Once again, my Texans season preview is a conversation with the Houston-based NFL writer Rivers McCown (@riversmccown). He is a longtime contributor to Football Outsiders and wrote the Football Outsiders Almanac 2020 Texans section this year. His own site, RiversMcCown.com, is both the best and the worst of the internet: smart, well-written, ad-free, a beautiful reader experience, and does not pay him his worth. You should give it a visit.
Though today we will not solve the vexing issue of the best way to pay writers and fund quality news and writing, we will instead share with you a conversation we had about Texans football. Ideally, we would have this chat together over favorite foods and beverages but sharing it with you is almost as good.
Here is our Texans 2020 season preview conversation:
What is the Texans and AFC South big picture?
Stradley: Once again, you wrote the Houston Texans portion of the Football Outsiders Almanac. What is the main takeaway the FOA suggests about the AFC South and the Texans, and what is your personal one?
McCown: FOA does not project great things for this offense, as it kind of looks at what has happened under O’Brien, looked at the DeAndre Hopkins trade, and shrugged. The projection we ran in the book is for a -3.3% offensive DVOA. Last year’s offense had a 0.6% DVOA.
I think personally, even despite my feelings on the Hopkins trade, I am a bit higher on the Texans’ offense than this. I think Deshaun Watson has levels of growth he hasn’t hit yet, and I think there are a few different places where the Texans can potentially grow as well. The offensive line could gel together further with improvement from Max Scharping and Tytus Howard. Every game with a healthy Will Fuller is a huge win for the Houston offense, and he has missed games in each of the last two seasons.
Tim Kelly taking full control of the play calling could be an improvement over O’Brien, since the latter seems to fall into some bad habits here or there. In an absolute best-case scenario where Kelly utilizes everyone well, I could see a top-10 offense. That’s a lot to ask for from a coach who has never coordinated or called plays in his career before. But it is in the range of outcomes.
I would expect closer to a 5.0% DVOA on offense. And I think that tracks to put the Texans clearly in the race for this division and make it a three-team dogfight. FOA 2020 instead posits the Texans as a 7.5-win team chasing the Colts (8.9) and Titans (8.1).
How about that Texans offense?
Stradley: Ok, here’s a thought I had with that in my mammoth training camp preview and will articulate it this way:
1. I don’t see the defense being good.
2. To protect the defense and Deshaun Watson from himself just lowering his attempts, O’Brien will continue to run the ball a lot to play keep away from the opposing QB even if it isn’t being very efficient.
3. This won’t always work to protect the defense, so Watson may be put into situations where he has to Watson. He is going to have to do some shootouts with how the defense is likely going to be.
4. Scrappy, not too pretty, not very efficient or consistent.
Now ideally, I would like the offense to be what the best New England offenses were, the reason some people wanted O’Brien in Houston in the first place:
1. Above-average on aggressiveness on first down, particularly in the first half of games.
2. Using a variety of weapons on offense based on the weaknesses of the defense.
3. Putting so many points up early that the defense can face a one-dimensional offense and thrive despite roster holes.
And as the coachspeak says but we don’t always see from the play- calling:
4. Designing the offense more for the strengths of the quarterback. I am pretty sick of the pocket play, pocket play, pocket blows up, do magic. Given how much they love running the football, maybe more play-action?
Overall, I am very skeptical about the O’Brien’s ability to put a consistently efficient, effective offense on the field. My football bias is that you usually see great offensive minds improve the offensive side of the ball very quickly, even with imperfect personnel.
McCown: I mean it’s funny how apparent the difference between good and bad coaching is right away, isn’t it? We lived through this in a positive light when Wade Phillips came on and kicked around a unit that had lived through Richard Smith and Frank Bush, then signed Johnathan Joseph and J.J. Watt. Instantly, the Texans had a good defense.
But yes, I do think there is a fair amount of wishful thinking about O’Brien’s offense being more than it is at this point. Even when the Texans had a good defense, O’Brien wanted to grind time with the run. That hasn’t stopped since the defense has fallen into disrepair and Deshaun has come into the fold. Maybe Kelly changes things, maybe he doesn’t — it’s hard to say from the outside how much of last season’s fun teases like the zone-read at Kansas City in Week 6 were O’Brien or Watson or Kelly. All I know is that this offense has teased the fanbase for 3-4 weeks a year and gone right back to the complacent plodding stuff after that.
Last year’s play-action stats, as you alluded to, don’t show them using it a ton. I think this is one of those things where O’Brien gets in his own head about what the ideal play call is. They used it 24% of the time in 2019, and they actually had a lower DVOA on them than on regular passes! (9.6% with, 21.3% without). But so many of those play-actions are the Yankee concept, double-crossers that don’t give Watson a real outlet. Too many plays where Watson is holding the ball for only two or three receivers to get open against a four-man rush.
