Something strange has happened in each of the last two NFL seasons. In both 2012 and 2013, the team that finished with the worst record in the NFL and received the first overall pick has responded by immediately making the playoffs the following year. It’s the sort of parity that causes Roger Goodell to build a money-counting room in his house out of hundred-dollar bills. Four teams (the 2004 Chargers, 2008 Dolphins, 2012 Colts, and 2013 Chiefs) have accomplished the feat in the last 10 years, but before them, the last franchise to make its way from dead last into the playoffs was the 1982 strike-season Patriots.1
This year, the Houston Texans will attempt to be the third consecutive franchise to boomerang back into the playoffs. They have a better shot than you might think. Just as was the case with the Chiefs last August, let’s run through the reasons why the Texans could be the latest franchise to take a large step forward.
The Statistical Case
In December, as Houston was finishing its collapse to 2-14, I wrote about how many of the statistical indicators suggested that Houston wasn’t quite as bad as its record. A pair of subsequent blowout losses to the Colts and Broncos color those numbers some, but even with them included, the Texans simply didn’t play like a 2-14 team last season and won’t look like one again in 2014. Here’s why:
They had the point differential of a 4-12 team. The Texans posted a point differential of minus-152 last season. That’s not good — only the Jaguars were worse — but we know that a team’s point differential is a better indicator of future win-loss record than its previous win-loss record, and Houston’s Pythagorean expectation with that sort of point differential is that of a 4.2-win team, a 2.2-win gap. Since 1989,2 there have been 22 teams that have underperformed their point differential by somewhere between two and 2.5 wins. Those teams improved by an average of 1.6 wins the following season. Not exactly the sort of improvement to plan a nonrefundable parade, but it’s a start.
They lost a disproportionate number of their close games. After finishing 5-0 in games decided by one touchdown or less in 2012, the 2013 Texans won their first two games by a total of nine points … and then lost their final 14 contests, including nine by seven points or fewer. Only four teams in the past 25 years have lost at least nine one-touchdown games in a single season, most recently the 2011 Vikings, who rolled off a stunning run to the postseason themselves in 2012. Since 1989, 50 teams have posted a winning percentage in close games of .250 or less (with a minimum of six such games in that season). After going 78-344 (.184) in close games in those seasons in question, the 50 teams were 181-203 (.471) in those games the following year. Houston’s not “due” to win a bunch of close games, just as it wasn’t due to lose a ton of them this past season, but there’s no reason to think it will be that bad in close contests again.
They’re subject to the Plexiglass Principle. Good teams that suddenly turn bad out of nowhere tend to gain back some of their losses very quickly. Houston declined by a staggering 10 games last season, the largest deficit since the 1993 Houston Oilers went from 12-4 to 2-14. A year later, with Jeff Fisher taking over as the full-time coach, they were 7-9. Forty-eight teams have declined by six wins or more since 1989; the following season, those teams won an average of 3.1 more games than they had the previous campaign.
They blew a lot of games in the second half. Houston led at halftime before losing a whopping six times last year, and it wasn’t like the Texans were battling bad teams to a narrow halftime lead, either. Houston blew second-half leads against the Cardinals, Colts, Patriots, and, in the loss that seemed to send its season into a tailspin, the Super Bowl champion Seahawks. This after failing to blow a single halftime lead in 2012! The Chargers led the league with five such losses in 2012, and they made a triumphant return to the playoffs last year. Just five other teams have blown at least six halftime leads in a season since 1989, and each of those teams improved dramatically (by 5.2 wins) the following season. A larger sample would include the 71 teams since 1989 that have blown four or more halftime leads; those teams blew an average of 1.6 such games the following year while improving their record by 2.4 wins.
They allowed way too many defensive touchdowns. That aforementioned Seahawks game turned on the worst of Matt Schaub’s four pick-sixes in four games, which was a statistical improbability. After allowing a league-low two points to opposing defenses in 2012, Houston gave up 38 points (six touchdowns and a safety) in 2013. That’s not going to happen again. Since 1999,3 56 teams have allowed 30 points (five touchdowns) or more on offensive turnover returns. The following year, those teams allowed an average of 17 points, which is almost exactly at the league average of 16.8 points per season. Even if you thought there were something wrong with Schaub that innately makes him throw more pick-sixes than the average quarterback (and if you’re capable of looking back through his entire career, there isn’t), Schaub is now safely ensconced in Oakland, where he is super happy about things.
They’re going to create more takeaways. In addition to all of those defensive touchdowns allowed, the Texans couldn’t create many big plays of their own on D. They forced just 11 takeaways last season, the fewest in football. In a related fact, Houston finished with a turnover margin of minus-20, the worst in the league by a significant margin, as the Giants were closest to Houston at minus-15. Turnover margin just isn’t a consistent statistic from year to year; the Texans were plus-12 in 2012, and the likes of Kansas City and Philadelphia (both minus-24 in 2012) both rode massive turnover swings in 2013 to the playoffs. There are 53 teams since 1989 with a turnover margin between minus-25 and minus-15, and in the subsequent season, their respective turnover margins were almost exactly zero. Turnovers will stop opposing drives from scoring points while also setting up the Houston offense with better field position; the turnover-starved Texans had the league’s third-worst average starting field position a year ago.
