Seven games into this season, they had a 2-5 record. The core of this 2015 Houston Texans team had been here before, back in 2013, flying home from a 17-16 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in which Case Keenum made a promising but still unsuccessful first career start. Now, they were flying home after a loss that wasn't nearly as competitive, a 44-26 drubbing, a complete embarrassment.
No two NFL teams are exactly alike, and there is plenty of nuance that goes into analyzing a team's record. Not all 2-5's are created equal. However, the fact is that two seasons ago, many of the most important players on this current edition of the Texans were part of that 2-5 start that ended with a subsequent nine-game slide and a thud at the bottom of a 2-14 abyss. Now, those same players, in 2015, are the major reasons between the lines why the Texans are making postseason plans and hoisting another AFC South banner on the wall of NRG Stadium.
So what was so different this time around?
If we're trying to figure out how we got here, especially comparing this season to two seasons ago, certainly time and place factor in. In 2013, that was a team that started the season with Super Bowl expectations and had its hopes torpedoed by a quarterback, Matt Schaub, who completely lost his mojo in historically catastrophic fashion. By the time Schaub was benched for that Kansas City game, the uphill battle was too daunting. The Colts weren't going 8-8 that season, so unlike this season, an AFC South division title was out of reach.
Also, Schaub's benching was more of a yo-yoing than a banishment. Gary Kubiak had Keenum on a short leash, and every time there was the slightest flutter in Keenum's decision-making, Kubiak reflexively went back to Schaub, indecision that ultimately doomed Kubiak in Bob McNair's eyes. By the Jacksonville game in early December, another Schaub reprise, Kubiak's message had gotten stale. In the aftermath of another loss (and about ten D.J. Swearinger penalties), Kubiak was fired.
Last year tested Bill O'Brien's message, and it would appear, unlike in 2013, that this group still responds to its head coach. Additionally, O'Brien didn't stand pat with the same old hand. Things needed to change, so he changed them. Saving the 2015 season was a collective effort, but if you're looking for the chess moves that carried the Texans from the ashes of that loss in Miami in Week 7 to Sunday's celebration, here are six from O'Brien that were game changers:
6. Benching Garrett Graham and Rahim Moore
O'Brien's accountability message for the season technically began after the Tampa Bay game in Week 3, when he cut kicker Randy Bullock and signed Nick Novak. That move served the dual purpose of upgrading a position and removing one more reminder of a Kubiak "mascot" player, an Aggie kicker (and not a very good one) drafted in the fifth round. The benchings of Graham and Moore were more personal for O'Brien, as these were both players he had hand-picked to be part of this roster, Graham re-signing with the team before 2014 (for three years, $11 million) and Moore signing in free agency before this season (for three years, $12 million). It was in part a message to those players and the team that starters were not sacred cows, and an admission by O'Brien that maybe the free agency personnel shopping side of things still needed some work.
5, Signing Brian Peters and Charles James
These signings actually predate the abomination in Miami, but both were key parts of the team's resurgence in its coverage units that marked the four-game winning streak in November. Early in the season, the coverage units of the Texans' special teams were horrible, routinely conceding field position to the opposition. Peters was signed before the Atlanta game in Week 4, and wound up reprising the Bryan Braman/Jeff Tarpinian role, finishing with 17 special teams tackles. James, a darling of the city following Hard Knocks, was brought back before the Miami game and brought a spark to the coverage teams (and, at times, the secondary) until his season ended after Week 16 with a broken foot. My cohost, Ted Johnson, who was part of three Super Bowl winners in New England, contends that core special teams guys are essential to any winner. Peters, James and guys like Max Bullough brought that in the 7-2 finish.
4. Starting and sticking with Xavier Su'a-Filo
When you use the 33rd pick in the draft on an interior offensive lineman, eventually you have to let him sink or swim. That seemed to be the realization that O'Brien came to after the bye week in early November. In Week 8, Su'a-Filo didn't play a single snap in the win over Tennessee. In Week 9, he started and played every snap in the Monday night win over Cincinnati. Since then, the Texans have been able to play largely the same five along the offensive line during the second half of the season, and have managed to run the football fairly effectively even without Arian Foster. The Duane Brown season-ending quad injury is obviously problematic going forward, especially considering he's Su'a-Filo's neighbor on the offensive line, but at least the Texans can feel somewhat vindicated that they have a mostly competent, hopefully improving starter at left guard from that 33rd pick in 2014.
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3. Adjusting the practice routine
After the 2-5 start, O'Brien went to the team's leadership committee for input on what they could do differently in order to turn this thing around. The feedback he got? Get us out of here a little bit earlier, Coach! And so that's what O'Brien did. He actually gave a team that was underperforming MORE time off. However, there was a tradeoff — the team would practice in pads every Thursday, a departure from what many NFL teams do once the regular season is under way. The result was tighter, more focused practices, which led to more wins on the field.
2. Subtle defensive tweaks
It's no coincidence that the uptick for the Texans happened when the defense seemed to find itself. Heading into the season, it was thought this would be a team that would need to be spectacular on defense and efficient on offense, and that's generally what they've been in the 7-2 finish. Some of the solutions on defense happened with some divine intervention, like Whitney Mercilus's unleashing his beast within with Jadeveon Clowney injured, and some solutions were good ol'-fashioned coaching, like sticking with Andre Hal and Quintin Demps at safety and coming up with some schemes in the front seven to take advantage of Watt, Clowney and Mercilus on the field at the same time. The development of rookies Kevin Johnson and Benardrick McKinney has helped as well.
1. QB catastrophe clean-up
Thankfully, the one position that has required the most attention, teaching, coaching and discipline is the one position that O'Brien was brought here to teach, coach and (unfortunately, thanks to Ryan Mallett's alarm clock) discipline. In the first half of the season, O'Brien made continual mistakes in handling the quarterbacks. He admitted as much during the bye week when he told the team he had erred in benching Brian Hoyer for Mallett after Week 1. Eventually, O'Brien cleaned out the cancerous tumor that was Mallett after the Miami loss, and he's been King Midas ever since. First, he brought back fan favorite T.J. Yates, whose fan love-to-actual performance ratio is easily the greatest in team history. Next, he coached up Yates quickly to get him ready for big moments as a sub in Cincinnati (throwing the winning touchdown) and as a starter against the Jets, the Texans' two most impressive wins of the season. Finally, O'Brien made the subtle pickup of Brandon Weeden off the waiver wire on November 18, and eventually needed him to pull a "Yates," throwing the winning touchdown in relief in the historic Indy win in Indianapolis, and getting a win as a starter in Week 16 against the Titans. The Texans are the first playoff team since 1950 to start four quarterbacks who started at least one win during the regular season.
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