Houston finished the 2010 season third in total offense and claimed the NFL’s leading rusher in Arian Foster. Matt Schaub eclipsed 4,000 yards for the second consecutive season and Andre Johnson surpassed 1,200 yards even while missing three games. It is quite rare that the league’s best wide receiver and (arguably) best running back are on the same team when it isn't a game being played in Hawaii.
With these three guys in the prime of their careers, there is little reason to believe in a drop off of any sort in 2011. But it isn't just them that will carry the Texans to what I believe will be the best offense in the NFL in 2011. Let us take a look at some of the other factors that will lead to this elite status.
Let me say first that I am shocked Gary Kubiak still has a job. Five years of mediocrity and failure is a lifetime in the NFL, and he probably should have been axed by team owner Bob McNair. He made the decision to hire his buddies to fill key roles in this coaching staff and letting Frank Bush run his defense last year almost cost him his job.
But instead of starting from scratch, Bob decided to try things one more year with an actual, established defensive coordinator in Wade Phillips opposite Gary. How will this help the offense get even better in 2011? Let me explain.
Kubiak is known as an “offensive wiz”, and what he has done with Houston’s running game alone should be heralded. But his having to focus on both sides of the ball has been a shortcoming every year since he took the reins in The Bayou City. By bringing in Wade, Gary can focus on running the offense instead of having to worry about babysitting his defensive coordinator like he did with Bush.
Think of him as an offensive coordinator who manages the clock, calls timeouts and occasionally throws the challenge flag. This can make a potent and explosive offense elite. In fact, it can make this group downright special.
Again, I cannot stress enough about how much this one hiring is going to be about as big as any free agent signing the team could have made. For the first time in the young history of the franchise, the Texans finally have an established coach running the defense. So how will this help the offense? It’s really quite simple.
The offensive numbers the team put up in 2010 were great. But these stats were even greater when you factor in how historically bad the defense was at getting off the field. Opposing teams dominated the time of possession battle against them, therefore keeping their high powered attack on the sidelines.
It remains to be seen how much Phillips can improve their defense in one offseason, but with a solid draft and the free agent additions of safety Danieal Manning and cornerback Johnathan Joseph, most believe the improvement will be significant.
The offense doesn't need the defense to be great, it just needs them to be able to get off the field once in a while on third downs. This is something they struggled with immensely in 2010.
More time on the field equals more opportunities to light up the scoreboard.
Running back depth
I have gone on record saying that I thought Matt Schaub’s numbers would go down a bit this year. But this isn't because of a decline; not at all. But the fact is that the team shouldn't be playing from behind as often as last year, so then they won’t have to abandon the run and air it out the entire game.
This means more rushing opportunities for Foster. Everyone who thinks last year was a fluke for Foster is going to be eating a big fat plate of crow at season's end. Barring injury, he’s too special of a player for him to fall off.
The team is returning the same offensive line and the same scheme. Sure, Vonta Leach is gone, but upon some research you will learn that the majority of the yards and big plays Foster accumulated last year came on snaps in which Leach was on the sideline. His speed and vision are just too good for him to fall off in 2011, so don’t believe the skeptics.
Then you have Ben Tate, who is basically a rookie after missing all of 2010 with a broken ankle and a stay on injured reserve. If his preseason debut against the Saints last Saturday is any indication, the former second- round pick is as hungry as a young player can be.
He frustrated New Orleans' defensive line (even drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty out of them) with his ability to hit the hole with authority and break a tackle or three. In short, he looked like a running back that was drafted high and placed into an established system for which he is a perfect fit.
Lastly, you have Steve Slaton and Derrick Ward. Ward is higher on the depth chart at the moment, but missing time with a concussion. However, Slaton isn’t helping his stock by sitting out with a sore hamstring injury. It’s doubtful that the team carries four running backs, but this is the kind of problem that good offenses have.
Any four of these guys could get significant snaps on just about any team in the league, and if one of them gets cut at the end of camp, they won’t be on the market for long.
If they don’t keep four, I see Slaton going. My thought would be that it’s because of the fact that with Foster, Tate and Slaton, you have three guys with similar styles. Ward could be considered a banger who could spell those two guys and power his way through for some tough yardage in a third-and-short situation. It’s just a better combination, honestly, and Slaton is part of the numbers game.
Ultimately, I think the team decides to keep all four, since both Foster and Tate have both missed time with durability concerns. Which means a three-headed monster has a hell of a backup plan should one get cut off.
There is a lot of talk about who will be the second wide receiver to compliment Johnson in the Houston air attack. Not many believe in Kevin Walter’s ability to be a game changer, and most are tired of waiting on Jacoby Jones’ potential. But Schaub already has a second receiving option in a healthy Owen Daniels.
Last season was pretty much a throw away year for Daniels as he continued to recover from the ACL tear that ended his 2009 season prematurely. But in the final four games of 2010, it appeared he had kicked off the rust as he compiled 271 yards and a pair of touchdowns to close the season.
All indications are that the team isn’t worried about his recovery, since it gave him a four-year, $22 million contract in the offseason.
Daniels is Schaub’s safety valve, and his health will be huge for this offense improving.
There are several other factors in the juggernaut attack Kubiak has built on the offensive side of the ball. But I think the biggest thing is continuity. All of the starters from 2010 are back, aside from Vonta Leach, and key members are healthy again.
Schaub has looked as precise as ever, and Johnson seems unguardable. With an improved defense giving them more opportunities in 2011, there shouldn’t be anyone in the game who could beat them in a shootout.