that the owner expects him to finish his career with the Texans and become the first member of the team to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Johnson, who turned 33 this month and has three years left on his contract, wanted his 2015 salary to be guaranteed, but the Texans declined. Johnson’s base salary this season is $10 million. His salary cap figure is $15.6 million. In 2015, he makes $10.5 million with a cap figure of $16.1 million.
Johnson was concerned about getting cut in 2015 when he’ll be 34 and have such a high cap figure. McNair tried to put his mind at ease without guaranteeing any part of his contract.
With a guarantee from the owner that he won't be cut, we shouldn't be surprised to see Johnson back with the team.
It seems pretty obvious that the biggest issue this entire time was the guaranteed money left on his contract, but—for a player nearing the end of his career—the fear of the unknown could have also been a factor.
Johnson played for and excelled under Gary Kubiak for eight seasons. The team results were often disappointing, but the veteran out of Miami put up big numbers every season when healthy.
Even including the 2007 and 2011 seasons when Johnson only played a combined total of 16 games, he averaged 90 receptions for 1,232 yards with Kubiak as the Texans' head coach. Very few—if any at all—receivers have ever matched that eight-year stretch from Johnson.
Johnson could have been understandably concerned about having to learn a new offense and what his role would be in the Bill O'Brien scheme.
According to John McClain of the Houston Chronicle, O'Brien eased those concerns with phone conversations and a lunch over the summer.
O'Brien told Johnson that he would be featured and moved around to different spots to exploit mismatches in coverage. He also said the new offense would look for him more often in the red zone, which had to be music to Johnson's ears.
Despite posting big numbers in every other stat category, the future member of the Hall of Fame has never reached double-digit touchdowns in a single season during his career.
Hopefully that will change in 2014 with a new effort to look his way and a quarterback in Ryan Fitzpatrick who ranked third in red-zone QB rating with a 110.5 mark in 2013.
In the short time they've known each other, it appears Johnson has bought in and is fully on board with the O'Brien plan.
From Tania Ganguli of ESPN.com, Johnson likes the changes to the mood and style of practice under Coach O'Brien.
The music was loud and so was O'Brien. That's not unusual for practices, but Andre Johnson hasn't been through it before. Johnson loved it. In fact, he began his answers to consecutive questions about O'Brien's demeanor with, "I love it." Specifically on how loud O'Brien is, Johnson said this: "It’s great. I think it’s something that was needed around this place. I’m excited about it."
Having a happy and motivated Johnson back on the team improves the Texans' chances of surpassing expectations. Expect another big season from the longtime Houston Texan.
There's a New Sheriff in Town
Bill O'Brien is in charge, and he's nothing like Gary Kubiak.
While Kubiak seemed to be a nice enough guy and had some good traits as an NFL head coach, the team needed a change in attitude from the man in charge. Sometimes that change can be superficial because Kubiak wasn't afraid to yell at his players when necessary, but losing can sometimes breed the perception of being soft.
Kubiak could be intense, but he didn't often show that side to the media, and when you lose people often question your toughness. Fair or not, that was the perception of Kubiak. Don't think anyone will ever view O'Brien the same way.
That might be an unfair view of how he ran the team, but as we all know perception is often reality. Kubiak was seen as a player's coach who was loyal to a fault; the Texans needed to bring in a new coach who would kick up the intensity.
From Tania Ganguli of ESPN.com, the attitude and culture change that started in May and June with OTAs and minicamp picked up where it left off during Day 1 of training camp.
As the Texans' offense got set before a play during 11-on-11 drills, coach Bill O'Brien stopped them and screamed that all the skill players had to sprint to the sideline and back. Their punishment for not knowing where to be more quickly. "I would say we were intense today and we were competitive, but we weren’t as sharp as we need to be," O'Brien said after practice.
From Deepi Sidhu of HoustonTexans.com, the Texans' biggest star—Andre Johnson—has taken notice and likes the changes under Coach O'Brien.
