Too Deep Zone: Uncoordinated in Houston

by Mike Tanier

The Chris Palmer era in Houston ended with a whimper.

The Texans trailed the Steelers 27-7 in the fourth quarter. There was no real hope of a comeback, but the Texans kept battling. Unfortunately, QB David Carr was a rattled, beaten-up basket case in the pocket.

The last meaningful Texans drive of the game started with an intentional grounding penalty against Carr. A few plays later, the confused signal-caller was flagged for his second delay of game penalty of the afternoon. On third-and-15, he was sacked for the seventh time in the game. The Steelers took the ball back and sat on it. Carr got one last possession with just a minute to play; the Steelers found time to sack him one last time.

This was supposed to be the year that Carr and the Texans offense turned the corner. Instead, they disintegrated. The numbers were ugly. In two games, the Texans mustered just 341 net offensive yards. They allowed 13 sacks and suffered six turnovers. The offense managed just two touchdowns. Drastic changes were necessary.

So Dom Capers and GM Charley Casserly did the nearly unthinkable: they fired their offensive coordinator. Palmer, the only offensive coach the Texans ever had, was out the door. Offensive line coach Joe Pendry was given two weeks to straighten out the Texans offense before the team traveled to Cincinnati.

Casserly is a smart executive. The Texans strive to be a class organization. Capers, Palmer and Pendry are all veteran coaches. They all know that firing a coordinator in mid-season is a last-resort strategy. How did it come to this?

Mixed Signals

Chris Palmer had to be looking over his shoulder as the season began.

His offenses were expansion horrible in 2002, a little better in 2003, and pretty good in 2004. But by the end of the 2004 season, the Texans offense had stagnated. The team surrendered 17 sacks in its final four games. Carr failed to throw for over 220 yards after Week 9. The pass protection needed to improve if the Texans hoped to get better.

Pendry, who was hired as the Texans' guards and centers coach in 2004, had been Dom Capers' offensive coordinator in Carolina for three years. After the 2004 season ended, he had the opportunity to interview for the vacant coordinator job in Miami. But Capers wouldn't let him go. Instead, he gave Pendry more responsibilities -- and more authority.

Pendry and Palmer coexisted peacefully throughout the offseason and training camp. They added more three-step drops to the playbook so the offensive linemen wouldn't be forced to sustain their blocks for so long. They installed a buzzer at their practice facility that sounded whenever Carr held the ball too long. Carr loved the changes; after he adjusted to the new system, the buzzer rarely sounded.

But while the changes were thought to be Pendry's innovations, Palmer still called the plays. By the season opener, the three-step drops and short throws were all but forgotten. Carr took deep drops against the Bills, and he rarely had a pocket to throw from. When he wasn't getting flattened, he threw the ball up for grabs. Matters only got worse against the Steelers. Carr's confidence was shattered, and he threw more tantrums than accurate passes against Pittsburgh as he bickered with his overmatched line.

Rumors circulated soon after the game that Palmer would be relieved of play-calling duties but retained by the organization. But Capers and Casserly took more drastic measures. Perhaps firing him was more humane than retaining him as a token assistant. But if the Texans' biggest problem was their offensive line, why did they promote their offensive line coach? Was it simply cronyism, or did Pendry's performance merit promotion?

Passable Protection

The Texans allowed 76 sacks in their inaugural season. In 2003, they allowed just 35 sacks. In 2004, Pendry's first year as co-line coach, the team's sack total rose to 50.

Tallying sacks isn't the best way to evaluate an offensive line. Quarterbacks cause many sacks by holding the ball too long. Teams that throw more give defenses more sack opportunities. Teams that get caught in lots of third-and-long situations expose their quarterbacks to more blitzes. And the schedule matters, as some passers face much better defenses than others.

At Football Outsiders, we use a statistic called Adjusted Sack Rate, which measures sacks per pass play adjusted for situation and opponent (further explained here). The Texans finished dead last in Adjusted Sack Rate in 2002 (14.0%), rose to 25th in 2003 (7.3%) and dropped to 30th (10.5%) last year. They were dead last for the first two games of this season with an astonishing 21.6%.

Pendry's lines, it would seem, should shoulder much of the blame for the Texans' offensive woes. But pass blocking is just part of an offensive line's job. Football Outsiders uses a statistic called Adjusted Line Yards (explained here) to evaluate the quality of a team's run blocking. The Texans were last in the league in Adjusted Line Yards in 2002 (3.10), 29th in 2003 (3.68), but 19th in 2004 (4.14). They have 4.14 ALY per carry again through two games of this season, but since rushing totals are down around the league, that's good enough to rank 11th.

