First off, allow me to thank the football gods, who, for the third straight year, have conveniently placed the Texans' bye week at or around the exact halfway point of the NFL season. It makes it so much easier to do these cheeseball report cards and lists that we radio hosts/bloggers do almost involuntarily this time of year.
Second, allow me to thank Texans head coach Bill O'Brien, who, in two moments of stark self-awareness at his Monday press conference this week, perfectly summarized the NFL in 2016 and the situation his offense finds itself in at the halfway point.
First, the O'Brien NFL "state of the union":
"When you look at this league right now, there are very few teams that are sitting in a bed of roses. I think every team has some sort of injury, whatever it might be. There's a bunch of teams that are within a game of each other. So it's gonna be the team that performs the best in the most critical situations, the most disciplined team, the team that can really gel the quickest over the second half of the season — those are gonna be the teams that are in the tournament at the end of the season."
And, O'Brien on his offense:
"None of us are happy with where the offense is at. It starts with coaching; we got to do a better job of coaching...When you put guys together that haven't played together a whole lot in the past, that takes a while to gel, and right now it's taking a little bit too long."
The overriding message here? Yeah, it's not perfect, far from it — but guess what? This league is dramatically (and if you care about TV ratings, perhaps tragically) flawed this season. Aaron Rodgers is average, Cam Newton sucks and the two Matts — Ryan and Stafford, not Schaub — are MVP candidates.
Oh, so is David Carr's younger brother.
It's a weird league, in which just a few small fixes can
get you fed to the Patriots like a slab of red meat in the AFC title game help you make a deep playoff run. So let's say I had one of those old Aladdin-style lamps, and I rubbed it, and a genie dressed like Toro and humming some Clay Walker emerged from the lamp and granted me ten wishes for the Texans' second half of the season...
Okay, um, GREATEST. GENIE. EVER. Ten wishes?!? TEN?!? I love you, Toro-Genie!
However, not so fast, says Toro-Genie...the ten wishes come with a couple of caveats — first, they cannot in any way pertain to Brock Osweiler's performance. That's too easy. If Brock is going to improve, he must do it without any genie assistance. Second, they must be REASONABLE wishes. In other words, you can't wish for J.J. Watt's back to heal itself in time for the Raiders game.
With those stipulations in mind, how about these ten wishes for the Texans in the second half of the 2016 season...
10. Full recovery from whatever is ailing Will Fuller
In the Texans' first three wins of the season — over the Bears, Chiefs and Titans — you could argue Fuller was the team's most valuable player, with two 100-yard receiving games versus Chicago and Kansas City, and the huge punt return to win the Titans game. When this offense has been clicking, Fuller's ability to force a defense to defend the whole field has been a big part of that. Unfortunately, a hamstring injury kept him out of the Colts game and clearly hampered him in a couple of other games. A fully healthy Fuller for the second half of the season is not too much to ask. (If we want to get greedy, we can wish for functional hands for Fuller, who has five drops on the season. Only Sammie Coates [12.2 percent] of the Steelers, of WRs with 20 or more catches, has a higher drop percentage than Fuller's 9.8 percent.)
9. Braxton Miller's increased involvement in the offense
Remember last season when the Texans started adding a bunch of "wildcat" wrinkles to the offense to take some heat off of backups-turned-triage-starters T.J. Yates and Brandon Weeden? And remember how they were using Cecil Shorts and Jonathan Grimes to run that wildcat formation and we said, "Man, that's neat... but can you imagine if they had an actual, real QB to run those formations?" Well, Braxton Miller, last I checked, was a two-time Big Ten Player of the Year at QUARTERBACK. Wildcat, jet sweeps, end arounds, whatever...PLEASE, football gods, let Braxton Miller begin to self-actualize during the second half of this season!
8. The "old" DeAndre Hopkins showing up
Eight games into the 2015 and 2016 seasons, here are Hopkins's stats:
YEAR Tgt Rec Yds TD
2015 112 66 870 6
2016 76 40 434 3
The entire Hopkins picture is pretty disturbing, and the stat line above doesn't even capture the fact that a vast majority of Brock Osweiler's nine interceptions this season were thrown with him trying to force-feed the ball to Hopkins. In a contract year for Hopkins, if this continues, unless the team is winning at a high level, this could fester. It's definitely something to keep an eye on. If you watch Hopkins play to play, you know he still makes plays that few other wide receivers can make — the one-handed catch in traffic against the Lions is a great example. He hasn't gotten WORSE at football. But these numbers extrapolate out to a sub-900 yard season. I just can't imagine Hopkins's winding up with stats like those of his rookie year in 2013. Something's gotta give.
