What we saw over and over again through Houston's 14 losses was a team that couldn't recover when things went bad. The mental toughness required to persevere appeared in the Texans' first two wins, but as more bad things happened in games, there rose an expectation that things would eventually go poorly.
Those bad things were varied, but often came through interceptions. That's why, as I examined the Texans' 2013 season, interceptions seemed repeatedly like the most important plays. As the league year comes to a close, we finish this series on 10 interceptions that shaped the Texans' 2013 season.
This one changed everything.
1. Richard Sherman's dagger
The Texans led the Seattle Seahawks by 17 points on their way to what at halftime looked like what was finally supposed to happen that season. Houston would win, they'd finally show that they were the juggernaut everyone expected in the preseason. They'd erase the wobbly feeling of two come-from-behind wins, dispel the sour taste of their first loss and march toward what was surely their destiny.
And then, halftime.
Ben Tate fumbled and the Seahawks kicked a field goal. The Texans didn't score in the second half, but the Seahawks used the kind of balance that made them Super Bowl champions to score their first touchdown of the game.
With 5:13 left in the game, up seven points, the Texans ran Arian Foster four times, eating 2:22. But then, a pass.
And then, disaster.
Sherman expected Matt Schaub's pass to tight end Owen Daniels, he'd practiced the very same play earlier that week and picked it off then, too. He returned the interception 58 yards for the game-tying touchdown.
Overtime had its own theatrics, but the impact of Sherman's pick six reverberated throughout the season. Both teams' destinies set into motion that afternoon at Reliant Stadium. They left that game both 2-2, with vastly different futures.
While the Seahawks gained confidence that day, the cracks in Schaub's confidence appeared and an unexpected spiral began.
Key free agents: NT Earl Mitchell, TE Garrett Graham, DE Antonio Smith, LB Darryl Sharpton, G Wade Smith, RB Ben Tate, OT Ryan Harris, FB Greg Jones.
Where they stand: It’s difficult to assess how new coach Bill O’Brien views guys he’s inherited and to judge how they will fit into his system. Graham might amount to the most valuable guy on the list if the Texans use a lot of two-tight end sets, as he’s grown into a productive and effective player. Tate and Sharpton are injury-prone guys expected to move on, and Tate could get a good deal elsewhere. Mitchell did mostly solid work, but Wade Phillips was a lot more at ease with a small nose tackle than Romeo Crennel typically is. The two Smiths are 32 years old, and I expect a big move toward youth.
What to expect: The Texans have roughly $8 million in cap space and can get more if they cut Matt Schaub and/or safety Danieal Manning. General manager Rick Smith has been measured in free agency. But with a new coaching staff, I certainly expect the franchise to reach out and bring in at least a few players who fit what they want to do and can be torchbearers for a new regime and new message. They could sift through the market for a safety, a guard and a nose tackle, among other things. Quarterback is the big issue, and perhaps O’Brien sees a reclamation project on the very limited list of free agents. The broader expectation, however, is that they address the position in the draft.
As you know by now, it began as a chance to examine 10 plays that defined the Houston Texans' season, then grew into a look at simply 10 interceptions. My research was returning mostly interceptions as key plays as it was.
The Texans' 2-14 season in 2013 had a lot to do with those interceptions, both on a pure football level and on a more emotional level for the organization.
The final two interceptions in this series had dramatic impacts on the Texans mentally.
2. The San Francisco hat trick
Texans quarterback Matt Schaub entered this game approaching a dubious record. Everybody knew going in that one interception returned for a touchdown would make Schaub the first player since the merger to throw pick sixes in four consecutive games.
It happened quickly.
Schaub made history with his very first pass against the San Francisco 49ers. Cornerback Tramaine Brock intercepted Schaub and ran 18 yards into the end zone.
There are arguments to the contrary, and I'll present one tomorrow, but you could say this pick was Schaub's turning point. This game was his worst from start to finish. It was the only game in which he never looked comfortable. Texans coach Gary Kubiak benched Schaub after he threw his third interception, two of them to Brock.
The Texans lost that Sunday night to a title contender, 34-3.
That evening the Texans dropped to a losing record for the first time in 2013.
The whole key here for the Texans is just not missing. This organization can rebound quickly if they land the right player with the first overall pick, whether that is Jadeveon Clowney or their choice of the top three quarterbacks.
If it is Clowney, he needs to be a dominant player, which of course is very possible, and team with J.J. Watt, the league's best defensive player, to form a simply nasty defensive front. If it is one of the quarterbacks, that player doesn't necessarily need to develop into a future Hall of Famer, but he does at least need to be a franchise quarterback on the Joe Flacco/Tony Romo tier of NFL signal callers. Also, do not forget that after round one, the Texans own the subsequent selection … and there are going to be plenty of great prospects to consider in just a loaded draft class.
That 33rd overall pick could be a great bargaining chip.