They’ll be better at kicking field goals. After relying on Neil Rackers for years, the Texans used a fifth-round pick in the 2012 draft on Texas A&M kicker Randy Bullock, who spent his rookie year on injured reserve with a groin ailment before taking over as the starter in 2013. It didn’t go super well. Bullock was a disaster early in the season, as he missed nine of his first 23 kicks, including an 0-for-3 performance against the Titans in Week 2 and a 2-for-6 stretch in consecutive three-point losses to the Colts and Cardinals. The good news is that Bullock hit his final 12 field goal attempts, and that the Texans are unlikely to hit just 74.3 percent of their field goals this season, as kicking accuracy is wildly inconsistent from year to year. If Bullock can’t do the job, it will fall to rookie Chris Boswell. Or maybe the Texans will take a page out of the mid-’90s Jets playbook and sign Texas-born Clint Dempsey to be their kicker. What? Don’t take pages out of the mid-’90s Jets playbook? OK, fine.
They’ll face an easy schedule. Last year, Houston’s out-of-division schedule included the NFC West, the AFC West, and first-place matchups against the Ravens and Broncos. Their brutal slate rated as the AFC’s toughest schedule and the fifth-hardest lineup in the NFL, per Pro-Football-Reference.com. That’s not going to be the case this year, with Houston set to face the NFC East, AFC North, and the AFC’s other last-place teams in Oakland and Buffalo. Strength-of-schedule estimations are widely maligned because they often use the previous year’s win-loss record as the measure of strength, which isn’t actually very helpful. There are better ways to estimate strength of schedule. In May, Chase Stuart used the lines for each game from the first 16 weeks of the 2014 season in Las Vegas4 to infer each team’s strength of schedule entering the campaign, and he found that Houston had the easiest schedule in football without even considering that the Texans play the Jaguars at Reliant Stadium in Week 17. That’s no guarantee Houston will end up with the league’s easiest schedule when things are said and done, but at the very least, Houston’s slate should be massively easier in 2014 than it was last year.
The Human Case
The Texans are unlikely to quit on their coach again. It’s impossible to quantify whether a team has given up on its season and its management, and it can be a crutch to explain away bigger problems, but it certainly seems like the Texans quit on head coach Gary Kubiak at some point last season. The fans certainly did. It could have been his handling of the quarterback situation, and Kubiak’s scary collapse in early November certainly deserves plenty of sympathy, but the Texans were simply a hopeless team by the time December rolled around.
It’s also impossible to figure out whether an NFL head coach will succeed before he actually steps into the gig, but Bill O’Brien certainly seems to have plenty of potential. After spending five seasons as a coach on the offensive side of the ball for New England, O’Brien stepped into an impossibly difficult gig at Penn State and grossly surpassed expectations, going 15-9 over two seasons while developing the dismal Matt McGloin into an unlikely professional quarterback. It’s unclear whether O’Brien will fall closer to Harbaugh or Petrino on the college coaching scale, and the Bill Belichick Coaching Tree has an NFL record of just 72-119 (.377, roughly a 6-10 season every year),5 but O’Brien should have his players’ attention for at least one season. Many recent turnarounds have come with an improvement in coaching, including those of Indianapolis (Bruce Arians/Chuck Pagano over Jim Caldwell) and Kansas City (Andy Reid over Romeo Crennel).
They’ll have a possible upgrade at quarterback. It seems strange to say Ryan Fitzpatrick represents an upgrade at quarterback, but Houston’s passers were really bad last season. No, really, compare their 2013 numbers to Fitzpatrick’s since the Harvard star began his first season as a full-time starter in Buffalo in 2010:
Fitzpatrick also hasn’t had a receiver pair as good as Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins to work with since he spent 2008 with Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh in Cincinnati.
It’s also possible that O’Brien eventually turns the job over to Tom Savage, the team’s fourth-round pick out of Pittsburgh. Savage is one of the least pro-ready prospects I can imagine, a big-armed pocket passer who has shown little beyond that arm strength, but if O’Brien can save McGloin from a job at Enterprise car rental, he might even be able to make Savage into a viable pro starter.
The Texans added a once-in-a-generation pass-rusher. Jadeveon Clowney could still end up as a bust at the professional level, and he’s already struggling with a sports hernia that required surgery in June, but just about every scouting report agrees that Clowney’s a franchise pass-rusher. Even with the terrifying J.J. Watt on board, Houston accrued just 32 sacks last season, the third-lowest figure in the NFL.
