But then the wake-up call in New England, a humiliating 42-14 defeat in prime time, came in Week 14. Houston lost three of its final four games (all to playoff teams), losing the No. 1 seed it controlled all year long until the final day of the regular season.
Now a No. 3 seed, the full collapse was delayed by a sluggish 19-13 win over Cincinnati for the second straight year in the AFC Wild Card. Then the season ended with yet another loss in New England.
For a team that took the long journey from expansion to the postseason, Houston’s championship window may not be a large one. Based on the last two years, there is enough talent on the team to get through the regular season with enough wins for another postseason berth. The Colts may still not be ready to take over the AFC South again.
But to answer back in 2013 with a title run, the Texans need to do the things they have never done before.
Get Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson some help
While many people feel Matt Schaub is not the right quarterback to lead the Texans to a Super Bowl, he is the best option they have in 2013. T.J. Yates is not the answer, nor is there anyone in this draft class ready to come in and take it from Schaub, who will be entering his 10th season.
If you want to get better play out of your quarterback, give him more weapons to work with. That is what Houston needs to take a major look at immediately.
For as great as Andre Johnson is, he is still only one guy. He is also going to be 32 years old and has had injury problems before. Sure, he still had 112 receptions for 1,598 yards last season, but he will not keep doing this.
Johnson having to be so great is also not taking full advantage of the modern NFL landscape.
From 2000-05, teams were winning championships either without elite passing games or elite receiving corps. But that changed in 2006 when the Colts won, and ever since then the Super Bowl winner has been a team that can field multiple wide receivers capable of having big games. Many of the teams even had a competent third option and/or a good tight end.
Now, it takes at least two at wide receivers to take home the Vince Lombardi trophy:
- The 2006 Colts had Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne together in their prime with a breakout year by Dallas Clark.
- The 2007 Giants had veteran playmakers in Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer. David Tyree helped in the Super Bowl just a little.
- The 2008 Steelers had Hines Ward and Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes.
- The 2009 Saints had Marques Colston, and while Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson were just solid, it was more of a “we can field five guys capable of making a play at any time from various formations” attack.
- The 2010 Packers were loaded with Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, Jordy Nelson and James Jones.
- The 2011 Giants returned with younger playmakers in Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks. Mario Manningham made the play of the game this time.
- The 2012 Ravens could count on either Torrey Smith or Anquan Boldin to have a big game. Former Texan Jacoby Jones saved the season for them as well.
Defenses can plan around stopping one receiver, but good luck shutting down two players who can play like a No. 1 receiver with today’s rules and lack of depth at defensive back.
Johnson has had at least 1,569 yards three times in his career. The only player to have a season like that and win a Super Bowl was Michael Irvin in 1995 with Dallas.
That is fitting as Gary Kubiak’s Texans are really sticking to the archaic Dallas “triplets” approach. The offense mostly goes through Schaub, Arian Foster in the backfield and Johnson. On his best day Owen Daniels can mimic Jay Novacek, at least in terms of receiving, but this setup has not worked with great success for years in the NFL.
Houston does little to scare teams with multiple-receiver sets and does not have the offensive line or defense that Dallas did, but more on that later.
Generally, the Texans are a running team looking to utilize play-action passing. Some of those fakes that get receivers (often the tight ends) wide open are incredible to watch, but you are not as likely to fool a postseason-caliber team with them, unless Rahim Moore is in the defensive backfield.
The Texans need more firepower at wide receiver, because what they have lined up opposite Johnson has been pathetic. The following are Houston’s leading receivers since 2003. Wide receivers are highlighted in red. These are the 17 players who have gained at least 500 yards.
When Kevin Walter is the best you can do for a second option, you know you have failed. The other striking aspect from the list is how few resources Houston has put towards the position. It was as if nailing the pick with Johnson in the franchise’s second year was good enough for them.
Houston is the only team in the league to not draft a wide receiver in the first or second round since 2004. Using the draft finder at Pro-Football-Reference, here are how many wide receivers every team has drafted in the first and second rounds since 2003 (80 total).
The Texans are one of only seven teams to use just one pick on a wide receiver in the first two rounds since 2003. But the difference between Houston and these teams is how the others really went after more receivers in more ways.
- Dallas sought out veterans like Terrell Owens, Terry Glenn and Keyshawn Johnson.
- Indianapolis only drafted Anthony Gonzalez (2007), because they had previously used first-round picks to get Marvin Harrison (1996) and Reggie Wayne (2001).
