WELL-ARMED ... ON DEFENSE
This is an article from the Sept. 7, 2015 issue
The Texans want your respect. Coach Bill O'Brien ranted, in colorful language, about the lack of national interest in his team on HBO's Hard Knocks. "Let's be honest," he told his assistants, "nobody talks about the Houston Texans because nobody thinks we're gonna win.... Enough is enough."
Walking the halls of NRG Stadium, you can't miss the collective chip on the shoulder of a team that last year was one win away from making the playoffs despite myriad quarterback injuries in O'Brien's first season.
Not that anyone noticed.
All the Texans hear is this and that about the Colts and their quarterback, Andrew Luck, leaving a visitor to Houston with the distinct impression that this squad is sick of all the talk about the purported Super Bowl contenders. Good thing for a team looking to knock off Indy and win the AFC South: The rivals play twice every season.
The only way the Texans are going to achieve that goal—besides being very sound in the secondary, save for a suspect Rahim Moore—is to get more consistency from their own quarterback position. Last season O'Brien was a bit unlucky. Holding the No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft, he was presented with no Luck-like prospect, so he went with outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney (who ended up missing the majority of the season to a lingering knee issue). Houston moved forward with veteran signal-callers Ryan Fitzpatrick and Ryan Mallett, whom O'Brien had helped tutor as the Patriots' offensive coordinator in '11.
"People think these quarterbacks grow on trees," O'Brien says of trying to find a franchise passer. "It's very, very difficult to play quarterback in this league. You have to be smart, tough, a really quick decision maker. Last year we went with Fitzy."
Until they didn't. In order to give his team a spark coming out of the Week 10 bye, O'Brien tagged in Mallett, who beat the Browns in his first start but tore his right pectoral muscle a week later and was gone for the year. When Fitzpatrick went down with a broken left leg three weeks after that, Houston was forced to compete for a playoff berth first with rookie Tom Savage and then (after Savage struggled) Case Keenum, who won his first two starts as a practice squad call-up.
"What all these guys have in common is that they're very bright; they have a calmness about them, and they can run our offense," O'Brien says of what turned into a four-headed quarterback situation. For now, though, Houston has settled on a starter who was not part of that rotation: former Browns starter Brian Hoyer. A backup under O'Brien in New England, Hoyer arrived on a two-year deal this off-season. His consistency appears to have won out over Mallett's more boom-or-bust arm. (The Texans traded Fitzpatrick to the Jets and Keenum to the Rams; Savage and Mallett remain backups.)
Which isn't to say Houston's QB position will suddenly be a 16-game gig. Says O'Brien, "Both guys are going to have to be able to play," and victories will come down more to "how you construct your team around them. You have to be good on defense, good on special teams, you have to be able to run the ball. That's what we're trying to do."
Still, the quarterbacks are going to have to pull their weight. Both Hoyer and Mallett are likely to play this year, and whoever's starting will have to overcome—or at least manage—something that has been a glaring weakness: inaccuracy. Either QB can get in a groove and move a team, but both are prone to extended periods of the opposite; Hoyer's career completion percentage is 56.5, and Mallett's was 54.7 in his three appearances last season. While most coaches don't believe accuracy can be substantially improved, O'Brien doesn't seem fazed by it.
"Our system of play-action, quick play-action, long play-action, empty, slip screens—all the things we do—lends itself to their skill sets," he says. "Both guys, hopefully we're helping their accuracy with what we're running."
If O'Brien is right, there could be a battle waged for the top of the AFC South this season. And if he's wrong? He and general manager Rick Smith may have to rethink their philosophy on quarterbacks.
SI'S PREDICTION: 11--5
ANDY BENOIT ON THE TEXANS' FLEXIBLE D
The Patriots' M.O. has always been to dump a player—even a decorated veteran—a year too early rather than a year too late. Former New England offensive coordinator and current Texans coach Bill O'Brien is hoping his old club took this creed too far in letting go of 33-year-old Vince Wilfork (above) this past off-season. The behemoth nosetackle, who joined Houston last March, was still a critical component in the Pats' run defense last season, including the playoffs. At 6'2", 325 pounds, Wilfork showed jaw-dropping stamina, playing 73.6% of his team's snaps despite coming off a torn right Achilles. And he still displayed ridiculously light feet. This athleticism has always allowed Wilfork to be more than just a nosetackle; New England has long featured one of the NFL's widest arrays of defensive fronts because Wilfork could line up anywhere other than as a Wide Nine defensive end. Last season, under new coordinator Romeo Crennel (another former Patriot), the Texans employed J.J. Watt in a larger variety of ways than ever before. That made the megastar all the harder for offenses to construct their blocking schemes around. Watt and Wilfork together—at least on running downs—present a nightmare for offensive lines.