The purpose of every NFL regular season is to confound preseason expectations. That said, if we went back in time to the kickoff of Week 1 and gave an avid NFL observer a sneak peek at the Week 11 standings, he probably wouldn't be too shocked.
As sure as the sun rises in the East, the Pats lead the AFC East.
The NFC East is a muddle of mediocrity.
A brief word about Aaron Rodgers' collarbone suffices to make the NFC North make sense.
And in the AFC South . . . wait a minute. What the hell happened to the Texans???
With apologies to the Falcons (whose defensive problems, at least, were pretty easy to forecast), the Texans are the less-than-proud owners of 2013's most shocking breakdown. And a breakdown of that magnitude deserves its own breakdown -- an in-depth look at both sides of the ball that incorporates advanced stats, player metrics and the good old Eyeball Test yield five key insights on how things went so wrong, so fast.
Texans fans, this may not be pretty, but hopefully it will at least be cathartic.
To kick things off, check out the numbers in the bottom right corner. Those are Football Outsiders' DVOA (Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average -- explained more thoroughly here) ratings for the Texans' run and pass offense. DVOA is a fantastic measure for understanding how well or poorly a unit is performing since it adjusts for the caliber of opponents they've faced. And 26th in passing and 24th in rushing ... well, those ain't good.
(Click the chart for a larger view).
By way of comparison, Houston ranked 14th in passing and 16th in rushing in 2012 -- not stellar, but sufficient when paired with a top-drawer defense. The Texans' offensive doldrums have been a major driver of their 2-8 record, but to figure out why they've fallen off so drastically, we'll need to dig a little deeper.
A glance at the two signal-callers in the Texans' backfield makes the first insight pop in a hurry:
1. Matt Schaub was killing the Texans.
It wasn't just Schaub's unprecedented string of pick sixes, although those were crippling enough. That absolutely anemic 6.6 yards per attempt number speaks to a guy who was unwilling and unable to vertically challenge defenses. This was a problem that savvy Texans observers probably picked up on during the second half of the 2012 season, as his performance began to differ drastically from earlier seasons. Below are Schaub's vertical passing numbers (passes throw 20 yards or more down the field), with 2008 through the first half of 2012 contrasting with the last half of 2012 and his 2013 season:
|2009 - 2012 (1st half)||194||82||42.3||15.3||25||9|
|2012 (2nd half) - 2013||44||13||29.5||9.8||1||4|
An offense that had consistently relied on Schaub's arm to create vertical opportunities found itself bereft, and the Texans' run game faced more determined opposition from opponents who didn't fear getting punished over the top. Case Keenum has been a breath of fresh air for the Texans' offense -- and for Andre Johnson's Fantasy owners -- for his willingness to simply fire the ball downfield and allow one of the league's elite receivers to make plays for him.
While a simple decline in ability could have doomed Schaub, quarterback performance doesn't exist in isolation. A closer look at the offensive line yields the second key insight:
2. The Texans' OL is a shadow of its former self.
In their heyday, Gary Kubiak's offenses were fueled by elite play from the front five, consistently creating cutback lanes on Houston's signature Outside Zone play while providing harassment-free pockets for Schaub (and the weird gallimaufry of QBs that Schaub's injury thrust on the scene in 2011). But all good things must come to an end, and debatable resource allocation by the Texans' front office, along with the cruel dictates of Father Time, hastened that end along.
The run rating number for each offensive lineman is a per-snap rendition of ProFootballFocus' Run Blocking ratings, with the colors (Green = Good, Yellow = OK, Red = Bad) pointing out each player's performance relative to his positional peers across the league.
Center Chris Myers can still execute run-game reach blocks like a champ, but the rest of the line is struggling to meet the standards of seasons past with right tackle Derek Newton and left guard Wade Smith having significant issues in the run game. The 'Pressure Allowed' mark shows the percentage of passing down snaps where each offensive lineman surrenders either a sack, quarterback hit or pressure (again thanks to PFF's charting data), with the color-coding again corresponding to relative position performance. Duane Brown is the only guy truly excelling in pass pro, with Newton and Smith hurting the Texans' offense both ways. A declining quarterback like Schaub facing an elevated pressure level is never a good recipe, and Keenum has likewise struggled in completing a mere 41 percent of his throws under pressure.
And what of resource allocation? Before the 2012 season, the Texans elected to back up the Brinks truck and give Arian Foster a five-year, $43 million contract with more than $20 million in guaranteed money. In the same offseason, Houston parted ways with the right side of its offensive line as guard Mike Brisiel and tackle Eric Winston headed for greener pastures.
Make no mistake -- Foster was an outstanding back in 2010 and 2011, and while his physical skills might not have dazzled in every system, he was a tremendous fit for Houston's one-cut-and-go zone scheme. But one of the corollaries of The Iron Law of Running Back Fungibility states that a dollar invested in your offensive line will almost always go farther than a dollar invested in your back.
