Imagine how strange and downright novel it must feel to be Tony Romo about now, waking up each day as merely the second-most embattled NFL quarterback in Texas. He owes Houston's Matt Schaub for that one.
Watching Schaub's struggles in recent weeks, Bill Walsh's devastatingly succinct critique of Steve DeBerg, his first 49ers starting quarterback, keeps coming to mind: "He plays just good enough to get you beat.''
It's a cruel summation to render about anyone, especially a quarterback who has contributed significantly to the franchise's first two playoff berths in its history the past two seasons, but that's kind of where things stand with Schaub in his shaky Texans tenure at this juncture.
In his seventh season as Houston's full-time starter, he is no longer viewed as part of the solution, he is part of the problem. The main problem, judging by the sound and fury (and arson-related antics) coming from irate Houston fans and some in the media. And Schaub keeps getting the Texans beat with rookie-like mistakes, as he did again Sunday with that brutal pick-six to Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman in the final minutes of regulation.
If you're scoring at home, that makes three consecutive games in which Schaub has gifted his opponent with an interception return for a touchdown, a ghastly streak that has been matched by only three other quarterbacks in the past 20 years, according to research by the Elias Sports Bureau. That the Colts' Peyton Manning (in 2001) and the Broncos' John Elway (in 1994) are on that dubious list proves it's a passing slump that's survivable. At least if your last name is Manning or Elway, which pretty much exempts Schaub.
Schaub's glaring, game-turning miscue occurred much earlier in Week 3's Texans' loss at Baltimore, but it was just as ugly. With Houston dominating the game statistically despite scoring just six points on a pair of first-half field goals, Schaub threw a ghastly interception to Ravens inside linebacker Daryl Smith, who returned it 37 yards for a touchdown with 2:39 left in the first half, giving Baltimore a lead it would never relinquish in the 30-9 victory.
Those two picks have changed the tenor of the season in Houston for the time being, after the Texans rallied to gutty wins at San Diego and home against Tennessee in Weeks 1-2, getting off to a 2-0 for the second year in a row. With a month of the schedule gone, Houston (2-2) trails both Indianapolis and Tennessee (3-1) in the AFC South, and is in the midst of an ultra-challenging stretch that includes Sunday night's big-stage game at San Francisco, a Week 7 trip to turnaround-team-of-the-year Kansas City and a post-bye showdown against the visiting Colts in Week 9.
The Texans simply can't afford the kind of self-inflicted wounds Schaub keeps producing at this stage of their development. They're not an ascending AFC playoff wannabe any more, they're an established, two-time division champion trying to seize their Super Bowl window of opportunity. Right now. Did you see the look on J.J. Watt's bloodied face after the excruciating and inexcusable loss to the Seahawks? This is no time to preach patience and talk about learning from one's mistakes. The training wheels have long since come off for Schaub and the Texans.
Schaub is in his 10th NFL season and is supposed to be past the point of consistently making these kind of blunders. Houston's defense has given up just four touchdowns in the past three games, but Schaub has nearly matched that, serving up three all by himself. All told, Schaub has tossed at least one pick in Houston's past seven games, including the playoffs. The Texans are a decidedly mediocre 3-4 over that span, and after 2012's sparkling 11-1 start, Houston is just 4-6 in its past 10 games, including the postseason.
Schaub threw for 355 yards and a pair of touchdowns against Seattle's tough defense, completing 31-of-49 passes to eight receivers. But he also threw two interceptions, and Houston's three turnovers led to 13 Seahawks points in a game the Texans outgained Seattle 476-270. Schaub's record fell to 1-5 in his last six games against 2012 playoff teams, and the buzzards started circling.
The Texans fans who chose the rather sophomoric stunt of burning Schaub's jersey in the parking lot after the Seattle loss aren't what the veteran quarterback has to concern himself with. The trouble will come if his turnover struggles continue and his teammates or the coaching staff/front office start to view backup T.J. Yates or home-state fan favorite Case Keenum as a more viable QB option. We're not there now, but it's never a long way off in the NFL. Even for a guy like Schaub, who threw for 4,005 yards last season, with 22 touchdowns, a 64.3 completion percentage and a solid 90.7 passing rating.
Head coach Gary Kubiak and the Texans locker room sound solidly in Schaub's corner for now. But the Houston Chronicle report that Texans running back Arian Foster called a players-only meeting on Monday is a sure sign that all is not copacetic in Texans-land. As a result, Schaub will enter the primetime game against San Francisco with more pressure bearing down on his shoulder pads than he has ever experienced in his stint as a Texan. That's the reality of the situation, whether there's a decent reservoir of support for Schaub or not at the moment. He's one more damaging pick-six away from crisis territory.
Reading all the available tea leaves, I think it's all but over for Schaub in Houston and there won't be any way to put this genie completely back in the bottle. As many coaches and players believe, you're either getting better or you're getting worse in the NFL, and at best, Schaub's play has leveled off, putting him squarely among the ranks of quarterbacks who are good but far from elite. He has clearly helped Houston get to this point, but winning one playoff game and going out in the AFC divisional round two years running wasn't the goal the Texans were chasing. There were bigger dreams than that, but I'm convinced Schaub isn't the quarterback who's going to lead Houston those last few difficult rungs up the ladder. He was the right guy for a certain stage of the Texans' climb to relevance, but he hasn't raised his game as the stakes have increased.
Never a particularly demonstrative leader even when he was at his most successful, Schaub's body language and postgame demeanor seemed particularly defeated and downtrodden on Sunday. Understandable, of course, after that demoralizing turn of events. But that's when a quarterback needs to be his most defiant and resilient, and send the message to his coaches and teammates that his turnaround has already begun. At least mentally. Fiery isn't always good, but sometimes a dose of emotion is needed.
Schaub seemed at a total loss to explain or understand the game-changing mistakes that keep happening, and that makes it difficult to believe he knows how to fix the problem. Are there many who truly envision his best football being still to come in Houston? Chances seem better that it's in the past, but the Texans are a team that still must make the best of it with Schaub as their franchise quarterback in 2013. At least until they think they have no choice but to play Yates or Keenum.
According to a ProFootballTalk.com report on Monday, the Texans can escape from the four-year $69.7 million contract extension they awarded Schaub last September without great pain if they choose that path. The salary cap charges will be $3.5 million in 2014 if he's cut after June 1, and $7 million in 2015. But they also haven't guaranteed any of the $40 million he's still owed from the deal after 2013, and that's an important element of their out clause.
Schaub's play in the coming weeks will dictate which way his future unfolds in Houston. But the signs are beginning to look ominous. If the "just good enough to get you beat'' trend continues, his career as the Texans' No. 1 quarterback almost certainly won't.