Houston Texans: What about Tom Savage?

Tom Savage 2014 Draft Profile Courtesy of nfl.com

As the Houston Texans settle into a week of practice with quarterback Brian Hoyer and new/old back-up TJ Yates, and hopefully the final roster changes to the QB position for the 2015 (barring, of course, any injury that has been seen in 3 of the last 4 seasons), the everpresent buzz of ‘will we get a franchise quarterback’ has turned into a roar from both fanbase and local sports media.  Texans beat writers all but have slotted out the first Texans draft pick to go to a quarterback in the 2016 NFL Draft.  Most fans agree.  No word from the organization.

Granted, the total disaster in QB shuffling was rather hard to ignore.  One would ask if O’Brien was perhaps having some college coaching flashbacks when creating this QB competition, and then switching starters in this season a total of 3 times in 6 games.  That was becoming tantamount to a circus act, and frustrated the fan base that wants a franchise QB. What we all forget, though, in getting all mixed up in the unfolding drama of the QB controversy in Houston that, frankly, garnered too much attention and took entirely too much attention away from some of the real problems of this team, is that we drafted a QB in 2014.

Quick note: difference in average points per game scored from last year is 1.3 points.  2015 average points per game: 22.  2014 average points per game: 23.3.  This year’s average is the same with or without the Atlanta/Miami games.  

It’s easy to forget that we drafted QB Tom Savage in 2014, as a 4th round pick, 7th QB picked overall.  Tom Savage is the 1st drafted QB in the Bill O’Brien era, picked at a time where the Texans needed an upgrade at the position.  However, if a QB was one of the top concerns going into the 2014 draft, why did we allow 6 QBs to pass us, and pick in the 4th round?  Obviously, we knew our #1 pick was going to be Jadeveon Clowney (top prospect, once in a lifetime talent, versus no QB that was ranked as a #1 overall pick), but why did we wait until our 5th pick to get the most obvious need for the team?

Hindsight (which should never be used in evaluating draft picks, because draft stock hinges purely on potential) would tell us that all of our picks before Savage have not played up to their potential, as of yet.  But remember, draft stock evaluates potential, and drafts are always a gamble.  The Texans chose the safer bet in each pick that a QB was not chosen.  There is a far higher risk when drafting a QB as a higher draft pick (contract, cap considerations, etc.,) than virtually any other player on the team, period.  Then the Texans chose Savage.  But why?

There was virtually no discussion of Savage and what he would bring to the NFL during the 2014 draft.  That’s mainly because Savage did not have much of a college football career.  He was named starting QB at Rutgers University 2 games into his freshman season, and led the team to 9 wins and 4 losses.  His freshman stats were more impressive; he threw for 2211 yards, with a 52.3 completion percentage, 14 touchdowns, only 7 interceptions, and a 128.7 rating.   His second year at Rutgers started off similarly, but was sidelined with a hand injury after going 2-2, and subsequently replaced as starter.

In that season he was credited with 2 of the 4 total wins that season.  Perhaps Rutgers made a mistake benching him after injury?

With his being replaced as starter, Savage announced he’d be transferring to Arizona State for the 2011 season, but wouldn’t be eligible to play until 2012, due to NCAA transfer rules.  After a Head Coach change (and an offensive scheme change that he would not fit in), Savage announced a transfer to Pittsburgh for 2012.  He was redshirted in 2012, and was awarded the starting position for the Pittsburgh Panthers 2013 season.  That season, Savage had another impressive year, throwing for almost 3000 yards, with a 61.2 completion percentage, 21 touchdowns, 9 interceptions, and a 138.2 rating.

In 2013, Savage also started getting glances from scouts around the country.

In his 2013 and before the 2014 draft, Savage went from unknown QB to a definite draft pick (albeit in the 6th or 7th round, officially).  However, many scouts felt his potential just in that single year could take him up to a 2nd or 3rd round pick.  His arm was arguably the strongest of the 2014 draft class, and had an accuracy, intelligence, and build comparable to Troy Aikmen.  In fact, up to 24 NFL teams met with Savage individually (New England had a very unofficial interest in him as Brady’s back-up and eventual replacement), and worked him out.

Savage’s lack of playtime in college (relegated to barely over 2 years) combined with his throwing strength, size, accuracty, and mobility put him in a risky pick category.  He could eventually be one of the greatest picks coming out of the draft, and he has all the potential in the world, but he’s got a lot to learn.  The Texans decided to take this risk in the 4th round and develop that potential.  A 4th round QB isn’t going to start in his rookie year – nor should he be expected to.  He spends that year in development.  In conjunction with that move, the Texans opted for a journeyman QB that’s smart enough to manage a game, and brought in Ryan Fitzpatrick.

Additionally, Ryan Mallett, whose story has already been overtold, was brought in as a back-up and eventually a potential starter for the time necessary to develop Savage.  That would likely be a role in 2014, and possibly 2015.  When 2015 came around and it was apparent that Savage needed a little more time to develop (or maybe he didn’t, as O’Brien is beginning to show that he’s quite conservative with his younger players – maybe too conservative), it was apparent that the “interim” role of starting QB needed to be expanded.

