Much has been made of the 2011 season for the Houston Texans, and for good reason. Success will result in nothing less than a playoff berth. Failure, however, will mean an entirely new staff, the third in the franchise’s short history with no postseason appearances to show for ten years of toil.
The most important man in determining the Texans fate is not its head coach; rather it will be the newly hired defensive coordinator. Wade Phillips will have to do what no other defensive coach has been able to do in Gary Kubiak’s tenure as the man in charge; produce even an average defense to go along with the high-powered offense.
But how will he accomplish this feat? As I laid out earlier this week, Phillips inherits a defense that lacks depth and experience playing the 3-4 scheme. He was able to add what appears to be a solid draft class, but there will still be lingering questions even with an active free agency period which is out of character for the Texans.
Wade has already made waves a few times in his short time as coordinator. He talked up Mario as a Bruce Smith type five-technique, and then he announced that he would instead play him at OLB. There was even talk of a 5-2 front seven. To a casual observer, it might appear that Phillips is already grasping at straws.
There are many observers who feel that Phillips is not up to the task. Despite his impressive track record of turning around defenses in the first year, many believe that no coach or scheme can accomplish tangible results with this defense so quickly.
The beauty of Phillips defense though isn’t some magical scheme. It’s his ability to adapt his scheme to fit his players’ talents.
Phillips runs a defense predicated on pressure. During his several stints as defensive coordinator throughout his NFL coaching career, he has had a sack leader from every position group in the front seven (NT, DE, ILB, OLB) at least once.
He has been able to do this because he can recognize individual talent and scheme around it. And while he has inherited a defense that has not enjoyed success, it is certainly not devoid of talent.
The Texans for years have approached fixing the defense with a strategy of throwing more and more talent at the problem in hopes that this would fix it. It would be easy to say that Rick Smith has drafted poorly, but look at how many players have regressed after their rookie seasons.
The reason for this regression is lack of an identity or direction. Frank Bush and Richard Smith were more akin to the commander of the Maginot Line than an attacking general on a blitzkrieg. Their concern was more avoidance of being bad rather than being good.
It is apparent not only from his past experiences but also his personnel decisions with the Texans that Wade does not lack conviction. He believes in his instincts and is willing to take chances based on those gut feelings.
For example, it’s not a safe or easy decision to cut both the starting safeties from the prior season, but he felt it needed to be done so it was. Furthermore, he has not embraced players like Amobi Okoye just because they were high draft picks in the past.
I believe this defense is much more talented than Texans fans have seen. Years of terrible play have made us cynical, but when you look at the roster, it is not farfetched to consider it potentially formidable. While depth must be added, it is certainly not a rebuilding or restocking project.
Most teams will double team Mario Williams whether he rushes standing up or along the defensive line. This extra lineman, tight end or running back used to help will not be able to focus on Connor Barwin, Brooks Reed or Brian Cushing, all good athletes and rushers from the linebacker position. This isn’t even taking into account the skills of J.J. Watt or Antonio Smith.
The secondary will still be young and vulnerable, and there will be games next season when the Texans will die by the sword of failed pressure on the opposing quarterback. There will also be games, however, that the Texans will live by that sword as well.
Consider how many games could have been won last year if the defense made just one play toward the end. Even if the defense isn’t above average, I believe in Wade Phillips’ ability to isolate talented players for at least one play more often than not in order to win a game.
All this is to say that Phillips is more than up to the task of improving the defense in year one. He has several talented rushers to work with. He has been given carte blanche to run the defense his way and take whatever chances he sees necessary.
He also has the luxury of inheriting a squad that can do little but improve, and oh by the way, the offense is capable of hanging 35 points on someone any given week.
The Texans lost 10 games last season, several of which were close and decided with the last few minutes. How many of those games would have been won with one stop on a series, one sack, or one turnover?
The truth is, Wade Phillips doesn’t need to be a miracle worker; he just needs to be clutch every now and again. Why is it beyond reason to think he can accomplish this goal?
I for one think that he can, but what do you think? Let me know in the comments or on twitter (@JakeBRB).