In the minds of most, this Houston Texans season is over already at 4-6. While the team could theoretically win six in a row and make the playoffs, and they've played close games in all of their recent losses outside of Indianapolis, you'd be hardpressed to find a single Texans observer who believes that the season is going to end on a happy note. Frank Bush should've been fired months ago as the defense continues to set new records for awfulness, both in total scope and in memorable moments of sadness. If Gary Kubiak was hired to teach a time-management seminar, he would be late to it every week. But what about the man in charge of assembling the roster?
Rick Smith has flown under the radar in Houston, rarely ever speaking to the (permissive) media about things. As such, he's also managed to stay out of the spotlight as far as the firing line goes. In the collective eye of the fans, Bush and Kubiak are done deals: they should be fired the second the season is over. Smith, on the other hand, is a more open question.
One of the big philosophical problems with the decision to fire or not fire Smith is that we simply don't know how much control he has over personnel. Here's Lance Zierlein on that:
If you want to blame a lack of winning talent on the defensive side of the ball on Rick Smith (which is fair), who brought Smith in? I would like to tell you I know who is in charge of the personnel front, but I don't.
Rick Smith has made it known to me in the past that HE is in charge of bringing in personnel, but I've talked to people in the war room who have said that Kubiak has had final say in the past. Rick Smith didn't want two of the defensive backs who were drafted over the last few years, but Kubiak overruled him.
But, lets take Smith at his word. Lets say that the 2007 offseason was the jump-off point for the Smith era and the moves from then on are all on him, as Gary would say. Smith inherited a roster with Mario Williams, DeMeco Ryans, Dunta Robinson, and a bunch of hasbeens and neverweres. Texans fans knew it would take some time, but at least there were building blocks. Robinson severely injured himself and his comeback from injury was underwhelming with a pinch of whiny, so Smith was left to build a roster around just the first two.
Where is the nose tackle?
Set to task on fixing problems, Smith's free agency forays have been mostly fruitless. The Texans made a play for Leigh Bodden this year, but other than Jacques Reeves, Antonio Smith, and Wade Smith, he's been content to shop in the bargain bin. While that's not a terrible plan in the long-term, you need to hit every draft pick, and even then, you'll find some issues on your defense that could be improved by bringing in someone better.
Smith has aggressively attacked some areas of this team in the draft, but the Texans have had four offseasons under his regime, and the fans are still waiting to see a nose tackle that fits the 4-3 under and a safety that actually changes the game. The ignorance of those positions: two very key parts of a successful 4-3 under, is a good starting point for arguing in the affirmative on Smith's dismissal.
The team continues to stockpile a defense made to beat the Colts (and only the Colts) with draft picks like Earl Mitchell rather than addressing the gaping holes on defense. Despite the poor overall amount of talent in the 2010 free agent class, it did contain one of the best free agent safety markets in years. In a damning show of support for Eugene Wilson, the Texans were barely on the radar for any of them. And who really needs a stuffer like Terrence Cody when you can trade down and draft a running back in the second round?
Regression saps our draft gains
On the other hand, you can make a successful defense even if you only have nine solid players, or at least a defense approaching competency instead of the abyss of awfulness that the Texans are staring at. But what concerns me more than anything as a Texans fan, and what makes me lean towards coaching being the root of this team's problems, is the regression of the individual players on the defense that Smith has brought in. In their first year in Texans uniforms, the player shines and the promise is unlimited, and then in year two Texans fans are left wondering what happened. Try this list on for size:
- Amobi Okoye: 5.5 sacks as a rookie. 4.5 sacks in 2 1/2 years since. The absolute poster child of the movement.
- Fred Bennett: Football Outsiders gushed over his performance as a rookie. The Gamecock Ballhawk looked like a terrific corner who would be useful for years. Three years later, he was released before the rosters even cut down to 53.
