NOT THE GREENBRIER, WEST VIRGINIA (CBS HOUSTON) In case you haven’t heard me whine about it yet, I have some sad news for you. Paul Gallant – the venerable, professional, fact driven sports journalist who certainly never brags about having played high school football at the lowest level of Florida or dominating co-ed flag football leagues in the Houston area – will not be there.
I know. I know. It’s a tremendous loss for Houston Texans fans. Nay, America. Perhaps even the world.
Yes, all the other shows of SportsRadio 610 are going. But don’t worry! I’m totally not bitter about the fact that I’ll be staying here in our 100 degree home while all the other shows get a work-paid vacation at one of the (supposedly, assuming they have good cannibal defenses) better resorts in the United States. In fact, I’m excited! Because the BEST way to test one’s football knowledge is coming up with hot takes based on the observations of others thousands of miles away!
A few Gallant at Night shows ago, I began a countdown of all the things I want the Texans to solve by the end of Training Camp. And since
I’m horrible at mental math and wrote down the wrong day for the start of camp on my calendar the Texans have won 9 games 3 years in a row, I picked 9 things:
9. Who will win between Novak & Fairbairn?
The Texans have been stashing former Groza award winner Ka’imi Fairbairn for a reason. Can he beat out Nick Novak?
Did you know that Nick Novak was tied for the second most field goal attempts in the NFL last season (41)? Did you also know that he was automatic on every attempt 39 yards and under (24-24)? He might not be the best from long range (8-11 from 40-49, 3-6 from 50+) and did miss a couple of extra points. But there’s something to be said about accuracy in a league that saw the Bucs spend a second round pick on Roberto Aguayo (the league’s least accurate kicker).
Unfortunately, kickoffs are also a part of . . . kicking. Per this nerdy website, Nick Novak averaged 60.1 yards per kickoff . . . which on this site ranked 31st among NFL kickers. He had 23 touchbacks on the year . . . the 29th highest total in the league. Novak kickoffs also resulted in 1,102 yards worth of returns, the highest total in the league. That’s nearly 200 yards more than Atlanta’s Matt Bosher . . . who had 31 more kickoffs than Novak on the year.
I literally know nothing about Fairbairn other than his Lou Groza Award at UCLA. And for what it’s worth Randy Bullock and Aguayo share the same honor. But I imagine there will be some competition between these 2 in Camp.
Jeez, 5 paragraphs on kickers. I’m a loser.
8. Will returner (for punts and kicks) be a plus position?
Serious question: when is the last time that the Texans had a returner that made the opposition think twice?
Yes, Will Fuller had the game deciding punt return touchdown against the Titans in week 4. Tyler Ervin had a couple of nice returns himself . . . one which set up the Texans for a big touchdown in week 10, and another one that was called back after a roughing the kicker by Whitney Mercilus in the playoffs against the Raiders. But outside of those plays, I can’t remember covering terrifying Texans returners while at SportsRadio 610 . . . other than Jacoby Jones, who once had a hilariously bad muffed punt in a playoff game.
I think Ervin deserves a chance to reclaim his job this coming year. But I’m a strong believer that Wendell Williams – who has elite speed and has made it look effortless when given reps in offseason practices that I’ve attended – deserves a chance to compete for the job.
7. Can Coordinator Larry Izzo get more out of the Special Teams?
Nick Novak kickoffs resulted in more return yardage than any team in the league (1,102). Shane Lechler punts resulted in more return yardage than any team in the league (477). These stats are a bit misleading. I’m highlighting total yardage, not averages. But since I’ve spent entirely too much time looking up kickoff stats and punting stats . . . AND I remember that the Texans coverage units have struggled over the 6 seasons and 3 special teams coordinators that I’ve covered in my time here, I’m just going to say those need to improve.
I mentioned the lack of returning “oomph” above. Part of that is on the guys that have been returning kicks over the last few years (cough cough Keshawn Martin cough). But the blocking has got to be a factor as well. Larry Izzo had a decorated career in the NFL as a special teamer (3 times as an All Pro and Pro Bowler) and has been . In his second year as Texans Special Teams coordinator, he’s got to push this unit closer to the NFL’s middle of the pack.
6. Shake And Bake
Pro Football Focus is far from a bible, and usually annoys me more than it provides use. But take a closer look at this article, specifically this paragraph here:
Although the Texans ranked fifth in the league with 2.02 yards before contact on gap scheme runs, their running backs were mostly unable to take advantage of what the offensive line created for them. In fact, Houston ball carriers averaged just 1.95 yards after contact on gap scheme runs, which ranked 29th in the league. Consequently, the Texans ranked just 16th in the league with 3.97 yards per attempt on these plays.
