The mood in Houston may be a bit grim this week following the Texans’ 20-13 loss to the Baltimore Ravens in last Sunday’s Divisional Round playoff game, but on the whole, Texans fans have plenty to smile about.
Unfortunately, those smiles could turn to teeth-grinding snarls come the beginning of March and the start of the new league year.
A franchise-best 10-win season coupled with the team’s first appearance—and win—in the postseason will have expectations in Houston at an all-time high entering the 2012 campaign. Even the city of Las Vegas has recognized the legitimacy of what the Texans accomplished in 2011, as the team was installed at 15-1 to win the 2013 Super Bowl by the LVH SuperBook this past Tuesday, odds that have only six teams coming in lower.
If the Texans ranked second in the NFL in total defense without Williams, imagine what they could do with him.
But like every other team in the NFL with nothing left to play for this season, the Texans now turn their attention to the upcoming free agency period and find themselves in the unenviable position of having to make some very difficult choices.
None of which will carry more scrutiny then the decision of whether or not the franchise should bring back outside linebacker Mario Williams.
Williams—a two-time All-Pro selection with 53 career sacks—was lost for the season after suffering a torn pectoral muscle during the Texans’ 25-20 Week 5 loss to the Oakland Raiders. A two-time Pro Bowler at defensive end, the 26-year-old was moved to outside linebacker last August in an effort to maximize the overall potential of first-year defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’ new 3-4 defense.
Two schools of thought will emerge in the decision-making process surrounding the most challenging decision the Texans have to face this offseason:
1. Williams costs too much money and we did just fine without him: Houston ranked second in the NFL in total defense (285.7 yds/gm) this past season, sixth in sacks (44) and 12th in takeaways (27). With a boatload of young talent in linebackers Brian Cushing, Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed along with defensive end J.J. Watts and prized free agent acquisition Johnathan Joseph, the Texans are certainly loaded on the defensive side of the football, with or without Williams on the roster.
2. Defense wins championships and you can never have enough depth: Say what you want about high-powered offenses and record-breaking quarterbacks, but this is still a league that values a top-notch defense. Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees are scheduling tee times this week while Michael Vick and the Philadelphia Eagles didn’t even qualify for the postseason. Meanwhile, the Ravens (3rd in total defense) and the 49ers (4th) look to punch their tickets to the Super Bowl this Sunday, while the Giants just got done holding the previously-unstoppable Rodgers to his lowest QB rating of the season (78.5) in last Sunday’s Divisional Round playoff game.
Complicating matters for the Houston front office is the fact that Pro Bowl running back Arian Foster—who has amassed more rushing yards over the last two years (2,840) than any other back in the league, save for Jacksonville’s Maurice Jones-Drew—is a restricted free agent and earned just $525,000 in base salary for 2011. The Texans have some leverage here, as the team can cite the play of former second-round pick Ben Tate (942 rushing yards, 5.4 YPC) as reasons against making Foster the highest-paid running back in the league, but ultimately, the guy is going to command top dollar.
But here’s the thing: For as great as the Texans’ defense played this year, you have to keep in mind that ten of their 16 games came against teams that ranked 17th or worse in total offense, with eight of those games taking place against squads that ranked 20th or worse. It’s not exactly like Houston was shutting down the cream of the NFL’s offensive crop.
The return of a healthy Matt Schaub will provide a big lift for the Houston offense.
In addition, quarterback Matt Schaub appeared in just ten games and was M.I.A. during the playoffs due to a Lisfranc injury. With Schaub at the controls, the Texans ranked in the top-four in total offense each year from 2008-2010. This is a team that, when healthy, boasts a lot of firepower and can score in bunches. Schaub’s return to the offense in 2012 will no doubt provide a much-needed spark while giving the Texans the ability to match-up favorably with teams like the Patriots, Steelers and—if Peyton Manning comes back healthy—Colts.
This issue the Texans are facing with Williams boils down to a simple question: Is Houston more likely to win the Super Bowl with Williams anchoring the defense or is the team more likely to win a championship using that money to address other areas of the roster?
With an already talented roster in place coupled with Schaub’s return next season, I say the Texans pay Williams and let Wade Phillips turn this unit into the most devastating defense in the league.
Because the last thing you want is a guy like Mario Williams signing a long-term deal with an AFC opponent and coming after Schaub in next year’s playoffs.
Hit me up on Twitter: @JoeFortenbaugh