NFL Offseason Review: Houston Texans
Published on March 20, 2017
The 2016/17 NFL season is in the books, and most all of the more casual NFL fans have returned to the day-to-day affairs of their lives without really missing the season that has past. Pro basketball, pro hockey, and soon pro baseball will have taken the place of pro football in the lives of many fans.
For some NFL franchises the 2016/17 was a record-breaking season, with the Super Bowl-winning New England Patriots topping the list of teams that have good reason to look back and relish the season that has past.
For the Houston Texans, the opposite is true: while the team started out the season with the potential to become the first team in NFL history to play a Super Bowl on its home turf, ultimately the season fell short of expectations in a number of ways, and left fans struggling to find answers for what happened and how things can be turned around next season.
As the youngest franchise in the NFL and the only franchise to have begun play after the turn of the 21st century, the Houston Texans have very little history to draw on, meaning that to a certain extent every season is a new beginning for the young team and another chance to prove itself as a legitimate championship contender.
And the rest of the league would do well to keep tabs on the goings-on in Houston, as the push for a team’s first championship appearance and first Super Bowl victory is a powerful narrative for players to get behind, and after making it to the playoffs for back-to-back seasons with a young intact corps of quality players, the Houston Texans could very well be here to stay.
In this edition, we head south to the Lone Star State, and stop just before we hit the Gulf of Mexico in the city of Houston, home of the historic Super Bowl 51 game as well as to the subject of this Offseason Review, the Houston Texans.
To provide some context, the brand-new Houston Texans’ franchise required nine seasons before it made its first playoff appearance. After filling out its roster with an expansion draft in 2002, the team had only one winning season in the first decade of the 21st century, steadily building up its roster and its ability of the city to support an NFL team once again after the departure of the Houston Oilers in 1996.
In 2011/12 and 2012/13, though, the Texans finally broke through, going 10–6 and 12–4 in these two seasons and winning a Wild Card playoff game both years before losing in the Divisional Round.
Not coincidentally, 2011/12 was also the first season that the Texans featured star defensive end J. J. Watt on the roster, and since drafting Watt with the 11th pick in the 2011 draft, the team had steadily built an identity as a tough, defensive-minded team.
After making it to the playoffs two seasons in a row, the Texans endured a coaching transition, moving from 7-year head coach Gary Kubiak to current head coach Bill O’Brien over the course of two seasons, which included a brief stint with Wade Phillips as interim head coach. During this period the team also transitioned into the new NRG stadium, a gamble intended to earn the right to host a Super Bowl that ended up paying off within a few seasons.
After finishing the 2014/15 season with a mediocre 9–7 record and missing the playoffs, the Texans managed to achieve the same record the subsequent season despite having a rotating cast of quarterbacks cycle in and out. This same 9–7 record was enough in 2015/16 to win the AFC South, giving the Texans a Wild Card playoff game in the 2015/16 postseason; they would lose to the Chiefs 30–0.
So in summary, the Texans entered into the offseason preceding the 2016/17 NFL season in a bit of a mess, having just endured a painful playoff loss and desperately needing some continuity on the roster to try and make the leap from a fine team to a great one, and desperately in need of a quarterback.
To address these needs, the Texans made a splash in free agency going into the 2016/17 NFL season, trading for the Broncos’ backup quarterback Brock Osweiler in a four-year deal worth $72 million ($37 million of which was guaranteed). Osweiler had looked very competent at times in his role as the backup quarterback to Peyton Manning, and fans had to be excited at the possibilities of Osweiler on the roster.
It was with this spirit of hopeful excitement that Texans fans entered into the 2016/17 season.
The beginning portion of the Houston Texans’ 2016/17 campaign was primarily a waiting period in which Texans coaches and fans were trying to ascertain whether Brock Osweiler could be the answer to their problems, and what the team’s complexion would be under his leadership.
The season started out fine, with the Texans opening the season 2–0. In the Texan’s opening game, Osweiler threw a touchdown and an interception in the first half, but the Texans came on strong during the second half and scored 13 unanswered points to ultimately beat the Chicago Bears at home by 9 points.
In the subsequent game, in Week 2, the Texans also gained a modicum of revenge against the Kansas City Chiefs, who had beaten them so handily in the Wild Card Round of the 2015/16 playoffs.
