Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
24 Oct 2006
by Ned Macey
Every team in the NFL enters training camp with hope. Often, at least in Detroit and Arizona, that hope is misplaced. But most teams, if everything breaks just right, have a chance to be competitors. In Houston, things have assuredly not broken right, but Sunday's win highlighted pieces that are going to be crucial to any franchise turnaround. For Jacksonville, coming off a 12-4 season, it was less a matter of things breaking right than things not falling apart. Instead, injuries have crippled their defense and left them with an uphill battle to return to the playoffs.
As a member of the IPA, Internet Pundits Association, I am contractually required to include a Reggie Bush comment in the first two paragraphs of any Houston Texans article. Rather than belabor the merits of drafting Bush, I offer only that Bush's role as savior in New Orleans has been greatly overstated. Admittedly, he would be a better option than the three-headed "monster" of Ron Dayne, Samkon Gado, and Wali Lundy. But it is doubtful the presence of Bush would have changed the outcome in any of Houston's four losses, all of which came by at least two touchdowns. Bush may or may not have been the correct choice, but the Texans certainly need more than one savior.
The Texans run offense is bad, but their defense may be worse. The transformation from the 3-4 of Dom Capers to the 4-3 of new defensive coordinator Richard Smith has proven a valuable lesson to analysts everywhere: scheme is not all that important when your team lacks talent. The Texans have struggled on defense all year, excelling Sunday only because they faced a hobbled quarterback.
When reasonable talent is in place, however, a change in coaching can lead to a substantial change in performance. The Texans made David Carr the face of their franchise when they drafted him before their inaugural season with the first overall pick. They spent the past four years sadistically running a system that led to Carr getting sacked at record rates.
Much blame was placed on the offensive line, but half a year into the Kubiak era, it seems that coaching may have been the cause of Carr's stunted growth. The transformation this season has been pronounced. Carr is completing an amazing 70 percent of his passes and taking sacks at a lower rate than at any point in his career.
Kubiak was expected to bring a potent running attack akin to Denver's, but the former quarterback appears to be more of a passing game guru. Not only is the Texans run game among the worst in the league, but Kubiak's former charge, Jake Plummer, is struggling immensely following Kubiak's departure. A year ago, Plummer ranked sixth and Carr 41st in DPAR. So far this year, Carr is 18th while Plummer ranks 27th.
The new regime's plan, at least on Sunday, was to keep Carr throwing short patterns. Screens, crossing patterns, and quick slants were the vast majority of the throws. When Carr was pressured, he was willing to check down or throw the ball away. As a result, he was sacked only once. Like Plummer in Denver, Carr frequently moved outside the pocket, including a nifty bootleg on the game-clinching touchdown to tight end Owen Daniels.
Carr only went deep a few times, but one was the best play of the day, a 43-yard touchdown pass to Andre Johnson. The fourth-year receiver has been dominant this year, and on that play he beat double coverage to make an outstanding catch. For most of the game, he ran crossing routes, but he plays so physically he is a challenge for defensive backs to take down in the open field. He turned a 3-yard pass into a 26-yard gain in the first quarter when he broke a Rashean Mathis tackle and stormed down the sideline.
Carr is completing over 75 percent of his passes intended for Johnson and fellow wideout Eric Moulds, thanks in large part to all those short patterns. Moulds' performance is less impressive given that he is targeted only five times a game. Johnson, though, is targeted more than ten times a game. He is catching almost everything thrown his way and still averaging a respectable 12.6 yards per reception.
Unfortunately, Kubiak seems to have misplaced the magic running game formula from Denver. Part of the problem is that Houston's offensive linemen are bigger than those favored by the Denver system. Every starter on the line weighs over 300 pounds. The Denver offensive line has only one such behemoth, George Foster. As the offense develops, Kubiak will look to bring in linemen more consistent with this vision. Whether that will turn Lundy or Gado into Olandis Gary or Mike Anderson remains to be seen.
For one quarter, at least, it looked like Lundy would not need the new offensive linemen. He ran for 80 yards in the fourth quarter alone, contributing to 17 points. Hopefully the Ron Dayne experiment is over, but consistent production from Lundy is unlikely. For the season, he still rates as a replacement-level running back.
The sight of Lundy piercing the vaunted Jaguars defense was truly shocking to the eyes, but when those eyes started to focus on the numbers on the Jacksonville jerseys, it became obvious how banged up the front seven was. Defensive end Reggie Hayward and middle linebacker Mike Peterson are both out for the season. Defensive tackle Marcus Stroud missed his second consecutive game. The Jaguars were also short nickel back Terry Cousin. These injuries impact depth, so it should be no surprise that the Jaguars wore down in the fourth quarter.