I can only tell you, just from talking to Bill, the conversations we’ve had, the few hours I’ve spent with my teammates, just the whole atmosphere of just being here the past few hours is totally different than it has been in the past.
Guys are excited. The atmosphere is more upbeat than probably it has ever been. I think this staff that came in has just brought a winning attitude. They make you feel like you can go out and do that. They are giving us the confidence that if we go out and do what we are supposed to do that we will be successful.
I don't know how you guys felt, but in years past under Kubiak it always seemed like the Texans lacked that hard edge that separates good teams from becoming great. They had great players and ran solid schemes, but whenever the other team punched back, they too often hit the deck and didn't beat the 10-count.
The term "soft" gets thrown around too often these days on talk radio, but I don't think that view point was unfair about the Texans under Kubiak. They rarely rose to the big occasion and charged back after taking a big hit. Instead you could see them on their heels reacting to what was happening instead of being the aggressor.
Stress and adversity seemed to make them shrink instead of fight back. They would get sloppy, lose focus and make mistakes they hadn't made all game. Some of that is obviously on the players, but despite roster turnover, the end result was always the same under Kubiak; it starts at the top.
O'Brien has never been a guy who could credibly be labeled as soft. Just as important he seems to hold his players accountable for poor play, which was a frequent complaint of mine under Kubiak.
Biggest takeaway has to be the way O'Brien and his staff push the team. A sense of accountability for players to do their job on the field.— PDS (@PatDStat) July 27, 2014
Couple plays ago, offense took too long to set and O'Brien had all the skill players sprint to the sideline and back. #Texans— Tania Ganguli (@taniaganguli) July 26, 2014
In case you thought the new intensity was only coming from Coach O'Brien, you would be wrong.
Vrabel sprints down field to beat the defense to the next drill. #Texans— PDS (@PatDStat) July 26, 2014
Vrabel is a younger version of DL coach Bill Kollar, another former NFL player that became a high motor coach.— Seth Payne (@PayneNFL) July 26, 2014
Kollar worked me out when I was a free agent in 2007. Pretty sure I have heart scars from that workout.— Seth Payne (@PayneNFL) July 26, 2014
Both Mike Vrabel and Bill Kollar—who original Houston Texan Seth Payne mentioned—are vocal, intense and will hold their players' feet to the fire when necessary. It's telling to me that Kollar was the only coach O'Brien kept from the previous staff; it says a lot about what he's looking for, doesn't it?
Winning isn't guaranteed, but if the Texans do have another losing season it won't be because their coaching staff didn't give its all or was too easy on the players.
Quarterbacks Have Been Very Hit-or-Miss
The quarterback play can't get any worse from last season to this season, right?
That thought seems unfathomable considering how dreadfully Matt Schaub played in 2013, but the performance of the quarterbacks in training camp so far has been very up and down. Right after reading a tweet about a nice throw, the very next one seems to always be about an interception.
Hopefully those interceptions are a sign of an improving defense, but more likely it's just another indicator of the inconsistent play at the quarterback position.
Fitzpatrick nice throw over middle to Andre, who hangs on to ball w/ Harris draped all over him. #Texans— AdamWexlerCSN (@awexler) July 27, 2014
Draft pick Andre Hal with the play of the day. Picks off Deep ball by Fitzpatrick to Andre Johnson. One handed grab against his helmet— James Palmer (@JPalmerCSN) July 27, 2014
Kareem Jackson with the interception of Fitz on a deep corner route to Mike Thomas. #Texans— PDS (@PatDStat) July 27, 2014
In a way that's what most of us expected to hear. Fitzpatrick wasn't available this offseason because he was consistent or had a high ceiling; he is who he is. He'll make some solid throws that give you hope and then steal that hope away with a head-scratching interception into tight coverage.
After all, he did throw 39 interceptions combined over the 2011 and 2012 seasons; he wasn't going to suddenly turn into an efficient passer overnight.
The hope many of us had was that Bill O'Brien could work his magic on Fitzpatrick or whichever quarterback he picked to start. That could still be the case, but there's been no proof of improvement just yet.
