UPDATED: Platonic Preseason Preview

Visiting DawgDoc Tim Loonam in Athens, I am reminded of this fresco.
Plato (L) advocates the aerial attack as the ideal form of football, while Aristotle (R) believes that you “run to win.” St. Paul quoted Aristotle on that, and Vince Lombardi quoted St. Paul.

UPDATED: With the release of the NFL schedule, and the impending draft, it’s a good time to turn the page on the season past, looking back at this preview. Not too bad: predicted the obvious (struggles at quarterback, impact of Arian Foster’s absence from the lineup, questions at safety on defense), didn’t see the early-season defensive struggles (who did?), and was only one game off in predicting 8-8. And who could have predicted that playoff nightmare? OK, we’re on to 2016!

When head football coaches are asked about their “philosophy,” it usually means whether they favor the run game or passing on offense. Defensive coaches don’t have “philosophies,” they have “schemes.” For example, Rex Ryan favors the defensive “scheme” where you line up two linemen, two linebackers, and seven defensive backs, who all swarm around like the chaos of a batted hornet’s nest. Rex’s “philosophy” on offense seems to be to throw interceptions as quickly as possible to get the defense back out on the field. In theological terms, Rex is what you call a monotheist.

Denver ought to be home to a great Platonic dialogue this year, as Head Coach Gary Kubiak, 2006-2013 head man of the Texans, brings his zone-blocking-scheme run-heavy “philosophy” into dialectic with offensive coordinator Peyton Manning, who likes to see quarterback Peyton Manning throw the ball at least 50 times a game. I am putting together this preseason preview after the Texans’ second preseason game, when they hosted the Denver Broncos. Manning couldn’t get much going in Kubiak’s offense, and I don’t see Denver having a great year, but maybe one of those special Kubiak 8-8 seasons.

OFFENSE:

In Houston, we ought to see what a “philosophy” of offense built around one great player looks like without that great player. Running back Arian Foster will likely miss at least the first half of the season, which will put even more pressure on two unproven quarterbacks. In the first two preseason games, against San Francisco and then Denver, Brian Hoyer has looked better than Ryan Mallett overall, but neither looked good against Denver. After DeAndre Hopkins, I don’t think much of the Texans receivers, cast-offs from Tennessee and Jacksonville, though rookie Jaelen Strong may come on and contribute.

More to the point, without Foster, the Texans run game has been mediocre, if consistent, averaging 3.2 and 3.0 yards per rush attempt in the first two games. Typically, a rushing average of 4.0 yards per attempt is considered competent. In the first game, the Texans went Pre-Socratic, enacting Zeno’s Paradox when the offense rather ominously couldn’t score running the ball at the goal line. The Texans had the ball inside the 49ers 10 yard line, and couldn’t score the rushing touchdown on seven straight attempts (aided by a SF penalty). That doesn’t say good things about the line blocking. Foster may make the offensive line look better than it is because of his vision, patience, and cut-back ability. Plus he really did study philosophy in college.

DEFENSE:

Football commentators often talk about defenders achieving or maintaining leverage, but this isn't really what they mean.
Football commentators often talk about defenders achieving or maintaining leverage, but this isn’t really what they mean.

The Texans are likely to be remarkable, if not superlative, on defense, and again, it’s less philosophy and more scheme, less Aristotle and more Archimedes. The scheme is really to use an Immovable Object to enable an Irresistible Force to act out in space. Bringing in Vince Wilfork to anchor the center of the defensive line should turn the line of scrimmage into a nightmare for opposing teams. J. J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus can provide a ferocious pass rush, and if it turns out Jadeveon Clowney can get on the field and perform, the Texans defense could set records for sacks (though I still have the sneaking suspicion that Clowney’s career is going to be captioned as “never played a significant down of football in the NFL”).

With an exceptional defensive line and good linebackers, the Texans should prove stout against the run. It’s hard to tell from the preseason games, though, since Watt, Wilfork, and Clowney haven’t played. Without the big guys, the Texans defense has given up an average of 5.7 yards per rush, which as noted earlier is above-average productivity, and not what you want to see your opponents achieve.

The defensive backfield should also discourage opponents’ air attacks. Veteran cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson return, and are joined by first-round draft pick Kevin Johnson, who has played a lot in the first two preseason games and looks like he’ll see the field frequently this year, probably as the nickel cornerback. Safety is more of a mystery, since neither starter from last year, D. J. Swearinger nor Kendrick Lewis, is still with the team. Rahim Moore came over from Denver as a free agent and looks to join Andre Hal, who was drafted out of Vanderbilt by the Texans last year. There’s no telling if that starting duo will survive the preseason. Their play, as they say, has been uneven.

Q. E. D.

Overall, Head Coach Bill O’Brien’s offensive philosophy can be called “game plan,” which means adapting your offense to whatever will be most effective against your opponent. This approach has worked remarkably well for the New England Patriots, in part I think because Head Coach Bill Belichick is probably better at analyzing game film and figuring out how to attack opponents than any coach before him, but I think having Tom Brady at quarterback and players that Belichick has carefully selected for their ability to role-play also contribute to the long-term success the Patriots have enjoyed. O’Brien hasn’t had time enough to build a “do-your-job” style of roster in Houston, and even though both Hoyer and Mallett understudied Brady, they haven’t yet demonstrated Brady’s big-game-winning talent.

My prediction for 2015: After they went 9-7 and threatened to get into the playoffs in O’Brien’s first year, I see the Texans regressing to Aristotle’s Golden Mean and going 8-8 on the season.

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