August’s first big casualty has arrived. Texans running back Arian Foster is due to undergo surgery today for a serious groin injury that reportedly saw him tear the muscle off its bone. (All together now: Yikes.) It seems likely Foster will eventually be placed on injured reserve and designated as Houston’s player who is eligible to return, a move that would keep him on the sideline through the Texans’ Week 9 bye. There are no guarantees Foster will be ready by then, and even if he is, truthfully, it might be too late in Houston’s season for it to really matter.
If there was ever a season where the Texans needed Foster, it would be 2015. This is an offense in transition. The shift started two seasons ago, when the Gary Kubiak–Matt Schaub era met its demise during a historically unlikely run of pick-sixes. While both were relieved of their duties, new head coach Bill O’Brien stuck with many of the same zone-blocking run concepts used successfully under Kubiak and retained the vast majority of his offensive personnel. While the offense wasn’t great, Foster was at the core of a unit that improved from 29th in offensive DVOA to 21st.
This year, the transition was taking a further step. Ryan Fitzpatrick, the 2014 starting signal-caller, was traded to the Jets, giving way to a three-way battle between inexperienced incumbents Tom Savage and Ryan Mallett and slightly more experienced newbie Brian Hoyer for the quarterback gig. Other familiar faces have departed: Stalwart center Chris Myers was released after seven years with the team, and he was joined on the unemployment line by Andre Johnson, the franchise’s greatest player1 in its brief existence.
On a cumulative basis, of course, although I suppose you could try to make a case that 12 years of Johnson is less valuable than four seasons of J.J. Watt.
It’s reasonable to infer that the Texans would have relied heavily on their running game in 2015, and while Myers had faded from his earlier Pro Bowl form, the loss of his experience in diagnosing opposing fronts and the continuity of having him at the pivot makes it more likely there will be growing pains for the running game at the beginning of the season. Having a skilled back like Foster shouldering the workload would have helped smooth over some of those concerns.
The injury hurts, in part, because Foster really put up a vintage performance in 2014. After seeing his effectiveness on a per-carry basis wane in 2012 before a disappointing, injury-riddled 2013, the University of Tennessee product returned to his previous heights as the focal point of the Houston offense in 2014. While he missed three games with injuries and sat out most of a fourth, Foster’s numbers were in line with his breakout 2010 campaign. Remove that meaningless Week 17 game against the Jaguars when he came out after the first quarter with a knee injury, and Foster averaged 101.9 rushing yards per game, nearly identical to his 101.0 yards per game figure from 2010. Foster’s 4.8-yard rushing average was also his best since 2010.
Foster’s impressive campaign stands in stark contrast to that of his backup, rookie Alfred Blue, and that should give Texans fans further pause. Although I often reference Football Outsiders’s DVOA stat for measuring team performance, I don’t like to use it while analyzing individual players, because it doesn’t do a great job of adjusting for the broader context in which a player performs.2 But it can be useful in this exact situation by comparing the efficiency of running backs who play behind the same offensive line.
Take Dallas wideout Terrance Williams, who ranked second among receivers in DVOA because he was very efficient on a per-target basis last year. That has a ton more to do with the fact Williams was the fourth option in an offense that had Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, and a dominant running game than it did with Williams’s play.
Foster, as you might suspect, rated as one of the NFL’s best running backs in 2014, finishing 10th among 43 qualifying backs. He posted a healthy DVOA of 7.5 percent. Blue? Not so great. Despite playing less frequently and assuming fewer responsibilities outside of running than Foster, Blue finished 43rd out of those 43 backs:
Finishing last in DVOA is bad, but even that might undersell the gap between how these two backs performed last year. I can’t find a backup in recent memory who played as much as Blue and was so much worse than the starter he was spelling. I went through every team since 1990,3 identified their primary starter and backup by rushing attempts, and compared the difference in yards per carry between the two. No backup with 150 carries or more dropped off more from his starter’s yards per carry than Blue did last year, and among backups with 100 carries or more, Blue was the fourth-worst since 1990:
Excluding players who suited up for multiple teams in one season.
