“What a long strange trip it’s been.”
Except the schedule is only at the halfway mark.
It began with two walk-off wins against the San Diego Chargers and Tennessee Titans. The overtime victory over the Titans was the first of five consecutive games that featured the opposition returning an interception for a score. Returns one through four came courtesy of passes thrown by Matt Schaub, while backup quarterback T.J. Yates was responsible for the final pick-six.
That record-breaking “reign of error” was integral to a string of losses that has now reached six in a row. This historic turn of events would have been enough to distinguish Houston from other 2-6 underachievers like the Atlanta Falcons, New York Giants or Pittsburgh Steelers.
Then as the Texans and Indianapolis Colts were adjourning for halftime during Sunday Night Football on NBC, the game became secondary to what unfolded as the teams walked off the field. Gary Kubiak grabbed his head, then fell to his knees before ending up flat on his back.
He was taken to Methodist Hospital and was released yesterday after undergoing treatment for a TIA, or transient ischemic attack. Described by the American Stroke Association as a “mini-stroke,” Kubiak is expected to recover, but his return to coaching is unknown as of publication.
Wade Phillips took over as interim head coach and will remain at the helm for the foreseeable future. The 21-3 lead the Texans had at the half melted away under the leadership of the new Master of the Final 15, Andrew Luck, who connected with T.Y. Hilton for two fourth-quarter touchdowns to win 27-24.
Any hope for a reversal of fortune that might have led to the postseason was eradicated in the Colts loss. Since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978, no team with a 2-6 record has won its final eight games.
Even if they had won, only six teams have won seven of their final eight to make the playoffs. Each of those teams had at least 10 wins, so history is not on the side of any 9-7 postseason participants under these circumstances.
What started off with a singular vision of a Super Bowl berth has been reduced to a host of questions with a handful of answers. The least of which is who will lead both on the field and off? But some determinations can be made on how to situate this organization for success down the road.
Is Case Keenum the Quarterback of the Future?
The ascension of Keenum from practice squad to potential savior was a byproduct of that nasty run of wayward throws. It appears to have turned Schaub into the backup and Yates into the odd man out.
Keenum’s two starts have led to lots of exciting plays, at least in the first halves of both games. He has yet to throw for a touchdown when the game is on the line.
With both running backs hurt against Kansas City, the Chiefs could afford to put the pass rush into overdrive. Four of the five sacks given up by the Texans were in the second half, and all they could manage was a couple of field goals.
Andre Johnson made plays in the first and second quarters of the Colts game that were unthinkable with Schaub at the controls. Catching the ball in stride on deep strikes and a fade in the end zone to his outside shoulder, Johnson had three touchdown catches in the best thirty minutes of his career.
At halftime, Chuck Pagano decided to move the safeties up and help out the corners. The strategy worked as Keenum threw for 142 yards but had to rely on Randy Bullock for additional points.
Bullock was wide right on a 43-yard attempt that could have made the Colts two-point conversion a necessity and not a luxury. His 55-yard miss as time expired should not have been their only hope for overtime.
The Texans have the rest of the season to see if Keenum can develop any ability in the clutch. He already has a livelier arm and quicker feet than Schaub, along with an aggressiveness the former starter has not displayed in years.
The extent to which he matures over that time will affect not only just the decision to draft a quarterback. It will also influence whether some critical players will want to be part of the Texans’ long-term plans.
When Will Arian Foster Be Back?
For two consecutive games Foster has started the game only to end up on the sidelines before breaking a sweat. His hamstrings have become so problematic his availability may be touch-and-go for the rest of the year.
In his weekly appearance for In the Loop on Sports Radio 610 in Houston, Dr. Kenneth First reminded the listeners this problem goes back to his college years. It flared up again in 2011 when Foster tweeted an MRI of the injury, much to the chagrin of Texans’ management.
This condition fits the definition of “chronic,” as injury expert Will Carroll of Bleacher Report explains how the back injury that afflicted Foster during the preseason is connected to his current hamstring issues.
