How the Texans Fell From Grace
The writing has been on the wall for the 2-7 Houston Texans for a while now. On Tuesday, the organization waved the white flag. The Texans placed star running back Arian Foster on injured reserve with an undisclosed back injury that will require surgery. On the other side of the ball, they released offseason pickup Ed Reed after just seven games in Houston, with the future Hall of Famer having fallen out of the starting lineup after the team’s bye week. He played just 12 snaps on defense in Houston’s loss to Arizona last Sunday. Combined with the benching of Matt Schaub for Case Keenum, it’s safe to say that the Texans are playing for 2014.
What’s so surprising is how quickly things fell apart in Houston. Sure, it was reasonable to expect that the Texans wouldn’t go 12-4 again; they were 5-0 in games decided by one touchdown or less last year, and they’re 2-4 this year. The talent level here was supposed to be immune to a season this bad. As recently as the 2011 playoffs, the Texans roster might very well have been the envy of the league, full of talented young players on team-friendly rookie contracts, thanks to the drafting acumen of general manager Rick Smith.
That’s no longer the case. Moves made by the organization over the past several seasons left the Texans with a series of toxic contracts, deals they’ve either had or will have to dump while assuming dead money in the process. Elsewhere, players have failed to develop or struggled to replace the talent that a cap-strapped Texans team had to let go elsewhere. Detailing those decisions gives a sense of where things went wrong for Houston and how they’ve fallen so far off the competitive map in 2013.
March 5: Houston signs Kevin Walter to a five-year, $21.5 million contract extension. It seemed unlikely that the Texans would retain their second wideout, who received interest from the Bengals and Ravens before the Texans swooped in to re-sign him. It didn’t make much sense at the time; Walter had established himself as a consistent 60-catch, 800-yard possession receiver. Finding a guy with that skill set to put up those sorts of numbers across from Andre Johnson should be a breeze for NFL general managers, let alone one as skilled as Smith. Regardless, Walter averaged a 44-538-3 over three subsequent seasons as a starter before being released this past offseason.
March 30: Houston signs DeMeco Ryans to a six-year, $48 million contract extension. While the Walter deal seemed shortsighted the moment the ink was signed, you can’t fault the Texans for locking up their defensive signal-caller; Ryans was, at the time, one of the best young middle linebackers in football, with no red flags or injury history to speak of. Unfortunately, circumstances changed. Ryans tore his Achilles six games into his new contract, costing him most of the 2010 campaign. He came back for 2011, but he struggled with the aftereffects of his injury and Houston’s move into a 3-4 alignment, having spent his career playing in the 4-3. That led the Texans to essentially give up on Ryans by dealing him to Philadelphia in March 2012 for a fourth-round pick and a swap of third-round selections. Ryans has since gone through the same 4-3 to 3-4 switch in Philadelphia. The primary benefit of the trade was to move around salary cap space. The move caused the Texans to assume a whopping $9 million in dead money from the remainder of Ryans’s deal on their 2012 cap (up $3.1 million from the $5.9 million they would have paid him to actually play for the Texans), but it cleared the future obligations they owed Ryans off the books, creating salary cap space for extensions given to the likes of Duane Brown and Matt Schaub. The fourth-round pick the Texans received eventually became backup interior lineman Ben Jones.
July 29: Houston signs cornerback Johnathan Joseph to a five-year, $48.8 million deal. Joseph was everything the Texans could have hoped for during his first year with the team; alongside fellow free-agent pickup Danieal Manning, Joseph shored up the secondary and did a credible job on the opposing team’s top wideout on a weekly basis. It looked to be a masterstroke from Smith. Now the deal doesn’t look quite as good. Joseph was injured or ineffective for most of the 2012 season before eventually regaining his form by the end of the campaign. He’s been somewhere between the lofty heights of 2011 and the disappointment of 2012 this season. That’s tough to swallow for a corner with a $11.3 million cap hold this year.
March 5: Houston signs halfback Arian Foster to a five-year, $43.5 million deal. The most curious decision of the Smith era so far. Foster had been wildly productive and is one of the smartest players in the league, but he was an undrafted back out of Tennessee playing in a zone-blocking scheme that’s famous for turning undervalued players into star runners, most notably in Denver. Houston had also spent a second-round pick on Ben Tate, who had averaged 5.4 yards per carry on 175 attempts as Foster’s backup the previous year.
Furthermore, the Texans signed Foster a year before they had to; had Houston not given Foster an extension, he would have become a restricted free agent for the upcoming 2012 season. Houston would have tendered him at the highest level, which would have given the Texans one more cost-controlled year of Foster (at likely around $3 million) without having to worry about losing him unless some other team offered a first- and third-round pick for their star back. Players almost never move in restricted free agency, and that would have been a gaudy return for Foster. You can argue that the Texans could have used the leverage of restricted free agency to induce Foster into signing a below-market deal, but Foster got $20.8 million of his deal guaranteed and a total of $25 million over the first three years of the contract. That’s well ahead of the deal received by the comparable Ray Rice (five years, $35 million, $15 million guaranteed, $19.5 million over the first three years) and Matt Forte (four years, $30.4 million, $13.8 million guaranteed, $21.7 million over the first three years).
In his two years as a starter before signing the extension, Foster suited up for 29 games and rushed for 97.9 yards per contest, averaging 4.7 yards per carry. He will finish the two subsequent seasons after the extension having played in 24 games and averaging 81.9 yards per tilt and 4.2 yards per rushing attempt. It hasn’t worked out. The Texans would only realize $1.25 million in salary cap relief by releasing him this offseason, too, so Foster will likely be on the team in 2014.
