SAN FRANCISCO -- With six minutes to play in the 49ers 34-3 dismantling of visiting Houston, a lone figure stood forlornly on the Texans' sideline. As the home team bled the clock, no one came over to talk to Matt Schaub, who stood off to himself, like a leper. Or worse, a kicker.
Which is not to say no one would speak to him. From the stands behind the visitors bench, five rows up, a fleshy, balding fellow -- a Texans fan, it turned out -- shouted in Schaub's direction, his jowls quivering with outrage: "You better enjoy that money, Schaub, 'cause it's all you're ever gonna make!"
Jowls was referring, of course, to the eyebrow-raising contract extension Schaub signed after just a single game last season. Even though Schaub has been described as a glorified game manager, the Texans brain trust saw enough in him to offer him a four-year deal worth almost $30 million guaranteed, and a maximum value of $62 million.
Marry in haste, repent at leisure. It struck many as a bit odd that the Texans seemed in such a rush to lock Schaub up for the long term. This was a necessary step to take, to bring stability and consistency to a key position for a team thought ready to win a championship now. These days, the question is not so much whether Houston can get to the Super Bowl as it is, it's can the Texans get back to .500?
Those queries are trumped by the most tantalizing -- and admittedly ghoulish -- question hovering over the NFL as it enters Week 6:
Will Schaub make it five in a row? Can he put the record out of reach?
We speak, of course, of his Pick-Six Streak. On a Sunday that Tom Brady failed to throw a TD pass for the first time in 53 games, Schaub picked up the slack, breaking the NFL record for the number of consecutive games in which he's thrown an interception that was returned for a touchdown.
Schaub ended the suspense early on Sunday. He answered the question early. On his first pass of the night, the game's third snap, receivers Andre Johnson and Keyshawn Martin lined up wide right. Niners cornerback Tramaine Brock -- starting in place of the injured Nnamdi Asomugha -- lined up across from Martin and immediately started throwing chum in the water, so to speak. Oh yes, his backpedal suggested he intended to stick with Martin, stride for stride. The millisecond the ball left Schaub's hand -- intended for Johnson in the right flat (No Matt! Not the right flat! Throw anywhere but there!) Brock abandoned Martin, jumping Johnson's route, gobbling up the pass. Twelve strides and 18 yards later, he'd staked the 49ers to a one-touchdown lead and etched Schaub's name in the record books.
Afterward -- following two more Schaub interceptions, after which he was replaced by T.J. Yates -- a lugubrious coach Gary Kubiak had the look of a man who has run out swords on which to fall. After his quarterback's catastrophic pick-six a week earlier, which made it possible for Seattle to tie a game it had trailed by 17 points, Kubiak deflected blame toward himself. Schaub, he said, had been the victim of a poor play call. Schaub, he went on, could not have audibled out of the play. It was like a solid rocket booster. Once lit, there was no unlighting it.
During this, his third consecutive funereal postgame press conference, Kubiak was once again supportive of his quarterback. But the calculus had shifted just a little. The head coach was ever so slightly more critical of him this time around. After recounting the pick-six and giving Brock his propers -- "The guy came off the stick route, and it's a good play," -- Kubiak added this, "You've just got to see those types of things."
"Guys jump routes. They do things. You've got to be disciplined in what you're doing. It would sure help if we hit a couple of our go routes, too, to get them off of us. We didn't do that either."
Likewise, Schaub's teammates had his back, as they've had it for three straight weeks. But there was a rote, forced quality, creeping into their testimonials. Schaub will almost surely get the start against St. Louis next Sunday. But it wouldn't be a huge surprise to see Yates, who had previously started in place of an injured Schaub, take a few snaps with the ones this week.
After the game's final play, Schaub jogged toward midfield, where he leaned in as San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick spoke words of -- presumably -- encouragement, consolation, or both: the third-year guy telling the 10-year vet to keep his chin up. The 49ers appear to have weathered the storm of their own two-game losing streak, having now whipped the Rams and Texans in succession. It's news that the Niners have rediscovered their running game.
Frank Gore looked like the No. 21 of old, gashing Houston for 81 yards on 17 carries. For the fourth straight game, San Francisco's defense has kept the opponent under 200 net passing yards. The Niners offensive highlight was a 64-yard touchdown to tight end Vernon Davis, whose presence on the field creates so many mismatches that it doesn't matter that the Niners still don't have a reliable wideout to bookend Anquan Boldin.
But the story of this game was the self-immolation of one of the NFL's established quarterbacks. After the calamity that resulted from his first pass, Schaub created an aura of impending disaster every time he dropped back to pass. He seemed especially unsure of his intermediate and short throws to the right side of the field. He may yet work himself out of this trough -- afterward, he and Kubiak both spoke of having "hopefully" hit "rock bottom." But the downward spiral in which Schaub now finds himself could do a number on his confidence.
I asked one of his teammates if the problem, at least partially, is now in Schaub's head.
"Probably," he replied. "Probably."
Are the Texans having second thoughts about handing Schaub a fortune last season? Probably.
Are the Rams defensive backs licking their chops this week? Definitely.