If last season was an unexpected, interminable nightmare for Houston Texans fans who were hoping that the team had finally turned the corner on its years-long losing stretch, then this year is almost worst: being terrible is one thing, but being mediocre stings in different, deeper ways, and the Texans are most assuredly mediocre in 2014. The question is, should they be better than this?
Sure, the Texans are in second place in their division, but they play in the AFC South, what is probably the worst division in the NFL. And their losing record still has them two games behind the first-place Colts. With seven games to go, it’s a little early to eliminate a team from the playoffs, but it’s tough to imagine them catching the Colts having already lost one home game to the rival, and the wild-card field in the AFC, which has a whopping seven teams with winning records in second place or worse in their division, is not friendly to a 4-5 team: Most likely, nabbing one of those wildcard slots is going to require 11 total wins, and four of the Texans’ final seven games will be against winning teams.
A sweep would be unlikely for any team, but it’s especially unlikely for a team struggling the way the Texans are. The biggest fail of the team’s season so far was the final two minutes of the first half of their Week 7 game against the Steelers, when they gave up three scores in three minutes, effectively jumpstarting Pittsburgh’s season. Otherwise, the Texans have been neither good nor bad: They’ve just beaten bad teams, lost to decent ones, and surprised a Bills team that benched their quarterback after the loss.
After last season, there were plenty of scapegoats in Houston. Departed quarterback Matt Schaub and fired head coach Gary Kubiak got the brunt of the blame. But Schaub and Kubiak are gone now, and while the Texans have four wins, it’s hard to argue that the team is really moving in the right direction. They still have a handful of the best players in football on their team: JJ Watt, Andre Johnson, and Arian Foster are all still blue-chippers. Watt, indeed, may be the single best player in the game right now. Yet three of their last four games are losses that saw them give up at least 30 points in each. Starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick threw six touchdowns and two interceptions in that stretch, with at least 200 yards per game—unspectacular numbers, to be sure, but not the sort that makes him an obvious target for blame. Arian Foster has averaged an impressive 5.6 yards per carry in those games. But the Texans can’t pull it together.
All of which makes now a good time for soul-searching. Jadeveon Clowney, the heralded rookie pass rusher that the Texans took with the number one overall pick, rejecting the possibility of Johnny Manziel or another first-round quarterback, has played in two games so far this season after suffering injuries early on. Fitzpatrick, who has neither struggled nor impressed, was benched this week in favor of late-preseason acquisition Ryan Mallett, who came to the team in a trade with the New England Patriots.
Ditching the starting quarterback for an unproven backup is a popular move for a 4-5 team, but it’s unlikely to change the team’s fortune: Fitzpatrick wasn’t the problem, which means that Mallett probably isn’t the solution. Getting Clowney back healthy—which isn’t a sure thing even after the bye— would surely help any team. But the reason that the Texans shocked so many fans by going 2-14 last year is that the team has the talent to compete in the playoffs. That hasn’t changed this year. So who do you blame for the fact that they’re sitting at 4-5?
It might be a good time to start looking in the direction of head coach Bill O’Brien. While O’Brien is doing better than Kubiak did in his final season, with four wins to Kubiak’s two, surpassing a coach whose team had given up on him and his quarterback isn’t exactly a success.
O’Brien’s path as a coach has been a curious one: He spent five years as an offensive coach with the Patriots before taking on his first head coaching gig—replacing Joe Paterno as head coach of the scandalized Penn State program.
At Penn State, O’Brien led the team to respectable, if unremarkable records—8-4, his first year, and 7-5, his second. But Penn State was as high-profile a job as existed in college football at the time the position opened up: “success” was defined, largely, by simply not reminding people of the scandal that ended the Paterno era, and O’Brien, as an outsider, accomplished that with ease. At the start of the season, one could have argued that O’Brien landed the Texans job simply for meeting low expectations, not all of which even took place on the football field, in State College, Pennsylvania—and now, after leading a talented team to a 4-5 record, that argument seems to hold more water.
Ryan Fitzpatrick is nothing special as a quarterback, but he’s posted an 87.1 quarterback rating this season. The Texans defense has holes, but the stats gurus at Football Outsiders rank them at #13. Most coaches can win more games than they lose with an average quarterback, an above-average defense, and a strong running game. All of which suggests that, if you’re taking bets on where the blame belongs, you might bet the over on Bill O’Brien.
Of course, the season isn’t over yet. Ryan Mallett might turn out to be the spark that transforms the Texans from “average” to “capable of winning games even when the defense gives up 30 points.” Jadeveon Clowney could come back healthy and plant quarterbacks in the backfield before they score those points to begin with. The good teams in the conference could struggle in the second half of the season; the Colts, who have an easy schedule going forward, could still drop the two games the Texans need to catch them. It’s not over yet—but if the rest of the 2014 Texans season shapes up to be as uninspired as the first nine games have been, it might be time to wonder if hiring a coach whose main credentials were working for Bill Belichick—not always as strong a resume item as it appears—and rehabbing the public image of Penn State was the move the Texans needed to make.
(AP Photo/Patric Schneider)