So, O’Brien brought in Hoyer and cut Fitzpatrick for some reason that has yet to make any sense in the world, let Mallett and Hoyer compete for the starting job, and likely was poised to introduce Savage as the eventual starter for the 2015 season.  Savage performed better in the preseason than both Mallett and Hoyer, with a higher completion percentage and overall rating.  Why he was not included in the competion for starter has me baffled but, again, O’Brien seems to take a very conservative approach when introducing newer players to the field.

Whether Savage should have been in the fight or not, it all became moot when he was inured with a shoulder sprain, expected to miss 4-6 weeks, and inexplicably placed on season-ending IR.  Honestly, if a QB controversy case can be made, this one is it.  With Savage arguably performing better than the 2 battling it out for starting position (albeit with mainly 2nd and 3rd string players), the question to end his season, given the 2013 and 2014 season of utilizing every QB on the roster and then some, this will be the one that comes back to haunt O’Brien.

Not only did that same fate come to pass this year, with neither Hoyer or Mallett performing up to snuff, but O’Brien foolishly put off his first QB draft pick’s starter debut another year.  Which means we have to wait another year to see if this potentially good-to-great QB can actually cut it in the pros as a starter.  We’ve also got a fan base that has completely forgotten that we even drafted a QB, and is demanding a top QB draft in 2016.  O’Brien placed himself in a rather sticky situation with these moves, and it will be interesting to see how he plays it out.

My hope would be that, since Savage did show some potential in the preseason, the Houston Texans PR machine will start kicking out reports on Savage’s progress in injury, as well as reminding fans of why he was drafted in the first place.  I’d like to see the Houston sporting press begin to do the same.  This would simply be a foolish, foolish mistake to ignore Savage’s potential and look to a QB as the top pick in the 2016 draft.  Foolish would not be to draft another QB in the 2016 draft overall, but that should not be the top focus.

We already have one that is chomping at the bit, and this year has made it obvious that we’re going to need to plug in A LOT of holes in the upcoming season.  So, let’s start hyping up Tom Savage, and give him the shot he deserves.  That means starting him straight out of the gate in 2016.  No more conservative action for new players, O’Brien.  That sends the message that you don’t have confidence in them.  Experience on the field is what makes or breaks a player, and it’s better to learn if they’ve got what it takes sooner, rather than later.

Houston Texans: Getting back on track

At the start of the season, the Houston Texans were coming of a rebound 9-7 season, with upgrades at defense and a rebuilding offense.  Defense was supposed to be the powerhouse, forcing turnovers and holding the opposition to low scores, giving the offense the edge they so desperately needed.  Offense was supposed to be plugging in holes lost with a veteran leaving, finding an answer to the ever-present QB question, and managing the time on the field enough to keep the team in the game.

Currently, the Houston Texans are 2-5, ironically tied for 2nd in the EPA superfund site that is the AFC South, and about to close out the 1st half of the season in a divisional game against a team with 1 less win.  They’ve been historically outscored in the first half and the defense seems to be circling the drain.  Offense, plagued with injury and a constantly changing O-line, as well as QB, has actually been pretty average.  The offense ranks in the top 5 for yardage, a little less than average in points scored per game (22) and is performing on par with what was expected.

However, we’ve concentrated on the drama of the QB train-wreck, which has ended in a fashion more befitting for a divorce court than an NFL organization.  Sorry guys, but if you thought Mallett was our problem and we’ll be smooth sailing from here on out, you are going to be disappointed.

But hey let’s look at the QB situation, again, and see where we went wrong.

In 2014, we brought in a consummate journeyman for a QB, Ryan Fitzpatrick, after cutting our previous “franchise” QB.  He did okay for the team, with a 6-6 record, but couldn’t manage to help bring home the competitive but close cames when we fell behind.  However, which need be stated, he was a place holder for Ryan Mallett, who was brought in to be a potential starter.  When Ryan Mallett got the opportunity to start, he wowed us.  However, a season-ending injury cost the Texans a pivotal game, and the team had season-ending injuries with both Fitzpatrick and rookie 3rd string Tom Savage, which left them scrambling to finish out the season (cue our beloved Case Keenum to finally swoop in and save the game).

For 2015, most figured that Mallett would come back from injury, Savage would continue to be developed, and we’d plug in another veteran as our #2.  What appeared to be happening was just that.  Mallett was resigned to a 2 year (really, 1 year and we’ll see) contract, and veteran QB Brian Hoyer was brough in on a 2 year (also, 1 year and we’ll see) contract.  However, at that same moment, Bill O’Brien announced that the starting gig was up for grabs and both QBs would compete for the job.  I’m not sure about you guys, but for me this was a head-scratching moment.  Mallett was brought in to eventually be developed to start.  He did just that in 2014.  He was injured, had a bad game due to injury, and ended his season because of that injury.

In my opinion, those factors are not enough to put a player’s job on the line.

Fast-forward to the pre-season and the decision to change QBs almost every game, along with the addition of a new play-caller, as well as a constantly changing o-line.  Those are some nasty conditions for any QB to survive in, much less flourish.  It speaks for a complete lack of confidence in your QB to hank him every time there is a struggle on the field.  There will be no consistency.  There will be no continuity.  The team will be lacking a leader if both guys go into the game knowing they could be pulled.  This style of coaching seems amateur at best, and a complete set-up for failure at worst.  The Texans got to see the failure.  The season’s record speaks for itself.  O’Brien should be embarrassed for having handled this so poorly.