Houston might be healthier. While they weren’t as injury-hit as the Giants or Packers, the Texans suffered from a wide variety of injuries during their 2013 campaign. Just eight Texans managed to start all 16 games in 2013, with stars like Arian Foster, Brian Cushing, Duane Brown, and Johnathan Joseph each missing time. Of Houston’s core players, only Watt, Chris Myers, and Andre Johnson managed to stay healthy all season.
There will be fewer replacement-level snaps. Last year’s ill-fated move to sign Ed Reed turned out to be an absolute disaster; Reed was alternately injured and ineffective and seemingly always unhappy before being released in November. He was replaced by rookie second-rounder D.J. Swearinger, who was in over his head at first before improving as the season went along. Up and down the roster, players who simply aren’t NFL-caliber regulars were thrust into roles they couldn’t handle. Guys like Ryan Harris, Case Keenum, Wade Smith, Ryan Griffin, and Darryl Sharpton played hundreds of snaps that will go to better players in 2014.
The Case Against Houston
Ryan Fitzpatrick is no good. Had the Texans made a more significant upgrade at quarterback this offseason, I would be banging this drum much harder. As it is, while improvement is assured, the playoffs might be too tall of a task with the Fitzchise at quarterback. Outside of a useful half-season with the Bills in 2011, Fitzpatrick’s been a below-average quarterback throughout his career, throwing interceptions on a whopping 3.6 percent of his pass attempts. During Fitzpatrick’s career, the only passers (minimum 1,000 attempts) who have thrown interceptions more frequently are — avert your eyes — Rex Grossman, Vince Young, Jon Kitna, Derek Anderson, and Mark Sanchez. Think about the guys I didn’t mention. He’s thrown interceptions more frequently than Jake Delhomme!
And yet those players did not lack for professional success. Grossman made a Super Bowl. Sanchez made two AFC Championship Games. Kitna and Young each had playoff starts. Anderson had a 10-5 season in 2007. None of those quarterbacks was very good, but when they had a great defense and caught a few breaks, their mediocrity wasn’t enough to hold their teams back from making the playoffs. And if the Texans do make it into the playoffs, it would be on the backs of Watt and Clowney anyway. It’s not that Fitzpatrick is good enough to drag his team into January. It’s that he’s not subpar enough to prevent them from dragging him over the finish line.
Andre Johnson is pissed. After years of playing the quiet superstar, something in Johnson snapped this offseason. Perhaps disappointed by Houston’s offseason work, he has requested a trade and refused to show up for minicamps. The problem with Johnson’s request is that it doesn’t really make a ton of sense for either party. The Texans can’t replace Johnson on short notice and would eat $12 million in dead money on their cap this season by trading or releasing him, saving Houston just $3.6 million on what it’s paying Johnson to actually play this season. And while Johnson remains a talented wideout, he’s due $31.5 million in base salaries alone over the next three seasons, an unpalatable amount for a wideout who just turned 33. Houston is unlikely to find a taker at that price in the trade market, and if Johnson were to be released, he would only receive a fraction of the money already coming to him on the free market. I wouldn’t count on Johnson leaving the club this season.
There are still holes on the lines. Despite the presence of superstars like Brown and Watt, departures and failed maneuvers have left Houston thin up front. The right side of Houston’s offensive line has been a massive disappointment for several seasons now, and there have been precious few signs that the combination of guard Brandon Brooks and tackle Derek Newton will produce, but with few options available, the Texans appear ready to stick with the duo for another season. Second-round pick Xavier Su’a-Filo seems more likely to slot in at left guard, where he’ll replace Smith.
Meanwhile, veteran Antonio Smith left the team this offseason for Oakland, leaving the Texans with a very thin defensive line next to Watt. Third-round pick Louis Nix III is the team’s nose tackle of the future, but Smith’s spot at end now belongs to 2012 fourth-rounder Jared Crick, a backup last season.
It’s a top-heavy team. Several years ago, Houston had one of the deepest rosters in football. Much of that depth has moved on; Philadelphia, in particular, appears to have an affinity for former Texans players. What’s left is a team with a few stars (Watt, Brown, Johnson, Foster, Clowney, Cushing, and Joseph) and little in reserve. For the Texans to compete, they need as many of those guys as possible to stay healthy for 16 games.
They don’t have Andrew Luck. Luck is really good.
The Texans are hardly guaranteed a playoff spot. Indeed, in the long run, it’s not hard to imagine them falling apart: Johnson pouts all season, Fitzpatrick gives way to a raw Savage, and Clowney limps through a disappointing rookie season. That’s a 5-11 or 6-10 team. That would still be a four-win improvement on last year’s squad! For the Texans to get to the next level and approach the postseason, though, they’ll need all of their offensive weapons (and coaches) firing on all cylinders. If they can combine a competent offense with the devastating pass-rush combination of Watt and Clowney, Houston might just be the latest surprise entrant into the playoffs.