NFL Preview - Washington (0-0) at Houston (0-0) (ET)
09/04/2014 10:15 AM
09/04/2014 10:16 AM
(SportsNetwork.com) - The Houston Texans are not your typical 2-14 team.
While it's true that their abysmal 2013 season earned them last place in the AFC's South Division and resulted in their picking first in the 2014 NFL Draft this spring, it's not as if they're the run-of-the-mill franchise that's been bereft of hope and optimism for years on end.
In fact, just a year ago this time, many people considered them a legitimate Super Bowl threat.
The 2013 edition entered last season having won 10 and 12 games in the previous two seasons, and was stocked to the rafters will offensive talent - not the least of which was veteran quarterback Matt Schaub - under an innovative head coach, Gary Kubiak, who looked ready to take the next step.
These days, Schaub is a back-up in Oakland, Kubiak is a coordinator in Baltimore and Bill O'Brien, who was having his own hardships 12 months ago, is in Houston preparing for his latest reclamation project.
O'Brien, lest anyone forget, was the coach who inherited the mess at Penn State after the Jerry Sandusky scandal that led to the ouster of Joe Paterno. He kept the Nittany Lions both relevant and successful in two years atop the program - winning 15 of 24 games - and was the clear-cut "hot college coaching prospect" before officially taking over the Texans on Jan. 2.
And the cupboard he inherits at Reliant Stadium is anything but bare.
Garnering the lion's share of pre-opener headlines has been defensive lineman J.J. Watt, who confirmed his standing as the face of the franchise by signing a $100 million deal that'll extend his contract by six years and pay him $51.8 million in guaranteed money.
"Money doesn't motivate me, greatness does," Watt said. "I'm so fortunate that I don't have to worry about the money, so I can focus on the greatness. At the end of the day, I want to play this game because I want to be the absolute best I can be."
Watt is joined for this season by the aforementioned No. 1 overall draft pick - South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney - who's an instant upgrade to an already potent pass rush and is expected to form one of the league's most-feared tandems from the opening whistle.
The two began bonding from the start of training camp.
"Every day we work a little something," Watt said. "As you've seen in the (preseason) games, he's a very talented player. I just try and teach him a couple of the things I've learned in my time in this league and ways that we can help each other because I really think it can be a lot of fun."
Things are no longer quite so settled on the offensive side, though.
The implosion of 2013 was brought on in no small way by the sudden acumen loss suffered by Schaub, who lost his job to Case Keenum and was ultimately sent to the Raiders to the delight of Houston fans.
Keenum wasn't able to make the job his own for the long term, however, so veteran journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick was brought in to steer the ship. His captaincy doesn't figure to last too long, however, because Houston made a late preseason deal to acquire Ryan Mallett - a caddy for Tom Brady in New England for the last three seasons while completing precisely one NFL pass.
Fitzpatrick started for Buffalo two seasons ago and for Tennessee in 2013.
"Being in the league and having to do it multiple times has made it easier for me in terms of being able to step in here," he said.
Many would have suggested Andre Johnson's football address would have been different for the start of the 2014 season, but the multiple Pro Bowl honoree is still with the Texans after initially calling for a trade, but ultimately choosing not to hold out. He reported to training camp on time and should be the No. 1 target for Fitzpatrick and Mallett going forward.
Arian Foster is among the league's most productive running backs when healthy, but that health is in question after he missed eight games and underwent back surgery last season. In his three previous years, he'd averaged more than 1,400 yards.
Foster didn't play in the preseason, but insists he's ready to go.
"I'm wonderful, physically," he said. "I'm excited about that. I can't wait to play football."
As for the Redskins, Robert Griffin III feels the same way.
The former Heisman Trophy winner saw his second NFL season end with pain and frustration, when then-coach Mike Shanahan sat him for the final three games - partially because of lingering issues with a knee he'd injured as a rookie, and partially because the relationship between the two was strained.
Shanahan was replaced in the offseason by Jay Gruden, and Griffin feels like a new man.
"I've learned that not everybody's going to like you, and that's just the nature of the business," he said. "You just have to move on from that kind of stuff. I think Jay being here has helped me grow as a person. Trust me, I'm not worried about anybody liking me. Our job is to ignore the noise and stay focused on what we have to."
Griffin has lobbied to do less running and more traditional pocket passing as a quarterback, and the team's premier offseason acquisition - DeSean Jackson, from Philadelphia - should help him toward those goals. Additionally, Pierre Garcon returns after leading the league with 113 catches in 2013.
Gruden, for one, has faith in his quarterback to manage the arsenal.
"It will come," he said. "He's got the ability to do it. He's got the smarts to do it. He's got the wants to do it. He's just got to do it."
Lest Griffin risk his own safety any further, he does have a capable backfield mate to hand the ball to as well. Alfred Morris has scored 20 touchdowns and run for more than 2,800 yards in two seasons.
Intangibly speaking, it's a good time for a struggling franchise to set a new course.
"(Houston is) going to come out wanting to right their ship, we're going to come out wanting to right out ship," Griffin said. "We're both going to play hard for our (new) coach. They have a lot of good players on that defense and we're going to have our hands full."
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
A Pressure Situation
As mentioned earlier, the tandem of Watt and Clowney will more than likely be a prolonged headache for offensive coordinators and line coaches, and the initial glimpse comes Sunday. Washington's Trent Williams presumably lines up opposite Clowney, but Watt is enough of a freelance commodity that he can start from a number of spots and still create issues. The matchups should be a plus for Houston.
RG, Season III
Though Griffin has begun singing the "I can be a traditional quarterback" song after sustaining a slowdown injury, his new coach may have other ideas. The offensive line isn't constructed to give Griffin hours to make decisions and Griffin's prowess as a runner has been beyond question. In a game against a fearsome pass rush, utilizing the sort of misdirection that made him famous could be a positive.
Someone's going to get off the mat to a 1-0 start and someone else is going to have to answer questions about changing the mindset and how long it'll take.
There's ample reason to suggest either team could fit either scenario going in, but the guess here is that Fitzpatrick will limit his mistakes enough on offense to put his defense in position to make a decisive play and begin the ship-righting process immediately.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Texans 21, Redskins 17