On our radio show on 1560 The Game this past Monday, John Granato and I were breaking down various aspects of both the Texans' 26-13 win over the Panthers and the preseason in general. The topic was the defense, specifically Whitney Mercilus and the various ways that Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips could get the rookie first-rounder on the field with Brooks Reed and Connor Barwin, forming some sort of pass rushing Kobra Kai in big third-down situations.
From there, John and I got to talking about the secondary and how Alan Ball was going to have to step it up to make the team. He's part of a cadre of cornerbacks (including Brandon Harris, Roc Carmichael and Sherrick McManis) all of whose best hope to get on the field is as a dime corner in "3rd and long" situations. That's their best-case scenario, because the top three spots are locked up (Johnathan Joseph, Kareem Jackson and Brice McCain).
We talked glowingly about Troy Nolan, Earl Mitchell and Tim Jamison. Backups all of them, and it got me thinking -- holy shit, we are quibbling about fourth cornerbacks, situational pass rushers and backup safeties.
This is AWESOME.
See, it wasn't that long ago that the Texans would go into a new season with about 50 percent turnover in personnel on defense, and it wasn't because starters were leaving for promises of untold riches, à la Mario Williams a few months ago. It's because their names were DeMarcus Faggins or Eugene Wilson or some of the names you're about to read. It's because the Texans were wretched on defense, and with each season came a new set of sticks to scratch together and see if the team could find some semblance of a spark.
Which brings me to this past Sunday and my closet. Yes, that sounds weird; just stay with me.
So this past Sunday, I was cleaning out my closet, because I like to head into the fall neat and organized in all aspects of my life. Well, in the process of divesting myself of outdated shirts and pants that fit a few waist sizes ago, I stumbled across a stack of old Sports Illustrateds (and that's IT for magazines I found, I swear). Among those magazines in the pile was the 2008 NFL season preview issue, which included a two-page overview and prediction for each team.
For the record, SI picked the Texans for last place in the division in 2008 with a 6-10 record. (They finished 8-8, so suck on that, SI!! BURN!!) But that's not what caught my eye. What piqued my interest was the graphic showing the starting lineup, in particular the defense.
Let's go through it guy by guy, how they got here, what they did and how they left:
DE Anthony Weaver Signed to a fat deal in the opening hours of free agency in 2006 ($10 million-plus signing bonus), Weaver was thought to be the foundation of the Texans' brand-new 4-3 defense after playing for four years in the 3-4 in Baltimore. As it turned out, Weaver might have been a better 3-4 guy after all. He dealt with some injuries while he was here, but was a solid run-stopper and a good leader. He probably didn't live up to the dollars in his contract, but could have been a solid cog on a good defense. Weaver was waived after the 2008 season.
DT Travis Johnson First-round pick in 2005 who was best known for constantly being injured and for standing over a fallen Dolphin quarterback Trent Green after a legal hit in a 2007 game. He was eventually traded in 2009 for a sixth-round pick, which apparently greatly surprised him at the time. DT Amobi Okoye Another first-round bust, Okoye was thought to be on the rise after his rookie season, but regressed each year, and was finally, mercifully cut loose before the 2011 season. On the downside, Okoye was taken one pick before Patrick Willis and four picks ahead of Darrelle Revis in the 2007 draft. On the upside, his age (19 when drafted) made him great fodder for Kindercare jokes when he was sucking at football, which was often.
DE Mario Williams First overall pick in 2006 amidst much anger in Houston from fans who wanted Vince Young and would have settled for Reggie Bush. It turns out the Texans were correct, and still Mario's Texans career would probably be categorized as slightly disappointing. It didn't stop the Bills from
putting their team on the brink of financial ruin making Williams the highest paid defensive player in league history this past offseason.
OLB Zac Diles Diles's managing to squeeze a few years worth of paychecks with several starts mixed in along the way after being a seventh-round pick probably says more about the horrid state of the Texans defense than Diles's skills. The Texans' letting him walk in 2011 was no surprise -- if the Texans' defense were a house in early 2011, Wade Phillips was in the process of tearing down the whole thing and starting over. Zac Diles was the detached one-car garage that had no chance of being retained.
MLB DeMeco Ryans The most valuable and best defensive player in the history of the franchise, at least until J.J. Watt, Brian Cushing, Connor Barwin and Johnathan Joseph get two more years in the bank, and then he's barely top five. Traded to the Eagles for a couple draft picks before this season.
OLB Morlon Greenwood Handed a five-year, $22.5 million deal before the 2005 season, the always friendly Greenwood and his bloated (for a guy who made his living making a bunch of tackles like ten yards downfield) contract were a turd left in the bowl from the Capers/Casserly Era for Kubiak to deal with. Greenwood was eventually cut loose with a year left on his deal after the 2008 season. CB Fred Bennett Drafted in the fourth round in 2007, Bennett was handed a great opportunity his rookie year when Dunta Robinson went down with a season-ending leg injury. Unfortunately, Bennett never established any consistency and he wound up being let go before the 2010 season. Like Diles, being cut from a defense that would wind up being one of the worst in the NFL in the last decade may be the biggest indictment of all.
FS Will Demps One of the few bright spots of the early Rick Smith regime, as Demps was picked up off the street early in 2007 and became a Pro Bowl alternate, eventually playing his way into a two-year, $4.75 million contract for 2008 and 2009. He never did see that 2009 money, though, as the team cut him loose after the 2008 season. And this was a bright spot for Rick Smith.
SS C.C. Brown A sixth-round pick in 2005, Brown wound up starting at safety during the entire length of his four-year Texans career. So you'd think a four-year starter entering the prime of his career would be a HUGE draw in the free agent market come 2009, right? Well, Brown got a one-year deal from the Giants. That's it. Again, around this time, starting for the Texans really didn't mean too much, that much was apparent.
CB Jacques Reeves A clear indicator Rick Smith didn't totally have a handle on free agency yet in 2008, Reeves signed a five-year, $20 million deal with the Texans prior to the 2008 season and was either injured or unimpactful in his two years of the deal he actually saw. He was let go after the 2009 season (another player deemed not good enough to play on the utter dogshit 2010 defense), and after two years out of football, he is actually in the Chiefs training camp this August.
A few thoughts on this group:
1. The thing that jumps out at me is how many guys never made it to the end of their contracts. It's one thing for a fourth-rounder like Fred Bennett to get cut before he finishes his initial four-year deal. That happens. But how about the unrestricted free agent signings?
Weaver (two years remaining), Greenwood (one year), Reeves (three years), Demps (one year left on his re-signed deal). Add in first-rounders Johnson and Okoye, who didn't make it to the end of their first-round rookie deals, and this whole unit is one big scouting fail. A frightening scouting fail. It's a far cry from 2012, when the team is already trying to figure out how to re-sign Barwin and Cushing, and will probably have tough choices to make on guys like Quin and Brice McCain. There's not a single guy on this defense who you'd say is even close to being overpaid.
2. Look again at that secondary -- Bennett, Reeves, Brown and Demps. WOW. That's awful. I mean, those two corners were cut before 2010 because they were worse than the corners of what turned out to be the worst pass defense in the league. And sadly, Bennett and Reeves actually were worse.
3. How many players on the 2012 defense would you categorize as "playmakers"? I'd say Barwin, Reed, Cushing, Watt, Joseph, Manning and Antonio Smith, among the starters. That's a majority of the defense. Who in 2008 would qualify? DeMeco and Mario when he's not hitting SNOOZE on his motivational alarm.
4. How did this 2008 team go 8-8?
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5. In Wade we goddamn trust.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. weekdays, and watch the simulcast on Comcast 129 from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.