AFC South Predictions: From the Best to the Rest (Part One)
I spent all offseason trying to convince myself that the Houston Texans were not for real. After years of constantly being projected as the next team that will “take a big step forward” and always falling shy of those high expectations, I almost couldn’t handle it when the team finally put a full season together and made the playoffs. The Texans showed true toughness, which is the quality they lacked in previous seasons, by overcoming the loss of their main signal caller, Matt Schaub, and still managing to win a playoff game with an inexperienced back-up. They even gave the Ravens all they could handle in the Division Championship game the following week.
My reason for still refusing to believe in Houston was that I was trying to rationalize their defensive improvement as purely scheme related. Prior to the 2011 season the Texans finally took a step in the right direction toward improving their defense by bringing in Wade Phillips to run his 3-4 scheme. I have written before about how scheme changes can produce immediate, but not necessarily lasting, results. Often it takes the league a while to catch up to the new changes and adjust their game plans accordingly. This is what I was trying to convince myself of – that the Houston improvement was due to the 3-4 switch and that last season was their peak, and it would be all downhill from here. In reality I was fooling myself.
Phillips’ scheme and experience were certainly two huge factors in Houston’s defensive turnaround, but not as much as the talent level on that side of the ball. Last season the Texans added JJ Watt and Brooks Reed, two players who teamed with Connor Barwin, Brian Cushing, Shaun Cody and Demeco Ryans (departed to Philly) to form a formidable front seven. The players also fit the scheme well and the Houston defense took off like never before. It is the talent of these young players, who should continue to improve, that will ensure that the Houston defense plays like a top-end unit again this season and possibly for many more in the future.
Houston also made questionable offseason decisions, which made me wonder if they could repeat. Instead of locking up a dominating defensive player at a key position (DE/OLB Mario Williams) the Texans instead decided to pay big money to running back Arian Foster. This move, combined with the decision to let the entire right side of their offensive line leave, seemed highly risky. Houston has had a very strong run game for years and part of that success was because of their consistent line play from year to year. The run game has reached new heights with the addition of Foster, but one of the easiest players to replace in the league right now is a running back. It would be difficult to find a dynamic player like Foster, but a dynamic running back is not necessary for success. You simply need a good player, and the Texans already have one of those on their team in Ben Tate.
For a fraction of the cost of Foster, the Texans could have locked up Tate long-term and got, say, 85% of Foster’s production at a greatly reduced price. It will be much tougher for the Texans to replace their strong offensive line players, and pretty much impossible for them to replace what they had with Mario Williams.
I still fear these moves may hurt the Texans in the long-run, but I think they will be able to make it through this season in fine shape. Williams was not a big part of the Texans run last season because he played only five games and Houston as mentioned, has plenty of young talent to fill the gap. On the offensive front Houston chose to let those linemen go with back-ups already on the roster ready to replace them. I think I have to give the Texans some of the benefit of the doubt in this are considering the strong drafts they have put together in recent years.
The Texans may fail to improve upon last season, but they are clearly the class of their division. A strong divisional record will propel them into the playoffs once again. I am not as high on Houston once they reach the postseason as many prognosticators who are picking them to make the Super Bowl are, because they have never proven they can beat elite competition, but getting there should not be a problem.
So there you have the winners of the AFC South – the Houston Texans. Check back tomorrow morning as I round out “The Rest” of the division.
You can find analysis of other divisions by visiting my column, “3rd String NFL“.