The Houston Texans followed the perfect formula to beat the New England Patriots in the playoffs last month. Tom Brady was pressured often by the Houston defense, the Patriots turned the ball over three times, and the Texans controlled time of possession. Yet Houston still lost, 34-16, and the Patriots went on to win the Super Bowl.
It wasn’t a mystery why the Texans couldn’t keep pace with the Patriots: The offense was awful and struggled all year. Two days after losing to the Patriots, the Texans parted ways with offensive coordinator George Godsey, but the coach wasn’t the biggest problem.
The spotlight is squarely on the quarterback position where the play of Brock Osweiler, the team’s biggest offseason acquisition, was a disaster in 2016.
Despite spending big money in March to upgrade the offense, the unit was one of the NFL’s worst and couldn’t manage a single play of 20 yards or more against the Patriots.
“It starts with me,” Texans coach Bill O’Brien said after the loss. “I don’t point fingers. I look in the mirror. I look right square in the mirror and I figure out what I can do better and I’m already thinking about that right now. You can’t have the offense where it’s at in this league and expect to win a championship and so we’ve got to figure it out, we’ve got to improve.”
O’Brien will take over play-calling, but the biggest improvement the team needs to make is obvious. Osweiler finished the year with 15 touchdowns, 16 interceptions and a pitiful 72.2 passer rating.
While Houston ended the season No. 8 in the NFL in rushing yards, it was No. 29 in passing yards and subsequently finished No. 29 in total yards as well. But would the Texans spend an early draft selection on a quarterback with Tom Savage on the roster, and with Osweiler due to count $19 million against the salary cap in 2017?
"We're so far from answering that question," O'Brien said. "Right now, we sit down and evaluate our team and everything we do ...it's not even a question that I can begin to answer."
It’s a difficult question for the Texans that comes with salary cap implications, no matter what Houston decides.
Moving on from Osweiler isn’t as easy as handing over a pink slip
The four-year, $72 million contract for Osweiler certainly looks like a huge error for the Texans, but the good news is that it’s one that Houston can comfortably part ways with once the 2017 season is over. After the upcoming $19 million hit, the Texans can cut Osweiler and absorb only $6 million in dead money in 2018 and $3 million in 2019.
But if the Texans cut ties with Osweiler this offseason, his cap hit will actually rise to $25 million in 2017.
Simply put: Although the Texans can save a ton of cap room by cutting Osweiler in 2018, it’s actually $6 million cheaper to keep him on the roster in 2017.
Houston believed in the talent of the Denver Broncos’ former second-round pick, and may consider spending another offseason trying to get the most out of it. Or at the very least keeping Osweiler as a backup for a new starter.
Savage didn’t shine in his time under center either
If it wasn’t for a concussion suffered by Savage in the team’s regular season finale against the Tennessee Titans, the 2014 fourth-round pick likely would’ve been the starter for the Texans in the postseason. But that was far more of an indictment of the play of Osweiler rather than an endorsement of Savage’s play in Weeks 15 and 16.
It’s not that the third-year quarterback played poorly. It’s that he didn’t show much of anything to give Houston confidence that he’s capable of taking over in 2017.
In three games and 73 pass attempts, Savage threw no touchdowns and no interceptions. When he led the Texans to a 12-10 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in his first career start, it came with struggles to get the team’s offense moving early, although O’Brien took some of the blame.
"I thought that the first half was a combination of some missed assignments, he held the ball a little bit, could have been some better play calls by me in there,” O’Brien told reporters a day after the game. “It was a combination of just bad some offense obviously ... I thought he got into a rhythm in the second half and he was much better. I think everybody could see that.”
But it’d be a stretch for the Texans to feel comfortable enough with the performance to enter the 2017 season with Savage as the perceived solution.
Drafting a starting QB will be tough
Yes, the Dallas Cowboys struck gold with Dak Prescott in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL Draft, but that’s the exception to the rule. Discount shopping for a quarterback results in many more misses than hits.
As owners of the No. 25 pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, the Texans will likely have to settle for the second, third or fourth quarterback off the board. Trading up is an option, but there are quarterback-needy teams like the San Francisco 49ers and Chicago Bears in the top five, so the Texans still likely won’t get their top choice.
Drafting the next starter is possible, but it’s a crapshoot that’s hard to trust and the Texans don’t have the best picks to work with.
Adding talent through the draft isn’t a bad idea, but relying on a rookie to be a significant upgrade from Osweiler is a difficult ask. The best and most realistic option to hope for immediately better quarterback play is to add a veteran passer in the offseason.
How much money are the Texans willing to spend on a veteran?
No matter what Houston decides to do in the offseason, Osweiler will count at least $19 million against the team’s salary cap in 2017. It could be $25 million if Osweiler isn’t on the team and that means sinking any more money into the position will be tough.
While the New York Giants led all teams in salary cap dedicated to the quarterback position in 2016 with $25,588,400, the Texans are primed to soar well over that mark if a veteran is added.
Colin Kaepernick and Jay Cutler could be options, but they won’t be cheap. Even longtime backup quarterback Chase Daniel — who was signed by the Philadelphia Eagles to stay in that role — received a three-year, $21 million deal in free agency in 2016. It won’t be any cheaper to sign a player like Kaepernick or Cutler who will have a chance to compete for a starting role in 2017.
It would be even worse to try to acquire a quarterback like Tony Romo, who is set to count $24.7 million against the Dallas Cowboys’ salary cap in 2017 and is a likely offseason trade commodity. Even though the Texans have strong odds to become Romo’s new team, he could take a reduced contract and it could still launch the Texans’ total cap number at the position to close to $40 million.
There’s no easy fix for the Texans until Osweiler’s contract becomes much easier to part ways with in the 2018 offseason.
Unless there’s a stunning turnaround for the 26-year-old Osweiler, or Savage steps up in a big way in 2017, or the Texans strike gold with a rookie in 2017, Houston is stuck with a problem that will be expensive to solve.