After Osweiler threw a 27-yard touchdown pass to star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins in the first quarter, no other touchdowns were scored throughout the course of the game, and the Texans would end up holding on to their initial 7-point lead as time expired for a modest 19–12 win. Even this early in the season, it was beginning to emerge that the Texans’ defense would be more important to their success than their offense.
One of the first major red flags for Texans fans happened the following week, the third game of the season, in which the Texans faced the New England Patriots in Foxborough. While the game would have undoubtedly been a tough matchup if Tom Brady had been playing, or even if competent backup Jimmy Garoppolo had been at the helm, with Brady out with suspension and Garoppolo injured, the Texans felt confident facing off against rookie third-string quarterback Jacoby Brissett.
Unfortunately, however, their confidence was misplaced, as the Texans would end up being shut out in this game for the first time in a full fourteen seasons. To add insult to injury, not only did the shorthanded Pats beat the Texans 27–0, this game also marked the last snap played by star J. J. Watt in 2016/17, who had back surgery several days afterward to repair a herniated disk.
After two more games – a win over the Titans and a loss to the Vikings – it had become abundantly clear to most Texans fans that the gamble they had made signing Brock Osweiler after he had only started 7 NFL games was likely to backfire spectacularly.
After his first five games as the Texans’ starting quarterback, Osweiler ranked among the three worst quarterbacks in the league by nearly all metrics. He had completed only 58% of his passes for 1,133 yards, throwing more interceptions (7) than touchdowns (6) and earning an average passer rating of 70.6.
Even worse for fans, though, was Brock’s utter failure to pass “the eye test.”
On some plays, despite having a clean pocket, little pressure, and a full view of the entire field, Osweiler would simply step up and make a terrible decision for where to throw the ball.
For Texans fans, buyer’s remorse began to set in even at this early juncture of the season, fearing greatly that the team had made a terrible decision in giving Brock such a huge contract. Ultimately, though, a lot of football remained to be played, and at 3–2 the team still had some reason for optimism.
When the Texans returned home to NRG stadium in Week 6 after their bad loss to the Minnesota Vikings, it had become clear that the fans knew exactly where to point the finger of blame for their team’s 3–2 record.
In front of the home crowd and on national television against the Indianapolis Colts, Brock Osweiler was frequently booed by Texans fans, as their offense once again got off to a slow start. The defense was able to keep the team in the game, and the Texans managed to get on the board with their first rushing touchdown of the season.
After leading an exciting 14-point comeback, Brock Osweiler managed to work his team into field goal position and Nick Novak kicked a game winning field goal as time expired to give the Texans a 26–23 victory and a record of 4–2. Subsequently, losing to the Denver Broncos on the road and beating the Detroit Lions at home sent them into their Week 9 bye week at a record of 5–3.
After beating the woeful Jacksonville Jaguars the ensuing week, coming off the bye, a turning point for the Texans came during Week 11. Houston was scheduled to play another southern team – the Oakland Raiders – in a prime-time, Monday Night matchup in Mexico City – the first regular season game played south of the border in NFL history.
At the time, the Oakland Raiders were surging, and hoping to demonstrate on the international stage just how far they had come as a franchise over the course of the past few seasons. The Texans, on the other hand, were desperately trying to convince themselves and the rest of the league that Brock Osweiler could be a legitimate starter. The air was electric.
Ultimately, the game ended up being rather controversial, as a key Houston drive was stalled and ended by questionable third- and fourth-down ball spots. In addition, a funky instant replay rule took another key play for the Texans off the board, and to top it all off, Brock Osweiler and running back Lamar Miller were frequently flashed in the eyes by a green laser coming from the stands during the course of the entire game.
It was at this point that the wheels truly started to come off for the Texans, as they would return home the following week and lose their first home game of the season against the massively disappointing San Diego Chargers, bringing their season record to 6–5.
Importantly, at this exact moment in the story arc of the Texans’ 2016/17 campaign it had become abundantly clear that the biggest (and perhaps the only) reason for the Texans’ struggles throughout the regular season thus far was the play of quarterback Brock Osweiler.
At this point in the season, the defense was ranked 5th in yards allowed even in the absence of J. J. Watt, and running back Lamar Miller had logged the 5th-highest rushing total in the league, indicating that the defense was doing its job to keep the Texans in games, and the play of the offensive line and the run game were adequate to move the ball on offense and put the team in favorable down and distance.
Nonetheless, despite having this excellent support system, Osweiler led the league in interceptions, he was last in the league in yards per attempt, ranked 29th in completion percentage, and had an average quarterback rating over 11 games of only 54.4.