And one of the things that I’ve found the weirdest about O’Brien’s offensive line push is that Watson is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL at mitigating pressure when it comes. Watson’s DVOA under pressure last season was -31.6%, but just about every quarterback has a massive negative DVOA when pressured. (Lamar Jackson led the league at 5.5%!) If one of your quarterback’s strengths is playing out of structure, maybe the thought passes your mind that you don’t need to spend all that much on resources for this.
Instead, what happens is that some fans pick up on this “protect the franchise at all costs” truism that I’m not sure has a lot of basis in reality — players are going to get hurt playing football! But … the Laremy Tunsil takes are probably not meant to be popular ones at this moment with this David Carr memory-holed fanbase.
How about that Texans defense?
So, the defense. There are about three players I think the fanbase is buzzing about as taking a big leap this year: Charles Omenihu, Jacob Martin, and Lonnie Johnson. I wasn’t a fan of the Anthony Weaver hire at first because I thought this unit needed some real change from last season. I looked at how I think things will change this year in a post, mostly using quotes from pressers and Rex Ryan’s past since he is a foundational figure in Weaver’s playing and coaching career. What did you think of that move, and which of those three players are you most optimistic about?
Stradley: This is a weird year for me because for the first time since maybe 2009, I am not watching camp in person because Covid-19 media limitations. So, it is back to hearing buzz, and with no preseason games, it is really hard for me to get a sense of what is real and what is not, other than comparing what I know from previous season about players, and how I hope they develop.
As someone who has written about football with both access and no access to camp, monitoring camp buzz is hard. You can’t see everyone at once. This year in particular, everything is more rushed. For some positions, you can’t fully test them and see what they are special at doing until game action. So, for example, the buzz on Martin is good to hear, but I am going to be skeptical of the pass rush until I see it because nobody is hitting the quarterback.
How about picking Martin as my optimistic play because nice things are being said about him, and they need him to contribute? He talked about putting on some weight in the offseason, and it is worth seeing if that slows him at all or makes him hold up better.
I’m glad you brought up your fantastic Rex Ryan Weaver post because I had thought about that some, and magically you wrote about it, and maybe this suggests I should get a tin foil hat. Generally, I am not enthusiastic about the prospects of promoting from within on a struggling unit.
The pluses to Anthony Weaver is during a COVID-19 year, he already knows where the light switches are in the building and still has Romeo Crennel as a resource. He knows the personnel. He is the kind of coach that when he was a player, you could completely see him being a good coach.
With a short offseason, I believe the more disciplined teams will have an advantage, and I have no doubt they will play hard. My concern is one of roster composition. They wasted their years of good defenses. They kept draft reloading so much on offense that they had to manufacture a secondary last year and their defensive stars got old and some gone. That the secondary is playing together another year will be helpful, but I am not sure that is enough to be an above-average defense. Last year’s slippage was not just Watt getting hurt. I would have liked to see more pass rush help this offseason, and I do not trust the secondary.
Effects of Texans’ schedule strength?
One of the things I noticed is that the Texans’ defense last year faced a tough offensive schedule. What do the schedule strength projections look for the Texans this year, and what are your feelings about how the AFC, and the AFC South specifically will shake out if you were just musing out loud with your favorite beverage?
McCown: The most interesting thing to me about both Martin and Omenihu is that both of them have put on a lot of weight this offseason per the camp talk. Martin has said he’s up to 247 pounds — up 21 from last year — and Omenihu was up to 282. Both of them showed the speed to play really well in 2020, but if they can combine that with more power, that’s promising.
This year’s schedule for the Texans projects to be right about average, 19th in the book at -0.3% average DVOA. I’m not sure if Aaron ever splits this out into offensive and defensive projections, but you have to imagine that the number of poor-quality NFL quarterbacks Houston will face this year is low. Mahomes, Jackson, I have some optimism about a Philip Rivers bounceback, Tannehill, Roethlisberger, Rodgers, Cam Newton, Stafford … this is far removed from the years where Zach Mettenberger and Blake Bortles were on the schedule four times a season.
I think all three of the non-tanking AFC South teams will be postseason factors, and wouldn’t be surprised at all if they all made the postseason thanks to the expanded wild card. The Ravens and Chiefs are the upper class, the Steelers I feel like are a pretty sure playoff contender, I could see either the Patriots or Bills winning the East, and then the three AFC South teams join in to create the teams I’m sold on as playoff contenders. Maybe Cleveland or the Chargers join them with a few breaks.
