AFC South: Houston Texans
The NFL draft has come (finally) and gone and now it’s time to take stock of how it affected the teams around the AFC South.
The division was clearly the worst in the NFL in 2013, with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans and Houston Texans combining for just 13 victories. The Texans had the No. 1 overall pick and the Jaguars were two spots behind. That means those teams needed a lot of help.
The Texans nabbed perhaps the best pass-rusher of the past 15 years in Jadeveon Clowney to pair with J.J. Watt but didn’t address an obvious need at quarterback until the fourth round.
The Jaguars surprised everyone by taking quarterback Blake Bortles with their first pick, then adding a pair of receivers in the second round, including first-round talent Marqise Lee.
The Titans went substance over style with their draft but did nab one of the top three offensive tackles in Taylor Lewan and may have found a replacement for Chris Johnson in Bishop Sankey.
The Colts had the fewest draft picks in the league (five) but didn’t address perhaps the team’s biggest need.
Division reporters Michael DiRocco (Jaguars), Tania Ganguli (Texans), Paul Kuharsky (Titans) and Mike Wells (Colts) help you figure out what it all means.
Have the Titans added enough to their hybrid 3-4 defense to make a leap?
Michael DiRocco: One of the key things about coordinator Ray Horton's defense is that it demands versatility, especially among the linebackers. They have to be able to play multiple spots, and that requires speed and athleticism. The addition of Wesley Woodyard from Denver certainly helps, because he can play inside and outside. Drafting Avery Williamson, however, doesn't seem to fit. He's an inside player who doesn't run well. I do like tackle DaQuan Jones, though. He can play multiple spots on the line. The one thing the defense is missing is a big-time pass-rusher and that's the key to making the defense work.
Paul Kuharsky: I don't know. The four primary outside linebackers can turn out to be a good group. I think Kamerion Wimbley will be a lot closer to the player the Titans paid big money to in 2012 now that he's back to the position in a favorable scheme. And Shaun Phillips was a smart signing considering production and price. The system is also a better fit for Akeem Ayers. I'm not as certain about Derrick Morgan, who's listed as a defensive end/linebacker but worked in position drills with the linebackers at the pre-draft voluntary minicamp. Ropati Pitoitua is much more of a run-stopper than a pass-rusher, and he's certain to play end in the three-man front. The Titans have a lot of candidates to play with him and opposite him, but none scream that they will consistently get into the backfield. Jurrell Casey was excellent last season with 10.5 sacks. I feel certain coordinator Ray Horton won't do anything to mess up the good thing the Titans have going with Casey. The pass rush will be better. But better enough? I would have liked to have seen a young edge guy added in the draft.
Mike Wells: It may eventually work in Tennessee, but don't be surprised if it takes a little time for the defensive players to adapt to the 3-4 defense. Ask Colts linebacker Robert Mathis if you need further proof. Mathis shifted from defensive end in the 4-3 defense to outside linebacker when coach Chuck Pagano brought his 3-4 defense to Indianapolis in 2012. Mathis went from 8.0 sacks in his first year under Pagano to 19.5 sacks last season. The Titans have some players who are familiar with the 3-4 scheme. Shaun Phillips (9.5 sacks in 2012 with San Diego), Wesley Woodyard and Kamerion Wimbley have all played in the 3-4 at some point in their careers. But will the rest of their defensive teammates pick it up right away? I'm not convinced it'll happen.
Will the Colts regret not trading up to grab a top safety to replace Antoine Bethea?
DiRocco: The Colts had only five picks, so that didn't give them a lot of ammunition to trade up. It would have been too costly to jump into the first round because it would have meant dealing future picks. The real problem is they failed to address the position in free agency, when there were several options available. That magnifies their failure to find a safety in the draft. Why is it a problem? Two reasons: Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. To take the next step in the playoffs, the Colts are going to have to go through Denver and/or New England, which means dealing with Manning and Brady. The Pats pounded the Colts on the ground in a playoff victory last season, but the key to beating those teams is stopping the pass.
Kuharsky: There are going to be positions on virtually any team where the top guy on the depth chart doesn't look like a sure thing and the competition isn't topflight. The Colts believe Delano Howell can be an effective successor to Bethea and that they have sufficient guys to supplement him. Through an excellent career with the Colts, Bethea was a guy who consistently got to the right place at the right time and was a very sure tackler. It will be tough for Howell to match that. The bigger concern in my eyes is if LaRon Landry gets hurt and the Colts need another safety to step up. But given their lack of picks this year, trading up for a guy would have been awfully difficult and they certainly shouldn't dip into their 2015 picks.
