The Texans are on the verge of earning a playoff spot after starting three or more quarterbacks in a season for the second straight year—how do they do it? That and more in Greg Bedard's Blanket Coverage.
We’ll roll into the New Year by taking a look at who’s responsible for the Jets bouncing back this season and how people wrongly keep throwing dirt on Peyton Manning (and the HGH business as well). We’ll also give our two cents on the mess in Philly and the offensive line in New England, tip our cap to a Jaguar and give some quick thoughts on Week 17. But first we start in Houston, where the Texans are improbably on the verge of an AFC South title and a second-straight 9–7 finish in Bill O’Brien’s first two seasons despite a normally crippling carousel at quarterback.
HOUSTON — The list of teams that have started at least three quarterbacks in a season and finished with winning records isn’t very long. According to NFL.com, just three of the 29 teams reached that benchmark from 2009–13. The Texans did it in 2014, and at 8–7, on the verge of winning the AFC South, Houston is on the precipice of doing it again.
“Obviously, it’s not the way you draw it up,” coach Bill O’Brien said. “But you’ve got to figure out a way to keep winning games. Nobody feels bad for you in this league.”
Last season—O’Brien’s first as an NFL coach—the Texans utilized Ryan Fitzpatrick (6–6), Case Keenum (2–0) and Ryan Mallett (1–1) as starters, and Tom Savage came in when Ryan Fitzpatrick left injured. This year, Houston has used Brian Hoyer (4–4), Mallett (1–3), T.J Yates (2–0) and Brandon Weeden (1–0) to win games in their playoff push, and Weeden won another in relief against the Colts in the defacto AFC South championship game. Former Seahawks QB B.J. Daniels is also in the QB room and has been used as a Wildcat option.
The process of identifying potential quarterbacks and employing them is a collaboration between general manager Rick Smith’s personnel department, where Brian Gaine heads the pro personnel side, and the offensive coaching staff led by coordinator George Godsey, who also instructs the quarterbacks. Gaine and the pro staff keeps Smith informed about who's available, and Smith and O’Brien meet to talk over the options, including the strengths and weaknesses of each player.
“We spent all our time focusing and honing in on what the players in our system look like,” Smith said. “If it's a situation with a guy on the waiver wire, like Brandon and B.J., I go to Bill and say, ‘Here's what I think this guy's vision and role for us would be. This is what I think he can do for us.’ We see things pretty similarly.”
The members of Houston's current QB corps were acquired by the team in a few different ways. This offseason, the Texans traded Yates to the Falcons for linebacker Akeem Dent; Yates was later released by Atlanta, and was just sitting at home when the Texans called after releasing Mallett. Weeden, whom the Texans had interest in earlier in the season, was waived by the Cowboys. Daniels, whom the Texans flirted with signing from the Seahawks’ practice squad earlier in the season, was also claimed.
“To find a former first-round pick with that kind of arm talent and ability that late in the season, we just couldn’t pass up,” Smith said of Weeden.
Weeden immediately clicked with the offensive coaching staff, saying that Godsey "is one of the smartest guys I’ve ever been around.” One of the biggest concerns about signing journeymen quarterbacks is confusion between playbooks, but Weeden said there was “maybe one route [that] was similar” between his previous stops in Cleveland and Dallas, and the Texans.
“You have to give a lot of credit to the staff, each guy's strength and weaknesses and chance to be successful,” Weeden said. “And you also have to give credit to the other players. It's hard when you have a new guy, never heard his cadence, never heard him call a play in the huddle. It just sounds different. When I came in the huddle, guys looked me in the eye like I had been here two or three years.”
But of course, the obvious question is why Weeden didn’t have success (0–3) with arguably a more talented team in Dallas, but has won two games for the Texans. Weeden doesn’t have an answer either.
“I just think you need to be in the right situation, however you want to take that, whatever that means,” Weeden said. “Each situation is so different. Each game is so different. This last game (Houston’s 34–6 win over Tennessee) our defense got three turnovers, we had good field position, I threw touchdowns, I ran one in … we just made the best of my opportunities. In Dallas, we just weren't able to.
“When I came here I was hungry. I knew what was riding on it as far as playoffs. I didn't want to let these guys down. They had never met me but they were looking at me to play well.”
Many will point to Weeden’s difference in success and use it as an indictment on Cowboys coach Jason Garrett and his coaching staff, but Weeden was adamant that it’s unfair to place the blame on Garrett. However, Weeden does realize he’s stumbled into a good situation in Houston; Smith knows they have one as well.
“One of the unique things about this coaching staff is they do a really good job of isolating and understanding what a guy does well and putting him in a position to do what he can do effectively,” Smith said. “That's why you see us have effective play at not only at QB play but also across the board. They're asking guys to do what their skill set allows them to do. Brandon comes in and hadn't had a lot success in his previous dozen starts, but we're down last week and plays effectively. There’s a reason. The job that these guys do understanding his particular skill set and designing plays around that skill set to give him a chance to be successful.”
And Weeden gives the Texans a chance, as well.
