Thursday, September 4, 2008

Houston Texans Expected To Win 8.78 Games In 2008

I’m excited about the 2008 NFL football season, and especially about the prospects for “my” Houston Texans. I expect the Texans to be a significantly better team this season. In fact, I "predict" that they will win 8.78 games.

Why the Texans Will Be Significantly Better

Here are three important reasons why I think the Texans will be better.
  1. Better talent: For the 3rd year in a row it appears the Texans have added at least four quality young players via the draft. Rookies that could make a significant contribution before the season is over include Duane Brown (OT), Steve Slaton (RB), Antwaun Molden (CB), and Frank Okam (DT). In addition, the second and third year players should continue to improve – especially second year starters Amobi Okoye (DT), Fred Bennett (CB) and Zac Diles (LB). Equally importantly, there were no significant losses to free agency, and there is only one starter who you might think is past his prime.
  2. Improved coaching: There were two significant additions to the Texans’ coaching staff this off-season – Ray Rhodes, and Alex Gibbs. Rhodes is a great addition to an already solid DB coaching staff. Gibbs is the “guru” of zone blocking. The foundation of Kubiak’s offense is the running game. However, it has been a major disappointment in each of the last two seasons. Last year the team averaged less than 100 yards/game rushing. The team must improve its running game, and no one has a better track record of doing that than Alex Gibbs. His teams have consistently been among the league leaders in rushing.
  3. Fewer injuries: Last year the Texans were among the league “leaders” in injuries. Key players out for a significant number of games included Ahman Green (started only 5 games), Andre Johnson (9), Dunta Robinson (9), and Matt Shaub (11). In addition, Shaub was unable to finish two of the games he started. These are arguably 4 of the 6 most talented/important players on the team. At the end of the year, the team had at least 18 players on injured reserve. It is unlikely that they will lose as many players, and especially as many KEY players, this season.

Why Their Record Won’t Be

Unfortunately, while I think this year’s edition of the Texans will be significantly better than last year’s, there is a very good chance that their record will not be. There are two major reasons for this:

  1. According to ESPN, last year’s opponents won two games more than they lost during the prior regular season (129-127). This year’s opponents won 24 games more than they lost last year (140-116). Eight of the Texans'16 games are against teams that were in the playoffs last year. That’s a very significant step up in the quality of the opponents. In fact, based solely on prior year records, only four AFC teams, and only five teams in the whole league, have more difficult schedules.
  2. The Texans won’t peak until the second half of the season. That’s partly because I think it is going to take a while before the offense really gets comfortable with, and proficient at, the new zone blocking schemes. It’s also partly because Dunta Robinson, their best DB, won’t be back from injury until the second half. In addition, the first and second year players that have the potential to play key roles will be better later in the season than early on. By the end of the season, I expect the Texans will be a playoff caliber team. However, unless they are a playoff caliber team from day one, they could well be 1-4 after the first 5 games (which include road games against the Steelers, Titans and Jaguars, and a home game against the Colts). To get to 10-6 would require that they go 9-2 the rest of the way – possible, but unlikely.

Why 8.78 Wins??

I think of 8.78 wins more of an expectation than a "prediction." When I calculate expected wins, rather than an all or none approach, I use a probabilistic approach. In the table below, for example, 0.20 means I think there is a 20% chance that the Texans will beat Pittsburgh. This means that if the teams played 10 times, the Texans would win twice. As a result, this counts as 0.20, 2 tenths, of a win in the total of 8.78. Ideally, this probability should be based on each opponent’s prior year record adjusted for free agency gains and losses, draft results, trades, etc. However, I only did a “quick and dirty” analysis of each opponent’s changes from last year. So, while this number is very precise, it’s still very subjective. Even so, I believe this is a more effective way of arriving at a prediction than the all or none approach.

Houston Texans Expected Wins
at Pittsburgh0.20
at Tennessee0.30
at Jacksonville0.40
at Minnesota0.40
at Indianapolis0.20
at Cleveland0.40
at Green Bay0.40
at Oakland0.75
TOTAL 8.78

Keys to the Season

Three keys to the Texans’ season will be whether they can develop a more effective running game, get better at winning the turnover battle (they were among the worst in the league last year), and get the defense off the field on third downs.

Improving the running game may be the most critical. For this offense to reach its potential, it needs to average at least 125 yards/game rushing. Alex Gibbs' history proves that he can get the team to that level. However, for the team to get there, either Ahman Green has to remain healthy, or the Texans have to have big-time seasons from the backups (neither of whom has ever started an NFL game), or the Texans have to add another proven RB. Improving the running game is critical because it will improve the team’s time of possession, open up the play action passes, and make the defense more effective by giving them more rest and better field position.

Getting off the field comes down to improving the run defense, thereby creating more third and long situations, and improving the pass rush and DB play in order to become more successful in those situations. Rookies Frank Okam and Antwuan Molden can help here, but how soon?

For what it’s worth, last year this methodology calculated 7.59 expected wins for the Texans, and therefore predicted 8 wins – which is how the year turned out. This year it predicts 9 wins. I would love that number to be higher, but I cannot justify a higher number given the challenges the team is facing. It looks like the Texans may have to wait one more year before making the playoffs. I sure hope I’m wrong.

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