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What happens when you hit on your franchise quarterback, but between bad coaching decisions, bad free-agency decisions, and bad luck, you’re irrelevant after a nice little stretch? That’s the situation the Houston Texans find themselves in, and it’s a situation that reminds me a lot of what the Atlanta Falcons were up to in the middle of last decade.
The re-creation of that scenario
After the Falcons drafted Matt Ryan in 2008, they immediately became a good team. They finished 11-5 in Ryan’s first year, losing a wild card game, and after a year of reconsolidation, they made three straight playoffs, winning 36 games in three years, but getting labeled chokers after Aaron Rodgers kicked them around in a divisional round game and they blew a 24-14 halftime lead to the San Francisco 49ers in the 2012 NFC Championship game.
The Falcons didn’t know it at the time, but Mike Nolan’s defensive chops were fading. The offense would fight like hell over the next two seasons to get anywhere, but losing Dunta Robinson, Asante Samuel, and especially John Abraham would make it an uphill battle. Their defense simultaneously got too old and they didn’t hit on any of the picks they had, as well as losing players like Sean Weatherspoon to injury attrition. They had committed a trade-up for superstar wide receiver Julio Jones, and he was immediately great. But at the cost of two-first round picks and a second-round pick, as well as some additional picks, it made it hard for the Falcons to bring in fresh blood for a bit.
The 2013 Falcons would finish 26th in defensive DVOA. Their major offseason additions were Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson. I’m sure you’ve heard of them. In related news, the 2014 Falcons finished 31st in defensive DVOA, finally getting the head coach fired. Once Dan Quinn was installed and the offense was handed over to Kyle Shanahan, the Falcons immediately trended up to 8-8 in 2015 (after a 6-1 start), and then the Super Bowl the next year.
Maybe you’re thinking: “OK Rivers but this defensive roster is SO bad!” Yeah, okay, let me run you the table that we ran in the Falcons chapter of the 2015 Football Outsiders Almanac:
This isn’t even a team that had a J.J. Watt. That front seven barely had young players you could describe as “as promising as Charles Omenihu.” Yeah, that’s right Prince Shembo fans. I’m calling you out.
The Texans don’t have the exact same circumstances because, if anything, they have done what the Falcons have done but condensed it into a much smaller period of time. Even for how much our attention span has been attacked over the last decade by cell phones and alerts, it’s hard to believe how much upheaval and damage was done in the period between Brian Gaine’s firing in June 2019 and Bill O’Brien’s in October 2020. It’s been a constant string of bad news.
The big trade for an elite talent (Laremy Tunsil is getting paid, Jones was not), the defections of older good talent on defense leading to decay, and the franchise quarterback (Ryan is no Deshaun Watson and that’s no slam on Ryan) make this feel like a fairly relevant scenario to me. The Falcons got further into the playoffs than the Texans did, but I think you can charitably apply the choker label to a franchise that blew a 24-0 lead to Kansas City and barely showed up as an offense against the Bills and Colts.
They stand in roughly the same spot as the Falcons were after they fired Mike Smith at the end of 2014 — they’ve got the franchise quarterback, they have a terrible defense, and they’re in need of some updates to the roster. There’s been a lot of talk about how you turn things around quickly without draft picks, mostly from people who just want to separate Deshaun Watson from the Texans for their own selfish reasons.
But the Falcons didn’t really do anything special after the 2014 season. If anything they released a lot of old hands like Steven Jackson and Harry Douglas, They signed Alex Mack as a free agent after the 2015 season, but other than that they just crushed it in the draft — even in the lower rounds — and the turnaround was more a matter of just, well, not doing dumb shit. Hiring coaches that had more of a clue. Creating a system that amplified what they already had. And so on.
The Texans don’t have quite the same options because financially they’re in a different situation — set to be over the cap on a $176 million estimate before they deal with Will Fuller and how to untangle what he means with all his Not Playing Today baggage. The only way to overcome bold moves blowing up in your face is to either wait a while or just continue making bold moves. Given just how many bad contracts are on the roster, it might behoove the Texans to try to Brock Osweiler away some of this cap space. Whitney Mercilus will cost money to get rid of this offseason as a release, but if you trade him, you can reap as much as $10.5 million. Eric Murray saves almost no money as a cut — trading him can free up about $4-5.25 million depending on the designation. Randall Cobb is on the same basic plan as Mercilus, with up to $8.6 million available if he’s traded away.
There’s not a lot on this roster that needs to be sacred after a year like this and pairing these guys into a trade ala the Osweiler thing where you tempt a low-spending team into using their cap is a way to deal with this and let the Texans fix their holes in free agency without major constraints. Hell, with several teams over the cap, there might even be some space for some challenge trades with other underperforming or suddenly questionable players. (How about a Brandon Brooks reunion challenge trade with the $65 million over the cap Eagles?) I think if the Texans want to compete next year, they need to approach this offseason with the belief that the salary cap is there to be manipulated if they want to really bring in impact talent. There’s nothing stopping that from happening besides the front office’s creativity.
But the major plan for this roster doesn’t need to be very complicated — I roll my eyes whenever I see someone suggest that this is a long-term rebuild. They need to maximize Watson, recreate the defensive roster to a different system if a new DC is hired, and bring in defensive backs who can play to surround Justin Reid and (if they still want him) Bradley Roby. Kudos if you can get them in the draft, but don’t pretend that you’re going to without a pick in the first two rounds. And that’s pretty much it. There is no will-the-quarterback-be-good, do-we-need-to-find-the-quarterback, etc. debate. I think the running game is a matter of scheme. I think the offensive line will play better under new coaching. The defense being bad at stopping the run isn’t ideal, but the Chiefs have been terrible at stopping the run the last two years and that hasn’t really held them back in the slightest.
Just hire smart people and don’t do dumb shit to them. That’s all it takes to get this back on track.
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