7. Special teams improve by ten spots in DVOA by season's end
The Texans are currently rated second to last (31st) in Football Outsiders' DVOA metric for special teams. That encompasses everything — kicking game, return game, coverage units. Larry Izzo was brought in to improve these units, and it looks unchanged from the horrific units of last season, save Shane Lechler's getting his mojo back and Nick Novak's finding some consistency. Is it too much to ask for an improvement into the upper two-thirds of the league for special teams by the end of the season?
6. Lifetime contract for Antonio Smith (for entertainment purposes)
This has nothing to do with football — I just want Antonio Smith to be a fixture in the locker room forever so that we can continue to get interviews from him each week. He is freaking awesome. Honestly, not having J.J. Watt really sucks, but if the consolation prize is the weekly locker room session with the Ninja (a chunkier Ninja, at that), that's not the worst thing in the world. So let's just go ahead and sign him to a lifetime deal right now. Bob, Rick, Bill...get on this, please.
Hey, speaking of J.J. Watt...
5. Good news on J.J. Watt's rehabilitation
The only J.J. Watt-related news we've gotten since he underwent a second back surgery was from Houston Dash star Kealia Ohai. who confirmed on some podcast a few weeks ago that, indeed, she and J.J. are
planning on forming a genetically engineered clone army with her womb as the factory dating. It'd be nice if we could get some news on Watt's recovery. And allow me to get greedy here with my wish — not just news, but GOOD NEWS. (Big picture, this might actually be the most important wish on this list.)
4. Health for two of the Texans' three top cornerbacks
The euphoria of the win over the Colts a few Sundays ago was dulled somewhat with the news of Kevin Johnson's broken foot, which landed him on injured reserve. Johnson, who was really good as a rookie in 2015, was coming into his own as an elite corner when he suffered the injury. (Who knows, maybe Johnson will be the designated returnee from IR if he heals enough...how great would that be?) Fortunately, cornerback is one of the deeper positions on the team, but even Kareem Jackson and Jonathan Joseph have been dealing with nicks and cuts. My wish here is that, of the three top CBs — Jackson, Joseph and the team's best CB this season, A.J. Bouye — we are guaranteed full health for at least two of them. (By the way, how is A.J. Bouye NOT on the Pro Bowl ballot, NFL?)
3. Offensive line continuity
Last season, the Texans were abysmal at running the football in the first half of the season, with just one game over 98 yards rushing in the first eight games. Perhaps the seven different combinations of starters had something to do with that. Then, after the bye week, O'Brien inserted Xavier Su'a-Filo at left guard permanently, and the same group started virtually every game the second half of the season. Not coincidentally, the Texans rushed for more than 123 yards in six of their final eight games. Now, with Duane Brown fully healthy and playing well, the hope is that having a consistent five of Brown-XSF-Mancz-Allen-Clark can stabilize what's been a mediocre running game overall. (Hat tip, though, to the running game for performing well situationally in closing out games against Chicago, Kansas City and Detroit. That needs to be mentioned.)
Perhaps a stabilized line results in...
2. 4.5 yards per carry in the second half of the season
As the stats stand right now, 4.5 yards per carry would be good enough for eighth in the league as a team. The Texans, for what it's worth, are at 4.2 yards per carry. This is my fancy way of saying that the running game needs more explosive plays in the second half of the season, especially with five road games, to take some burden off of a passing game that hasn't shown it can handle really much burden at all on the road.
1. Six sacks for Jadeveon Clowney
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It says a lot about how Clowney has defended the run this season when I say that you could easily make an argument for him as team MVP...and he only has three sacks. I realize Clowney isn't playing the edge rusher position for which he was drafted, but going against quarterbacks like Carr, Rivers, Rodgers and Luck — that's the Texans dance card for four straight weeks — Clowney is going to need to show up in the box score as a pass rusher as much as he does on film as a run stopper. Failure is not an option. Clowney needs to channel some inner J.J. Watt in the passing game, or it's 9-7 with one-and-done in the playoffs again.
SECOND HALF PREDICTION: 5-3, for 10-6 overall (3rd seed in the AFC)
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.