As much as the numbers are less optimistic on the Texans, I am finding I really have a hard time sitting down and picking Deshaun Watson’s team to lose nine games. It’s kind of a wild whiplash from the years where we’re sitting at a quarterback depth chart of Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett! How do you feel about that? After all these years of the shoe being on the other foot (the Texans are good, sure, but the Colts have Peyton Manning), Houston has the well-paid quarterback the other teams are envious of!
Stradley: Well, if any fanbase deserves to see great quarterback play, if deserves is even a thing, then Texans fans deserve it more than most. I guess you could do the math on how much putrid QB play Texans fans have endured, and then say that was so bad, they deserve twice as much great QB play. However, even writing both of these sentences is causing bad memories, so I’m going to eject out of this thought with a BYGONES.
The best lesson for 2020 is appreciate the people and things in life that you love in the moment you are in. Onward.
COVID-19, football strategy, and Bill O’Brien
In some ways, the unorthodox year means that coaching may be extra important. I know the main complaints with O’Brien (takes too much on himself, questionable play calling and scheme, overly emotional at times) but I think something that could be a plus this year is he is a scrapper. Like if there were a fight among all NFL coaches, his fight style would be ugly yet at the end, he’d still be standing with blood shooting out various places in cartoonish geysers. I don’t think his teams always play smart, but I do think he gets maximum effort, and sometimes it seems like they get some try hard wins even when they shouldn’t.
One of the things I like about professional sports at this time, other than just liking sports, is that some of the things they are trying to keep players from getting sick may be able to translate to the real world. That said, given the wide spread of COVID-19 and no true bubble for NFL teams, some players will get sick, and scrappiness and his focus on versatility may be necessary.
Do you or does Football Outsiders have any thoughts on how you best prepare for this uncertainty with the league wide changes in roster sizes etc., and what things teams should do to improve their probabilities of winning? I’ve been thinking about this some, and the known unknowns and the unknowable unknowns make my head spin.
McCown: Yeah, I have similarly thought that as much as I dislike some of O’Brien’s traits as a general manager that they play a lot better in a pandemic year. In particular, I think his focus on personality traits and guys that seem mature is going to help the team a lot in a year where we are basically relying on everybody who is playing sports to be incredibly selfless and not put themselves in danger of catching COVID-19.
I think the most interesting thing about this year is that you are allowed a lot more practice squad players with no experience limit, and I think you’ll see teams carry a lot of players on the squad that are veteran, solid players. As we’re typing this on Saturday, the rumor is that C.J. Prosise is on the Texans practice squad. I wouldn’t be surprised if four or five other players at key positions make the team.
But in general, no, I can’t really think of a way analytics prepares you for this much. I do think there will be more of a premium on being able to run the ball this year if we start seeing position groups get taken down by COVID. Quarterback and wideout chemistry is a huge deal to me, and if you don’t have it, you don’t have it.
The post-Hopkins Texans world: Feels weird, Let’s do projections
Hey, that’s another thing that kind of worries me about the Hopkins trade! So, do you want to talk about the big elephant in the room? Or do you want to watch Deshaun Watson spin away from two Bills defenders over and over again?
Stradley: Yeah, Watson to Hopkins was such money. O’Brien is kicking the training wheels off, for both Watson and himself. If you looked at a highlight reel of the Texans, you saw a lot of Hopkins because great football player and functioning hamstrings. I don’t know what we will see.
Observationally, early in the year, I think most defenses are ahead of offenses as far as timing. The Texans likely can’t be that way against the Chiefs this year because the Chiefs have a great system, QB, and many returning offensive parts. They should be as good as any team is going to be on offense.
Watson throws a very catchable ball and can elevate those around him. I wish I kept a running count of things he has done that I have never seen before in the NFL.
One example is the stunning TD he threw to Limestone College’s undrafted rookie free agent Vyncint Smith in the teeth-gnashing loss to the Eagles in 2018. Smith had one catch all day. 35 yards. Touchdown in the extreme back of the end zone. To win it if the defense could hold it, which they did not. Smith had a role because of injury, and Watson just made it work. He makes you believe anything is possible, no matter the odds.
I expect the offense to look very up and down, and Watson needing to bail the offense out with his legs as he can do. I was pleasantly surprised how quickly Kenny Stills became a part of the offense given that he did not show up until after August last year. The additions GM O’Brien made for 2020 are all professional wide receivers and running backs that have had past success. If they stay healthy, I can see Watson figuring it out despite not having a lot of time together relative to most seasons.
Theoretically, this will be the “game plan offense” we were promised by O’Brien, where instead of feeding the ball a lot to your best player, you move it around to the defense’s weaknesses. Easier said than done, as we have seen. Practically, it is Watson’s team. He is just going to have to make it work.
