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Futures Faceoff: Which franchise QB can overcome their head coach?

NFL Analysis Network

The National Football League is famous for the motivational tactics employed by their coaches. The mantra that “Nobody outside this building believes in us” echoes through the halls of each team facility every training camp. The motivation is real for the two teams featured in this week’s Futures Faceoff  as both their win totals in the futures market fail to reflect the success they achieved in 2019.

The Green Bay Packers and Houston Texans not only were playoff teams last season, but they both won a playoff game. Deshaun Watson engineered a thrilling comeback against the Buffalo Bills in the Wild Card round before blowing a 24-0 lead to the Kansas City Chiefs in the Divisional Playoffs. The Green Bay Packers reached the NFC Conference Championship where they were run over by Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers. Two very successful seasons led by two very talented quarterbacks.

That leads us to the million-dollar question: Why is there so little confidence in these two teams? Green Bay’s win total is 8.5, which is 4.5 games below their 13-3 record in 2019. Houston’s win total is even lower (7.5) coming off a 10-win season that included an 8-3 run before sitting their starters in the season finale. I will look at both these teams’ off-seasons, the strength of schedule, and whether the negativity around these two teams is warranted. The goal is to determine which team is the better investment, based on the current odds, in the futures win total market. Aaron Rodgers and Deshaun Watson have taught us never to count them out, so let’s dig into both sides of the ball and figure which team is most likely to prove the critics wrong!

2020 Future Win Totals odds: 

  • Green Bay           8.5  (-137)
  • Houston              7.5  (-106)

Offensive ranks:

Green Bay

  • 14th in scoring offense (23.6)
  • 17th in offensive yards per game (346.1)
  • 2nd fewest Giveaways with 13 (4 INT, 9 fumbles lost)

Houston

  • 12th in scoring offense (23.9)
  • 11th in offensive yards (366.3)
  • 15th most Giveaways with 22 (14 INT, 8 fumbles lost)

Matt LeFleur’s impact on the Packers’ offense was immediate. After ranking dead last in the NFL in rushing attempts per game in 2018, the Packers put more focus on becoming a balanced attack in 2019. Aaron Jones had a breakout season, and Green Bay’s 67% red zone conversion rate was second-best in the NFL. LeFleur’s approach of giving Rodgers the support of a strong running game carried the Packers to the NFC Championship. Many expected LeFleur to continue giving Rodgers more support by drafting an elite weapon in a historic wide receiver class. That never happened.

Instead, Green Bay shocked the league and used their first-round pick on quarterback Jordan Love. Instead of doubling down on one of the greatest QBs of all-time, LeFluer pushed all his chips in on himself. The only offensive weapon Rodgers would receive on draft night was power running back A.J. Dillon. To make matters worse, Green Bay let OT Bryan Bulaga walk in free agency only to replace him with Rick Wagner. It’s safe to say in 2020, LeFleur’s goal is to take the ball out of Rodgers’ hands and continue to develop his run-first philosophy.

RELATED: The Gambler Draftbook looks at the impact of the Packers drafting Jordan Love

Watson willed the Texans all the way to the Divisional Round of the playoffs last season. If there were any questions left of how much of a force Watson was in 2019, Warren Sharp lays them to rest in 2020 Football Preview. According to SharpFootball, Watson turned halftime deficits into victories in four of nine games last season in a league where the success rate is only 19% – all while being pressured at the sixth-highest rate in the league. The question for 2020 looms: Is Watson’s will strong enough to overcome the loss of superstar receiver DeAndre Hopkins?

The Texans will have a new look offense thanks to Bill O’Brien. The general manager and head coach shipped Watson’s number one weapon in Hopkins to Arizona for a package that included running back David Johnson. O’Brien took an enormous amount of heat across NFL circles, but there is still plenty of weapons at Watson’s disposal. Houston acquired wideouts Brandin Cooks and Randall Cobb to add to an offense that’s clearly predicated on speed. The ability of Will Fuller to threaten defenses vertically has been well-documented and the trio of Fuller, Cooks, and Stills will be able to run defenses off the field. Hopkins is elite and will be missed, but O’Brien structuring the offense in a way that forces Watson to go vertical more often may bring the best out of his franchise quarterback.