News out of training camp hasn't been all negative on Fitzpatrick; he's just been hit-or-miss. Hopefully as camp continues through July and August we'll hear more and more about the positive and less about the negative.
Ryan Fitzpatrick looked good out of the gun and showed good zip, decision-making and ball placement in seven on seven drills. Not in pads— Lance Zierlein (@LanceZierlein) July 27, 2014
I've been to every workout and I just saw Ryan Fitzpatrick throw his best ball in a #Texans uniform. Deep post to Martin, in stride for TD— James Palmer (@JPalmerCSN) July 27, 2014
That's part of the coaching process; hopefully O'Brien can turn around Fitzpatrick like he did Matt McGloin at Penn State.
While there have been encouraging signs and news—mixed in with the bad plays—on Fitzpatrick, the same can't be said for Case Keenum and rookie Tom Savage.
I think today might have been the best I've seen Ryan Fitzpatrick. Case Keenum didn't have a great day. Off target a lot. #Texans— Tania Ganguli (@taniaganguli) July 27, 2014
Ball not coming out of Keenum's hand good today. Struggling some to get his accuracy together today ". #Texans— PDS (@PatDStat) July 27, 2014
Savage looks uneasy today. Trying to do too much. Looked better in OTAs and minicamp. #Texans— PDS (@PatDStat) July 26, 2014
Let's not read too much into it because they've only had two days' worth of training camp practices, but you can't be terribly shocked that neither Keenum nor Savage has played well so far.
For all the good Keenum did during his first three starts last year, he came up short in the second half of those three games and played awful during his last five starts.
Over those final five starts Keenum completed just 53 percent of his passes with an average of 188 yards per game and a total of two touchdowns to six interceptions.
The issues that caused those mistakes and poor performances weren't going to get corrected overnight. Keenum has upside, but he isn't worthy of starting at this point and has a long way to go before reaching that level.
Until his accuracy, how quickly he makes his read/how long he holds on to the ball and his ability to read and react to a blitz improve, he won't be a starting-caliber quarterback.
Similar issues hurt Savage, but he's starting from an even lower point—not only because he's a rookie, but he also missed two years of action while in college. Of the group, Savage has by far the most physical talent but is also the least experienced and has the biggest learning curve.
Fitzpatrick will be the Texans' starter for Week 1 unless he gets hurt during training camp or the preseason—write it in stone; it's a lock. It's not because he's had great success or is more talented; neither is true. He's been in the league for 10 years and was able to learn the offense quicker, simple as that.
The hope of many, including myself, was that at some time in 2014 either Keenum or Savage reach a point in his development on the mental side where O'Brien could trust one enough to put him ahead of Fitzpatrick. Both players have better potential than Fitzpatrick, but overcoming the steep learning curve won't be easy.
Trying not to read too much into the early results, but as training camp goes on, the snaps for Keenum and Savage will decrease as they get Fitzpatrick ready for the season, so their window of opportunity to impress O'Brien is closing.
Right Tackle Is Still an Issue
Derek Newton was a disaster last season. No way to sugarcoat it; that's the only way to describe his performance in 2013.
Many fans, including myself, hoped that second-year player David Quessenberry would be able to step in and take over the role, but he unfortunately has bigger issues than football to worry about.
With that sad news, Bill O'Brien didn't have much of a choice but to name Newton the starter for 2014. That obviously caused some hand-wringing from Texans fans, but there is some room for optimism with Newton.
The former seventh-round pick came into OTAs and minicamp in better shape and health than he had in a long time. Being lighter and healthier could definitely help his agility and movement, so perhaps he could improve his level of play.
Also providing a ray of hope was the announced signing of Tyson Clabo. The former Atlanta Falcon and Miami Dolphin had previously played under Texans offensive line coach Paul Dunn while both were in Atlanta. While Clabo won't be confused with an All-Pro, he's had success, and he's familiar with the system, so the signing seems like a good fit.
Early reports from training camp might indicate why he was still available as a free agent in mid-July.