- Oakland lured in Randy Moss, signed Jerry Porter to an outrageous deal, and missed on high-priced free agent Javon Walker due to injury.
- The Jets got Laveranues Coles back, traded for Braylon Edwards, traded for Santonio Holmes and even tried to blow the dust off Derrick Mason and Plaxico Burress in 2011.
- Seattle has tried countless veterans, including Deion Branch, Nate Burleson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Mike Williams, Brandon Stokley, Sidney Rice, Owens and Edwards.
The team who compares best to Houston and their wide receiver avoidance would be the Miami Dolphins, who only drafted the Ted Ginn Jr. experiment in 2007. But even the Dolphins traded for Brandon Marshall and gave Chad Johnson an opportunity.
Meanwhile the Texans pick up Walter, who had 30 catches in Cincinnati, and he has been with the team for seven seasons. Jabar Gaffney was actually the team’s second draft pick ever following David Carr in 2002. He did not earn a second contract in Houston.
Signing the ancient Eric Moulds or a castoff like Andre Davis did not work out either.
Since drafting Johnson No. 3 overall in the 2003 draft, the Texans have drafted eight more wide receivers (seven if you consider Dorin Dickerson a tight end), but never with anything more than a third-round pick.
Jerome Mathis, Jacoby Jones and Trindon Holliday were better suited as return specialists rather than productive wide receivers. Jones and Holliday sure enjoyed great 2012 seasons for the Ravens and Broncos respectively.
In the 2012 draft the Texans selected DeVier Posey in the third round followed by Keshawn Martin in the fourth round. The rookies combined for just 16 catches.
Dying for a breakout season by Posey? He had a miraculous touchdown in the New England playoff loss, but he did tear his Achilles tendon that day and his 2013 could be up in the air.
There is always Martin, of course, who caught 10 of his 28 targets last season for just 85 yards. He also had four drops. Ouch.
Houston needs a better wide receiver, and players like Greg Jennings, Wes Welker and Mike Wallace will be available. Any would be a huge upgrade in this offense. Welker still seems like a player more likely to stay in New England though.
Jennings actually ties DeSean Jackson for the most catches of 60-plus yards since 2006 with 11. However he only has one since 2011 and would offer the least impact opposite Johnson, who has nine such catches in that span. The only player with more is Carolina’s Steve Smith (10).
Wallace already has five in his four seasons and is the best deep threat to hit the market in quite some time. He would have the most impact for Houston, but he will also cost the most money.
That is the big problem. Houston has almost no money to spend—roughly $7.6 million under the cap according to John McClain of the Houston Chronicle on March 4—meaning they can forget landing these receivers.
Houston’s best hope for immediate impact might be having someone like California’s Keenan Allen slip to them at No. 27 in the draft. But how often does a rookie have a big impact?
By the time a draft pick develops, Johnson will be another year or two older. Given the way Houston has handled his career, his case for the Hall of Fame is rather strong as he has never had any real help.
Texans are continuously overmatched in a firefight
Despite a 22-10 record the last two years, Houston finds little respect as an elite team. The reason is because they do not beat enough of the top teams to join that company just yet.
Since 2006, Kubiak is 17-34 (.333) against playoff teams including the 1-1 playoff record in 2012. The Texans were 4-5 overall against playoff teams in 2012.
Now before Kubiak (2002-05), Houston was just 3-26 (.103) against playoff teams, so the improvement is appreciated. But few trust that Kubiak and Schaub are capable of beating three or four playoff teams in a row, which is exactly what every team has to do to win a Super Bowl.
Only twice in franchise history has Houston been able to win consecutive games against playoff teams.
In 2009 they beat a New England team that half-assed the game in Week 17. This was followed by a Week 1 win over the 2010 Colts, then a Week 6 comeback win over Kansas City (not a strong team). Schaub was the quarterback in all three games, all played at home, but it was not as if they were played closely together.
That was the only time in Schaub’s career he has won consecutive games against playoff teams.
The other occurrence for Houston was a closer string. In 2011 the Texans beat Atlanta in Week 13, came back against the Bengals the following week and then took care of the Bengals again in the Wild Card round. All three games were started by Yates.
Three of Kubiak’s last six wins over playoff teams came against the Bengals, who you can say Houston has the number of.
But another hallmark of recent title runs has been a defense that steps up against elite offenses. The 2011 Packers and 2011 Patriots had historic numbers, but the Giants masterfully shut them down. The 2012 Broncos and 2012 Patriots were at the top of the league in scoring, but Baltimore found a way to hold Manning and Brady to 34 points combined on the road in the playoffs.