So Pendry did improve the run blocking substantially. Maybe, as Capers suggested after Palmer was fired, many of the sacks were the result of Carr's indecision, or of untenable gameplans.

Either way, Pendry must shake the perception that he's just the head coach's old buddy who played politics to get his hands on the coordinator's headset. (Contrary to some reports, Capers did not fire Pendry from the Panthers in the mid-1990's.) The best way he can do that is to get the Texans to score some points. And as the line statistics above show, the best way the Texans can score points right now is by emphasizing the running game. If Pendry's former teams are any indicator, the passing game will come around once opponents respect the run.

Born to Run . . . and Pass

Palmer liked to throw. Pendry likes to run. That's the shorthand explanation of how the Texans offense will change in the weeks to come. It's an oversimplification, of course, and it distorts the real differences between the coaches and the challenges the Texans now face.

"Joe Pendry has a reputation for being so conservative he makes George W. Bush look like Bill Clinton," John McClain wrote in the Houston Chronicle. The reputation is somewhat deserved. Pendry doesn't plan to run the ball 50 times per game or keep eight blockers in to protect Carr, but he's going to run the football.

In his three years in Buffalo (1998-2000), the Bills finished first, second, and 12th in the NFL in rushing attempts. His 1996 Panthers finished fourth in the NFL in rushing attempts. But rushing attempts go up when a team is winning, and Pendry's hard-running teams were all very successful, in part because they were efficient when throwing the ball.

Using Football Outsiders' signature DVOA statistic (explained here), it's possible to assess the quality of Pendry's Buffalo offenses without the distortions that appear in conventional statistics. The Bills running game ranked third in the NFL in DVOA in 1998, 12th in 1999, and 20th in 2000. Surprisingly, their passing offenses were better: sixth in the NFL in 1998, fourth in 1999, 11th in 2000.

How did a run-oriented coordinator produce such good passing figures? Pendry's Bills were efficient when throwing the ball, and that efficiency can even be seen if you look carefully at the traditional statistics. In 1998, for example, Bills quarterbacks Doug Flutie and Rob Johnson finished fourth in the NFL with 7.85 yards per passing attempt while throwing for 28 touchdowns. Pendry ran to set up the pass, he ran to protect the lead, but he wasn't shy about throwing the ball.

"I know we're going to run the ball, because he's a guy who likes to run the ball," Domanick Davis said of his new coach. Davis can count on some extra carries, but Pendry wasn't promoted to turn the Texans into a wishbone team. He's expected to get Carr to produce. And he must restore his quarterback's confidence on a super-tight schedule.

Work and Worry

If you think two weeks aren't a long enough for a coach to make major adjustments, try doing it in one week. The Texans had to leave Houston in the wake of Hurricane Rita. They practiced just twice during their bye week. Pendry had to hustle to make up for lost time.

So Pendry is emphasizing simple changes. He's bringing back the three-step drops. His linemen won't be asked to make as many adjustments or do as much finesse blocking. He plans to get star wide receiver Andre Johnson the ball more. And Carr is under orders to limit his audibles and get rid of the ball in a hurry.

Players, meanwhile, are getting used to Pendry's style. Palmer was laid back; Pendry is a shouter. Carr has welcomed the new approach so far. "I realized there were things I was doing that I didn't even know I was doing," Carr said. "There are things Joe has pointed out, just bad habits. It's little stuff, but it makes a big difference in the game." Those bad habits got Carr benched for part of one practice: Pendry sits any player who makes a major mistake in drills, and Carr wasn't getting rid of the ball quickly enough.

Not everyone is adjusting as quickly as Carr. "Coach Palmer is what you could say was 'my guy,'" left guard Chester Pitts told the Houston Chronicle last week. "He was my coach. The guy that stood up for me in the draft room the first year of our expansion team and said, 'Chester Pitts is a guy I believe this team needs.' To me, it's more of a blow than any other coach getting fired."

Pro football is a cutthroat business, but the Palmer firing was particularly stunning. Observers were left wondering why the change wasn't made in January, when jobs were available around the league and the organization was clearly leaning toward Pendry over Palmer. Capers said that he "agonized" over the decision to fire Palmer, but a skeptic might suggest that the head coach strung the coordinator along, then used him as a scapegoat for the team's poor start.

All of which must roll of Pendry's back. He can save many jobs -- his own, Carr's, Capers', perhaps even Casserly's -- if he can turn the Texans offense around. Unfortunately, he may be facing the NFL's best team this Sunday: the Bengals have an improved defense to go with their excellent offense, and they won't give up many gift points.

"You have to worry about everything," Pendry told the Chronicle on Wednesday. "If there's anything you don't have to worry about, I haven't found it yet." Pendry has three months to worry about the Texans offense. If he doesn't turn things around, he'll have even more to worry about.