March 15: Mario Williams leaves Houston to sign a record-setting six-year, $96 million deal with the Bills. It was exceedingly unlikely that the Texans ever intended to re-sign Williams, who had been the face of the franchise during their down days; there were simply too many players needing extensions elsewhere on the roster. By not re-signing Williams, the Texans made a conscious choice to move on at outside linebacker with the combination of Connor Barwin, Brooks Reed, and eventually 2012 first-rounder Whitney Mercilus.
That hasn’t worked out quite as well as the Texans might have hoped. Barwin and Reed had combined for 15.5 sacks as the starters after Williams’s injury in 2011, but they weren’t able to keep up those totals. Barwin and Reed racked up only a combined 5.5 sacks in 28 starts last year, with Mercilus chipping in with six sacks off the bench. The team then let Barwin go this offseason, replacing him with Mercilus as the full-time starter; he and Reed have a mere 5.5 sacks combined through nine weeks. Houston didn’t miss Williams’s pass-rush presence with J.J. Watt producing 20.5 sacks in 2012, but with Watt’s numbers down in 2013, you might wonder whether the Texans miss Williams a bit. After an inconsistent season in 2012, Williams’s 11 sacks this year are tied for third in the league.
I’m not suggesting that the Texans should have ponied up the money to retain Williams (nor has that been a good deal for the Bills, for that matter), but what looked to be a position of strength for the Texans even without Williams really hasn’t been one.
March 16: Right guard Mike Brisiel leaves to sign with Oakland. Brisiel’s departure came four days after the team surprisingly cut right tackle Eric Winston, who had been regarded as one of the better right tackles in football. On the same day, the Texans chose to re-sign center Chris Myers to a four-year, $25 million deal.
In terms of the contractual decisions they made, the Texans played it right. Winston washed out in Kansas City after one season and is currently toiling for Arizona. Brisiel was an enormous disappointment in Oakland during their move to a zone-blocking scheme last year and is a fish out of water now that Oakland has moved to a more conventional blocking scheme. He will likely be released after the season.
Myers has continued to play at a high level. The problem here, though, is that the right side of the line has never recovered from the departures. The team expected to start Antoine Cladwell at right guard, but he was a disaster before being benched for third-round pick Brandon Brooks, who remains a work in progress. Right tackle Derek Newton, meanwhile, has been one of the worst right tackles in football over the past two years. Right tackle may very well be Houston’s biggest priority heading into 2014.
April 28: Houston drafts kicker Randy Bullock in the fifth round. Drafting kickers essentially amounts to a crapshoot; the Texans took Bullock, a 2011 All-American, one round before the Vikings selected Blair Walsh and the Rams selected Greg Zuerlein. Bullock missed his entire rookie season with an injury, leading the Texans to use veteran Shayne Graham as a middling fill-in during 2012. Healthy again in 2013, Bullock has been a disaster. He’s hit just 14 of his first 23 attempts as a pro, including two home games with three misses each. Bullock’s work as a kicker this year has cost the Texans 14 points per Football Outsiders; he’s been nearly twice as bad as the second-worst kicker in the league, Garrett Hartley (-8.1 points). This could just be a small sample, but it’s also entirely possible that the Texans landed on a bad kicker.
September 10: Houston signs Matt Schaub to a five-year, $66.1 million contract extension. I probably don’t need to retell the tale of how this one hasn’t worked out. The good news for the Texans, I suppose, is that Schaub’s contract isn’t quite as onerous as you might think. The Texans can designate Schaub as a post–June 1 release and split the $10.5 million in resulting dead money from his deal over two years, with $3.5 million on the 2014 cap and $7 million on the 2015 cap. (Cut to Texans fans thinking about having $7 million devoted to Matt Schaub on the cap two years from now.)
March 24: Houston signs Ed Reed to a three-year, $15 million deal. After being allowed to hit the market without a serious offer from his longtime employers in Baltimore, Reed eventually found a home in Houston, which couldn’t afford to match Detroit’s offer for the Texans’ incumbent safety, Glover Quin. When they drafted D.J. Swearinger in the second round of the draft a month later, the plan seemed clear: Use Reed as the bridge between Quin and Swearinger while adding a winner with rare instincts to the secondary.
The bridge crumbled in two months. Reed had hip surgery a month after he signed and didn’t practice until the very end of August, and when he did make it onto the field, even the limited range he showed during Baltimore’s title run last year had disappeared. The Texans ended up paying Reed right around $6 million for seven games, and his contract is now eating up $3 million in dead money on Houston’s cap. (The cap space doesn’t really matter now in a vacuum, but it’s $3 million that the Texans won’t be able to roll over to their cap in 2014.)
September 3: Houston signs Brian Cushing to a seven-year, $55.6 million extension. Sigh. Cushing is a wildly valuable player when he’s healthy, but after tearing his ACL in 2012, he fractured his fibula against the Chiefs in 2013. His 2014 base salary of $2 million is already guaranteed for injury, and the Texans will either have to pay him a $6 million option bonus or turn that option into a future guaranteed base salary of $6 million. You can’t fault Smith for wanting to re-sign Cushing, but as was the case with the Ryans extension, injuries have made it look like a bad move.
It’s certainly a frustrating situation for Texans fans. Smith is a good general manager, and every general manager makes mistakes, but Houston has made a lot of big bets over the past several seasons and most of them just haven’t worked out. Houston is far from hopeless; it still has a core of Watt, Duane Brown, Cushing, Joseph, and Andre Johnson to build around, with Case Keenum looking like he might be a viable starter. The Texans will also get a high pick in next year’s draft, which is regarded as a strong class of talent. But it’s also fair to point out that they have way more problems now than they did two years ago. Those mistakes haven’t solely caused them to start 2013 by going 2-7, but they sure haven’t helped, either.