Wells: It was going to be tough for the Colts to trade into the first round because they only had five picks total in this year's draft and very little interest in giving up a first-round pick in next year's draft. They are steadfast in saying running back Trent Richardson is their first-round pick. Northern Illinois' Jimmie Ward was the best cover safety in this year's draft. He was the 30th overall pick by San Francisco. I didn't think not addressing safety would be an issue at first with Mathis leading the way on what should be an improved front seven. There wouldn't have been as much pressure on the Colts' secondary. But as everybody knows, Mathis has been suspended for the first four games next season, leaving the Colts without the 2013 league leader in sacks. I think the Colts may regret not trading into the first during Mathis' suspension, but they'll be fine with Delano Howell, the likely starter, when it's all said and done.
@MikeWellsNFL Lots of S were drafted early, so that leads me to think lots of good veteran S will be waived. No regrets, claim 1 on waivers.- Ben Meyer (@TheBigBenDiesel) May 15, 2014
Were the Texans right to wait until the fourth round to draft a quarterback?
DiRocco: Nope. They blew it, especially when they could have made a move back into the last part of the first round to get Teddy Bridgewater -- which is what Minnesota did. The Texans also could have taken Derek Carr or Jimmy Garoppolo but instead went with a guard at the top of the second round. Coach Bill O'Brien did turn Matt McGloin and Christian Hackenberg into very good Big Ten QBs, and I'd rather have either of those guys than Tom Savage, who somehow became the hottest QB prospect in the weeks before the draft. The Texans are still talented enough to be a playoff team with the right quarterback in place. O'Brien apparently believes he can find one among Savage, Ryan Fitzpatrick, T.J. Yates and Case Keenum. Andre Johnson clearly doesn't agree.
Kuharsky: The Texans have a major question mark at the most important position on the team. But it's not like they could have waved a magic wand to get a guy, or that one of the more highly regarded quarterbacks in the draft would have been a sure thing. I imagine they would have opened the second round with Teddy Bridgewater if Minnesota hadn't traded into the last pick of the first round to take him. After that, it's wise the Texans didn't force a pick. But Tom Savage hasn't played a great deal of football in the past few years and I think a lot of people won't be surprised if the Titans do better with sixth-rounder Zach Mettenberger than the Texans do with fourth-rounder Savage -- not that the odds of a pick in either range panning out into a reliable long-term starter are any good.
Wells: Yes. No Andrew Luck and no Robert Griffin III in this year's draft. There was no need for the Texans to use the No. 1 pick on a player they hoped could be as good as Luck one day. Teaming Jadeveon Clowney opposite J.J. Watt on what is already a solid defense gives the Texans better hope than with one of the quarterbacks selected in the first round. Give the Texans a serviceable quarterback with that defense and who knows what can happen. The highlight of taking Johnny Manziel -- in the first year at least -- would have made the Texans a national draw. But in the end, all that counts is wins and losses. Clowney will help the Texans win more games next season than what Manziel or any other quarterback taken prior to the fourth round would have.
@taniaganguli I would say yes. It's obvious Bortles could've been taken but we filled more needs by waiting. Still got our 'Prototypical' QB- Ryan Brackenridge (@GHS_Forever) May 16, 2014
Will Blake Bortles be the Jaguars' starting quarterback at any point this season?
DiRocco: I say yes, but I'm not as sure about when. This may sound like a cop-out, but it really depends on how he progresses. If he picks up the offense, fixes the lower-body issues that are preventing him from throwing the ball as hard and accurately as he can, and makes the transition from the spread offense, then he'll get on the field. I can see that happening by December, and if that's the case, then he'll get a start or two. At the very worst, he'll get a drive or a quarter within some games to get his feet wet.
Kuharsky: I really believe general manager Dave Caldwell and coach Gus Bradley will look back on what the previous regime did at quarterback and be super cautious. The Jaguars had no intention of starting Blaine Gabbert as a rookie. Then they cut David Garrard just before the season, watched Luke McCown struggle and had no choice. I don't know how much better Gabbert would have been if he was eased into NFL life, but it certainly would have been better for him. If Bortles needs time, they will resist temptation to start him even if Chad Henne struggles. In a way, this is an offensive line question, because if Henne gets hurt, they may not have a choice. They'll have three new starters in the interior to go with a healthy Luke Joeckel at left tackle. That group should fare better and increase the chances Henne is good to go for the whole season.
Wells: He has to be. It likely won't be in Week 1, but I expect it to happen at some point because the Jaguars aren't going to win the AFC South with Luck at quarterback for the Colts. More than 2,000 fans did not show up at the Jaguars' minicamp to watch cornerback Aaron Colvin. That was all about Bortles. The Jaguars need something to bring the fans out. The only highlight of the area is the nearby Atlantic Ocean. No offense to Chad Henne, but Bortles gives the Jaguars the best opportunity to bring some kind of excitement to the city. Look at it this way: He can't do any worse than Blaine Gabbert.
Will it be comparable to Steve Stenstrom or David Garrard? Danny Wuerffel or Aaron Brooks? Sage Rosenfels or Kyle Orton?
The latter name in the three comparisons above is obviously preferable, but the chances of that happening are low. There were 28 quarterbacks drafted in the fourth round from 1994 to 2013. Only nine were able to start at least 10 games and only six were able to become the starting quarterback or start at least 16 games.
That means only 21 percent of the quarterbacks drafted started what amounts to a full season in the NFL. That is a low number until you remember it’s the fourth round, which is traditionally not a place teams find quality starting quarterbacks.
There are obviously exceptions, such as Garrard, Brooks and Orton, all of whom became multiyear starters. Other fourth-round picks over that span that started at least 16 games were Danny Kanell, Seneca Wallace and Rob Johnson.
It’s interesting to note that there are also six sixth-round quarterbacks that have gone on to start at least 16 games in their careers. It’s a pretty good group, too: Tom Brady, Matt Hasselbeck, Marc Bulger, Jim Miller, Bruce Gradkowski, and Derek Anderson. It’s obviously skewed by Brady, but Hasselbeck, Bulger and Miller combined to lead their teams to the playoffs nine times and one Super Bowl.
Seventeen of the 135 quarterbacks drafted in Rounds 4-7 from 1994-2013 went on to start at least 16 games in their careers. In addition to the previously named players, that group includes Gus Frerotte, A.J. Feeley, Matt Cassel, and Ryan Fitzpatrick.
None of that will be any help to receiver Andre Johnson, who less than a week after the Texans took Savage in the fourth round said he wondered if Houston was still the place for him. It's obvious he's unhappy with the quarterback position, especially after seeing the Jacksonville Jaguars take Blake Bortles No. 3 overall, the Cleveland Browns trade up four spots to take Johnny Manziel at No. 22, and the Minnesota Vikings trade back into the first round to take Teddy Bridgewater with the 32nd pick.
Houston had the 33rd overall selection.
But it’s interesting to look back because it shows that while it’s unlikely, it is possible to find very good -- and possibly even great -- quarterbacks in the fourth round or later. The Texans are hoping they did.
In Tate, the Browns add a guy who has averaged 4.7 yards per carry for Houston, but has been often injured. Tate brings talent, fire and the ability to carry an offense late in the game when the team needs to run to win, something the Browns could not do a year ago.
ESPN.com Browns reporter Pat McManamon joins Texans reporter Tania Ganguli to discuss the signing.
McManamon: Tate had an excellent per-carry average in Houston, but had many injuries. Do you think his physical style of running means injuries will be a constant in his career, or were they bad luck?
Ganguli: There was certainly some bad luck involved for him in terms of his career overall. Tate was drafted to be the starter, but when he spent his rookie season on injured reserve, this undrafted guy by the name of Arian Foster swooped in. The injuries aren’t really wear-and-tear injuries, and I think we need more evidence of how he’d handle a bigger workload to connect his injury history to his style of play. He is a very physical runner, but his broken ribs last year came before he became the Texans’ primary back.
What are the Browns expecting from him?
McManamon: To be the Browns' primary back. They didn’t have one last year, unless you count Willis McGahee’s 377 yards as No. 1 back-worthy. McGahee didn’t even average 3 yards per carry, as the former front office left the cupboard bare for the fired coaching staff after the trade of Trent Richardson. The Browns want Tate to be productive and durable. Their inability to run the ball last season contributed to their not being able to hold leads late in games.
Tate’s contract is worth just $3.1 million per season, and even with incentives won’t top $7 million total for two years. Does that seem like a fair price, and at that price why didn’t Houston keep him, especially since he signed with a team that has won 29 games total the past six seasons?