Compare this lack of production to the prior season for the Texans, in the absence of Osweiler: Despite featuring a rotating cast of frequently-injured starting quarterbacks that included Bryan Hoyer, Ryan Mallett, T. J. Yates, and Brandon Weeden, in 2015/16, star receiver DeAndre Hopkins managed to finish 3rd in total yardage behind only Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown and Atlanta’s Julio Jones.
After 11 games with quarterback Brock Osweiler, Hopkins had been targeted 105 times, and yet was ranked 41st in receiving yardage. The Cleveland Browns – with their disastrous QB situation – had been able to utilize Terrell Pryor more effectively than Osweiler was able to utilize Hopkins: The converted quarterback had 245 more yards than Hopkins despite catching only 7 more passes.
After throwing three interceptions against the Chargers at home, ending up with a quarterback rating of 45.6, Osweiler’s Texans then lost the subsequent game to the Green Bay Packers, putting them at .500 through 12 games, and nursing a three-game losing streak. Even in the worst division in football, the chances for the Texans to make the playoffs were starting to look bleak.
After a nail-biter of a win in Week 14 against the division rival Indianapolis Colts, the Texans decided that it was time to take their postseason fortunes into their own hands, and so they decided to bench Brock Osweiler – the $72 million dollar man – in favor of unproven third-year backup Tom Savage.
After going 6 of 11 for 48 yards and throwing back-to-back interceptions by the middle of the second quarter against the Jaguars, the Texans decided that they had seen enough, and they pulled Osweiler from the game. Ultimately, the Texans went on to score 10 unanswered points in the 4th quarter to win the game 21–20, but Osweiler would not play another snap until Week 17, when Tom Savage went down with a concussion in the 1st quarter.
In the week prior, which had provided a breath of fresh air for Texans fans in the absence of Osweiler, Houston had gritted out a decidedly ugly home win over the Cincinnati Bengals. The stout Bengals defense did not make things easy for Tom Savage in his first career NFL start, and ultimately the game came down to a missed Bengals field goal by former Texans kicker Randy Bullock.
With this win over the Bengals and a Titans loss the same day, the Texans clinched their second consecutive AFC South title with a week still remaining in the regular season.
When it became clear that their first playoff game would be played without Tom Savage (due to his concussion), the team tried its best to rally around Brock Osweiler and restore the faith that had been lost during his two games spent on the bench. And while Osweiler did look confident in the Texans’ strong win over the Raiders in the Wild Card round, the win had more to do with the Raiders starting rookie Connor Cook than with anything that the Texans were doing on offense.
The Texans did give New England a very tough test on defense in the subsequent playoff game, rattling Tom Brady and forcing him to make uncharacteristic mistakes, the end result was an 18-point loss and an inauspicious exit from the playoffs.
In the end, the Texans were shackled to the $72 million dollar decision that they had made 10 months earlier, a gamble that by all accounts did not seem likely to ever pay off.
In reviewing the arc of the season that the Texans had, we found quite clearly that the play of quarterback Brock Osweiler was one of the biggest reasons for their disappointing campaign. However, it’s important that we don’t jump to conclusions, and that we instead make a holistic appraisal of the entire Houston Texans’ team.
While the quarterback position is undoubtedly the most important position on a football team, that’s not to say that it is the only position that matters, and in order for us to give an overall recommendation for how the Texans should proceed in the offseason in order to improve, we need to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each unit of the team.
In looking at the full aggregated statistics for the Houston Texans on offense last season, we see that the team was ranked 28th out of 32 teams in terms of total points scored, with only 279 points over the entire course of the season, or 17.4 points per game.
The offense was even worse in yards per game, with 5035 yards total over the regular season (314.7 yards per game), a mark that is good for 29th-best in the league.
It’s also clear that the bulk of their offensive production came in the run game: The Texans had the 4th-fewest passing yards in the league in 2016/17, and the 8th-most rushing yards. Touchdowns were hard to come by either way, however, with the team being ranked 30th in passing touchdowns and 29th in rushing touchdowns.
And one of the primary reason that there were so few touchdowns to go around was the amount of turnovers committed by Houston over the course of the regular season: the team was ranked 19th in giveaways, with 8 fumbles lost on the season (ranked 11th in the league) and an average of one interception per game (16 total, good for #22 in the league).
