How the Houston Texans Sold Out and Fell Out of Contention
If numberFire were a website about 2000's emo music, here's something you might have read on that site.
"Sellouts, man. Sellouts.
Remember back when Fall Out Boy was a real rock group, making awesome rock songs that we could jam out to on our way to Spencer's Gifts in the mall?
Now they're joke some Hollywood pop group cranking out canned singles for radio. What a joke.
Bands are always so much better before they sell out. Why don't they just stick with what works? As the fans, we expect more from them than stupid pop garbage for radio. We want real, underground emo music."
Thankfully, numberFire is a sports site, and despite this author's affinity for older Fall Out Boy albums, you're more likely to read about sports sellouts around these parts.
But just like Fall Out Boy and numerous other musical acts who changed their style over time to suit the desires of a more mainstream audience, NFL teams can sell out in favor of the latest trends and get away from what has historically worked for the franchise.
Today's NFL is full of teams with seemingly flawless schemes. The Denver offense seems to have it all figured out, and the Dick LeBeau defense always seems to get the most out of its players. But teams that try to emulate the style of another successful franchise often fall flat on their face.
Such is the case with the Houston Texans. A team that has only existed since 2002, and has been seemingly on the rise since 2006, Houston has a common thread across every season it has been in existence: Running the football.
The 2013 Texans have gotten away from that brand of football, and it's showing up in the loss column. The once dominant rushing offense with a surprisingly good defense is now free-falling out of relevance with a 2-9 record on the season.
So what's gone wrong? Sellouts, man. Sellouts.
Our Lawyers Made Us Change This Defense So We Wouldn't Get Sued
The Houston defense was a hallmark of their rise to relevance in recent seasons, and numberFire's advanced metrics bore that out. We use Net Expected Points, or NEP, to measure the effectiveness and efficiency of an offense or defense based on the amount of expected points they gain or lose based on the plays they make. You can read a longer explanation of the metric by heading over to the glossary, found here.
And according to NEP data, the Houston defense was at its best during the two playoff runs for the Texans. Since 2006, the Texans only posted negative numbers in the Adjusted Defensive NEP per play twice, and those were the two seasons which saw the team reach the knockout round of the NFL calendar. Negative NEP is good for a defense, because it means on the average snap, the defense makes plays which reduce the opponent's chance to score.
You might be thinking "But the Texans have allowed the fewest yards in the NFL this season!"
You would be right, of course. The numbers show that no team has allowed fewer yards in 2013 than the team from Houston.
However, numberFire's metrics say that only four defenses have worse per play Defensive NEP numbers than Houston when adjusting for strength of schedule. Those defenses are the historically bad Atlanta Falcons, the talentless Minnesota Vikings and San Diego Chargers, and the frustrating Indianapolis Colts.
So how can a team rank so poorly on defense using numberFire's data, and have allowed so few yards? The answer is two-fold.
This Ain't a Team, It's an Arms Race
The Houston Texans began the year with a win against the San Diego Chargers, but in doing so they jumped into an early hole as a passing defense.
Philip Rivers and the Bolts shredded the Houston defenders through the air early in that game, as Rivers accounted for four passing touchdowns despite finishing with fewer than 200 yards of passing.
Rivers and the Chargers were one of three top-five passing offenses (when ranked by Adjusted Passing NEP per Play) that the Texans would face in the first four weeks of the season, and the results would be encouraging. Despite allowing four scores to Rivers, the Chargers were otherwise slowed down by the Houston defense, and the Texans were able to return an interception for a score to help the team come from behind and win.
The Houston defense then seemed to be back on track in Week 2 when they faced Jake Locker and the Titans (who also have a top-five passing attack on a per play basis using NEP data). And, yet again, despite allowing two touchdowns, the Texans limited Locker's ability to pick up yards through the air as they fought their way to an overtime victory. Their Defensive PNEP went down, and they had an overall Defensive NEP in the negatives, just like the good old days.
But they would then take on the Baltimore Ravens and their bottom-10 passing offense. The wheels started to fall off.
The Ravens didn't rack up passing yards against the Texans, and they certainly didn't impress anyone watching the game on the offensive side of the ball. After all, the Ravens won on the back of multiple defensive and special teams scores. But the Ravens did enough on offense to really impress the numberFire math geniuses, and therefore was a black mark against the Houston pass defense.
Adjusted NEP data takes into account strength of opponent, field position, down-and-distance, and the creation of turnovers, or the failure to generate turnovers for a defense. The Texans did not earn a takeaway against Baltimore, and allowed the Ravens to convert eight of 16 third downs. Those are the little things that reveal a defense that isn't a sturdy as its overall yardage statistics may indicate.
The Texans would bounce back against the fourth-ranked Seattle passing offense and have a strong day, but have seen their Defensive PNEP per play get worse as the year has gone on, to the point where they are now ranked 31st in the NFL in the category.
So yes, the Houston Texans have allowed the fewest yards in the NFL. But they've also faced some of the worst passing attacks the league has to offer over the last two months, and have still allowed 18 passing touchdowns this season. A league-average defense would be in a much better position right now than the Texans.
