By Sam McPherson
Yes, the AFC South is a bad division this year, thanks to the collapse of the Indianapolis Colts and Andrew Luck’s health. However, the Houston Texans have had their own health problems, and the team still is tied for first place in the division with the Colts. Both teams have mediocre 3-5 records, and Indianapolis has the tiebreaker edge thanks to a Week 5 win in Houston. That could come back to haunt the Texans, but only time will tell.
Eight games in—exactly halfway through the season—is a good time to assess what’s gone right and what’s gone wrong in the 2015 season for Houston, so let’s take a look at which players have seen their stock rise this year … and which ones have not.
Rising: Brian Hoyer, Quarterback
Yes, he was the Opening Day starter, but after being benched, Hoyer didn’t play again until Week 4. All he’s done since then is throw for 1,345 yards, 12 touchdowns and just two interceptions. Hoyer isn’t Tom Brady, but he knows Head Coach Bill O’Brien from their days together in New England, and he is the best-suited QB for what O’Brien wants to do in Houston. All Hoyer needs to do is find some consistency, so he doesn’t bury the team with a slow start like he did against the Miami Dolphins in Week 7.
Rising: DeAndre Hopkins, Wide Receiver
With Andre Johnson gone, someone needed to step up and be the No. 1 guy for the Texans receiving corps. Hopkins has not disappointed, hauling in 66 passes for 870 yards in the first half alone. He is on pace to shatter his personal bests, all set last season. Hopkins gives Hoyer a reliable target, and the two of them together have created a dynamic connection like the old playoff days with Johnson and Matt Schaub. The best part is that Hopkins is just 23 years old, and he can be a part of the Texans offense for years to come if the team wants him to be.
Rising: Johnathan Joseph, Cornerback
At age 31, Joseph is having a fine, comeback season. He already has 10 passes defensed this year, a pace Joseph hasn’t seen since 2009. With 28 tackles, he’s third on the team this year—and on pace for his third-best season ever in that category. Every team needs a veteran in the secondary to hold the fort down, and Joseph is doing well this season in that role.
Falling: Ryan Mallett, Quarterback
Mallett got the starting job when Hoyer was benched, but he couldn’t do anything with it. Now, his days as an NFL QB may be over after the Texans waived him a few weeks ago for being chronically late to team meetings, etc. Ever since Mallett was a freshman at the University of Michigan back in 2007, there has been a lot of love for his arm. Yet, he’s never quite been able to put it together. Mallett’s 65.0 QB rating in nine games with the Texans in 2014-15, after three years backing up Brady in New England, show he hasn’t figured it out—and may never do so.
Falling: Arian Foster, Running Back
His torn Achilles tendon probably signals the end of his Texans career, sadly. Foster was a dominant running back for the four seasons (2010-12, 2014) he stayed mostly healthy in Houston, but staying mostly healthy was his problem the other two seasons (2013, 2015). Foster will be 30 years old in 2016, and with his injury history, it will be a big risk for any team to sign him. Missing 26 games in the last six seasons total isn’t confidence inspiring, either.
Falling: J.J. Watt, Defensive End
This may seem crazy, since Watt has 8.5 sacks this season already and is second on the team in tackles, too. But after recovering 11 fumbles in his first four seasons, he’s yet to snare one this season. After forcing 12 fumbles in the previous three seasons, Watt has just one ball-loosening hit this season. He just hasn’t taken over games like we expected him to based on past performance; maybe that isn’t fair to Watt, but it is what it is. After all the MVP talk last year, he’s come back down to “normal” levels this fall. We see more of Watt on TV doing commercials than we see him making plays, and that’s a bad sign for a key player on any team.
Giving O’Brien two weeks to fix the offense with backup RBs like Alfred Blue and Chris Polk will be a good thing. Look for the Texans offense to be firing on all cylinders when it comes out of the bye week. Defensively, coordinator Romeo Crennel has the same time frame to figure out what is what with Watt. The first-place status can only motivate this team to play harder under adverse circumstances, and O’Brien is the kind of coach to bring out the best in this situation (remember his Penn State stint, post scandal).
The second-half schedule is unforgiving, however: At Cincinnati, home against the New York Jets, home against the New Orleans Saints, at Buffalo, home against the New England Patriots and at Indianapolis. Those are the first six games out of the break, and the Texans could lose all six if they don’t get their act together.
Sam McPherson is a freelance writer covering baseball, football, basketball, golf, hockey and fantasy sports for CBS, AXS and Examiner. He also is an Ironman triathlete and certified triathlon coach.