Houston Texans, Year Seven

Kubiak Year Seven of the Houston Texans begins this Sunday with a road game against the Steelers, so it’s time for my fifth annual preview of the team (previous annual previews are here).

Largely ignored amidst the ubiquitous mainstream media optimism about the Texans is the harsh reality that the local franchise has the worst record of any expansion franchise in the modern history of the National Football League. As with most things in football, there are many reasons for the poor record, not all of which are even the fault of the Texans’ management and players. Nevertheless, Texans’ management bears a substantial responsibility for the relative futility of the team over its first six years, so it’s helpful to review the team’s journey over that time span in evaluating whether the Texans are ready to improve.

The Texans were the toast of Houston for their first three seasons during which Texans management and the local mainstream media trumpeted the party line that Texans were building a playoff contender "the right way" — that is through prudent drafting and development of young players while eschewing the temptation of short-term rewards provided by over-priced veterans who were on the downside of their careers. The progressively better won-loss records in the first three seasons (4-12, 5-11, and 7-9) — plus the drafting of young stars such as WR Andre Johnson, RB Dominack Davis and CB Dunta Robinson — seemed to indicate that the Texans’ plan was working.

Unfortunately, those progressively better won-loss records distracted Texans management and the mainstream media from recognizing the fact that the Texans were not close to contending for an NFL playoff spot. The best evidence of that was that the Texans entered each of their first four seasons with the same two core problems — the Texans’ offensive line could not protect the quarterback and the Texans’ defensive front could not pressure the opposing team’s QB.

Former Texans GM Charlie Casserly never could solve the offensive line (remember LT’s Tony Boselli and then Orlando Pace?) and defensive line (remember Jason Babin?) problems. Similarly, former Texans head coach Dom Capers’ changes to the offensive and defensive systems between Years Three and Four proved disastrous as the Texans limped home with a desultory 2-14 record in Year Four.

After dispensing with Casserly and Capers, Texans owner Bob McNair blew up his original Texans management model and surprisingly hired Kubiak, who promptly made (acquiesced to?) a whopper of a blunder in his first major personnel decision as Texans’ coach — retaining QB David Carr even though it was reasonably clear as early as before Year Three that Carr was unlikely to develop into an above-average NFL QB.

Kubiak — who is a quick study in evaluating talent — promptly soured on Carr during the early stages of Year Five, which was part of the reason why the Texans had one of the worst offenses in the NFL that season. As a result of enduring that Year Five offense, Kubiak arguably overpaid for QB Matt Schaub and clearly overpaid for over-the-hill running back Ahman Green before Year Six. Williams and RobinsonNot much had improved through 12 games of Year Six as the Texans’ performance had been so inconsistent that even the local mainstream media cheerleaders were questioning whether Kubiak was the proper captain to right the Texans ship.

Then, the Texans showed some pluck and won three of their last four games (the loss was a real stinker to the Colts) to finish with an 8-8 record, the first non-losing record in franchise history. The Texans’ offense — even without Schaub and star WR Andre Johnson for five and seven games respectively — improved to 12th in the NFL in yards gained and 14th in points scored, by far the best finish of any Texans offense. That was enough to give the starving local mainstream media and long-suffering Texans’ fan base hope that things might finally turn around for the franchise in Year Seven.

But is that optimism truly warranted? My sense is that it finally is.

Although I’m still not completely sold that Kubiak is the coach to take the Texans to the playoffs, I am impressed by his willingness to recognize mistakes, cut losses and make changes. In so doing, he does not seem to be burdened with the stubbornness that often undermines NFL head coaches.

Moreover, continuity in coaching staffs and personnel are the most common elements of successful NFL teams, so my sense is that Kubiak has shown enough coaching acumen over his first two seasons that the eternally patient McNair will endure blunders such as the Green deal in the hope that maintaining coaching staff stability will ultimately reward him with a winner. McNair certainly deserves it given the excellent support that he has always provided to the Texans football operation.

Interestingly, despite the Texans continuing problems at running back, I expect the Texans offense to improve again this season. Part of the reason for this is that the nature of running the football has changed in the NFL. The old saw that a team "has to establish the run" to win in the NFL has been pretty well demolished by the success of the Patriots and the Colts, both of which use prolific passing attacks to build leads and then just run the ball well enough to work time off the clock in the latter stages of the game to preserve victory. Moreover, running backs in the NFL are so injury-prone that virtually every team in the league is now manning the position with a "running back by committee" approach.

Thus, the fact that the Texans do not have a dominant running back isn’t as big a concern as the mainstream media makes it out to be, particularly given the improvement of the Texans’ offensive line and the potential explosiveness of the Texans’ passing game. Besides, rookie RB Steve Slaton played in a blocking scheme in college at West Virginia that is based upon the one that the Texans are using, so I would not be surprised if he is a productive back for the Texans right out of the chute.

bob mcnair 090608 Meanwhile, the bigger question mark revolves around the Texans’ defensive unit, which is the key to the Texans becoming a bona fide playoff contender.

Somewhat frustratingly, the Texans have used a large number of high draft picks on defensive players over the past several NFL Drafts and have precious little to show for it. Football Prospectus has rated the Texans’ defense 32nd, 31st and 30th in the NFL over the past three seasons.

Nevertheless, the Texans have accumulated a nucleus of talented young players — DE Mario Williams, CB Dunta Robinson (currently injured), CB Fred Bennett, MLB DeMeco Ryans, and DT Amobi Okoye — that points toward an improved defensive unit. Getting enough consistent pressure on the opposing team’s passer to relieve a somewhat undermanned secondary (at least until Robinson’s probable return at mid-season) is the biggest challenge that this defense still needs to overcome.

Inasmuch as improvement in NFL defensive units generally gestates over several seasons as young players gain needed experience, I expect the defense to make major improvement this season so that it becomes a unit capable of making Texans a viable playoff contender in the 2009 season. If that improvement does not occur this season, then Kubiak will likely replace defensive coordinator Richard Smith or, at very least, bring in an experienced assistant head coach to coordinate the defensive unit.

So, are the Texans ready to contend for a playoff spot this season? Probably not, given that the division-rivals Colts and Jaguars are still better teams on paper and the first third of the schedule is brutal. My sense is that the over/under on Texans wins this season is eight, which will not be enough to make the playoffs. A playoff push in 2009 is a better bet.

But given the high number of variables that play into a successful NFL season, picking NFL playoff team
s is an extremely speculative endeavor. Almost all NFL playoff contenders are just a couple of key injuries away from the scrap heap. For the first time, it appears that the Texans have accumulated enough talented football players that they are in a position to seize the playoff opportunity if the variables tilt in their favor. Given where the Texans have been, that’s real progress.

As the blogosphere continues to develop, there really is little reason to rely any longer on the mainstream media for Texans news and analysis. The Chronicle’s coverage of the Texans is extensive but lacking in meaningful insight outside of Lance Zerlein’s blog, which is updated only once or twice a week.
I will be providing the 2008 Weekly local football review again this season, but the following blogs also provide superior analysis of the Texans over what the Chronicle offers:

Stephanie Stradley’s blog on the Texans over at AOL Fanhouse;

DGDB&D (for "Da Good, Da Bad & DeMeco");

Matt Loede’s Texans Gab;

Battle Red Blog of the SB Nation family of blogs;

Keith Weiland’s In the Bullseye.com;

Texans Tail Gate; and

Houston Diehards.

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