There are a couple of cases here where a nominal backup got hot and took over for an ineffective or injured starter (like Larry Johnson in Kansas City in 2005), but Blue clearly ranks among the most ineffective backups in recent memory. It wasn’t a quirk of scheduling, either, as the bulk of Blue’s workload came in three starts against the Giants (27th in run defense DVOA), Bengals (28th), and Browns (31st). He averaged 4.3 yards per carry in those games, which was far better than his average as Foster’s backup, but still below average given that those teams allowed 4.6 yards per carry to opposing backs last year.
When watching Blue on tape, I saw a back who was indecisive with his cuts, got caught up in the trash at the line of scrimmage too frequently, and lacked the sort of sudden agility needed to make tacklers miss at the NFL level. When the play wasn’t blocked perfectly, as was the case here against the Titans with Garrett Graham tripping over a lineman’s foot, Blue couldn’t make opposing defenders miss:
It’s tough to juke an unblocked defender, but Blue has a lot of space in that hole. NFL backs have to be able to make inside linebackers miss there. Here’s a more representative play against the Titans, where Blue keeps his head down and misses a cut at the second level that would have picked up a few extra yards:
And here, against the Bengals, it looks like the Texans create a running lane immediately on a stretch play, but Blue gets too choosy about his hole and fruitlessly bounces the play outside for no gain:
Blue simply ran into contact far too easily last season, and when he did, he wasn’t able to get away from tacklers. Among 43 qualifying backs, Blue’s 1.66 yards before contact per run ranked 40th, leaving him in a group at the bottom of the barrel with known plodders Steven Jackson (1.69, 39th), Trent Richardson (1.65, 41st), Andre Williams (1.58, 42nd), and Toby Gerhart (1.50, 43rd). And he was 38th out of 43 in terms of yards after contact per run. Foster, meanwhile, was 11th in yards before contact per run and seventh afterward.
It would be foolish to write Blue off after a disappointing rookie season, but it would also be fair to say he’s shown little suggesting he’s ready for an expanded role. The Texans brought in Pierre Thomas for a look on Wednesday and reportedly attempted to sign the former Saints back, only to be rebuffed when they failed to meet Thomas’s contract terms. Thomas would have been valued for his pass-blocking ability and as a receiving back, but it’s tough to imagine him filling Foster’s role. A more logical spot for the Texans might be taking a shot on Ahmad Bradshaw or Knowshon Moreno, each of whom have been more productive than Thomas in recent years, but who are also coming off season-shortening injuries.4
Bradshaw is also suspended for the first game of the 2015 season.
As for Foster, it’s fair to start wondering if we’ve seen his last great season in a Texans uniform. He’s about to turn 29, and even Texans owner Bob McNair publicly admitted he wasn’t surprised to see his star running back injured. Foster will likely finish 2015 with just two 16-game seasons to his name in seven years, having missed 14 games over the past four seasons with hamstring, groin, and back injuries.
If Foster returns and doesn’t look like his old self, it will be tough for the Texans to justify retaining him in 2016. Foster’s cap hit next year will be a whopping $9.5 million, the fourth-largest figure among running backs. It’s also the first season when Houston could realize serious cap savings by moving on from its longtime starter. It would save nearly $7 million by releasing or trading Foster, which could be valuable for a team that ranks 20th in projected cap space heading into 2016.
The Foster extension has to go down as a whiff by general manager Rick Smith. The Texans handed Foster a five-year, $43.5 million extension after the 2011 season for a four-year stretch that included two half-seasons and a 2012 campaign that was far less efficient (4.1 yards per carry) than the 2010-11 run (4.7 ypc) that preceded it.
As I wrote when the deal was signed in 2012, it seemed like a curious decision for a number of reasons. First, the Texans didn’t need to sign Foster to an extension that offseason; he was scheduled to be under contract for 2012 on a restricted-free-agent tender, which would have locked him in for one more season at a price in the $3 million range. A team could have tried to snatch Foster away with an offer sheet, but assuming that the Texans were going to tender Foster at the highest level, they would have received a first-round pick for the privilege, which would have been an exceptional return for a running back who was about to make big money.
The other issue was that the Texans were using a zone-blocking scheme that had thrust a generation of unheralded backs into stardom, notably Terrell Davis and Mike Anderson in Denver before Foster, an undrafted free agent, struck gold in Houston. If there was ever a situation where a team could point to the past as proof it could get by without paying a successful running back, it was in Houston. The Texans had Ben Tate5 onboard as a promising back at the time, and if Tate failed to pan out (as was the case), they could have cycled through their various options and stumbled on the next Steve Slaton or Domanick Williams, if not the next Foster, all at a fraction of the cost.