One last thing about the QB drama – are we fully believing that Mallett had another bone-head “oops” moment when not catching the charter flight to Miami?  Did this former back-up in New England show the head coach of that organization the same attitude?  Think about that.  I hope the whole “just Mallett being Mallett” discussion doesn’t overshadow the fact that we had a coaching staff and front office that couldn’t keep a player in line and had to be embarrassed nationally in order to take some action.  Mallett came into the NFL with character and ego issues, but there was at least 1 team that kept him in line.

And now we’ve got what seems like the aftermath of a huge clash of egos that starts at the QB and coaching positions, and doesn’t stop.  It’s quite unfortunate that the QB drama that has unfolded has taken the spotlight on this team, when we’ve got failures in every aspect of the game, but maybe it’s for the best of the team (no pun intended) that essentially one of the least of our problems is the spotlight of this dysfunctional organization.  Let’s face it – QB struggles or not, the team was scoring the points necessary to win.  All things considered, the Texans offense should almost be commended for performing the way they have, considering the scrambling that has been done on that side.

Seriously – give them some credit.  An appropriate amount, at least.  They came in with an open hole where Andre Johnson used to sit.  The star running back, Arian Foster, was sidelined with injury (and is now out for the season, and likely for good with the Texans).  The O-line has been plagued with injury and has started a new rotation almost every game.  Offense, on a whole, has been a wreck. They’ve managed, though.  The lowest-scoring game so far has been on a win – 19 points.  With the adversity this group has faced, they’re performing a little better than expected overall. And coming into the season, they weren’t expected to really thrive.

The leadership in this organization is crumbling fast, and it shows on the field.  This isn’t a statement of the talent (or, arguably lack thereof) on the roster.  This is a statement of bad management overall.  This QB drama has gone on too long and has taken up too much attention – and action had to be forced by a (now former) teammate.

So how does the team get back on track?

There are 3 things to do.  First, and quickly, we need to assess and make adjustments on defense.  What I mean by this is we need someone other than Romeo Crennel.  Crennel has had a long history as defensive coordinator in the NFL.  He’s had this job with 3 different teams.  He should be able to do something with the names we’ve got on the field.  Instead, we’re almost putting up more yards in penalties than our opposing teams.  Penalties (averaging almost into the double digits per game) are a direct result of lack of discipline.  That’s a coaching problem.  Crennel should get 1 more week.  If defense doesn’t hold to a single digit score with Tennessee, that should be our cue.

Second, special teams needs an overhaul.  We were all impressed with what coordinator Bob Ligashesky did with 3 games left in 2013, but he’s done little to warrant being essentially the only coach brought over from the Kubiak era.  I wouldn’t even give him 1 more game to improve.  We probably will though, and maybe even beyond.  However, if this team’s about accountability, I would expect to see some walking papers during our bye week.  There’s just no excuse for the little production that has been seen with special teams over the past few years, and special teams has proven to be pivotal in the NFL when it comes to wins and losses.

Third, and most glaring, is our GM.  Rick Smith has been a source of heated discussion for several years now.  The big controversy has been how the Texans have handled their draft picks in the last few years, and why the organization hasn’t gone after QBs in the draft.  Well, the Texans did go after a QB in the 2014 draft, but he just wasn’t the QB that everyone wanted.  That’s for another column, though.  The real question is has Rick Smith been successful as a GM, with heavy scrutiny falling on the draft.  The answer, in short, is no.  Rick Smith can pick great players, but they end up playing their best games on another roster.

What Rick Smith can’t seem to do is pick the right coaching staff to assemble these players into a championship team.  The closest we ever came was in 2011, and that was primarily because we were unknowns.  Rick Smith has pretty big voice when it comes to picking talent on both the playing and coaching roster, and he’s failed to line them up effectively.  He’s also been given 9 years to do this.  It’s time to let him go, whether it be to outright fire him, or give him another job in the front office that has nothing to do with building a team.

Anything short of these 3 steps, and we’re looking at another top pick in the draft.

RANT: NFL shouldn’t reward criminals for a job well done

The picture speaks for itself.  Courtesy of twitter.

The NFL Comeback Player of the Year award celebrates a single athlete’s triumph over adversity each year, due to one of a number of possibilities.  Most of us fans think season-ending injury or bad season with the wrong team.  Those are certainly qualifiers for this prestigious award, but you can apparently qualify if you miss a previous season for any reason at all, including being suspended for abusing your own 4-year-old child.

Today, the NFL.com decided to update and retweet its story from June 2015 about the leading candidates for this award, apparently due to lack of controversy for its original release.  This was most likely because it was clouded by the scandal of Roger Goodell’s finest work to date – deflategate.  And what a fine job that was, Goodell.  In a commissioner’s tenure that has seen instances of domestic violence, drunk driving, and abuse taken like a grain of salt (until the backlash of what the ever living what hit the media), the biggest case you take on involves deflated balls.

