HOUSTON -- During his offseason news conference, Tim Kelly was asked about improving the running game that ranked last in the NFL in 2020.
The Houston Texans’ offensive coordinator, who is returning under a new coaching staff after spending seven seasons coaching under Bill O’Brien in Houston, said he’s “got to do a better job calling more runs.”
“Going back and looking at it, I’ve got to do a good job calling more runs and letting our backs and our line get into a rhythm and get into a groove, as far as how that game’s being played out up front,” Kelly said. “Each year, you go into the offseason looking at different schematic ways and personnel ways that you can improve, and we feel like we’ve done that.”
And while a balanced offense is always ideal, it was more than just the Texans’ personnel that led them to running the ball the fewest times in franchise history and why they’re going to need to run the ball more this season.
In 2020, the Texans ran a designed run 29.4% of the time. According to ESPN Stats & Info, which has been tracking designed runs since 2006, that’s the second-lowest percentage by a team in a single season in that span.
While the Texans weren’t getting consistency from starting running back David Johnson and backup Duke Johnson, they also had a quarterback in Deshaun Watson who had the best season of his career. Houston also trailed for an average of 32 minutes and 39 seconds per game in 2020, according to Elias Sports Bureau -- the sixth most in the NFL -- which led to an increased need to rely on the passing game. The Texans ran 620 offensive plays while trailing (eighth most in the league) and were losing at halftime in 10 of their 16 games in 2020.
Houston is unlikely to have Watson since he faces 22 civil lawsuits alleging sexual assault and inappropriate behavior and also requested a trade prior to when the first lawsuit was filed. Regardless of whether Watson is put on the Commissioner’s Exempt List, is suspended, traded or chooses not to report to the team, it seems unlikely he’s starting the season as the Texans’ quarterback.
Without Watson, who won the NFL’s passing title last season, throwing for 4,823 yards and setting a career high with 33 touchdowns, it’s hard to see the Texans being able to rely on their passing game with Tyrod Taylor under center, even if they do have to throw often because they’re trailing in games.
Last season, the Texans ranked last in Football Outsiders’ rushing DVOA. David Johnson, who restructured his contract this offseason to stay in Houston, ran for 691 yards and six touchdowns on 147 carries in 12 games last season. The running game ranked 15th in yards before contact per rush (2.74), 21st in yards after contact per rush (1.52) and 12th in third-down rush conversion percentage (57%).
This offseason, general manager Nick Caserio made several veteran additions to the running back room, signing Phillip Lindsay, Mark Ingram II and Rex Burkhead to one-year deals, while cutting Duke Johnson. Caserio restructured David Johnson’s contract and signed Ingram before Lindsay became available, because the Broncos agreed to rescind the restricted free-agent tender they had placed on him prior to free agency.
Three of those running backs -- Johnson, Ingram and Lindsay -- have been Pro Bowl selections in the past, but they missed a combined 14 games last season.
Texans running backs coach Danny Barrett said during OTAs that while he likes “the skill set from each guy” at the position, it’s too early to get a feel for how the running back room will play out, because they spent the spring more focused on conditioning and fundamentals than working on plays.
Regardless of who is playing significant snaps for the Texans at running back in 2021, Kelly and head coach David Culley will have to figure out how to get that balance back now that Watson won’t be under center.
“When those guys are coming off the ball and they’re hitting you in the mouth and you know they’re coming off aggressively and you know they’re establishing that physicality that we want to have, that you’ve got to have when you run the football, that’s invaluable,” Culley said. “Basically, all that does is make the passing game go even better.
“There’s this thing about ball control and part of having ball control and being able to control the clock is running the football as well as when you do throw it, completing passes. That’s why that’s important. That’s why, hopefully, we’re going to be a little better than we were last year at doing that and still maintain the effectiveness that we’ve had throwing the ball here in the past.”