Houston Texans: How Belichick emasculated O’Brien

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It began Monday morning, but we didn’t realize it. Reports that Garoppolo would sit the game out, 3rd string rookie Jacoby Brissett would start his 1st NFL game. Back up to Brissett would be WR, once QB in college Julian Edelman. He didn’t even bother the insurance of a FA QB signing in the interim. For once, Bill Belichick did not hide his game plan for the short week and Thursday night game, and this game plan told the story of what we saw unfold last night.

On Monday Belichick’s actions said, without saying a word, we don’t need to prepare for the Texans; the Texans need to prepare for us. It was a call to the Texans, and a challenge to Bill O’Brien. It was cocky, insulting, and downright genius. And it got in their heads. Belichick, with that small, yet bold, move, won the game before it even started.  And none of us realized it until the Texans hit the field and started crumbling before our (and the nation’s) eyes.

In those three days – that short week to prepare for the Patriots game Thursday night, it’s hard to really see exactly what the Texans did to prepare. Granted, they were at the slight disadvantage, having to face a rookie QB with half a game’s worth of NFL film on him. To the Texans advantage, however, they were facing a rookie QB in the 1st start of his professional career, so simplified play-calling to this rookie QB’s strengths would likely be the game plan.

Through most of the 1st half, this is exactly what we saw from the Patriots on offense. Conservative plays, ball protection, and limited drives. Enough to manage the game, protect the young QB, and eliminate turnovers. Enough to take Texans strongest weapon – the front 7, out of the game. On defense, all they had to do was cover receivers. That’s it. The Texans o-line destroyed everything else, as well as Godsey’s terrible usage of Lamar Miller. Their game plan was simple, and almost relaxed.

After that relatively simple prepwork, all the Patriots had to do was to sit back and watch the Texans defeat themselves; overcompensating for how little Belichick and the Patriots took this match up seriously. Because that’s pretty much how predictable the Texans play-calling has already become this season. And defeat themselves they did. The bonus for the Patriots was the lousy Texans special team play, which allowed the Patriots to not only defeat the Texans, but humiliate them on National TV.

The good news out of this is that the Texans have a good core of veteran players that don’t give up, and can lead their team. This is 1 game, and 1 loss. The better news is that this core group usually comes back steaming mad and ready for revenge when they have a terrible game like this (see Falcons and Dolphins games in 2015). The best news is that the team has upgraded their talent since 2015, and the team and staff have a long week to start working to fix these issues.

The bad news is that our special teams unit has not improved over last year. Tyler Ervin has shown, in his special team appearances, that he may not be ready for the pros just yet. Charles James II has no margin for error moving forward. The whole unit needs to make some drastic improvements, and rely on conservative play in the interim. THIS MEANS TAKING THE DAMN KNEE IN THE ENDZONE. That’s 25 yards, every time. Take it. Please. We all beg you.

In the interim, Godsey’s got to take some time making plays that utilize Lamar Miller’s strengths, as it is clear that one of Miller’s strengths is NOT running up the middle. This should be obvious by watching him with the Dolphins, as well as recognizing his build. He’s got speed, use it. And use Jay Prosch on 3rd and short. That’s why he’s on the roster. The stalled running game needs to be worked out immediately – like in this long week ahead in preparation for the Titans.

Onward and upward.

Houston Astros: Limping towards the finish line

Correa nets 22nd Homerun of the Season

Okay, before we talk about the latest Astros struggles, let’s just do this and get it out of our systems.

SCREW YOU, JIM JOYCE!

Okay. I feel better, how about you? No? Well, a collective anger isn’t going to change yesterday’s game, so it’s best to move on and focus on the remaining 22 we have in the season. We can be mad at Jim Joyce, who obviously learned physics differently than the rest of us, or his officiating crew who not only couldn’t see a ball hit the dirt then shoot up toward the area of the checked-swing bat then magically do a 100 degree change in trajectory and bounce off into foul territory, but couldn’t hear the distinct noise of a leather ball hitting wood and not dirt, or a leather glove.