16 comments, Last at 03 Oct 2005, 3:53pm

1 Re: Too Deep Zone: Uncoordinated in Houston

Firing a coordinator while a Hurricane is bearing down on your team's practice facility seems like a heartless and stupid thing to do. I agree that if Capers was so displeased with Palmer, he should have gotten rid of him over the offseason instead of wating till 3 games into the season. And now, with the Hurricane, you miss all the benefits of giving your team an extra week to get used to the new coordinator. I think this move officially puts Capers in the hot-seat and enters the Texans into Leinhart-land.
By the way, what happend to the Alba-bashing idea?

2 Re: Too Deep Zone: Uncoordinated in Houston

Well written article, Mike.

Question, however. You write, "He plans to get star wide receiver Andre Johnson the ball more. And Carr is under orders to limit his audibles and get rid of the ball in a hurry."

Now, I haven't seen enough Texans' game footage to know the answer to the following, but does any blame belong to the pass-catchers (as opposed to just the wide receivers) for not running the diagrammed routes or for dropping passes?

3 Re: Too Deep Zone: Uncoordinated in Houston

MikeT raised an interesting point that I hope no one missed:

They added more three-step drops to the playbook so the offensive linemen wouldn’t be forced to sustain their blocks for so long.

The decision to change the quarterback's drops to avoid more sacks goes back to something I think needs more discussion: How much blame does Carr deserve for his sacks? It seems like every time I watch the Texans I see at least one play when Carr holds the ball way too long. He needs to learn to fire it more quickly. I once read something by another football writer that said Carr rarely makes mental mistakes. I e-mailed him and asked him whether he was considering how many times Carr made the mental mistake of taking a sack when he could have thrown the ball away, and the writer told me he hadn't thought about it that way.

B, if the Texans do get the first pick in the draft, are they in Leinart Land or D'Brickashaw D'erby? The majority seems to think Carr is a good young quarterback who just needs more protection, but I think the Texans need a new quarterback.

4 Re: Too Deep Zone: Uncoordinated in Houston

I think the Texans need a new quarterback simply because they broke this one. I think Carr might actually succeed somewhere else, but only if he goes somewhere else as a backup, and then starts due to injury. He needs to get his confidence back, and I don't think he can do that at Houston.

5 Re: Too Deep Zone: Uncoordinated in Houston

MDS: I feel that if the Texans end up with the top pick in the draft, they take Leinhart. This was supposed to be the year when Houston turns it around and has a decent season (Not playoff-caliber, more like 7-9 decent). When that doesn't happen, blame will fall to the Coach and the QB.

6 Re: Too Deep Zone: Uncoordinated in Houston

B, the Texans had your season last year -- 7-9 and in third in the AFC South. Falling back to 4-12 or worse, when a winning record was expected (especially in the relatively weak AFC South), would indicate blowing up the place and restarting. That means taking whichever they can get.

If they tumble all the way to the first pick? Then take D'Brickashaw -- healthier than Boselli, which means your rebuilding isn't as stillborn as your original expansion draft. But if Green Bay takes him instead, then take Leinart.

7 Re: Too Deep Zone: Uncoordinated in Houston

"By the way, what happend to the Alba-bashing idea?"

Maybe he scrapped it after people got Alba-based free email accounts to taunt him? Or was I the only one? I guess I just have too much time on my hands (cue Tommy Shaw!).

I think the timing of the firing is the thing that had most of us shaking our heads. If they had such little faith in Palmer, why bring him back this year at all. On the other hand, maybe they actually thought things would improve, and when the offense went in the tank they decided it's better to cut losses and try to change things now than let a lame duck hang on all year. I heard one of the ESPN Radio guys talking about this in regards to Tice not long ago, and I think it made a lot of sense. As soon as you're convinced he isn't the right guy, cut him loose, you gain nothing by hanging on until the end of the season. In college it may be different (between recruiting and the coach-as-mentor/educator roles, there can be enough reason to wait until after the season to axe him), but in the NFL, it's all business, and if Palmer wasn't doing the job, why wait?

"And Carr is under orders to limit his audibles and get rid of the ball in a hurry."

Am I the only one who gets nervous when I hear this? How much are they limiting the audibles exactly? If it's supposed to be a slant, and the defense clearly has it scouted/read and has a linebacker waiting in the slant lane, do they still want him to run the play as called? How little do you trust your QB if you won't let him audible, even if something is clearly wrong? It seems like if he still can't read a defense after 3+ years starting, there's major problems. And doesn't it seem to be asking for trouble to say "Don't change the play, just drop back and throw it where we told you 30 seconds before the defense even lined up"? How prescient is this Pendry guy?

