As the Texans prepare for their first post-bye week opponent, I can't help but thinking about the last time that Seattle and Houston slugged it out on the gridiron. That game, in Houston, proved to be one of the more momentous games in franchise history, and not for a great reason.
For all franchises, there will usually be a defining event, one that alters the course of the organization for not just that season, but for many more to come. In some cases, this can be a single play, a series of plays, a game, or some other key event. While the NFL has no shortage of key plays or events that populate highlight shows, only a few will transcend highlight reels to have significant/long-lasting impacts on a franchise.
With the Houston Texans, they do not have the extensive history that other franchises have, but they can claim a couple of those critical franchise-altering moments. 2013 presented one of those moments for the Texans franchise. Unfortunately, it proved to be the wrong kind of moment. For most, the defining moment of the 2013 season came in Game 4, when the Texans hosted the Seattle Seahawks. The Texans sported a 2-1 record, with Seattle bringing a 3-0 mark. The Texans, buoyed by the emotion of the loss of Houston legend Bum Phillips (and father of then Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips) raced out to a 20-3 halftime lead. Seattle clawed their way back into the game and in the latter half of the 4th Quarter, narrowed the deficit to 20-13.
After getting the ball back, Seattle started to drive again, but proceeded to throw a seemingly damning interception, giving the Texans the ball back with about 5 mins left in the game in great field position. 4 subsequent running plays moved the Texans to inside the Seattle 43-yard line, facing a 3rd and 4 with fewer than 3 minutes left. At this point, the Texans had the whole playbook available, from another running play to a potentially effective play-action bootleg. Known for bootlegs to the tight ends, the Texans made the call. Schaub took the snap from center and start to roll to his right. Seattle’s D-Line did get some penetration and put some pressure on Schaub. Seeing Owen Daniels breaking open, Schaub passed the ball in his direction…right into the waiting arms of Richard Sherman, who broke on the route and took the offering 58 yards for a pick-six:
[Warning: The following hyperlink may cause feelings of extreme anger and frustration for Texans. Consult your physician before viewing this link].
Seattle had only tied the game at 20 and Houston would get the ball back, getting into Seattle territory, but unable to move into field goal range. In OT, each team got two possessions, with Seattle winning the game on their second one, 23-20.
One game by itself does not a season make. However, the context of that game is vital. Coming into that game, despite being a team with playoff experience and a talented roster, the Texans were on shaky ground. They started the season 2-0, but it took a franchise record 21-point comeback at San Diego in Week 1, followed by another 4th quarter/overtime comeback win against Tennessee at home. In week 3, the Texans were blasted 30-9 in Baltimore. Of significance, Matt Schaub, the entrenched starter for 6 seasons, suddenly developed a bad habit of throwing pick-sixes. Against Tennessee, Houston was trailing 17-16 in the 4th quarter and driving when Schaub proceeded to throw a pick-six, giving Tennessee a shocking 24-16 lead. To his credit, Schaub rallied for the 30-24 overtime win. The following week in Baltimore, he throws another pick-six, this time in the 2nd quarter of a game that started to get away from the team. At this point, it starts to wear on the long-time starter.
With that 3rd straight game with a pick-six, especially in those circumstances, Schaub and the team passed the point of no return. The following week in San Francisco, with everyone focusing on the fact that no QB had ever thrown a pick-six in 4 straight games, Schaub’s first pass was intercepted and returned for a touchdown, setting the tone for 34-3 blasting. From there, the team entered into a hellish death spiral. In spite of all the talent on the squad and a defense that ranked near the top of the NFL, the 2013 team would never win again. Kubiak did not survive the season as head coach, and Schaub’s time ended once the final whistle blew on the season, setting in motion three long years of Quarterback Purgatory, with only recently some signs of life in that department. The team still had talent, and it has since added two more division titles and a playoff win under the O’Brien regime, but O’Brien, the 9 starting QBs and all the franchise upheaval…all of that does not happen if that one play in 2013 vs. Seattle turns out different.
If Schaub doesn’t throw that pick-six against Seattle, would it have made a difference? On the surface, maybe not. Given the previously mentioned issues, the team had a shaky foundation that quickly collapsed under adversity. Most felt that the team was never "tough enough" to be a real contender, especially after the infamous 42-14 "Varsity Jacket" embarrassment at New England. Despite the playoff experience, most felt the team just didn’t have the heart to be a champion. Counting the Seattle game, the 2013 Texans lost 9 straight one-possession games, most of which saw the team hold a lead at some point during those games. This came on the heels of a 6-0 record in such games the previous season (to include the playoff game against Cincinnati, in which Schaub also threw a pick-six). Sometimes, the fickleness of chance and numbers works against a team.
