Houston Texans: Matt Schaub Is Not the Problem
Move over, Bud Adams and Tracy McGrady. Make room for the latest member of the “Most Reviled Athletic Figures in Houston Sports History.”
Matt Schaub has now been deemed worthless enough for membership of this ill-reputed group.
For the Houston Texans, the 2012 schedule was supposed to be nothing short of a ride down the yellow brick road straight to the Super Bowl. By Week 14, the team had surged to 11-1 and topped the NFL rankings.
They followed their ascendance to those lofty heights with 2-4 tailspin. Their once-promising season ended in a second ignominious defeat by the standard bearers of NFL consistency, the New England Patriots, in the AFC Divisional Round.
No individual was blamed more than Schaub, with the two touchdowns and four interceptions that contributed to his 74.8 passer rating in those four losses, capped with the two-interception performance against the Patriots in the playoffs.
With the draft just weeks away, the cry to select the antithesis of the Texans’ current signal caller has risen to a crescendo. The popular choice would be E.J. Manuel from Florida State with his powerful arm and nimble feet. To pull this off would mean ignoring more pressing needs at wide receiver, inside linebacker and the secondary.
Quarterback may well be the most important position in football, but whoever occupies this position does not work in a vacuum. In the ultimate team sport, his performance is dependent on multiple individuals functioning at an optimal level in carefully constructed environment.
If any of these components fail to work according to plan, the results will be less than desirable.
This followed another comeback win over Detroit on Thanskgiving Day. It looked as if Houston’s quarterback was ready to walk on water. In reality, it was the defense that was starting to spring leaks.
Both trends in this chart reflect a gradual decline, but the only instance in which Houston recorded more TD passes than their opponents was Week 14 against the Tennessee Titans (Week 3: two TDs to one). In far too many cases, the defense could not keep the other team from outscoring them through the air.
But, consider this: in the four losses after Week 14 (which includes the playoffs), the defense allowed 10 touchdowns, bagged a measly three sacks and did not snatch a single interception. To claim this meltdown is somehow solely the responsibility of the quarterback is to overlook some of the major issues Houston faced late in the season.
The defense was without its emotional leader and second-best player in Brian Cushing and best slot defender, Brice McCain. Top cover man Johnathan Joseph was nursing a groin injury the latter portion of the year. The readers can decide if these are excuses or reasons for the defense's struggles.
There are some who would contend a drop-off in the Texans’ defense was inevitable. Wade Phillips has had his defense regress during his second year as defensive coordinator on multiple occasions. Beyond that tendency, his 31-year career coaching defenses has shown a reversion to mediocrity.
Phillips’ coaching page at Pro Football Reference puts his overall record in the 57th percentile for yards and the 53rd percentile for points. When the sample size comprises three decades, it is a trend that cannot be dismissed.
This could lead to the chicken-and-egg type of argument: was the defense under too much pressure because their QB went through a three-game stretch (Weeks 16,17 and the Wild Card Round) without a scoring pass? Was Schaub pressing because the defensive secondary had turned into a sieve?
We can at least agree the defense was not doing its part. Was there enough help on offense for a quarterback who may have shot his wad in the two comeback wins?
Offensive line design
Since the introduction of unrestricted free agency in 1993, no team has won a Super Bowl with two first-year players manning the same side of the offensive line. Many teams had someone in their second season paired with a veteran, but none tried putting two neophytes together on the same side.
The various guards and tackles that manned the right side of the Texans’ offensive line had only one player with any extensive experience. That would be RT Ryan Harris, who was on the field for just 36 percent of the snaps.
RT Derek Newton, who was in his second season but in his first year as a starter, received the bulk of the playing time. He was usually paired with rookie RG Ben Jones, who was forced to shift over from his natural position at center.
Antoine Caldwell could not pitch at right guard due to injuries, but Brandon Brooks eventually worked his way onto the active roster for a handful of plays late in the year.
When compared with LT Duane Brown at 35.6 and C Chris Myers at 19.4, on which side would a defensive coordinator decide to concentrate his attack? As head coach, Gary Kubiak should have never made such a decision so easy.
The Shift from Arian to Andre
By the time Week 11 rolled around, Arian Foster had 221 carries for 872 yards. He was on pace for over 400 carries, an exhausting workload for any running back.
Therefore, the centerpiece of the offense had to be shifted. Who better to take over its demands than its most reliable member, future Hall of Famer Andre Johnson?
Foster totaled just 130 carries for 552 yards in the final seven games, while Andre had 66 receptions for 1,001 yards over the same period. To put this is perspective, Johnson caught 46 balls for 597 yards in the first nine games.
This might have worked if No. 80 was a touchdown-scoring machine. Alas, he ended up with only four TDs on 112 receptions on the year. That means he had 28 catches for every TD scored, the worst ratio for any receiver with over 100 receptions in the history of the NFL.
But then, who else was could be trusted in the passing game? The three wide receivers with learner’s permits, Lestar Jean, Keshawn Martin and DeVier Posey, were only going to have 60 targets combined on the year. Kevin Walter had to be preserved for his blocking skills, meaning he would only be thrown to 68 times all season.
The tight end trio of Owen Daniels, Garrett Graham and James Casey were cumulatively good bunch with 124 receptions for 1,309 yards and 12 TDs. What Houston really needed was a Rob Gronkowski- or Jimmy Graham-type that would demand double-coverage on every passing down.
There were rumors throughout the season that Foster was intentionally taken out of the passing game, but they were never confirmed. One look at his receiving stats confirms something was up: 53 receptions for 645 yards in 2011 (in 13 games) vs. 40 receptions for 217 yards for a complete 16-game season.
Schaub was basically down to a two-read option by the end of the season. Either look for Andre or check down to a tight end. Once again, they were far too predictable to keep the opposition guessing.
Conservative Play Calls
This subject deserves an article all its own, so let’s devote ourselves to a single aspect.
The Houston Texans scored 41 offensive touchdowns in 2012. Twenty-three of those scores came in goal-to-go situations. That translates to over half of their touchdowns coming from inside the ten-yard line.
In other words, the Texans had to get within ten yards of the goal line to score a lot of their points. They nibbled their way down the field in time-consuming drives that ate up the clock. This explains why they led the league in time of possession.
Contrary to popular belief, time of possession is relatively meaningless. Only two Super Bowl winners in the last ten years have ranked in the top five (New York Giants 2007, ranked 4, Green Bay Packers 2010, at 5).
The best way to take time off the clock is to run the ball. The best way to come from behind is to throw the ball. It is the rare team that perfectly balances their offense in both phases of the game.
Gary Kubiak admits their offensive philosophy is to run first. He recalls how well this approach worked during his days as the offensive coordinator of those Denver Broncos teams that won consecutive Super Bowls in the 1990’s.
This amounts to old-school football. Joe Flacco did not become the highest-paid player in the NFL handing off to Ray Rice. He won the Lombardi Trophy by throwing for ten scores with no interceptions in the playoffs.
Yes, Matt Schaub does not possess the ballistic appendage of Flacco. He did throw for over 4,000 yards in three of the last four seasons. He may have accomplished this not by design, but in trying to make up huge deficits. He did it nonetheless.
Neither the coach nor the public can expect him to play game manager when the team is ahead then turn into a bombs-away, comeback king when they’re down by double-digits.
Until the offense has the weapons and the versatility to play the game in a contemporary fashion, expect the Texans to continue trying to ram the square peg into a round hole.
For those who would like to consult some like-minded opinions, here is some suggested reading:
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