In a sports culture where the demands for immediate satisfaction often result in knee-jerk negative reaction, it’s easy to blame everything that’s wrong with the Houston Texans on struggling quarterback Brock Osweiler.
But as much as this might come as a surprise, there’s more to the Texans’ problems than just Osweiler’s inability to complete a pass down the field.
The Texans were convinced Osweiler was the $72-million answer to the most important position after quarterback Brian Hoyer self destructed with 4 interceptions and a lost fumble in a 30-0 AFC Wild Card playoff loss at home to the Kansas City Chiefs on Jan. 9.
Hoyer departed in free agency. Osweiler got paid. Problem solved? Not so fast.
Texans head coach Bill O’Brien, formerly New England’s offensive coordinator, was conscious of his franchise’s need to minimize turnovers in moving forward. But sometimes that area of emphasis can be a detriment, which partly explains Osweiler’s hesitancy to take chances with longer passes and the quarterback constantly settling for safe checkdown throws.
Osweiler continued this maddening trend in a 27-9 loss at Denver on Monday night as he averaged just 3.2 yards on 41 pass attempts against one of the NFL’s best defenses. It’s the third-lowest yard average per pass for at least 40 passes attempted in the modern era, according to NFL Research.
While the passer shoulders a deserved amount of the blame for not flourishing in an offense with Pro Bowl wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and emerging rookie wideout Will Fuller, Osweiler seems hamstrung as much by a conservative approach as his inaccuracy.
Better passers have had similar issues in a turnover-conscious offense.
Hall of Fame head coach Tony Dungy became convinced that part of the Indianapolis Colts’ problem when facing the Patriots in the playoffs was a propensity for turnovers. Quarterback Peyton Manning was intercepted four times in a 24-14 AFC Championship Game loss at New England in 2004. Dungy continued to preach that more football games are lost than won because of self-inflicted mistakes.
The Colts returned to Gillette Stadium the next January with a game plan predicated on not beating themselves. Manning was conscious about not taking risky throws. A conservative offense that didn’t take enough chances fell flat in a 20-3 AFC Divisional playoff loss.
Two postseasons later, Dungy’s Colts finally proved they had learned from past mistakes. Manning led them back from a 21-3 deficit to a 38-34 triumph against the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. The Colts then defeated the Chicago Bears to win Super Bowl XLI.
As the Colts eventually realized, and the Texans are still trying to figure out, an offense must take its shots to achieve greatness.
Granted, Osweiler isn’t Manning. When together in Denver last year, they had the NFL’s best defense to rely upon. Osweiler had started just seven games before arriving in Houston, too, so he’s still learning what it’s like to be a franchise quarterback. As the Colts’ previous situation reminds, this takes time; typically years.
The Texans (4-3) still sit atop the lowly AFC South Division, 1 game ahead of the Colts and Tennessee Titans. As a 26-23 overtime win against the Colts showed two weeks ago, Osweiler can make clutch plays when needed. The Texans rallied from a 23-9 deficit in the final 3 minutes as Osweiler threw 2 touchdown passes to force overtime, then drove his team to the game-winning field goal.
Osweiler must get on the same page with his talented receivers, the Texans should rely upon a solid run game with Lamar Miller (581 rushing yards) to achieve offensive balance and the coaches need to devise game plans that encourage the young passer to take more chances down the field.
That’s not easy to do against the Broncos. But against most other opponents, especially those in the AFC South, the Texans should still be able to succeed.
A defense without injured Pro Bowl star J.J. Watt, a three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, isn’t the same, but still capable. The Texans have had issues stopping the run but can still get after passers and play solid pass defense.
The other side of the equation is playing complementary football, another philosophy Dungy liked to preach. An offense that scores points — the Texans are tied for the fewest touchdowns with just 10 — gains a lead and allows the defense to get after opponents playing catch-up.
The Texans have proven they can win at home with victories against Chicago, Kansas City, Tennessee and Indianapolis. They’ve struggled mightily in three road losses to solid defenses: 27-0 at New England, 31-13 at Minnesota and 27-9 at Denver. Most quarterbacks will have rough days on the road against the Patriots (6-1), Vikings (5-1) and Broncos (5-2).
The key to Houston’s season is adjusting the offense to help Osweiler become comfortable, so he can prove himself capable of making the necessary throws to score more points. The Texans’ remaining schedule is kind; just three opponents have winning records, beginning with Detroit (4-3) visiting Houston’s NRG Stadium on Sunday.
As much as the situation appears bleak today, there’s still time for the Texans, Osweiler and the coaching staff to sort this out.