The 2015 NFL regular season gets underway Sunday afternoon. Finally!
I don't know if it's because we've spent the entire summer anticipating the next episode of Hard Knocks (as Tom Petty says, the waiting is the hardest part) or because the season's starting on September 13 makes it feel like we're practically in October, but this season took forever to get here.
In thinking through the start of the season, you know whose name has not been on my lips one time on or off the air this preseason? Andre Johnson. Again, maybe it's the Hard Knocks distraction, but I haven't thought about Andre Johnson's absence one time since camp started in late July, which I think is a testament to a few things:
1. The fact that the version of Andre Johnson we got last season was severely watered down, emotionally and production-wise, as compared to his peak years.
2. Bill O'Brien's creating an environment (and a revamped receiving corps) where there's enough optimism for fans not to commiserate about losing a franchise icon.
3. J.J. Watt > Andre Johnson
4. Again, we had Hard Knocks to distract us. We are not complicated creatures.
Sunday, the post-Andre Era begins in earnest, and we shall see if the torch has truly been passed to DeAndre Hopkins, and how much he learned from number 80 about being a frontline wide receiver. (Ironically, in French, "DeAndre" literally translated means "of Andre". Sorry, I couldn't resist.) Aside from the Dre-shaped void left behind, here are four other things to watch for on Sunday in the opener against the Kansas City Chiefs:
1. Training wheels off for Hoyer
For what it's worth, Brian Hoyer checked off all the boxes that you (and probably O'Brien) wanted to see in the preseason, I would imagine. Protect the football? No turnovers, check. Gather early momentum? Scored touchdowns on the first drive in each of his starts, check. Show up at work on time and don't oversleep? 6:15 a.m. every morning, baby! Check. (Ryan Mallett sad face emoji HERE) Of course, going against watered down versions of their preseason opponents' from sevens isn't even in the same universe as a front seven with Justin Houston, Tamba Hali, and Dontari Poe. Expect a lot more of the "get it out quick" stuff we saw in Hoyers first few series against the Saints in Week 3 of the preseason. What will be interesting to see is how much goodwill Hoyer has banked with the QB-starved Texans fans, if he makes a mistake early in the game. Will he be a victim of leftover RSB's from the last couple seasons (RSB's… Residual Schaub Boos)?
2. Unleashing the new front seven
Unveiling the new Mountain on Game of Thrones, unleashing the first version of Darth Vader, any analogy in which a maniacal ruler is flipping the ON switch on a new monster works. (And dammit if picturing Romeo Crennel in an Emperor Palpatine outfit isn't pretty damn funny.) These analogies work individually for Jadeveon Clowney, but they also work collectively for the Texans new front seven. While Vince Wilfork is the only true "free agency" signing in that group, if Brian Cushing and Clowney are fully healthy, it will be like they signed two other marquee free agents as compared to 2014. A healthy Clowney is the one x-factor that can elevate the Texans to being an 11 win team. Maybe the ONLY x-factor capable of elevating them to that level. (For a point of reference, Vegas sees the Texans as an 8 win team.) Kansas City has continuity problems in its offensive line, and a rookie starting at center. Vince Wilfork's Texans debut could be fun. Only one problem….
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3. Solve the Kelce Situation
….Travis Kelce is a really good pass catching tight end, and I'm not sure how they solve this issue. (By the way, the issue doesn't go away in Week 2, when they'll see Greg Olsen in Carolina.) Certainly, Kelce's presence could test Cushing's rehabbed knee if he's out there in nickel packages. This is where the safety issue for the Texans could rear its head, too. Eddie Pleasant is more of a quasi-linebacker, good in run support, a concern in coverage (although he made some plays in the preseason). Andre Hal's size would be a major issue against Kelce. This will be very interesting to swatch, especially since the Chiefs now have a downfield threat to open things up for Kelce in Jeremy Maclin.
4. Running game sans Foster
We got some good news on Arian Foster over the weekend and on Hard Knocks — his legs both work, and his groin appears to be functional as well. This is progress! Unfortunately, Foster will not be ready for at least the first few weeks of the regular season, so the Texans are left with a bunch of guys who don't really scare a defense very much. Alfred Blue, Jonathan Grimes, Chris Polk. (Honestly, Polk's mom scares me more than any of those three guys. I'm pretty sure if I were a linebacker and she just screamed at me I'd be like "Ma'am, by all means, please take these ten yards and get yourself a first down.") With the Texans' offensive line struggling in the preseason (left guard is a huge issue right now), and three backs whose ceiling, in an analogy to automobiles, is like around "functional preowned Honda Civic," this will be a major issue until Foster gets back, and even after he gets back, if Arian can't take a full Foster-level workload.
PREDICTION: Chiefs 16, Texans 13
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast.