I was talking to Houston GM Rick Smith Monday afternoon about the Texans' 7-3 start, leaving them with the AFC's top seed through 10 weeks. "People say we're in this great spot 'if the season ended today,' '' Smith told me, "and it doesn't. There's a lot of football to play. There's a lot that can happen.''
An hour later, it was learned Houston quarterback Matt Schaub will miss time -- probably the season -- with a mid-foot sprain that could require surgery. For a team that was winning without major stars Mario Williams and Andre Johnson, this seemed almost a cruel blow, almost too much for one team to take and keep winning. And it may be. Now quarterback Matt Leinart steps into the breach. All he'll be asked to do -- following his failed experiment as starting quarterback for the Cardinals -- is keep the Texans atop the AFC South and in contention for not only the franchise's first playoff spot ever, but also a bye in the first week of the playoffs.
"He has been waiting for this moment,'' said right tackle Eric Winston last night. "Obviously, this isn't ideal, losing your starting quarterback while you're in a serious playoff chase. But I really believe he can do it -- execute our offense and keep us on track.''
The Texans have their bye this week, which helps. They have a manageable schedule in the last six weeks, which helps more: at Jacksonville, Atlanta, at Cincinnati, Carolina, at Indianapolis, Tennessee. And they have a guy, Winston claims, who we don't know very well.
"When people ask me what Matt Leinart's like, I think they expect me to say he's some brash, cocky kid who doesn't work very hard,'' Winston said. "It's totally wrong. The first year he was here, he wanted to come in on Saturday to do extra work to try to catch up in the offense. Nobody knows that side of him. He's been a great teammate, totally supportive of Matt, and well-liked in the locker room. He knows, we all know, that quarterback is not an easily replaceable piece. But I believe the guys on this team really have faith he can do it.''
Most of the football world will expect teams now to crowd the line and shut off the amazingly productive Arian Foster and force Leinart to beat them. I'd say the Texans would enjoy that. When they come back from the bye, Johnson's injured hamstring is expected to be near 100 percent. I'd challenge any team to leave Johnson single-covered for jump balls downfield. "Andre will be a huge safety valve for Leinart,'' Winston said.
And he's got an extra week to prepare as the No. 1 guy, even though the Texans will be off a full four days before returning to work next week. If Leinart fails, it will be a performance issue for him -- not a preparation issue. One of the best stories down the stretch of this season will be to see if Leinart can keep the train moving.
Final note: Schaub's injury means that the top four players on the Texans (arguably) -- Schaub, Foster, Johnson and Williams -- will have been playing for a total of one quarter together all season. If the Texans hang on, it'll be a tribute to the team that Smith and coach Gary Kubiak have built over the last few years.
Now for your email:
Lots of people who wrote in this week feel the way you do -- that players should prepare more for their retirement and not rely on the NFL to give them their entire post-career nest egg. Problem is, when you compare it to other sports like baseball, football's pension is sorely lacking. Re Penn State: Now that the assistant coach has come out and claimed he did more than people thought, I repeat what I have maintained for a week -- these charges, and this story, is so incendiary that I prefer on many of the major points to wait 'til the whole story is out before nailing anyone's reputation to the wall.
A REMEDY FOR THURSDAY TRAVEL AND THE SHORT WEEK.
Interesting idea. Like it a lot. Listening, NFL?
HE DOESN'T THINK ELI BELONGS.
Good point. I just think the role quarterbacks play in terms of the word "value'' is far more important than players at other positions. After Manning drove 85 and 80 yards on the Patriots in the last seven minutes in Week 9, I thought he deserved a spot because of what he'd done in driving the Giants to not only that win but also to the top of their division with the injuries the Giants have played through. I believe quarterbacks have an edge in the MVP discussion because they're the most irreplaceable players on most teams. I love Arian Foster and I believe he has great value. But if you have to play without one player on that offense -- Foster or Matt Schaub -- would you honestly tell me you'd rather be missing Schaub?
My only point through all of this is simple: There is much we don't know about the happenings in 1998 and 2002 involving Sandusky's and Paterno's culpability. Why the rush to judgment, particularly with a man who has done good for a long time? As I wrote Monday, there may come a day when I'll view Paterno as a scoundrel. Before I do, I'd like to know all the facts.
Thanks for writing.
ON DEVIN HESTER.
Other than in patently obvious cases (Dan Marino, Barry Sanders), I never form a final opinion on a player's Hall chances before his career is finished. It's not fair. Your question has to be -- because tomorrow isn't promised to anyone -- whether Hester would be a Hall of Famer if he never played another snap. And I would just say this: Regardless of whether a player is a special-teamer or offensive or defensive, if I believe he is among the very best who ever played his position in the NFL, I consider him strongly for the Hall.
EMILY KAPLAN ROCKS.
Thanks for the email, Sharyn. I will be sure Emily sees it.