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Arian Foster fallout: How injury alters Houston Texans, AFC race

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Arian Foster suffered the first big injury of the NFL preseason. How big? Well, in the wake of Foster's groin surgery last Friday, I couldn't help but think about the profound ripple effect this injury will have on the Houston Texans -- and frankly, on the AFC as a whole.

Every game, all season

Let's take a look at the wide-ranging repercussions of this major news, Schein Nine style:

1) Houston, we (might) have a problem

Back in May, I penned a column stating that 2015 would be the Year of the Texans. I love Bill O'Brien, having voted for him as Coach of the Year last season. The J.J. Watt-led defense can be dominant. The offensive line is stout, and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins is an emerging stud. With the AFC looking pretty wide open, I wrote that the Texans -- this year's "Hard Knocks" darlings -- were primed to hit the playoffs.

But obviously, a large portion of my bullishness spawned from Foster's healthy presence in the backfield. Although he's made four of the past five Pro Bowls, Foster probably still doesn't get the widespread attention he deserves as one of the best all-around weapons in the NFL. Since 2010 -- Foster's first full season as a starter -- the Texans' bell-cow back ranks third in the NFL in rushing yards, second in rushing touchdowns and third in receiving touchdowns among RBs. And that's despite missing 14 games over that span. Make no mistake about it: When he's right, Foster's an absolute stud, a guy who cannot be replaced.

Around the NFL's Dan Hanzus is following the drama on HBO's Hard Knocks closely. Check out his takes on the entire season.

Now, with O'Brien at the helm, the most foolish thing to do would be to count out Houston. And I won't. But honestly, this hurts. Bad. Last week at this time, I thought Houston would surprise people and go 10-6. Is it fair to say that Foster's injury could downgrade the Texans to 9-7 or 8-8? Absolutely. And even if the dip is minor -- i.e., one or two games off my prior 10-6 prediction -- that could be the difference between spending January in the playoffs and spending January watching the playoffs.

2) Pressure cooker under center

Brian Hoyer is Brian Hoyer. We know what he is: a detail-oriented -- yet underwhelming -- veteran. While Ryan Mallett presents more risk, the cannon-armed 27-year-old also offers more reward. The Texans' passing attack needs to sizzle -- it can't simply function as a hood ornament on the offensive vehicle. If Houston is to take the next step, the aerial attack needs to step up. Mallett is intriguing. He can zip it. He knows O'Brien's offense. Ultimately, I think it's in the Texans' best interest for Mallett to beat out Hoyer.

Of course, since entering the league as a third-round pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, Mallett has started a grand total of two games. What's an inexperienced quarterback's best friend? Yes, a robust running game. With Foster sidelined, can we really expect Houston to supply that? Great question ...

3) Out of the Blue?

What did Texans owner Bob McNair think about Foster's injury? "Can't say I'm surprised. It seems like every year he's had a soft tissue injury. We keep our fingers crossed."

Hindsight's 20/20, but given Foster's injury history, I think it would have been wiser to concoct a backup plan of some sort -- rather than relying on pure superstition. With Foster on the shelf, who receives the bulk of the workload? Alfred Blue, who barely averaged 3 yards per carry last season? Oof.

The Texans' rushing attack has ranked in the top eight in four of the past five seasons. The one year it didn't: 2013, when Foster missed eight games and Houston finished tied for 20th in ground gains.

4) The Ray Rice conversation

Rice sounded contrite when speaking to ESPN's Jemele Hill. And it most certainly goes noted that Rutgers has welcomed him back into the family. Rice seems more accountable than Greg Hardy, who is already back in the league after his own domestic violence situation.

Look, I will never have an issue with a team that doesn't want to employ a player who hit a woman. But with Hardy finding a home, you wonder if Rice's exclusion is more about the grotesque video of him striking his wife or his struggles running the football in an injury-riddled 2013 campaign.

I believe that Rice is sorry for his actions. And I believe that he will get another chance. But will it be in Houston? Foster's injury sparked this kind of chatter.

I don't buy it. After a conversation I had with McNair earlier this offseason on my SiriusXM Radio show, "Schein on Sports," I think Houston has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to domestic violence and won't sign Rice.

5) Colts coronation in the AFC?

This offseason, every team in the AFC South appeared to get better on paper. That said, the Colts always stood out as the class of the division.

Indianapolis has recorded a perfect 6-0 record against AFC South foes in each of the last two seasons. Are the Colts poised for a third straight divisional sweep? With the visit to Houston coming in Week 5, when Foster could definitely still be out, the toughest hurdle suddenly looks far more manageable. And another 6-0 mark in the division would put Indy in nice position to snag the coveted No. 1 overall seed in the AFC playoffs.

6) Don't sleep on Mariota magic

I don't think the attention Marcus Mariota is getting for flawless practices is hyperbolic. I don't care about vanilla defenses or critics saying Mariota's camp success doesn't matter. It does. I believe in Mariota. He's shown talent and leadership right off the bat in his Titans tenure. That's significant.

Tennessee will be improved in 2015, thanks in large part to the addition of an electric offensive threat. Meanwhile, the Texans have subtracted an electric offensive threat. Will this lead to a change in the AFC South standings?

Well, let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. After all, Houston did win seven more games than Tennessee last fall. But I will say that the gap is closing -- that's for sure.

7) The South's loss = The North's gain

The AFC North is tougher than the AFC South. And that was a big part of my initial belief that Houston would be hitting the playoffs -- with more potential cannibalism in the North, a team from the South could reap the benefits. But the Foster injury could help set the stage for a couple of teams from the North to make the postseason.

I think the Ravens will win the division, but I'm now starting to envision the Steelers snagging a wild-card slot. Pittsburgh is green on defense, but the team boasts a loaded offense with an experienced/elite quarterback.

8) Tannehill's time?

Another team I suddenly like more in the AFC playoff race: the Miami Dolphins. Is Ryan Tannehill knocking on the door to becoming a top-six quarterback in the AFC? I think so. And with Ndamukong Suh in the mix, the offense doesn't have to carry the team. Suh makes everyone around him better -- Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon certainly will be happy having the big guy in the middle.

It's now or never for fourth-year coach Joe Philbin. And a major injury to a potential wild-card contender certainly doesn't hurt his cause.

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9) Surprise!

The beauty of the NFL in August is that every team is thinking big.

Can the Chiefs challenge Denver? Are the Raiders ready to dig out of the basement? Will the Bills or Jets make a playoff move?

The most foolish thing you could do -- and I won't -- is completely cross off the Texans from postseason consideration. I have too much respect for Bill O'Brien. But Houston clearly will miss Foster for however long he is out. And when a stallion like Foster goes down, it creates the environment for a dark horse to emerge.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.

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