The ten picks, previously announced in June of this year, are as follows, from NFL.com:

1. Eric Berry, Kansas City Chiefs safety: The only defensive players to win are Lyle Alzado (1982), Bryant Young (1999) and Joe Johnson (2000). After beating Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, Berry will have a strong case to join that trio. He has not only returned to the field, but has also assumed his rightful place as one of the NFL’s best safeties.

2. Carson Palmer, Arizona Cardinals quarterback: Recently described as a “godsend” to the organization by general manager Steve Keim, Palmer should remain in the MVP hunt all season long. Against all odds, a 35-year-old quarterback written off as a washed-up journeyman two years ago is currently exhibiting more arm talent, better footwork and a higher understanding of the game than his career year of 2005. Bruce Arians believes Palmer is playing as well as any quarterback ever has under his watch, high praise coming from a coach who has worked with Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck.

3. Chris Johnson, Arizona Cardinals running back: Johnson merits legitimate consideration simply because he had fallen so far from his 2,000-yard heights of 2009. He was signed as an afterthought in mid-August, five months after taking a bullet to the shoulder. With Johnson leading the way as the NFL’s fifth-leading rusher, the Cardinals are averaging 4.7 yards per carry, a dramatic improvement from their league-low 3.3 yards per carry last season.

4. Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals wide receiver: Fitzgerald’s disappointing production from 2012 through 2014 was due to a confluence of injuries, poor quarterback play and an adjustment to the slot in Arians’ offense after playing the outside “X” position his entire career. That didn’t stop the football world from jumping to the conclusion that the eight-time Pro Bowler was not just past his prime, but also bordering on liability status.

That couldn’t be further from the truth. Palmer has a league-best 148.7 passer rating on throws to Fitzgerald, who leads all receivers in touchdowns, yards per route run and receptions of 20-plus yards. In his 12th season, he’s on pace for career highs in receptions (108), yards (1,458) and touchdowns (15).  And now for a not-so-random anecdote: “It’s a funny thing,” World Golf Hall of Famer Gary Player said last week. “I met Fitzgerald yesterday and he reminded me so much of [Nelson] Mandela. He had such love in his heart and warmth … I know he’s a real superstar, but he really made an imprint on me.”

5. Tyrann Mathieu, Arizona Cardinals defensive back: “Honey Badger” is a litmus-test player, just as Jordy Nelson was early in 2013 and DeAndre Hopkins in 2014. Their week-to-week excellence is so obvious that the only skeptics remaining are those not watching the games. The best all-around defensive back in football this year, Mathieu was one of a handful of no-brainer picks for our quarter-season All-Pro team two weeks ago.

6. Brandon Marshall, New York Jets wide receiver: Acquired on the cheap after playing through a high-ankle sprain and fomenting dissent in the Bears locker room last season, Marshall is the first Jets wide receiver since Don Maynard in 1968 to generate four consecutive games of 100-plus yards. One of the NFL’s most effective red-zone threats, Marshall is averaging 102 yards and nearly a touchdown per game.

7. Doug Martin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back:This year’s version of the Mark Ingram career renaissance, Martin is a former first-round pick running with renewed purpose and elusiveness after the organization declined to pick up his fifth-year option in the offseason. His tackle-breaking three-touchdown performance versus the Jaguars in Week 5 was one of the most impressive by a running back this year.

8. Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings running back: Peterson’s per-game average of 86.4 rushing yards ranks first among running backs who have started all of their team’s games. With flashes of 2012 MVP form, Peterson has bounced back in resounding fashion after missing the final 15 games last year.

9. Sean Lee, Dallas Cowboys linebacker: Entering this season, Lee had appeared in just 11 of 32 regular-season games since signing a seven-year, $42 million contract in August of 2013. After missing the entire 2014 campaign with a torn ACL, theCowboys shifted him from the middle to the weakside. The transition has been an unqualified success as Lee has been Dallas’ best defensive player, highlighted by Defensive Player of the Week honors in Week 2.

10. NaVorro Bowman, San Francisco 49ers linebacker: Whereas Lee is playing as well as ever, Bowman is still working his way back to dominant pre-injury form. Although he racked up 15 tackles versus the Ravens in Week 6, he doesn’t move quite as well in coverage as he did when he was a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in 2013.

Intersting picks, NFL.  We have a player who suffered from cancer included in a list of a player who beat his four year old bloody.  Triumph over adversity seems to have a different meaning for some, I guess.

The timing couldn’t be more right, either, coming on the heels of a new allegation and investigation of another NFL player allegation of another domestic violence issue.  I mean, what better time to re-release an article discussing the possibility of a child abuser getting a comeback award than right after another NFl player makes the news for a heated altercation that could or could not have included assault?  Maybe we should also include an opinion poll on whether or not it’s time to bring Ray Rice back into the fold?

I don’t feel it’s necessary to get into the discussion of what was so wrong with Peterson’s disciplinary actions of his child, nor do I wish to repost any damning images of the multiple cuts and bruises on his four year old son to nail down my point.  It’s not necessary because the coverage of this incident was immense when it occurred last year.  The suspension for the entire year was appropriate.  Does it really mean we should consider him for an award for coming back, though?

If that’s the case, why stop there?  Maybe we should start awarding NFL players who successfully finish their prison terms.  Michael Vick is still waiting for his recognition, guys.  Of course, maybe we should wait to unveil that one until 2018, when convicted murderer and former NFL player Rae Carruth is set to be released from prison.  We should call it the Comeback Felon of the Year Award (no offense, Vick).  I mean, what person would be more worthy than a man who conspired to murder his pregnant girlfriend, right?

In all seriousness, though, I think the NFL should examine some of the brutality and violence that some of its players have dished out over the past several years and give an honorary award every once in a while.  This year’s honorary Comeback Player of the Year Award should go to a 16 year old boy named Chancellor Lee Adams.  Chancellor Lee, if you do not know, is the son of Rae Carruth and survivor of the gunshot that killed his mother.  Chancellor Lee lay oxygen deprived in his mother’s womb because of this attack, and was born with cerebral palsy.

While the NFL had no hand in doling out punishment for Carruth (as he was almost immediately arrested and charged), it seems like they’ve made some real slip-ups in handling present day cases of nefarious behavior within the organization.  Wouldn’t it be nice, for once, for them to recognize real triumph over adversity within their organization, instead of making lame acknowledgments and commercials, with hope that it just all goes away?

Houston Astros: is it over?

Name your favorite heartbreaking Astros moment.

You know which one it is.

Albert Pujols hits a 3-run home run to take the lead in game 5 of the 2005 NLCS.  Photo credit: ESPN Sports

Albert Pujols hits a 3-run home run to take the lead in game 5 of the 2005 NLCS.
Photo credit: ESPN Sports

Yesterday’s loss is too fresh in the memory to be scorched in our minds.  Sure, it hurts.  It stings and it’s tender, like a day old wasp attack.  Those of us who were sitting back, watching it live, and still coming off the 7th inning high that ended just a bit too prematurely, with 2 runners in scoring position left hanging out to dry after 2 successive outs. There was that thought in the back of your head, wasn’t there?  That lingering thought on Jake Marisnick and Carlos Gomez, ready and waiting, and watching a pop fly and a strike out keep them on base.  Would that come back to haunt us?  Did we get too carried away and relaxed?  A 3-run rally in the 7th – was it good enough?

If you were like me, and had that lingering thought (and let’s face it, with the threat of the bullpen looming, we all had that lingering thought.  Except, perhaps, those clowns sitting around in Austin) your stomach started to churn when Will Harris put 2 on base, with no outs.  Or maybe your lizard brain kicked in when the 8th inning began, and Harris walked out to the mound.  Either way, the peril of that 8th inning was apparent long before that bases loaded single that brought the score to 6-3.  It was too late to make a switch without handing over the game, at this point.  Pop-ups, fly-outs, line-outs – nothing short of 3 solid strikeouts would save this inning, and maybe even the game, and the Astros playoff bullpen simply wasn’t deep enough to pull that off.

So we watched, in horror, as Tony Sipp was thrown under the bus sent in to try to clean up the disaster area created by an over-extended Harris pitching appearance.  Then we watched another line drive creep by the infield, and another run come in, while the Astros couldn’t manage an out at any one of the 3 occupied bases.  Then the Sipp/Correa magic ball that couldn’t be caught, and allowed for the tying run to cross the plate.  Still no outs, and the Royals were working Sipp into early retirement.  A few outs and an appearance by our closer, Luke Garrison, and the inning was over.  The damage had been done, though.  The Kansas City Royals had rallied to not only overcome a 4 point deficit, but managed 11 at bats, 8 reaching base, 6 hits, and 2 walks before the bullpen managed 3 outs.

Yeah, it still hurts, and it was a slow-moving trainwreck.  However, it’s not the one that hurts the most. The heartbreaking Astros moment came in game 5 of the 2005 National League Championship Series, when the evil villain named Albert Pujols crushed the dreams of a National League Championship Series being won at home.

That game was eerily similar to the game the Astros played yesterday.  The Cardinals had a somewhat early lead, and the 7th inning was epic for the Astros.  Similarly to yesterday’s game, 3 runs came in that inning via home run (a 3-run homer by Lance Berkman in that game, while Correa and Rasmus combined with a 2-run and a single homerun in yesterday’s game), the Astros could taste the home-game victory, and they were a few short plays from advancing and avoiding that last sudden-death game that would put them within earshot of being sent packing.  Unlike yesterday’s game, the Astros got within a single strike, up 4-2, with 2 on base and the Cardinals’ best slugger at bat.

Yeah.  We remember that.  The park was loud and proud.  The area sports bars were jam-packed with fans.  The city was on fire, but about to be smothered by a wet blanket in the form of a game-shattering 3-run homer, on 2 outs and 2 strikes.  The single play that sucked the air out of the city and the momentum out of the Astros line-up, in the top of the 9th.  The Astros didn’t recover that game, and the Cardinals won game 5 by a single run, 5-4.  Even though the Astros traveled back up to Busch Stadium and won the last ever game played in the stadium to eventually advance to the first World Series the club has ever seen, that moment was perhaps the darkest in the history of the club.

