The Texans "arrived" on the big stage this season. To be sure, 2011-2012's playoff run was a fun and delightful romp, but with T.J. Yates guiding the controls, playoff wins were all gravy. This was supposed to be the year to validate all the patience. Patience with Gary Kubiak, patience with this team's fits and starts and mistakes, and most importantly, patience with Matt Schaub. Staring at 11-1 going in to New England for Monday Night Football (and yes, a lot of those wins were too close for comfort), Houston seemed poised to dictate the AFC playoff picture on their terms.
Less than two months later, they were back in New England, in the aftermath of another game that wasn't as close as the final score, unpacking themselves from another season gone wrong. The Texans were given every conceivable break along the way. A New England loss to San Francisco meant that, despite the first loss to the Patriots, all the Texans had to do was win one of their last two games to have homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. That didn't happen. Against the Patriots this week, New England immediately suffered injuries to two of the many players they have that were designed to exploit the lack of second-level depth the Texans had: Rob Gronkowski and Danny Woodhead. Owen Daniels clearly should not have been given forward progress on a fumble that would have sent the game straight to garbage time. Brandon Lloyd drew a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty flag for flipping a ball at an official too brusquely that forced a field goal. Shayne Graham hit a 55-yard field goal. Shayne Graham hit a 55-yard field goal. Danieal Manning had a pair of long returns that put the Texans in good field position.
And this game still wasn't even close.
The problem was not the vehicle. It was the driver.
I know a lot of you aren't big on advanced statistics, so I won't DVOA and DYAR you to death. Let's keep this simple. From the first New England game on, Schaub turned into a pumpkin. From Week 14 to Week 17, Schaub attempted 27 passes that went 16 or more yards past the line of scrimmage. He completed just 10 of them. This is with the benefit of play-action, playing with one of the greatest receivers in NFL history, and working in a system that produces a staggering amount of open looks downfield when it is on. Against the Bengals in the playoffs, the Texans did not attempt any passes that went 20 or more yards downfield. Against the Patriots, unless I am missing something from memory, they had only the DeVier Posey sprawl-out touchdown when the game had already entered garbage time.
From Week 14-Week 17, on third-and-long (third-and-7 or greater), the Texans notched six first downs on 24 opportunities. Schaub was 1-of-5 on those chances against Cincinnati, mostly because the Texans were able to stay on schedule throughout the entirety of the game. Against the Patriots: 1-of-8, with an interception directly into the arms of Rob Ninkovich. Unlike the play-action thing, this wasn't even a big buck of the trend. From Weeks 1-13, Schaub had 15 first downs or touchdowns on 61 third-and-long attempts.
To paraphrase Greg Cosell at NFL Films, you can manage a quarterback all you want, but suddenly it's third-and-8, and what do you do? The Texans didn't have a problem with this as recently as 2011, because they had a running attack that didn't have problems staying on schedule.
All I ask you to do is look at the other quarterbacks that played this weekend. You don't think they had injury problems? Baltimore's defense was held together with duct tape and clothespins for the entire season, Torrey Smith is their best receiver, and that didn't hold Joe Flacco back. The old guard: Peyton Manning (arm strength), Aaron Rodgers (injuries to receivers), and Tom Brady (ditto), acquitted themselves nicely in situations that were far from ideal. Russell Wilson, down 27-7, rallied his team to the lead by nimbly evading every possible pass rusher Atlanta sent at him in the second half. When Colin Kaepernick wasn't busy showing off his cannon arm, he ran the Packers right off the field. Wilson and Kaepernick are the future of the quarterback position: dangerous double-threats that can buy time in the pocket against a bevy of blitz schemes. Matt Schaub is a traffic cone.
Yes, it is possible to build the perfect box for Matt Schaub. The Texans can have a better defense (and a better defensive game plan against spread teams, but that's a topic for another post), they can maintain an offensive line that makes the run game as dominant as it was in 2011. And maybe it will all come together. But in a league where injury attrition is prevalent and something is always about to go wrong, you are only as good as your quarterback. You can build your team around the wishful thinking that enough things will go right for Schaub to be able to lead the team to a title. Or you can find a better driver. I can't think of a better current comparison for Schaub than Alex Smith in San Francisco -- I'm guessing there aren't too many people calling for Smith to get back on the field now.
This isn't a post about hating Matt Schaub. I'm very appreciative of what he has done here. I watched David Carr fetal position his way through five listless years in Houston. I watched the Rosencopter. I enjoyed what Schaub brought to the table. I defended him through years of rabble rabble in what I'll call "the Vince Young years." The 2009-2010 Schaub was a good enough quarterback to lead a team to a championship. This vintage can only do so in completely ideal conditions.
By the looks of things, the Texans are going to continue to be loyal. Gary Kubiak continues to think that Schaub is "one of the best quarterbacks in the game today." He believes in him wholeheartedly. That's not surprising, given the totality of the direction of the franchise. It's also not surprising given that they just extended Schaub with a huge contract that will take some maneuvering to dump without a massive cap hit.
But make no mistake about it, the lesson to be learned from this weekend is that it's time to start planning for the next starting quarterback of the Houston Texans. Maybe it's T.J. Yates, or maybe it's someone not on the roster yet. (I'll put my money on the latter.) We have seen the peak of the Matt Schaub Era, and it is "fringe contender that could win it all if everything breaks right."
That's not how things usually go, as you might have noticed if you'd paid attention to the last two months of Texans football.