The end of the year is always a time for fun, reflection-style content, in any discipline, sports being near the top of the list. The end of a year ending in the digit "9" is a time for reflection across an entire decade, which is really, REALLY fun for people like me, who soak up content like a sponge and love to live in an alternative universe where my imagination can roam free!
Well, it's 2019, so it's the end of the decade, and in a decade where the Houston Texans finally took the next step from mediocre doormat (2002-2009) to perennial division contender, changed head coaches, finally located a franchise quarterback, and saw the power in the organization handed down, passed around, and shared in various ways, there are several crucial forks in the road.
We like to call these "what if's," and I've identified one crucial one for each year of this decade, so let's play around in several small alternative sub-universes for a few minutes. Here we go...
What if Ben Tate doesn't suffer a season ending leg injury in the 2010 preseason?
The narrative on Arian Foster's breakout season in 2010 (still the greatest season for a running back in the history of the franchise) was that it was a logical next step from Foster's cameo off the practice squad in 2009, where he put up a couple 100 yard games in December that season. The truth is that the Texans' comfort level with Foster was still questionable enough for them to use a second round pick on Auburn's Ben Tate.
Unfortunately, for Tate, he broke a bone in his leg in the preseason opener in 2010, and the onus was put on Foster to go from lead back in a committee to bell cow. The result was a 2,200 yard season (total yards from scrimmage) with 18 touchdowns, and Foster's rapid ascent to eventually becoming the third greatest player in the history of the franchise. If Tate had stayed healthy, Foster probably still rises to the top — for what it's worth, the two wound up forming a formidable duo in 2011, with Foster still putting up monster numbers — but the ascent would not have been nearly as sudden and pronounced, and who knows, maybe Tate gets the first crack at being the starter in 2010.
What if Matt Schaub’s foot doesn’t get smushed in 2011?
It was Week 10 of the 2011 season, and the Texans had just finished mopping up the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a 37-9 rout. That was the team's fourth win in a row, moving them to 7-3 on the season. The defense was a top five in the league unit, and Arian Foster was running wild again. Matt Schaub left the stadium that day in a walking boot, though, and the next day he would be declared out for the season with a foot injury, just a devastating blow in what had been a slow four-year build with Schaub under center. The Texans would go on to finish the season 10-6, win their first division title, and lose in the divisional round of the playoffs, a loss due in large part to three interceptions thrown by rookie T.J. Yates.
With a team that is still widely considered the best in team history, a healthy Schaub might have given the Texans their first deep playoff run, possibly even a Super Bowl berth, and significantly changed the trajectory and perception of the franchise going forward. A deep playoff run with a healthy probably cements his legacy in Houston, which instead is a legacy chronicled in YouTube videos of his 2013 pick six parade (more on this in a moment).
What if Gary Kubiak doesn’t nix Peyton Manning in 2012?
If anything, the Texans' ability to close out the AFC South with a rookie quarterback for the final six games accentuated the team's overall talent level. It was undeniable that the Texans entered the 2012 season as one of the favorites to win a Super Bowl. In a strange confluence of circumstance, future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning became a free agent, having missed the 2011 season with a serious neck injury leaving the Colts with the first overall pick in the 2012 draft, which they used on Andrew Luck. Manning's playing days were not over, he just needed a new home, and reportedly the Texans were at the top of his list of desired locations.
Unfortunately, that love was not returned by Texans head coach Gary Kubiak, who decided instead to give Schaub a four-year extension before the 2012 season. The Texans would get off to an 11-1 start in 2012, including a Week 3 win over the Broncos and Manning, but it wouldn't last. They'd lose three of their final four games, get knocked out in the divisional round, and bottom out with a 2-14 disaster in 2013. Manning would go on to win an MVP in Denver in 2013, and ironically, close out his career with a Super Bowl win in 2015 under new Broncos head coach GARY FREAKING KUBIAK. Another chance for the Texans to change the trajectory of the franchise in 2012 was frittered away.
What if Schaub doesn’t throw a pick six to Richard Sherman in the waning moments of Week 4 of 2013?
Speaking of that 2-14 disaster in 2013, it wasn't supposed to be that way. Coming off a 12-4 season in 2012, with most of the roster remaining intact, it was widely believed the Texans were a contender again in 2013. A 2-0 start to the season was nice, but there were cracks in the defense exposed in those two games, not to mention disturbing turnovers by Schaub, including a pick six in Week 2. The Texans lost to Baltimore in Week 3, with Schaub throwing another pick six.
However, the Texans bounced back nicely in Week 4, and were leading the eventual Super Bowl champs, the Seattle Seahawks, by a 20-13 score late in the fourth quarter at home. They were just a couple minutes away from a crucial win, and a 3-1 start to the season. Instead, this happened....
A third down conversion there, and the Texans' entire season trajectory may have changed. Instead, they didn't win again all season, yo-yoed between Schaub and Case Keenum at quarterback, and Kubiak was fired after Week 14. The Bill O'Brien Era would begin on January 1, 2014, with the Texans picking first overall in the 2014 draft.
What if the Texans drafted Khalil Mack instead of Jadeveon Clowney?
The speculation from the very beginning of the 2014 draft season had the Texans using the first overall pick on Clowney, the believed-to-be generational talent out of South Carolina. Certainly, Clowney was a very good player for the Texans, once he got past the health issues he experienced in 2014 and 2015. But he topped out at just that — VERY GOOD.
It turned out the generational player was Mack, the playmaking edge rusher out of small school Buffalo. Mack would go on to win Defensive Player of the Year honors for the Raiders in 2016, and get a market-setting deal from the Bears in 2018. Clowney would go to three Pro Bowls, but clearly fell out of favor with O'Brien somewhere along the way, and would be shipped out for spare parts before the 2019 season. Mack would have given the Texans another transcendent game changer to play alongside J.J. Watt in 2014 and 2015, and would have been able to shoulder the load when Watt went down in 2016 and 2017, and unlike Clowney, would probably still be with the Texans today.