8 Re: Too Deep Zone: Uncoordinated in Houston

In Bledsoe's later years in New England, they didn't let him audible and limited him to three step drops in all but two-minute drills. It didn't help. Pendry won't let him audible, is making him get rid of the ball quickly and critisized him in practice for doing dumb things. I kinda thing Pendry doesn't trust Carr at all, which is another reason I think they'll be looking for a new QB soon.

9 Re: Too Deep Zone: Uncoordinated in Houston

This is too bad. I thought the Lions would have a decent shot at landing a new QB next season. Now the Texans might end up looking for one. Leinart would probably be a good fit for them.

Detroit will end up with Cody Hodges.

10 Re: Too Deep Zone: Uncoordinated in Houston

Domanick Davis can't block. David Carr getting sacked a lot is more complicated that just one thing but Domanick Davis can't block. I mean it's woeful.

11 Re: Too Deep Zone: Uncoordinated in Houston

You were the only one, Trogdor! Gonna go see that movie where Alba is a deep sea diver in a bikini now. Three words: Unrated Director's Cut.

12 Re: Too Deep Zone: Uncoordinated in Houston

Re: limited audibles, get rid of the ball.

On the other hand, these were Brady's instructions from the beginning and it seemed to work out fine. He gradually got more leeway as time went on. I don't see anything wrong with the strategy by itself. Don't know if it's the right one for Carr, though.

13 Re: Too Deep Zone: Uncoordinated in Houston

As a Houston fan, my view is that even if the decision at the end of the season is that Carr is not the guy, and even if we are in no.1 overall territory (and I think reports of the Texans' demise which go that far are greatly exaggerated, with SF, Arizona, Tennessee twice and Cleveland on the schedule) I favour taking Ferguson and giving Ragone a shot. I was massively impressed by what I saw of him in NFL Europe - he's an excellent decision-maker who calls great audibles and is mentally and physically as tough as they come, as well as being a good all-around passer and decently mobile. I don't for the life of me understand why Tony Banks is still listed as no.2.

Speaking of odd selection decisions, why, if Babin and Buchanon can be benched so quickly, is Corey Bradford still starting? He is an atrocious route-runner with hands of stone. The only comprehensible reasoning I can see for it is that if no play is ever going to go to a secondary target and the primary will always be Johnson, you might as well have the fastest decoy possible as your second receiver.

Ah, somewhere out there in the sea of possible worlds is one in which a Texans attack featuring pro-bowlers Boselli and Joppru is leading the team to their first playoff appearance and a run all the way to the Superbowl. Not a possible world particularly close to this one, supposing the concept of possible world closeness is a meaningful one, I fear.

14 Re: Too Deep Zone: Uncoordinated in Houston

I've been telling everyone that would listen to me about this for two weeks now, but so far this season, the Texans' sacks have not been primarily the offensive line's fault. Like charles said, Domanick Davis can't block, and even worse he doesn't read his assignments very well, so too often he'll let a guy have a free shot at Carr while he goes to help out the overmanned other side of the line. That was the major source of Week 1 sacks.

Week 2, that happened a couple times, especially with Polomalu rishing, but most of the sacks were due to the abject failure of the receivers to get open. Sure, the flip side of that is that Carr is holding on to the ball too long, but I'm sort of impressed that he still tries to make plays even when the most likely outcome is that he'll get the crap beaten out of him again.

I'm with Shush on Corey Bradford. Like I said in his player comment in PFP, I expected Bradford to be 4th on the depth chart this season. I know the word out of Texans camp was that he worked really hard on his route-running in the off-season, but it evidently hasn't worked out. Every Texans fan I know yearns for Derick Armstrong to start.

So my hope is that the change at coordinator will result in a better use of the wide receiver depth chart and a better design of the blocking schemes. Domanick Davis is an excellent safety valve receiver, and a lousy blocker, so they should send him out and leave more tight ends in to block. If they can get some open receivers and passable blitz pickup, I think the offense should be just fine as long as Carr isn't too shell-shocked at this point to take advantage.

15 Re: Too Deep Zone: Uncoordinated in Houston

"Unfortunately, he may be facing the NFL’s best team this Sunday: the Bengals have an improved defense to go with their excellent offense, and they won’t give up many gift points."

Thank You...thankyouthankyouthankyou!!!

16 Re: Too Deep Zone: Uncoordinated in Houston

Could we all now agree that the SEVEN sacks Carr picked up against the Bengals were not completely the fault of the non-blocking RB?

I'm still debating which team has the worst offensive line in the AFC. Baltimore or Houston?

In the NFL, you've got to through in the Vikings and a couple of other teams (including the Saints, who cover up this glaring problem with a scrambling QB).