My eyes usually glaze over when I read prediction posts.
No really, they're usually full of terribly forced tidbits about people you don't know or care about. For instance, I don't follow the Denver Broncos. I don't know if their third receiver is going to be Eddie Royal or some homeless guy, just that they were both equally valuable to my fantasy team last year. So why bother making a post with off-the-cuff predictions about them going 7-9? I'm not here to be worldly, just talk about the 2010 Texans.
I am air-locking my predictions with one caveat: health is a huge unknown factor in the NFL, and everything can change quickly with injuries to a few key players. Ergo, asides from my first prediction, which is specifically about health, I don't make any promises that these come true should half the starting lineup catch Lytico-Bodig disease. These are all based on fairly good health, which is a rose-colored foam hand, but one that I think every real fan of a team has ingrained in them.
1) Matt Schaub will be your starting quarterback for every game of the Texans season.
I base this on three factors, two of which are anecdotal evidence and one of which is a gut feeling.
Schaub played through injuries much better last season. If he'd dislocated his shoulder during 2007, he would've been shut down for four weeks. As it is, he grew some pain tolerance, played through bumps and bruises, and stayed completely effective. Moreover, the Texans absolutely need him to be on the field, and since the Dan Orlovsky bandwagon is covered with buzzard shadows, I think both he and Kubiak will do whatever it takes to keep him there.
The run game will improve to the point where Schaub won't have to drop back and throw 50 times every game for the Texans to be successful on offense. It's a pretty simple concept: more running mean less exposure to those evil ones in the other jerseys who would dare topple the NFL's reigning passing-yards leader.
Lastly, with all the talk about Schaub's fragility even in spite of him starting all 16 games last year, it just feels like something that a public that is already jilted on the Texans after years of unsuccessfully picking them as a sleeper would pick up on and use as a "this team is 8-8 caliber" crutch. Trust me public, there are plenty of better reasons to talk down the Texans this year. Speaking of that...
2) This team will perform better than it did in 2009, but the schedule could still keep it out of the playoffs.
After years of being fed delicious cream puffs of the lower AFC standings like Oakland, Miami, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Buffalo, the Texans finally finished in second place last year. Unfortunately, that meant that instead of continuing to eat with the kids, they get to eat at the large coffee table this year. Rex Ryan isn't really a gracious host, and having Baltimore's defense pay a visit to Houston will be costly no matter how banged up their secondary looks on paper right now. Why couldn't we just stay at the kiddie table and give wet willies to the Browns and Bills like Jacksonville gets to?
Honestly, there isn't a team in football that the Texans shouldn't be able to keep up with. They proved that last year when, in spite of a terrible running game, the Kris Brown horror show and continued employment of John Busing, they were within a touchdown of winning every game after Week 1. The problem is that when you start lining up all those quality NFC East and AFC South teams together, you start looking at a scenario where one bad break can ruin a season. If they beat the teams they are supposed to beat and manage to tread water without Cushing, they still need to keep around a .500 pace against the better teams on their schedule. And that has never been Kubiak's strong suit, which is probably my biggest worry this season.
3) This will be the best defense in franchise history. And this time it'll actually earn that phrase.
Given the lack of attention the Texans have given to free safety, as well as the near-weekly beatings that I give to their defensive tackles and coordinators, you might be somewhat surprised that I wound up here. Let me explain:
I think the Texans ultimately wind up close to or a little worse than what they were overall last season in run defense. I'm buying Bernard Pollard as a solid run-stuffing safety, but I think regression from Shaun Cody (see: his ridiculous run stopping rate according to FO) and four weeks without Brian Cushing will take enough of a toll on the statistics to ultimately push them down from the silly "last 13 weeks" statistics (this year they will be called "last 12 weeks" statistics thanks to Cushing) and split the wishbone a little towards the downside.
But I am buying the Texans pass defense as improving; especially the pass rush. It was almost comical how many hurries Antonio Smith and Mario Williams had last year compared to the amount of actual sacks they posted. Combine that with the young, talented defensive linemen (Connor Barwin, Amobi Okoye and Earl Mitchell) who have spent the entire offseason dropping weight while getting yelled at by Bill Kollar, as well as Frank Bush hopefully improving a bit from his first year, and I like the odds of the Texans putting together a lot of pressure from the front four. Ultimately, I think the season comes down to just how good this unit does.