Defensive ranks:

Green Bay

  • 12th in scoring defense (20.7)
  • 18th in opponent yards allowed (353.9)
  • 8th in Takeaways with 25 (17 int, 8 fumbles recovered)

Houston

  • 23rd in scoring defense (25.3)
  • 28th in opponent yards allowed (392.9)
  • 15th in Takeaways with 22 (12 Int, 10 fumbles recovered)

The Packers transformed their secondary last season by bringing in safeties Darnell Savage and Adrian Amos. The improved back end of the defense produced results as only two teams in the NFL had more interceptions. The takeaways combined with the conservative nature of the offense on the other side of the ball led to Green Bay’s Top-12 ranking in scoring defense. When I peel back the onion on Mike Pettine’s group, I start to see some of the deficiencies. The Packers defense allowed 5.7 yards per play, which is in line with teams like the Giants and Washington. Not great company for a team looking to contend.

The true Achilles heel for this defense is their inability to stop the run. They ranked 23rd in rush defense DVOA and got absolutely steamrolled in the NFC Championship to the tune of 286 rushing yards, led by Raheem Mostert’s 220-yard performance. Egregiously, LeFleur was too busy on draft night focusing on his future quarterback and failed to address this glaring defensive need which was ultimately their downfall.

It takes a special defense to blow a 24-0 playoff lead and allow 51 points in three quarters. Houston’s defense is one-of-a-kind in that respect. I understand people will point to Mahomes’ “magic,” but Houston’s defense was brutal all season. Just like Green Bay, Houston had little interest in improving the other side of the ball this off-season.

The Texans finished 26th in defensive DVOA in 2019 and their 6.1 yards per play allowed is tied with the Bengals for the worst mark in the entire NFL. O’Brien did invest in defense with the few picks he had in April. Adding DT Ross Blacklock and OLB Jonathan Greenard will help with the run defense, but only adding a few low budget safeties to help a secondary that lost Jonathan Joseph will haunt them in 2020.

Strength of Schedule

Strength of schedule is always tricky to quantify. Team’s outlooks change from year to year and there are teams like Green Bay and Houston that may not have been as strong as they appeared in the standings. To account for these teams, I utilize  Sharp Football’s strength of schedule for this series, since it’s formulated based on each opponent’s 2020 forecasted win totals instead of their 2019 record. The level of difficulty for both these teams falls towards the median as Houston draws the 12th toughest schedule while Green Bay gets the 18th.

When looking at all 32 teams, Houston’s start to the season jumped out at me as the most significant piece of the schedule in the entire NFL. The Texans open the season on the road against the defending Super Bowl Champions, only to return home to face a Ravens team that was the most dominant team in the 2019 regular season. I expressed my concern over Houston’s secondary, and seeing them start the season with Mahomes and Jackson back-to-back is a nightmare for Texans fans. They don’t get much of a break with the Steelers and Vikings in Weeks 3 and 4, respectively.

The first quarter of the season can set the tone for a football team, so I think the early challenges are a problem for Houston. They will be significant underdogs for the first two weeks. Only about 2-3 percent of NFL teams make the playoffs after starting 0-3, so Week 3’s matchup with the Steelers could make or break them in September. Then again, Watson beat those same odds in 2018, by reeling off nine straight wins after starting 0-3 and leading Houston to the playoffs. Maybe it’s best not to bet against Watson.

Green Bay has always enjoyed great success at Lambeau Field. I always focus on the Packers’ road games when evaluating their schedule. The Pack starts the season in Minnesota and their next three road games are against tough opponents as well. The Saints, Buccaneers, and 49ers may be the three best teams in the NFC and makes the Pack dropping their first four road games a legitimate scenario to consider. The Packers also face the ninth toughest schedule by defensive efficiency and the fourth toughest slate of defenses against the run. That’s not ideal for a team that is committed to making the running game the foundation of the offense.  It’s safe to say that LeFleur’s new run-first approach will be put to test in 2020.

Don’t take the cheese with the Packers 

Green Bay’s win total sitting at 8.5 games after a 13-3 season is as tempting as it gets. There are a couple of red flags that concern me over the Pack. The first indication that this team could be headed for regression is their negative net yards per play. The Packers averaged 5.5 yards per play while allowing 5.7 on defense. The -0.2 mark lands them 17th in the NFL which is technically the bottom half of the league which lends to the idea that on paper they are probably closer to an average team. To show context, they are bookended in the rankings by teams like the Browns, Falcons, and Giants which are pretty discouraging comparisons.

