Hungry Texans may be team with most to lose as NFL lockout lingers
As the NFL's labor fight rolls into a third full month, I can't imagine the lockout is more excruciating anywhere than in Houston, a city that last tasted the postseason in 1993, far and away the league's longest drought.
Nowhere is the sense of urgency and eagerness for the 2011 season higher. Everyone from Texans owner Bob McNair on down understands exactly what's at stake. The time is now for these Texans. The NFL's latest expansion franchise will play its anniversary 10th season this fall, and embarrassingly still has no playoff berths to show for its almost decade-long existence.
In a soul-deadening offseason like none other, there's somehow still a palpable feeling of anticipation in Houston this year, and with good reason. Moving to finally fix their fatal flaw, the Texans shrewdly hired veteran defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, and then set about transforming Houston's 4-3 scheme into the 3-4 formation that Phillips has succeeded with over the years.
It has been no mere rearrangement of the deck chairs on the Titanic. This will not be the Texans defense of the Richard Smith or Frank Bush coordinator eras. Phillips, as always, is talking about attacking the quarterback. He's stressing athleticism, effort, and attitude, and he's willing to shake things up, making the risky call of shifting 6-7, 290-pound (for now) defensive end Mario Williams to an edge-rushing weakside linebacker role.
We may not yet buy the DeMarcus Ware comparison that Phillips has made in regards to Williams and his new role, but that's what makes Houston's gamble intriguing. The Texans are reinventing themselves on defense, even if they are doing it all without any current access to the players, amidst a lockout. Houston spent its first five picks in last month's draft on defensive parts for its new 3-4, headlined, of course, by the selection of Wisconsin defensive end J.J. Watt in the first round (11th overall) and Arizona outside linebacker Brooks Reed in the second (42nd).
You almost can't wait to see how it all plays out in Houston, which slipped back to 6-10 and last place in the AFC South in 2010 after 2009's hopeful 9-7 finish. But then again, we have to. While the Texans have had themselves as good an offseason as anyone in the NFL so far, no one knows when it will end and the games begin. And that has to be making the already tough task of being an optimistic Texans fan that much harder.
"There should be excitement about this season,'' Texans general manager Rick Smith said this week. "Because I think everyone knows how potent we can be on offense. And when you look at our defense, and you think about what Wade can bring to the table, and you think about the guys we've added in the draft and what we could potentially add in free agency, it does get you excited. Because we've got a chance to realize our potential and hopefully take this organization and this franchise to places we've not been before.''
Meaning January's 12-team Super Bowl tournament. It might sound far-fetched at the moment, but is the thought of Phillips, the ex-Cowboys head coach, inspiring a playoff-bound defensive turnaround in Houston this season all that much more implausible than the work turned in by defensive coordinators Gregg Williams in New Orleans in 2009 and Dom Capers in Green Bay in 2010?
All three ex-head coaches teamed with established head coaches -- Gary Kubiak in Houston, Sean Payton in New Orleans and Mike McCarthy in Green Bay. And just as in the case of the eventual Super Bowl champion Saints and Packers the past two years, the offensive pieces are already in place in Houston, and it's the defense that needs an upgrade.
There's nothing tricky about the task facing the Texans: Houston finished third overall on offense in 2010, and fourth in the passing game. It has top-shelf playmakers in quarterback Matt Schaub, NFL rushing leader Arian Foster at running back and receiver Andre Johnson. But the Texans defense was abysmal, finishing 30th overall and dead last against the pass, with a staggering 33 touchdown passes allowed and a league-worst 100.5 opposing passer rating.
Phillips' charge on defense is clear: If he rebuilds it, the wins should come. It's a coordinator quick-fix job he has performed well in other turnaround situations like Atlanta in 2002 and San Diego in 2004. If he can manage it once more in Houston, his famous father, former Oilers head coach Bum, might not always be the most revered Phillips in town.
"Wade's already a rock star in this town,'' Smith said, with a laugh. "He really is. I got a chance to see that in some of the social events that have happened since he's been here, and it's the way people respond and react to him. But the biggest thing is when you look at history and see what he's done and what he's been able to accomplish, and how some of his previous spots had situations that really mirror what we have going on here. I think that's the reason why a lot of people are excited about the Houston Texans and what we might be able to accomplish in 2011.
"Expectations are always high in Houston, but I think the excitement level is high because we're a good enough football team to meet those expectations now.''
They'd better. McNair is easily the most patient owner in the NFL, but when he decided to bring Kubiak back for a sixth season in 2011, he let it be known he expects the playoff drought to end. And why not wave that red flag? Kubiak is now tied for the seventh-most tenured head coach in the NFL, but all six of the men above him on that list have made the playoffs at least twice, with a combined 28 postseason berths earned.
Kubiak has a modest .463 career winning percentage, just one winning record (9-7 in 2009), and the two coaches who just claimed the most recent Super Bowls (Payton and McCarthy) were fellow members of the NFL's 2006 rookie head coaching class (both have three playoff trips in five years).
So it's long since time to take a bold step to rectify Houston's defensive issues, while simultaneously trying to not fix what wasn't broken on offense. The Texans are still chasing the Colts, who have made the playoffs all nine seasons of Houston's existence. Houston is banking that the way to finally slow down Peyton Manning and Indy's passing game is to exert consistent pass pressure with an aggressive front seven that eases the burden on the Texans' notoriously weak secondary.
It all sounds good. But now it has to work. Well, if not now, then by the time actual football returns in a post-labor-addled NFL world. Whenever that may arrive.
"We were obviously disappointed last year with the results of the season,'' said Smith, who is entering his sixth season as the Texans GM. "I really felt we had made progress and thought last year we had a legitimate chance to be a playoff team. When it didn't happen, you really had to be honest with yourself and critically evaluate what the issues were and why you didn't achieve your goals. And we did that. I think we've identified those things and we've taken steps to rectify them. And the first one was hiring Wade.''
That was both Houston's first step, and its biggest one. Phillips has hit the film room with a vengeance, trying to learn the strengths and weaknesses of his players, and the draft brought in some valuable pieces for a quick transition to the multiple and shifting 3-4 defensive front he depends upon. When and if free agency starts, look for Houston to be in the market for a starting cornerback, although Nnamdi Asomugha's break-the-bank price tag might be beyond the Texans' willingness to spend.
Still, as the stagnant summer of 2011 looms, there's new hope in Houston, even if there is no football to be played or practiced for the time being. The lockout and labor stand-off continues, and so does the wait that comes with it. But for the Texans and their beleaguered defense, the promise of better days might have finally arrived.