Ganguli: I think his durability was a big question mark for the Texans. They already have a starter who has proven he can be productive for a full season and Tate just hasn’t done that. Foster’s also more explosive and the Texans have committed a lot to him financially. Part of Tate not having proven himself in that primary role stemmed from him being behind Foster, but another part of that had to do with his injuries. I’m also not sure that, even if the Texans wanted to keep him at that price, he would have wanted to stay. He wants to be a starter.
What kind of system is Tate moving to with the Browns?
McManamon: The same one Kyle Shanahan ran in Houston. Zone blocking, one cut. It’s the main reason the Browns wanted him. They thought he fit what they want to do, and that his downhill running style will work well in the offense. Tate seems like a decisive, aggressive runner, which is exactly what they need.
Based on Twitter, at least, Tate’s personality seems pretty effervescent -- like Alka-Seltzer, always bubbling. Is he that kind of person on the team as well, and do you think come December the Browns will be happy they added him?
Ganguli: Tate is very honest with the media/public about how he feels, which of course will be good for your purposes covering the team. He pays attention to what’s being said about him, even if he says he doesn’t, and does what he can to improve his situation. I do think the Browns will be happy they signed him come December if he can stay healthy. This is very much a “prove it” contract, and that’s exactly the kind of situation Tate needs.
The Texans organization last season was one that allowed some of the players’ individual personalities room to show. Will the Browns be OK with Tate speaking his mind?
McManamon: That’s a tough one to answer given the Browns have a new coach in Mike Pettine. He’s certainly unafraid of being blunt or direct. Maybe he won’t mind his players letting their personalities show. It would be a welcome change in Cleveland, though it would be much more welcome if Tate can help the Browns actually win some games. That is something that is needed more than anything.
Paul Gutierrez: What I’m wondering, Tania, is what kind of defensive end is Smith, the prototypical edge-rusher the Raiders so desperately need, or more of a run-stuffer on the edge?
Tania Ganguli: He's better at pass rushing than run stuffing. The Texans’ scheme under Wade Phillips, one he liked to call the Phillips 3-4, featured an attacking front. Most of their pass-rushing pressure came from their defensive ends, Smith and J.J. Watt, rather than their outside linebackers. That’s not exactly by design – they would’ve loved more pressure from those edge guys – but it spoke to the skill they had at their defensive end positions. Smith is strong and can overpower opposing linemen.
Gutierrez: As a pass-rusher/run-stuffer. Cop out, I know. But last season’s sack leader, defensive end Lamarr Houston, had six sacks and was better at stopping the run, though he left for the Chicago Bears, and the Raiders have not had anyone with double-digit sacks since 2006. Still, it is interesting that Smith, Tuck and Woodley ALL play on the left side. They still have to figure out what they’re going to do with the right side, unless they switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 base defense. Then, all bets are off.
Many Raiders fans have been screaming for Richie Incognito to join the Raiders and shore up the offensive line. But with Smith here now, kind of hard to see it happening with the bad blood, no? Could you explain it?
Ganguli: Oh, that would be interesting. Those two have a history going all the way back to college, when both of them played in the Big 12, Incognito at Nebraska and Smith at Oklahoma State. Then they played in the same division in the pros with Smith at Arizona and Incognito at St. Louis. They know each other well and Incognito knows how to goad him. In the 2012 season opener, Incognito engaged in some shenanigans with Smith’s ankle, in Smith’s view trying to twist and/or break it. He kicked Incognito in the head as he disengaged himself and landed a $21,000 fine. The fine was reduced to $11,000 after an appeal, but still went on Smith’s permanent record with the league. When they suspended him for what they viewed as him ripping off Incognito’s helmet and using it as a weapon during the 2013 preseason, they sent him a note detailing his history of discipline. Smith was again reacting to Incognito’s shenanigans, this time with his face mask and so his face, head and neck. Again, it cost him. It wasn’t the smartest move, taking off Incognito’s helmet, but I thought the talk that he “could have killed” Incognito was a little overwrought. One thing to know about Smith: He’s not the type of guy who gets into scuffles like this with everyone he faces. This is a specific deal between those two guys.
Another thing to know about Smith: He created an alter-ego called the Ninja Assassin while in Houston. Wore a ninja mask during pregame introductions. His sack celebration was him pulling out an imaginary sword from an imaginary sheath and brandishing it. Other times he’d say he was Tonestradamus, and make predictions about whatever came into his head. He’s silly, and even in the bad times I didn’t sense Texans fans tiring of it. How do you think Raider fans will respond to that?
