The Houston Texans have been essentially the same team for a few years now: an elite defense, a strong running game, intriguing weapons on offense, and unspeakably bad quarterback play. For three years in a row, they went 9-7. They won the AFC South the past two years and bowed out in the playoffs each time.
At least 2016 was a little different — they won a playoff game and gave the New England Patriots a decent fight in the Divisional round — but the ending was the same. This is a good team, but it doesn’t quite have the horses to keep up with Super Bowl contenders.
Bill O’Brien’s tenure as head coach has been defined by one narrative: His team doesn’t have a franchise QB. From Ryan Fitzpatrick in 2014, to Brian Hoyer in 2015, to Brock Osweiler in 2016, the mediocre-to-bad quarterback play has held back a genuinely talented roster. Now the team is starting over again with first-round draft pick Deshaun Watson — although they’re giving lip service toward Tom Savage being the Week 1 starter. Either way, the Texans are once again heading into training camp with the quarterback situation unsettled.
The Texans have shown that they can win with replacement-level quarterbacks. Two straight division titles is evidence of that. However, to truly get over the hump, O’Brien and Co. need more production out of the position.
The Texans can’t afford to repeat the Brock Osweiler experiment
When Osweiler hit free agency last year, he was expected to be in high demand because teams are desperate to find anyone resembling a starting NFL quarterback these days. Denver didn’t make a serious effort to retain him despite Peyton Manning’s retirement. But that didn’t stop the Texans from opening up the checkbook and signing Osweiler to a four-year deal worth up to $72 million, including $37 million in guaranteed money.
It was a questionable move at the time and became a full-blown disaster as the season went on. Osweiler’s 72.2 QB Rating was second-worst among qualified quarterbacks, ahead of only Ryan Fitzpatrick. His 5.8 yards per attempt was dead last in the league. He threw only 15 touchdowns to 16 interceptions and had a number of shocking misfires, completing just 59 percent of his passes.
By Week 15, O’Brien had seen enough and benched Osweiler for Savage, only to reinsert him in the regular season finale when Savage suffered a concussion. Osweiler and O’Brien reportedly had a heated argument in the locker room, which appears to have been the final straw.
While the Texans managed to win the AFC South and reach the Divisional round, it was obvious they were headed for a divorce from Osweiler. Sure enough, on the first day of free agency, the Texans banished Osweiler to Cleveland in an NBA-style salary dump trade.
It was a serious black mark on GM Rick Smith’s resume, and he can’t afford to repeat that mistake.
Can Deshaun Watson be the solution at QB?
Since O’Brien arrived in 2014, Houston has had eight different starting quarterbacks, a who’s-who of journeymen, has-beens, and never-weres. We’re talking guys like Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Mallett, Case Keenum, Brian Hoyer, and T.J. Yates. Even Brandon Weeden showed up for one start, to give you an idea of how desperate Houston was getting.
So it’s not too surprising that Houston traded up 13 spots in this year’s draft, selecting Clemson’s Deshaun Watson No. 12 overall. It’s the first time since they picked David Carr in 2002 that the Texans drafted a quarterback in the first round. But they paid a steep price to get Watson, giving up their 2018 first-round pick in the process. It’s pretty crucial that Watson works out for the team.
During an interview with The MMQB’s Albert Breer, Smith revealed that he was leaning toward Watson all throughout the pre-draft process, and a private visit on April 18 sealed the deal.
“One of the things we talked about at the end was what the expectations would be if we were in a position to take him,” Smith said. “So we talked about what those are, and I won’t share those, but there was a connection between the two of us where I believe that he was willing to make the necessary commitment to be the best football player he can be.
“I wanted agreement with him on that and a commitment from him that if he were to become a part of our football team, he was going to do that and recognize the significance of the position, and do everything he could to be the best football player and man representative of Houston that he could be. I walked away from that confident he would do it.”
Watson boasts physical tools, impeccable leadership, and a winning pedigree after leading Clemson to the College Football Playoff National Championship. He does have accuracy concerns and will have to learn to take snaps under center after playing out of the shotgun for the majority of his career. He’s also turnover-prone, throwing 32 interceptions in his three-year college career. There’s a lot to like about Watson’s game, and his mobility opens up more options for O’Brien’s offense. But he’s far from a sure thing at the pro level.
With the NFL learning curve, it’s possible Watson won’t be ready to start in Week 1, so O’Brien is hedging his bets, saying that Savage is the starter for now. Savage has been plagued by injuries throughout his short career and looked unimpressive in limited action last year. He has yet to throw a touchdown in 92 pass attempts. Even if Savage wins the Week 1 job, he’ll likely be on thin ice with Watson waiting in the wings.
O’Brien built a reputation as a QB guru going back to his days with the Patriots and Penn State, but he hasn’t had much success finding one in Houston. We’re about to see how good he really is developing QBs when he’s working with Watson over the next few years.
Supporting cast in Houston is still terrific
When Watson eventually takes over, he’ll be surrounded by plenty of quality weapons to succeed. DeAndre Hopkins struggled to do anything with Osweiler last year, but he remains one of the league’s premier receivers, just two years removed from a 111-catch, 1,521-yard campaign. He’s the kind of No. 1 receiver you can build the passing game around. The jury is still out on two 2016 picks: first-rounder Will Fuller and Braxton Miller (former Ohio State QB), but both men have untapped potential.
In the running game, Houston has a reliable workhorse in Lamar Miller, who rushed for 1,073 yards and five touchdowns last season. However, he struggled while playing through injuries and needs someone who can spell him during games. The Texans addressed that issue with third-round rookie D’Onta Foreman, a 233-pound bruiser who should be an upgrade over Alfred Blue as the change-of-pace back.
And then there’s the defense. How good is this defense? The Texans lost three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt in Week 3 and still finished with the best defense in the NFL.
A big reason for the defensive stability was the emergence of Jadeveon Clowney. After two injury-plagued seasons, the 2014 No. 1 draft pick finally stayed healthy and dominated, becoming a disruptive force on the defensive line and earning his first Pro Bowl nod. In addition, Whitney Mercilus continued to terrorize opposing quarterbacks, recording 7.5 sacks.
If Watt comes back healthy, this could easily be the most fearsome pass-rushing trio in football. The front seven also got another reinforcement in the draft, with linebacker Zach Cunningham being a potential steal in the second round. This is an incredible unit, but as we’ve seen in the past few years, that hasn’t been enough to make the Texans true contenders.
Time to turn potential into results
On paper, there’s a lot to like about this Texans team. Their defense is great, and should get a boost when Watt returns. They have young, promising weapons on offense, with a legitimate star in Hopkins. They have the talent to win the division and make a deep playoff run.
But Houston needs that franchise quarterback, and after years of trying to patch the position with short-term Band-Aids, the team finally made the bold move to go get one. That’s a good thing. If Watson pans out, the Texans are in good hands for the next several years.
So what happens if Watson isn’t the guy?
Well, they might be OK in 2017 anyway. The defense can keep games close, and maybe they’ll eke out another 9-7 year if the AFC South is down again. But that feeling of deja vu is already starting to linger and will only intensify if Houston sold out its first-round pick for a dud.
We’ve seen the Texans’ ceiling without a competent quarterback. We haven’t seen their ceiling with one, and that’s reason enough to be excited for the future. There’s a lot of pressure on Watson, but he’s used to handling pressure.
O’Brien and Smith are going all-in on Watson, if not in Week 1, then in the near future. If their gamble pays off, they could be looking at a Super Bowl contention window. If it doesn’t, they’ll probably be looking for new jobs. That’s the risk you take when you’re pursuing a franchise quarterback in today’s NFL.