The Houston Texans won their third consecutive game Sunday after losing four straight, all against divisional opponents. This has been an emotionally draining season for the Texans and their fan base, and now the team is staring another mediocre record in the face, although this year there is a slight glimmer of playoff hope as well. Tim couldn't have come up with a better banner slogan for this site than "The Roller Coaster That Is Texans Fandom".
Even though the Texans brought their franchise record against the Dolphins to an impressive 5-0 yesterday, the win itself left a little to be desired. After jumping out of the gate to a 27-0 lead in the first half, the Texans barely weathered a 20-0 Dolphins scoring run to win the game. The sad part is that I and most of you were probably not the least bit surprised. "The tale of two halves" is a common occurrence for the 2009 Texans, but why?
Many fans blame the coaching staff, namely Gary Kubiak. As the head coach he ultimately shoulders responsibility, something that he is quick to tell you after every disheartening loss. I wonder, though, if his coaching is really to blame. Critics speculate that Kubes "takes his foot off the gas" by reigning in his high-powered passing attack after building large leads. This "coaching scared" accusation is one of the rallying cries for detractors that would prefer to see Kubiak fired after another five hundredish season.
Looking over the results of the 2009 season, six games strike me as good samples for researching this hypothesis. In all six the Texans jumped out to big leads; in three they held on for convincing victories (Raiders, Seahawks, Bengals), and in the other three, they either eventually lost their lead or barely hung on for victories (Colts--Part II, 49ers, Dolphins).
The Texans built these leads through a pass-oriented offense. In those six games, Matt Schaub passed on 60% of the plays and he threw for 13 of the 18 offensive touchdowns. So what percentage of running the ball would constitute Kubiak easing up? Three quarters of the time? Only once, however, did the Texans run close to this proportion; Week 4 against Oakland when 72% of the second half snaps were running plays. In the other five games, the Texans ran the ball 58% (Seahawks), 55% (Dolphins), 52% (Bengals), 46% (49ers), and 16% (Colts) of the time, respectively. In my opinion, passing the ball this close to half the time does not confirm the "ease up" theory.
Even if the theory appears erroneous, accusing Kubiak of wrong doing seems mistaken. Most teams that produce big first half leads turn to running the ball because it makes sense. You decrease the risk of turnovers and eat the clock. The Texans feature the 30th ranked rush offense, however, so running out the clock is not even close to automatic. Oddly enough, the 4.8 yards per carry averaged in the three second half collapses is far better than the 2.6 yards per attempt in the three convincing wins.
The key to the Jekyll and Hyde act is the substandard secondary. In the convincing wins, the Texans gave up 45 yards (Seahawks), 81 yards (Bengals) and 173 yards (Raiders) passing in the second half. That substantially contrasts to the 134 yards (Colts), 206 yards (49ers) and 240 yards (Dolphins) given up in the collapses. By the way, the Colts game also featured 67 yards of pass interference and holding penalties on the secondary.
Before blaming Frank Bush, consider that the two best performing defensive backs have become Texans since he was promoted to defensive coordinator. Bernard Pollard's play and leadership has improved the defense and Glover Quin might be the best cornerback on the roster in his rookie season. It isn't Bush's fault that he has to feature Dunta Robinson in the first cornerback position or give significant playing time to John Busing and Dominique Barber. If I had written before the season started how often and how terribly all three would play this season and yet the defense would still be ranked 14th overall, I would have been banned.
Which brings me to a slight departure from the original argument. Last week Mike Kerns asked for reasoning to bring Kubiak back next year. I feel that Kubiak and Rick Smith haven't had the necessary time to build this team into a winning franchise. There is an impressive amount of starting talent in place that is certainly improved over the roster they inherited after 2005, but some starting positions have yet to be addressed with anything other than a temporary fix. Add to that the lack of depth in certain areas, such as defensive backs and offensive linemen, and the problems of this team, like the second half vanishing acts, are a little easier to comprehend.
Kubiak and Smith have drafted or acquired players that will be the cornerstone of this franchise for years to come whether Kubiak is kept for another season or not. This includes a 4,500 yard passer, a defensive rookie of the year linebacker (possibly two), a Pro Bowl tight end who was on pace for All Pro status, and one of the most controversial (and correct) number one overall picks in recent history. Given not only that player acquisition track record but their performance on the field for this coaching staff, I think the team is drastically improving under Kubiak and Company, even if the record isn't... yet.
Just think...we're going into the last game of the season with a possibility for the playoffs, albeit a slim one. Four years ago this week, we were hoping for a loss so we could lock up the first selection for an unnamed new coach.