Andre Johnson isn’t happy in Houston. The star wide receiver has spent his entire career with the Texans and his reluctance to suffer through a rebuilding season at age 33 is understandable, but are the Texans really rebuilding? It’s true that Houston is coming off a horrendous 2013 campaign and is breaking in a new coaching staff and QB, but last year’s Kansas City Chiefs set a precedent that none of those things preclude a team from making a run into the playoffs. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to think the Texans can pull off a worst to wildcard season in 2014.
Let’s start with what went wrong for Houston in 2013. A large part of the Texans downfall was the loss of Arian Foster. Foster appeared in just 8 games last season with 121 carries (just over 1/3 of his 2012 total) and 22 receptions (about half of what he had in 2012.) After getting most of the second half of the season and the offseason to recover Foster should enter 2013 as healthy as he’s been in the past few years and should be right back to his workhorse ways. Foster was already a threat catching the ball out of the backfield, and Head Coach Bill O’Brien has said that he wants Foster to become even more of a dual threat. If he can stay healthy all 16 games expect Jamaal Charles like workload and production from the Texans lead back behind an improved offensive line.
Of course things had started to look bad even before Foster’s injury, QB Matt Schaub seemed to be throwing more touchdowns to the opposing team than to his own. He was replaced by T.J Yates who quickly yielded the job to rookie Case Keenum, who did his best to keep the sinking ship the Texans season had become upright. QB is once again being pointed to as a fatal flaw in the Texans chances to rise from the wreckage, but the situation isn’t nearly as dire as it seems. Ryan Fitzpatrick is a good fit in Bill O’Brien’s offense; he has the prototypical size O’Brien covets and is widely regarded as an intelligent player. Physical skills are where Fitzpatrick tends to draw most criticism. He has good but not great arm talent and in today’s passing heavy league, common opinion is that good is the new mediocre. If Fitzpatrick is the starter (he’ll have to beat out Case Keenum) this will be the most talented team he’s started for: He never really had a full compliment of weapons in Buffalo, and the defense didn’t become a great unit until he left; last year in Tennessee he was dealing with mostly young receivers and a frustratingly inconsistent run game. Ryan Fitzpatrick isn’t an elite QB by any stretch, but he is a solid NFL level QB that has shown flashes of something more. With Arian Foster in the backfield, Andre Johnson and breakout candidate DeAndre Hopkins on the outside and a Tight End trio of Garrett Graham, Ryan Griffin and CJ Fiedorowitz opening up the middle of the field, Fitzpatrick can be an effective QB who, at the very least, won’t lose them games.
It wasn’t just the offense that fell flat in 2013, the defense was a big problem area. Luckily the Texans found a big solution in the form of 6’6, 266lb Jadeveon Clowney. The Texans hoped to lean on the run game and defense in 2013, losing Arian Foster killed the former and the accompanying midseason loss of star middle linebacker Brian Cushing spelled doom for the later. Cushing has played in only 12 games the past two seasons, but he is a difference maker when healthy. In 2011 (his last healthy season) he amassed 116 tackles, 4 sacks, 2 interceptions and 2 forced fumbles. A healthy Cushing also means even more problems for opposing defenses already trying to figure out how to handle a pass rushing duo of Jadeveon Clowney and JJ Watt. Like Cushing, Clowney is a game changer when healthy. He took a lot of criticism for his less than stellar senior season at South Carolina, but he was playing through multiple injuries including bone spurs that had to be surgically removed this offseason and opponents still needed to double and triple team him. There will be a learning curve, but it’s not hard to envision him being used similarly to how the 49ers used Aldon Smith in his rookie season, as a situational pass rusher until he’s up to speed.
Clowney isn’t the only rookie who should make an immediate impact. Second round pick Xavier Su’a-Filo upgrades what was a weak interior line in 2013 and 3rd round pick Louis Nix III is a space eating nose tackle in this year’s draft and brings a big physical presence to the interior defensive line. Both provide upgrades to areas of need and were considered top prospects at their respective positions.
And let’s not forget that the 2012 class spawned a couple of guys who had nice rookie seasons, and are poised to take their game to the next level in year two. I already mentioned DeAndre Hopkins, who should be more comfortable in his second year even in a new offense, and is likely benefiting from the getting reps as the top receiver while Johnson holds out. On the other side of the ball DJ Swearinger, who has been charged with keeping former college teammate Jadeveon Clowney focused, should also take a bigger role as a leader in the secondary as well. Known mostly for his hard hitting he’ll be a nice fit in DC Romeo Crennel’s system.
The Texans came into the 2013 season with back to back playoff appearances and though the Superbowl contentender talk had shifted to “let’s see them beat some besides the Bengals,” they were still very much a part of the playoff picture coming into the 2013 season. Unfortunately the season got away from them quickly and ended as a disaster. But that’s over, it’s a new season and at the end of the day this is still a talented roster, playing in a weak AFC South division in a conference that should have at least one wildcard spot up for grabs. Heck, they’re an Andrew Luck injury away from being the favorites to win the division.
Making the playoffs is never easy. Neither is making a one year turnaround following a 2-14 season, but there’s reason to be optimistic about this franchise and unless the Patriots are willing to put together an enticing trade package, the Texans seem to have as easy a road to the playoffs as any other suitor. I think Andre Johnson knows that, but there are other factors in play here, namely, health and compensation: according to NFL.com Johnson got into a despute with the Texans over workout bonus money when he did not show up for the early portion of OTA’s and decided to go on this pseudo hold out. At age 33 and with the money lost Johnson made a savvy decision by staying away from the team in effort to keep himself healthy while hoping to work out an extension (or trade.) Expect Johnson to end the holdout when training camp starts, and barring a trade he’ll be on the field for the Texans in week 1, and if they start winning all of this talk goes away. If they struggle out of the gate trade rumors could heat up again.