January 25, 2006
by Bob Hulsey
A dull and disappointing regular season for the Texans has changed into a dynamic offseason that will have much to do with how this franchise performs for the rest of the decade. After shedding most of the old coaching staff, the Texans begin anew with the hire of Denver offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak as head coach. He has certainly surrounded himself with success during his NFL career.
Kubiak, a star at St. Pius High School and Texas A&M before becoming John Elway’s understudy for nearly a decade, returned to his alma mater after his retirement as a player. Soon, he was back in the pros, coaching first with the 49ers and then in Denver under Mike Shanahan. The guy Elway lovingly calls "Koob" has worked under some great offensive minds. Now we’ll see how well he can do on his own.
Early indications are that he will run Denver’s offense here in Houston although the personnel may dictate some changes. Further down, I’ll speculate who on the roster is helped and hurt by this new offense. First, a review.
The Bronco offense has its genesis with the West Coast Offense that the 49ers ran so successfully in the 1980s under Bill Walsh. It emphasized short drops, quick throws, some rollouts and more finesse blocking than brute force. With Steve Young at the helm, the offense evolved so Young’s running talents could be exploited. Young escaped the shadow of Joe Montana with his own Super Bowl win in 1995.
Shanahan and Kubiak returned to Denver and didn’t need to change much with Elway still at the helm. He still had the running ability when called upon but they put the deep ball back into the offense to take advantage of Elway’s arm strength. They struck gold when a sixth round draft choice, running back Terrell Davis, meshed perfectly with the zone blocking scheme taught by Alex Gibbs.
The running game soon became the focal point of the offense, especially when Clinton Portis was drafted in 2002 right after the Texans chose Chester Pitts. When Jake Plummer was signed as a free agent quarterback a year later, the Broncos had the runner-passer they had been seeking since Elway’s retirement.
David Carr has the right skill set to run the Bronco offense in Houston. This, I believe, is part of what sold the Texans on Kubiak and what sold Kubiak on the Texan job. While not a real running threat, Carr has enough speed to make rollouts and bootlegs a legitimate part of the offense. It’s still questionable how well Carr throws on the run (as opposed to running for his life) and how well Carr makes decisions under pressure but the transition to Kubiak’s offense should bring out the best of Carr’s potential. If Carr is the real problem with what’s wrong with the offense, it should be evident once Kubiak’s plan has had time to gel.
Domanick Davis is also a great fit for the offense. The attack revolves around backs who can make one cut then head upfield. Davis may lack home run speed but so did Terrell Davis in the same offense and he had a 2,000-yard season under Kubiak. In 2004, the Texans appeared to start the season with an offense similar to Denver’s and Domanick was quite effective in it, but injuries caused them to scrap that system. Nonetheless, one could argue that the height of Texan offensive power to date came when they ran something similar to the Bronco offense.
So, where does that leave Vince Young and Reggie Bush? Hopefully in New Orleans and New York, respectively but that’s unlikely to happen. The Bronco offense is a pro offense better suited to Young’s talents since it features a quarterback that can run. It’s harder to visualize Bush in that offense but I think Kubiak will try to utilize him the way he used Portis. Denver had great success converting low-round choices into 1,000-yard rushers, but that may not be necessary for the Texans if Bush, Davis and Vernand Morency are all here. Even Jonathan Wells could flourish if given the chance.
Kubiak and the Broncos have been very fortunate to have Rod Smith at wide receiver for so long. Smith started out as the deep threat while Ed McCaffrey played the "hands" receiver for the underneath stuff. Now, Smith is the "hands" guy while Ashlie Lelie runs the deep patterns. No doubt, Kubiak would like to see Jerome Mathis develop into the deep threat in Houston. While Andre Johnson doesn’t really fit the role of a possession receiver, he can be a significant threat in that position, particularly with his size and speed after the catch. At his best, AJ could become what Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens were in San Francisco, catching short quick slants and taking them to the house. I worry that his hands aren’t up to it, though.
Putting Bush, Mathis and AJ on the field at the same time is certainly going to create some match-up nightmares with their blazing speed. I expect Kubiak to try to figure out a way to put that into the offense if Bush is selected.
The Broncos have used a number of tight ends and had some success with different types. From slender H-backs to big bulldozers, Kubiak has been able to employ plans based on any skill set. I think, though, he prefers the seam-splitting, pass-catching options like Shannon Sharpe or Jeb Putzier to the Desmond Clark and Dwayne Carswell type that provided better blocking.
The offensive line needs an overhaul so it won’t be a stretch to say most of the current personnel up front won’t work out and will need to be changed before the offense hits their stride. The line sets the tone for everything else the Broncos try to do offensively. For the running game to work, the line has to be in the right place at the right time. Denver has opted mostly for smaller, quicker linemen than the NFL norm. The running threat has to be effective before the rollouts and bootlegs off playaction will work. Kubiak is bringing along David Diaz-Infante, a former center and guard in Denver, to coach the offensive line. There is talk that more of Kubiak’s former co-workers, Alex Gibbs and/or Rick Dennison, may also be brought in to teach the linemen.
This is good news for Chester Pitts, the lineman I think has the easiest transition here. Quickness is perhaps his best asset. Denver has converted oversized tight ends into left tackles in order to take advantage of that quickness. Pitts may wind up still holding down the left tackle spot in Kubiak’s offense unless a better fit is found (Denver’s current left tackle, Matt Lepsis, is a free agent as is their center, Pro Bowler Tom Nalen). The new regime might resurrect the career of Seth Wand, too, someone who also has quick feet but not much push. Look for some undersized linemen to be snatched up in the draft and free agency.
While a few trick plays like flea flickers and reverses will show up in the Bronco offense, don’t expect anything too exotic. Gimmicks like halfback passes have pretty much disappeared from the game plan. Expect a lot of misdirection plays, though, including some screens and occasionally an option pitch.
What Kubiak decides to do with the defense is anyone’s guess since it has never been part of his responsibility. I expect whoever gets the nod as defensive coordinator will run that part of the show with little input from "Koob."
While the Texans may not bring Vince Young back to Houston, there will be at least one new local guy at the controls. He may not have a national championship to boast about but he does have three Super Bowl rings.
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