Beyond his physical ailments lies the question of Foster’s commitment to football. His wide-ranging interests led Mike Tanier of SportsonEarth.com to dub him the “the NFL's Renaissance Back.” Should his body fail to cooperate and the Texans have to retool the roster to get back in to contention, will Foster want to come along for the ride?
Could J.J. Watt feel the same way if the team that drafted him is on a fast train to nowhere? He does not come across as someone whose first concern is the cash. But struggling in obscurity with little chance of winning a Super Bowl does not sound like his bowl of Wheaties for sure.
What is the Plan for Right Tackle?
We have returned to the same rotation as 2012 at this position. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Derek Newton and Ryan Harris had 36 and 35 snaps, respectively, versus the Colts.
Collectively, they have the worst performance at this spot in the entire NFL. Most of the onus goes on Newton, who has climbed out of the Pro Football Focus cellar to place No. 71 in their rankings. This is progress?
Rookies Brennan Williams and David Quessenberry might have worked their way into the lineup for a team that has fallen out of the running. But they have been consigned to injured reserve for this season, providing no glimpses of their capabilities under fire.
Quessenberry was actually chosen to play swing guard, leaving Williams as the only hope to upgrade the situation. Given he did not even appear in any preseason games, his value is unpredictable at this point.
Should Keenum blossom, a high draft pick must be devoted to this desperate need. Either that or the newly anointed QB will have to roll out to his left far too often.
Where Are All the Linebackers?
We are trying to locate a single active player in this unit that can currently justify his paycheck.
Brian Cushing is an injury casualty who will be joined in the training room by Darryl Sharpton sooner or later. Joe Mays is a 4-3 middle linebacker playing out of position. Whitney Mercilus may have seven sacks but has yet to come up with a killer move that can help him ditch his blocker. Brooks Reed is basically missing in action.
Tim Dobbins was let go in a strictly punitive move. Willie Jefferson just didn’t stuff enough towels under the door when he was smoking some unidentified substance that violated team rules. Therefore, the stars of the future are Justin Tuggle on the outside and Mike Mohamed on the inside.
Now Wade Phillips has to mold this motley crew into an effective group and function as the head coach. At least he is earning his paycheck.
Can Special Teams Be Saved?
There will be no discussion about whether Joe Marciano can save his job. What can be discussed is whether to tar and feather him or just run him out of town on a rail.
The ineptitude of these pretenders is so infectious it finally got to their only competent member, punter Shane Lechler. His 19-yard punt late in the game put the Colts in business at their own 48-yard line instead of inside the 20. That made the go-ahead touchdown seem almost inevitable.
With the best punter in the game, they rank 27th in net yards per punt attempt. This is so low because they allow 15.0 yards per punt return, which is 29th in the league. To make matters worse, they average just 5.1 yards per punt return, which is 31st in the league.
There are two simple rules when drafting a place-kicker: Do not waste a draft choice, and do not pick the short guy. This may sound like pure prejudice. According to Pro Football Reference, of the top 100 career kickers with 600 or more points, only nine are 5’9” or shorter.
Notice that only Matt Bryant has been active throughout the last decade, and no one expended a draft choice on him. The average height of those top 100 is around 6’0”. The selection of Bullock is another reason why Joe has to go.
There is nothing left to do for the balance of 2013 than go to the bathroom, go to the refrigerator or just go outside when special teams take the field.
Now you know why Kubiak always turns around when a field goal is attempted. He has enough stress in his life.
Due to a lack of depth in several key areas, there are not a lot of resources just lying around waiting to be put to use. The coaching staff appears to be on its way to developing a No. 2 receiver in DeAndre Hopkins and possibly a pair of starting safeties in Shiloh Keo and D.J. Swearinger.
Tight end Garrett Graham could make Owen Daniels expendable, but who will step up to take Graham's place? Tim Jamison might have been ready to supplant Antonio Smith, who is in his final contract year. However, Jamison has been active for just two games, indicating his Achilles tendon has not fully healed.
If Case Keenum ends up being the grand prize, that would be a significant coup. To claim the most important player on the team off your practice squad is a real stroke of luck. The good kind that could reinvigorate this franchise while saving the job of someone who is recovering from the more troubling kind.