It is important to note, however, when we evaluate the Texans’ passing offense, that the team did demonstrate a greater commitment to the run than the pass throughout the season: The Texans notched the 6th-highest amount of rushing attempts in the league over the course of the season, and only the 14th-highest amount of passing attempts.
Part of the reason why the commitment was higher to the run game might well have been due to the fact that the run game was much more efficient than the pass game for Houston: the Texans gained the 19th-most yards per attempt in the league on the ground, and the 3rd-fewest net yards per attempt through the air.
The other reason why the Texans ran the ball more than they passed in 2016/17 has to be the terrible play of Brock Osweiler. Throughout the regular season, Osweiler ranked 3rd in the league in the number of turnover-worthy throws, and 29th in the league in terms of adjusted completion percentage. And worse than the stats, Osweiler simply looked rattled during the season, even when there was no reason to be.
And there was no reason to blame the receiving corps of the Texans either, who despite being ranked only in the middle of the league were still more than adequate. DeAndre Hopkins is a legitimate #1 wide receiver in the National Football League, and despite finishing 9th in targets on the season, he finished 29th in receiving yards, indicating just how ineffective was Brock Osweiler at getting the ball into his hands.
The difficulty also did not lie in the running back group, as first-year transplant Lamar Miller rushed for only 26 yards below his career best of 1,099 despite playing in only 14 games. While his average yards per carry did dip to the lowest point in his five seasons, this is likely due more to the way that the Houston coaching staff utilized him schematically than the individual play of Miller himself.
The offensive line blocking for him was also adequate, though the unit was not without its flaws. While center Greg Mancz certainly proved to be an excellent pick up in free agency, earning one of the top grades in pass blocking throughout the season, right tackle Chris Clark was among the worst in the league, giving up 67 quarterback pressures and earning 13 penalties throughout the year.
In summary, while the Texans’ offense has its holes on the offensive line and could have perhaps used another star wide receiver to emerge and complement DeAndre Hopkins, it is clear that the lowest-graded and most problematic part of the Texans’ offense in 2016/17 was its quarterback, Brock Osweiler, who – all things considered – was probably the worst quarterback in the league last year.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Texans fared much better, allowing 328 points over the course of the season (20.5 per game), a mark good enough for 11th-best in the league. They also allowed only 4821 yards on the season (301.3 yards per game), the best yards allowed figure in the league.
What’s most amazing about the Texans’ ability to stop opposing teams on defense is the fact that they did it without generating very many turnovers: The team was ranked 26th in takeaways. Ultimately, they were aided greatly by their ability to hold on to the ball on offense, with the second-highest time of possession (32 minutes and 18 seconds of game time, on average) in the league.
This high time of possession meant that the opposing team got fewer attempts than most teams: The Texans were both ranked 3rd in number of passing attempts and 12th in number of rushing attempts, meaning that teams just simply didn’t have enough time overall to run very many plays – passing plays or running plays – against the Texans D.
When they did run passing plays, the opposing team fared much worse than when running the ball. The Texans’ D was ranked 2nd in passing yards allowed, 5th in passing touchdowns allowed, and 4th in net yards per attempt. In the run game, the team gave up the 12th-fewest rushing yards, the 17th-fewest rushing touchdowns, and was ranked #13 in yards per rushing attempt.
In conjunction with the fact that the Texans were not especially good at taking the ball away, it also bears mentioning that they did not lead the league’s stat sheet in sacks, either – the team had only 31 sacks on the year, which put them tied for 24th in the league.
The most amazing thing about the Texans’ front seven in 2016/17 was that they were able to play excellent football despite being without team leader and pass rush superstar J. J. Watt for essentially the entire season. Former first-round draft pick Jadeveon Clowney played incredible football at the defensive line position, notching 52 tackles, a forced fumble, and two pass defenses to go along with his six sacks.
In addition, edge rusher Whitney Mercilus emerged as one of the league’s best, with 53 tackles, one forced fumble, four fumbles recovered, and one pass defense to accompany his seven-and-a-half sacks in the regular season.
This excellent overall play from the front seven was complemented by the strong play of the secondary in both pass coverage and in the run game. Despite dealing with injuries throughout the season, the phenomenal play of former undrafted free agent pickup A. J. Bouye (tied for the best grade in the league in coverage), in tandem with excellent reps from safety Quintin Demps and others made the Texans’ secondary one of the toughest in the league.
