The Houston Texans were unpredictably bad last season. Injuries, regression, and age all combined to mire the team in a nightmarish 2-14 campaign.
For a team coming off such a bad season, the Texans weren’t particularly active in free agency. And their draft didn’t produce many major (at least, not on first glance) contributors in the way of offensive skill players. The defense will undoubtedly be better, with guys returning from injury (i.e. Brian Cushing), an influx of younger, more athletic players (i.e. Jadeveon Clowney), and the addition of a highly respected defensive coordinator in Romeo Crennel. What about offense though? Bob McNair and Rick Smith are banking on new head coach Bill O’Brien being the key to turning things around on that end.
To understand the Texans’ choice of O’Brien, we need to begin by examining the Texans’ problems on the offensive end. We can start by looking at the production of the Texans position groups. I’m going to be using a stat called DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement), which, in broad strokes, shows the value provided to a team by a player adjusted for opponent quality. A higher DYAR figure represents better value provided.
A few things jump out when looking at the values of each of the position groups. Wide receiver is easily the best-producing unit on the team. And it makes sense, seeing as Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins ranked 31st and 34th in the league, respectively, in DYAR. Quarterback was a black hole, as was evident to anyone who watched the team last year. Matt Schaub and Case Keenum ranked 35th and 38th in DYAR, respectively, out of 45 eligible passers.
This year, the Texans are going in with Ryan Fitzpatrick as the starter, having acquired him in free agency. Fitzpatrick was actually respectable last year, posting a DYAR of 179, good for the 21st best number in the league. Of course, a team needs an elite quarterback (which Fitzpatrick most certainly isn’t, due to limited physical skills and inconsistency) if it wants to harbor any real hopes of contending. But it’s not out of the question that he could help the Texans along to a 5 or 6 win increase.
However the larger point to take away is that the Texans have more talent on offense than they’re being given credit for. The receivers are pretty good. Ben Tate has left to Cleveland, but the running backs should do even better than last year, with a return to health for Arian Foster and the addition of Andre Brown in free agency. The offensive line was actually among the league’s best, ranked 6th in both adjusted line yards and adjusted sack rate.
Despite the apparent talent on offense, the Texans still finished near the bottom of the league by most metrics on that end. They had one major issue (aside from the quarterbacks): they were unable to sustain drives. It’s not a perfect representation, but they were in the bottom third of the league in amount of drives that lasted 10 plays or more, with only 24 such drives. Hamstrung by an ailing defense, they were also worst in the league with 60 drives beginning inside their own 20-yard line, and 2nd worst with 185 drives beginning in their own territory.
These are issues that Bill O’Brien was specifically able to improve in his two years at Penn State. Let’s take a look at the progression of his offense. The overall offensive stat for college football that Football Outsiders uses is the FEI (Fremeau Efficiency Index), which encompasses many factors like yards gained, first downs, explosive and methodical drives, strength of schedule, etc.
Bill O’Brien made the offense markedly better in his first year at Penn State. He increased the FEI substantially, but more importantly, he improved the facets that the Texans struggled with. He increased the percentage of methodical drives (drives that lasted 10+ plays), checking in with the 20th best mark in college football. He increased the percentage of value drives (drives that made it to the opponents’ 30 yard line when starting in your own territory), raising it to the 36th best mark in college football. This progress is all the more impressive when realizing that Penn State was hit with crippling sanctions in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
Even with the regressions in his second year, the numbers were still better than in 2011. Some context does help though. For one, senior quarterback Matt McGloin had graduated, and the sanctions made replacing the team’s talent hard. Also, if you see the strength of schedule, it increased in his second year. The bottom line is that Bill O’Brien made a tangible positive impact on Penn State’s offense.
It’s hard to say if O’Brien will have the same impact in the NFL as he did in college football, but the evidence is promising. He also has prior NFL experience with Patriots. Plus, he’s coming to a team that has some considerable talent already. Based on the numbers, the Texans probably didn’t deserve to have the worst record last season. They’ll make a leap, and it’s hard to rule out a wild-card playoff spot as a perfect scenario, especially in a top-heavy conference and a weak AFC South division. But I think I’ll peg them to go 8-8 next season. It’s still a very respectable jump, but the quarterback situation needs one more year to be totally ironed out.
All statistics came via Football Outsiders and Sporting Charts.