Gutierrez: Put it this way: Raider Nation is going to love it. Or have you not seen how every home game is Halloween on Hegenberger, what with so many costumes and characters filling the Black Hole. He will be a fan favorite, so long as he produces. That being said, how much of his success was his being on the other side of Watt, and, with Smith, a 10-year vet turning 33 in November, how much tread does the Ninja Assassin have left on his tires?
Ganguli: I should note, unless he’s changed his mind, the Ninja Assassin is dead. Smith said that if he didn’t return to Houston he was going to leave it behind and find another character. I’m sure he’d love suggestions. I think a two-year deal was smart on the part of the Raiders. He’s got plenty left right now, but beyond 2015, that’d be tough to say. I think his fit, rather than his age, is why the Texans let him go. Watt and Smith had a symbiotic relationship. Two of Smith’s most productive seasons, sack wise, came after the Texans drafted Watt, but one of those was 2011, a season during which Watt hadn’t yet turned into what he is today.
Wrapping up, Smith was always happy to help younger teammates in Houston, taking an active mentoring role with some. Can you see that developing with anyone on the Raiders' roster?
Gutierrez: Poor Ninja Assassin. My dad actually toured the Far East on a martial arts expedition with Sho Kosugi, who starred in all of those ninja movies of the early 1980s. But I digress ... to answer your question, most definitely. Sure, the Raiders went the vet route with Smith, Tuck and Woodley, but they do have high hopes for defensive end Jack Crawford, who will be entering his third season and was initially drafted in the fifth round as a project, of sorts, out of Penn State. Plus, they kept undrafted rookie Ryan Robinson a year ago over seventh-round draft pick David Bass. So if Smith is up for some mentoring, the Raiders have some young bucks who would be wise to sit and learn at his knee. So long as they don’t ask any ninja-related questions, I surmise.
The whole key here for the Texans is just not missing. This organization can rebound quickly if they land the right player with the first overall pick, whether that is Jadeveon Clowney or their choice of the top three quarterbacks.
If it is Clowney, he needs to be a dominant player, which of course is very possible, and team with J.J. Watt, the league's best defensive player, to form a simply nasty defensive front. If it is one of the quarterbacks, that player doesn't necessarily need to develop into a future Hall of Famer, but he does at least need to be a franchise quarterback on the Joe Flacco/Tony Romo tier of NFL signal callers. Also, do not forget that after round one, the Texans own the subsequent selection … and there are going to be plenty of great prospects to consider in just a loaded draft class.
That 33rd overall pick could be a great bargaining chip.
Whom does McShay have the Texans drafting at No. 3? Let's take a look :
For 31 years as a player and coach, he’s worn blue and white, an oil derrick and a fireball T. Fired after three years as head coach of the Tennessee Titans, he was on the market for the first time since he was a first-round choice by the Houston Oilers when he was coming out of Penn State.
The No. 1 rival for his teams while he played was the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Now Munchak is becoming a member of the Steelers’ coaching staff. Soon, the Scranton, Penn., native will be wearing black and gold and Pittsburgh’s steelmark.
Munchak interviewed for three head coaching posts -- with his alma mater Penn State and in Detroit and Cleveland. Penn State hired James Franklin, the Lions hired Jim Caldwell and the Browns remain open. Munchak also interviewed for the offensive line post with the Houston Texans, and presumably had an offer to join Bill O’Brien’s staff but chose Mike Tomlin and the Steelers.
Pittsburgh gets itself a Pro Football Hall of Famer, a solid citizen and a quality line coach who should help enhance protection for Ben Roethlisberger and create run room for Le’Veon Bell.
The Titans didn’t get great line play during Munchak’s three years in charge.
But for a long stretch before that he was one of the NFL’s best line coaches. He developed mid- and late-round picks into productive players. That list included David Stewart, Jacob Bell, Justin Hartwig, Zach Piller, Benji Olson and Kevin Long.
In 2005, when the Titans were ready to dedicate a high pick to the tackle spot, he helped identify second-rounder Michael Roos, who has had a very solid career protecting the blind side of Titans quarterbacks.
The move means Munchak will be relocating to the Pittsburgh area. But he’ll be back before too long. The Titans host the Steelers in 2014.
He was elevated to head coach in 2011 and fired after three seasons last week.
