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Kevin Sumlin and the Texans: Buyer Beware

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Is Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin the right choice to lead the Texans?
Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin may one day be a great NFL coach. He's a strong leader with an innovative offense, glowing personality and enormous local buzz -- all at only 49 years old.

It's easy to see where the hype comes from. There's also the concern, however, that Sumlin isn't even among the current elites of college football. Is theoretical upside enough for an NFL team to turn over the keys of its franchise to an unproven commodity?

That's what owner Bob McNair and the Texans have to weigh out over the next six weeks or so. Sumlin and the Texans have long been a potential match, and chatter has increased of late with the almost-certain dismissal of Gary Kubiak after this year's awful season.

In many ways, the timing is problematic for the Texans. In an ideal world, they would have let Kubiak remain in place through the end of his contract in 2014 while continuing to watch the development of Sumlin's program at A&M. But given this debacle of a season still in progress for the Texans, that's not a luxury they can afford.

They have to make a move now, and with regards to Sumlin, it's a tough call to make in December 2013 and January 2014.

Sumlin's defense, or lack thereof

Most of the concerns start with the defensive side of the ball. Through this past Saturday, the Aggies statistically rank 107th out of 123 Division I teams in yards allowed per game (460.1) -- a mark that ranks dead last in the SEC. They're only a shade better in scoring defense, where they're 88th in the country at 31.2 points allowed (13th out of 14 SEC teams, leading only perennial doormat Kentucky).

It's also not a matter of the dynamic Johnny Manziel-led offense working too quickly and skewing the volume. The Aggies come in at 6.0 yards/play allowed, No. 102 in the nation.

Of particular concern is that Sumlin's defense doesn't seem to be improving as the season progresses. LSU trucked the Aggies on Saturday, scoring 34 points on 517 total yards (including a whopping 324 on the ground). Even in a win two weeks earlier against Mississippi State, the Bulldogs -- a team with a losing record that ranks No. 76 nationally in scoring offense -- put up 41 points and 556 yards, in College Station!

A&M's defensive struggles in September were expected, given a handful of new (and young) starters. But the thought was that they'd likely improve throughout the season and become a better unit by November. If anything, they've gotten worse.

It's true that Sumlin has only had one full recruiting cycle to bring in his own players. Nonetheless, the Aggies have no excuse to be this bad. According to recruiting Web site Rivals.com, the last five A&M classes came in at No. 11, No. 15, No. 27, No. 17 and No. 22 nationally. Those included 39 (!) players evaluated as four- or five-star prospects.

Sumlin gets a pass for his lack of defensive development at the University of Houston, where it can be difficult to recruit the necessary talent. That's not the case with the enormous resources of Texas A&M. It remains to be seen what happens with "his players," but as of now -- which is what the Texans have to evaluate -- A&M's actual defensive performance under Sumlin is clearly underachieving for its talent.

It's also not a one-year trend. Even with more veterans, Sumlin's Aggies ranked No. 62 in yards allowed and No. 41 in yards/play in 2012 -- rankings almost identical to the No. 62/No. 35 split in those categories in his final season at UH in 2011.

From a team standpoint, those deficiencies have proven critical. The Aggies, despite having one of the greatest players in NCAA history in Manziel, are only 8-3 and seem likely to finish at 8-4 (their finale is at No. 5 Missouri). They've surrendered an average of 42.7 points/game in those three losses. In 2011, perhaps Sumlin's finest year as a coach, a historic season for UH unraveled at home in the Conference USA title game when Southern Miss steamrolled the Cougars for 49 points (on 486 yards).

 

Bob McNair has some thinking to do about his next coaching hire.
Bob McNair has some thinking to do about his next coaching hire.
Photo by Groovehouse

Record pales in comparison to other college-to-NFL candidates

There is definitely some recent track record for college coaches having success in the NFL. Chip Kelly, who led Oregon to three Pac-12 titles and a national championship game berth in four seasons with the Ducks, has the Philadelphia Eagles in first place in the NFC East. Pete Carroll, who won two BCS championships at USC and coached his team to a third title game, has guided this year's Seahawks to the NFL's best record (10-1).

Sumlin, on the other hand? Not as much as a single conference championship. (It's not changing this year, with the Aggies already eliminated in the SEC.)

He does have a top 5 recruiting class coming into College Station this offseason, but recruiting ability isn't a significant priority in the NFL, for obvious reasons.

Would Sumlin work with the Texans?

This isn't meant to be a hit piece on Sumlin, who may turn out to be a great NFL coach. Some rumors said the Eagles favored Sumlin over their eventual choice of Kelly, with many speculating that Sumlin's decision not to pursue was rooted in not wanting to move his family out of Texas. Houston could be a good fit for him.

Clearly, many prominent football people who follow the game more closely than me believe in Sumlin's ability. His offenses at A&M have been revolutionary, averaging in the top 3 in the nation in yards/play in both of his seasons despite playing in the defensively stout SEC. And make no mistake, Sumlin's system and tutelage has played a key role in Manziel, a former three-star prospect, turning into one of the all-time NCAA greats.

(The Texans should also be picking high enough in next May's NFL Draft to give Sumlin the option of reuniting with Manziel in Houston, should he choose.)

But from an overall coaching and team development standpoint, significant questions on Sumlin remain -- and those are merely at the NCAA level. Given that, is it responsible for the Texans to gamble on Sumlin succeeding against even tougher competition? The answers the Texans need to feel secure are likely to come in years, not weeks.

One solution could be to pair Sumlin with a dynamic defensive coordinator. But that route has two pitfalls. First, they'd have to get Sumlin to sign off in negotiations on relinquishing some control of the defense. That may not be something a red-hot coaching candidate is willing to do. Most prefer to build their own staff.

Second, an elite defensive coordinator (NOT Wade Phillips) will cost significant money. Is Bob McNair willing to pay for Sumlin and a top-flight coordinator, all while still owing some money to Kubiak and others who are fired before the expiration of their contracts? He might be, but it's not something we should merely assume.

Finally, if embattled Houston general manager Rick Smith retains his job, it would stand to reason that a coach with NFL experience would be given input on personnel, potentially helping Smith out. In the case of Sumlin, a virtual newbie, it would essentially give even more power to a front office that has only mixed results to show after seven seasons.

Silver lining

For Texans fans, the silver lining to this discussion is that there isn't one for Gary Kubiak. Unlike 2010, there's nothing he can say. That year, Kubiak survived the firestorm because he was able to deflect blame for the 6-10 record on a few fluky bounces (Glover Quin's batted Hail Mary) and offer up defensive coordinator Frank Bush as a sacrificial lamb. After all, it made some logical sense -- the Texans ranked No. 3 in yards and No. 9 in points. Bring in a proven defensive coordinator such as Phillips, and you can see why the Texans thought they might have a perfect marriage with Kubiak's offense.

It wasn't perfect, but it was a good one for two years. Now, it's broken. This isn't a team that's conceivably a coordinator and a bounce or two away. This is a 2-9 train wreck that legitimately may be the worst club in the NFL. (Atlanta may disagree, but they at least played competitively this week against a very good New Orleans team.)

Change is undoubtedly coming, and it's long overdue. But with McNair at the helm, the Texans have already failed twice in attempting to hire Super Bowl-caliber coaches (Kubiak and original coach Dom Capers). Sumlin may already be a rock star in Houston and would undoubtedly be a popular PR hire, but his ability to successfully lead an NFL organization today is questionable at best. He's worth a look, but proceed with caution.


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