NFL Nation: Rick Smith
The Titans tight end said he was embarrassed after the Jaguars won 29-27 in Nashville on Nov. 10 to pick up their first victory. Since then, the Jaguars are 3-2 with victories over Houston (twice) and Cleveland. The Titans are 1-4 with a victory over Oakland.
There seems to be much more stability in Jacksonville, too, because of the uncertain status surrounding Tennessee coach Mike Munchak.
Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco and Titans reporter Paul Kuharsky break down Sunday’s matchup at EverBank Field.
DiRocco: Some Titans players were pretty vocal about being embarrassed due to becoming the first team to lose to the Jaguars. Is that something that still stings, and how have they rebounded from that loss?
Kuharsky: It definitely left a mark. They are only 1-4 since then. It kind of set a bar for how bad they can be and re-established their propensity to lose to teams that are really struggling. The Jaguars are on an upswing since that game, and the Titans are on a downward spiral. If Tennessee losses to the Jaguars again, the Titans will be in line to finish in third place in an awful division, which is well short of their goals and expectations. The Titans are a better team than they were last year. But losing closer isn’t a really big difference in the really big picture.
Let’s turn that around. How has life changed for the Jaguars since that Nov. 10 breakthrough?
DiRocco: I could go into a lot of stats that show how much better the Jaguars are playing, but that's not what's really important. The past six games have been more about the validation of the process, establishing the foundation of the franchise's rebuild, and confidence in the new regime. Coach Gus Bradley never wavered from the plan that he and general manager David Caldwell established. His message stayed the same throughout the eight-game losing streak to start the season: trust in the process, work hard, and focus on improving and not victories, and the victories will eventually come. Because that has happened, the players appear to have completely bought into what Bradley and Caldwell want to do, and there's a confidence in the locker room that the franchise is headed in the right direction.
We talked about Jake Locker the last time these teams met, but that was before he suffered a season-ending injury to his foot. How does that change the Titans' outlook on him and are they in the market for a quarterback in the offseason, too?
Kuharsky: Locker is certain to be on the 2014 Titans. His fourth year isn’t that costly and it’s guaranteed. But they can’t execute a spring option for his fifth year that would line him up for over $13 million. A lot of his fate depends on whether Munchak is back as the head coach. It’s possible they go forward with Locker, Ryan Fitzpatrick and just-signed Tyler Wilson as their quarterbacks. It’s also possible they’d draft a new guy, and depending on how high of a pick he could land in competition to start. I think it’s less likely they chase a free agent like Jay Cutler if he comes free, but they have to assess all the possibilities. How can they completely commit to Locker based on his injury history?
One side effect of the Jaguars' surge is they aren’t going to be in position to draft the first quarterback taken. What’s your sense of what Bradley and Caldwell want in a quarterback and do you expect one to arrive in the first round?
DiRocco: Offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch said something interesting last week. He said he wants his QB to scramble around, take off running to get yards and take some chances throwing the football. To me, that sounds like a pretty accurate description of Johnny Manziel. I'm not sure how that reconciles with the ideas of his bosses. Bradley comes from Seattle, which has the mobile Russell Wilson. Caldwell comes from Atlanta, which has the considerably less mobile Matt Ryan. My sense is that Bradley and Caldwell probably lean more toward the Wilson end of the spectrum. People think that eliminates Teddy Bridgewater, but that's not the case. He's not a runner but he can run if needed. If he's around, I'd expect them to take him. If not, then I would still expect them to go quarterback. It's their most glaring need.
You mentioned Munchak's job status. What's your take on whether he will be back next season -- and should he be?
Kuharsky: He’s shepherded improvement, but his team lacks an ability to finish. He’s 0-4 in the worst division in football, 1-9 in the past two years. His teams have lost to the previously winless Jags in 2013 and the previously winless Colts in 2011. He’s 4-18 against teams with winning records when the Titans played them and 2-19 against teams that finished the season with a winning record. To me, three years is a sufficient sample size to know what you’ve got and those numbers are the most telling thing on his resume. Keep him and they deal with all the limitations connected to a lame duck coach. I don’t know what Tommy Smith, the head of the new ownership, will do. But the fan base overwhelmingly wants change, if that’s worth anything. People still pay for tickets because they’ve got investments in personal seat licenses they do not want to throw away. But a lot of people are staying home on Sundays now.
Cecil Shorts is done and Maurice Jones-Drew is uncertain. How can the Jaguars threaten on offense without their two best weapons?