Neither the Giants nor Ravens had the regular-season stats on defense to think they could pull it off, but they did.
Houston meanwhile has had a horrific time against elite offenses, which you are almost guaranteed to see at least one of on the way to a Super Bowl. It becomes even more likely in the AFC as long as Manning and Brady are still playing there.
This has been written many times in the past by me, but here we go again. Since Wade Phillips became defensive coordinator in 2011, the Texans have allowed 40 points to Drew Brees and the 2011 Saints, 42 points to Aaron Rodgers and the 2012 Packers, and the 2012 Patriots finished with 42 and 41 points.
None of those points were return scores, and all of those offenses gained at least 420 yards that day (screw kneel downs) against the Texans. The argument “but those offenses are great!” holds little water when you are making them look even better than their averages.
Much like with Johnson on offense, J.J. Watt is a fantastic player (Defensive Player of the Year), but he too is just one guy. Houston has to find more playmakers on defense, especially when it comes to playing these talented offenses with the best quarterbacks in the game.
This defensive problem directly conflicts with Houston’s lack of offensive firepower. Schaub is forced to win a shootout, but he is heavily outgunned in doing so. Hard to keep running Foster when the other team is jumping out to a few early touchdowns.
While Houston’s running game is usually successful, we also know a strong passing game has become most critical in winning a championship. Lately the Super Bowl-winning quarterback has had a statistically great run, such as Joe Flacco just did.
Schaub did not make the cut in my look at the top 64 quarterbacks in NFL history. He still has time to, but he must show his stats can translate into more wins against better competition.
Schaub’s regular-season stats are better than Flacco’s in just about every way, yet for whatever reason Flacco does well against the good teams (even on the road lately) and Schaub does not:
- Against playoff teams, Flacco is 23-22 (.511) as a starter, 60 touchdowns, 37 interceptions and an 84.0 passer rating.
- Against playoff teams, Schaub is 11-24 (.314) as a starter, 42 touchdowns, 35 interceptions and an 84.3 passer rating.
- Against playoff teams since 2010, Flacco is 17-9 (.654), 46 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and a 97.3 passer rating.
- Against playoff teams since 2010, Schaub is 7-11 (.389), 24 touchdowns, 14 interceptions and an 87.4 passer rating.
The overall numbers are close, but would you rather have a higher completion percentage like Schaub or a better touchdown-to-interception ratio like Flacco? Also, since 2010 one guy has gotten better and the other just marginally increases.
Can Schaub and the Texans go on the kind of run Flacco and the Ravens just had?
It does not seem likely given the makeup of the Texans as a defense that becomes a real liability against top quarterbacks and an incomplete offense that cannot keep up, especially in such adverse situations.
This current Houston formula will never work for a Super Bowl. Something has to change.
Will Houston be a tougher team in 2013?
Trading for Darrelle Revis and signing Mike Wallace would solve Houston’s problems, putting the Texans in great shape for Super Bowl XLVIII.
But alas there is a salary cap in the NFL, and such fantasy moves that are so good in theory have next-to-zero shot of happening in real life. The truth is Houston is not going to come close to landing either player, fans.
If the Texans do not upgrade the wide receiver position this offseason, then you may have to expect another year where the team can do no better than a wild card win over a playoff bottom-feeder like Cincinnati.
Since the cap-strapped Texans are not likely to land a big-name receiver, better hope for a great draft choice or a diamond in the rough. Remember, even a speed demon like Wallace was just a third-round pick in 2009.
As for the defense, at least Brian Cushing and Brooks Reed will return from injury. Watt will have a lot of pressure for an encore after one of the all-time great seasons in 2012. He could use some help as well.
It is relatively new to think of Houston as an annual playoff team. For that to continue, the Colts must be taken care of in the division. The Texans will host Denver and New England, which means Manning and Brady. They will travel to face the two teams from Super Bowl XLVII.
Even though they are just regular-season games, these are still likely going to be statement games for Houston to prove something. Games for this team to build confidence they can beat these teams.
In the last two years Houston has been swept by the team that ended their season (2011 Ravens and 2012 Patriots).
They will ultimately be judged on whether or not they can win when it’s one-and-done in the postseason. Only then will Houston earn respect as an elite team.
For a franchise that has advanced in baby steps, you just wonder if this slow trot towards the Super Bowl is going to be trampled over by the next wave of AFC competitors.
Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.