The 2013 season did not quite go according to plan for the Houston Texans and their star running back Arian Foster. After acquiring perennial All-Pro safety Ed Reed in free agency, and adding wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins in the first round of the draft, Houston appeared set to challenge for the Super Bowl. But then quarterback Matt Schaub became a turnover machine, Ed Reed eventually found himself watching from the sideline, star linebacker Brian Cushing suffered a season ending injury for the second consecutive season, and Foster tried to gut through a series of ailments until he was ultimately forced to undergo season ending back surgery. Even back up running back Ben Tate was eventually shelved due to a rib issue. But, even after a coaching change and some serious roster remodeling this off-season, what the Texans need more than anything is for Foster to rebound in 2014.
Coach Gary Kubiak was fired and Bill O’Brien slides into his place after having done a great job guiding the Penn St. football program through a very dark period. O’Brien takes over a Houston squad that has much more talent than its 2-14 record from last season suggests, but there are many questions, especially on offense. With former starting quarterback Matt Schaub gone to the Raiders, and a very uninspiring trio of Ryan Fitzpatrick, Case Keenum, and T.J. Yates left on the roster, the most crucial position on the offensive side of the ball remains very unsettled. The Texans do own the first overall pick in this year’s draft, but even if they were to select a quarterback, no current prospect appears ready to guide a team deep into the playoffs from day one. So the new regime may need to lean on the rushing attack this season, the only problem is that the run game has questions of its own.
After Foster suffered a hamstring injury in the preseason he just never got back on track. He appeared in eight games but the injury continued to plague him and he just never quite looked himself. The All-Pro runner tried to tough it out but he was eventually placed on injured reserve due to a bulged disc in his back that would require surgery to repair. Simply put, Houston’s touchdown machine could not find his groove last season, and as a result, coach Kubiak’s offense did not operate with the same effectiveness it had in previous years.
Before the wheels fell off last season, Houston had been on a steady rise toward becoming an AFC superpower since number 23 became the starting tailback in 2010. In an era where the workhorse back nears extinction, Foster had become the very definition of the term, and then some. Over three seasons from 2010-12, the former Tennessee Volunteer piled up an incredible 4,264 yards and 41 touchdowns on the ground, plus an additional 1,413 yards and six scores through the air. One could argue that there was not a better, or more consistent back in the National Football League over that time span. But with all that production comes the wear and tear of pro football, and in 2013 the bumps and bruises finally caught up with the pro bowler when he was required to have back surgery. And without a healthy Foster, the Texans offense sputtered.
Obviously Matt Schaub’s lackluster performances had much to do with Houston’s offensive woes, but it was not like it was the first time the quarterback had showcased such inconsistent play. Many of Houston’s late game comebacks over the past few seasons were a product of his poor play early in games forcing them to play from behind. However, with a healthy Foster in the line-up the Texans were not only better equipped to control the clock, but the threat of the run opened up the passing game and created more explosive plays. And even more importantly, it lead to more points.
When examining the Texans offensive statistics from 2010-12, they never ranked outside of the top 10 in points scored, and never lower than 13 in yards gained. When looking at the statistics from 2013, Houston did rank 11th in yards gained, but they were just 31st in points scored. The Texans were able to move the ball with success but could not punch it into the end zone with the same efficiency as they could with their All-Pro runner in the backfield. If coach O’Brien wishes to find any consistency on offense in 2014 the Texans will need Foster to rebound in a big way.
Foster underwent a procedure on his back similar to NBA All-Star center Dwight Howard, and though Howard experienced a decline in production on the Lakers last season after recovering from the procedure, he still made an all-star appearance, and is still playing at an all-star level for the Houston Rockets this season. Houston sports fans certainly hope that Foster experiences a similar level of recovery because back up runner Ben Tate departed for Cleveland, and the recently signed Andre Brown, though a skilled player, has a very extensive injury history. And the remaining backs who are currently on the roster leave much to be desired.
But luckily for Houston they have plenty of options going forth. Holding onto the first overall pick in the draft gives them their choice of any prospect they so desire, or even the opportunity to trade down to acquire more picks in order to fill whatever spots need filling on the depth chart. They already have cornerstone players on defense such as J.J. Watt, Jonathan Joseph, and Brian Cushing, provided he has a smooth recovery. On offense they have a premier wide receiver in Andre Johnson, a rising star wideout in DeAndre Hopkins, and a talented offensive line anchored by left tackle Duane Brown. And though they may not have their franchise quarterback yet, and the team may face some growing pains as they move forth under a new coaching regime, all of those things can be weathered with strong defensive play and an effective running game, and that is why the Texans need Foster to rebound in 2014.
Commentary by Kalen Skalesky