Texans Quarterback Situation Caps Their Comeback Team Upside

Rivers McCown@riversmccownNFL AnalystAugust 25, 2014

Houston Texans quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (14) makes a call against the Denver Broncos during the first half of an NFL preseason football game, Saturday, Aug. 23, 2014, in Denver. (AP Photo/Joe Mahoney)
Joe Mahoney/Associated Press

Regression creates an idea where it's possible to dream that the Houston Texans are going back to the playoffs.

Ryan Fitzpatrick, Case Keenum and Tom Savage create the wrecking ball that plows over the math, leaving Houston with little short-term hope.

A case for the Texans to make the playoffs begins purely on math. Last season, they won two games, but according to their Pythagorean record, per Football Outsiders, their point differential suggested they should have won four. The disparity was the biggest in the league. It was driven by the fact that the Texans finished 2-9 in games decided by a touchdown or less.

2013 Houston Texans and Luck
Pythagorean Differential-2.232
Losses by less than a touchdown932
Turnover Margin-2032
Defensive Points Allowed3831

A rebound can be forecast from the bones of the 2013 Texans. They were a team saddled with one of the worst quarterback situations in the NFL—they likely won't give up that many points to opposing defenses next season.

Another important thing to consider is turnover differential. The Texans became only the 17th team since 1990 to have a turnover differential of minus-20 or lower. Only two of those 17 teams had turnover margins below minus-10 next season: the 2006 Raiders and the 2001 Vikings.

Turnover Margin of Minus-20 or Worse, 2000-2013
TeamTurnover MarginMargin Next YearDifference
2000 ARI-24-3+21
2000 SD-28+2+30
2001 MIN-21-18+3
2005 GB-240+24
2005 NO-24-4+20
2006 OAK-23-11+12
2013 PHI-2419+43
2013 KC-2414+38
2014 HOU-20????
Football Outsiders Almanac 2013, NFL.com

But just because the numbers will provide a rising tide for the Texans doesn't necessarily mean they'll play better. Often, when a team has a season like Houston had in 2014, it will invoke a series of changes. It'll sit down at the end of the season and look at what caused the problems. For problem spots, it'll slide in an appropriate free agent. Or at the very least, it'll find a promising, young, early draft pick and see if that will solve the problem.

Houston's biggest problem last season was at quarterback. Matt Schaub is now Oakland's problem. But nothing we've seen thus far lends any credence to the idea that the Texans have a solution.

Fitzpatrick is an adequate backup quarterback, but he's stretched as a starter. Fitzpatrick's dichotomy is one of the most confounding things in the NFL. He attended college at Harvard, so whenever he makes a solid read or has a good game, reporters around the teams he has played for tend to associate that with how "smart" he is.

But Fitzpatrick doesn't actually play smart. Inside the structure of a play, Fitzpatrick will make some of the dumbest decisions of any quarterback in consideration for a starting job. Even running vanilla plays during the preseason, Fitzpatrick has been picked off twice and nearly nabbed a couple of other times.

Fitzpatrick's greatest strength is his ability to freelance outside of the play. My theory coming into this piece was that in two-minute drills where he can use his legs to buy some time, he was more valuable. We can see via his Football Outsiders Premium DVOA splits from last season that his "Fitzmagic" actually doesn't work that way.

Ryan Fitzpatrick's 2013 DVOA by Quarters
Football Outsiders

I think there is a logical trap a lot of smart people have fallen into here: Because Fitzpatrick isn't Schaub, the Texans will play better. In reality, deciding between Fitzpatrick and Schaub is like choosing which payday loan service to use. The mere fact that you need to use one of them already means you're in trouble.

The backup options aren't much more promising. The Texans chose Savage in the fourth round rather than trading up for Teddy Bridgewater or Johnny Manziel because head coach Bill O'Brien believed in the depth of this quarterback class.

It's hard to really rate anything based on performances against third-stringers. That's the issue we face when we try to figure out what to make of Savage. Savage played poorly against both the Cardinals and the Falcons, rarely reading more than five yards beyond the line of scrimmage and taking a pair of big sacks against Arizona. John Maney of Pro Football Focus liked his work against the Denver third-stringers in last week's comeback victory, but none of the throws Savage made were particularly difficult. His post throw to Ryan Griffin for the winning touchdown was practically unguarded.

Given his pedigree—fourth-round draft status, big-arm quarterback with little experience reading defenses, transfers, etc.—it's much more likely that Savage is going to have to sit a year before he becomes whatever his ultimate destiny is. My guess is that he's an NFL backup.

Keenum is a strange mishmash of quarterback attributes, which I think is lost on some of his detractors. If I had to pick one quarterback on the Texans roster to throw a deep pass, it would be Keenum. But because of his inability to deal with any pocket pressure, it's hard to ever create the right circumstances around him to show that arm off.

Look, the numbers are right to an extent; there will be a bounceback for Houston. It would be hard not to do better than 2-14, for one thing. For another, the Texans won't be as unlucky as they were in 2013 and will be doing it against a much easier schedule. (In fact, per Football Outsiders Almanac 2014, the Texans will have the easiest schedule in the league next season.)

But the numbers can't dress up quarterback play this bad. The Texans are trying to win in a quarterback-driven league with three backup quarterbacks. That handicaps both their chances and a lot of their upside. Until Houston has an actual franchise quarterback on the roster, it's only in the playoff discussion based on circumstantial evidence.


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