When the front seven and the secondary complement each other in this way, a team is able to play phenomenal defense despite being relatively quiet in some of the more ostentatious statistical categories. Instead, the Texans led the league in more understated (and perhaps more important) categories, such as number of three-and-out drives forced.
In summary, when we looked at the Houston Texans’ season in 2016/17 in more detail, analyzing each unit of the team individually to try and ascertain where the problems were, we found essentially no holes on the defense, particularly considering how little help they got from the offense.
When a team is leading in a game, the opposing offense is forced to become much more one-dimensional, which makes the task of the leading team’s defense that much easier – schematically, they are able to set themselves up for success each and every drive.
But the Houston offense was not able to accomplish this for the Texans, instead frequently putting their defense in very difficult situations with frequent stalled drives or offensive turnovers. And it wasn’t the running back, receiving, or offensive line units that were the primary cause of the problem, either: Despite the fact that the O-line has holes and the receiving unit was merely average, the Texans’ biggest weakness was undoubtedly the stinky quarterback play of Brock Osweiler.
And it’s this quarterback play that has the gambling public running scared of the Texans’ chances to win the Super Bowl in 2017/18, as Houston’s odds are currently listed at +1800 at the Bovada sportsbook.
In order to determine whether or not we believe these Super Bowl odds to be fair or unfair, let’s take a look at the Texans’ offseason in order to determine what roster moves we expect Houston to make from now until the start of next season, where their needs lie, and what information we already know about what the Texans will face in 2017/18.
When we examine the Houston Texans’ offseason roster status and financial situation heading into the 2017/18 NFL offseason, we find that they are either in one of the easiest or one of the most difficult positions in the entire league, depending on how you look at it.
The reason we say that the Texans are in one of the easiest positions in the league is that if you believe that the Texans’ current roster is sufficient to give them an opportunity to compete for a championship within the next few years, then the good news is that the current team should be relatively easy to reassemble given the Texans’ current offseason position.
Conversely, for those Texans fans who believe that there needs to be a serious shakeup on the Texans’ roster before they’re to have any chance of competing for a title, then the news is not so good: It would be rather difficult to make a serious splash in free agency given how the Texans have handled their recent major financial decisions, and further given the decisions that they have upcoming.
Simultaneously, as of the time of this writing, before the beginning of free agency, the Texans have one of the lowest number of key players set to become unrestricted free agents of any team in the league. After cornerback A. J. Bouye, safety Quintin Demps, and tight end Ryan Griffin, the remaining 11 players set to become unrestricted free agents played only small roles on the team last season.
In this way, if the Texans choose to go the most conservative route possible, Houston would be able to enter into the 2017/18 season with their roster largely unchanged if they made the following moves: Resign A. J. Bouye and Quintin Demps for roughly $13 million in guaranteed money; reserve $5 million for the draft (and use that money on a right tackle, a tight end, and a receiver); and use the remainder to extend DeAndre Hopkins.
While naturally this is a bit of an oversimplification, as there are a lot of other, more minor decisions that must be made, if the Texans were able to successfully accomplish these moves and utilized their seven draft picks to bring in several additional key role players to the team, they would be in a strong situation coming into the 2017/18 season.
One of the main reasons for this predicted improvement is the changes going on in the coaching staff. Brock Osweiler got crucified as the scapegoat of the 2016/17 season, and for good reason – he was terrible.
But it’s very telling that Bill O’Brien immediately shook up the offensive coaching staff in Houston after the season ended: Offensive coordinator George Godsey left the team the day after their loss to the Patriots, and so far head coach Bill O’Brien has made it clear that he does not intend to hire a replacement, preferring to take over the play-calling duties himself.
O’Brien, whose tenure includes five years and two Super Bowl appearances with the New England Patriots – including three years in which he served as the quarterbacks coach and play-caller for Tom Brady – certainly recommend his ability to put together an effective offensive scheme. Along these lines, it is interesting to see longtime Patriot wide receiver Wes Welker join the Texans’ coaching staff as an offense and special teams assistant.
And it’s crucially important for fans to remember that going into the 2016/17 NFL season, Bill O’Brien had only been the Texans’ head coach for two seasons – also his first two seasons as a head coach in the National Football League. Yes, Brock Osweiler played terrible football in his first season as a full-time starting quarterback in the NFL without a future-Hall of Famer backing him up. But it’s also entirely possible that Brock didn’t get much help from the coaching staff either.
