With the 2011 season in the rearview mirror for most teams, it's time for NFL.com's annual "Exit Interviews," a chance to review the ups and downs of each team's past season and spin it forward.
2011 In A Nutshell: The Houston Texans definitely deserve the 2011 award for Most Resilient Team. Despite significant injuries to their best defensive player, best offensive player and starting quarterback, Houston still managed to win 11 games (postseason included). Gary Kubiak's Texans claimed the first division title in franchise history and won their first ever playoff game in convincing fashion, 31-10 over the Cincinnati Bengals.
What Went Right: Hmmm ... a burly man with silver hair who could be mistaken for a bingo hall regular if he weren't one of the game's great defensive minds. He went right. Sometimes it appears as though Wade Phillips is doing long division in his head when you see his face on a broadcast, but Phillips was the best assistant coach in football this season -- period. Don't give me Cincinnati's Jay Gruden. Or the Denver Broncos' Mike McCoy. Or the Carolina Panthers' Rob Chudzinski, who had Cam Newton running around the red zone like a 10-year-old at a public pool. Phillips was THE MAN. Man enough to transform last year's 30th-ranked defense into the league's second-best unit. Read that again: 30th to second! And that was mostly without Pro Bowler Mario Williams, who was lost for the season in early October.
Matt Schaub was also lost for the year prematurely. Prior to getting hurt, Schaub was highly effective, posting a 96.8 passer rating while going 7-3 as a starter. Schaub wasn't asked to put the ball in the air as much as he used to -- partially because the running game was so potent -- but when he did he was usually smart with football without sacrificing the vertical game. Case in point: twenty-three completions of 25-plus yards. That's good production in less than 10 full starts.
After recovering from an early-season hamstring injury, Arian Foster picked up where his 1,600-yard 2010 campaign left off. When Foster wasn't perfecting the one-cut-and-go system, Ben Tate was quickly making a name for himself. Tate gained 942 yards on 175 carries -- good for 5.4 yards per pop.
What Went Not So Right: Unfortunately, the Texans were forced to ride backups a little too much. All of the key injuries hampered what might have been the AFC's strongest team. Baltimore scraped by Houston 20-13 on Sunday. Hard to believe the outcome would've been the same with a fully functional Texans squad. But, that's life in this survival sport.
This season made it abundantly clear that Houston still needs wideout help. Johnson is phenomenal, but he's also injury-prone and will be entering his 10th season. The Texans lost their first two games after Johnson's hamstring injury. Kevin Walter and Jacoby Jones should be third receivers -- neither has No. 2 skills. The struggles outside required the Texans to go to the tight ends often, but Owen Daniels still didn't enjoy his best season.
Offseason Crystal Ball: After undergoing Lisfranc surgery, Schaub claims he'll be ready to roll by training camp. Matt Leinart, who went down with a season-ending shoulder injury in his first start replacing Schaub, will be back as the primary backup. Yates, despite his solid play, will get his first full offseason to learn the intricacies of the NFL game (with no lockout).
Similarly, Mario Williams will get his first full offseason to learn how to play weakside linebacker -- IF he's re-signed. Ditto for all of the Texans defenders, who missed OTAs and minicamps. Houston's adjustment from Frank Bush's 4-3 to Phillips' 3-4 might've been even more destructive to the rest of the NFL if it hadn't been done in a New York minute.
Williams is not the only big free agent. Foster should get a nice, fat offer. Not to mention center Chris Myers and cornerback Jason Allen, who are also set to hit the marketplace.
Team Needs and Draft: Expect the club to re-sign Myers, because he's just too damn important. If there's not enough money for Allen, would they draft another corner? Houston picked three defensive backs in last year's draft, but the earliest was at the bottom of the second round.
Houston could find a complementary receiver to Johnson in free agency or the draft. Judging by where Houston picks (26th), my sense is the Texans will go for a defensive tackle to man the nose (and spell Shaun Cody) or rotate in when Phillips goes four-down on his defensive front. Another strong possibility is guard. Wade Smith certainly isn't a bad player, but he did allow a moderately high number of sacks (five) this past season.
Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @Harrison_NFL