Bill O’Brien’s Texans have been nothing if not consistent: 9-7, 9-7, 9-7. The Texans made the playoffs the past two seasons, going 1-2 in the postseason. That despite starting eight different quarterbacks in three years.
The constant turnover at quarterback hasn’t stopped the Texans from competing in the AFC South, but it has prevented them from contending for more. That’s why the Texans drafted Deshaun Watson in the first round, though it remains to be seen whether Watson will help them this season.
The Texans ranked first in total defense last season despite not having J.J. Watt for most of the year. If Watt returns to form after two back surgeries last year, the Texans rank among the best pass-rushing teams in the league with Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus.
But the NFL is a quarterback league, so how Tom Savage and/or Watson perform will determine just how far the Texans go.
Biggest positive change: This time last year, the Texans were excited about the offseason signing of quarterback Brock Osweiler. A year later, it’s good riddance. The Texans cut their losses with Osweiler, essentially paying for the Browns to take him off their hands. Houston gave up a second-round pick in 2018 and swapped choices in 2017, getting a fourth-round pick and giving up a sixth-rounder. Osweiler’s departure saved the Texans $16 million in cash and $10 million in salary-cap space. The Texans then traded with Cleveland on draft day, giving up the 25th overall pick as well as their first-rounder in 2018 to get Deshaun Watson. In their first 15 seasons, the Texans started 15 quarterbacks while desperately seeking a franchise signal caller. They hope Watson finally fills the help wanted ad.
Biggest negative change: The Texans lost two defensive backs in free agency. Houston, which ranked second in pass defense, saw safety Quintin Demps leave for Chicago and cornerback A.J. Bouye bolt for rival Jacksonville. The Texans wanted Bouye back, offering him $12.5 million a season. He got $13.5 million per year from the Jaguars, signing a five-year, $67.5 million deal. Now, the Texans have to replace both, though they are not void of candidates. Kevin Johnson, a first-round pick in 2015, could provide the answer as he returns from injury after missing most of last season.
Coaching thermometer: It’s only lukewarm for Bill O’Brien because the Texans have one of the most patient owners in the NFL in Bob McNair. The only two coaches he has fired were coming off 2-14 seasons. The Texans will win more than two games this season. McNair has said he will talk to O’Brien about an extension after the season as O’Brien, who is 27-21, has a contract that runs through the 2018 season. Minnesota’s Mike Zimmer (26-22) and Washington’s Jay Gruden (21-26-1) were hired the same year as O’Brien, and both have received extensions.
We’d like to crack a beer with . . . J.J. Watt. The three-time defensive player of the year is living the good life. He is dating Houston Dash forward Kealia Ohai. He attends award shows, appears in commercials, hangs out with Arnold Schwarzenegger and makes charity appearances. How much fun would it be to tag along for a day?
How they can prove us wrong: The Texans are where they were last year and the year before and the year before that. . . Their defense, with J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus, and a strong running game, with Lamar Miller and D’Onta Foreman, will keep the Texans in the division race. But Houston’s fate ultimately rests with the play of its quarterback(s).
Tom Savage has more injuries than career starts, but he’ll get the first shot at the job. The Texans expect Savage to be more bus driver than gunslinger. With Savage in the final year of his contract, he appears to be keeping the job warm until Deshaun Watson is ready. That could be sooner than later if Savage and the offense play like last season when the Texans finished 29th in total offense, 29th in passing and 31st in red-zone efficiency.
The rest of the division has improved, but the Texans aren’t going to relinquish the throne without a fight. They have won two consecutive AFC South titles and four of the past six. Taking the next step — winning a divisional playoff game for the first time in franchise history — appears much more difficult.