DiRocco: They were able to put up 20 points and post their second-highest yardage total of the season, including a season-high 159 rushing, in last Sunday's loss to Buffalo. Running back Jordan Todman stepped up big time and ran for 109 yards (Jones-Drew cracked 100 only once in the first 13 games) and tight end Marcedes Lewis was more involved in the passing game than in previous weeks (four catches for 54 yards and a touchdown). But I'm not sure that is sustainable. Teams will certainly concentrate on stopping Lewis and make quarterback Chad Henne move the ball with three receivers who have a combined 75 career catches. Todman doesn't scare anyone, either. The Jaguars will have to be creative on offense (they've run gadget plays the past three weeks) and capitalize on every opportunity they get.
Alex Smith, general manager John Dorsey and head coach Andy Reid.
On the Texans, Chadiha writes: "The Texans don't have to worry about hiring a general manager, because Rick Smith is one of the best young executives in the business. They also have far more talent than Kansas City had at the end of last season, which is why they might be able to put their disastrous season -- now 2-11, with 11 consecutive defeats -- behind them quickly."
Chadiha likes the thought of former Bears coach Lovie Smith or Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt as the Texans' next coach. He also echoed my thoughts from a week ago, that no decision Texans owner Bob McNair has made in his time as the Texans owner has been bigger than this one.
Give it a read, and offer your thoughts.
So when I sat down across from Texans' general manager Rick Smith three months ago, I looked around to see what noteworthy details would find their way into my story. I didn't notice the most interesting thing: an empty glass box.
That empty glass box matched two others that aren't empty. They contain footballs that commemorate the two Super Bowl wins he was part of with the Denver Broncos.
The empty box awaits his first Texans' Super Bowl ball.
My final piece for the Houston Chronicle profiled Smith and ran on Sunday in the Chronicle's special section.
In it, Smith gives insight into why he has been so successful at such a young age. He talked about the lessons he learned from a semester he had to spend at a junior college, away from Purdue, when he became academically ineligible.
We also talked about balance, meditation and his spiritual beliefs.
My favorite little anecdote in the story was one about how Smith's first NFL job came to be. Very shortly after he took a job with TCU, the Broncos called to offer him a job.
To the shock of his new coworkers, he turned it down.
"I felt like I was led to TCU," he said.
He spent the spring with TCU, then returned to Indiana to finish moving out of his apartment. He had already requested for his phone service to be turned off and went back one last time to an apartment that was completely empty except the phone in the kitchen.
Then the phone began to ring. A Broncos employee on the other line said Mike Shanahan wanted to know why he turned them down. They did what it took that time to hire Smith.
The two are key pieces to Wade Phillips’ defense, and need to be around long-term.
New deals would also help the Texans gain some cap cushion. Cushing’s 2013 cap number is $4.643 million; Smith’s is $9.5 million.
As far as Cushing knows, no conversations have started up, per Tania Ganguli of the Houston Chronicle. He allowed for the possibility that his agent has talked to the Texans and said he wouldn’t necessarily know. He’s concentrating on knee rehab.
While I understand the singular focus players like Cushing like to have, even in May, I also think an agent is bound to mention to a client that some level of contract talks have kicked off. Cushing is represented by Drew Rosenhaus.
Cushing’s ACL tear suffered early in the 2013 season certainly didn’t help accelerate things. All reports say he’s recovered well however, and will be ready to go for training camp. So any concerns about the knee that might have prompted the Texans to wait before initiating contract talks should be past.
“I know it wasn’t the best thing to really help with getting it done,” he told Ganguli. “I think they know the kind of player I am, they know I’ll come back to be the same player if not better, so I’ve got that going for me. I’m on the right track right now and very confident that I’ll be back and won’t miss a step.”
There is no real ticking clock here. General manager Rick Smith doesn’t talk contract during the season. The Texans got deals done with Duane Brown and Matt Schaub last year, with Schaub’s deal revealed after the team’s opening day game.
If the Texans fail to extend Cushing and/or Smith, it won’t be because they didn’t have sufficient time or because they didn’t give it a solid shot.
During his time at the NFL scouting combine, Sam Montgomery addressed concerns about the consistency of his effort as a college player.
The problem is that he admitted there were concerns about his effort as a college player.
He’s now a member of the Houston Texans, who Friday used their second third-round pick, 95th overall, on Montgomery, the LSU defensive end.
If there is an effort issue, it will fall on defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and linebackers coach Reggie Herring to get week-to-week and snap-to-snap effort from Montgomery. He seems to be a more complex character than they discussed.
At the combine, Montgomery said he didn’t play all-out because weak opponents allowed for some respite.
“You know, some weeks when we didn't have to play the harder teams, there were some times when effort was not needed,” Montgomery said in Indianapolis. “But when we had the big boys coming in, the Bamas or the South Carolinas, I grabbed close to those guys and went all-out.
