Matt Schaub's health, as well as health in general, will be a key factor for a Texans team trying to make the playoffs for the first time.
Thus began my reaction to reading Football Outsiders Almanac's chapter on the Texans this year. Oh sure, I'm a realist. I know the Texans aren't a playoff lock, or even guaranteed to be over .500 this year, but 5.6 projected mean wins? Is there something wrong with the formula? Didn't these guys just call the Texans the most talented team, in terms of young players, in the entire NFL? Where is the disconnect?
So lets go a little deeper into this: I don't want to quote the entire book chapter to you, so I'll try to generalize, but there are some bright spots in the projection and there are some ugly things that are going to test your notions about how good the Texans were last year. I'll do my best to poke holes in their statistical research, and you do your best to not be the kind of fan who gets bitter when something bad is written about your favorite team. Okay? Okay. Not counting the few red herrings in the Texans essay (like broken tackles being an issue when the Texans were middle of the pack), I count five real reasons that FO thinks the Texans will be worse than they were last year. Lets look at them case by case:
The health of Matt Schaub
We Houston fans are an optimistic sort, and saw the blossoming of a franchise quarterback last year as Matt Schaub led the league in passing yards while playing in all sixteen games for the first time. Not so fast, my friend, says FO. Their projection system looks at a quarterback who missed five games in each of the two years prior to last, saw he stayed healthy this year, and says one of these two things doesn't belong.
Schaub certainly wasn't bulletproof last year. He dislocated his shoulder at Jacksonville near the end of the season, then came out and played through the pain in the second half. The ability to withstand that pain threshold, to me, says a lot about Schaub's desire to play, even if his durability can still be called into question. And considering Schaub once missed a game with a flu, I think that toughness could be the start of a more durable career for him. New offensive coordinator Rick Dennison could tilt the scales in Schaub's favor more by giving him more snaps out of the shotgun formation.
This is still a fairly big concern to me. Against the sort of pass rush that the tougher schedule will bring against the Texans this year, Schaub's durability will be tested. And if Schaub does get hurt at any point in the season, it would be a catastrophic blow to the Texans chances. Dan Orlovsky, Schaub's backup, may very well be an okay quarterback despite how the Texans put him behind Rex Grossman last year, but he's not in Schaub's league.
Concern Level (out of 10): 7
Missed games in the front seven
The Texans made a monumental leap forward in run defense after their first three games, which were horrendous. The overall result was enough to bring the Texans season run DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) to -2.9%. In other words, they were about 3% better than the average run defense was last year despite starting the year by getting rammed by Chris Johnson, Thomas Jones, and Maurice Jones-Drew in the first three weeks. While a lot of this came from the turn around that Bernard Pollard and Brian Cushing brought talent-wise, the FO projection system sees the games started from the front seven guys: 15 out of Antonio Smith, 13 out of Shaun Cody because he didn't start the season on the first string, 12 from Zach Diles, and 16 from everyone else, and says to take the under on that. Then it assumes that the replacements will be worse.
Well, obviously the Texans won't see the same number of games played by their starters this season. In fact, Brian Cushing's four game suspension to start the season basically ensures that they won't. But the Texans have established a lot more young talent in the front seven than the average team. Losing Cushing will be a massive drop-off in talent early, but Danny Clark played solidly last year for the Giants, and Darryl Sharpton and Xavier Adibi are a pair of young linebackers with a fairly decent draft pedigree. Should a defensive end go down, second-year second-rounder Connor Barwin should be able to step in and provide pass rush. Defensive tackle? Third-rounder Earl Mitchell is already challenging Okoye, and Deljuan Robinson and Frank Okam have similar resumes to Shaun Cody did before he stepped in and started occupying a blocker last year.
Of course, should DeMeco Ryans or Mario Williams go down, it would be a big blow to the Texans hopes, but outside of that, I'm not finding a whole lot to be concerned about here. The injury bug could bite, sure, but it already bit Williams last year and he still played sixteen games and looked damn good doing it.
Concern Level: 4
A much harder schedule
I think FO trumps it up a little by saying that the Texans had a "pathetically soft schedule" last year, but they did have some cupcakes. Oakland with JaMarcus Russell, Buffalo, Seattle, and St. Louis were tasty matchups for the Texans, and they went 4-0 against those teams. This year, the Texans will play the hardest schedule in the NFL by last year's winning percentage. The tough NFC East swaps in for the patsies of the NFC West (Texans record against: 3-1), the fourth place matchups against Oakland and Cincinnati (2-0) will be substituted by the (gulp) second place ones against the Ravens and Jets. The AFC East (3-1) being traded for the AFC West is probably good news for the Texans, but this winds up being a much rougher slate overall. FO projects their schedule to be the ninth hardest in the NFL this year.
While you never know who will get hurt for which game, which teams will be disappointing, and so forth, this seems to be the biggest concern of them all to me. In a league where you only play 16 games, your level of competition can be the difference between finishing 8-8 and finishing 10-6. Eating up cupcakes is a great way to pad your record to the point that you can make the playoffs, and the Texans schedule has gotten rid of most of them in exchange for well-done porkchops. If they do make the playoffs this year, you can definitely say that they earned it.
