In 2008, the Texans finished with the 13th-best offense DVOA and the 11th best-pass offense DVOA in the NFL. They reached the heights of 8-8 for the second consecutive season in the third year of the Gary Kubiak era. They did this despite Matt Schaub missing five games and despite the Texans never really filling out the offense with dominant players outside of Andre Johnson and, possibly depending on how you want to remember it, Owen Daniels. It was Duane Brown’s rookie season, and he was a sieve.
But the Texans had the offensive design down to where it didn’t matter all that much. They had a babyface named Kyle Shanahan running the show — you may remember him from such places as Super Bowls — and the Texans would only get better from there on offense. Instead, the problem the Texans had was that Kubiak’s hand-picked defensive coordinator, Richard Smith, was in over his head. The Texans finished 31st in defensive DVOA in 2006, 29th in 2007, and 29th again in 2008. This, despite picking Mario Williams No. 1 overall in 2006 in what was considered a pretty risky move at the time. The 2008 Texans started three high first-round picks on the defensive line: Williams, Amobi Okoye, and Travis Johnson. DeMeco Ryans was already a fixture at middle linebacker, and the team spent to bring in Jacques Reeves in free agency to give former first-rounder Dunta Robinson a running mate outside. The Texans still Texaned it up in some key areas: they refused to sign a good safety and spent the season in the wilderness that was Eugene Wilson, C.C. Brown, and Nick Ferguson. It was also the last starting role for a 3-4 end by the name of Anthony Weaver, who we’ll come back to in a bit.
The star level talent on that defense wasn’t bad between Ryans, Williams, and Robinson. The problem was that two first-rounders were on the verge of busting and the Texans didn’t do a whole lot to fix obvious problem areas. Zac Diles, bless his cost-efficient soul, started for this team for three years.
Once it was obvious Richard Smith had to be fired, Kubiak had a defining decision in his tenure. In fact, for many coaches in other cities with more scrutiny from ownership, it probably would have been a make-or-break decision.
Kubiak decided to tab Frank Bush, his linebackers coach, as the new defensive coordinator. Bush had no experience coordinating a defense on any level. The Texans did not even interview another candidate, and only asked for permission to interview Washington assistant Jerry Gray. (They were denied that permission.) “I just think we’ve got something started here. We don’t want to venture away from our 4-3 scheme and what we’re doing,” Kubiak told reporters.
Bush’s opening press conference was a barn burner. He wasn’t able to pinpoint one thing that the team would do differently outside of saying that they’d be a more attacking, aggressive defense. It was a press conference that spoke more to emotion than some sort of tactical shift. He was a man who sounded like he had the respect of his locker room, but that was about all you could say he had as far as public comments.
Despite that, the Texans rebounded to 20th in defensive DVOA in 2009. They drafted Brian Cushing in the first round, Glover Quin in the fourth round, and signed veteran Cardinals rusher Antonio Smith as a free agent. Bernard Pollard came in as a free agent and provided the team with some extremely rare (for this franchise) good play from a box safety. Cushing had one of the best defensive rookie seasons in recent NFL memory, picking off four balls, picking up four sacks, and getting 133 tackles. The overall talent level rose, they faced the 25th-hardest schedule by a defense in the NFL, and Bush’s offense capitalized (aggressively!) with 27 takeaways, a five takeaway increase from 2008 and more than the Texans had produced in any year of Richard Smith’s tenure.
That offseason, the Texans spent the 20th overall pick on Kareem Jackson after losing Dunta Robinson in free agency. And by that, we mean that he literally put “Pay Me, Rick!” on his shoes in the 2009 opener. The Texans spent three of their first four picks on defense yet again, with Darryl Sharpton and Earl Mitchell joining the fold.
One year after all that promise, the Texans came back in 2010 and forced a league-low 18 turnovers, finishing 31st in defensive DVOA. Frank Bush was let go. He has never coordinated another defense to this day.
The Texans hired known good coordinator Wade Phillips, drafted J.J. Watt in the first round, signed Johnathan Joseph, and immediately had a good defense for the first time in the history of their franchise.
New defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver still has not had a press availability, has not answered any questions at all about how the defense will be, but he is in roughly the same predicament that Bush faced. He was elevated to coordinator despite no coordinator experience, and — I need to emphasize again this is not a slam on the person — I think that should temper expectations about the Texans defense rather than raise them.
You can tie Houston’s defense under Romeo Crennel very neatly to their pass rush:
The hurry rate is mostly meaningless. When they create negative plays, they win. When they don’t, they’re bad.
Unlike Bush’s situation though, Weaver isn’t walking in to a situation with a lot of established star power and tons of help coming. If the Texans got a rookie of the year Cushing kind of performance out of someone new that they brought in, it would be a 99th-percentile outcome for whatever draft pick or free agent did it.
He’s also walking into a situation where the defense isn’t young. If you compare the two situations (no, I’m not posting an entire depth chart, I don’t want to hear whiny Twitter posts about where Jacob Martin or Charles Omenihu is) as far as their starting lineups, these Texans are much older.
The best days for this starting pass rush are behind them. J.J. Watt is an indomitable force and I will never count him out of a 10-sack season, but he hasn’t stayed healthy for three of the last four years. When he’s gone Whitney Mercilus doesn’t pick up sacks. That 2009 Texans team had two starters over 28 years old, of which you can say that only Antonio Smith was actually important. The 2019 Texans have five. And of the young players the Texans have, I would say only Justin Reid and Zach Cunningham (who is 26) have left a meaningful mark in the league to this point. Yes, they’ve got depth, they’ve got some young players that could bust out. But … that is promise, not known production.
(Isn’t it kinda eerie how comfortably Bradley Roby fits that Dunta Robinson role?)
The reason Weaver’s situation reminds me a lot of Bush’s is because both of them were in-house replacements of situations that had sort of fallen apart. I don’t think Weaver has had the same amount of support that Bush has had this offseason — partially because the entire concept of the draft was sent for Laremy Tunsil — but that takes us into the land of expectations.
No matter what Bush did, and no matter what Weaver does in his first season, there is a way to spin it as a win. Obviously if the Texans become a dominant defense, I’ll have looked back on writing this and laugh at myself a lot. But let’s say Weaver gets the Texans to roughly the finish they had in 2009. You know what was said a lot back then? Frank Bush “improved as the season went along.” He was a rookie coordinator just getting his footing for the first time. You can’t let his first season influence you, greatness is coming with a full offseason.
In other words, there were a lot of excuses about why things weren’t better. The expectations were set by the unit being rock bottom, so even a dead cat bounce caused by some good turnover luck and weak opposing quarterbacks could be spun as a positive. If Weaver’s defense is as bad as Romeo’s was last year? Well, it’s clearly a talent issue! You’ve got to let the coach get better talent on the defense so he can run it the way he wants to run it.
This is how the kind of wishful thinking I’m always railing on becomes a crutch for a team. It has been blatantly obvious for years that the Texans haven’t had a true No. 1 corner since Johnathan Joseph lost a step. It has been blatantly obvious for years that J.J. Watt should have been rushing inside more to get Clowney and Mercilus on the outside. It has been obvious for years that Romeo Crennel’s XX-and-long zone looks were getting dunked on. But if you’re in that cocoon, and you know only who you know, and you don’t come up for some fresh air, you’re just going to say “we think we can get this scheme fixed” and stay in that same comfortable rut. Belief is a powerful weapon in football, and it’s often used as a cudgel to stay the same regardless of results.
To reiterate: The only time in franchise history that the Texans ever had a dominant defense was when the head coach was forced to hire a defensive coordinator he wasn’t complete buddypals with. Belief is cheap and easily misplaced. Good results are a lot harder to come by.
I think the Texans need 16 games of Watt and a complete out-of-nowhere jump from someone to be a good defense next year. Either that, or Weaver needs to be a terrific defensive coordinator from the jump. It’s not an easy situation for him to come in with — but the good news is that Bill O’Brien believes in him.
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