June 8, 2007
Breaking Down the Offseason, Part 1
by Bob Hulsey
The Houston Texans spent much of the offseason concerned with quantity rather than quality. Depth is an important aspect to a successful football team. Competition for jobs in training camp is a healthy thing to have. Whether the Texans have actually improved themselves this offseason remains to be seen.
In this column, I’m going to focus on the offense and spend the next column concentrating on the defense. Not much happens in the NFL in June other than OTAs and encounters with LEOs so one can feel confident that there will be few changes until training camp opens.
There are only three players projected to start for Gary Kubiak’s offense that were not with the Texans last year when they rated low in practically every offensive measurable.
Of course, the biggest change was the trading of two second-round draft choices for Atlanta backup quarteback Matt Schaub then letting last year’s quarterback David Carr leave while getting nothing in return. The Texans will still be picking up the tab on Carr’s contract after choosing the three-year option on his initial contract after the 2005 season.
To some, removing Carr from the offense is going to instantly make the club competitive again. He’s been the scapegoat for everything that hasn’t worked the past five years. While he made his share of mistakes and may have regressed as a quarterback through years of poor protection and conservative play-calling, he wasn’t the whole problem. Such myopia is simplistic and doesn’t explain how other facets of the offense failed to work properly much of the season.
While early signs have been positive, Schaub will need to hope that he can find his niche in this offense, one that can hide the shortcomings that made him a third-round draft choice. It worked for Joe Montana, himself a third-rounder, who found in Bill Walsh’s offense a vehicle that hid his weaknesses and played to his strengths. Since the Bronco offense Kubiak has run is taken from the West Coast Offense that Walsh developed, Schaub has that chance. Quarterbacking talent aside, however, the differences are that defenses have had 20 years to invent ways to defend the WCO since Montana’s day and Walsh surrounded Montana with such talent that many of them made the Pro Bowl in their own right. At least early on, the talent Schaub has to work with will be significantly less.
The book on Schaub is that he’s not as mobile as Carr but excels with short and intermediate route accuracy and split-second decisions. He seems to be similar to the primary backup, Sage Rosenfels, in that he lacks the NFL "gun" teams want but that he succeeds with quick reads and solid execution.
Under the zone blocking scheme put in by Kubiak and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman, the running game struggled mightily early last season but, by the midway point, began to assert itself. The running game probably had its high point when they ran at will against the eventual Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts for a narrow victory in late December.
While all the running back candidates from last year return, the Texans added halfback Ahman Green (whom Sherman knows well from their time together in Green Bay) to be the first option this year. It’s hard to imagine Houston keeping Green, Ron Dayne, Samkon Gado, Wali Lundy and Chris Taylor all on the roster, particularly if they plan to keep two fullbacks, so this may be the toughest competition in camp. Green is a complete back for this sort of offense but, at age 30, may not have as much left in the tank as he did while galloping through the Frozen Tundra. My guess is that Dayne and Gado will be used frequently to spell Green in an attempt to keep him fresh. Lundy and Taylor will have to show versatility to keep their jobs.
Fullbacks Vonta Leach and Jameel Cook return and both are getting veteran’s money for a position that doesn’t even see the field every down. Cook was signed to a free agent deal in 2006 and Leach was signed to an offer sheet by the Giants this spring which the Texans matched. My guess is that Cook could be a late cut if Leach stays healthy. The backup may come from one of the halfbacks or tight ends.
The third new starter on offense is Jordan Black, who is penciled in as the new left tackle. Black started there for the Kansas City Chiefs last year so he has the experience though some question his skill level. Veteran Ephraim Salaam also returns but the hope is that Charles Spencer, last year’s surprise starter before breaking his leg in the second week of the season, is healthy enough to win the job back. If he is, Black could be moved over to right tackle to compete with Eric Winston or Winston might possibly be moved over to right guard.
The interior presently is a mix of centers Mike Flanagan and Drew Hodgdon as well as guards Chester Pitts, Fred Weary and Steve McKinney. Low round picks Brandon Frye and Kasey Studdard also have an outside chance of making the club.
Most teams keep eight or nine offensive linemen after the final cuts but it is hard to forecast how this will shake out until Spencer’s playing status is evident.
The tight end position appears to be the same mix as last year when Owen Daniels served as the receiving half and Mark Bruener’s job was the blocking half. Jeb Putzier returns as well. You may see more of Daniels this year as he becomes the outlet receiver for Schaub. Most successful West Coast attacks have had a quality tight end (Brent Jones, Mark Chamura, Shannon Sharpe to name a few) and the hope is that Daniels will develop into such a player for the Texans.
Lastly, the wide receiver position is one that is in flux more than some other offensive positions. Clearly, two-time Pro Bowler Andre Johnson will be the primary target but who will line up opposite of him is still unclear. Kevin Walter seems to have the early lead for that job. He’s a tall sturdy "possession" receiver in the mold of former Bronco Ed McCaffrey. However, the Texans are flirting with longtime veteran Keenan McCardell and want to find touches for third-round choice Jacoby Jones. Holdovers Jerome Mathis and David Anderson are also hoping to land the role opposite Johnson while veteran Andre Davis was signed this spring.
Will the additions of Schaub, Green and Black, along with another year of experience under Kubiak’s reigns, be enough to turn around the Texans offense? Nobody knows. The potential is there to break out but the offensive line still needs to improve, the running game has to continue the progress it made the second part of last year and Schaub will need to prove that he has the ability to look good for a full season, not just for a few spot appearances.
There is reason for guarded optimism but, until November rolls around, nobody can say if the optimism is well-founded.
Bob Hulsey laughed when he saw that the "team" section of the official website is sponsored by Waste Management Inc. You’d think a team with this sort of motley history would not want their name asssociated with garbage any more than it already is.
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