The Texans red zone offense, according to splits compiled by the brilliant folks at Football Outsiders, accumulated a DVOA of -3.9% last year. DVOA, as I have explained a few times, is a measure of how effective the team was at moving the ball versus an "average" team. So essentially, the Texans were four percent worse than an average team was in the red zone last year.
That doesn't seem so bad, but when you take into account that the Texans offense as a whole was actually 13.2% better than the average offense, the difference in the red zone winds up being about 17%. And in "goal to go" situations, when the team is within the final ten yards of the goal line, the Texans were 23.7% worse than the average offense, and nearly 40% worse than they were as a team last year.
I complied a list through FO's premium database (which I recommend you all buy access to, it's a bargain) of teams in the last four years (aka the Kubiak Era) that have been 10% worse than their regular offense in the red zone and have also put together a regular offense that is 10% or more better than average. It's a pretty short list:
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Essentially, the good offenses tend to uniformly underperform in the Red Zone when their passing game fowls up. The Texans are in a weird spot here because they are the only team on the list that has been below average in goal-to-go situations in each of the last two years. In fact, Chart B will show you that they've actually been below average for three straight seasons in that regard (although they weren't a good enough offense in 2007 to make the first list):
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The Texans struggled in 2007 as well. Their overall running game wasn't as impressive back in those days (Ron Dayne, anyone?), but as a whole their DVOA in the red zone was within spitting distance of what they did normally. Of course, the 2006 version, also under Kubiak, was absolutely tremendous in the red zone and on goal-to-go situations especially. Which means this can't just be on Kubiak's offensive system or the zone blocking scheme. In fact, if you look back at the Broncos in chart one under the blocking scheme, I think you'll see a red zone rushing DVOA to be proud of. So if we can't scapegoat those things, what can we scapegoat? Lets look at some possible problems:
Offensive Line Turmoil?
The Texans, Steelers, and Chargers all had major issues on the offensive line last year. The Steelers couldn't pass block for Roethlisberger to save their lives, and the run blocking wasn't much better. The Chargers were missing Nick Hardwick, and Mike Goff was allowed to flee to Kansas City leaving rookie Louis Vasquez in the lineup for 14 starts. Texans fans, of course, know that both Chester Pitts and Mike Brisiel, both of 2008's starting guards, were out for the season in short order. Kasey Studdard was not a worthy replacement, and while Antoine Caldwell had his moments in pass protection, he didn't look quite so good in the run game.
This theory has some merit in my eyes. Of course, the Chargers and Texans both got awful seasons from their primary running backs in Steve Slaton and LaDanian Tomlinson last year as well, creating somewhat of a perfect storm of bad running. But the Texans were bad in goal-to-go situations the past couple of years as well, and they had healthy guards then.
Personnel Downgrades Over Time?
This runs into a lot of logical problems right off the bat. For one thing, the 2006 Texans line had a lot of players wind up splitting time as they aged and the players behind them got better. Secondly, no one who watched Vonta Leach would call him a run-blocking downgrade. Ephraim Salaam was probably a better pass protector than Duane Brown, but Brown is a solid run blocker. Mark Breuner wasn't an especially good blocking tight end at this point of his career, but he probably wasn't much better than Joel Dreessen.
This one doesn't pass the smell test to me. I suppose you could make the argument that the running back talent has gotten smaller (Slaton), but I don't think you can suggest that Slaton is a downgrade on Dayne. A healthy Ahman Green, possibly. But Slaton notched 9 rushing TD's in 2008, it's not like he was a total schmoe in the red zone. The offensive line position, as well as fullback, probably had an overall talent boost. Tight end blocking has suffered, however.
Blame The Coordinator?
Kubiak's original offensive coordinator in 2006, Troy Calhoun, left to take the job as head coach of the Air Force Academy. Mike Sherman, the 2007 replacement, played to about even in the red zone. The red zone running was mediocre, but the overall running of that 2007 Texans team was mediocre as well. He left to go take over at Texas A&M, and Mike Shanahan's son Kyle came aboard as offensive coordinator.
While Shanahan spearheaded a big overall passing game improvement, both of his years at the helm saw the Texans struggling in the red zone. I wish I had more data on the 06-07 Texans beyond say, Youtube highlights, but anecdotally the Texans run game sure did seem to run a lot of horizontal stuff in the red zone last year. I'm not saying that was the wrong idea, as it does fit better with Slaton being the running back and the line had to deal with poor guard play, but it's certainly not optimal red zone strategy.
Will The Texans Do Better In The Red Zone This Year?
Almost certainly. When you combine the problems of Slaton, the injuries of the offensive line, and the emphasis of better run-blocking under Rick Dennison, I think it'd be hard to see the Texans doing as bad as they did last year again. They attacked every possible problem they could in the offseason by adding Ben Tate just in case Arian Foster was a two game wonder, adding Wade Smith to supplement the guards, and adding Dennison.
Did they do enough to make the improvement more than slight? That is the question that dances in my head about this team. Right now I'd say it's certainly banking hard on Dennison and improvement from young players. I'm not too comfortable with the possibility of Studdard at guard again, nor am I with Slaton possibly playing a role on the goal line. Last week's preseason game certainly didn't bring the breakthrough that everybody wanted to see, as the team went 0-4 on touchdowns in the red zone.
I'm not ready to pass a judgement yet. I would have liked the Texans to sign a guard in free agency that was more accomplished than Wade Smith, but it wasn't at all surprising that they didn't. The Texans don't need a dominant rushing offense; they just need competency and an ability to avoid turnovers. I don't expect the red zone run game to become a force, but they should at least be able to bounce back into mediocrity just on regression alone. Whether the added improvements can take them to "competent" will be a big factor in just how good the Texans are this season.