“Of course, this is a new league, the NFL, and there are no small teams, small divisions. It is all Alabamas and LSUs every week. It's definitely something I have to get adjusted to, but I'm sure with the right coaching I will be fine.”
In a conference call with Houston media, Montgomery said his best quality is his relentlessness -- contradicting the idea that he didn’t give his all against teams like North Texas, Idaho and Towson.
Herring suggested that Montgomery got caught up in entertaining the media, given that he likes to talk, and that his film didn’t show a lack of effort -- something general manager Rick Smith has said he cannot accept from a player.
“If anything, the young man is guilty of being a bit naïve," Herring said.
A scout I asked about Montgomery didn’t reply with an effort question.
“He plays very hard,” he said. “Good pick.”
The Texans plan to start Montgomery out as a strongside linebacker, so their first four picks have addressed three areas of concern.
DeAndre Hopkins should be the No. 2 receiver, D.J. Swearinger could play a lot as a nickel or dime safety, tackle Brennan Williams could win the right-side job from the recovering Derek Newton and Montgomery should be part of a rotation.
Houston hopes he’ll be part of a three-man gang, along with Brooks Reed and Whitney Mercilus, that splits up the work at outside linebacker.
Last season, when the Texans drafted Mercilus in the first round, they said the same thing about using him with Connor Barwin and Reed.
But Reed’s playing time only really dipped when he missed four games hurt. Barwin, who’s since gone to Philadelphia as a free agent, played 93.8 percent of the defensive snaps last season. Even with four starts, Mercilus was on the field only 46.6 percent of the time.
The Texans will have to learn how well Montgomery can drop and cover, something he wasn’t doing as a college defensive end in a 4-3 scheme under LSU coordinator John Chavis.
“He’s big, strong, powerful, explosive individual,” Herring said. “The one thing that he will have to learn is that he will have to learn to drop a little bit and things that he hasn’t done as a defensive end at LSU -- understanding that they don’t cultivate OLBs in college, so we have to pull from the defensive end position.
“Basically, you have to give and take with their ability to drop out in space, something they haven’t done. That remains to be seen. That’s something we’ll have to work on. As far as playing the run and having pass rush skills and having the play strength that’s above average in college, he has a foundation to be a good outside backer for us.”
One thing that might have hastened the draft drop by Montgomery, once rated as a first-round prospect, was his inclusion on a list of 10 players by LSU strength and conditioning coach Tommy Moffitt.
Moffitt posted the names for scouts and said they were athletes who “miss workouts and always have an excuse.”
“They lack the self discipline and motivation to take care of their responsibilities,” the sign on an office door in the Tigers' facility said. “I will not answer questions regarding their performance numbers or character, as they care only about themselves.”
ESPN.com scout Matt Williamson said he likes the idea of Montgomery as a strongside linebacker in Phillips’ system.
“They really play a 5-2, so strongside 5-2 defensive end/outside linebacker,” Williamson said. “Supposedly had some awful interviews at combine, though.”
Williamson is the second person in one night who mentioned that to me.
Clearly, Montgomery’s interview with Houston was fine, but a guy who bombed in multiple other opportunities seems concerning.
Perhaps what Montgomery said about playing with Antonio Smith hints that he can qualify as wacky to some, wacko to others.
Montgomery said he knows Smith, the Texans defensive end who calls himself the "ninja assassin."
"I'm willing to take the ninja's teaching," Montgomery said, “and make ninjasonic out of it."
Cap status: Pretty tight, with just over $9 million in cushion. But the Texans can gain room with a cut (receiver Kevin Walter is the prime candidate) and have lots of room for restructures with receiver Andre Johnson and/or cornerback Johnathan Joseph.
Strategy: Lay back. They are most concerned with their own guys, and safety Glover Quin and outside linebacker Connor Barwin head that list. Lose them and they could be shoppers for replacements, but we're talking midlevel to low-level guys, not the high-priced, top-tier guys getting all of the hype as free agency opens. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has an affinity for guys who've played in his system before, so keep an eye on safety Gerald Sensabaugh and, if he's released, defensive tackle Jay Ratliff. They could patch in some guys later, but anything big early would amount to a big surprise.
Cap status: The Colts have just under $40 million of room. They pledge not to behave like it's burning a hole in their pocket.
Strategy: They will look to strike the right deals with some key new people who can fill holes and add production and leadership. It's easy to draw lines that connect Pagano to guys he's coached in Baltimore such as outside linebacker Paul Kruger and cornerback Cary Williams. They are still looking to fill out the roster with people who can play in Pagano's 3-4 front. The scheme requires at least one more cornerback who can play a lot of man-to-man coverage. Maximizing Andrew Luck's chances for success is a priority, and a couple of linemen are necessary to stay on that mission. Another receiver could be a target, too. But Grigson won't force free-agent moves and hopes to have another impact draft that will have a big bearing on how this team fares, too.
