Gary Kubiak is in select company. It is very rare that a head coach who has only one winning season and no playoff appearances on his résumé is asked to return for a sixth season. In fact, Bart Starr of the Packers (1975-83) is the only other coach since the NFL-AFL merger to be so fortunate.
Even Kubiak thought 2010 was a “playoffs or bust” season. He was given a reprieve and a new defensive coordinator. What can he do with them?
Kubiak may have a subpar win-loss record (37–43), but his offense has been very good and should continue to be. The Texans were the only team in the AFC to have both a top-10 passing and rushing attack in 2010, and with quarterback Matt Schaub, running back Arian Foster and receiver Andre Johnson returning, there is no reason to believe it couldn’t happen again. Few NFL teams return 10 starters from a unit that ranked among the best in the game.
Schaub’s consistency and improvement are related in large part to his health. After missing five starts in each of his first two seasons with the Texans, he has started every game the last two years and has been one of the most productive passers in the league. While Johnson is arguably the best receiver in the NFL, Schaub spreads the ball around and has a strong relationship with tight end Owen Daniels, who a year ago didn’t return to form until the final month of the season after coming back from ACL surgery.
While an upgrade at the No. 2 wideout spot would be nice, Kevin Walter doesn’t drop passes. He’s not a deep threat, but his hands make him valuable. The No. 3 guy, Jacoby Jones, will make a spectacular catch on one play and hot-potato a simple hitch on the next.
The Texans’ running game is in excellent hands with Foster, an All-Pro, returning for his second year as a starter and former Giant and Buccaneer Derrick Ward as the top backup. Foster is big and powerful, and showed the one-cut-and-go ability that can make a back a star in the Texans’ zone blocking scheme. He doesn’t have to be as good as he was in 2010 (and statistically he probably won’t be) to have an excellent campaign. The third-year undrafted free agent, who played much of the season with a torn meniscus in his right knee, has the added incentive of playing to earn his first big-money contract.
Second-year tailback Ben Tate, looking for his first action after sitting out the entire season with a broken ankle, should push for playing time, particularly in third down situations, though Foster is more than capable in the passing game.
With all five starters back from an O-line group that jelled from Game 1, the Texans should get up to speed as quickly as anyone, despite the offseason’s lockout-induced derailment.
This is a balanced offense that can attack in a variety of ways. If Schaub stays healthy, the Texans should stay atop the offensive charts.
The league’s worst secondary got better in the offseason with the free agent acquisitions of cornerback Johnathan Joseph (Cincinnati) and safety Danieal Manning (Chicago). Houston will have three new starters in the defensive backfield, with the only holdover being Kareem Jackson, who struggled as a rookie, particularly in the first half of the season. Glover Quin, a third-year cornerback, is moving to safety.
Joseph was the second-best cornerback available in free agency behind Nnamdi Asomugha, whom the Texans made an effort to sign before agreeing to a deal with Joseph. Manning brings the added plus of being a gifted kick returner, which should make a difference for a team that had the worst starting position in the NFL a year ago.
But the Texans’ most significant offseason acquisition was defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. He brings a wealth of experience, a track record of success and a new scheme. Phillips says the switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 shouldn’t be too problematic, as his one-gap scheme is closer to a 4-3 than the traditional 3-4. But there will be changes.
Former No. 1 pick Mario Williams will play from a two-point stance, and though he will be charged with rushing the quarterback more than 90 percent of the time, he will now be required to play in space far more often than he ever has.
The return of DeMeco Ryans at inside linebacker should make a huge difference on what by most measures was the worst unit in football. Ryans is the smartest player on the defense, charged with making all the calls. The Texans’ defense fell apart when he went down in Week 6 (mid-October) with a torn Achilles tendon. Though he won’t have to cover as much territory in the 3-4, he isn't likely to be at full speed when the season begins.
After a sophomore-season drop-off, Brian Cushing looks to return to his rookie form, when he was one of the top defenders in the league. He will line up inside next to Ryans, with Connor Barwin, who missed all of last year after suffering a dislocated ankle, at the front of the line for the other outside backer spot.