Or we could be mad at arbitrary replay rules that don’t allow such blown calls to be reviewed, regardless of how clear they are, while having the ability to replay base running  ad nauseum or, even more comparatively, turn a homerun into a foul ball. I know the argument toward reviewing plays like this could lead to the want and need to scrutinize every ball that crosses the plate, but that is a hyperbolic retort if that is being used. In calls like this that lead to runs scored, review should be allowed. That’s precisely how the rule should be changed, too. Questionable calls involving runs scored, and leave it there.

Or course this will likely upset MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, who is already looking for ways to keep the average baseball game from hitting 3 hours (hint: 1 less commercial per break will solve this, Manfred. Seriously – I don’t think any of us need any advertisement reminder from the MLB or our respective teams during the game we are actually watcing. We’re pretty self-aware of our role as fans, in that regard. Considering we’re watching the damn game). All I can say is to this is, well, deal with it. The integrity of the game shouldn’t be cheated based on time constraints.

. . .

Anyway – now that we’ve gotten that out of our systems (kind of, not really), let’s move on to the latest injury report from the roster. Carlos Correa was sent back home to Houston a few days back with an inflammation in his shoulder. He is currently day-to-day, as with his previous ankle sprain, but will be held out of the lineup for a third consecutive game vs the Chicago Cubs tonight at Minute Maid Park. This is slightly worrisome, but with Alex Bregman heating up at bat, and Yulieski Gurriel coming into his own and effectively covering 3rd base, this isn’t as bad as the starting rotation struggle.

Starting ace Dallas Keuchel is still out of the rotation with shoulder inflammation, Lance McCullers is just beginning to start throwing from his DL stint, Collin McHugh continues to be unpredictable McHugh, Mike Fiers has somewhat straightened up enough to start winning games again and staying out on the mound for more than 3 innings, and Fister is sliding downhill fast. Then we have the 2 rookies, Joe Musgrove and David Paulino, who both would clearly benefit more this season from developing in the bullpen with a few stints in the starting rotation, instead of being thrust in, due to injury.

And then the real tragedy is PCL Pitcher of the year and latest call-up to the roster, RHP Brady Rodgers, who has been a disaster in his first 2 games in the MLB, with a total of 9 hits, 10 runs scored in 1.2 innings (5 runs in each game played), and an embarrassing ERA of 54.00. I’m sure he’ll eventually even out, but he’s not someone that the Astros need in the bullpen for the final 22 games of the season. The Astros are already carrying 18 pitchers on the active roster (including 7 SR and 11 BP), which is at least 2 more than the average. Rodgers is a waste on the roster in September, plain and simple.

What I’d rather see, instead of carrying dead weight in an already robust bullpen, is a final shot for AAA Fresno 1st Baseman Jon Singleton.

Before you react, hear me out. You may think I am clearly insane for suggesting the call up of a once highly-touted but recently fallen from grace (but still has potential) 1st baseman that was beat out by 2 other 1st basemen who have stunk in the MLB this season. After all, he’s been less than impressive overall this season with the Fresno Grizzlies, but his averages have been pretty great (especially his slugging and on base percentage) facing RHPs. He can handle the fielding at 1st base (which was never the issue), and can be used in a pinch hitting situation.

He wouldn’t be a savior by any means, and he’d be getting this last-ditch effort in the MLB for the Astros no doubt, but he’s being paid and he would be a fresh player for a week or two.  He’d be a good strategy substitution in late innings with weaker bullpens, and with RHPs who struggle with lefties at bat. Whether we trust Hinch to be able to pull off those strategic moves is another conversation, but we’d at least be giving him the ammunition needed going into the final few weeks of the season. If we’re going to carry some relative dead weight on the roster, we may as well exercise all our options.

I’d honestly rather see Devenski bumped up to the starting rotation in place of Musgrove, but it seems that Hinch has got him firmly stenciled in as the mid-long relief once Musgrove, Paulino (although it’s too soon to tell), McHugh, Fiers, or even Fister putter out in the 3rd-5th innings. It could be a gamble to take a solid long reliever out of the BP (and is also why the Astros are carrying extra weight in the BP), but it’s an equal gamble to leave him there so he can minimize runs in a game already lost. That doesn’t sound like it is going to happen, so I defer to the why the hell not option, above.

