Speaking as a lawyer whose competitive experience in full-pads tackle-football ended as a slow, 4’11” interior lineman in Pee Wee ball in 7th grade, I will share my expert opinions on why the Houston Texans failed to fulfill the vicarious ambitions of so many of their armchair-expert fans this season. (Hint to the sports-talk radio callers: I am not calling for the dumping of either the head coach or the quarterback.)
(1) It was not the owner’s fault. The Texans were not destroyed twice by the Patriots because the rich, miserly owner was too cheap to pay for top-line talent. Football lives under a “hard cap.” Football teams, unlike baseball teams, cannot pay total compensation to players in excess of the cap and then pay a penalty. While there are probably no more than 100 living human beings who fully understand the rules for computing compensation for cap purposes, 32 of those people work for an NFL team, and the Texans have at least one such person and they spend virtually every nickel they are allowed to spend. Allocating cap-dollars is both an art and a science. Last year, the Texans may have doomed their 2013 Super Bowl hopes by allowing 2/5 of their offensive line to move to other teams, but they did so in order to save enough cap-space to retain the team’s biggest stars – like Duane Brown (All-Pro left tackle), Arian Foster (All-Pro running back), and Matt Schaub (sort-of All-Pro QB), and they had to count all their pennies because the year before they had also laid out megabucks for All-Pros Andre Johnson and Jonathan Joseph. An owner needs to be rich and generous, but he also needs to be smart and lucky.
(2) It was not the fault of the general manager, Rick Smith (who was considered a genius last year). The Texans’2012 roster was pretty darned good, quite a bit better than the rosters of most other teams. There are not 10 quarterbacks on earth who are better than Matt Schaub, and it would be hard, if not impossible, to identify (much less trade-for) individual players in the rest of the league who would have been an upgrade compared to the Texans’ Johnson, Brown, Foster, Chris Myers, Joseph, Brian Cushing, and J. J. Watt. In other words, 7 of their 22 starters were the very best, or among the very best, at their positions, a remarkable array of talent in a 32-team league. Granted, one was on IR for most of the year and others were hurt at times, but you cannot draft or trade for players who will never get hurt. Among the rest of the players, the talent was not All-Pro, but certainly superior to most of the other teams’ non-stars, and each of the last two years has seen nearly all of the Texans’ final roster-cuts find immediate employment with other teams. Most important stat: the Texans won their division and their first playoff game, 2 years in a row. Boy, would Chicago (and a couple dozen other teams) love to have had that record.
(3) Even if you could upgrade BOTH the head coach and the QB, you wouldn’t necessarily upgrade the team. Yes, a better head coach or a better quarterback might have made a difference, just like better talent among the 15 starters who were not All-Pro might also have made a difference, but the problem there is, how could the ownership alter any piece of that puzzle without altering other pieces as well – and without risking a net downgrade rather than an upgrade? Bringing in a new head coach is risky and often requires bringing in new offensive and defensive systems and playbooks – and new players better suited to the new coach and new systems. The transition is rarely successful right away. Quarterback is also risky: except for the few overnight successes (RG III, Luck, Wilson, and Kaepernick), and proven geniuses (Manning, Rogers, Brady, and Brees), there are no other QBs on the planet who are likely to be any better at running Kubiak’s offense than Schaub, and even if there were, the Texans, with their current payroll and level of success, are not likely to be able to draft or trade for them in the near future. (Not to mention the salary-cap hit if you dumped Schaub.) Short of playing poorly enough to earn a top-5 draft choice (not going to happen) or trading away your best talent in order to buy a top draft position (which the Redskins could only afford to do because they weren’t winning anyway), the Texans are not going to land the next Russell Wilson without getting as smart or lucky as the Seahawks were – and getting lucky is not a plan.
(4) Yes, head-coach Kubiak is a flawed coach. Now that he has a track record to evaluate, we can say that he has participated in the assembling of a very-talented roster, that he has the respect and admiration of his team (and of players on other teams who might consider switching over to the Texans), that he does a good job of developing the talent that he has, that he has a coherent and consistent offensive system and philosophy, that he is generally considered to be a creative designer of offensive plays, and that he is a very patient and honest man and a man of high character and integrity. We can also say that he had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into replacing an incompetent defensive coordinator with a competent one, that he insists upon calling the offensive plays rather than letting his offensive coordinator do it, that he appears to lose track of overall game-strategy sometimes (because he is involved in calling plays?), and that, while he appears to possess a steady intelligence, he is not a quick thinker and does not react well to game-management decisions that need to be made quickly – like deciding whether to drop the red flag, avoiding wasted time-outs for red-zone play-calling, making halftime-adjustments in strategy, etc. He prefers offensive balance (a strong running-game) to “taking what they give you;” he is Vince Lombardi, not Bill Belichick. (He will run even when the defense dares him to pass by lining up to stop the run.) There is also a hint that he made such a big deal about turnovers that Schaub has gotten so afraid of interceptions, so afraid of being sacked and fumbling, that he plays tentatively and slowly and takes too few risks. But until Belichick or one of his elite peers decides to defect, I’ll take Kubiak over the alternatives.