I'm not that down on the defensive backs either. Oh sure, none of these guys are going to be Darrelle Revis or even Chris Gamble next year, but it's not like thats a gigantic change from how they were last year. Mainstream analysts are massively overrating the loss of Dunta Robinson, who was absolutely dreadful last year. Football Outsiders has taken that into context and said "well, Kareem Jackson is a rookie, and our analysis says that rookie cornerbacks shouldn't be starting on good teams," and that is absolutely true if you look at things in a vacuum. Fortunately, football games aren't played by projection systems yet, and the odds of Jackson being worse than Robinson was last year, in my eyes, are pretty small. He probably won't have as good a freshman season as Robinson had for the Texans in 2005, but to replace the shadow of Robinson that was on the field last year, he only has to play like a rookie.
Otherwise, the rest of the secondary is covered with okay players. I think this is optimal if you can't import real difference makers. Sure, there is nobody who has proven much (except for Glover Quin, the only NFL cornerback who has started semi-regularly enough to qualify as a starter despite playing inside in the nickel that has never allowed a touchdown in his career), but a lot of teams would kill to have Jacques Reeves or Brice McCain as a dime corner. I think that gets lost sometimes, especially with how important depth is in the NFL.
4) The most important "swing" player on the team this year is Duane Brown
No you pervert, not that kind of swing; I mean it in the political sense. Pundits often say "____ is a swing (state/county), if (candidate X) can win this, it can swing the entire course of the election."
Well, Duane Brown is the swing player for the Texans this year. Dwight Freeney twice, Brian Orakpo, Richard Seymour, DeMarcus Ware, Tamba Hali, Trent Cole, Terrell Suggs; this is a nightmare schedule for an offensive tackle. Brown improved last year, but if he can take just one more step this year, and become good enough in pass protection to keep the heat off Schaub against elite defensive ends, then the Texans road to the playoffs becomes a lot clearer.
If he is what he was last year, which is a functional but bad pass protecting tackle, then it doesn't really set the Texans back at all. It makes it harder to keep Schaub upright, but it's not a dealbreaker. If he continues his growth, the offense could take another leap forward. Because right now, Schaub has the skill position weapons, and the running game should rebound to at least functional with Arian Foster and some growth on the interior of the offensive line. The only real weakness the offense has (other than to mammoth nose tackles) left is edge rushers. If Brown somehow finds a way to put all his raw talent together this season, then the Texans could leap from a good offense to a great one.
5) At the end of the 2010 season, the Texans will have the same record they did last season: 9-7.
I think talent improvement washes with more injuries and a harder schedule. Truth be told, if you look at the article up to this point, you'd probably think that I'd have them 11-5 or 12-4, but something just nags me about the Texans this season. Part of it could be that I have been subjected to many years watching the Texans. You know, the franchise that has given us moments like The Halfback Pass, The Rosencopter, and Jabar Gaffney's Goal Line Touchback. Another part of it could be that I am unfailingly a realist first, and FO's projection of 5.7 mean wins really sunk into my head as a warning sign.
But mostly, this pick is about the Texans themselves. This is a franchise that is very content to stick to and manage by their philosophy. In other words, they are complacent. They had several chances to nab a player or two that would shore up some of their defensive shortcomings this offseason, and they instead stuck with their system of low-budget younger fixes and drafting and developing. One day, the Texans very well may fill every hole on the team in this method, but the lack of urgency to do so right now, while all the other pieces are in place, baffles me. I'm very big on actions over words when it comes to a front office, and while I realize the splashy decision isn't always the cost-efficient one, I also know enough to call a bad nose tackle a spade. The front office sets the tone, and as I've said before, it's been a complete 180 degree turn-around from the Casserly era. But until they get serious with themselves about attacking obvious problem areas like safety and nose tackle, I can't get serious about them as a Super Bowl contender. And don't think the players can't see the same thing.
So will 9-7 get them into the playoffs this year? As I said, I'm not going to pretend like I follow the rest of the AFC as closely as I do the Texans.
But they'll have their chance if they want it.