Whatever is done in these last few games, one thing seems certain. The club’s going to have to find out a way to win 16 of the last 22 games. That gives the team 90 wins and a shot at the WC (taking the averages of both the Orioles and the Tigers). That means 6 more losses where the Astros will face 3 playoff contenders in 12 games. In order to get there, the Astros have to play perfect baseball. They have to get by the next 6 games against the NL 1st place Cubs and the AL 1st place Rangers with at minimum 1 win per club, and pull off series wins in the remaining games against the Mariners, Athletics and Angels.

Your move, Hinch. Make it count.

Houston Texans:The time is now

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The 2016 NFL season is here, and with that brings a new and (hopefully) improved Houston Texans squad.

In the off-season, Head Coach Bill O’Brien heavily bulked up the offense during the 2016 NFL Draft, drafting and subsequently signing 4 out of 6 offensive positions (primarily WR/RB, and a necessary C to replace defector dearly departed Ben Jones) to add speed and versatility to a Texans offense that has struggled for years. The primary struggles were an ineffective QB, combined with a nearly non-existent passing game, and littered with constant running game injury. To summarize, the Texans offense has been largely one-dimensional, over-utilizing either/or since 2013.

In the pre-season, fans were dazzled (at times) with a promising starting QB with Brock Osweiler, a prolific WR corps, as well as some surprising TE production on offense, but very little showing for the running game.  Special teams came out and showed some notable structure and improvement, with a huge nod to new ST coach Larry Izzo. We also saw some intermittent struggles with the once-again heavily limping offensive line, as well as some customary missed blocked and tackles in the defense secondary. Most of this tightened up with each preseason game, and necessary cuts were made all around.

This had both fans and beat writers at odds with the new squad, wondering if we are going to face another year with a largely one-dimensional offense. Passing plays and attempts were made nearly 2-1 versus running, which made the RB corps seems slightly anemic. However, we can calm those fears by simply looking at all the roster moves in the off-season. The first, and biggest, news is signing Lamar Miller in the free agency. He’s an outstanding all around RB, who was brought in to replace Arian Foster. He wasn’t utilized much in the preseason because his history in the NFL speaks for itself.

This left primarily seasoned RBs and a single drafted rookie RB to compete for the 53. Among those were seasoned vets Alfred Blue and Jonathan Grimes, who essentially had to maintain their performance from previous years, 2nd season players Kenny Hilliard and Akeem Hunt, who had to show necessary improvements to justify a spot on the squad, and newly drafted rookie Tyler Ervin, who was specifically brought in for his speed and depth on both offense and special teams. What this translates to is 2 players trying out, and 1 player justifying why he was drafted.

On the other end, the Texans brought in 2 WRs in the draft, signed an additional 4 undrafted free agents, with 5 WRs already signed to compete for 5 spots on the roster, or a place on the practice squad. Additionally, an undrafted free agent TE was brought in, and specific priority was given to the TE corps which has been perpetually anemic since the loss of Owen Daniels in 2013 to see if O’Brien’s eventual goal to heavily utilize TEs could start coming to fruition. This still has yet to be seen, but undrafted FA Stephen Anderson has already made a name for himself among the Texans TEs.

Will this be enough to give the Texans a legitimate run this season? Only time and the upcoming season will tell. One notable deficiency and area of concern heading into the season is the offensive line. 2nd round draft pick C Nick Martin, who was penciled in as starter as soon as his draft number was called, suffered a season-ending ankle injury and underwent surgery to repair a high ankle sprain was a big blow to the line.  Additionally, T Duane Brown and Derek Newton’s injuries brought on a patchwork o-line in the preseason that struggled to hold a pocket for Osweiler at times.