He interviewed with Penn State for the head coaching job at his alma mater and with the Detroit Lions for a head coaching vacancy.
Now new Texans coach Bill O'Brien is set to interview Munchak for the offensive line coach job in Houston, per John McClain of the Houston Chronicle.
McClain said last week on 104.5 The Zone in Nashville he expected O'Brien to hire Brian Ferentz, but no such move has been announced.
The Texans mounted a comeback, forcing the game into overtime and winning it.
Who would have guessed it would be their last win heading into the rematch in the season finale for both teams?
ESPN Texans reporter Tania Ganguli and Titans writer Paul Kuharsky visit to discuss the status of the two teams as the rematch arrives.
Kuharsky: So is there any reason at all to suspect Houston can actually show signs of life and finish with a win?
Ganguli: They showed signs of life against the Denver Broncos for three quarters, especially on defense. They showed signs of life against the New England Patriots, to whom they only lost by three points. This will depend on how much they want this game versus how much they just want to get the season over with. There was a finality about Sunday's game against the Broncos because it was the team's home finale and the sense that the team will look very different next season. It's been an emotionally exhausting season for the Texans and it wouldn't surprise me one bit if they played like they were through with it.
It's been a down year for the whole division, for which the other AFC South NFL Nation reporters and I have chosen to blame you, since you were the steward of the division before we got here. How does the Titans' reality mesh with what you expected prior to the season?
Kuharsky: I’m confused. When I stewarded the division, it was good. The Texans were very good. I yield to you, and they get bad. Sounds like a YOU problem.
Anyhow, I’m terrible at predictions and hate making them, considering unpredictability is the single best thing the NFL has going for it. But I picked the Titans to go 7-9 and thought a lack of defensive playmakers would hurt them. That’s largely how it’s played out. Losing Jake Locker, twice, for a total of nine games obviously hurt. They have overestimated the pass rush for some time. Tackle Jurrell Casey is an excellent pass-rusher. The rush from the ends has been insufficient, and they’ve long overrated what they have there. Derrick Morgan gets close a lot. He’s a second rusher, not the primary guy. I expected the run game would be better, considering the attention they paid to the offensive line. Outside of wins at St. Louis and Jacksonville, they’ve not run well at all.
Chris Johnson needs 53 yards Sunday to get to 1,003 yards on the season -- half his rushing yards from 2009!
I know the injuries to Brian Cushing and Danieal Manning hurt, the Ed Reed signing was catastrophic, the defection of Glover Quin and Connor Barwin left holes and the offense has put the D in a lot of bad situations. But shouldn’t Wade Phillips still have had a better unit than this?
Ganguli: That's four starters gone from last year's defense. You could say they should have been better, but it's unfair to dismiss all of those guys. You look at the Texans' defensive numbers with and without Cushing over the years and his impact is clear. The safety position has been a bit of a catastrophe this season. Losing Danieal Manning was a big deal, especially when coupled with the fact that the plan for the other starting safety position (Ed Reed) turned out to be a bust. If this Texans defense was playing with Cushing, Manning, Quin and Barwin, would it be better? Unquestionably. They've even shown the ability to be that good at times this year. With those guys, or even some of those guys, the Texans' defense would have had a much better season. It might have meant a better record, but I'm not sure they could have made the playoffs even with the other problems the Texans had this season. The broad spectrum of issues is a big part of why Gary Kubiak is no longer the coach.
Speaking of coaches, I recall the Titans quarterback and coach situations being tenuous heading into this season. Where do those stand now?
Kuharsky: Mike Munchak’s hold on his job should be tenuous. He’s heading toward his fourth and final year and has not proved that he’s not a position coach out of his depth. His teams have provided the first win to the 0-13 Colts in 2011 and the 0-8 Jaguars this season. The Titans are 2-9 in their last 11 division games, and we know how great the AFC South has been. They are 2-20 against teams that finish the season with a winning record. Say what you will about the internal sense that they are on the cusp: The three-year sample is bad. Locker missed five games in 2012 and nine this year with three different injuries. He showed promise early this season, but he’s not proved he’s a franchise guy and he’s not proved he can stay healthy. He’s got a guaranteed fourth year, so there is no reason for him not to be on the team in 2014. The question is who is coaching him and if the organization drafts another quarterback to add to the mix.
Let’s stay with coaches. We know you’re about to cover a search and a new hire. What is owner Bob McNair looking for?
