Today's Premature Evaluation covers the Houston Texans, and comes to us courtesy of Matt Skains. Matt has blogged for a few places in the past, and will be popping up here on TiT with some weekly goodness sooner than you think. Because we pimp the ones we love, enjoy.
The trouble with the Houston Texans is that they're a team defined entirely by two past "stumbles." The Houston Texans are the team that passed on Vince Young and Reggie Bush. By and large, that is how the Texans are viewed in the national frame of reference, but that may not be the case for long. Taking a look under the hood of the NFL’s newest franchise reveals a team that would be playoff bound every season if talent and potential translated directly into wins.
This is a team that went 8-8 last season, a franchise best, while playing in a murderous division featuring one of the NFL’s greatest QBs of all time and the possibly one of the most fundamentally sound and brutally physical teams in the league in the Jacksonville Jaguars. Playing the what if game is fairly useless, but giving pause to consider that the team simply didn’t show up for their week 4 loss to Atlanta (a fluke loss in anyone’s book) and lost a nail biter to Tennessee when Rod Bironas kicked his record 8th field goal of the game. Many people don’t bother to look at the box score to find that the Texans put up 29 points in the 4th quarter. With their backup quarterback. Without Andre Johnson, who is arguably one of the top 3 WRs in the league. And don’t forget this is the Titans defense they are scoring on, not the Lions. All of this reminiscing is simply a casual reminder that this 8-8 team was a little bit of focus and a stiff breeze away from being 10-6 with a playoff berth.
Fast forward to the present. Mario Williams is 23 years old and with 14 sacks in 2007, there is no reason to think that this first overall selection is close to his ceiling. Opposing offenses are undoubtedly circling number 90 in red as they prepare for the Texans this season. And why wouldn’t they? The problem lies in what happens when you turn too much attention to the edge rusher. Amobi Okoye, DeMeco Ryans and Dunta Robinson (pending a clean bill of health) are all players supporting Williams on this solid lineup. Each one has shown flashes of brilliance and the kind of instinctive playmaking found on truly great defensive squads. To compete in the violent division the Texans call home, these flashes must become a regular occurrence, not a highlight reel rarity. The off-season addition of Roosevelt Colvin and Jacques Reeves should help fill in gaps. These players are not going to be asked to reinvent the wheel, but only to perform a few specific tasks each game.
Defenses win championships, but points win games. Being a complete team necessarily includes some firepower on offense. The Texans finished 2007 far better than competent on offense, they finished 14th in total yardage. The air attack is a well oiled machine, finishing just outside of the top 10. This is an impressive feat in and of itself, but is a good bit more eye opening when you consider that Johnson only played 9 games in 2007. His massive production during a truncated schedule (60 Rec, 851 Yds, 8 TDs) would have been satisfactory for ¾ of all players in the league for the season. Also keep in mind, much of that was accomplished without Matt Schaub, the former heir to Michael Vick’s throne before that whole dog fighting thing. The depth at WR drops off after Johnson, as any roster would, but still includes 60+ reception options Kevin Walter (a poor man’s Wes Welker), Owen Daniels (a poor man’s Todd Heap) and Jacoby Jones (the team’s other 6’2” handsy 4.4 40 WR).
The only thing really lacking from this offense is a solid running game. 2007’s squad was led by Ron “Krispy Kreme’s are delicious” Dayne. Needless to say, that’s not going to cut it for long. There is a stable of young running backs to fill in for the now departed Dayne. Rookie Steve Slaton almost topped 4,000 yards at West Virginia in only 3 years, while splitting the ground yardage with phenom college runners Pat White and Noel Devine. Chris Taylor, Darius Walker and Ahman Green are all playing like they have something to prove. That’s good. They do. With any luck, rookie Duane Brown will shore up the offensive line and give this committee the kind of holes they need to make all kinds of special things happen.
It is difficult to write about this team without evoking the past. That is part of the tremendous upside of the Houston Texans, there is no where to go but up. Of all the players mentioned here, only Green and Colvin are over the age of 30. Most of them are under 27. Sure, this is going to be a rough year, all of them are, but there is a nucleus of players calling Houston home who have the talent and potential to become a force in January each year.
The week 13 game against Jacksonville will be the franchise’s first Monday night game and will likely have a playoff berth on the line. Games like this show a team’s true mettle. A second season of 8-8 would be a let down in Houston. If all goes according to plan and injuries are minimized, 10 wins is not out of the question. Neither is 12. Stranger things have happened. The one thing that is likely to happen in 2008 is this: The Houston Texans will build an identity for what they do on the field, not who they pass on in the draft.