Those nights when you inexplicably don’t sleep well are the worst. Last night I tried counting various animals, and then seeking mental stimulation by flipping through the Pro Football Halftime Activity Book and trying to reassemble Joe Theismann’s leg.
Nothing worked, and that’s likely because when the Houston Texans are involved in a late night breaking story, the image of Wade Phillips’ face is immediately etched in my mind. Odd yes, but when that happens, sleep doesn’t happen.
Phillips transformed the Texans defense last year, installing a 3-4 scheme that led to instant success. Houston surrendered an average of 17.4 points per game, a steep improvement from the 26.7 they allowed in 2010. But that success also partly led to last night’s trade that sent linebacker DeMeco Ryans to Philadelphia for a fourth-round pick. In a separate move the two teams also swapped third-round picks, meaning Philly now owns the 89th overall pick, and the Texans are at 77th.
Ryans was the defensive rookie of the year in 2006, an All-Pro in 2007, and he’s been to the Pro Bowl twice. Between 2006 and 2009 he had four straight years with at least 100 tackles, and he’s firmly established as a run-stuffing force. So with all of those accumulated credentials, a fourth-round pick seems like a rather cheap return for Houston, amirite?
No, not at all, because Ryans’ recent injury combined with his status as an expendable player in a front seven rich in talented linebackers put a nice dent in his trade value. The Texans merely cashed in on his market value before it sunk any lower.
Ryans tore his ACL in 2010 and appeared in just six games. When he returned to Phillips’ new scheme he found himself playing in an elite defense in which he was no longer being treated or used as an elite player. He was on the field for just 58 percent of Houston’s defensive snaps after playing in 99 percent during the 2008 and 2009 seasons, according to Pro Football Focus. That led to an inevitable decline statistically, and Ryans had his worst season while playing a full year in 2011, finishing with just 64 tackles.
That lead to the cheap bargain rate for a player who’s still a Pro Bowl-caliber talent when used properly and inserted into the right scheme. That scheme is a 4-3, which is the base defense in Philadelphia that was historically leaky in 2011, especially on the ground. It was only the second time since 1986 that the Eagles allowed 100 or more rushing yards in each of their first four games.
Gradually those leaks were mended during the second half of the season, which is reflected in Philly’s middle of the pack ranking of 15th overall after allowing an average of 110.4 rushing yards per game. The progression can be attributed to the slow-building chemistry with new defensive coordinator Juan Castillo, a former offensive line coach who was handcuffed by the lockout.
Ryans will further advance that progress, and be a dramatic improvement over Casey Matthews and/or Jamar Chaney, who were routinely beat and embarrassed. His injury may have been severe, but his ACL tear is his only career injury that can fall under that label, and at 27 years old Ryans hasn’t missed any games during his six seasons outside of the 10 he missed in 2010.
Texans players aren’t happy, but the Eagles are smiling. The fatal flaw for last year’s dream team was any play that started with a handoff, and last night that simple element of football became a lot less scary.