Cap status: They've got more than $26 million in cap room, but they also have a couple of empty spots on the depth chart, such as strong safety, right tackle and left guard.
Strategy: All indications are the Jaguars will slow-play free agency. They are unlikely to jump out and sign a guy or two to big contracts, as some bloated free-agent contracts are one of the issues Caldwell inherits. But Tier 2 guys who the team thinks can be pillars of a new program and lead the way for young players will be the core of the franchise moving forward. They have two guys heading into the market in linebacker Daryl Smith and cornerback Derek Cox. They won't overpay, but losing them will create more holes. And this team is super thin at cornerback already.
Cap status: Over $16 million of room with easily makeable cuts that will save more as the team needs the room and finds guys to add to the roster.
Strategy: More aggressive than usual, in both willingness to spend and number of people they will bring in. This team needs an infusion of talent and leadership. Their top free agents -- tight end Jared Cook and defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks -- are expected to leave. Look for one big signing, perhaps Buffalo guard Andy Levitre, and several more with a lower price tag. Positions that could be addressed include guard, defensive tackle, tight end, cornerback and safety. They may be waiting on their pass-rusher until the draft. This is a huge time for Webster and Munchak, who will really be putting their stamp on the roster with guys they need to lift the team to a better level of play if they want to hold on to their jobs.
Connor Barwin is a core player: Sure he is, as long as he’s affordable. Barwin had 11.5 sacks in 2011 and there was an offer on the table as the 2012 season kicked off. He passed, and was far less productive after his gamble. General manager Rick Smith can call him core, but to me a core guy is one you can’t survive without, and they certainly should be able to replace him if he finds a free-agent deal that compels him to leave.
They seem content with what they have on the right side of the offensive line: They platooned at both right tackle and right guard in 2012, and it sounds like they’ll be content to allow Brandon Brooks or Ben Jones to slug it out at right guard (or perhaps split time again) and see Derek Newton as the right tackle going forward.
They will keep the option of a franchise tag for Glover Quin as a possibility for as long as possible: The safety tag is about $7 million. It’s a palatable number, but the Texans have only $5.768 million in cap room. If they can’t reach a long-term deal that will produce a lower salary-cap number for 2013, tagging Quin will force the team to restructure a deal or two or cut someone that helps create room.
Brooks Reed could play inside: But that doesn’t mean the Texans are planning to move him. Gary Kubiak made it sound like they want more of a contingency plan if they have the sort of issues inside like they did last season. Move Reed inside and you create a hole outside, especially if Barwin leaves.
They’re still a young team, experiencing what they need to in order to make a jump: Yada, yada. This was quite a bit of spin, but what else can Smith say at this point when evaluating where the team stands? “We’re going to continue to add players, which is what this weekend is all about,” he said. “But I see a group of men that have gotten the experience that’s necessary to go make a real run at it and I think that’s where we are right now.”
A young quarterback is always a possibility: Said Kubiak, "In this business, you better be looking for young quarterbacks you think have a chance to be a 10-, 12-year guy. This year will be no different." T.J. Yates isn’t a sure thing. But the Texans only carried two quarterbacks in 2013, so the team would have to find someone it prefers to Yates in order to draft a QB. I don’t think they spend a premium pick on the position.
Tom Gower of Football Outsiders and Reading and Thinking Football sees it as a bigger need. He argues, basically, that if the Texans had a better inside linebacker to go with Brian Cushing, they wouldn’t be so quick to get out of their base defense.
That versatility would be helpful and give defensive coordinator Wade Phillips more options for how to, say, cover a tight end like Rob Gronkowski.
It’d be good if Phillips had extra alternatives, sure. The Patriots' quick-snapping offense gave the Texans all kind of troubles last season, twice. Perhaps if Houston could simply have stayed in base, we'd have seen less panic and more preparedness to matchup with what New England does so well.
So what’s general manager Rick Smith think about an inside linebacker spot where injury-prone Darryl Sharpton is the primary option at this point?
“Obviously you want the best players you can find, a guy that can stay on the field,” Smith said at the scouting combine. “You make a mistake if you try to limit yourself just to trying to fit a particular player in a particular role. I think what you try to do is you get the best football players and you let it sort itself out.”
If the team adds an inside backer who could be a three-down player, how much might Phillips change how he deploys his personnel?