The good news (I guess) is that Derek Newton is slated to start in the season opener, and Duane Brown has been put on the active roster, meaning that while there has been no timetable set for return, it’s likely that Brown will return within the first 3-4 games since the front office didn’t find it necessary to put him on the PUP list (which would mean 6 weeks, at minimum). Other good news is the return of DE JJ Watt. While it’s unknown how limited Watt will be, he is slated to start in the season opener as well, after an offseason in which basically Watt’s entire lower half was reconstructed.

With the free agency signings, draft picks, current news with injury, along with the preseason performance of a newly-enhanced offense, the Vegas odds for the Texans to reach the Super Bowl have jumped from 40-1 in April to 16-1 in September.  This was the biggest offseason jump for any team considered to be a legitimate contender moving into the 2016-17 season. That’s promising. Looking at the season opener with a Chicago Bears squad that didn’t do much to bolster their roster in the offseason, analysts have pretty much unanimously given favor to the Texans.

My opinion is we should go with that, cast all doubt and worry aside, and let the team prove the hype. Osweiler has something to prove, and he showed us this in the preseason. Hopkins, Fuller, and Braxton Miller are ready to show the kind of versatile threat we want them to be. Lamar Miller is itching to have his breakout season.Special teams is streamlined and disciplined, and ready to be a productive side on the field, and the whole of the defense is ready to rank back up as a top 3 defense. I think they will. So, sit back, buckle up, and let’s all get ready for some football!

Houston Astros: Wheels off, again

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The most unduly anticipated event in the MLB, outside of the midseason trade deadline (and often coinciding with the necessity for some trades) is the dreaded injury bug that usually rears its ugly head around the All-Star Break. Over half of the season has been put in, and the daily grind begins to show the wear and tear of our guys on the field. No team is immune, no matter what preparations are made, and a few key holes in a line up is enough to unravel any team.

For the Astros, the injury bug started hitting just after a phenomenal June record of 18-8, and an almost equally impressive July record of 12-7. Baseball was fun again and both the team and the fans enjoyed the games. Perhaps a little too much. To go off course a second, I want to take a look at the schedule in June and July, which led to an amazing catch-up run. From June 1st to July 24th, only 18 of the 45 games played were against playoff contenders, yet the win/loss percentage was steadfast .667 against both playoff contenders and non-playoff contenders.

Many of those games were divisional, and sometimes divisional opponents are tougher to face, given the number of times the respective clubs play throughout the season. For the Astros, the record for non-playoff contender divisional opponents was 15-4. For playoff contender divisional opponents, the record was 6-4, with an overall 21-28 record in the AL West. In essence, the Astros own the AL West except for 1 stupid team. Ironically, that 1 stupid team will keep the Astros out of 1st (and possibly the playoffs) because of whatever voodoo they have used hold the Astros down.

Outside of the division, the Astros have managed to dominate playoff teams 6-2, while losing against non-contenders 3-5. That’s an odd statistic, and it is hard to say whether it points to a definite pattern, given the small sampling size (16 games total), but within the record 30-15 comeback to relevance stand the Astros had, it does show that the Astros tend to play to the opponent outside of the division. The problem with that is, with teams you should be dominating, you’re giving them a chance for a win. In a streak that boasted a 30-15 win loss record, that seems almost inconsequential – except it wasn’t.

Because when the Astros hit the meat of their schedule against a husky group of playoff contenders, the injury bug hit and the wheels came off. The Astros went from being within a couple of games within 1st place in the AL West, to 3rd place in the division – all in a 2 week span. Then 10 grueling days later, the Astros found themselves 10.5 games out of 1st and 3.5 out of 2nd. Tragedy. This stretch of games against high caliber teams mirrored the awful April start the club had (7-16 and 7-17 records, respectively). Two reasons for this: injury and absolutely no plan b.

Injury is unavoidable in the sport. It it indiscriminatory. The 2 injuries that hurt the worst during this time were the hamstring and wrist soreness that knocked Marwin Gonzales out of the lineup several times during this stretch, and Luis Valbuena’s season-ending hamstring strain. Gonzalez started missing time July 24th, and Valbuena left the game July 26th. Subsequently, Gregerson, McCullers and Rasmus suffered injury or setbacks that yanked them from the lineup. And with all those injuries clustering around the meatiest stretch of the schedule, the Astros had zero back-up plan.