It has yet to be seen if this moment will take the lead.  This postseason run certainly isn’t over yet, and we shouldn’t be so ready and willing to write it off just yet.  Sure, the team is less experienced.  The manager, AJ Hinch, is just as wet behind the ears as the collective roster of the Astros team, as well.  This shows and is providing a very valuable learning experiene all around.  It’s not over just yet, though, and the come-back after what certainly is the most heartbreaking loss in the Astros history shows that this club can survive and come back.  The roster’s different, even the league is different.  The heart’s still there, though.  We’ve seen it in the late-season struggles.  We’ve seen this team surge before when all appeared to be lost.  Many of us were saying “better luck next year” with a single week left.

But the Astros showed us.  They came back to win 2 consecutive road series and made us all believers.

So, is it over?  No.  We’ve still got at least 1 game to play, and here’s how we are going to win it.

The Astros bullpen had gone through a rough stretch in September, and the limited playoff roster certainly cut into the bullpen rotation.  In fact, out of 6 relief pitchers, 3 were being consistently used (if not overused) in this in this series, and out of 5 starting pitchers, only 3 were being routinely utilized: Harris, Sipp, and Gregerson, with 2, 2.2 and 3 innings, respectively.  That gave every batter in the Kansas City lineup at least a single opportunity to face these relief pitchers and learn their game.  And they learned it.  Yesterday’s game, with all 3 of these pitchers facing KC batters in the 8th inning, was evidence.  The more opportunity a batter has with a pitcher, the more opportunity that batter has to learn to hit against that pitcher.

So we have to look at and utilize the bullpen that KC hasn’t had a lot of time with, in order to pull off this win.  If our lineup produces 4 or more runs, this game is winnable.  Both of these are certainly doable.  In fact, there has only been 1 game in the postseason where the Astros produced fewer than 4 runs, and that was the shutout win against the Yankees.  The Astros have managed at least 4 runs in all 4 games of the American League Division Series, so this next game will come down to the bullpen management.  Sounds easy enough, right?  Maybe.  We’ve got 1 starter for the game, Collin McHugh, and 10 pitchers available for relief, including starting pitcher Mike Fiers – who has not played a single game in the postseason this year.

So McHugh starts Wednesday night, and can be stretched past the 5th if, and only if, he shows no sign of struggle.  Any sign of struggle in or after the 5th, and he must be pulled.  Next up, Fiers.  Fiers has the caliber of pitching that makes him an effective starter, and can certainly take on a single inning, at minimum. Same drill – stretch him until he shows the first sign of struggle.  Neshek, Perez, and Fields can be utilized for single at-bats versus right-handed batters.  Single at-bats only for these 3, since the Royals’ roster is heavy on the left-handed batters.  Harris, Sipp, and Gregerson need not be used.  KC has their number, and won’t hestitate to use it.  If the Astros need to use their starters in single-inning relief, then do that.  It’s do or die now.  Frankly this move should have been made yesterday, but the whole team’s learning.

The key will be to not let Kansas City get comfortable with the pitching rotation.  Knock off any momentum that threatens to appear.  You can bet they’re going to be playing that same game, and we’ve given them the opportunity to raise those stakes.  So, we may as well be willing to bet it all, too.  If we can manage that, we can take this game.

Houston Texans: Maybe there is a QB controversy

Ryan Mallett attempts a pass against Atlanta Falcons. Photo credit: AP

Ryan Mallett attempts a pass against Atlanta Falcons.
Photo credit: AP

In the wake of the devastatingly embarrassing loss against the Falcons this past Sunday (a final score of 48-21 only begins to tell the tale), the question of Ryan Mallett’s competency as an NFL quarterback has resurfaced.  After an interception and numerous turnovers, as well as a flurry of under/over thrown passes, Mallett was benched and Brian Hoyer came into the game.  Hoyer went on to complete a successful touchdown drive in his first series, after the Falcons pulled their starters.  He then led the team on a couple of additional successful scoring drives, well after the game even mattered.

In the aftermath of the game, this led to the shouts and chants to permanently bench Mallett in favor of the QB he replaced at the beginning of the season; Brian Hoyer.  The Houston Texans fan base was further disappointed with the announcement that Mallett would again be starting Thursday night against the Indianapolis Colts.  Given his poor performance (which has only been matched in his second start with the Texans, against the Cincinnati Bengals, while suffering from a torn pectoral muscle), many fans hit social media boards, questioning the sanity and competency of the Texans organization.  Rightly so, given the circumstances.

However, one such tidbit, barely announced and not even covered by local sports media, has surfaced to question Mallett’s play that should not be overlooked.  Last Thursday’s injury report included that Mallett was limited in practice due to a chest injury.  Even with his limited practice, he still suited up and started for the Texans game in Atlanta.  His performance was poor and was eerily comparable to his 2nd start with the Texans in 2014, while playing with an injury.  In fact, the game logs are almost identical.  Let’s take a look:

Ryan Mallett Game Stats after reported Injury, 2014 & 2015.

If you look at these stats (completions, attempts, percentage, rating), they’re close to being identical.  After the 2014 game, when fans starting chanting “off with his head,” the pectoral muscle injury was disclosed, and Mallett was reported to have a season-ending injury. The on-field play, where we saw Mallett consistently throwing at the feet of receivers, was suddenly understandable.  He was given a break because, well, a chest injury like that is certain to affect a quarterback’s performance.  The question was why was he allowed to finish the game?  Clearly, something was wrong, but he never left the game.

