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Shutdown Countdown: Can the Houston Texans return to respectability?

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(Yahoo Sports)

(Yahoo Sports)

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per day in reverse order or our initial 2014 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 2, the day before the preseason begins with the Hall of Fame Game in Canton.

The Texans not winning a third straight AFC South title last year wasn't a minor upset, but not all too surprising. But the Texans' absolute collapse ... that was a shocker.

The Texans went from back-to-back AFC South champions to 2-14. Incredibly, the Texans came very close to not winning any games. The two wins were miraculous.

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J.J. Watt (USA Today Sports Images)

J.J. Watt (USA Today Sports Images)

In Week 1, the Texans were down to a 1.4 percent win probability in the third quarter when the Chargers led 28-7, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com. Houston rallied to win. In Week 2 against the Titans, with a little more than three minutes left in regulation the Texans faced a 0.4 percent win probability. The Texans came back to tie the game, then win in overtime.

After those two ridiculous wins, they lost 14 in a row. The Texans ended up with the first overall pick of the 2014 draft. You could have gotten tremendous odds on them leading off this year's draft about a year ago.

Is there hope in Houston? For a partial rebound, yes. To get back to the top of the AFC South? That's unlikely.

The collapse last year was complete. The offense fell apart. Reliable workhorse Arian Foster broke down, appearing in just eight games, and quarterback Matt Schaub went from a solid quarterback to a turnover machine benched for undrafted Case Keenum. Even the great J.J. Watt couldn't keep the defense from being average. The special teams were awful, too.

Yet, the Texans were probably a touch better than their record indicated. They were unlucky in close games (even with the two miracle wins), going 2-7 in games decided by less than a touchdown and just 1-5 in games decided by a field goal or less. They had three-point losses to playoff teams Seattle, New England and Indianapolis, and a one-point loss at Kansas City, another playoff team. A lot of the players from the AFC South title teams remain. Add a potential generational talent like Jadeveon Clowney, and at very least they are one of the more curious cases for 2014.

2013 review in less than 25 words: The Texans bring a 14-game losing streak into this season. Coach Gary Kubiak was fired, replaced with Penn State's Bill O'Brien.

Is the roster better, worse or about the same?: It's hard to say the roster is worse when you've added a player like Clowney as part of a good draft class. It's better, but surprisingly not by much. The Texans were quiet in free agency, oddly quiet for a 2-14 team. GM Rick Smith must feel good about his job security. The biggest additions were quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (who just replaces Matt Schaub), safeties Kendrick Lewis and Chris Clemons and running back Andre Brown. One of the safeties should start, and Fitzpatrick likely will too, but not many teams did less in free agency. But, they added Clowney.

Best offseason acquisition: The next time there's a prolonged draft debate about an elite prospect, remember Clowney. For a year people picked his game apart, questioned his motor, desire and work ethic. There were voices saying Khalil Mack should be the first defensive player selected, even a strange report that the Texans preferred Mack. Then a Houston team that desperately needed a quarterback and doesn't even run the same scheme Clowney played in at South Carolina took him first overall. Well that was a lot of wasted time, huh? Assuming Clowney can transition from 4-3 end to 3-4 outside linebacker, which he should do with no problem, he has a chance to be a great player. Having Watt occupying multiple blockers is a luxury most highly drafted pass rushers don't get. It will be fun to see Clowney develop.

Achilles heel: The quarterback situation is interesting. Just about every NFL team either has a quarterback or is fairly panicked about getting one. The Texans have no answer at quarterback, yet it didn't bother them. They traded Matt Schaub to Oakland for a sixth-round pick, so they're not too worried. Maybe Tom Savage is the long-term answer, but mid- to late-round picks at quarterback have a low percentage of success, and it would be a huge gamble to bank on one as a rookie. Fitzpatrick has had some good moments, and played OK at times in Tennessee last year, but it's a major stretch to think he's the answer even though he's the clear favorite to start. Houston didn't do much to address its quarterback problems for 2014, which probably limits their ceiling this year.

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Andre Johnson (AP)

Andre Johnson (AP)

Position in flux: For years, the one reliable thing for the Texans was having a No. 1 receiver who should be enshrined in Canton someday. But the Andre Johnson situation is a touchy one. Johnson is not happy, and money apparently has nothing to do with it. A new contract would be an easy fix. Johnson is seemingly not happy to be part of another rebuilding project at age 33. That's a lot tougher to address. Johnson's huge contract makes him almost untradeable, especially at this point in the offseason. Will he hold out of training camp? Not sure what that would accomplish. But even if he does report on time, is he properly motivated to play at his normal level? It bears watching.

Ready to break out: While receiver DeAndre Hopkins is a fine answer, and probably will have a nice second season, we're going to the other side of the ball for another 2013 draftee. Safety D.J. Swearinger was one of the players forced into the lineup last year, and he acquitted himself pretty well. He had his rookie moments, but also showed that he's a great in-the-box safety that can also cover, which is a great asset to have in today's NFL. Assuming he continues to improve in coverage, Swearinger will be a very good safety for the Texans for many years, starting in 2014.

Stat fact:The 2013 Texans were the first team in NFL history to win their first two games and then lose their last 14. Considering the Texans were 24-10 from the start of the 2011 season through Week 2 of last year, the 0-14 finish was one of the most inexplicable streaks in NFL history. Consider that the Texans were favored by at least 9.5 points three times in that streak, including as 10.5-point favorites in Week 11 and 12. It took people a long time to wrap their heads around what was happening in Houston.

Schedule degree of difficulty: Like everyone else in the AFC South, playing a weak division and getting the NFC East is a nice benefit. Houston's first four opponents Washington, Oakland, the Giants and Buffalo had a 20-44 combined record last season. Houston's losing streak shouldn't last through September.

Burning question

This team’s best-case scenario for the 2014 season: It's possible the pass-rushing duo of Watt and Clowney, and also the presumed return to health of inside linebacker Brian Cushing, significantly improves the defense. If O'Brien really is a great coach for quarterbacks, perhaps Fitzpatrick does enough to turn some of those heartbreaking losses from last year into wins, and Houston contends for a playoff spot. Don't forget, Houston was 12-4 just two seasons ago.

And here’s the nightmare scenario: Also don't forget that rookie pass rushers generally struggle a bit. Clowney might be a superstar, and it's possible that doesn't happen this year. It's easy to envision a scenario in which the offense totally craters (unmotivated Johnson, broken-down Foster, incapable Fitzpatrick), and the defense isn't good enough to carry the team to more than a few wins. The real nightmare then would if the team isn't very strong but wins just enough games against a weak schedule to miss out on the Jameis Winston-Marcus Mariota sweepstakes.

The crystal ball says: The Texans will be better. A regression to the mean in close games should happen. But unless there's some answer at quarterback we can't predict (like Case Keenum or Savage morphing into 1999 Kurt Warner), the offense likely won't be that good. The Texans will be good enough to win more games than last year, but they won't be above .500 ... which ultimately will hurt a franchise that really needs to land a franchise quarterback.

Previous previews:
32. Jacksonville Jaguars
31. Oakland Raiders
30. Washington Redskins
29. Cleveland Browns
28. Minnesota Vikings
27. Buffalo Bills
26. Tennessee Titans

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdowncorner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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