However, football can be as much a psychological and mental game as physical. By the time of the Seattle game, Schaub was under a great deal of pressure and criticism. For most of his time as starter, he put up good numbers in Kubiak’s system, and he did helm the Texans to their best ever season in 2012 (12-4). Yet, many of the Texans fan base came to view Schaub as a liability. While football is a team game, the struggles of the team in "big" games, especially down the stretch in 2012, got pinned on Schaub. As 2013 dawned, many in Houston lost patience with the long-time starter. As the pick-sixes mounted, so too did the frustration and angst. While pro athletes try their best to block out the negativity, it would be impossible for Schaub to keep shaking off the mistakes and the interceptions. When that happens, it may not take much for a Quarterback to lose his nerve and confidence, as was the case after the Sherman interception.
All of that to say, if Schaub managed not to throw a pick-six versus Seattle and the Texans hold on to win that game, it might have restored some much needed confidence to a QB who badly needed it. While the Texans could have still lost against Seattle, either by another crazy play in regulation or in overtime, the pick-six was most likely the only way that Seattle could have come back to win. Trying to second-guess play calling is a much a part of the NFL as pads and cheerleaders. Run it, and Foster might get the first down, which in turn could bleed off more clock and move the team into field goal range to ice the game. Get stopped on the run play and the Texans just punt the ball, pinning Seattle deep and forcing them to spend another time out. With little time left, and against that Texans defense, it would be hard to see Seattle going 80+ yards again to score a touchdown. Even if Schaub throws an incompletion or takes a sack (sans turnover), the Texans probably still manage to win that game and move to 3-1. A 3-1 record with a win over a quality team would have done far more for the team than the shaky 2-2 record they carried to San Francisco.
From there, what of the team? Here is how I see it playing out:
After their close shave against Seattle, Houston travels to San Francisco for a Sunday Night match-up. Schaub does not throw a pick-six, but the Niners prove too much, edging the Texans 24-6. A bad loss, but it leaves the Texans at 3-2, still very much in play for their primary goals. The following week, Schaub gets injured against the Rams, and as he leaves the field, there is a smattering of classless cheers, but mostly appreciative support. The team manages to pull out a tougher-than-necessary win over the Rams, 23-21, even as Yates struggles against a better-than-advertised Rams front-seven. Unfortunately, Yates’ struggles continue the following week in tilt with a dangerous Kansas City team, who defeats the Texans in a defensive slugfest 17-16. With Schaub still injured, and Yates struggling, Kubiak uses the bye week to insert Case Keenum into the starting line-up. Keenum gets his first start against Indianapolis, and after some initial jitters, is playing well enough to put the Texans up at halftime. Even with Kubiak’s medical scare, the team takes strength from its home turf success, and manages to pull out a 30-27 win. The Texans now stand at 5-3, with a relatively favorable schedule in front of them.
From there, the team proceeds to do better at home than on the road. Schaub is healthy to play after the Indy game, but Kubiak wants to stay with Keenum, which he does until the Oakland game. Keenum’s struggles in the first half of that game spur Kubiak to put Schaub back into the game, where he receives polite applause, which improves as he leads the team to a come-from-behind win over Oakland. At 6-4, Kubiak decides to go with Schaub, who leads the team to a win over Jacksonville, moving them to a respectable 7-4. However, the team proceeds to drop 3 of the next four games, falling to 8-7. In those games, Schaub is unable to get the team over the hump in tough losses to New England, Indianapolis, and Denver. The fans’ displeasure with Schaub returns as do the calls for Keenum. Still, with a playoff berth in sight, the Texans travel to Tennessee in an attempt to still salvage their dreams. Schaub does not have a great game, throwing a pick-six, again, but Houston manages to overcome the error, winning the game 21-10.
At 9-7, and by virtue of their tie-breaker over San Diego, Houston gets its first ever Wild Card berth. Their reward: a trip to play the Bengals for the 3rd straight year. While the game is in Cincinnati, the Bengals are still the Bengals, and they lose to the Texans once again, 23-16. However, Cincinnati does get another pick-six off of Schaub. Controversy swirls around Schaub, and it only gets worse as the team travels to Denver to face the Broncos. While the Texans won in Mile High in 2012, 2013 is not even close. It starts off badly, when Schaub manages on his first pass…to throw a pick-six. The rout is on, as the team is blasted 42-13. Schaub is benched for Keenum, who also proceeds to throw a pick-six.