What if J.J. Watt changes his workout regimen after the 2014 season?
Through his first five seasons, J.J. Watt missed exactly zero games in his career, a remarkable stretch of durability for a guy constantly dealing with double and triple teams in the trenches. Unfortunately, the signs of Watt's body breaking down were very evident as the 2015 season closed out, with the All Pro defensive end needing to be helped off the field with a torn groin in the playoff loss to the Chiefs. This would be the gateway to a two-year stretch that saw Watt play in just 8 out of 32 possible games, with two back surgeries and a season- ending broken leg putting his future very much in doubt.
The back injuries, which started to surface in the second half of the 2015 season, may have been due in part to Watt's insane workout regimens, which included flipping gargantuan tires and box jumping 60 inches. Watt has reportedly tweaked that regimen over the last couple years, taking his workouts from "insane" down to merely "difficult for mere mortals." Had he done that earlier in his career, would his back have given out heading into 2016? This is a tough one to project, as only Watt really knows, but undeniably, Watt's career counting stats took a hit with what was basically a two-year hiatus. His eventual return to All Pro status in 2018 was nothing short of remarkable.
What if Brock Osweiler was merely slightly below average in 2016 and not abjectly awful?
Having endured a three season period at quarterback that spanned from Matt "Pick Six" Schaub to Crazy Fitzy to Ryan "Alarm Clock" Mallett to Brian "Teacher's Pet" Hoyer, 2016 became shopping time for the Houston Texans. Owner Bob McNair mandated that GM Rick Smith go get a viable NFL quarterback, and so it was that Brock Osweiler, and his seven career starts in Denver, were given a four year, $72 million contract.
Who knew that Osweiler would be worse than any of the guys that played the previous few seasons, eventually hitting the bench by the end of 2016? Osweiler was so bad that Rick Smith traded a second round pick to the Browns just to take Osweiler's contract off the team's hands. Keep in mind, the Texans DID go 9-7 and win the division with Osweiler starting the first 14 games of the year, so what if Osweiler were merely mediocre instead of abjectly terrible? The Texans might have gone, say, 11-5, and probably would have been compelled to roll for another year with Osweiler, a decision that may have precluded their drafting Deshaun Watson in the 2017 draft. Can you imagine life without Watson right now? Let's not go there. Thank God Osweiler decided to make ejecting from him an easy decision.
What if Rick Smith won the War of 2017?
The relationship between Bill O'Brien and Rick Smith always had an underlying tension, with various media stories over the years outlining some serious battle lines being drawn. It was widely accepted that, if there were a war between the two where only one was left standing, Smith would be the winner. After all, Smith had survived two head coaches, and several years of mediocre roster building. However, at the end of 2017, it was Smith who would leave the organization to take care of his ailing wife, who would eventually lose her battle with cancer.
We will never know if Smith's time as Texans GM would have ended conventionally, but O'Brien was given a massive vote of confidence following a 4-12 campaign in 2017, with a multiyear extension. Eventually, O'Brien would be given full control of everything in the summer of 2019 (more on this in a minute). If the team had decided to move on from O'Brien after 2017 (not an outlandish notion), and allow Smith to stay with the club (perhaps with a strong assistant GM to run things while Smith cared for his wife), it's interesting to wonder who the head coach would be, and how he would have meshed with Deshaun Watson, who was coming off a dynamic six game stint as a rookie starter. Certainly, things would look DRASTICALLY different than they do right now.
What if Frank Reich accepts a tie in Week 4 of 2018?
As it was, O'Brien headed into 2018 with a healthy Watson, a healthy Watt, and Brian Gaine as his somewhat handpicked GM. Expectations were high, so it was getting quite ugly when the Texans began 2018 with an 0-3 start. In Week 4, a road trip to Indy, the Texans blew 28-10 lead, and went to overtime tied at 31. The two teams would exchange field goals, and eventually the Colts would have the ball, late in overtime, facing a 4th and 4 at their own 43 yard line with just 27 seconds remaining. Punting the ball away would likely preserve a tie, and leave the Texans winless on the season. In the name of "ties suck, we always play to win, grrrrrr," Colts head coach Frank Reich decided to go for it on fourth down. Andrew Luck threw incomplete, and two plays later, Texans kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn kicked a game winning field goal to give the Texans their first win.
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The Texans would go on to win the division by one game over the Colts. The "what if" here is more about the Texans' inability to get a win in that moment than the long term, season effects. Having blown an 18-point lead, the Texans would have felt that tie was a loss. Instead, the win launched them into a franchise record nine-game winning streak. I doubt they win their next eight games, if that Colts game ends in a tie.
What if the Texans sit tight with Brian Gaine as the general manager?
In one of the most stunning moves in franchise history, the Texans fired Gaine in early June 2019, after less than a year and half on the job. They then took a swing at hiring Patriots executive (and O'Brien crony) Nick Caserio and came closer to getting hit with Tampering sanctions than they did hiring a new GM. With Caserio out of the mix, the Texans rolled with (and continue to roll with) a GM committee, ostensibly led by O'Brien himself.
The committee's trademark has been ultra aggressive, BIG moves, like trading two first round picks for Laremy Tunsil, and shipping out Clowney for a third round pick and a couple backups. There have been other moves, and overall the roster is better now than it was over the summer. but the cost in draft equity has been significant. We won't know the full effect of swapping out the ultra-conservative Gaine for a couple seasons, but suffice it to say, it's been far more exciting with O'Brien running things.