Ganguli: He's looking for experience and leadership more than anything else. I've gone back and forth on the matter, because I do think an inexperienced head coach can be a good fit in certain places, as we're seeing in Jacksonville this season. But when you look at this team and this roster, the kind of message that resonates with them might need to come from a more authoritative voice. You just have to find the right one. While it's true that sometimes former head coaches do much better in their second stints, giving a former NFL head coach another chance can backfire. It's important to note why things went bad at their previous stop and recognize if that situation offers red flags.
How is this Titans defense different from the one the Texans notched an overtime win against in Week 2?
Kuharsky: There were more splash plays at that stage. I remember the defensive backs covered very well, even when Matt Schaub was completing passes. I know it qualifies as ancient history down there, but he made some really good throws in that game. The secondary remains a strength. And Jurrell Casey is a very good defensive tackle. But the rush from the edges has been bad, and the linebackers are nowhere near as effective now as they were in the first month of the season. It’s one of the big disappointments of the season. They don’t even know whom to start anymore.
Without head coach Gary Kubiak, who suffered a mini-stroke at halftime of Sunday's game against the Indianapolis Colts, the Texans aren't the same team. Interim coach Wade Phillips will continue to run the defense from the sideline but now offensive coordinator Rick Dennison will take over the play-calling duties. But it goes beyond the coaching personnel.
"Once you have a different playcaller, that's a change," Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. "There are no tendencies. You have to throw all of that out the window and just play the offense the way it's designed to be played. Defensively, you play your defense.
"There's nothing that we have on Rick Dennison other than a half of football."
While the Cardinals scrambled to adjust their game plan and watch their game film, the Texans are trying to focus on Sunday. Fortunately for them, Kubiak left the hospital Tuesday morning and returned home, putting their minds at ease for the time being.
But halftime Sunday was nothing short of chaotic.
Phillips, whose coaching resume now includes three stints as an interim coach to complement his three head coaching jobs, said immediately after the Texans' loss that he didn't think halftime had an impact on Houston's second half. But as he spent more time thinking about it, Phillips now believes it did.
"Even I, along with everybody else, was kind of at halftime [wondering] ‘What's going on? What happened? Where is he? Is he OK?'" Phillips said. "We didn't even know those things during the ball game in the second half. You always certainly have concerns for people that you care about and that's one that everybody cares about with our football team, our head coach.
"There were a lot of unknowns. You still have to play football and you have to do what you have to do, but there was certainly kind of a haze there as far as what was going on."
Phillips listed the types of decisions a head coach has to make compared to a coordinator, and it could be overwhelming to someone who hasn't been in that position before. A lot of the decisions made by a head coach are based on situations, Phillips said, and most of those are based on offensive strategy. There's deciding whether to go for it or kick a field goal or punt, when to use time outs, or when to slow down or speed up.
But if there's one person to assume those responsibilities, Texans defensive end J.J. Watt feels comfortable with it being Phillips.
"You never want to be in a situation like this but when you are put in a situation like this, it's good to have a guy who has head coaching experience and a guy like Coach Phillips, who has been around the game for a long time and is knowledgeable and knows how to handle the situation," Watt said.
Watt has texted with Kubiak, who's stayed in touch with Phillips and Dennison.
Even without Kubiak, it's business as usual in Houston. The Texans are trying to snap a six-game losing streak, which means more practice, more film study, trying to find a way to "get the ball rolling," Watt said.
And while the Cardinals are spending their time figuring out a way to defend a Dennison-coached offense, the Texans are just as focused.
"Obviously, you think about your coach and it will always be on your mind but we're professionals," Watt said. "We come in here and we know we have a job to do."
ESPN Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher and Texans reporter Tania Ganguli discuss Sunday's game.
Teicher: After the collapse against Seattle, blowouts the past two weeks, explain Gary Kubiak’s thinking in starting Case Keenum over T.J. Yates, give a little description of his strengths and weaknesses and how ready to do you think he is to play against one of the NFL’s better defensive teams in a difficult stadium for visiting teams?
Ganguli: He wants a spark. It’s as simple as that.
Coming out of Kevin Sumlin’s offense at the University of Houston, Case Keenum had a lot to learn on the NFL level. He didn’t do too much talking in his college offense and had fewer responsibilities in running the plays. He also had to transition to playing under center like so many shotgun spread quarterbacks do. Yates beat out Keenum for the backup job at the beginning of the season, but they were close. Keenum has a very nice deep ball, which isn’t something we’ve seen out of the Texans very much this year. You ask a great question about his readiness to face Kansas City’s defense on the road. That’s not easy for veterans to face. And it won’t be an easy beginning for Keenum.