- Zac Diles: Gary Kubiak pumped him up as a future Pro Bowler, and while he was never THAT good, he wasn't half bad in his first full season of starting. This season, he's been so awful in pass coverage that it's almost hard to believe. Opponents were completing 92.5% of their passes against him through Week 7, and the defense actually looked better off last week when he was out. He made the Shutdown Corner's No-Pro team.
- Reeves: 4 interceptions in 16 starts in 2008. He was never going to be confused with a shutdown corner, and had problems keeping his head turned to the ball, but was solid enough to make middle of the pack in a few FO metrics despite drawing #1 WR's most weeks after Robinson's injury. In 2009, he was shoehorned into a nickel role to make room for Glover Quin, and now he, like Bennett, is unemployed.
- Xavier Adibi: Started five games at the end of the 2008 season, and looked half-decent doing it. It's not completely fair to pin him completely on the coaches due to his penchant for getting injured, but he's looked awful since his rookie season. His four starts in place of Brian Cushing this year were borderline Diles-esque.
- Dominique Barber: Six starts in 2009 which, while not great, were miles ahead of the ugliness that was John Busing. This year he managed to miss four tackles in one preseason quarter and was being roundly outplayed by Troy Nolan in the role of "picking up the pieces after Eugene Wilson is benched for being terrible". Then he hurt himself.
- Smith: Despite having a penchant for being drawn offsides at the worst times, Antonio Smith has played pretty well this season. He's the one exception to the rule that I can find on this list. Good job, Antonio. Thanks for showing up this year.
- Shaun Cody: While I don't think he's playing remarkably worse than last year, and he's had a few okay games, he's still getting dominated at the point of attack way too often this year. Probably not technically a regression, but there wasn't much to regress from.
- Brian Cushing: I'm not going to touch the steroids issue, both out of disgust for the topic and out of pure indifference to steroids in football. All I'm going to say is that the impact player that was playing for the Texans in 2009 has completely vanished. Cushing is still good for a few plays a game, and part of his problem may come down to the Texans trying him out in the middle with Ryans being injured for the season. But there's not a way to spin his season to date as anything but a disappointment.
- Bernard Pollard: While he's still good for a big hit a game that makes your jaw drop, he's also picking up penalties left and right, looks completely lost in coverage, and is missing more tackles than you'd expect of a strong safety who is primarily there to keep the run game in check. It's okay though, because he's still really really intense, and that's all that matters.
- Glover Quin: He allowed no touchdowns in 2009, just in case John McClain didn't get that fact stuck into your head. This year he's almost on pace to allow one a game. He had been free of a lot of criticism up until the Jaguars game, but his numbers this year have been no better than Brice McCain's, honestly. He still looks much better playing in the slot. He's also another member of the No-Pro Team.
- Brice McCain: Looked like a promising dime back last year, but he's just not physical enough to play outside of the slot in the NFL, and even there he might be stretched. Lets not even talk about this week's slant play yet, because I don't think I can rationally discuss it without breaking something.
I'm willing to buy that maybe someone would slide back every year, and sometimes people do lose skill when they get hurt so that number could fluctuate from season-to-season. But this many regressions, this often? That has to be a coaching problem first and foremost.
Should Smith pack his bags?
I don't think so. Granted, I still don't know just how much influence Smith had on the selections that Kubiak supposedly overruled him on, nor who he would have rather picked, nor just how much influence he actually has as far as player personnel. But when you look at the Texans defense, there's a clear pattern of regression that goes beyond the bounds of luck. It's really hard to pin that pattern on Smith, as it's not like his draft picks have tended to go in an obvious pattern that would lead to that.
Don't get me wrong, Smith deserves massive blame for not ever attempting to secure nose tackle or either safety spot with players of actual value, even despite the hoops he'd have had to jump through to make that happen during last season's CBA-shortened free agency. I wouldn't be heart-broken if he was fired, although I do think he's got a keen eye for evaluating talent, solely because of the lack of action on those fronts.
But I think the real culprit of the bad defense is coaching, first and foremost. Or to put it in a phrase you're probably used to reading from me: Fire Frank Bush.