This season, NFL teams have more or less embodied their well-worn roles. Take a look at the 12 teams who made the playoffs last season, and ask, does 2016 look all that different through two weeks? Breaking your mold is a difficult task in the NFL. Teams don’t often get drastically better or worse from year to year. Mostly, everyone’s just pretty blah.
That includes the Houston Texans, who — yes — won their division last year, but — no — didn’t look anything close to a serious contender to win a playoff game, much less approach the Super Bowl. They were probably worse than they were the year prior when they also went 9-7 but missed the playoffs when the Indianapolis Colts won the AFC South for the second year in a row. Andrew Luck got hurt last year and gave the Texans the crown as much as they took it.
But in 2016, the Texans seem different. Andrew Luck is perfectly healthy and the Texans still look a full deviation better than the Colts. An already great defense looks improved, and the offense is much more explosive (if nothing else). The Texans’ 2015 season began and ended with a loss to the Chiefs. They exorcised Kansas City last week, 19-12, holding Alex Smith to 54 percent passing and scoring their only touchdown on a deep ball to DeAndre Hopkins.
The Texans are potentially really good. It’s way too early to say for sure, but they’re undefeated, at least. If they can beat the Brady- and Garoppolo-less New England Patriots on Thursday night, they will be 3-0 for just the second time in franchise history.
As you might expect, Brock Osweiler is kind of key to all this
The telltale sign of a franchise that thinks it’s about to Get Over The Hump is a big investment in a quarterback. We saw this recently with the Vikings, who did something they knew was dumb and traded a first- and fourth-round pick for Sam Bradford, a move that now looks great in the glow of their win over the Packers.
The Texans are in the same situation with Osweiler, though to a different degree. They have him for the long run, giving him a four-year, $72 million contract that was too rich for the championship-satiated Denver Broncos. Is it a bad sign that the defending Super Bowl champs said “nah” to a quarterback who had starting experience in their system, so they could eventually start Trevor Siemian? Well, yeah.
The Texans were rash to sign Osweiler — he and head coach Bill O’Brien didn’t even meet until his introductory press conference — but the Texans saw something they liked, even if it was just one thing in particular. When Osweiler started in place of an injured Peyton Manning last season, he largely played the same managerial role as the veteran. The Texans didn’t want the quarterback who did a poor imitation of a crumbling veteran, however, but the cannon wielded on a 6’8 frame.
The Texans have been going deep this season. Osweiler’s passes are travelling an average of 9.4 yards through the air this season, which leads the NFL, according to NFL.com’s Matt Harmon. He’s also completing deep passes almost twice as often as he did in Denver, according to Pro Football Focus. The first round pick of speedster Will Fuller was even more prescient than people thought at the time. Fuller is leading all rookies in receiving yards at more than 23 yards per reception. He has receptions of 27, 35, and 53 yards already this season.
Osweiler also has a habit of throwing unsightly interceptions and struggling under pressure. He has thrown picks on the Texans’ opening offensive drive two weeks in a row. Last week, he completed this beautiful throw to Fuller ...
... then shortly followed it up with this:
But Osweiler is also just 25 years old. He’s entering the window of his peak years and his play should continue on an upward trajectory. He’s still a mountain of potential, even if it feels like he’s been around the NFL forever now.
But it’s cool if Osweiler struggles because the defense can fix everything
The Chiefs’ next possession ended when Alex Smith fumbled and J.J. Watt blew right past the right tackle, recovered the ball, and put the Texans on the Chiefs’ 27-yard line. One play later, Osweiler hit Hopkins in the end zone and the Texans were up 7-0.
Things aren’t really all that different for Osweiler than they were in Denver. Starting or sitting, he isn’t the focus of the team, and will never be as long as he is backed by one of the best defenses in the league.
The Texans’ defense has been a top-10 unit in Football Outsiders’ DVOA in four of the last five years. It finished eighth overall last season, but played significantly better than that late when it held all opponents from Week 8 onwards to just 268 total yards and 14.4 points per game. In that 10-game span, the Texans held opponents to 10 points or fewer six times. The Broncos were the league’s best defense, but they did that just five times all last season, including the Super Bowl.
In 2016, the Texans’ defense could be even better. Granted, the Bears and Chiefs don’t have elite offenses, but they were held to 14 and 12 points, respectively, and both under 300 yards of offense.
Most impressively, neither Jay Cutler nor Alex Smith could complete more than 55 percent of his passes. The Texans’ pass defense is outstanding from front to back. Watt is an all-time great, and to stick him with Whitney Mercilus, who bloomed last season with 12 sacks, and Jadeveon Clowney, who is finally healthy and playing like it, is almost unfair.
The Texans have combined for nine sacks so far, which puts them on pace to tie the NFL team season record of 72. With one of the league’s best set of cornerbacks behind them, they could get there.
The defense’s weakness is in the middle. The offseason focus on offense meant neglecting to find a replacement for defensive end Jared Crick. Next to an aging Vince Wilfork is Chris Covington, a second year sixth round pick out of Indiana. Behind them is Not Brian Cushing, who tore his MCL and won’t be able to return until the middle of the season, forcing the Texans to rely on youngsters at inside linebacker. As a result, they are somewhat susceptible to the run.
That’s not the same as a fatal flaw, however, and if you are a Texans fan you would have to be on another tier of jaded not to be pretty damn happy about the state of the team.
And yet, it still feels like everything should crumble
The Texans are scraping the upper bound of their expectations. Somehow, Watt was able to play to start the season despite having back surgery in late July. Somehow, Fuller has exceeded all expectations, making Hopkins even more dangerous in the process. Somehow, a thin and notoriously injury-plagued offensive line has managed to stay healthy (though it’s still in a precarious place). Osweiler, too, is playing about as well as anyone could have hoped, outside of the occasional facepalm of a throw.
The mold is still intact, however. Breaking it without signing, like, Peyton Manning, or making the perfect radical coaching hire is rare in the NFL. Intangibly, the Texans have almost nothing going for them. They have never made it to an AFC Championship game since joining the NFL in 2002, and their head coach’s resume highlight is still just two relatively pretty good years at Penn State.
There is no evidence yet that the Texans can weather significant injuries, or cultivate the locker room camaraderie that all really good teams tend to have. There isn’t even really much evidence that they can beat the Patriots, a team they’ve lost to five out of the six times they’ve played. The Pats are just 1-point underdogs heading into Thursday night even though they’re starting their third string quarterback. That is absolutely a slap against the Texans.
It’s also as much a residual effect of history. The Patriots have found ways to win no matter their circumstances. As long as the Texans have been a franchise, that hasn’t been the case for them. For as good as they could be, in theory, they still have to, somehow, beat back the unquantifiable fog that shrouds every team that yo-yos within a couple games of .500 every season.
The Texans have a lot gifts. Beating the Patriots, and getting to 3-0, would go a long way to proving that, this year, they’re not going to throw them away.