That question wasn’t really answered.  The Texans organization announced his season-ending injury after the fact, and that was that.

This time around, however, the chest injury that was disclosed in last week’s injury report, which had Mallett listed as “questionable” for Sunday’s game, was largely treated by Houston sports media as a fairly unremarkable event.  Most of the focus was on whether or not Foster would return to the game on Sunday.  Foster did return, and was noticeably rusty.  In rushing yards, he had 8 carries for 10 yards, averaging 1.3 per carry, plus a fumble caused by teammate Derek Newton (and by him as well, for carrying the ball so loosely).

In the aftermath of the game, nothing is being reported about Mallett’s chest injury that had him limited in practice, or whether or not it could have affected his play.  The Texans haven’t made an official statement after the fact, nor has it been explored by local sports media.  I’m not being a conspiracy theorist here, but I will have to say that it begs to question whether or not a more serious issue is being hidden from the media and fans.  If I were Head Coach or General Manager for this team, and there was a question about the competency or ability of the QB I chose, I’d be addressing some things right now.

So, moving forward here, we have a pretty big question concerning Ryan Mallett’s health.  Is Mallett injured?  Has he re-aggravated his torn pectoral muscle?  Did it affect his play?  Is this a different injury?  If so, how did it happen?

Since nothing has been reported, we are simply left to speculate.  My personal speculation is that we’ve overused the passing game in the short amount of time that Mallett has been in as the starter.  In the 4 games we’ve had this season, the Texans offense has utilized the passing game over 65% of the time, which is the 3rd highest percentage in the league (not so ironically, the Miami Dolphins and Detroit Lions (ranked higher on the list) have similar records this year for their one-dimensional offense).  If you look at our passing game percentage in 2014, we’ve doubled our passing game almost 20%.

Have we overused Mallett’s “cannon arm” and weakened his play?  Have we created another problem in our bare-bones, injury-riddled offense?  Is Bill O’Brien taking this competitive nature a little too seriously, and possibly to the detriment of our team players?  Of course this is all speculation, but I don’t think such speculation is unwarranted.  This team has been derailed, and they’re falling apart at the seams.  O’Brien’s typical Belichick-inspired secrecy concerning the team is not justified right now.  Belichick can pull it off because his team wins.  O’Brien can’t keep ducking the media, because he’s got some explaining to do about this team.

Hopefully we’ll get some clarity to this situation.  It’s bad enough that Mallett is having his name drug through the mud after a poor game.  It’s even worse if injury is to blame, and it’s not being discussed.

Houston Astros: Just win

Colby Rasmus congratulates Carlos Correa after a record-breaking 22nd homerun of the season. Photo credit: Houston Astros Official

Colby Rasmus congratulates Carlos Correa after a record-breaking 22nd homerun of the season. Photo credit: Houston Astros Official

Nervous anticipation began to set in when the Diamondbacks took to the field and the batting order was announced.  The final series was underway, on the road, against an inter-league team they’d only faced in 1 other series during the season. NL rules applied, so Evan Gattis, our designated hitter and fairly prolific producer of hits and runs in the September stretch, would be sitting out the final three.  Carlos Gomez, still on the mend from his intercostal strain, would be sitting out the night, and possibly the series as well.

Gomez was limited in his play in the final series win over the Mariners, and the limitations affected his game that night.  He had a few missed plays in the outfield, and was left to bunt in his last 2 plate appearances.  However, he pushed himself to the limits, and possibly beyond, with a game-winning deep CF catch in the 9th and laser throw to get a double-play on 1st.  Gomez had his hero comeback game, and, with any luck, will be returning to the lineup should the Astros clinch the final wildcard spot.

We’d see the return of the pitcher to the batting lineup.  The Diamondbacks also announced the stadium roof would be open – a possible handicap of the Astros road-game weakness, as Minute Maid is rarely open, and the majority of ballparks are open air (superstition aside, though, there is no real formulaic evidence to support that).  However, after a three-run first inning, bases loaded, and a full rotation of the lineup (ending with an awkward Keuchel at the plate), the ball club’s intentions became apparent: they were in it to win it.

And win it they did.  After 4 hours and fortuitous innings that yielded 21 runs, 2 franchise records, and one addition to the franchise records, the Astros came away from the came making a huge statement in their final 21-5 route of the Arizona Diamondbacks.  The season wasn’t over.  They had not given up.  In fact, they were loose, poised, and ready to play.  The confidence in the whole team was something that hadn’t been seen since the early season hot streak.  The players weren’t shaken up and making the simple rookie mistakes that had plagued September.

They were out playing ball.  October ball.

Keuchel took the mound looking for a 20th career win.  This would be the first pitcher for the Astros to get 20 wins in a season since the playoff years of 2004-2005.  This would also likely cement his nomination for the AL Cy Young Award.  That has yet to be seen, but with an opposing field fans’ chants of “MVP” in the stadium last night, it almost seems wrapped up. Correa set out to break an Astros franchise record of most homeruns for a starting rookie, which would bolster his own case for the AL Rookie of the Year award.  Both succeeded.