After several seasons of weakness at the tackle spot, the Texans believe they are stronger at this position. First-round pick J.J. Watt jumps into the end spot opposite Antonio Smith.
Neil Rackers made the Texans forget about the awful end to Kris Brown’s eight-year run at kicker by connecting on 27-of-30 field goals, without a miss from less than 46 yards.
The Texans hope (and need) to improve their return game significantly. They were next-to-last in the AFC on punt returns, with Jones slipping to 7.0 yards a return after averaging almost 10 yards a return his first three seasons in the league. Jones and Steve Slaton were both ineffective on kickoff returns, as the Texans were 13th in the AFC with a sub-20 yard average and 32nd in the league in average starting position after kickoffs.
No question Houston played below its talent level in a six-win season. Of course, when you are tied for last in the league in takeaways and downright unlucky (and often downright bad) in the final two minutes of games, there is no way to play above your head.
The prevailing sentiment was that even an average defense last season would have delivered the franchise’s first playoff appearance. But that doesn’t take into account an overall lack of toughness and the occasional coaching blunder.
In other words, the Texans haven’t been talented enough to overcome average coaching or coached well enough to overcome deficiencies.
Playoff hopes are not unrealistic for a team that had playoff talent a year ago, returns its strongest unit intact and should realize a major upgrade in its weakest unit thanks to changes on the defensive coaching staff.
Outside the Huddle
Despite the lockout, Arian Foster had a whirlwind summer as his newfound fame brought him attention and endorsements that no one would have imagined a year earlier. After spending the majority of the 2009 season on the practice squad after going undrafted, Foster exploded with 1,616 yards in 2010, and found himself at the Pro Bowl and listed among the top backs in the league. Last summer he was working out in anonymity hoping to earn a starting role; this summer, he hired a publicist, and the next thing you knew he was making sandwiches at an appearance for a national sandwich chain and riding a mechanical bull for television cameras.
Agents in Waiting
Two Texans want to be agents when they retire from the NFL. Cornerback Jason Allen, who tied for the team lead in interceptions last season, would like to be a sports agent, while safety Troy Nolan has dreams of being an FBI agent.
Stick to Your Day Job
Matt Schaub finished 69th in the American Century Celebrity Golf Championship, 99 points (Stableford scoring system) behind in-state rival Tony Romo of the Dallas Cowboys.
At 6'4", 295 pounds, center Chris Myers wouldn’t strike you as a particularly skilled athlete, but Myers once won the NFL’s Punt, Pass and Kick competition. Myers’ uncle Dennis Kelleher played on Miami’s national championship teams in the late 1980s, and his grandfather Tom Kelleher was an NFL official for 28 years (1960-87).
Jack of All Trades
Tight end/fullback James Casey is probably the most versatile athlete on the Texans’ roster. Casey was a seventh-round selection out of high school as a pitcher by the Chicago White Sox. Four years later he left baseball to attend Rice, where in one game as a freshman he played seven positions. Casey, whose college teammates nicknamed him Thor, was slated to start at quarterback when he left Rice for the NFL Draft after setting the school record for receptions in a season.
Speaking of versatility, outside linebacker Connor Barwin started at tight end and averaged 10 minutes per game in basketball for Cincinnati before switching to defense and earning team MVP honors as a senior.
Hardly a Snap
Few players took the route deep snapper Jon Weeks did to reach the NFL. He went from his birthplace of Bethpage, N.Y., to high school in Glendale, Ariz., before walking on and earning a scholarship at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Resolved to be a working man, Weeks, then a volunteer at a hospital, enrolled in a nine-week course to become a fireman. But as a last-chance flyer, he attended a special teams combine, was offered a training camp spot by the Texans and earned the deep snapper’s role. He delivered 136 snaps in 2010 without an error.
Mario Williams’ adjustment to his new role, and the ability of opponents to find ways to block (or attack) him on the edge, could be the key to the defense’s success. New defensive coordinator Wade Phillips thinks that Williams can be to the Texans what sackmaster DeMarcus Ware has been to the Dallas Cowboys in recent years. That might be a lot to ask from a player who has almost never played in space.