Let’s take a look at Green Bay’s formula for success in 2019, and how sustainable it may be in 2020. LeFleur’s blueprint was both consistent and effective: get out to an early lead and run the ball. The offense finished Top 5 in first-quarter scoring which allowed LeFleur to utilize his rushing attack. I touched how the schedule presents more formidable rush defenses, and the NFC Championship game gave us a glimpse of how much the Packers struggle when they fail to score early in games and have to adjust.

Defensive takeaways were a big part of the Pack’s ability to maintain those leads in 2020 and keep teams off the scorecard. Only 10 teams allowed more yards per play and the Packers were in the bottom half of the league in yards allowed. Their ability to create turnovers was a huge factor, and typically there is a lot of variance from year to year in that department. Counting on turnovers to bail you out is a risky way to play defense. Considering the Packers were 8-1 in one-score games, a decrease in takeaways can drastically impact the Pack’s fortune in 2020. We saw how easily strong running teams pushed the Packers around and it’s fair to say other NFL offensive coordinators took notice. If Green Bay isn’t able to play with or maintain a lead, LeFleur’s scheme may run Green Bay right into the ground in 2020.

The odds and danger in betting against Watson

We talked about Watson’s ability to continuously defy the odds. Whether it’s leading his team back from halftime deficits at a rate close to 20% higher than the NFL average or carrying teams that start 0-3 to the playoffs. You can never count Watson out. When comparing the odds for Green Bay and Houston, the Packers win total of 8.5 wins is at -137 while the Texans odds are much shorter at -106 to go over 7.5 wins. Let’s discuss the odds in terms of a language everybody is fluent in … dollars.

A $100 wager on the Packers would payout $72.99 if the Packers can win nine games in 2020. Essentially, you are betting that Pack will be at least a 9-7 team in 2020. The Texans have a slightly easier road to the gold only having to reach an 8-8 record to cash the over. The payout of $94.34 at -106 is more attractive as Houston nets $22.65 more than the Packers yield. When evaluating these teams, I came away with the position that the Packers have a slightly higher ceiling than the Texans, but also have a much lower floor.

The difference in my position on both teams starts from the all-important relationship between coach and quarterback. Both coaches made offseason decisions that greatly impact their quarterbacks. The Packers’ 8-1 record in one-score games highlights that the Green Bay’s roster isn’t strong enough to win on talent alone. They need everybody aligned. LeFleur’s decision to draft Rodgers’ replacement versus investing in his future alienated the most talented QB in team history. We know from Rodgers’ career, he isn’t the best guy in the locker room when he isn’t happy. If the Packers aren’t able to win early, the wheels could fall off pretty quickly. Rodgers isn’t going to be happy handing the ball off in a season where he is trying to prove he is still an elite player for the next franchise he plays for. That potential power struggle, along with the regression signals I already discussed, gives Green Bay too much variance for me to be comfortable they can get to 9-7. I am not confident they can be a winning team in 2020, so it doesn’t make sense to bet into the more expensive price of -137.

In Houston, Watson has been extremely supportive of his head coach this offseason before and after the Hopkins trade. O’Brien may make some puzzling decisions, but Watson’s leadership is the intangible that makes O’Brien a coach who won four division titles in the last five years. The AFC South will be more competitive this year, but the gap is small enough between the Texans, Titans, and the Colts for Watson to will his way to another winning season. If Watson’s heroics fall a little bit short, the wager still cashes at 8-8.

Watson has one of the most accurate deep balls in the NFL. I really like the fact that the vertical speed added to the offense is designed to take full advantage of what Watson does best. As bad as the optics are surrounding the Hopkins trade, it’s important to understand the negativity is based on the lack of value Houston received back. Houston’s new offense is going to have the potential to exceed last year’s marks and break into the league’s top 10.

It’s very possible both these teams are headed for regression as the market reflects. I’m betting on Watson to overcome the odds here and still avoid a losing season in 2020. Watson has thrived as an underdog his entire career including an 8-4 record ATS in that role last two seasons. Are you more comfortable the Texans can be an 8-8 team than the Packers making it to 9-7? I will take the Texans at the better price rather than bet on a broken marriage between Rodgers and LeFleur. Everything is bigger in Texas, and so is the payout as Watson will not allow Houston to be a losing team in 2020.

Futures Faceoff:

7: Cardinals and Dolphins

6: Steelers and Colts

5: Bears and Falcons

4: Buccaneers and Bills

3: Eagles and Cowboys 

2: 49ers and Ravens

1: Vikings and Browns


You can follow Mark Drumheller on Twitter (@x_drumheller) and e-mail him at xdrumheller@gmail.com.

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