In this scenario, the Texans once again get stopped in the Division Round. At this point, the fans have lost all faith in Schaub, and so too does the management. Smith and McNair are eagerly scouring the draft for Schaub’s replacement. Kubiak is disheartened by this and makes his displeasure known, but his health is starting to bother him. He decides that he needs to step away from coaching and resigns 2 weeks after the defeat at Mile High. Without Kubiak, the Texans decide to move on from Schaub, trading him to Baltimore in the off-season.
Ultimately, had Schaub not thrown the pick-six to Sherman, I feel that the team would have still at least made the playoffs, but not much beyond that. Schaub’s time was up in Houston, as was Kubiak’s. Perhaps I am being a bit too optimistic, but given how the team after that Seattle game just seemed to find ways to lose and beat themselves, even with all the talent on that squad, there was just something hard broke after the Seattle game. Sometimes in sports, it can take one moment, for better or worse, to set a tone. For Houston, the pick-six against Seattle submarined that season, and the long-term planning of the Texans. Consequently, had Houston held on and not thrown the pick-six, then I think the identity of that season changes for the better, at least in the short run. Instead of thinking the worst, as would be the case post-Seattle, the team could think that yes, we can overcome and succeed. Certainly, the Texans don't lose 8 straight one-possession games after Seattle if they don't make that pick-six error. Still, I feel that the team and Schaub do not get beyond the divisional round in 2013. If he hadn't got injured in 2011, or if the Texans had a legitimate defense in 2010...but, c'est la vie, especially in the NFL.
This does lead to a critical follow-up of what next? Given that my scenario eventually did revert back to the mean in that Schaub’s failings got the better of him later in the year, and the constant near-misses push the Texans’ leadership to the breaking point, it begs the question, does Bill O’Brien still take over for the Texans? In reality, the Texans’ early purge of Kubiak gave them a leg-up in plucking O’Brien from Penn State, which in turn, gave Penn State time to lure James Franklin from Vanderbilt. Now, with the Texans in the coaching market in late January, what then? They might have still made a play for Bill O’Brien, and perhaps, B’OB gets an offer he can’t refuse (a team that still made it to the playoffs, which is in need of a QB, which a noted offensive mind like B’OB could provide).
Yet, the timing might have been non-optimal for B’OB, as he would either elect to stay at Penn State, further developing wunderkind Christian Hackenburg, or would have been snagged by another team. Detroit, Tampa Bay, Minnesota, Washington and Cleveland all had openings at the start of Black Monday after the 2013 regular season ended. Let’s say that B’OB ended up going with Cleveland, as they had kicked the tires on him before. So, then what? Who takes over for the Texans? Prior to the hire of B’OB, there was speculation about David Shaw, Ken Whisenhunt or Lovie Smith. If all other variables remained the same, those three are off the board, and the Texans have to look somewhere else. Perhaps Dan Quinn or Darrell Bevell from the Seahawks would be next in line? If Quinn, it would then lead to speculation about the next offensive coordinator…if Bevell, who takes over for the defense? Suffice to say, Godsey or Crennel would most likely not be on the Texans sideline for 2014. What would that mean for the team? An interesting question…one that goes beyond the scope of this "What If?"
As for the draft, if the Texans had a 9-7 record, then Clowney is long off the board. If the Texans ended up drafting in the 24-25th pick range, then who are we looking at? If looking for a quarterback, then certainly Derrek Carr or Teddy Bridgewater are very much in play. More than likely, the Texans take Bridgewater as the QB of the intermediate future, as the rest of the roster would be thought to be good enough. Or, if the Texans drafted later in the rounds, perhaps AJ McCarron is the QB of the future (reality: 5th Round/24th Pick: Bengals). Would we still have brought in Ryan Fitzpatrick? Would depend on the Head Coach, but perhaps we might have done that anyway. Draftology is hardly an exact science, and even if you think you have an idea how a team drafts, it is hard to say exactly what the Texans do in a given scenario for draft purposes, even in a counterfactual scenario.
However, if you, the reader, wish to expand on that question, or have a different take on what might have happened with the 2013 season, please feel free to do so.