Either way, when the Texans gambled on Brock Osweiler, they were making a minimum two-year commitment: $37 million of Osweiler’s $72 million-dollar contract is guaranteed.
And it’s still entirely within the realm of possibility that the 26-year old could turn out to be a competent NFL starter. Drew Brees, in his first year as a 16-game starter, threw 17 touchdowns and 16 interceptions, with a completion percentage of 60.8% and a passer rating of 76.9. Osweiler, in 14 games, threw 15 touchdowns and 16 interceptions with a completion percentage of 59.0% and a passer rating of 72.2.
And while perhaps it is too much of a reach to say that Brock Osweiler has Drew Brees-caliber potential inside of him, consider some second-tier comparisons: Alex Smith, in his first full season as a starter, threw 16 touchdowns and 16 interceptions with a 58.1% completion rate and a passer rating of 74.8. Matthew Stafford, in his first 10 games as a starter, threw 13 touchdowns and 20 interceptions, with a 53.3% completion percentage and a passer rating of 61.0.
And of course the counterargument stands that these two players were both entering into the starting role as rookies, and that both players were drafted with the first pick overall in the draft (indicating that their team, the year before, had been bad enough to earn the first pick in the draft). But we believe that the point is still valid that it’s still too early to tell whether or not Brock Osweiler is capable of a serviceable career as a competent NFL starting quarterback, or even a championship or two.
At the very least, Osweiler certainly has more upside than one of the aging veterans like Tony Romo, who is very unlikely to have a shelf life of more than a few dozen games left in his career.
In summary, when we look at the possible roster moves available to the Houston Texans, we find that the fact of the matter is that there is not a lot of room available – both financially, and practically – for the Texans to make any sort of appreciable change to their roster.
With Bill O’Brien going into his fourth season as head coach and first as full-time play caller, we believe that there is reason to believe that the best step forward for the Texans on offense – and defense – is simply to do nothing at all. And we believe that this is exactly what the Texans will do this offseason.
Now that we’ve established our view that the Houston Texans are probably going to simply “run it back” in the 2017/18 season, using the offseason to resign the few key players set to become unrestricted free agents and making no move at the quarterback position, let’s now turn our attention to what we can predict about the Texans’ 2017/18 campaign.
Despite the fact that as of the time of this writing we are still so early into the offseason that we have not even weathered the beginning of free agency or the NFL draft, there are nonetheless several key pieces of information that we can use to try and determine whether or not we believe the Texans are headed to take a step forward next season or to take a step back.
The first important statistical factor to consider in predicting a team’s future performance is called Pythagorean expectation.
Pythagorean expectation is a statistical formula originally developed by sabermetric wizard Bill James for use in baseball; it was later modified for the NFL by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey. The idea behind Pythagorean expectation is to use advanced statistical modeling to more accurately assess a team’s past performance, in the hopes of better predicting their future performance.
Specifically, Pythagorean expectation is a modified version of the original Pythagorean theorem that we all learned back in algebra class, used to deduce the length of one side of a right triangle based on knowledge of the other two sides.
But the NFL’s Pythagorean theorem doesn’t deal with triangles and lengths: Instead the numbers that are manipulated in the theorem are the amount of points scored and the amount of points allowed by a particular team. By plugging these points totals into the formula, the number that ultimately gets spit out is an expected win percentage based purely on points.
The idea behind this is that in the NFL, not all wins should be valued the same amount. For example, when the 2016/17 Indianapolis Colts lost 7–28 at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers, that’s a pretty terrible loss. That loss should certainly mean more than when the same Colts lose 23 to 26 in overtime in Houston. And yet, at the end of the season, all we remember is that the Colts were 8–8, with both of these two losses receiving the exact same weight in the loss column.
By the same token, when the 2016/17 Buffalo Bills beat the Cincinnati Bengals 16–12, even though there’s a W on the win column, this shouldn’t impress anyone. However, when those same Bills beat the San Francisco 49ers 45–16, that same lone W should go a whole lot further to tip us off that the Bills could be legitimate contenders. Once again, though, at the end of the season, the Bills are just 7–9.
In this way, utilizing Pythagorean expectation gives us a way to evaluate a team’s performance over the course of a season using statistics that truly capture not just whether a team won or lost games, but how well they won or lost games. We learn more than just how many games a team won; we learn how many games that team should have won.