Concern Level: 9
Less continuity on the offensive line
FO accounts for the season-ending injuries to Chester Pitts and Mike Brisiel, but other than that they look at an offensive line that was mostly unchanged for the rest of the season, apart from the trade offs between Chris "Pee Pants" White and rookie Antoine Caldwell, and think that level of continuity is unlikely to be matched this season. The system marks them down for a slight reduction in effectiveness due to more fluctuation between who will play where compared to last year.
Of all the concerns brought up by the FO system, this is the one I agree the least with. Lets be honest with ourselves here. Outside of Eric Winston, there isn't a single player on the offensive line that played at a level last year that would be hard to replace. Left tackle Duane Brown made a big leap from last season, but that leap was from "horrendous" to "bad", and while Rashad Butler might not be the answer, he probably wouldn't do much worse in pass protection that Brown did. The interior line was ravaged by injuries last year and was fairly bad, particularly Kasey Studdard stepping in for Pitts. Studdard will have another year under his belt, as will Caldwell. Free agent Wade Smith can play any position on the interior line and was a credible run blocker for the Chiefs last year.
I just find it hard to believe that the offensive line could play much worse than they did last year, shuffling around or not. If Winston gets hurt, the Texans are in trouble. If he doesn't, then barring an injury rash that sends Rick Smith to the third-string or street for a position, I think they'll be a good bet to repeat or do better on every position on the offensive line.
Concern Level: 2
Relying on a rookie cornerback is bad news
FO mentions this stat:
Since 2000, 15 first-round cornerbacks have started 10 or more games in their rookie seasons, and only 4 of them have made the playoffs. Cornerbacks usually take a few years to develop, and early in their careers they make easy targets.
Of course, when you start a rookie cornerback, it's not exactly a glamorous statement about the rest of your secondary. Logically, this point makes a lot of sense to me. The Texans don't have a lot of established talent in the back four and may very well run into problems because of it.
However, anecdotally, it's hard to look at Rick Smith's evaluations in the draft and not come away thinking that there is something about Kareem Jackson that can defy this. Cushing and Ryans started and were good from day one. Williams was decent in his first year, then hit the switch in year two. Glover Quin stepped in and was credible last year, as was Brice McCain as a nickel/dime cornerback. If you want to give partial credit, Amobi Okoye was pretty solid too in his rookie year. There is definitely a reason why the Texans ranked number one in FO's young talent list, after all. Rick Smith can pick 'em.
I don't think there will be much of, if any, drop off from Dunta Robinson leaving. The Texans probably would've been better off actually nabbing a Leigh Bodden or a good free safety and breaking in Jackson slowly, but the laws of free agency prohibited those sort of moves this year. The expiration of the collective bargaining agreement left a lot of guys that would've hit the market as restricted free agents, driving up demand and overpricing the guys that did. As mad as I was that the Texans passed on their chance to get a nose tackle with that #20 pick, I can't help but think that Jackson will do better than some are expecting. I'm certainly more worried about Eugene Wilson than I am him, at any rate. If he mimics Quin's year, he's a hit compared to Robinson.
Concern Level: 5
FO brings out it's justifications early in the chapter by pointing out some statistics about teams that won nine or more games after three years of .500 or worse. It usually isn't a sign of a breakout: the next year after that "break out", the teams combined to have a winning percentage of .511, or in laymans terms, about 8.2 wins. They compare the Texans to the Seattle Seahawks of 1999, who after winning seven, eight, and eight games prior to winning nine, went 6-10 in 2000. That team had Jon Kitna doing a surprisingly good job replacing Warren Moon, and an old but surprisingly effective Ricky Watters, but their best receiver was Derrick Mayes. While they drafted Shaun Alexander and Darrell Jackson to supplement the offensive core, Kitna missed four games, fell apart when he did play (apparently completing 55% of your passes in your rookie year is a bad sign for your future), and the offense went from scoring the 12th most points to the 19th most. Meanwhile, the defense watched Chad Brown, Michael Sinclair, Willie Williams, and Cortez Kennedy hit the age wall and start declining in effectiveness, and lost Phillip Daniels to the Redskins in free agency. There were some good young pieces in Shawn Springs and Anthony Simmons, but they went from allowing the eighth fewest points in the NFL to the sixth most.
I don't think the Texans fit into that comparison. Schaub is better than Kitna, the age of the defense proves that they shouldn't bottom out like that, and the skill position players are much better. I'd compare them, instead, to the 2008 Cardinals. After being a bottom feeder since David Boston's youth, the Cardinals climbed from 5-11 to 8-8 to 9-7, making the Super Bowl after really picking up steam at the end of the year, but only getting to the playoffs because of a weak division.
The 2008 Cardinals had a injury prone but elite QB (Kurt Warner), an ineffective run game that used a high pick on a running back (Chris Wells), an array of skilled pass-catchers (Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, Steve Breaston, Early Doucet), a mediocre offensive line that had problems in the run game, and a defense anchored by some in-prime studs (Darnell Dockett, Calais Campbell, Karlos Dansby, Adrian Wilson) that were able to drag the talent around them to "okay". Sound familiar at all? Those Cardinals, according to FO's 2009 Almanac, had the third toughest projected schedule in the NFL last year.
According to FO, they had a mean projection of 5.6 wins.
They won ten.