The Texans had a long climb to respectability.
But now that they’ve achieved it, there’s suddenly a sense of unfulfilled potential.
The Texans have looked like Super Bowl contenders the last two years, but have lost in the Divisional Round of the playoffs both years.
The year before it unraveled when their quarterback went down, but they squandered a chance at home field advantage after an 11-1 start last year. That makes this year seem a bit of a repeat of last year’s expectations.
But teams are now pecking away at their base of talent, and some key losses in free agency mean they’re relying on young or new players in several spots.
The Texans are fully capable of winning 12 games again, but they’ve created the questions about their mental ability to win the ones that matter most.
The Texans have star power at some key positions, with players such as defensive end J.J. Watt, left tackle Duane Brown, running back Arian Foster and wide receiver Andre Johnson among the very best in the game.
Watt’s season last year was remarkable in many ways, primarily because he dominated games from a position usually tailored to tying up blocks so other guys can make plays. His ability to change the passing game both as a sack guy (20.5) and by batting down passes is something few can match.
And the offensive stars got a lift with the addition of first-round wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who should be able to take some pressure off Johnson (and by extension, Foster) with his deep ball ability.
Quarterback Matt Schaub has been pretty good, and maybe a top 10-in-the-league caliber guy, so it’s hard to call him a true weakness. But it is getting close to the time where he either has to move up or they have to start wondering when to move him out.
He’s accurate, he’s productive, he puts up huge numbers.
But he’s not pushing into the top tier of quarterbacks until he plays better in December and January, and more and more people are starting to realize that he hasn’t done that yet. He had one touchdown pass in the last four games last season, making it no surprise the Texans only won one of them.
He’s had the benefit of excellent talent around him — with a strong running game and offensive line making play-action easier — and now’s the time for him to prove he belongs in the conversation with the very top quarterbacks.
If he doesn’t, people are going to zoom in on him as the reason the Texans are falling short, rather than one of the reasons they’re so close.
No position sums up where the Texans are at the moment more than safety, where they lost emerging free agent Glover Quin to the Lions and replaced him with veteran Ed Reed.
On the surface, it’s a downgrade, as Reed’s been showing the wear on his tires and Quin’s an emerging playmaker.
But the Texans weren’t buying the physical presence. They’re hoping Reed’s championship experience from Baltimore, and dare we say, swagger, rubs off on his young teammates.
While mentors can be overrated (somebody still has to block and tackle), the Texans were pushing against the ceiling, and needed some kind of change to take the next step.
They’re also thinning out in a few spots on defense, as the departure of Connor Barwin puts pressure on players such as Whitney Mercilus (and to a lesser degree, Sam Montgomery and Trevardo Williams) to produce now.
Likewise, veteran nose tackle Shaun Cody’s gone, leaving Earl Mitchell to make the move from solid backup to someone they’re counting on.
The Titans used a third-round pick on Brennan Williams hoping he’d be able to push Derek Newton for the starting right tackle job.
Problem is, both have been on the sidelines for parts of the offseason with knee problems, which has kept the staff from getting a full look. Newton was unspectacular last year, and it’s reasonable to think Williams can push him right out of a job.
They’re also waiting to see which of the young wideouts can progress into more than just a training camp tease.
Hopkins, rightly so, has leapfrogged the group of players such as Lestar Jean, DeVier Posey and Keshawn Martin. But they need one of those guys to become more of a threat, just in case.
The Texans are approaching the point the Falcons had prior to last year.
Yeah, those numbers sure look pretty, and you won a lot of games. Call us in January.
Last year’s collapse did nothing but create questions. After putting on the letter jackets and getting destroyed at New England, they lost two of the next three, and exited quietly after making a lot of noise the first three months of the season.
That’s why bringing in Reed was an obvious signal this is an all-in year.
It might work, they might be fantastic, as their roster is among the most talented in the league, and their coaches seem to know how to use it efficiently.
But until they can prove they can beat the Patriots, it won’t matter, and the moves are going to start running deeper than filling in with veteran talkers.