(5) I do not believe the QB’s arm is injured, or defective. Schaub has thrown just enough 2nd-half laser-strikes to convince at least this observer that there is nothing wrong with his arm – he is neither injured nor possessed of a below-average NFL arm. There is also no indication of other injury. Of course, when you have had two consecutive seasons (2010, 2011) terminated by apparently-intentional dirty hits by a defensive lineman (the same guy, as it happens), not to mention this year’s experiences of having another lineman bite off a piece of his ear and yet another one kick him directly in the jewels, it just might take you at least one more season spent off the IR list in order to regain your full athleticism and verve. He does not have the arm of a Rogers or an RG III, the mobility of a Kaepernick or a Russell Wilson, the brain of a Manning, the quick decision-making and release of a Brady, etc., but he is still plenty good and, in my opinion (see below), could be made to be a lot better.
(6) The real problem is with coaching/strategy. Another observation on the coach/QB issue, this one inspired by watching the Belichick/Brady duo in action. In the age of Peyton Manning, much is made of the supposed ideal of the quarterback as on-the-field offensive coordinator, the genius-IQ quarterback able to read defenses both before and after the snap and instantaneously go through progressions until he reads the entire field and somehow identifies the one true receiver who happens to be the most open and then drills him with a lasered-spiral with just the right amount of “air” under it. I don’t buy it. There is only one Peyton Manning. I believe the secret to Brady’s clean uniform and appearance of genius is that Belichick has drilled him to read the defense before the ball is snapped and then to skip the reads and just go (quickly) to the receiver he has already picked out – and that is the reason why he usually throws the pass long before the rush has gotten near him. Yes, he undoubtedly concludes from time-to-time that his pre-selected receiver is blanketed, in which case he plays Vick Ball and runs around until he sees someone open or sees an opening to run, but my opinion is that he does not get to these secondary targets (or runs) by going through a full set of progressions. In other words, Belichick makes Brady look better than Brady is – or than he would be, with another coach.
(7) Schaub and Kubiak, on the other hand, are still playing 1990s ball, ritually going through progressions and not passing unless or until one of the secondary targets is open within the pre-set route. That is why Schaub takes longer than Brady to unload, and that is why Schaub so often just throws the ball away even when it appears that, had he run around just a bit longer, he might have found an open receiver who had begun to ad-lib from his route. In other words, I doubt Kubiak’s receivers have much authority to break their routes, either before or after Schaub as started to escape the pocket, and I doubt Schaub is coached to re-consider his progressions – to change to a different primary target – based upon his reading of the defense after the Texans line up but before he takes the snap. I think he can change the play between pass and run or between one pass play and another, but I don’t think he can change to a different 1st receiver on the same play. I think Kubiak has turned Schaub into an automaton who is being asked to be better than he is – he is being asked to read all his progressions during the course of the play instead of before it, and then he is being asked to throw only to receivers who are still within their planned route (or within a single, pre-planned alternative to the primary route).
Conclusion. If my analysis is correct, Kubiak, Schaub, and the Texans could be a better team if they would emulate the Belichick model: require that Schaub make his reads before the snap, look to go quickly to his selected 1st target, but have everyone improvise if that breaks down. Give Schaub much less time to get rid of the ball to his primary selected target, much more freedom to move around and freelance if the primary is covered. Finally, put Schaub on a really rigorous off-season training regimen, one designed expressly to increase his foot-speed, balance, and dexterity, and rebuild his confidence in his physical skills and his ability to avoid injury. Have him work out with the cornerbacks, a tae kwan do class, an MMA academy, whatever it takes.
Of course, I could be wrong: Kubiak might be coaching Schaub in virtually the same way as Belichick is coaching Brady. In that case, the short answer is that Schaub IS the problem, that he will get worse rather than better, and that the Texans need to bite the bullet and replace him with someone with a better upside potential. If they cannot get value for him in a trade, he becomes the league’s #1 backup QB.