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Is Your Seat Getting Warm Gary Kubiak?

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Now that the 2009 NFL Draft is officially in the books, NFL connoisseurs’ speculation has switched from predictions of the draft to those of the upcoming season.  Although final rosters won’t be determined for months, people feel that they can predict how teams will perform in 2009 based off of choices that were made or not made during the draft.  In the eyes of hometown fans, their team is almost always good enough at this point in the season to be a playoff or even Super Bowl contender because false hope is better than no hope.

In the case of the Texans though, it’s not just Houston fans that are predicting a playoff birth at this current juncture.  After a solid draft, the Texans are a trendy pick to contend for a wild card spot or even the AFC South title.  And why wouldn’t they be?  After two 8-8 seasons, the Texans are the epitome of the phrase, “On the verge”.  Even Texans owner Bob McNair, who usually keeps a low profile with the media, recently stated that he would be disappointed if the Texans don’t make the playoffs this year.  While it seems like any NFL owner would obviously be disappointed every year that their franchise doesn’t make the postseason, the fact that McNair felt inclined to say it publicly is as close to being a prediction as possible despite the fact that McNair explicitly stated that he wasn’t making one.

With these extra expectations comes added pressure.  This pressure has displayed itself the most in the assertion that if the Texans miss the playoffs again this year that fourth year head coach Gary Kubiak will lose his job.  From now until the beginning of the 2009 season, whenever you hear Kubiak’s name in the national media you will almost certainly hear the phrase “hot seat” along with it.  Naturally our first reaction as Houston fans is to think that this notion is ridiculous because we have an inclination to be loyal, but I think we owe it to ourselves to think about whether the Texans would be better off without Kubiak after yet another absence of a winning season this year.

Gary Kubiak became the second head coach in the brief history of the Houston Texans after he took over control of the team before the 2006 season.  Kubiak inherited a team that had managed to win only two games the year before after similar playoff expectations proved to woefully unrealistic.  There were some solid players on the Texans roster, but besides Andre Johnson and Dunta Robinson the team lacked elite performers.  Kubiak quickly remedied that problem by finding future cornerstones Mario Williams, DeMeco Ryans, Eric Winston and Owen Daniels in his first draft.  After this marquee draft class, Kubiak and his chosen general manager Rick Smith added several key players the next two years such as Steve Slaton, Amobi Okoye, Fred Bennet, Zac Diles and Xavier Adibi.

Despite the success of Kubiak’s philosophy of building the team through the draft, the first ever winning season has still evaded the grasp of the youngest NFL franchise.  One obvious reason may be the lack of premier free agency success.  Several veteran running backs were brought in to fit Kubaik’s newly instated zone blocking/running scheme, but ball carriers Ahman Green, Chris Brown and Ron Dayne were repeatedly too injured to provide a positive impact.  Defensive end Anthony Weaver was signed in 2006 to be a rushing partner for Mario Williams, but was incredibly unproductive recording only one sack in three seasons with Houston.

Although not a technically a free agent, quarterback Matt Schaub is still doing his best to quiet naysayers.  In 2007 Kubiak determined that David Carr was not the signal caller of the future so he and Rick Smith made a deal with Atlanta to send two second round draft picks in return for their promising backup quarterback, Schaub.  Despite playing well, many believe that the jury is still out on Schaub because of his inability to remain healthy over a 16 game season.  Schaub has also shown carelessness with the ball at times as evidenced by his 19 interceptions and 17 fumbles in the last two years, as opposed to 26 touchdowns.

The true Achilles Heel of the Texans has been something that Kubiak never had to deal with before his ascension to head coaching status; the defense.  As a career offensive player and coach, Kubiak has had to learn on the job how to develop a defensive roster and coaching staff, and there have been growing pains.  Kubiak hired Richard Smith as defensive coordinator in 2006, but only lasted three seasons when he was fired after the defensive squad finished 23rd in the league in 2008.  Head defensive assistant and linebackers coach Frank Bush was promoted to defensive coordinator and has promised an attacking, pass rush centric defense which sharply contrasts Smith’s read and react style of defense.

All of these reasons are cause for concern and seem to be fuel for the fire that warms the hot seat, but it’s important to look at the recent accomplishments of the Texans for the purpose of discerning whether progress is being made.  In 2008, Hurricane Ike prohibited the Texans from playing their first home game until October, and that phenomenon coupled with a tough opening schedule and poor fourth quarter play kept the Texans winless through their first four games.  Despite this setback, the Texans finished the rest of the season with an 8-4 record including a 5-1 run in the last six games.

Even though the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde act was not ideal, it was heartening for Texans fans to see the team play so well in the end season.  Even more encouraging is that the defense started to play a lot better during the last six games.  The Texans gave up an embarrassing 28.7 points per game in the first ten games, but were able to reduce that number to 17.83 points per game in the home stretch.  Also, the Texans averaged over one less turnover per game in the last six games (1.33) than they did in the first ten (2.4). 

All these stats are great, but how realistically enthused should fans be about performing well against teams with a combined record of 42-54?  While it is encouraging to see a team playing to its potential, six games shouldn’t be used to judge Kubiak’s performance, but neither should a single season.  To judge a head coach, different owners have different timetables.  Bob McNair decided to end the tenure of Dom Capers, the first head coach he hired, after four seasons which would suggest that there is justification to the ominous hot seat talk, but upon further inspection, that might not be fair.

In 2005, the first year that the Texans had reasonable playoff aspirations based on improving win totals every season prior, the wheels came off.  After winning seven games in 2004, the Texans managed to win only two which qualified for the worst record in the league and the first pick in the subsequent draft.  Capers probably wasn’t on the chopping block until that fall from grace.

So that brings us to Kubiak and the question of whether he is truly on the hot seat… Maybe.  To say that there is no way that Kubiak is in danger of losing his job would be setting him and those of you that like him up for the same fall that Capers took.  Any win total less than 6 would have to have pretty good rationale to excuse Kubiak for such a poor performance. 

On the flip side of that coin though, to say that he is gone if he doesn’t make the playoffs is asinine.  The Texans play in what has been the consistently toughest division in football over the last four or five years which may be getting a little softer but still has one of the best quarterbacks of all time and a defensive line coach who would be a shoe in if position coaches could be inducted into the hall of fame.  Also, there has been at least one team in the AFC for the last three years that has won at least ten games and still missed the playoffs.  Does anyone in their right mind think that the first ever winning record would be the impetus to fire the franchise’s most successful coach it’s ever had?  Keep in mind that Kubiak has a 22-26 record as a head coach after inheriting what technically was the worst team in football at the time.  That’s only 4 games below .500.

Speaking of .500, Even another season with that winning percentage, although amazingly frustrating, would not cause me to call for Kubiak’s head.  Why?  Because stability is the backbone of successful franchises.  I agree that there comes a time when you have to cut the cord with a coach that simply cannot take you to the promised land, but unless we promoted a coach from within, the system would be completely overhauled and we would find ourselves in the same situation we had when Kubiak took over; the wrong players to fit that new system.  With that development, we would be waiting for at least two to three more years until we could actually have fun watching postseason football.

I’m not trying to make excuses for a coach I like; I’m simply trying to let cooler heads prevail, especially until there is a reason not to.  Hopefully this is a completely irrelevant argument because the Texans do end up making the playoffs.  I personally will be going into the season with the mindset that as long as the team doesn’t implode, I hope to see Kubaik’s rockabilly haircut on the sideline in 2010.  Hopefully Bob McNair, the Texans players, and the majority of you feel the same way.