There were no big trades (although I’m not completely opposed to that), no rookies were quite ready to be pulled from the farming system, and no help from any veteran signings over the past few years, as far as offense is concerned. In reality, almost 100% of the run production in this stint were home grown players in the 1-4 slot in the lineup. You could pretty much guarantee, aside from the occasional walk, zero bases every second and third inning as it was, but when Valbuena was lost and Gonzalez started disappearing from the lineup, offense fell flat.

Eventually, with some hap-hazard call-ups, rookie Alex Bregman finally getting his footing, and the signing of Cuban superstar Yulieski Gourriel, the Astros offense has steadied and is back into producing runs and wins on a regular basis. So what better time than to hit a snag in the starting rotation pitching? With McCullers already on DL and Musgrove showing he is clearly not ready for prime time, Dallas Keuchel has been taken out of the rotation indefinitely, and there is no clear answer to who his replacement should be, or even if/when Keuchel is coming back into the rotation.

In the meantime, Hinch is again hap-hazardly juggling with call-ups and rookies to mend the starting rotation. Once again, a rookie pitcher will have his MLB debut this Thursday, in another tough stretch of playoff contenders before finishing off the season with less-challenging divisional opponents. It’s not looking great for the post season, but the Astros are not out of it yet. If rookie RHP David Paulino can make a splash in his debut, then the Astros can pull of a series win (or even sweep) against the Tribe. This would balance out the starting rotation and keep the bullpen stocked up.

If not, well…better luck next year.

Houston Astros: what we’ve learned

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I promised some articles on coaching and management deficiencies, and that’s still coming. There are still issues in the management department, and that has become a little more clear despite the run the Astros have been on. Let’s catch up with the past few months, though.

The Astros have given us a wild ride in the past few months. They’ve gone from almost out of contention and a below .500 finish at the half, to a spectacular June/July run to put them back into contention for both the AL West title and the playoffs. Just when we all breathed a collective sigh, and baseball became fun again in Houston, the wheel started coming off, again. After an impressive 19/8 run (from my last posting) going into the All-Star Break, and a .575 run since mid-June (that’s counting today’s probable loss, sorry), the writing on the wall is becoming perfectly clear: too little; too late.

How can I say this, you may be thinking, when they’re 10-2 9-3 in the last 12 games? Because the Astros will likely be 8-4 in the last 12 games after today, possibly 7-5 after tomorrow, are 2-12 (or 13, depending on when you read this) against the Rangers, could end up being 2-14 by Sunday, have another series with the team that they simply cannot beat, and have WC contenders in 17 or the next 27 games to finish out the season. In that span, the Astros will need to gain 3 games, finish with at least 89 wins, and go .675 for September. This means winning out in every series left, or a few sweeps if they’re going to continue to be fully dominated by the Rangers.

Hey, it can happen. Stranger things have occurred in the month of September in the MLB. In fact, the Astros were in a similar spot this time last year – sitting behind the Rangers and right in the mix for the WC spot. We already knew, about mid-season, that the Astros would need a better record than 86-76 to go to the post season. Currently, they’re sitting at .530, which is where they sat at the end of the 2015 season – just enough to scrape by. This season, .530 will get another 86 wins, but they’ll miss the playoffs by 3 games (with current estimates). Also similar to last year, they’re 2 games into a 13 game stretch that will make or break the season.

Going back to my previous post, I still feel the season was over in May. The good news in that is that I don’t expect them to sink below last season’s record, but I also don’t expect them to be playing more than 2 games in October. For the sake of the game, we can still have the fun of comparing 2016 to 2005 (which seems to have become the thing to do amongst the Astros fandom in the last stretch), because – schedule wise – there have been some particularly similar patterns of winning/losing streaks between the 2 seasons. Or, we can chalk it up to a year with no growth, but no real regression, and hope some of the right moves are made going into 2017. I know which one I’m doing. How about you?