Depth is a crucial part of any successful team, and injuries are to be expected. Still, at a certain point, any team can lose only so many starters, particularly if the injuries are occurring to Pro Bowl or near-Pro Bowl caliber players. The Jaguars were still playing at a high level after losing Hayward, and they stomped the Jets a week ago without Stroud and with Peterson injured early. To consistently ask for that type of performance is unreasonable.
The Jaguars still have good defenders: John Henderson, Donovin Darius, Rashean Mathis, and Brian Williams to name a few. The unheralded veteran Paul Spicer has developed into a quality defensive end. With Stroud back in the near future, this defense will likely remain solid. Down this many bodies, however, it seems impossible for them to avoid a decrease in efficiency.
Without Jacksonville's typical stingy defense, more pressure will be placed on the offense to carry its own weight. Against Houston, a hobbled Byron Leftwich was not up to the task, and the Jacksonville offense stalled repeatedly. The last time we saw a gimpy Leftwich play was in last year's blowout loss to the Patriots, where he served as Willie McGinest's personal punching bag.
Leftwich never moves particularly well, so the thinking is that a bad ankle does not have a large impact on his performance. After watching him spray passes throughout the game, a different conclusion may be warranted. Whether it was lack of practice or mechanics hampered by the sore ankle, the passing offense never clicked. Leftwich did not complete a pass to a wide receiver in the first half. The Jaguars had David Garrard on the bench, and while Leftwich is the better quarterback, it is likely that Garrard would have been the better quarterback on Sunday.
Presumably, the Jaguars do not want to create a quarterback controversy. That is no excuse for not playing the better player when the starter is injured. Jack Del Rio should be confident that Leftwich is his best quarterback. But if on a given Sunday Leftwich is physically unable to perform, putting Garrard in does not have to create a controversy. Instead, Del Rio stuck with "his guy" and watched him go 14-for-28 for only 125 yards.
While Leftwich struggled, he received almost no help from his teammates. Fred Taylor had a couple of nice runs on the touchdown drive, but his most important play was a fumble at the Houston 27-yard line when Jacksonville trailed 10-7.
After Houston converted the turnover into a score, Ernest Wilford promptly fumbled on Jacksonville's first play from scrimmage. Wilford caught what was probably the best throw from Leftwich all day and coughed it up fighting for more yards. Houston turned that into another touchdown. Within six minutes of game time, the game went from close to essentially over.
Wilford's fumble was just the low point of an overall poor performance by the Jaguars receivers. We knew this team would miss Jimmy Smith, but the receivers he left behind played surprisingly well in September. That's no longer the case. With Matt Jones limited by injuries, the Jaguars are now using Cortez Hankton as their third receiver. Reggie Williams has improved from consistently awful to wildly inconsistent, but he is not exactly a prototypical number one receiver. Wilford, who excelled when defenses ignored him a year ago, is struggling now that he is consistently covered.
The Jaguars' road to the playoffs was supposed to be paved with four easy wins against Houston and Tennessee. A return trip seems unlikely now that they have dropped one of the supposed gimmes and are losing defenders left and right. They have five games remaining against NFL bottom-feeders, but three of those are on the road, where the Jaguars have started the year 0-3.
Unless Leftwich finds a new level, the offense is going to struggle. They are running the ball as effectively as they have in years, thanks in no small part to Maurice Jones-Drew. But passing wins in the NFL. Leftwich is their best offensive player, but this year he has been only average. He had to take a step forward from last year's performance to get this team where it wants to go. Instead, he is playing well below that level.
Houston, for really the first time in its history, is an interesting team to watch. Johnson has emerged as one of the top 10 wide receivers in football to jump start the passing game. Now, the team needs only improve everything else. Needless to say, the rebuilding plan continues. With two games against Tennessee and home games against Buffalo and Cleveland, the Texans can win six games -- sadly, the second most in franchise history -- without pulling any more surprising upsets. With a successful 2007 off-season to rebuild the offensive line and upgrade the linebackers, the Texans could dare to dream of going to that place they've never gone before: above .500.
Each Tuesday in Any Given Sunday, Ned Macey looks at the most surprising result of the previous weekend. The NFL sells itself on the idea that any team can win any given game, but we use these surprises as a tool to explore what trends and subtle aspects of each team are revealed in a single game.
28 comments, Last at 26 Oct 2006, 9:10pm by Biffy