Mercifully, the year 2020 will come to an end later this week, and the 2020 NFL season will follow by finishing up for 18 NFL teams on Sunday. Fourteen more will move onto the postseason, and as we all know, the Houston Texans will not be one of those teams. We've known this from about the time they went into the bye week at 1-6, when 2020 became a throwaway year, tossed onto the garbage pile like so much "Bill O'Brien, Texans Head Coach and General Manager" stationery.
There's one game left, and the one thing we know we can count on is that J.J. Watt will be showing up for the Week 17 season finale to give maximum effort. He said as much after the loss to the Bengals on Sunday:
J.J. Watt was asked about regrouping and finishing the season and ... I'll let him take it from here. 10,000% pure unfiltered truth. pic.twitter.com/IOtsy9ELYr— Rivers McCown (@riversmccown) December 27, 2020
Now, with all due respect to Watt, it's not my job to be ready to win a game on Sunday. As an overly analytical media member, it's more my job to look two or three steps ahead and start to figure out where this team can improve, and hopefully improve quickly, in 2021. There are certain facets of this team that will likely be a multiyear rebuild — getting the salary cap in order again, retooling through the draft, getting the defense from "HOLY CRAP, THEY SUCK" to merely "optimistically mediocre." These endeavors will take more than one season.
However, there are certain Texan areas where we should expect rapid improvement in 2021 right away, if for no other reason than "Hey, they can't be a whole lot worse." But a good head coaching hire, and subsequent assistant hires by said head coach, should accelerate improvement in the following key areas:
Starts to games
I write about this every week in my Monday game summaries, so you're probably tired of hearing about it, but it's a huge reason the team is 4-11 right now. Since the beginning of 2018, other than two games, the Texans have been unable to score touchdowns on their opening drives. Exacerbating this trend more recently is the fact that the Texans' defense has allowed touchdowns on eight of the last nine opening drives for their opposition. So the Texans have spent more than half the season spotting their opponents a 7-0 lead right out of the gate. This just in — SEVEN POINTS IS A LOT in an NFL game, where most games come down to a one possession margin. If you talk to players, they will tell you that opening drives, especially offensively, are about scripting and preparation throughout the week. In other words, COACHING. A more detail oriented staff will undoubtedly get more from their troops early in games, especially on offense, where the slow starts are far more inexcusable given the talent level of the Texans' quarterback and skill guys.
Offensive line play
The offensive line is also a big issue with the slow starts, but unlike Deshaun Watson, who usually recovers just fine from getting out of the gate slowly, the offensive line, more often than not, stays in the doldrums for the remainder of the afternoon, particularly in the run game. The Texans have invested major draft capital (when you add in trades, it's multiple first round picks and multiple second round picks) and salary cap space into the offensive line, so presumably the talent is there. The problem is that Mike Devlin just is not a good offensive line coach, despite what Bill O'Brien would try to tell us. There's no evidence that Devlin even approaches below average as a position coach. If the next head coach has a good hire in mind along the offensive line, then this is an area that can uptick very rapidly.
I don't know that I've ever witnessed a team that I've rooted for perform more ineptly in a single phase of their respective sport than the 2020 Houston Texans defense trying to force turnovers. All season long, they've forced just eight turnovers, and the last one came in the second quarter of the win over the Lions back in Week 12. This Sunday is WEEK 17! So it's been nearly five games since the Texans have forced a turnover. I'm guessing defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver is trying everything to steal possessions from the opposition, but perhaps a new DC has some other methods or schemes, and if nothing else, the regression to the mean from the football gods in 2021 should mean more turnovers than this historic turnover drought we are all suffering through.
The mood around the building
It's no secret that the specter of Bill O'Brien loomed over everything inside NRG Stadium like a dark, curse-spewing black cloud. Eventually, with Bill O'Brien really being the only front facing member of the management team doing regular media appearances, his moody condescension because the only voice Texan fans heard, which would be fine if he was winning six Super Bowl titles (like his former boss in New England), but O'Brien was busy blowing 24-0 leads in the divisional round. This is just an educated guess, but I feel like the next head coach is going to be someone whose personality not only unites people behind the scenes, but is a voice and a face that the fan base, and yes, the ACTUAL ROSTER, can once again rally behind. That's not something you need draft capital or salary cap space to improve.
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