It’s safe to say that no one expected much of the Houston Texans going into the 2011 season. All they did was shatter expectations, flip a floundering defense into one of the NFL’s best, and make the divisional playoff round with their third string quarterback. That series of events made the Texans one of the league’s most beloved teams last year, and going into the playoffs there was a good amount of Super Bowl hype in the Houston air.
Ever since the playoffs ended, the team has taken some notable steps back, significantly in the free agency period. Although the defense carried on without him last season, star pass rusher Mario Williams left to sign a $100 million deal with the Buffalo Bills. Longtime middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans was also deemed expendable and was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles. In moves that weren’t as highly recognizable, the team lost the entire right side of their offensive line, watching guard Mike Brisiel (Oakland) and tackle Eric Winston (Kansas City) leave in free agency as well.
Seeing this many notable players leaving from a team hoping to stay on the rise, could the Houston Texans be due for a disappointing 2012 campaign?
New defensive coordinator Wade Phillips worked nothing short of a miracle last season with Houston’s defense. Not only did he convert the team from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4, he also made an all-time terrible defense into the NFL’s second-best defense. He did get a lot of help in terms of personnel, as the team added cornerback Jonathan Joseph, defensive end JJ Watt, and outside linebacker Brooks Reed. But what Phillips was able to do with the defense, in terms of getting everyone up to speed on the new scheme, was nothing short of spectacular. Expect more of the same this season. Reed and Connor Barwin filled the outside linebacker positions admirably after the loss of Mario Williams to injury, and both are back this year. Although DeMeco Ryans is no longer with the team, he is replaced by Bradie James, who played under Phillips during his time in Dallas. With so much continuity, it’s safe to say the defense will be the redeeming trait of this year’s Texans.
But looking at the Texans’ offense, I have a hard time believing they will maintain their status from last season. Two years ago, who would have thought the issue holding back the Texans would be their offense? With Matt Schaub suffering a season-ending Lisfranc fracture in his foot and Andre Johnson playing only 7 games, the team placed just 18thin passing offense. Veteran receiver Jacoby Jones signed with Baltimore in free agency, and he is replaced on the depth chart by youngsters Lestar Jean and Keshawn Martin. Should Andre Johnson go down, it’s safe to assume the passing game will be still worse than it was a year ago.
I also have a hard time believing that the rushing offense will remain in the top 5. Arian Foster was still one of the best running backs in the league last year, but he dealt with hamstring problems early on, and one has to wonder how long Foster can maintain his current workload and hold up and without a major injury. Ben Tate missed his entire rookie season due to injury, but came back and posted an impressive 942 rushing yards and 4 scores as Foster’s backup and replacement. Additionally, Tate posted three of his four 100-yard rushing games while Foster was playing. But as previously stated, the offensive line took a huge hit in free agency, and new starters Antoine Caldwell (guard) and Derek Newton (tackle) will be put to the test early and often.
Looking at the rest of the AFC South, I think the Texans will face much stiffer competition from the Titans and Colts than a year ago. The Titans were in playoff contention in 2011 even as Chris Johnson struggled following his offseason holdout. Losing Cortland Finnegan hurts defensively, but a potentially dynamic offense with Johnson and new starting quarterback Jake Locker could push the Titans over the top. Meanwhile, the Colts are a team in transition, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be dangerous. The Texans know how successful a team switching to the 3-4 can be, and with now-OLBs Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney leading the way, and with Andrew Luck commanding the offense, Chuck Pagano’s squad should not be written off too quickly.
Ultimately, this season’s Houston Texans look to me like the teams of old rather than of 2011. Talent abounds on a defense that is one of the NFL’s top units, but holes on the offense (right offensive line, depth at wide receiver) could ultimately be factors that cut hopes short for another playoff season in Houston. The Texans could win a weak AFC South divison with a 9-7 record. But Super Bowl contention is the ultimate measuring stick for teams in the NFL, and the Texans are much worse off in that category than they were last season.