2014, The Year Of Rick Smith?

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On December 26 2013, Houston Texans owner Bob McNair announced the firing of long time head coach, Gary Kubiak. He was followed to the podium by General Manager Rick Smith, who said “We’ve got to right the ship. We have to move forward as an organization.” The assembled sheep local media lobbed Smith such softball questions as what was the deciding factor in firing Kubiak, who the head coach candidates might be, blah blah blah. What was left unasked was “WHY THE HELL ARE YOU HERE AND NOT IN THE UNEMPLOYMENT LINE WITH GARY??” Which is the question I might have asked had I the opportunity. Smith was hired in 2006, not long after Kubiak. The two joined the Texans after long, generally successful stints with the Denver Broncos. They were seen as a package deal. While Smith did not preside over the 2006 draft, the best in franchise history, he has been the man making the final decision on every Houston pick since then, albeit in close consultation with Kubiak and his coaching staff. Thus the lack of depth that cratered the 2013 Texans lands squarely in his lap. It was management’s inability to identify developing problems in the 2012 Texans that would eventually torpedo the 2013 Texans season before it even started. That lack of vision put Gary Kubiak in the impossible situation of trying to right a sinking ship without the personnel needed to do so. Let us review…

1. Matt Schaub – The Texans long time QB had demonstrably regressed throughout the second half of 2012. After having the New England Patriots defense embarrass him twice in one month on national television at the end of the 2012 season, Schaub’s descent should have been recognized. And this certainly wasn’t a case of a guy having a bad game or two. Schaub had been pedestrian AT BEST since the Detroit Lions game in 2012. When your starting QB has a terrible half season, thought should be given to shoring up the position instead of assuming it was an eight week long fluke. Yet there were the Texans brass confidently stating Schaub was their guy, no doubt it. The Texans thus entered the 2013 season with only unproven backups T.J. Yates and Case Keenum, who both cratered under withering blitzes when called on to replace the shockingly bad Schaub.

2. RB – Although I place much of the blame here on Kubiak for his absolutely unconscionable pounding of Arian Foster the previous couple of years, Smith should have identified the position as in need of more depth heading into the season. After all, there is ample recent history to show how quickly RBs can flame out in the NFL, especially when they’re run as unmercifully as Kubiak ran Foster. Instead they had a talented but injury prone Ben Tate as the only experienced backup. Unsurprisingly to everyone paying attention, Foster and Tate were both too injured most of 2013 to make any difference in the running game. Instead, the Texans were forced to turn to such unknowns as Dennis Johnson, Jonathan Grimes, and Ray Graham. Amazingly the Texans finished 20th in the league in rushing, a testament to just how bad the QB play was that they ran this group of bench-fillers often enough to even make it that high on the list. But hey, at least they signed the oft injured Andre Brown for the 2014 season to replace the oft injured Ben Tate! Yay.

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3. Pass rush – J.J. Watt arguably had the best season for a DE in league history en route to winning the Defensive Player of the Year award in 2012. So great was his Watt-age (pun most definitely intended) that Rick Smith was apparently blinded to the ineffectiveness of the rest of the pass rush. Connor Barwin had dropped from 11.5 sacks in 2011 to just 3 in 2012 and was subsequently allowed to move on. Brooks Reed dropped from 6 to 2.5. So management decided to replace the ineffective Barwin with the even more ineffective Reed for 2013. He responded with an underwhelming season, posting but 3 sacks in the higher profile pass rushing position. In the meantime, Offensive Coordinators facing the Texans game planned the Texans defense with but one mission, double and triple team the ever loving hell out of Watt on every play and dare the rest of the Texans pass rush to beat them. They couldn’t. Even with all that slack given by the offenses, onetime supposed sack wunderkind Whitney Mercilus followed up his promising rookie season with only 7 sacks. The Texans finished with the third lowest sack total in the league, 32, with a solid 1/3 of those going to Watt.

So now that Rick Smith is clearly the man in Houston (no package deal anymore with the Kubes out) it’s up to him to plot the future of the Texans at least for this season. Was the Texans previous lack of vision a result of the heavy influence Kubiak and Wade Phillips exerted in the decision making process? Obviously Bob McNair thinks so, or else Smith would be looking for work elsewhere right now. That would seem to indicate that Smith will have even greater control over the direction of this team moving forward.  So what, to date, has he done to improve upon the failings of the 2013 Texans? Other than let Ben Tate walk and sign the aforementioned Andre Brown, not much. Oh, he did sign Ryan Fitzpatrick to serve as caretaker for whichever QB Smith picks to replace Schaub in the draft. Otherwise he’s simply let some backups walk and signed some other backups to replace them. So Rick Smith’s chips for 2014 have been fully pushed into the new “Greatest Draft in Houston Texans” history corner. How else to fix so many glaring problems in one off-season without any significant free agent signings? But with the benefit of the top pick in every round of a very deep draft, Smith might just cash in. Some draft pundits think the Texans might just get both Jadeveon Clowney AND Teddy Bridgewater with their first two picks. If that happens, Texans fans should be dancing in the streets. Because those two players have the potential to fix problems 1 and 3 all by themselves. Then Smith might be able to fix the RB problem due to the decreased value teams are placing on RBs in the draft. There’s liable to be a very strong RB candidate available at the top of the 3rd round. There are other areas of concern of course (it’d sure be nice to have a LB with a last name other than Cushing actually make a play) but if Smith can fix these three areas in just the draft, then 2014 could truly be the year of Rick Smith.

 

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