Before the second half was near completion – at least the Texans QB’s completed two of those – John McClain tweeted, “Remembering every preseason opener I’ve covered for the last 36 years. OK. I’m finished. This is the worst!” Even that tweet may have undersold how poorly the Texans looked in the preseason debut of the Bill O’Brien era.
There is caution to be taken before we hit the panic button and begin discussions about O’Brien’s replacement. First he took complete blame saying post game, “We have to coach them better, and it starts with me. We’ve got a improve a lot as coaches.” He’s right.
There’s also – and I realize I’m stretching here – the debut of college turned NFL head coach Jim Harbaugh. In the 49ers preseason debut under Harbaugh his 2011 starting quarterback Alex Smith went 2-7 for 10 yards and a pair of sacks in a 23-3 loss to the Saints. In week three of that ’11 preseason, the Texans handed those same Niners a 30-7 beat-down in which Smith’s QB rating was 2.8 after 2-6 passes for 17 yards with an interception and two sacks thrown in. Of course that San Francisco team finished that preseason 2-2 and went to finish 13-3 in the regular season and ended its season losing 20-17 in overtime to the New York Giants in the NFC Championship game. So anything can happen right?
Okay, back to reality. What may be even more discouraging is that Saturday nights deplorable performance against the Cardinals is, it was not an aberration as far as O’Brien’s first training camp has gone. In fact, it only highlighted all the concerns the first two weeks of camp have raised. Worst quarterbacking in franchise history? That’s still up for debate – and truly disturbing considering the poor level of quarterback play throughout most of this franchise’s first dozen seasons. An offensive line in disarray – check. Unsettled linebacking with Brooks Reed and Whitney Mercilus struggling to pressure the opposing quarterback – still as accurate as ever. A secondary in transition that needs at least one – if not three – competent corners, yes that was highlighted in the Arizona desert as well.
Some of these concerns can be corrected. A healthy Brian Cushing should do wonders for the linebacking corp. Add in that first overall pick JaDeveon Clowney showed the threat he can cause opposing backfields – if not the necessary coverage and gap responsibilities he’ll need. A healthy Jonathan Joseph may do wonders for the secondary with A.J. Bouye turning in a solid performance – something he’s shown the ability to do all camp. Though the transition from from corners to safeties in zone coverage brings back the horrors of the 2010 secondary under David Gibbs. And surely a healthy Andre Johnson and Arian Foster can help the offense.
On the other hand, some things look like season-long concerns – even at this early stage of camp. Ryan Fitzpatrick’s performance in practice last Thursday was his most impressive in camp. He was sharp, on target, made the correct reads and looked like he had the necessary arm strength to be an NFL starting quarterback. Against the Cardinals he looked like he has in every other practice – poor decision-making, off target and rag-armed. While the memory of Matt Schaub throwing seven yard passes on third and ten are fresh in our minds, I’m curious to know the longest attempt Fitz made on Saturday night. Did it exceed ten yards? Also, the problems with the offensive line grow more concerning by the day. That Ben Jones and Alex Kupper are significantly below acceptable as NFL offensive guards is not breaking news for those attending camp on a daily basis. That second round pick Xavier Su’a Filo looks a long way from being able to provide help, and the continued issue – and absence of Brandon Brooks – and what’s wrong with him, and if he’ll ever be capable of “coming to the rescue” in 2014, are concerns most observers didn’t have when training camp started, but are glaring today.
There’s also one other obvious negative from Saturday night. Thirteen penalties for 126 yards. We were led to believe the emphasis on mental errors and that penalties were unacceptable under O’Brien. In fact during practice a mental error costs a player a lap around the field – immediately. I’ve yet to hear a player say it’s not embarrassing.
When I said on the Bstraw & PaulyG Show (weeknights 7:00pm – 11:00pm) that it seemed sophomoric to remove the helmet decals and make players leave drills to run laps after committing a mental error, I was quickly informed that O’Brien was merely installing the necessary toughness the team lacked under Kubiak, and that this was just the “Belichick way” which has been so successful in New England. However, during a recent practice when I overheard a couple former NFL vets exclaim that making players run laps was “high school BS that would not go over well for long.” I asked what’s the line between establishing mental toughness, and O’Brien becoming the next Greg Schiano – who started 7-9 in Tampa but then quickly lost his team when his “collegiate” antics proved unsuccessful in the NFL. (Tampa dropped its first eight and final three, finishing 4–12 before being fired in 2013, his second season in which he was fired.) The NFL vets response was – winning.
Winning overcomes almost every flaw in sports. It’s why former Rocket and Knick head coach Jeff Van Gundy preaches that you cannot overlook in victory what you wouldn’t overlook in defeat. However, as JVG knows, that thinking usually falls on deaf ears – on the team, in the media and among the fans. Winning cures all ills. For O’Brien’s approach to correcting mental errors, and being successful – which the Texans clearly were not on Saturday night – he must win. With the embarrassing performance in Arizona the length of rope for how long he has before his tactics prove successful just shrank.
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