Whom does McShay have the Texans drafting at No. 3? Let's take a look:
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Here is what we know about Jadeveon Clowney:
He stands 6-foot-5¼. At the NFL scouting combine, he weighed 266 pounds.
Clowney has an 83-inch arm span, and his hands measure 10 inches.
At the combine, he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.53 seconds, exceptional for a man his size. He benched 225 pounds 21 times, not great for a man of his size.
As a freshman defensive end at South Carolina in 2011, Clowney had 36 tackles, 12 tackles for loss and eight sacks in 13 games. As a sophomore, he had 54 tackles, 23.5 tackles for loss and 13 sacks in 12 games. As a junior, Clowney had 40 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss and three sacks in 11 games.
In his career, Clowney forced nine fumbles and defended seven passes.
He turned 21 years old on Valentine's Day.
Those measurables, and plenty of others, are indisputable facts. They're data. Value them how you will, but they're an essential part of the field of analytics, and the sports world these days is all about analytics.
But the one thing you can't measure in an athlete is heart. How much does he desire to be great, to be special, to be unique? How much is he willing to sacrifice? How much is he driven by the love of the game? How much will he endure to withstand the pressure?
How much does it all really mean to him in his heart?
Figure out a way to measure that, Atlanta Falcons assistant general manager Scott Pioli told a group at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston last week, and you'll become rich. Pioli wasn't joking, nor was the audience, which was largely made up of business school students who aspired to break into the sports world, laughing.
For all the statistics that are out there, there isn't one that measures heart.
They got there because of a season filled with damaging plays that hastened a downward spiral. The genesis of this project was to examine 10 plays that shaped the Texans' season. What became quickly apparent was that interceptions had significant influence.
So far we've looked at five interceptions thrown by the three quarterbacks who played last season and two interceptions caught by Texans' defensive players. With a season like 2013, though, not too much time can be spent on the positive. The rest of the 10 will be all offense.
The season ended much like it began.
3. Finishing with a pick
Matt Schaub was back to being the Texans' starting quarterback for their season finale. The Texans trailed by only six points with 1:06 left in the game.
Schaub went deep. But he overshot receiver Keshawn Martin. The Titans' Michael Griffin caught the pass instead.
In truth, this play meant nothing, but its symbolic value was big. That is why it was the third most definitive interception of the 2013 season. It wasn't just Schaub's last pass of the season, it might have been his last as the Texans' quarterback (though the Texans aren't ready to say that just yet).
If they don't, however, they will have competition, reports NFL media insider Ian Rapoport.
Citing a source, Rapoport reported that the Green Bay Packers have their sights set on Graham, who caught 49 passes for 545 yards and five touchdowns in 2013 -- all career highs. Those numbers came despite the mess the Texans experienced at quarterback.
Packers tight end Jermichael Finley will become a free agent and will be more costly to re-sign than Graham.
Here are some additional pieces of Texans-related content from around the Web in our Reading the Coverage feature:
ESPN's NFL Insiders broke down the Texans' offseason blueprint by examining the team's offseason priorities, projected lineup, draft and free-agency targets, the salary cap situation, and more.
The Texans re-signed outside linebacker Ricky Sapp on Tuesday.
NFL.com's Elliot Harrison takes an offseason look at the AFC South and breaks down each team's top needs in free agency and the draft.
NFL Network has video of J.J. Watt flipping a 1,000-pound tire during a workout.
“There’s been an unbelievable amount of stuff I have learned,” Garoppolo told the newspaper. “Different coverages, different fronts. The pro game compared to the college game is way different and it is a huge step and a huge learning curve I have to overcome. I am excited about it.”
The Texans have the No. 1 overall pick in the May draft. They can go with a quarterback or pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney with that pick. Garoppolo isn’t in the mix to be the top pick in the draft, but ESPN’s Bill Polian said he believes he’ll be a first-round pick.
Garoppolo won the Walter Payton Award as the best player in the FCS after passing for 5,050 yards last season. He had a strong performance at the East-West Shrine game.
Cornerback Johnathan Joseph and safety Danieal Manning both played significant roles in helping the Texans turn from perennial underachievers into a playoff contenders.
But after a giant initial season, Joseph's had trouble staying healthy and Manning has dropped off. He was lost to a right knee injury in October 2013.
Manning could be a salary cap casualty, as cutting him as he heads into the final year of his deal would save $4.5 million.
Even with a healthy Joseph playing opposite Kareem Jackson, the Texans need to upgrade cornerback depth.
That leads ESPN.com’s KC Joyner to look at two outsiders as potential solutions in free agency as part of our offseason blueprint for the Texans: Carolina safety Mike Mitchell and Seattle corner Walter Thurmond.
I could see Mitchell as a member of the Texans. But I would think Thurmond is going to find work as an every down corner and Joyner suggests he'd be an upgrade over nickelback Brice McCain.
This project began much broader in an effort to identify the 10 plays that defined the Texans' season. But in going through the list a trend emerged: nearly all of the most pivotal plays in the Texans' season were interceptions.