“What I think is it gives him some options,” Smith said. “If we have two inside backers who can stay on the field in passing situations and matchup better against [tight ends], I think that’s a positive. If he wants to employ a three-safety system in other situations whether it’s longer distances or a blitz package or whatever it is, if he wants to employ those he can. I think the more you have players who can stay on the field and impact the game I think that’s the option, that’s the ultimate for him because it gives him the flexibility that he likes.”
There is one other possibility at play here.
If the Texans re-sign Connor Barwin, as they say they want to, then they’ll have Barwin, Brooks Reed and Whitney Mercilus as outside linebackers.
Coach Gary Kubiak indicated they could look at Reed inside.
"He's very capable of being a stack player, playing inside in our 3-4,” Kubiak said. “Yes, that could happen. But we'd liked him as a Sam, he's a heck of a Sam player. But you've always have to have some flexibility with one player or two players in various situations when you come across like what we did last year.
“Depending on what happens with our football team moving forward right now with Connor (Barwin) and some other things, we're always looking for some flexibility."
We’ll have to stay tuned.
But with or without Barwin, I expect the Texans will be adding a linebacker in free agency or the draft. The questions remain, with how much of an investment or with how high a pick?
It wasn’t flagged, but it was illegal.
It’s too tidy to say, the Texans (legally) cut block in creating space for Arian Foster and there is irony in Cushing falling victim to a low block being a central image in this.
It’s not. Or at least it shouldn’t be.
Still, any significant restriction of low blocks could hurt the Texans as much as any team in the league.
Texans general manager Rick Smith, who’s on the competition committee, and coach Gary Kubiak both discussed the potential for change regarding low blocks at the NFL scouting combine on Thursday.
“Obviously it’s a big part of what we do, I mean we cut offensively,” Kubiak said. “It’s part of the game, but I understand what the league is doing. There are some peel back situations where players are coming back toward their own goal line and cutting people, which I think we need to find a way to get cleaned up. I think the league took some steps to doing that outside the box if I am right and now they’re working on doing that inside the box. Anything they can do to make the game safer and protect players, I understand that.”
Said Smith: “That block [on Cushing] is already illegal. Where we’ve had conversation with effect to that is, in the box, it’s legal. The question that we’ve got to answer is, should it be? And I don’t think anybody thinks so, so that’s something that we’ve got to talk about and think about.”
That’s a relatively minor rule alteration and safety improvement that seems easy enough.
Let’s work together to slow the snowball that seems to be rolling regarding much more drastic measures.
Kubiak was asked for his reaction to the idea of something radical like a total ban on low blocks.
“Me? I think you know that answer,” Kubiak said. “It’s part of what we do. I think it’s part of football. We teach it the right way. Hopefully that part stays with us.”
We’ve just got to make more plays, they said.
It’s a blanket, clichéd and too-easy solution to a loss like this one, five weeks after a 42-14 drubbing here at Gillette Stadium.
In many ways, the 2012 Texans maxed out, and here they finished at the same stage as last year’s team, an overachieving bunch that lost several key players to injuries and rallied behind a third-string rookie quarterback.
It’s the nature of an NFL player to defend his teammates and to believe his locker room is filled with the ingredients needed to be a championship team.
“We’ve got the guys right here in this room capable of getting the job done,” cornerback Johnathan Joseph said. “We got the job done all year to win 13 ball games. There a lot of teams out there that won three, four ball games. Of course we’re capable of doing it. It’s just about doing it all the time. I have no problem with the people we have here on this team.”
Hopefully, coach Gary Kubiak and general manager Rick Smith will see more need for change than Joseph does. The Patriots aren’t going to come back to the pack in the AFC. Houston has to hunt them down. And with these two losses the Texans simply proved they don’t have enough, in scheme or in personnel, to do so.
To catch and pass the Patriots, they don’t need cosmetic surgery, they need genetic alterations.
On offense, the Texans have developed a power running game that comes out of the zone-blocking scheme and a play-action passing game that plays off of it. But they bog down in the red zone and need a receiving threat or two that can present an option in the end zone. Houston, too, needs to alter a generally conservative mindset. Sunday, it allowed for Matt Schaub, taking a snap from the New England 1-yard line in the fourth quarter with time running out, to throw a quick pass to Andre Johnson short of the end zone that allowed him to be tackled for no gain.
Defensively, the Texans need more quality depth at linebacker and in the secondary to match New England’s variety and depth of weapons. And the Patriots' attack rarely makes mistakes and typically scores a lot.
New England can simply rotate through different pieces on offense to present problems. In the regular-season game, Houston did nice work limiting Wes Welker but got clobbered by Aaron Hernandez. This time Welker turned eight catches into 131 yards while Hernandez was also an issue again.
Houston struggled with the combination of pace and personnel the Patriots weave together.