Wet blanket report
Fitzpatrick is not a candidate for MVP: It’s become popular (I know, the New York market, so surprising) to cast QB Ryan Fitzpatrick as an MVP candidate with the Jets on the verge of the playoffs. Sure, Fitzpatrick has been a good story and has carried the Jets to a 10–5 record, but let’s not forget a few things. First, the Jets just so happened to import talented players like Brandon Marshall, Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie this season. It’s not like Fitzpatrick just picked up last year’s 4–12 squad and lifted them by himself. Also, the 2015 Jets have played the 28th-easiest schedule this season, according to FootballOutsiders.com, thanks to the AFC East playing the AFC South and NFC South this season. And finally…
Todd Bowles is a Coach of the Year candidate: A job well done by Bowles in his first season with the Jets for not only melding his philosophies but dealing with the three temperamental new acquisitions—and that’s been far more impressive than what Fitzpatrick has done. If anything, it shows how starved New York was for even mediocre quarterback play.
Manning hasn’t been benched … yet: Saying that Manning has been benched because he’ll be active in the finale isn’t factually correct. There’s a difference between being healthy enough to start and healthy enough to be a backup where seventh-round pick Trevor Siemian is the only other available quarterback. Maybe Manning has been benched, which seems likely considering the way that the team has looked with Brock Osweiler at quarterback. But until we know Manning is physically ready for 60 minutes of game action, coach Gary Kubiak is correct to assert that “nothing has changed” at their quarterback position because from all appearances Manning isn’t quite there … yet.
Chip Kelly: It looks like Kelly’s suffered the same fate as another former college coach, Nick Saban: both didn’t fully understand that you can’t run an NFL program in the same manner as one on the college level. College coaches, with scholarships in their back pocket, wield way more power than NFL coaches without Super Bowl rings. And 19-22-year-old players are much more accepting, physically and mentally, of new approaches than those in or approaching their 30s. That being said…
Lurie is to blame: …What, exactly, did Jeffrey Lurie think he was getting himself into when he hired Kelly? Anybody who knows or have observed Kelly during his career knew that he was going to do things his way, and it was going to ruffle feathers. To not give Kelly more than three years, especially after giving him only one year of personnel control to change the program, is extremely shortsighted and reflects poorly on Lurie. If you hire a known visionary and you’re willing to take that chance, you at least have to give him five years to prove it one way or another. Kelly didn’t have enough time to prove anything conclusively.
Peyton Manning and HGH: There’s much left to be proved—neither the secret recordings of Charlie Sly nor the Al Jazeera report directly accused Peyton Manning of using HGH (although it irresponsibly did so very loosely), and the NFL absolutely should investigate the situation like it did Tom Brady with an investigator (hey, how about finding a truly independent one this time?) to clear the air. If there’s no truth to the allegations, or if Ashley Manning had a valid reason to receive the alleged shipments of HGH, then it should be fairly easy to clear up. And Manning should be eager to cooperate and expose the report as reckless.
Who needs to step up in the wake of the following Week 16 injuries?
Sebastian Vollmer, LT, Patriots (ankle, week to week): The Patriots only need to lock up home-field advantage in the playoffs, so this isn’t a huge blow. But for the Dolphins’ game, expect LaAdrian Waddle and Cameron Fleming to get reps at left tackle, and for the Patriots to keep Marcus Cannon on the right side.
Humanitarian of the Week
Zane Beadles, guard, Jacksonville Jaguars
A tip of the hat to the former Bronco, who started the Zane Beadles Parade Foundation to help children with cancer through Brent’s Place, the University of Florida Health Proton Therapy Institute in Jacksonville and Ronald McDonald House in Salt Lake City. For more information on the Jaguars’ Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee, check out this great write up at NFL player engagement.
Five thoughts on Week 17
1. Near the end of their loss to the Jets, the Patriots inserted rookie David Andrews at center and moved center Bryan Stork to left guard. It would not surprise me if they rolled with that alignment in the playoffs, especially with Josh Kline at right guard once he returns from injury.
2. The Texans benched starting safety Rahim Moore and have made him inactive the past eight games since the 44–26 loss to the Dolphins on Oct. 25. The Texans were 2–5 at the time, and have gone 6–2 since. Stats per game with Moore in the lineup: 28.4 points, 370.9 total yards, 242 passing yards, 128.9 rushing yards, 0.86 turnovers per game. Since that time: 13.5 points, 269 total yards, 186.1 passing yards, 82.9 rushing yards, 2.1 turnovers. Obviously the Texans’ previous failures on defense weren’t the fault of one man, especially at safety, but the numbers are striking.
3. Jaguars nose tackle Roy Miller has very quietly become one of the better players in the league. Teams gameplan around the strong, quick and built-low-to-the-ground seventh-year player, who battled injury problems in Tampa Bay.
4. There’s not a ton on the line when the Cardinals and Seahawks face off on Sunday, but those teams do not like each other at all and the Cardinals would like nothing better than to roll into the postseason by sweeping the two-time defending AFC West Seahawks.
5. Packers coach Mike McCarthy can’t wait for his offense to suddenly click into gear because it’s not going to happen overnight for that slow and plodding group. McCarthy has to start scheming ways to get players open.