2011 in a Nutshell: 10-6 AFC South Champions; Lost Divisional Playoff
Last year was both a great success for the Texans and a massive disappointment, they won double digit games for the first time in franchise history, won their first division title, played in, hosted and won their first ever playoff game in franchise history. You would think that would have made any fan ecstatic but when you look a little deeper into it, you realise that the Texans could have gone much better last year. At one point in the season, that roster, top to bottom looked like it was the best in the NFL. In the end though injuries killed off the Texans hopes as their top two quarterbacks were lost as was their best defensive player in Mario Williams. At the end of the day though, setting franchise records for wins and making your first playoff appearance as well is an impressive effort and it gives Texans fans great hope for the future that they can go all the way.
2012 Season Motto: Prove you belong on top!
Unlike the offseason in 2011, the Texans were not undergoing a major overhaul to either of their units. Their front office was able to focus on making simple improvements rather than trying to build a new squad and improve the 31st ranked defense. There was the unfortunate reality of the NFL as they lost several players, none bigger than DE/OLB Mario Williams who signed a massive deal with the Buffalo Bills. Williams, as we all know was the guy the Texans picked over Reggie Bush, Vince Young and Matt Leinart but he never became that 15-sack per season player they were hoping and he was not a perfect fit in Wade Phillips’s 3-4 defense. Williams in fact missed the majority of last season through injury and his replacements Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed played very well in his place, giving the Texans hope for the future. Another member of the 2006 draft class was sent packing as well as linebacker DeMeco Ryans was traded to the Eagles, a move that was rather unpopular as he was held in high regard in the locker room.
With a roster that is already stacked for talent the Texans opted to focus on retaining their key players rather than making aggressive moves. Running back Arian Foster was rewarded for some stellar play with a new long term deal. While the free agent moves were focused on adding depth, linebackers Bradie James and Tim Dobbins were signed to play alongside Brian Cushing in the middle of the defense and punter Donnie Jones was brought in to compete with and possibly replace Brett Hartmann who is coming off an ACL tear and has a three game suspension to start the season. In the NFL draft their first round pick was spent on Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus who projects as an outside linebacker in the 3-4 and will likely be a replacement for Mario Williams, maybe not in terms of skill set but he will take over that primary backup, pass rushing role this season looking to translate his college form into the NFL. The rest of the draft class will likely serve as depth for the majority of the season and will not see significant time unless the injury bug strikes again.
Key Player for 2012: Matt Schaub – QB
Last year Schaub had the Texans rolling and looking like legitimate contenders for the Super Bowl up until week 10 when a Lisfranc injury sent him to IR which, combined with the injury to backup Matt Leinart killed off the Texans hopes. In his place, rookie T.J. Yates took the reins into the playoffs and won a playoff game against Cincinnati. While Yates was not a world beater, he played well enough that there must be members of the front office wondering if he is the possible future of the team. Schaub is in the final year of his contract and he will be looking to earn another deal from the front office that will see him through the rest of his career. One of Schaub’s strengths comes from his ability to utilise the play-action to buy himself time in the pocket and he has an impressive receiving crew to choose from when he drops back to pass, if he can stay healthy and start all 16 games then he will be among the top passers in the league and the Texans will be a tough team to face.
Last year the Texans defense made a massive jump going from one of the worst in the league to one of the best, making improvements in every major statistical category finding themselves in the top five all of the important categories. This defense should be in a similar class this year and it all starts up front with their disruptive line. 2011 first round pick J.J. Watt leads the way from his defensive end spot and should continue on from his solid rookie season where he lodged an impressive 5.5 sacks and even managed an interception return for a touchdown in the playoff win over Cincinnati. The linebackers are an interesting mix that will not hesitate to lay a hit on an opposition player. Starting in the middle will be Brian Cushing who has made a very successful transition to the Mike spot and will be looking to at least match his stats from last year. Next to him will be new signing Bradie James, signed from in-state rival Dallas who has plenty of experience working with Wade Phillips and on the edge will be Connor Barwin who loved the switch to the 3-4 and Brooks Reed who took over after the injury to Mario Williams and earned the starting job this season. On the back end the entire secondary is a lead by cornerback Jonathan Joseph who is entering his second season with the team and looks like he is in the form of his career.
The offense looks to be just as lethal as ever, having already covered how important Matt Schaub’s health is to the success of the passing game, everything flows through the running game. It opens up the play-action, something Schaub runs very well and when you have a backfield like the Texans, defenses will have to respect the threat of the run. In two seasons as the full time starter, Arian Foster has gone from undrafted practice squad player to one of the league’s best running backs and he is now being paid like one with a 5-year contract. Backing him up is Ben Tate, himself a back who is good enough to start on most teams in the league and a solid replacement if Foster’s production falls off. The receiving corps is solid itself lead by Andre Johnson who is still one of the best in the league with a group of players vying to emerge as the number two option. Leading the way is tight end Owen Daniels but there is also Kevin Walter, a solid possession receiver. Perhaps the one area the team is not stacked in is the offensive line, based on comments from the team recently the line is aware that it needs to protect the quarterback better as they have not been up to par as yet.
As the defending AFC South champions the Texans get plenty of feature matches this season thanks to the NFL schedule. In week three they travel to Denver to face their former division nemesis in Peyton Manning which will be an instant classic. Their first primetime game comes on ESPN in week 5 against the Jets in the Meadowlands where that front should have a field day on Tebow and Sanchez before a Sunday Night game at home against the Packers in week 6. Their tough stretch ends in week 7 with a visit from the team that ended their season last year in the Baltimore Ravens. They get two more feature matches during the year with a Thanksgiving Day trip to Detroit in week 12 before a test in week 14 against AFC heavyweights New England on Monday Night Football. That game could very well determine the top seed in the AFC and give the Texans an idea of where they stand as they will likely face some tough conditions in Foxboro as well.
Final: Will they be better or worse off than last year?
Frankly this team looks just as good as they did last year and there were exceptional circumstances that stopped them being the AFC representative in the Super Bowl. Look for their record to improve this year by approximately 2 wins and they will be challenging for that first round bye this time.