With his team in free-fall, Gary Kubiak appears to be out of answers
In a remarkable NFL coaching career that spanned from Kennedy to Clinton, Don Shula managed to lose 156 regular-season games in his record-breaking 33-year run on the sideline. The most telling statistic that illustrates his success and explains his longevity? Only eight times during his memorable multi-decade run did his teams suffer through a losing streak of at least three games, or roughly once every four years on average.
Shula never experienced even a three-game losing skid with the Baltimore Colts from 1963-69, and his Miami Dolphins had just one three-game slump in his first five years in South Florida. That's 12 seasons, one three-game losing streak. The Dolphins would go on to experience five more three-gamers in his final 21 seasons, and even uncharacteristically dropped five in a row on two occasions. But that's it. Eight legitimate losing streaks in 33 seasons.
Did he have great quarterbacks for the majority of those years? You bet he did. Unitas, Griese and Marino are all Hall of Fame names. But Shula also had an extraordinary ability to fix problems and make corrections midseason, rarely letting his team's little flaws grow into a big, season-killing crisis. Bar none, that's the most vital part of a head coach's skill set, because when things go wrong and the sky starts falling, that's when they really earn their money. Or should anyway.
Which brings us to Gary Kubiak. The beleaguered Houston head coach is still in the first half of his eighth season with the Texans. But he's currently working on his ninth career losing streak of at least three games, with two-time defending AFC South champion Houston (2-4) dropping its past four games after a mirage-like 2-0 start to the season.
Let that sink in for a moment. In less than seven and a half seasons, Kubiak has already caught and passed Shula, at least in that one dubious distinction. In a fraction of the time, his Texans have already endured more prolonged slumps than Shula's teams did in three-plus decades. That's not a statistical milestone likely to be churned out in the pregame notes by Houston's public relations staff, but it's part of his record and it speaks volumes about what I think is the Texans' biggest underlying problem.
Kubiak's team is free-falling and he doesn't know where the cord is to pull the chute. Logic tells us a soft landing isn't likely.
Lots of head coaches are darn good at what they do when things are going relatively smoothly. But it's the ones who know how to perform triage on their own teams and stop the bleeding before it's too late that last and build legacies. The key to success in the NFL sounds easy enough. You try to make sure a loss is always isolated by a win on each side, keep the two-game slides to a minimum and treat a three-game losing streak like it's a full-blown DEFCON 5 situation, doing whatever is necessary to change the narrative and end the pattern of defeat.
It's not breaking news, of course, that Kubiak is no Shula, and you could substitute the name of almost any other NFL head coach in that blank and make the same point. But this latest slump in Houston is not a new phenomenon. It's a near-annual event. Like the Astros losing 100-plus games, or 11 months of humidity.
Even in those years Kubiak had his improving team chasing Peyton Manning and the Colts and striving to climb the ladder in the AFC South, the Texans showed the tendency to swoon, often failing to meet expectations. They were a chic team-on-the-rise pick by many in 2008-10, but in reality they were just a tease, going 8-8, 9-7 and 6-10 over that span, never winning the games that mattered most. Usually it was an ill-timed losing streak that did in Houston's playoff chances.
In every season except 2012's franchise-best 12-4 finish, the Texans have endured at least one losing streak of three-plus games under Kubiak, and even that season feels a little hollow since Houston started 11-1, before dropping three of its final four games to squander a potential No. 1 seed and the AFC's homefield advantage in the playoffs. (Come to think of it, nothing really good has transpired for the Texans since they debuted those snazzy letterman jackets on the road trip to New England last December, losing 42-14 that night. Houston is 4-8 overall since said high-schoolish fashion statement.)
The Texans under Kubiak have experienced four different three-game slides, and a whopping five losing streaks of four games, and there's a very good chance that streak rolls to a career-worst five games when Houston visits undefeated Kansas City (6-0) this Sunday. That's a portrait of a head coach who runs out of answers exactly at the point his team needs them the most.
Kubiak's coaching expertise comes at the quarterback position. He spent nine years as an NFL backup behind John Elway in Denver (1983-91), coached the position for San Francisco during its Super Bowl-winning season of 1994 and won a couple more rings as the Broncos offensive coordinator from 1995-2005. It's a pretty glitzy résumé, one that includes six Super Bowl trips all told.
And yet, Kubiak, the presumed QB guru, couldn't seem to offer anything that represented a life preserver to his own quarterback when Matt Schaub started drowning in a sea of pick-sixes this season. Schaub threw an interception returned for a touchdown in a record four consecutive games from Weeks 2-5, and when he was injured in the second half of Houston's wheels-coming-off 38-13 loss at home to St. Louis on Sunday, Texans backup T.J. Yates came in and quickly kept the charity operation going, throwing a doozy of a 98-yard pick-six to Rams rookie linebacker Alec Ogletree.
As I've written and said many times, if you have no quarterback, you have no chance in the NFL, no matter how wondrous a coach you are. But Schaub has been a productive and playoff-worthy quarterback in this league, and Kubiak has seemed helpless to restore Schaub's game and stabilize Houston's rapidly sinking season. It would be ironic if Kubiak was hired in large part because he knew his way around the game's most pivotal position, and then was fired because he couldn't fix the fatal flaws of his own starter, dragging down his entire team in the process.
You can almost see the grasping search for answers in Kubiak's and Schaub's bad body language in recent weeks. During the postgame they look particularly lost, as if they don't know exactly what has gone wrong, how to correct it, and if they're going to be able to weather the storm until they do.
And as Kubiak accurately noted in his comments following the debacle of a loss to St. Louis, his immensely talented but woefully underachieving team now has sprung multiple leaks as it sinks lower and lower, with problems that involve more than just shaky quarterbacking. For starters, what happened to the Texans' once-dominant defense that coordinator Wade Phillips had breathing fire for most of the past two seasons? Like Kubiak, Phillips as a head coach in Denver, Buffalo and Dallas often struggled to stop the bleeding once his teams started losing. The problem-solving skills of both coaches have left a lot to be desired this year.
But when the sky starts falling, that's exactly when a coach is expected to find solutions and execute some season-saving maneuvers that help his team find its way out of its funk. The best ones figure out how to get the losing streak stopped, and start piecing the puzzle back together as quickly as possible.
That is Kubiak's challenge, but I'm not seeing the signs that a turnaround is about to unfold in Houston. The Texans have the daunting trip to Kansas City this week, then a bye, followed by a visit from the division-leading Colts. At that point, the halfway mark of the schedule, it may already be too late for the Texans. In Houston, after just six games, the Texans' Super Bowl Express has already turned into a season on the brink.