Occam’s razor. The simplest explanation is usually correct.
Football is a complex sport and winning in the NFL is extremely hard, so it’s only natural to dig for answers when a team engineers a drastic turnaround. Often, there is no need for overanalysis.
The Colts have won three straight games following a disappointing 3–5 start, the last two victories coming with backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck at the helm. The Texans are even hotter, winners of four straight. Both teams sit at 6–5 and are within the AFC playoff picture—Indianapolis atop the AFC South via tiebreaker and Houston holding the second wild-card spot.
How did we get here?
As of a few weeks ago, Indianapolis coach Chuck Pagano’s firing appeared imminent, possibly even before the season ended. Instead, the Colts axed offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton and replaced him with Rob Chudzinski.
Houston coach Bill O’Brien did not find himself in quite as much hot water, but the criticisms were building. His decision to bench Brian Hoyer for Ryan Mallett backfired. His defensive coordinator, Romeo Crennel, was cued up as a potential scapegoat after the Texans were humiliated by Miami in Week 7, 44–26.
Chudzinski promised to scale back the Colts’ game plan to take some heat off his quarterback’s shoulders. Crennel insisted on more than one occasion that the Texans would “get back to basics” to fix their defense.
Hoping for some grand dissertation on how a coaching staff saves a season? These aren’t the teams to provide it. When there isn’t time to blow up the roster and start from scratch, the alternative is to fix what you can, no matter how minuscule the task.
“I think it was pretty clear that we sucked at that point [after the loss to Miami], so something had to happen,” J.J. Watt said Sunday, after Houston downed New Orleans. “We had to play better. So far, we’ve been doing that.”
Said linebacker Brian Cushing, per the Houston Chronicle, “We just kind of came together and decided enough was enough. ... We just decided right there that was it. We just started really simplifying things and playing hard, and just had a bad taste in our mouth in a couple of those games and internally promised each other that it wouldn’t happen again.”
We’ve drifted well into Clichéland here, but the reality of the NFL is that execution tends to trump scheme and sometimes personnel. Just ask Chip Kelly. A coach can draw up all of the elaborate plans that he wants, but if the players can’t put them to use, they’ll go for naught.
When Chudzinski took over for Hamilton prior to Indianapolis’s Week 9 showdown with Denver, he didn’t set fire to the old playbook. There simply was not enough time to do so, even if he wanted to—Hamilton was fired on Nov. 3, a Tuesday; the Broncos game took place the following Sunday.
The challenge for Chudzinski was to figure out what works best for this Colts offense and to whittle down the game plan to match.
“I think that was probably the biggest thing,” veteran WR Andre Johnson told the Indianapolis Star on the heels of his team’s 27–24 win over Denver, in which the offense played as well as it had all season. “Guys were just flying around out there, playing as hard as possible, trying to make plays. ... I think that was probably the difference. We scaled back a lot.”
Chudzinski’s aim has paid even better dividends with Hasselbeck under center in place of an injured Luck. On Sunday, Hasselbeck threw for 315 yards and two second-half touchdowns as Indianapolis rallied past Tampa Bay for a 25–12 win. While the Colts’ new offensive coordinator has stayed bullheaded on his run game, almost to a fault (Frank Gore rushed for 24 yards on 19 carries), he’s also helped make his quarterbacks’ lives easier by committing to quick passes and rolling pockets.
Ironically, Hamilton found that same formula successful back in Weeks 4 and 5, when Hasselbeck first had to step in for Luck. Hamilton could not maintain that reserve, nor that momentum, when Luck returned.
“Chud, I thought he called an excellent game [Sunday],” Pagano said. “And Matt did a great job of getting us in the right plays, and he made the big plays when he had to. We knew it was going to be tough sledding, we’d have to be patient, take what they would give us.”
The Colts finally look deserving of a potential playoff spot. So, too, do their rivals from Houston. O’Brien helped orchestrate that turnaround by reversing his Week 1 decision and reinstalling Hoyer as his No. 1 QB. Hoyer has responded well, for the most part—he completed 78% of his passes against the Saints Sunday for 205 yards and two TDs.
However, as was expected at the start of the year, it’s the Houston defense now leading the charge. And again, there is no huge secret, no midseason schematic revelation that changed the fortunes.
The Texans’ intimidating front is dictating games the way it should with a player like J.J. Watt on the field. The linebackers are making plays behind it, and the secondary is rolling aggressive coverage out wide.
There have been tweaks, of course. Adjustments made from week to week and opponent to opponent, at times depending on which guys are healthy enough to suit up. Overall, though, this has been a matter of the pieces falling into place before it was too late.
“I think it’s a credit to the players, the players have really understood what we’re trying to do on defense,” O’Brien said after watching the defense shut down Drew Brees. “They’ve practiced very hard to get it right. It’s a credit to the defensive coaching staff under Romeo—he’s put guys in position to make plays. The players have really risen up and gotten back to a position where they’re playing really good defense.”
Feel free to take a closer look. There are snap counts and blitz protections and passing charts to support the visual evidence that the Colts and Texans are surging.
They’re extraneous to the underlying explanations. Simplify. Get back to basics. Play like you’re capable of playing.
Boring? Rudimentary? Sure. But the AFC South co-leaders have saved their seasons with the uncomplicated approach.