What do you think have been the most important factors in the Chiefs’ fast start this season?
Teicher: If their success can be boiled down to one factor, it’s field position. The Chiefs have started 17 possessions on their opponent’s end of the field while the opponents have started three possessions on Kansas City’s side of the field. The best starting field position for the opponent this season has been the Chiefs’ 42. So the Chiefs aren’t just consistently winning the turnover battle -- at plus-12, they’re best in the league -- they’re using it to their benefit. They haven’t put their defense in a bad position all season. Their offense doesn’t generate many big plays, so favorable starting field position is a necessity. The Chiefs have also scored a touchdown on an interception three times. They are consistently getting pressure on the quarterback even when they don’t get the sack. They’re putting teams in a lot of third-and-long situations and getting off the field.
Turnovers aside, why aren’t the Texans scoring more points? With Arian Foster and Ben Tate running the ball and Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins catching it, shouldn’t they be producing more on offense?
Ganguli: Turnovers have been a huge factor in why the Texans aren’t scoring, probably the biggest. But we can talk only so much about it. The Texans’ red zone efficiency has been a problem. On Sunday against the Rams, for example, Houston scored once on six trips to the red zone. Its goal-to-go efficiency was only 33 percent. Those kind of numbers hurt. It’s a departure from earlier this season when the Texans’ red zone offense was fantastic. Against the San Diego Chargers in Week 1 and the Tennessee Titans in Week 2, Houston entered the red zone seven times and scored a touchdown every time. Some consider the Texans’ red zone play calling to be conservative. I had ESPN Stats & Information look into it, and the Texans have run 53 red zone plays -- 28 passes and 25 runs. Of those, 10 have been passes into the end zone. That ranks in the lower half of the league as a percentage of total plays and pass plays.
Speaking of numbers, the Chiefs have put up some incredible pass-rushing numbers and have more than twice as many sacks as the Texans have. Are they as good as their numbers indicate? How can an opponent neutralize the pass rush?
Teicher: They’ve been pretty good with the pass rush. Consistent. They're disrupting the quarterback even when they don’t bring him down. And they can come at him from many places and angles. That’s maybe the most impressive thing about it. Seven players had at least a half-sack Sunday against the Raiders. Justin Houston (9.5 sacks) and Tamba Hali (7.5) are their top pass-rushers, but even taking those guys out of the picture, the Chiefs have 14 sacks from eight players. Nose tackle Dontari Poe has been the key, providing a strong, consistent inside pass rush. Inside linebacker Derrick Johnson and strong safety Eric Berry are two of the other players to watch when the Chiefs send more than four to the quarterback. The best way to neutralize their rush is to have an effective running game. Runs by mobile quarterbacks have hurt the Chiefs this season, but otherwise only one running back, Philadelphia’s LeSean McCoy, has had a big game against the Chiefs.
When the Texans are on defense, there might be a lot of favorable matchups for them. Other than the obvious ones like J.J. Watt and Brian Cushing, who are some of Houston’s defenders who are playing well?
Ganguli: Outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus has played well with an expanded role this season. He was one of the most productive rookies in the league last year on a per-snap basis and leads the team with 4.5 sacks this season. Nose tackle Earl Mitchell has been solid but isn’t on the field much. Safety Danieal Manning had been playing well and was about to become a bigger part of the Texans’ return game. But Manning suffered a knee injury Sunday that will land him on injured reserve. As a whole, the Texans' defense has played well, but it could help the Texans more if it created more turnovers and committed fewer penalties.
The Chiefs’ offense has done enough given how strong the defense has played. Is that going to bite them?
Teicher: Eventually it will, perhaps as soon as Sunday. The passing game has been particularly unproductive. Alex Smith is completing just 56.5 percent of his passes, an alarmingly low number in Andy Reid's version of the West Coast offense that features a large number of high-percentage passes. Some of that is his fault, but protection has been leaky and Smith has been forced to run for his life on too many plays. Right tackle Eric Fisher, the first overall pick in this year's draft, has been lousy. Most everything the Chiefs get offensively comes from Jamaal Charles. He leads the team by a sizable margin in rushing, receptions, receiving yardage and touchdowns. I'd be surprised if he can keep this up over 16 games and maybe more, so the Chiefs need to develop other threats.