Clabo trying to knock the rust off his layoff. Beat by Brooks Reed around the edge. #Texans— PDS (@PatDStat) July 26, 2014
Clabo slow in his pass sets. Have to see if that gets better as camp moves ahead. #Texans— PDS (@PatDStat) July 26, 2014
Can't blame the Texans front office for what happened with Quessenberry, but like many others I wanted the team to select a right tackle at some point in the draft. Even with a healthy Quessenberry possibly in the starting lineup, the Texans' depth at the position would have still been an issue worth addressing.
If Clabo has lost a step or two, the Texans could be in trouble. Newton may be healthier and in better shape, but that's far from a guarantee that his performance will improve. He's still a seventh-round pick whose technique was too often sloppy when run blocking and who struggled against quick edge-rushers in pass protection.
The Texans have a great group of receivers, an underrated group of tight ends, a Pro Bowl running back and what looks like an improved offensive line overall; the million-dollar question is what will they get out of their right tackle?
Quarterback is obviously the biggest limiting factor for the Texans offense this season, but right tackle isn't far behind.
Improving Young Secondary
The Texans haven't invested many high picks—only one player in the first three rounds over the last three drafts—in the secondary, but the young players they have added are starting to show signs of improvement and solid potential.
The biggest improvement has been from the one player they did take high between 2012 and 2014—that of course being second-year safety D.J. Swearinger.
The ex-South Carolina Gamecock has tremendous physical talent but too often didn't seem focused and got beat for big plays when he was out of position during his rookie year. It looked like equal parts inexperience and ineffective aggressiveness, but Swearinger has turned the page.
Swearinger said that he's been studying more this year and working on his technique more than he did as a rookie. #TexansTC— Jayson Braddock (@JaysonBraddock) July 26, 2014
Maturity in his preparation and a year of experience under his belt will do wonders for Swearinger's performance. He's extremely gifted but was very inconsistent executing his assignment and taking care of his responsibility from play to play.
As a rookie Swearinger appeared to float when he was unsure of where to be or tried to help too much on someone else's assignment, which put him out of position and led to big plays.
If he knows where to be, takes care of his guy and cuts out some of the recklessness, he's capable of becoming a great safety, especially in the box.
Swearinger isn't the only one playing well, however. A pair of young cornerbacks competing for a role in the slot or as the backup to Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson has stepped up performance as well.
Deep down the middle Fitzy to Andre and he catches it one handed (David Tyree-style). Catch by by Andre Hal that is, defending 80— AdamWexlerCSN (@awexler) July 27, 2014
Andre Hal has picked it up since a slow start today. Breaks up a deep pass Intended for McClung. #Texans— PDS (@PatDStat) July 27, 2014
Bouye picking up where he left off yesterday. Breaks up a pass in 1 on 1s. #Texans— PDS (@PatDStat) July 27, 2014
The solid play out of the rookie Andre Hal and second-year corner A.J. Bouye could spell trouble for Brandon Harris. The career underachiever was expected to be the Texans' primary slot corner this season, but he hasn't played well in training camp so far.
Struggles for Brandon Harris today were real. The offense picked up the pace and tested him and won. Harris needs to respond tomorrow.— PDS (@PatDStat) July 27, 2014
From the looks of twitter it sounds like nickel corner is a two horse race between Bouye and Hal.— Brett Kollmann (@BrettKollmann) July 27, 2014
While we're still very early in the process, it wouldn't shock me if the new coaching staff saw the same flaws in Harris that the previous one decided were big enough to never give him a start over three years and make him inactive for half of the team's games over his first two seasons.
Despite being a veteran with more experience, Harris should have never been considered a player who had a lock on his spot like a tenured professor; he was the assumed primary slot corner more by default than proven skill. All credit to the young guys for stepping up and making their case to take that spot away from Harris.
Even if Harris does bounce back and win the job, the play of Hal and Bouye indicates that the Texans' depth at corner could be better than expected.
With an improved pass rush the Texans secondary was already expected to play better in 2014 than last season, but having depth at corner would be huge in a league that features many spread teams using three- or four-wide receiver sets as their base formation.