Houston Texans 2014 Season Review: A Quiet Turnaround

A seven-win improvement from 2013 has the arrow pointing up, but the lack of a franchise quarterback is still holding the Houston Texans back.

The 2013 season is not one many Texans fans care to remember. After finishing with the worst record in the NFL at 2-14, changes needed to be made. That included firing a coaching staff that had won division titles and playoff games in the previous two years, bringing on a new head coach with no previous NFL head coaching experience, adding a new defensive coordinator, and trading the starting quarterback of the past seven seasons. A bounce-back season was to be expected, as 9 of their 14 losses were by single digits, but those expectations needed to be tempered with all the new additions in the organization.

Without much fanfare or attention, Bill O’Brien’s first year exceeded those expectations on almost every level, finishing runner-up to Bruce Arians for the Coach of the Year award while leading the team to a 9-7 record, a second-place finish in the AFC South and one Week 17 Ravens loss away from a playoff berth. Improvements were evident on offense, defense, and special teams, and that’s without a significant impact from any high draft picks or major free agent signings.

What went right to contribute to this turnaround, what prevented an even bigger win increase, and what does the team have to look ahead to going forward?

The Good: Watt Can’t He Do?

While many things went well for the Texans in 2014, the main attraction was clear: the man, the myth, the legend: J.J. Watt. After signing a contract in the offseason giving him the highest average yearly salary of any non-quarterback in the NFL, Watt became the first-ever unanimous Defensive Player of the Year, the seventh to win the award twice (along with Canton-esque names such as Taylor, Greene, Lewis, Singletary, Smith & White), the first player in NFL history with multiple 20 sack seasons, a First Team All-Pro at defensive end and a Second Team All-Pro at defensive tackle, and the runner-up for NFL MVP, with the most votes for a defensive player (13) since Lawrence Taylor won the award in 1986.

He more than doubled the next closest defender in quarterback hits (44 to 21), and still found enough time to score five touchdowns, including three on offense. There is literally nothing this man can’t do, and it’s becoming clear to even the most casual NFL fans that we are witnessing not just a great player, but an all-time legend that is somehow still getting better.

As dominant as he was, he can’t play all 22 positions at once (can he, though?), and there were many other bright spots on this team. DeAndre Hopkins made it clear that he’s ready to be "the man" when Andre Johnson’s fantastic career comes to a close, grabbing 76 passes for 1,210 yards and 6 touchdowns in his sophomore campaign. He finished 17th among wide receivers in our Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) metric with 96.06, compared to Johnson at 52nd with 54.95.

Arian Foster was a little banged up towards the end of the season (what’s new?), but was still an elite ball carrier when on the field. He finished 13th among running backs in Rushing NEP with 8.51, and eighth in Rushing NEP per rush among those with 200-plus carries, adding 13 total touchdowns on the year.

New defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel led a much improved all-around defensive unit that finished seventh in the NFL in scoring defense and tied for second in turnover margin, only one year after finishing 24th and 32nd in those categories, respectively. Our metrics told the same story: Houston had the seventh best Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play (-0.05) and the best Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play (-0.06), combining to sport the best Adjusted Defensive NEP per play (-0.05) in the entire NFL, signifying that their defense denied their opponents 0.06 points on average every play.

The Bad: Houston, We Have a Quarterback Problem

With that great of a defense, why wasn’t this team better than the 9-7 record they finished with? Well, there’s a reason that the quarterback position is considered the most important in all of sports, and Houston had to use four of them in 2014. Journeyman starter Ryan Fitzpatrick actually had the best season of his career (before it was cut short by a fractured tibia) and was still only about average, ranking 18th out of 37 signal-callers (minimum 200 drop backs) with a 0.08 Passing NEP per pass average.

The triumvirate of Ryan Mallett, Tom Savage, and Case Keenum were much worse, finishing 40th, 50th, and 52nd, respectively, in Passing NEP per drop back out of the 72 quarterbacks with at least one attempt. The unit as a whole finished with a Passing NEP of 20.33 on the season, ranking 20th in the league. However, without the outlier of a Week 13 blowout against the Titans which saw Fitzpatrick toss six touchdowns and no interceptions, Houston’s Passing NEP would sit at a much more telling -3.82, good for 25th in the league.

Another downfall of this year’s squad was the lack of impact from the 2014 draft class, especially from the early selections. Number-one overall pick Jadeveon Clowney was limited by injuries and became a huge disappointment in his rookie season, collecting only seven tackles and no sacks in four games. Second-rounder Xavier Su’a-Filo only made one start on the offensive line, third-rounder C.J. Fiedorowicz had only four receptions, and third-rounder Louis Nix III missed the entire season after undergoing knee surgery.

The Future: Finding O’Brien’s "Guy"

Armed with more salary cap space to spend on free agents than they’ve had in recent years, Clowney and the 2014 draft class looking to bounce back from this past year’s difficulties, a brand new 2015 draft class to look forward to, and arguably the best football player on the planet in J.J. Watt, there are a lot of things to like about the future of the Houston Texans.

However, for the improvement to continue in Bill O’Brien’s second year (and beyond), he will have to find a franchise quarterback to build around. At 32 years of age and with a very below-average arm, Fitzpatrick certainly isn’t that guy. Could it be Mallett or Savage, two guys who fit the profile of a "Bill O’Brien quarterback" as big pocket passers with strong arms but little-to-no mobility?

If not one of them, it means the team’s future at the position isn’t currently on the roster. With a very weak free agent class and a draft pick too late in the first round to grab potential stars Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota without trading up, we may be asking the very same questions at this time next year.