While that article was mostly correct about Foster, it also suggested the Seahawks were foolish to re-sign Marshawn Lynch, which obviously turned out to be pretty wrong. Lynch’s production spiked halfway through that last season after a meeting with offensive line coach Tom Cable, which I wrote about in profiling Lynch in 2014. Most of the time, those sort of half-season spikes (given Lynch’s pedestrian performance up to that point) are flukes. This wasn’t most of the time. What do you know? John Schneider’s better at this stuff than I am.
We can look back and realize what the opportunity cost of signing Foster was for the badly cap-strapped Texans. Houston lost star pass-rusher Mario Williams that offseason to the Bills in free agency but added J.J. Watt in the draft and didn’t skip a beat, improving to fourth in defensive DVOA with an impressive, young, and homegrown defense. A year later, having been picked apart by free agency, it would fall to 18th.
Two key talents went elsewhere that year, and the Texans have struggled to replace both. First, they lost safety Glover Quin to the Lions, where he has quietly emerged as one of the best safeties in football. Quin made the Pro Bowl for the first time last year as the leader of a revitalized Lions secondary, and Houston has been totally unable to replace him. It signed Ed Reed that year to a short-term deal and cut the former Ravens star after seven games, while Quin’s likely long-term replacement, 2013 second-rounder D.J. Swearinger, was cut after just two seasons.
It was also unable to retain outside linebacker Connor Barwin, who signed a six-year, $36 million deal with the Eagles that now looks like one of the bigger bargains in the league. Barwin was a valuable cover linebacker for Philadelphia in 2013, and when moved back into a pass-rushing role last season, he produced a 14.5-sack season that led the 2009 second-rounder to rejoin his former teammate, Quin, at the Pro Bowl. The Texans drafted a likely replacement for Barwin the previous year in Illinois outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus, but he has only mustered 18 sacks across three seasons. Jadeveon Clowney, the 2014 first overall pick, probably would have been the pick regardless of Barwin’s status, but even he hasn’t lived up to expectations, having missed the majority of his rookie season before undergoing microfracture surgery in December 2014.
It’s impossible to definitively say the Texans would have signed Quin or Barwin if they had let Foster leave, but they would have had the cap space to do so. It would also have been impossible to look into the future and know that Foster would struggle with so many injuries, but that’s another case where it’s more instructive to look at the broader population of running backs than it is to look at an individual player. We know that backs have shorter careers than players at other positions, and a quick look through history would have suggested that most market-value deals for running backs don’t work out. (Davis, if you want to choose one individual player of note, had been healthier than Foster before signing a mammoth extension and delivered one more great season before breaking down almost entirely.)
What’s done is done now, and while the Texans were happy to have their star running back last season, they’re going to be stuck without him for much of 2015. One of my favorite measures of a team’s desire to run the football is its run frequency on first-and-10 while the game is within two scores. That’s a split that’s relatively untouched by game contexts that would force a team to throw (or run), so it reveals what a coach really wants to do in an all-other-things-being-equal situation.
The average team ran the ball 53.2 percent of the time in that situation in 2014. The Texans ran the ball 61.3 percent of the time in those same spots, the third-highest rate in the league. Only the Cowboys and Bengals were more run-happy. Foster averaged 4.7 yards on those runs; Blue averaged 2.8.
More than the numbers, Foster has to have given Houston some level of comfort. He was the player the Texans could turn to as they broke in a new quarterback, as they tried to find a replacement for Johnson, as they desperately recharged Watt’s alien batteries on the sideline. While Johnson had been the franchise icon and Watt became the transcendent superstar, Foster was the guy who showed up and put the Texans on his back right as they started to win. He and left tackle Duane Brown were the only two offensive starters left in the lineup from the team’s first playoff win, just four seasons ago. When Foster lost most of 2013 to injuries, the Texans spent most of the year losing in his absence, going 0-8 in the games he missed. Things won’t be quite that bad this year, fans who had hopes of the Texans making the playoffs in 2015 have to be discouraged.