We are of course bypassing a few important plays:
The sack-fumble Case Keenum took in the fourth quarter against Kansas City, when he had a chance to lead a game-winning drive. D.J. Swearinger's costly penalties against the Jacksonville Jaguars, which contributed to a loss that preceded Gary Kubiak's firing. The block that ended Brian Cushing's season. The incomplete pass Matt Schaub threw to Andre Johnson in the end zone against the Raiders, which preceded Schaub yelling at Johnson, Johnson yelling back and then walking off the field.
So far we've discussed Johnathan Joseph's interception against the New England Patriots, the first pass of the season, Matt Schaub's first pick-six, Case Keenum's first interception, T.J. Yates' pick-six and the interception Brian Cushing returned for a touchdown, signaling his triumphant return from a torn ACL in 2012.
4. One pick-six becomes two
At this point in the season, there still was no reason to consider this a trend. The storyline entering the Texans' Week 3 matchup against the Baltimore Ravens centered around safety Ed Reed's return to the place where he became a future Hall of Famer.
This pick-six wasn't responsible for the loss. Houston lost by 21 points and committed 14 penalties -- a franchise record they matched twice more during the season.
But it came at a particularly deflating time. The Texans were leading, 6-3, and Baltimore linebacker Daryl Smith's pick-six changed the momentum.
This loss didn't spell doom. It was Houston's first, they were still 2-1.
We examined five interceptions last week: Johnathan Joseph's interception against the New England Patriots, the first pass of the season, Case Keenum's first interception, T.J. Yates' pick six and Matt Schaub's first interception.
Today we look at a very meaningful one for a lot of different reasons.
5. Cushing's knockout.
This interception came with a thundering sigh of relief for several reasons.
When inside linebacker Brian Cushing picked off Chargers quarterback Phillip Rivers and returned the interception for a touchdown, he was back.
He was back from a trying offseason spent recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament. It was a return he never questioned, and that interception offered the tangible reward for his work.
The Texans had fallen behind in that Week 1 game. Being the late game in the season-opening Monday-night double-header, many viewers left what appeared to be a blowout Texans loss at halftime. But after trailing 21-7 at the half, Houston made a furious rally. They scored 17 unanswered fourth-quarter points, sealing the win with Cushing's pick. He held onto the ball even after the game.
It was a triumphant moment for the emotional leader of the Texans defense. Unfortunately for him and the Texans, the moment didn't foreshadow the season.
Hopkins should only be better in 2014, and with the seemingly ageless Johnson continuing to produce -- 109 catches for 1,407 yards -- the Texans should have a pretty good one-two punch on the outside in 2014.
Adding Rice would make them even better, and it shouldn't be a move that will hurt the Texans financially. They are estimated to only have about $11 million in cap room, which certainly isn't much, but Rice won't command a big contract because teams are leery of his injury history. He has missed 15 games in the three seasons in which played in Seattle, including the final eight of the 2013 season because of a knee injury.
When healthy, the 6-foot-4, 202-pound Rice can be one of the league's most productive receivers. He caught 83 passes for 1,312 yards and eight touchdowns in 2009 but has played in more than nine games in a season just once since then. That was 2012, when he caught 50 passes for 748 yards. His size makes him a factor in the red zone, and pairing him with the 6-3, 230-pound Johnson would make the Texans a dangerous team near the goal line.
Despite being in the league for seven years already, Rice is only 27 years old. That's young enough to have four or five more productive seasons, provided he can stay healthy. Since that has been an issue, he's going to be able to be had for a minimum contract with playing-time incentives. It's a low-risk move for the Texans, or any team that signs Rice.
The Texans are expected to draft a quarterback with the No. 1 overall pick and they best way to ensure that a young quarterback thrives is by surrounding him with weapons. Adding Rice to a group that includes Hopkins, the team's star of the future, and Johnson, who continues to produce even though he's turning 34 in July, would be the biggest help the Texans could give the new quarterback.
The NFL announced Friday the league’s salary cap for 2014 will be $133 million, which is an increase from $10 million from last season.
The Texans will have about $11 million in cap space. Houston isn’t as fortunate as the Colts and Jaguars, who will have about $41 million and more than $50 million, respectively, to spend on improving their rosters.
The Texans, meanwhile, could lose starters like guard Wade Smith, defensive end Antonio Smith and defensive tackle Earl Mitchell in free agency. They’ve also got to decide what to do with quarterback Matt Schaub, who is scheduled to make $14.1 million next season after losing his starting job last season.
Meanwhile, Brian Smith of the Houston Chronicle has a neat story on a Crosby (Texas) High School senior football player who will be going to his prom with a Texans cheerleader.
“Courtesy of more than 10,000 retweets in a little more than 24 hours, [Michael] Ramirez went from just-broken-up status to one of Twitter’s hottest names Friday,” Smith wrote.