The 2013 Houston Texans: An inglorious end to what many felt would be a golden age for the franchise and the city’s pro football future.
After back-to-back division titles and appearances in the divisional round, the Texans seemed primed to remain a perennial playoff contender. The roster lacked many apparent holes and more than a few preseason prognosticators saw the Texans not just getting to the Super Bowl, but winning it. Then the season started.
The Texans managed for the 4th straight season to start 2-0, even if both wins required major second-half/4th quarter comebacks. After a brutal loss at Baltimore, the team returned to Houston to face the Seattle Seahawks. Most would point to this game when the season fell apart. In particular, the back-breaking, franchise-altering pick-six thrown by Matt Schaub to Richard Sherman that all but ended the game, sending the team to a nightmare 14-game losing streak.
Schaub and Kubiak suffered injuries, the scorn of the fans, and in Schaub’s case, the open scorn of teammates. Kubiak would not last the season, fired right after the Texans were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. Schuab was gone after the season ended. Wade Phillips went from defensive coordinator to interim head coach to unemployed at the end of the year.
There have been other counter-factuals, looking at what if Schaub hadn’t thrown that pick-six to Sherman. It is possible that a 3-1 record vs. a 2-2 start might have steadied the team and avoid the collapse that so ruined the squad. However, it is worth noting that if not for a franchise-record comeback against San Diego and a just as remarkable 4th quarter comeback against Tennessee, the Texans just might have done what to that point only the 2008 Lions managed: an 0-16 season.
At 2-14, the team still finished dead last in the league and ended up with the #1 pick (as well as clinching a spot along with the 2013 Houston Astros for the not-so-coveted Bum Steer(s) of the Year from Texas Monthly). Going from contender to dead last is painful enough and a source of franchise and city embarrassment. However, how close did this squad go to the ultimate embarrassment of a winless, tieless season?
Game 1: Houston @ San Diego: The last game of the NFL’s opening week, the Texans did not get off to a great start. San Diego, with playoff aspirations of their own, rode their home-field advantage to a 28-7 lead, aided in no small part by a Matt Schaub interception on the first play of the game. Prior to this game, the Texans had never successfully overcome such a deficit. There was the near-miss from 2007, when Houston overcame a 25 point Titans lead, only to lose on the final play. However, teams generally do not win most games when they are down 21 in the second half, especially on the road to good team. Yet, the Texans managed to claw their way back, sealed with a game-winning FG as time expired to win 31-28.
While many might point to the 4th quarter personal foul on San Diego where they roughed the Houston center on a FG attempt, replacing a San Diego 28-17 lead with a Texans TD and a shaker 28-21 advantage, as the turning point. Yet, this author is looking to the 3rd quarter, when the Chargers, returning the kickoff after the Texans scored to cut the lead to 28-14, saw Fozzy Whittaker, the kick returner, take said kickoff, and found some open field to run. He had just crossed his own 30-yard line when a near-miss tackle tripped him up, forcing a summersault and allowing the Texans’ kick coverage to catch up to him and giving the Chargers the ball just inside the Chargers’ 40-yard line.
What if Whittaker is able to maintain his balance? Given how the coverage was still behind him, the Chargers’ kick returner could have gotten at least 10 more yards. It is possible that Whittaker might have outran the coverage, especially if he could shake the last man. If that is the case, then the Chargers extend the lead to 35-14 with roughly 4:40 left in the 3rd quarter. If Whittaker is stopped short of the end zone, the Chargers are in much better field position. Maybe they still go three-and-out, but with better field position, especially if the Chargers are on the Texans’ side of the field, then perhaps that game does not end as a great Texans’ comeback, but a “quality” win for the Chargers.
Game 2: Tennessee @ Houston: The Houston home-opener. While Houston was favored in this matchup, the game shaped up to be another back-and-forth affair with a division rival.
At one point, Houston led 16-10 in the 4th quarter. Then, within the span of 90 seconds, the game shifted. The Titans took a 17-16 lead on a Locker TD pass. The following possession, Schaub would serve up a pick-6, and Tennessee went up 24-16, stunning the home crowd.
Houston would rally, and with under a 1:40, the Texans found the endzone on the legs of Arian Foster. Foster then ran in the subsequent 2 point conversion to tie the game. The Texans could have won at the end of regulation, but they could not convert the game winning FG. They would at least end the matchup in overtime on a Schaub-to-Hopkins TD and a 30-24 escape.
This game should not have come down to a Texans comeback. However, the Texans found themselves down eight with just over five minutes to go. The 6-point touchdown came with 1:34 left in the game. While it’s not surprising that Houston would rely on Arian Foster to run in the two-point conversion to tie it, such a move is not a certainty. If Foster failed to convert the two-point run, Houston must attempt the onside kick. Given the percentages of on-side recoveries, the Titans likely end up with the ball. While the Titans go three-and-out when they were tied and forced to move the ball up the field, a Titans team with a two-point lead will treat the situation far differently. Barring a miracle, the Titans walk out of Reliant with the win, and Super Bowl favorites Houston stare down the barrel of an 0-2 start.
If either/or both of those plays go a different way, highly likely given the circumstances and percentages, and all else remains the same, then you have a road map to a winless season. It is possible that in the alternative timeline, the Texans somehow hold on to some of their multiple halftime leads and avoid the goose-egg, but the way the season played out showed that the final team of the Kubiak era was fatally flawed.
Additionally, the roster was maybe not as solid as it appeared. In his podcast, Arian Foster and former teammate Andre Johnson discussed their time on the 2013 Texans. Johnson relayed that in the off-season prior to 2012 that there were some bad seeds on the team, and that a number of the players needed to go. He informed then-GM Rick Smith of this issue, but Smith did not take action.
While some players, mainly three rookies, were dismissed from the roster mid-season, most of the lineup that started 2013 with high expectations, remained on a team with the #1 pick in the draft at the end. Injuries played a major role, with 21 players on IR at the end of the year, but a playoff-caliber team like Houston should not have fallen this far, this fast unless there was something really, really wrong.
Supposing that this timeline does happen, and the Texans go 0-16, what would have been the end result? Much remains the same.
Kubiak and Schaub are gone, with Kubiak likely fired before Week 13. Kubiak does not stay unemployed for long, but would he still get a head coaching job if he was the primary leader on a winless team? The Texans still get the #1 pick, and likely still draft Jadeveon Clowney. They still have first dibs on a new coach, and it is likely they still end up with Bill O’Brien.
Yet, what of general manager Rick Smith? Perhaps he still remains. After all, if Bob McNair didn’t sack Smith after going 2-14, would two more losses make that big a difference? Then again, 0-16 is a shameful mark, and even a patient man like Bob McNair didn’t relish that kind of embarrassment. Smith’s close ties to McNair likely keep him in the organization, but the team would be taking a long, hard look at all things football and Rick Smith, would be very much under the microscope. If Smith is retained as GM, then he returns as the GM under the most fire. The Texans would have to secure a winning season at least.
The 2013 season could have gone down two different paths. Maybe it was just that one win to course correct and the team at least gets to the playoffs. Or the team makes the wrong kind of history. Yet, the team, regardless of timeline, had run its course with Kubiak and Schaub. It was time for a new order in Houston.