This applies to the Texans running backs. They might be able to get to the second level, but when they did they were going down fairly easily. And honestly, this applies to Texans wide receivers too. I’m not saying these guys need to truck stick all wanna-be tacklers when they’re about to go down . . . but ALL of Houston’s skill players need to be better at making defenders miss.
5. Mike Vrabel: Will he be a good defensive coordinator?
I think we’re all overlooking this question because of how much we think (and everyone nationally thinks) of Mike Vrabel as a coach. But the man is going from coaching linebackers (3 2nd team All Pros in that unit if you count Jadeveon Clowney, who made it on the defensive line but really doesn’t have a position) to being in charge of an entire defense. That is a big step up in responsibilities.
He’s going to have a lot of help. Assistant head coach Romeo Crennel will be there to help him whenever. And that’s one of the reasons that I have this question lower on the list. Ultimately I think it’s going to work out . . . the cynical side of me just hates when I’m a part of a group assumption.
4. Are these wide receivers going to take a step forward?
We all know DeAndre Hopkins is good. But I bet he wants to have 2016 back. His route running and playmaking ability after the catch weren’t what they were in 2015 . . . and you could say the same about his hands.
Will Fuller looked like the real deal during the first four weeks of 2016. After that? He hit a rookie wall hard, culminating in a dropped touchdown pass during the Texans’ season ending loss to the Patriots.
Wide receivers – if they’re going to make it in the NFL – usually “figure it out” between their first and second year in the league. I’m hoping this applies to Fuller (who has hands that will always be an issue) and Braxton Miller. Jaelen Strong – entering his third year – is in this conversation too, especially after dropping around 20 pounds this offseason (remember how much love he got last offseason?). Bringing Wes Welker aboard as a coach should be a big help in teaching this unit how to sneak into open spots on the field.
3. The Offensive Line: Like the entire thing
Duane Brown isn’t there (and honestly, the Texans playing semantics with the word “holdout” while having no depth at tackle is a strange stance). Derek Newton isn’t there. Nick Martin is still basically a rookie. Jeff Allen is coming off a disappointing (hopefully due to playing through injuries) season. And Xavier Su’A inspires less confidence (at least from me) than Chancellor Valorum.
Greg Mancz played better than expected last year, and I’ve been hearing great things about David Quessenberry up in West Virginia. But this unit is going to play a major role in determining the question below.
2. The Quarterback Situation
Duh. Savage or Watson, and if you need an explanation I hate you.
Oh, “anything is better than The Quarterback Who Shall Not Be Named,” you say? I hope you’re right.
1. Can Bill O’Brien run an effective offense?
The polite way to describe the Texans offense over the last two seasons would be “difficult to watch.” Offensive coordinator George Godsey is gone. The Interception Man-Splainer is also no more. Now, the pressure is all on Bill O’Brien to figure out how to get the Texans offense out of the 1940s.
It was alright in 2014. But that’s largely due to Arian Foster. Injuries ravaged his 2015 campaign, and when you combine the lack of comparative talent in the backfield with way too many carries, you get an offense that makes getting 2 or 3 yards on a play look difficult.
Tom Savage is heading into his fourth season in the offense. But he’s still basically a rookie in terms of NFL experience. If you add up all the time he’s been under center these last three years, you could probably fit it into less than 3 games. He might know the concepts of O’Brien’s offense, but can he execute them? Is it even possible to do that if you’re not Tom Brady?
The same will apply for Deshaun Watson. Can this kid – who has a ridiculous work ethic and OFF THE FIELD is everything you want in a quarterback – pick up this seemingly over-complex offense in his rookie year? In year two? Ever?
I’m a fan of Bill O’Brien. And conceptually, I think the idea of an offense that attacks the weaknesses of the opposition week after week is a great one. But when you’ve got the best quarterback of all time under center, it’s a lot easier to do.
This offseason, he’s discussed speeding things up. Pace. Rhythm. Is that possible? The Texans might consider themselves a gameplan offense. But the reality is that they are an EXTREMELY run first team that hasn’t had the horses to be anything more. O’Brien’s career in Houston will likely be decided by his ability to change that last sentence.
Paul Gallant hosts “Gallant at Night” – Weeknights 7-11 PM CT – on SportsRadio 610. He also hosts SportsZone Unfiltered – Fridays at 10 PM – on The Kube: Channel 57. Get in touch with Paul via email or his facebook page.