“The hurry-up, again we weren’t fully prepared for some reason,” said outside linebacker Brooks Reed, who didn’t play in the first matchup because of a groin injury. “It’s extremely hard to get the call in and line up when they are going hurry-up. They’re not going to wait for you. They’ve got plays planned out and one audible and they’ve got their play ready. Whereas we’ve got to get the call from the sideline, get lined up, recognize the formation.
“It takes us a lot more time to get lined up than they do. That’s the challenge and again that’s what kind of got us today. And making plays too, it’s them making plays not just them hurrying up. I think we could have been a little bit more prepared. We knew that was going to happen. We saw it on film, them lining up quick and defenses not being ready. We didn’t think it was going to be us and in some cases today it was.”
And questions about mental toughness will linger in the offseason. At 11-1, they controlled the AFC. They blew a first-round bye and home-field advantage and a chance at a deep run with a 2-4 finish.
Like Joseph, though, Kubiak didn’t talk of change but of staying the course.
And owner Bob McNair didn’t help with his immediate reaction, saying at least three times in his conversation with reporters that the Texans are close. (If you’re that close and you get every officiating break in the game, you should win, shouldn’t you?)
Schaub put up 343 yards in a come-front-behind effort, but was uneven. He has the continued unwavering backing of Kubiak and the franchise.
“I’ve got a ton of confidence in him. I think he’s one of the top quarterbacks in football,” Kubiak said. “You don’t get over that hump unless you’re willing to keep going back there and keep getting yourself in that position. It’s very, very difficult. I do not take anything for granted for where we are tonight; it’s very hard to get there.
“We’re going to continue to push him to a new level as a player. And that’s all of us. But he’s definitely the one leading the way.”
Schaub was asked if he belongs on a list with the quarterbacks who will be playing next weekend -- Colin Kaepernick of the 49ers, Matt Ryan of the Falcons, Joe Flacco of Baltimore and Tom Brady of the Patriots.
Logic at this point says Schaub does not, or he’d have advanced as they did.
“No doubt I belong,” he said. “I think I belong up there with every one of them.”
I don’t think he’s delusional, just well-programmed in what he believes a confident quarterback is supposed to say. I hope when he and his coaches review this game, that is not the conclusion they come to. They have to address the sense of panic that creeps in at moments like the middle of the third quarter, when flushed to his left from the pocket Schaub simply dropped the ball as he ran and had to dive on it for a 9-yard sack.
I’m not sure the panic problem is completely fixable. He can improve still, but he’ll be in his 10th season next year, and that deep into a career most players have become what they will be.
The Texans need to surround him with better players, particularly on the right side of the offensive line and at receiver beyond Johnson, to maximize his chances and theirs.
There is only so much they can do with the roster given salary-cap constraints. While they’ll be looking to chase the Patriots, they’ll also need to hold off Indianapolis in the AFC South, and the Colts have plenty of money to spend as they look to build on a breakout season.
After the playoff loss in Baltimore last season, defensive lineman Antonio Smith and his teammates made a pact to get to the Super Bowl this year.
“This was not an achievement to any of us,” he said of finishing a second season in a row on the road in the divisional round. “It’s the biggest disappointment you can have.”
“It’s always a gut-check, proving the naysayers right.”
They’ve been to two of the past five Super Bowls, including the most recent one. They’ve been in five of the previous 11 Super Bowls and won three in four years from 2001 to 2004.
For teams looking to become consistent AFC powers, the Patriots are the target. One of those teams, the Houston Texans, is heading to New England for "Monday Night Football."
No matter the result, the Texans will still have at least a one-game lead for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. This could be an AFC Championship Game preview.
Can the Texans overtake the Patriots?
"I think they can," one AFC executive said. "They have the talent, they have the consistency of scheme on both sides of the ball to do it. The wild card is their health, particularly on defense."
"That's going to be a tough one," said Rosevelt Colvin, who played six of his 10 NFL seasons as linebacker with the Patriots and spent a training camp with the Texans. "Patriots are the closest thing to consistency you will find in this era of NFL ball. Two big reasons: Bill Belichick and Tom Brady."
New England’s coach and quarterback have the skins on the wall and the credibility that come with them. That doesn’t mean someone new can’t break through, though only three other teams have represented the AFC in the Super Bowl since the Patriots came to prominence: Oakland once, Indianapolis twice and Pittsburgh three times.
Are the Texans poised to break through?
"Everybody would like to do what they’ve done over a long period of time," Texans coach Gary Kubiak told Houston reporters. "This league’s about consistency. I think I learned a lot about that in my time in San Francisco and Denver. Doing things right all the time.
"We’re trying to become a very consistent organization here and put a consistent product on the field week in and week out and do things the right way. We’re very young in the process, but we have a lot of respect for what they do."