In the case of the 2016/17 Texans, we see that in fact, the Texans had some of the best luck in the NFL, managing to outperform their Pythagorean Expectation by a full two-and-a-half games.
Specifically, what we mean is that the Texans – based purely on their point differential – should have only won 6.48 games, which we’ll round down to 6. However, in reality, they won 9 games. The Texans team that ended up being one of the last eight standing in the postseason should have had the 7th-worst record in the NFL, according purely to the statistics.
The reason for this is pretty self-evident: The Texans were beaten soundly by good teams (losing by 27 to the Patriots, and losing by 18 to the Vikings and Broncos), but never turned around and beat up on bad teams (beating the Titans, Colts, Lions, Jaguars, and Bengals all by one possession or less).
It’s precisely this sort of disparity between “good” and “bad” wins and losses that is picked up by the Pythagorean Expectation formula, which accounts for the Texans’ three-game over-performance.
And it’s crucially important to put this over-performance in the context of the second piece of information that clues us in to how well the Texans will play next season, and that is the schedule that Houston played over the course of the 2016/17 regular season.
According to the meticulously calculated “DVOA” value, assembled by the stat gurus at Football Outsiders and accounting for every single play of every game individually, the Texans played the 11th-most difficult schedule in the entire league in 2016/17, due primarily to the fact that they had to contend with the AFC West – likely the best division in football last year.
This year, however, it’s a much different story.
Despite the fact that the week-by-week NFL schedule is not set to be released until April, we can nonetheless provide an initial assessment of how difficult the Texans’ slate of opponents is even at this point in the offseason, due to the simple mathematics of the NFL schedule.
Every year, the 16-game schedule for each NFL team is composed of the following games: 6 games against division opponents (3 at home, 3 away); four games against teams from a single division within the same conference; four games against teams from a single division within the opposite conference; and finally two games against opponents within the same conference that finished in the same position in their division.
For the Texans, this means the following:
In order to determine just how difficult this slate of opponents really is, we can consider each team’s performance in 2016/17 in order to get a proxy of how well we think they will do in 2017/18, and how this aggregated performance of all of these opponents compares to the opponents of other teams.
And when we assemble the statistics, we see that in terms of how many wins these opponents were able to amass in 2016/17, as well as for win percentage, the Texans are set to play the 2nd-easiest schedule in the entire league in 2017/18 – the 4th-easiest in terms of point differential. Houston is one of nine teams that play only six opponents that won 9 games or more last season.
So in summary, in considering the offseason roster position of the Houston Texans, the advanced statistics concerning the season that they had in 2016/17, as well as the difference between the schedule they played last season and the slate of opponents they’re set to take on next season, we’re able to come up with a pretty accurate picture of what we expect out of Houston next season.
The Texans won nine games last season, but in reality, (according to Pythagorean Expectation), they should have only won six-and-a-half. With their schedule being much easier next season than it was last season, we’ll give them an additional game-and-a-half back, putting them at eight wins for next year.
Finally, considering the fact that we don’t expect their roster to change very much, and further considering the fact that we expect J. J. Watt to return and improve along with the offensive scheme and play-calling in general, we’re inclined to give the Texans a full two additional games. While it may not seem like much improvement, things could be a lot worse in Houston.
Predicted regular season record for the 2017/18 Houston Texans: 10–6.
To recap, the Houston Texans entered into the 2016/17 coming off of a very tumultuous 2015/16 season that demonstrated just how in need the team was of a steady presence at quarterback. To address this need, the front office took a $72 million-dollar gamble on capable Denver backup Brock Osweiler.
The season that followed was one long and protracted demonstration of just how incapable Osweiler was of being a competent starter for the Texans. While it’s possible – given the Texans’ offseason coaching shakeup – that the scheme is partly to blame, the simple truth is that Brock looked bad.
Importantly, though, other than their new quarterback, the Texans had very few holes on the roster, with virtually no chink in the armor on the defense and middle-of-the-road play from the offensive line and the receiving corps.
Even still, based on the team’s financial position and the way in which their contracts are structured, we find it very unlikely that the Texans’ front office will have the inclination (or the cap room) to make any significant changes to the roster.
Given that the team dramatically over-performed last season, based on their Pythagorean Expectation, there’s reason to believe that their good luck should equalize. However, we’re still predicting improvement from Houston in 2017/18, primarily because we believe that with a streamlined offensive scheme, Bill O’Brien as play-caller, the offense will come back next season much better than it was last season.