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?
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?
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.