One major similarity: Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Texans owner Bob McNair are widely regarded as two of the best owners in the NFL. They are willing to spend to make things first-class, and they back their coaches.
Let’s look at some other ways the Texans are similar to the Patriots and some ways they are different:
They drafted two high-quality tight ends when they saw Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez available and shifted their offense to be predominantly two-tight. When both missed time because of injury -- Gronkowski won't play Monday -- they easily shifted to three-wide. They’ve been a 3-4 team. They’ve been a 4-3 team.
Belichick adapts to what he has and the circumstances.
The Texans don’t morph.
They’ve updated and improved Kubiak’s offensive system since he took over in 2006, but the principles are the same. The zone-blocking line cuts defenders down, and the back is asked to make one cut and go. They run a ton of play-action and ask quarterback Matt Schaub to roll out and run bootlegs off that. It’s not a common scheme, which makes it a bit tougher for defenses to handle.
Defensively, they struggled to find an identity until they brought in defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. As leader of the defense, he installed his brand of 3-4 and stamped the Texans with a personality they had been lacking. Now they are locked into a defensive system that same way they are locked in on offense.
They are both top-eight rushing teams, but running is less important to New England because its passing game is more straight drop-back and shotgun while the Texans rely on far more play-action.
Leadership: Belichick is the team’s authority, although while the Patriots came to prominence much was made of how he worked in tandem with Scott Pioli in the front office. If they didn’t agree on a player, they would move on to the next one.
Pioli left to become the general manager in Kansas City in 2009. Belichick remains the powerful agenda-setter, but he has resources when he wants them -- including director of player personnel Nick Caserio and senior football adviser Floyd Reese.
Although the Texans have always stayed mum publicly about who has final say, Kubiak was hired first and general manager Rick Smith joined him. League insiders see the Texans as a coach-steered franchise. Kubiak and Smith have an excellent relationship and get good input from front-office personnel, coordinators and assistants.
Kubiak and Belichick have vastly different public personalities. Belichick is gruff and controlling. Kubiak is personable and agreeable.
Belichick wields more power, but the setups for both coaches in their organizations are comparable.
Depth: Belichick once lost Brady in the Patriots opener. He plugged in Matt Cassel and won 11 games.
Overall, New England has done exceedingly well plugging reserves in when needed and getting sufficient production. The Patriots also move guys around with success. We’ve seen them play receiver Troy Brown at corner. Currently, Devin McCourty can line up at cornerback or safety.
Although veterans generally want to stay in their winning atmosphere, the Patriots have not been sentimental about keeping guys. If a player gets too old or too expensive, they’ll let him walk.
The Texans went to the playoffs for the first time in franchise history last season with rookie quarterback T.J. Yates playing because starter Schaub and backup Matt Leinart both got hurt. Outside linebacker Mario Williams was out after five games, and receiver Andre Johnson missed nine. Houston showed off its depth in overcoming the absences.
The team let Williams leave as a free agent, traded inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans and released right tackle Eric Winston in the offseason while fitting other pieces under the cap. They got Schaub and left tackle Duane Brown locked up with long-term contracts before the season kicked off.
Houston is showing off its depth again this season. Inside linebacker Brian Cushing went down after five games, and Tim Dobbins has played well in his place. Brooks Reed missed last week and will be out a few more, and the team has first-rounder Whitney Mercilus to insert into a shuffled linebacker corps.
"Keeping the talent pool full of younger guys that can run that system is key, as well as coaching consistency," Colvin said. "They have a good mix right now."
On Thanksgiving, he jumped from his weakside linebacker spot to the strong side when Brooks Reed went down with a groin injury, and he’ll stay there while Reed is out for a while recovering from the injury.
I hardly think Barwin’s been terrible. But one big theme with the Texans right now is that they need more pressure, more consistently from places other than J.J. Watt. Barwin should be leading that charge. Instead, he’s got only two sacks. His 10 tackles for a loss and 13 quarterback hits rank behind only Watt on the Texans.
Barwin is a smart guy and I am sure he’s able to compartmentalize.
Still, somewhere in the back of his head it has to crop up that he’s costing himself a lot of money this season. The Texans had a contract offer on the table for him before the season and he decided not to sign it.
Pro Football Focus, which rates players on every snap, has Barwin 27th in its ratings of outside linebackers in 3-4 schemes. Last year he was 19th. But his rating was minus-4.6 in 2011 and is minus-5.8 now, not a gigantic difference.
After the season, as he approaches free agency, the deal the Texans present is unlikely to be as good as that last one. He was coming off a team-leading 11.5-sack season then.
