After the Houston Texans' defense dominated a bunch of teams that started quarterbacks like Keith Null and Ryan Fitzpatrick in 2009, it became a common point to say that the defensive turnaround started with the insertion of safety Bernard Pollard into the starting lineup. The Texans defense had been pitiful in their first three games, giving up yards on the ground by the bushel load and deciding not to cover Chris Johnson when he split out wide in one of the most embarrassing plays in team history. Pollard came in against JaMarcus Russell and the Raiders, and the Texans defense stuffed Darren McFadden en route to allowing just six points. Pollard was seen as a playmaker--he had accumulated four interceptions and a forced fumble, one of the interceptions was returned for a touchdown--who had a knack for stepping up in clutch situations.
Some fans called for Pollard to be given a long-term extension. I wasn't one of them.
I never thought Pollard would be as bad as he was last season, when the lack of other competent pass defenders made him an absolute liability in a secondary that redefined the term. A regression was a fairly likely scenario though. Take stock of some basic factors: Pollard was never as good in Kansas City as he was in Houston; there was a reason he was freely available talent. Pollard was never as good in coverage as those four interceptions made him out to be, and last year showed that to be pretty blatantly true. Stick Pollard on a team with three defensive backs who can cover, and his skills can complement everyone else. Stick him on a team where nobody can really cover, and he'll get exposed pretty fast.
When some Houston fans, mainly radio callers, talked about the defensive turnaround over the last thirteen games, they would point out Pollard's swagger and intensity as the driving force. That the Texans would need more guys like this to turn it around, and that you need that nasty attitude on defense to win. Well, no, apparently what you actually need to win on defense is talent. Or an easy schedule. The schedule the Texans faced in 2009, rated the 27th hardest in the NFL by Football Outsiders, was helping to mask a Texans defense that had taken steps of improvement, but was still pretty sub-par. Furthermore, as Battle Red Blog's bigfatdrunk pointed out before the season, and again during it, a vast majority of the defensive greatness can be attributed to poor opposing quarterbacks.
Pollard was a nice find for the Texans in 2009. An in-the-box safety who could tackle, not be as abysmal as John Busing, and remedy a porous rushing defense that could not stop anyone at the beginning of the season. As much as I poke fun at him, I enjoyed having him on the team as well. He was a stand-up guy who wouldn't make excuses, and he gave everything he had on the field. I have nothing but respect for him as a player and a person.
But there was a reason he was freely available before the 2009 season. He was a good in-the-box safety, but he couldn't really cover anyone on his own. The NFL is in the process of transitioning to a mostly pass-oriented offensive scheme, and Pollard's skillset just isn't a real fit for it. The fact that he keyed the turnaround said a lot more about the replacement-level players he took over for and the team and schedule around him than it did anything special about him.
It turns out if you want consistently good play from your safeties, you should probably go ahead and make finding them an actual priority instead of sorting the scrapheap and drafting guys in the sixth round. Perhaps the Texans have come far enough now to admit that they actually need to work on the safety position.
Or perhaps it will just be Glover Quin moving to free safety and Troy Nolan taking Pollard's spot, because going into a season with an unsettled safety position is the only way the Texans have ever known.