A LOST SEASON

5 key things the Texans must address after Sunday's season-ending 22-13 loss to the Colts

5 key things the Texans must address after Sunday's season-ending 22-13 loss to the Colts
Brian Cushing likely suited up for the last time as a Texan. Houstontexans.com

The Texans wrapped up their lost season with a 22-13 setback against the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday. They finished the year with a pathetic 4-12 record, losing six in a row to close out the season. They won’t even benefit from having a high draft pick, since they traded both their No. 1 and 2 to Cleveland.

It would be easy to let the coaching staff hide behind the injuries, but that also masks other key issues. Here are five things the Texans must address in the off-season if they plan to be back in the playoff mix in 2018:

1. What happens with O'Brien and the GM position?

Mark Berman of Fox 26 reports head coach Bill O'Brien will be back as head coach next season, which has been a question for the past few weeks. However, GM Rick Smith is taking a leave of absence to take care of his ailing wife. So figuring out the new structure is priority No. 1. Does O'Brien get an extension? More say over personnel? A GM he can work with? Hopefully, O'Brien's return comes with some caveats: He has to hire a new defensive coordinator, preferably one with head coaching experience. (Chuck Pagano, perhaps, who was fired on Sunday? Marvin Lewis if he gets let go?) He should also be required to bring in an offensive coordinator. O’Brien can still call plays, but he needs another voice in his ear. If he agrees to that, the Texans could look a lot better next season. But all indications are O'Brien will be the coach again in 2018.

2. Fix the offensive line

The Texans basically have one average offensive lineman in center Nick Martin. The rest is pretty much a disaster. They won’t be able to get impact players in the draft, and have little capital to trade. So they will need to hit free agency hard. Last year’s draft pick, Julien Davenport, might be a possible answer at one tackle position if he improves in the offseason. But the Texans need another tackle and two new guards at the very least. That will cost serious dollars, but there is cap room and potential for a lot more, if...

3. Say goodbye to some stars

Some mainstays need to be sent packing. Brian Cushing and his PED history should be the first to go. Cutting him will free up $8.5 million in cap space. He has little impact and that money could be used elsewhere. Jonathan Joseph will be a free agent, and unless he comes back on a significant pay cut, that should be the end of his time in Houston. He would also need a reduced role if he returns; it is clear he is not a top cover corner anymore. On the offensive side, cutting Jeff Allen and Derek Newton saves another $9 million. Newton will have missed two years when next season starts and was not a great player before his crippling injury. Allen has been a free agent bust. A legitimate backup quarterback should be a priority as well.

4. Retool the secondary

Joseph will have to be replaced. Ideally Kevin Johnson -- a.k.a. the human holding penalty -- would be the guy, but he seriously regressed in 2017. It’s too early to give up on him, but he will need to have a big offseason. Even if he does, corner will need to be addressed in free agency. They also need to invest some money in the safety position, which has never been a priority. Perhaps Joseph could be a solution at a significantly reduced salary. Regardless, at least two new players need to be added.

5. Pray to the health gods

The most important thing for the Texans will be a healthy Deshaun Watson. He was well on his way to becoming a superstar when he was injured, and with him they instantly get better. A healthy return for Whitney Mercilus will help the defense. Of course, J.J. Watt  would be a boost as well, but it is unlikely he will ever be the player he was after missing essentially two years with different injuries. Still, he is capable of making a big impact on defense. With those guys back, the defense will have a nice core group with Watt, Mercilus, Clowney, Bernardrick McKinney, Zach Cunningham and Kareem Jackson. A few parts here and there could make them an elite defense again.

Regardless, it will be an interesting off-season. Unfortunately, it started long before Sunday’s game.

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With both Luis Garcia and Lance McCullers making their way back from surgeries that sideline that Astros pitchers last season, and given the team's thin depth in their starting rotation, Houston fans and media have waited on bated breath for scraps of information to leak out of the notoriously secretive organization regarding their progress.

In a week full of mostly Hurricane Beryl-related bad news, the Astros organization had some discouraging news of their own when manager Joe Espada told the media that Lance McCullers has been shut down from pitching after his arm did not respond well to his latest bullpen session. The team says they are "formulating a plan for what's next."

Another Astros starter making his way back from injury is HOF-bound Justin Verlander. Verlander has been on the IL since June 16th with neck discomfort and, while there was initial hope that JV would only miss a start, his status has become increasingly murky as he is still apparently not close to returning.

Shifting from the health questions of the starters to the performance questions of the bullpen, some Houston fans have voiced concern via social media that Astros big-ticket 9th inning pitcher Josh Hader is not looking like a "shut-down" closer. Hader gave up more home runs in the first week of July (3) as he did the entire month of June (2).

In this week's episode of Stone Cold Stros, Charlie Pallilo and Brandon Strange discuss how the fluid dynamics of Astros pitching is impacting the competitive landscape of the division race. To watch the conversation, just click the video YouTube embedded in this article. To listen to the entire episode on podcast, search "Stone Cold Stros" in your favorite podcast app or click one of the following links.

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