The 2009 NFL season was supposed to be the breakout year for the Houston Texans. After two 8-8 seasons, they seemed primed for the franchise's first playoff season. Now, sitting at 5-7, the playoffs are not a possibility and the focus has shifted to embattled head coach Gary Kubiak.
Gary Kubiak is the second head coach of the Houston Texans. He was hired in 2006 to replace Dom Capers, who lead the expansion franchise to an 18-46 record over the first four years, including a 2-14 record in 2005. The move to Kubiak made sense. Kubiak is a Houston native who played college ball in the state of Texas before a 19 year playing and coaching career with the Denver Broncos, one of the best offensive teams of the last quarter century.
Something has gone awry. The hometown man has not been bad, but he certainly hasn't been good either. He currently has 27-33 record as a head coach and is on pace for a third consecutive .500 season (or maybe even worse). Anyone who has watched this team knows that it is capable of much more; six of the seven losses were winnable in the closing quarter of the game, yet the Texans came up short. Many speculate that this lack of "closing games" may cost Kubiak his job.
Many Texans fans feel this Kubiak's ouster is the right course of action. The NFL is an instant gratification league, and fans demand results. When the average Houston fan looks around at the turnaround success that Atlanta, Baltimore and Miami all experienced on the shoulders of first year head coaches last year, it's hard to feel loyalty to a coach that hasn't managed a playoff season in four years when those three coaches managed to do it in one.
What has killed Kubiak are the other AFC South teams. While the Kubiak-led Texans are a decent 20-16 against the rest of the league, they are an abysmal 7-17 against the Colts, Jaguars and Titans. For a team to be successful, they must at least break even in their division, something that the Texans have done only once since Kubiak's hire. Ironically, that .500 year was in 2006, which was the only season Kubiak managed less than 8-8 for the season.
As I implied earlier, Kubiak was hired for his offensive expertise. As a former quarterback, coach of that same position, and offensive coordinator, he certainly had the right pedigree. In 2006 he attempted to make that offense work with former first round pick David Carr. After finishing 28th in total offense with Carr, Kubiak and his general manager Rick Smith, who Kubiak brought with him from Denver, traded two second round picks in consecutive years for Atlanta backup quarterback Matt Schaub. Since that trade, the Texans finished 14th in 2007, 3rd in 2008 and are currently ranked 8th in total offense.
So on the offensive front the Texans have improved drastically under Kubiak. Unfortunately, the defense has not fared as well. Former defensive coordinator Richard Smith led an anemic defense that could not keep up with the offensive improvement. Many Texans fans were encouraged by the firing of Richard Smith, and the subsequent hiring of Frank Bush, another Kubiak colleague from his days in Denver. Bush, along with first-round pick and defensive rookie of the year candidate Brian Cushing, have given new life into the defense, which now ranks 16th.
Rankings are all well and good, but the one statistic that matters in the NFL is wins. You would assume a team that ranks 8th in total offense and 16th in total defense is a playoff caliber team; the Texans, however, find themselves effectively eliminated from that race. This leads us back to not closing games when they matter, something usually attributed to coaching. As stated, this attribute may cost him his job at the end of the season.
I personally think that firing Kubiak after the 2009 campaign would be a huge mistake. He is definitely not perfect, and this season has been the football equivalent of a root canal for me and all Texans fans. Consider, though, what replacing Kubiak would entail. It has been rumored that owner Bob McNair would be interested in a defensive-minded head coach. So what would that mean?
Kubiak runs a unique offense that relies on a smaller, zone blocking offensive line. Bill Cowher has been named as a potential suitor. Cowher was known as a power running coach, something that would require new offensive lineman and new running backs. The only other "established" head coach is Mike Shanahan, but you might as well forget about that possibility because even though his son is currently offensive coordinator, it is unlikely that he would step in to replace his friend and former protégé. The other option is a first-time head coach who is currently a defensive coordinator. While that move may or may not work to improve the defense, it is still unknown what would happen to the offense because without Kubiak, Kyle Shanahan would likely leave to coach with his father, who will undoubtedly be given a job somewhere.
There's more though. What happens to GM Rick Smith if Kubiak is canned? While Kubiak's performance can be questioned, it is obvious that Smith has done a phenomenal job to undo the damage done by former GM Charlie Casserly. There are only a handful of players left from the Casserly regime, which is not a coincidence. This roster was so devoid of talent when Smith took over that a complete re-tooling was necessary. Smith has traded for a QB who is arguably one of the top ten in the league, drafted key players including three Pro Bowlers, and brought in some (yes, just some) good free agent acquisitions, such as Antonio Smith.
I feel that it is a fact that Kubiak and Smith have improved this team significantly. It is possible that Kubiak is incapable of being a great coach because of his handling of game situations necessary for winning games late. We don't know that though; at this point it is just speculation. I think it's worth the risk of another gut-wrenching, underperforming season to validate that suspicion. Keep in mind that Kubiak still has a chance to lead the Texans to their first winning season ever this season, albeit a slim one. Even if that doesn't happen, and he produces yet another mediocre season, I say give him one more chance. We haven't seen enough failure yet to justify another complete do-over.
Oh, by the way, the resurgent Falcons, Dolphins and Ravens that had sharp turnarounds last year are all currently 6-6 and out of the playoffs as of right now. I would forgo instant gratification in exchange for sustained success. What about you?