Two years ago this week, the 2016 Houston Texans were putting the finishing touches on a 24-21 win over the then-wretched Jacksonville Jaguars. In many ways, it was the classic 2016 Texans-style win — they got a lead, they got a couple turnovers, Brock Osweiler threw up a paltry 99 yards passing on the day, and they escaped fairly unimpressively.
However, as ugly as that win was, it did move them to 6-3 on the 2016 season. Since then, the last two years, in many ways, have felt like ten years. The QB problem finally got solved, there's a new general manager, and J.J. Watt is fully healthy for the first time since Brian Hoyer was the quarterback here. However, as long as the last two years may have felt, here we are right back to where the Texans were after ten weeks (nine games plus a bye) in 2016 — with a 6-3 record.
While I know it's still hard for some folks to buy in fully (or even half fully) to this year's iteration of Texans football, let's compare THIS season's 6-3 to the 2016 season's 6-3. Consider this a pre-holiday season "counting of our blessings" with the 2018 Houston Texans.
Without further ado, here are the reasons that optimism over this year's 6-3 record should abound over any optimism that we may have had two seasons ago at this time:
6. The 2018 rookie class looks stellar
In 2016, the rookie class was headlined by Will Fuller and Nick Martin, first and second round rookies out of Notre Dame. By the middle of the season, Fuller was banged up and unproductive (like pretty much anybody who wasn't a check down option for Osweiler), and Martin's season had ended in training camp with an ankle injury. The rest of the rookie class was injured, inconsequential, or in reserve roles. This year's rookie class, with NO first or second round pick, has safety Justin Reid turning into a star, two tight ends (Jordan Akins, Jordan Thomas) contributing, OLB Duke Ejiofor getting snaps, and WR Keke Coutee ready to break out if he can stay healthy. Also, several undrafted waiver wire pickups are making big contributions on special teams. The rookies have made this year's team a much deeper team.
5. More reasonable schedule
The last seven games in 2016 looked like this:
Mon, Nov 21 - vs Oakland
Sun, Nov 27 - vs San Diego
Sun, Dec 4 - @ Green Bay
Sun, Dec 11 - @ Indianapolis
Sun, Dec 18 - vs Jacksonville
Sat, Dec 24 - vs Cincinnati
Sun, Jan 1 - @ Tennessee
In other words, the next four games (keep in mind, the Raiders were 12-4 in 2016) after the 6-2 start were all very challenging. Not surprisingly, the Texans lost three in a row to even out at 6-6 before surging down the stretch after finally benching Osweiler. This season, we will see how it plays out, but here's one interesting note — the Texans are 10th in the latest ESPN power rankings, and each of their remaining opponents is ranked lower than them. Only New Orleans (1st) and Kansas City (2nd) can say the same.
4. More (potential) playmakers offensively
The 2016 offense, largely because it was gummed up by one of the least efficient, most pocket-frightened quarterbacks of the last ten years (more on him in a moment), had almost no explosiveness to it. The passing game was a parade of check downs to running backs and tight ends. DeAndre Hopkins was held under 1,000 yards for the only season in his career, other than his rookie year. This season, while Will Fuller is on the shelf with a torn ACL, Deshaun Watson has a peak-level version of Hopkins to throw to, along with newly acquired Demaryius Thomas, a healthy Keke Coutee in the slot, and a couple tight ends that have upside in the two rookies. It's not in the neighborhood of elite offenses like Pittsburgh or Kansas City, but it's at least enough to go get points at crucial junctures of games, so long as Watson protects the football.
3. Special teams and the kicking game are damn near elite
For years, the Texans special teams were like a drunk relative at Thanksgiving — something you had to work around and whose ineptitude you hoped didn't ruin things for everybody else. Now, under the tutelage of Brad Seely, the Texans' special teams are your hilarious uncle who raises the level of every holiday, and makes them memorable and fun. Thank you, Uncle Brennan Scarlett! Also, it is worth mentioning, the specialists, punter Trevor Daniel and kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn, have both progressed from "unknown" to "quietly reliable." Good times!
2. Healthy J.J. Watt
In 2016, the Texans managed to make their way through the season as the top-rated defense based on yards allowed. That's not REALLY the best way to rank defenses, but hey, it was something. Unfortunately, they were not very good at getting after the quarterback, nor very good at forcing turnovers, and as a result, they were rated ninth overall by Football Outsiders' DVOA metric. Good, but not great. This season, though, thanks to a lights-out run defense (1st overall), the Texans are third in DVOA, and that coincides perfectly with the return of a fully healthy J.J. Watt. The Watt-Clowney combo we'd all been thirsting for the last few years has finally become self-actualized... and it's been fairly glorious.
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1. The starting quarterback is a winner, he's not, well, BROCK
Put simply, you probably don't have to worry about THIS happening in Week 15 again....
God bless Deshaun Watson and all of his extremities.
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.