Other records were broken in this surreal, exciting game. The Astros franchise record of most runs in a game was shattered with 21 runs.  The Diamondbacks broke a franchise record of their own, albeit not quite as eloquent as the Astros record. This was the most runs allowed in the history of the Diamondbacks ball club.  Credit must be given to Arizona, though. They continued on, their fans continued to cheer, and the team held out – even came back for a small rally – til the last out.  Nothing, though, would be stopping the Astros that night.

With that miracle statement game, the Astros need to trudge on with the same attitude.  The Astros need not get comfortable, and certainly shouldn’t let down their guard.  The game was a fluke – not in the sense that the Astros shouldn’t have one, but in the greater sense that it should have been more competitive.  The Diamondbacks are not going to just lay down and take it, especially not after a game like that.  This game, a few short hours away, will be a different tale altogether, and the Astros need to keep that same poise, confidence, and attitude coming into it.

Because 2 simple games can decide their future today.  A game going on in Arlington, and a game going on in in Phoenix.  If the Rangers pull it off, and clinch the AL West title today, The Astros can clinch the wild card spot with a win.  All the work and effort given by these players can pay off by the evening, with a Rangers and Astros win.  More importantly, the Astros can finish on a high note if they win out this series. They can finish out with the highest season record since 2005. The last playoff years.

All it takes is a few more innings of solid baseball.

Houston Astros: Control your own destiny

Charted percentages for the probability of each team in the AL West to get postseason play, throughout the year

Charted percentages for the probability of each team in the AL West to get postseason play, throughout the year

As I write this, I have the Rangers/Angels game humming in the background, because this game is as important to the Astros as the next 3 games in the final series of the season. I am gingerly cheering for a Rangers win, even though they are the newfound rivals.  When it comes down to it, Texas first.  Sorry, California.

After last night’s surprising and ugly win, I found myself eating my own words.  When the Astros lost their wildcard spot the day prior, I didn’t believe they’d gain it back.  The audacity of believing they could pull off back-to-back series wins on the road in the final stretch was just more than I could fathom.  Add to that the red-hot streak that the Angels have been on, and a comeback did not appear plausible.

But then, September baseball happened.

September baseball is when all our knowledge of the game and the teams is thrown out the window.  Pecking order for the postseason begins to take shape, and some teams drop out of the race.  For the teams in playoff contention, September baseball is when they show they’re clutch, or slowly fade off the radar.  There really is no in-between.  This is when non-contention teams also relax, and play the game for the sake of the game.  When this happens, upsets happen.

The Angels lost their final game against the Athletics, and the Astros got a dirty, sloppy win against the Mariners. That respective loss and win, an upset against the Angels and a comeback from a frustrating game for the Astros, flip-flopped the standings for the wildcard position.  The Angels, who started 1/2 a game ahead and in the wildcard spot for the first time, dropped down past the Astros, who came back into their wildcard spot just lost the day before. Now the race is on.

We’ve all been mathed into oblivion with stats, probabilities, and predictions this past week.  The notions of 2-, 3-, and 4-way tiebreaker games have been toyed with.  So have all our emotions.  Legitimately speaking, either the Astros, or Rangers could sweep their last series, and the Astros would be strolling into the playoffs.  It doesn’t matter who, either.  An even split would send the Astros to the playoffs.  Math, math, and more math would either send them or knock them out.

We’re not going to do math right now, because math doesn’t matter anymore.  The Astros just need to win out. In order to get in, the Astros need to put on their blinders, stop looking around, and just look ahead at the next game.  Win that one, and then worry about the next one.  Win that one, and then worry about the last one.  And when they’ve won out their last series with a sweep, they can look around and see where all the dust has settled.

This will be the challenge for the team.  This is new territory for the Astros – new enough, at least.  This team was patchworked together to eventually become what they’ve grown into this season.  They’re getting their experience as a contender, and getting a taste of what it means to be playing meaningful baseball, now in October. That means staying loose, and enjoying the game.  That means putting it all out on the field, and leaving it there until the last ball’s thrown.

The last game against the Mariners, the Astros were not playing in that game.  They were playing a couple of games ahead, and watching the other teams win or lose.  It’s a mistake that any young team can get caught up in.  It’s a mistake the Astros have fallen into in September, a few times.  A good inning doesn’t put you off guard.  A good inning prepares you for the next one.  A team shouldn’t win with 4 errors and one single hit more than the opposing team.

A playoff team shouldn’t get away with airmailing a throw into the stands.  There shouldn’t be 2-3 player collisions within the stretch of a week.  Easy drops shouldn’t be happening in the outfield.  An out shouldn’t occur because you took your foot off the base. Nobody needs to be taking golf swings at the plate.  The games that have passed are over now, and the wins and losses have been tallied.

It’s time to move forward, and finish this season like a team in playoff contention should.  No more rookie mistakes (even for rookies).  No more phoning it in.  Have fun with the game, but keep your head in.  The Astros have the ability to play this game, and the choice is theirs to make.  Either play like a playoff contender, or go home.  In these next 3 games, we’ll see if they’re ready to.