Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

12 Sep 2017

Any Given Sunday: Jaguars Over Texans

by Rivers McCown

Before Cleveland hired Paul DePodesta, the Jaguars were the OGs of the statistical analysis movement in the NFL. Many smart people in the front office helped point out a bunch of late-round picks that would blossom. They also watched as their football people selected Blake Bortles and Dante Fowler.

So it is somewhat funny that, after a regime change and with a new direction under long-time coach and now exec Tom Coughlin, the Jaguars took their fourth overall pick and used it on running back Leonard Fournette. Traditional football analytics would have told you that this was an asinine move. Analytics would have broken down how often running backs selected early fail and how often later-drafted backs succeed; analytics would have looked at the short shelf life and peak of franchise backs; analytics would conclude that the Jaguars have wasted their time. This would be the likely result despite how good Fournette looked by our projections and by everyone else's eyes.

And if the Jaguars had listened to analytics in that case, they wouldn't have gotten to enjoy this.

Dallas using the fourth overall pick on Ezekiel Elliott last year has reverberated around the football landscape. Head coaches have always thought that running the football is an important part of winning, but what is perhaps not crystallized in our statistics of today is that a strong run game can mask a lot of weaknesses. Have a faulty defense? Running can help you keep possession of the ball and keep them fresh. Have a passing game that can't operate deep? A strong back and a good scheme can get you to third-and-4 and make it a little easier.

The Jaguars have long tried to play this kind of bully-ball around Blake Bortles. It was practically Gus Bradley's wet dream to have a sledgehammer back like Fournette who could run over NFL linebackers with ease. Gus Bradley, instead, got Toby Gerhart.

Look at Quick Reads today and you'll see that Bortles did well statistically. But the context of those numbers was remarkably easy. Bortles had only two third-down passes with 8 yards or more to go for a first down. A lot of his yards came on simple, well-defined reads. He actually made some pretty good throws in this game, considering what we know of Bortles, but the Jaguars never had to ask him to do anything difficult in order to win.

Instead, they let Leonard Fournette boss around last year's 18th-ranked run defense by DVOA. It went from a win to an easy win because of what happened on the other side of the ball, but this game showed that the Jags could actually establish an offensive identity. With only Tennessee looking alive in the division at this point, that's a big step towards AFC South contention.

By the DVOA

DVOA Offense Defense Special Teams Total
HOU -40.1% 15.1% 2.3% -52.9%
JAC 11.9% -36.7% -15.4% 33.2%

Texans special teams won! Free Ka'imi Fairbairn! Uh ... yeah, this was bleak.

The Bill O'Brien Nightmare

The Houston Texans haven't had a good offense for a long time. It essentially went up in smoke with Matt Schaub towards the end of the 2012 season and has since then been sputtering along with ill-fitting replacement parts.

A lot has been written these past few days about Bill O'Brien's management of his quarterback situation. He gave all the first-team reps this offseason to Tom Savage, got one look at Tom Savage in an actual NFL game, and immediately switched to Deshaun Watson. This does not come as a surprise to the writer, who wrote this offseason in Football Outsiders Almanac 2017 (still available!) that the highlight of Savage's career would probably be his unquestioned No. 1 status in this training camp. Savage is a slow-processing, slow-footed quarterback who was built to look great in training camp practices and preseason games where he wouldn't be pressured by the defense. He basically threw Houston's No. 1 and No. 2 tight ends into concussions, and got DeAndre Hopkins slammed around to boot.

Now, all that said, a lot of the bad things that happened in this game were not Savage's fault. Jacksonville's defense now contains a multitude of defensive linemen who can win one-on-one against good NFL offensive linemen. The lineup that Houston threw out there, sans contract holdout Duane Brown, has perhaps one good NFL lineman: second-year center Nick Martin. The three-way tackle battle of Breno Giacomini, Chris Clark, and Kendall Lamm is abysmal. Xavier Su'a-Filo, a 2014 non-quarterback second-round pick, aspires to good during his best games. Jeff Allen has been hurt and terrible for the entirety of the time since the Texans let Brandon Brooks walk and signed Allen as a replacement.

Houston's receivers for this game included a grand total of one player who has ever caught more than 60 balls in a season: Hopkins. (Hopkins, by the way, struggled at the catch point in this game and had real trouble dealing with Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye.) The situation got more dire as more players got hurt. By the end of the game, second-year running back Tyler Ervin was running post routes.

And, perhaps most importantly, Houston's offense under O'Brien continues to do absolutely nothing to open up players outside of the structure of the offense. Once Watson was put in, Jacksonville teed off with aplomb knowing that there were no quick throws for the rookie to go to. Get a load of these checkdown options:

Ten sacks don't just happen because of bad players and mismatches. It takes a special helping of hubris to keep doing what's supposed to work just because it's supposed to work, even when it isn't working. Such as, say, sending five players out into routes where none of them are immediately open and therefore easy to throw to in the first second when a blitz is coming.

It's very easy to get lost in bad players and raw quarterbacks and assume that things can't be better because the talent is low. That story is, verbatim, what we constantly hear about Houston's offense under O'Brien. "He's doing the best he can with Bryom FitzHoyerSavWeiler!"

But good offenses find the easy yards that they can to buffer these kinds of things. Just last year, the Bills had the 18th-best pass offense with half a season of Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods as their main receivers. The Bengals finished with the 11th-best passing offense with a half-season of A.J. Green and loved their skill players so much they immediately drafted John Ross in the top 10.

O'Brien made a big show of firing his offensive coordinator, hiring nobody this year, and making sure the media knew that the heat was on him. Well, it's here Bill. No more scapegoats. Your offense doesn't work as presently constructed with this personnel. You haven't corrected it. Fix it or this season will hit the bricks.

Posted by: Rivers McCown on 12 Sep 2017

4 comments, Last at 13 Sep 2017, 4:53pm by ohanlond

Comments

1
by pnct0303 :: Tue, 09/12/2017 - 10:23pm

It seemed like a majority of Hopkins' catches came from Watson?

2
by Richie :: Wed, 09/13/2017 - 2:12am

Looks like he caught 6 passes on 11 targets from Watson and 1 pass on 6 targets from Savage.

3
by Will Allen :: Wed, 09/13/2017 - 11:25am

I think if you look at the 2016 Vikings, you get a sense of how to optimize awful personnel situations. Some at FO have criticized Shurmur for not trying to run more, but that seems to me to ignore reality. That walking wounded group, that was low on talent to begin with, could not be counted on to not yield immediate penetration on nearly any snap. The qb joined the team a few days before the 1st game. After Peterson was injured in week 2, there were no even average running backs, and injury also depleted a good receiving corps. For that offense to finish 26th by DVOA, and the passing offense to finish 19th, was really pretty good. Shurmur squeezed as much juice out of a pebble as possible, and if the kicker has a good year, the Vikings probably make the playoffs.

4
by ohanlond :: Wed, 09/13/2017 - 4:53pm

Glad to see this column back for the new year.
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