I'm Like a Lawyer With the Way I'm Always Trying to Pick You Off
The Texans other issue on defense this season is an inability to secure takeaways. Nothing helps a defense take away expected points from an offense quite like interceptions and fumbles. The Texans have done neither of those things this season.
Through Week 12, the Texans have eight takeaways. Eight. That's good for dead last in the NFL, tied with the Jets and Falcons.
In 2011 and 2012, the Texans were 12th and ninth in takeaways, respectively. But in their disappointing 2010 season, when they had a similarly poor ranking in Defensive Passing NEP per play, they finished 30th in takeaways.
The Texans have reverted back to their old ways on defense, from a time before J.J. Watt was the most dominant defensive lineman in the league, back when the Texans got torched by Peyton Manning and the Colts every season.
So even with a solid run defense, the Texans simply can't stop bad teams from moving the football through the air, and they can't create turnovers. They're a seemingly good defense based on yardage totals, but a look under the surface reveals a completely ineffective defensive unit.
Sugar, We're Doing Down Swinging (With the Passing Game)
Let's take a look at the history of the Houston offense using NEP data to put into context how poor they've been this season, and the apparent reason why.
To explain the chart below, Passes and Runs are the number of plays run that were either passes or runs, and those numbers are followed by a pass-to-run ratio. The next three columns are the Adjusted Defensive NEP numbers on a per play basis. For offenses, positive numbers are good in this metric. The final column is record, which explains itself.
One thing to consider while reading this chart is that it's very hard for an offense to maintain a high Rushing NEP per Play figure, as running simply doesn't rack up expected points in the same way passing does. 13 of the teams in the NFL have a RNEP per play over 0 this season, while 21 have a PNEP per play over 0. So the seemingly poor rushing numbers are simply the nature of the way the statistics are generated, and should be considered in context.
|Year||Passes||Runs||P/R Ratio||Adj NEP/P||Adj PNEP/P||Adj RNEP/P||Record|
Notice the consistent theme in the pass-to-run ratio column. The Texans were always committed to running the ball as often as possible, with their best seasons coming in years where they could truly pound the football on the ground at a ridiculous clip.
The Seahawks and 49ers are the only teams to run as frequently in 2013 as the Texans did in 2011 when they went 10-6. And the Seahawks and 49ers of 2013 have a distinct difference at the quarterback position, as they often find themselves running with the quarterback in addition to designed runs with the running backs.
That's not true of the Texans, who have clearly lacked a mobile quarterback during their recent successes. They committed to running the football with their backs, and it eventually resulted in success in the form of playoff berths.
So why are the Texans throwing more often this season than they ever have in the history of their franchise? This is where the Texans truly are sellouts.
Rather than continuing to run the football with Arian Foster, Ben Tate, and whatever other running backs they can find who can step in to their well-coached running scheme, they've thrown the ball more and more, and have done so with disastrous results.
The beauty of the 2011 and 2012 Texans offenses came from the quality of the passing game, not the quantity. Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson connected for big plays at opportune moments once defenses cheated forward to slow down the rushing attack. But the 2013 Texans seem to have developed a greed for those explosive moments in the passing game.
As you can see in the chart above, the Texans are on track for a negative PNEP per Play season for the first time in a while. The last time the Texans finished below zero in passing NEP per play was 2005 when David Carr was under center and the team went 2-14.
So while the Texans clearly haven't been running the ball effectively this season, they broke away from a tradition of success to chase the sort of passing offense the team enjoyed a few years ago.
And while Andre Johnson is a special talent and DeAndre Hopkins may develop into a star, the Houston offense would still have been better served to stick to the run, allowing Matt Schaub to manage the game and take his shots with the misdirection of a strong running game constantly in his bag of tricks.
A Little Less 2005, A Little More 2012
So a disappointing passing defense and passing offense have set Houston back this season, and it's put them closer to a first overall draft pick than a third straight playoff berth.
Which brings up an interesting discussion about the future of the Texans as a franchise: What should they do this offseason with a high draft choice and an apparent need to adjust priorities and schemes to put a better product on the field in 2014?
Adding a young franchise quarterback seems like an obvious choice for the Texans, who could begin a real transition to a pass-first offense with the right guy under center to run that sort of system. Case Keenum and Matt Schaub are not the answer for a team that wishes to throw 50 percent more than it runs.
But they could also bolster their defense with an elite pass rusher or linebacker, and return to their previous winning ways on defense.
Either way, it's a bit strange to be having a draft conversation about the Texans during the middle of the season, as they shouldn't be in the midst of an arms race for the first pick, hoping to be the lucky team to land "once-in-a-lifetime" prospects at quarterback or defensive end.
But much like Fall Out Boy, the Texans sold out and moved away from what brought them success. Also like Fall Out Boy, there could be a future for a new version of the Texans with a new identity.
They just have to be prepared for some bumps in the road along the way. Not every season can be 2012 for the Texans, and not every album can be "From Under Cork Tree" for Fall Out Boy.