David Johnson, fantasy football, and the wagering arts
Going to the other side of the trade, what do you think is the likeliest outcome of a David Johnson season? And relatedly, please share any fantasy football or betting thoughts relating to the Texans. My buddy Andy has a Benjamin on the Texans to win the Super Bowl this year. Hi Andy!
McCown: The hardest thing to square with the past Texans by far is what the role of the running back will be. There’s a lot of talk about what David Johnson and Duke Johnson can do out of the backfield, but last season’s Texans backs caught 54 passes and the game plans for those were wildly uneven. 2018’s backs caught 56 passes. 2017’s backs caught 72, most of which happened with Savage checking down in a lost season.
There’s a large history — including last year! — of the Texans out-and-out leaving the back out of the play calls. And that’s something that I’ve seen most projection systems and even fantasy analysts leave as the past would suggest it. FO’s KUBIAK fantasy system has David Johnson with just 35 catches. FootballGuys, another site I trust when it comes to this sort of thing, has Johnson with just 40.5 catches. Even when Houston had Duke Johnson out wide last year, he was mostly just a decoy.
So, is everything changing to feature David Johnson, a guy who had his last good season in 2016? I’d be surprised but I guess I can’t rule it out.
In my experience it’s easy for coaches to talk at length about ideological concepts like “game plan offense” and a lot harder to implement them successfully. I am somewhat encouraged by Watson saying that he and Tim Kelly are on the same page on play calling this year but I also don’t have a big lean on most of the Texans as fantasy players aside from thinking Will Fuller is going to be dominant when he’s in the starting lineup.
A lot of the fantasy questions I’ve fielded this year have been about Randall Cobb because of volume projections, and that is the spot of the offense I am worried about the most. Cobb dropped 11 passes last season in a new offense, is converting to another new offense, and doesn’t have the kind of firepower around him that the Cowboys had last year. He’s 30, he hasn’t had a 60-catch season since 2017 and hasn’t had a 90-catch season since 2014.
I respect him so much, but I feel like projecting him into the Hopkins third-down/fourth-down over-the-middle role is going to go poorly.
When we talk about the 2020 Texans, I think the two biggest potential difference makers are Fuller and Watt. They both need to stay healthy in the worst way. My suspicion is that most of the volume load from Hopkins will be thrust on to Fuller. Our pal Matt Weston had an interesting suggestion the other day when we talked on the Battle Red Radio show that Watt should be off the field on run downs.
But between those two, if they don’t stay healthy, that thrusts a lot of players into roles I think we have a lot of experience of them not being able to fill properly.
Brandin Cooks hasn’t excelled as a No. 1 wideout without the Saints system that pushed him to the slot often, and Cobb figures to eat a lot of the slot snaps. We saw Whitney Mercilus all but disappear as an edge rusher last year without Watt. Even if you figure that Martin and Omenihu are good for some improvement, they’re already trying to fill D.J. Reader’s contributions. If you force those guys to try to take Watt’s load, that looks like a recipe for a constipated pass rush. Do you see things the same way?
I hate to play the “health matters” card in a sport where nobody is ever truly healthy, but without those two players I have a hard time seeing upper-echelon production for the Texans.
Stradley: Yeah and of course, Watson staying healthy. I could see them being functional on offense without Fuller, but without Watt, the defense would be whatever the word is that is worse than grim.
Texans special teams: It’s better when they don’t suck
Ok, special teams. They sucked for so long, then didn’t suck when Brad Seely was hired. Now, Brad Seely has retired, and special teams likely has not worked together as much this offseason for all teams. Any thoughts on the Texans special teams going into this year?
McCown: May Brad Seely be forever blessed for what he did here in fixing a festering wound. I don’t see any reason to not expect the Texans to continue to play good special teams. It continues to be an emphasis, they brought in Michael Thomas, and Tracy Smith has said in interviews that his job is to replicate what Seely did so much that it is imperceptible to the human eye. I don’t love losing Seely, but I think the Texans are in a pretty good place there and, as it did last year, it should help them win a few close games.
The Texans have famously bucked DVOA in a few recent years, and in fact they had John Harris come mock it recently. One thing I think it’s important to point out is that I think the way O’Brien has run this ship — mostly close games, but with big blowouts on his side — will make the Texans look worse in DVOA in my estimations. Games like that Ravens game from last season are very impactful on a 16-game sample. This year might be so tight at the top of the AFC South that they can’t afford games like that.
Stradley: I hope you enjoyed our conversation. As much as I enjoy talking to friends about football, I am sick of talk and want to watch games. And they are here. We made it.
Questions or comments? You can find me on Twitter @StephStradley where I talk about football and other things to planet earth.