What's more, in 10 years (or maybe much sooner) there will be no single act of fiscal irresponsibility more mocked in retrospect than the big second contract to the game's shortest-lived and most replaceable position. It may still face stiff competition from "Big Free Agent Contracts To Wide Receivers By Teams With Dubious QBs" and "Big Money to Defenders Over 30," but Foster-type deals will often look hideous in hindsight even without Foster's specific back and hamstring woes. While re-signing Brisiel and Winston might not have been the right specific moves, investing those dollars in higher-caliber replacements would likely yield bigger results for Ben Tate/Dennis Johnson/A Guy Who Can Walk And Chew Gum.
So a dire effort by Schaub and a declining line have hindered the Texans' offense. What of the defense?
(Click on the chart for a larger view).
Let's start again with a look at the top-line numbers (which you'll find on the top left here). Houston ranks a solid 10th in Run Defense DVOA, but finds itself with a ragged rating of 25th against the pass. To understand how it got there, let's take a closer look unit by unit.
Whatever Houston's problems are this season, don't lay them at the feet of J.J. Watt. He's been just about as destructive on a per-snap basis as he was during his historic 2012 campaign, as his bright green numbers for Pressure per Passing Snap and Run Stop Percentage (the percentage of run plays where he tackled the runner short of 'successful play' yardage) indicate.
Bookend Antonio Smith has also raised a pretty good ruckus for a 3-4 end, though nose tackle Earl Mitchell hasn't applied a ton of pressure right up the middle. Neither Smith nor Mitchell have really distinguished themselves against the run, but Watt has caused so much havoc on plays run both at and away from him that he's just about balanced things out on his lonesome. Aside from wide receiver, the Texans' defensive line is the unit that has best met the standard of 2012.
3. Houston is getting let down by linebacking.
Joe Mays has been a solid free-agent find, holding up fairly well against the run while showing very well in Relative Coverage (a composite positional ranking based on how often a player gets targeted and how much yardage he allows relative to snaps in coverage, as well as touchdowns allowed and interceptions created).
The loss of Pro Bowler Brian Cushing has left a major mark, however, and Darryl Sharpton has struggled to replace him while looking like a liability against the run and pass. On the edges, the metrics are "meh" for Brooks Reed and Whitney Mercilus in both setting the edge and getting after the passer. The Texans certainly had higher hopes for Mercilus' second season after spending a 2012 first rounder to bring him into the fold. For all of Watt and Smith's ferocity inside, marginal pressure off the edge has given opposing quarterbacks too much time to carve up the Texans' secondary.
And oh, boy . . . that secondary . . .
4. The Texans struggling secondary
The Texans' fall-off from fourth in Passing Defense DVOA in 2012 to 25th in 2013 has been the single biggest factor in their demise, even moreso than Schaub getting the pick six named after him. The fourth key insight that those red numbers should get across. Johnathan Joseph has struggled somewhat from a Relative Coverage standpoint, but his Corner Rating (another composite that factors in quarterback rating allowed, Yards Per Attempt allowed and PFF's 'eyeball rating' of coverage) puts him in a better light. He's given up a ton of yardage, but since he's so frequently asked to cover the opponent's No. 1 wideout, he deserves to get graded on a curve. Fellow corner Kareem Jackson has also held up well, continuing a strong career that got off to such a shaky start in 2010.
The problems start once you get to nickel coverage. Almost no position suffers more season-to-season performance variance than nickel/slot corner (Falcons fans are thinking about Robert McClain right now and nodding), and Brice McCain has fallen victim to that phenomenon this season after a strong 2012 campaign.
The safety spot has also struggled -- Ed Reed was torched before talking his way out of town, and Danieal Manning's season-ending leg injury has meant a pair of young pups manning the back end for Houston.
Shiloh Keo has gone above and beyond the call of duty. D.J. Swearinger has been slower to adapt, getting targeted frequently and surrendering nearly twice the league average in Yards per Coverage Snap among safeties.
5. Houston's special teams stink
The fifth and final insight belongs to the "third phase" of the game. Houston ranks a dreadful 30th in combined Special Teams DVOA, and a combination of hidden yards and bricked kicks from rookie Randy Bullock have put their fingerprints on more than one close loss this season. Houston finally got a highlight with Keshawn Martin's 87-yard punt return against the Raiders, but until then, lame kick returns and dodgy punt coverage had been the order of the day.
The Bottom Line
While Matt Schaub's disastrous penchant for throwing touchdowns to the other team has headlined the Texans' lost season, Schaub has been far from the Texans' only downfall. The good news in Houston is that Keenum is showing some promise (so stop yanking him after a tough half, OK?), strong performers like Watt and Kareem Jackson are in their prime and the return of players like Manning and Cushing will help to alleviate some trouble spots for 2014.
The team won't be without holes, but they'll almost certainly enjoy a high selection in the 2014 draft to fill at least one of them. And if a different coach is helping to guide that selection ... for many Texans fans, that might be the best news of all.