His agent is sure to pull out comments like this one from Gary Kubiak, from his conference call with Nashville reporters this morning.
“I think he has played well,” Kubiak said. “I do know that the numbers aren’t there like they were last year. But his effort and his consistency as a player and the way he grades out every week it’s been every bit as good as last year.
“We’re asking him to do something new, he played like 70-plus at the Sam position, switched positions right in the middle of the game last week. A lot of that’s on us and what he’s had to do. What we get from him every week has been consistent and I think the other things will take care of themselves.”
Rookie first-round draft pick Whitney Mercilus will be playing in Barwin’s regular weakside spot while Reed is out, probably about three weeks. Bryan Braman will see action as the third outside linebacker.
If those two fare well, it’ll show the Texans how expendable Barwin may be in the harsh realities of the NFL. General manager Rick Smith has shown he’s not afraid to let key people walk.
And Barwin’s best chance to cash in may wind up coming elsewhere.
Neither side is thinking much about that now, since the Texans are nearing the home stretch of what might turn into a dream season.
Guess what? He’s right.
But he played in five games last year before he tore a chest muscle and was done, and the Texans experienced unprecedented success without him.
Seeing how he would command a record contract for a defender and the Texans were going to have cap issues even without him, why would they have tried to retain him?
I understand it probably hurt his feelings.
But when he tells Houston’s KRIV-TV he didn’t want to leave but “it was a one-way door given to me by the GM to leave Houston," the most common reply should be, “Well, duh.”
Let’s see. That GM Williams doesn’t name, Rick Smith, helped put together a team that went to the playoffs last year for the first time in its history and won a game despite starting a third-string quarterback.
Up against the cap and forced to make move, he let Williams and right guard Mike Brisiel walk as free agents, traded linebacker DeMeco Ryans and cut right tackle Eric Winston. And here the Texans are, sitting at 6-1 coming off their bye.
It’s the best record in the AFC, and there are few people suggesting the Texans aren’t the best in the conference right now. Sorry, Mario, but I hardly think fans are lamenting their team let you go, or even forced you to go considering the team's been beyond fine without you.
So I’m sure the team will take the high road and say thanks for all the good you did here and congrats on the great contract you got in Buffalo. Sorry if you feel like we didn’t sufficiently embrace you on your way out. But the fact is, for the money you could get, you just didn’t fit in our plans.
The Texans are talking contract with him a bit now, and would be wise to lock him up a year in advance of his contract running out. If there is no deal by the time the opener arrives, things will be put on pause until the season ends. The team doesn’t negotiate during the season.
Barwin said he’s hopeful something will happen, but will be fine if it does not.
In the meantime, the high-effort outside linebacker knows he can’t let up for a second as he looks to build on an 11.5-sack season.
“We understand what we can do,” he said. “I think it’s a really mature group of guys that want to get better. Just look at my position. I almost hate Brooks Reed and Whitney Mercilus, because you can’t even take a day off here and be lazy because those guys are going to practice too hard and you’ll look bad on tape.
“There is a lot of competition out here just at my position, I think at every position. I think that’s what Rick Smith and Gary Kubiak want and it’s going to allow us to get better.”
I've said I think the Texans desperately need to lock up either Barwin or left tackle Duane Brown before the season. Because having one of them plus quarterback Matt Schaub heading for free agency after the season will still put them in scary territory.
If all three have expiring contracts, they could really be at risk.
Owner Bob McNair had major faith in both of them, and with that progress and payoff the contract extensions they’ve both gotten are well deserved.
While fielding congratulatory messages, both Smith and Kubiak should make one important stop today in the office of defensive coordinator Wade Phillips to say thanks for his contribution.
They were smart enough to hire him, but the story of the Texans and the job security of Smith and Kubiak could be a far different tale but for the contribution of Phillips in his first year overseeing the defense.
Kubiak is an offensive head coach who calls the plays. Finding the right defensive "head coach" was a must for the franchise. And, coming out of a lockout, Phillips’ transformation of the group into a 3-4 with a real personality was nothing short of phenomenal.
His finger prints were on the draft selections of J.J. Watt and Brooks Reed, great fits for his system who made giant and immediate contributions. He saw how good Brian Cushing could be inside instead of outside. He voted for the plan that brought in Johnathan Joseph and Danieal Manning.
And, much to the Texans' relief, he took the pay bump McNair gave him late last season to pass on a trip to Tampa Bay to interview for the head coaching job.
Smith and Kubiak deserve applause and credit. I don’t see them as the type to rest on their laurels now. The division is primed for the taking again, and a second division title in the row could indicate that the franchise is only at the start of something big.
Something that might never have really gotten started and might have been scrapped but for Phillips’ contribution.
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