SEATTLE -- Among the many things that define truly great quarterbacks, one might say that the most important characteristic is the ability to transcend his surroundings -- to make those around him better than they would be otherwise. Guys like Peyton Manning and Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers inflate the production and value of their teammates with their rare skills, from skill position players to offensive linemen.
Houston Texans quarterback Matt Schaub has done a lot of things in his 10-year NFL career. He's made two Pro Bowls, thrown for over 4,000 yards in a season three times, and he's been the signal-caller for a franchise that was won 25 regular-season games and lost just 11 in the past three years. By most statistical measures you'd care to mention, Schaub is one of the better quarterbacks in the league. But there is an increasing number of people in and around the Houston area who would like to see just about anybody else in charge of the team's passing game.
One day after Schaub completed 25 of 35 passes for just 195 yards, no touchdowns and an interception in the Texans' 30-9 loss to the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, both Schaub and head coach Gary Kubiak were left to defend their offense and deflect the increasing sense that the man the Texans signed to a four-year, $62 million contract extension in September 2012 wasn't living up to the "elite" designation implied by such an agreement.
“Well, I’m concerned about a lot of things," Kubiak said after watching the tape. "We turned the ball over, obviously, and that’s something that we’re not doing very well right now, or we’re doing a poor job of protecting the ball, and we’re not getting turnovers either. Those two go hand-in-hand. As a football team, we’re losing that battle, which we were very good at last year, and we’re off to a very slow start this year. That has to change. But it’s not just the quarterback. Everybody’s involved in what we’re doing, and we can do a better job up front, a better job running routes. [Schaub's] got to make good reads, all of those things. Those things go together.”
Schaub has thrown six touchdown passes and four picks this season, but he's never been an especially productive touchdown machine throughout his career as a starter. Kubiak's offense is designed to set his quarterback up with shot plays out of play action, but the play action game hasn't been terribly effective, either. One issue is that Houston's line has been more porous than in years past, and that was true even when left tackle Duane Brown, considered to be one of the best in the game, was healthy. Brown was out against Baltimore, and backup Ryan Harris was handled with distressing ease by the Ravens' pass-rushers, most notably Terrell Suggs.
For Schaub, the interception he threw that was returned for a touchdown by linebacker Daryl Smith was especially galling. If you're going to be an upscale game manager, as Schaub is generally considered to be, making those types of mistakes is out of the question.
“It was a poor read on my part," he said Sunday night. "I made a bad decision, and the guy made a good play. I should have just checked down and thrown to one of my backs. It was a huge turnaround coming right before halftime. We were in a tough, hard-nosed game versus a good opponent, and we can’t make mistakes like that.”
The Texans have another tough game Sunday, when they welcome the Seattle Seahawks to Reliant Stadium. Like the Texans, Seattle's offense is based heavily on play action and the deeper passing plays created by that. But the Seahawks also feature defense that can challenge the most adept quarterback. Hall-of-Fame quarterback Warren Moon, who now works for the team as an analyst, told me Wednesday that part of the problem with Schaub is that he's been asked to do too much, and that's not the ideal plan for this team.
"He's been really solid for them for a long time, but they don't ask him to be an elite quarterback," Moon said. "They ask him to be a game manager. Sometimes, he has to come out of that and be something else when they're behind, but they're really not built that way. They're built to run the football, play great defense, and build the lead. He'll make his big plays off play action. He wouldn't throw the ball over 25 times a game if they had their wish, but in these last few ballgames, he's had to throw it quite a bit because they've been behind. That's not him -- you're getting him out of something that he doesn't do, and they don't practice. He was able to play well in the first two games against San Diego and Tennessee, but he didn't against Baltimore, and he's taking a lot of criticism. They stopped the running game and made him a passer."
I asked Moon about the mechanical and physical deficits that prevent Schaub from becoming one of those special players -- the kind that can operate outside of structure and drag their teams out of craters when it's needed.
"First of all, he's not the most mobile guy in the world, so he's not going to create a whole lot. He can throw the ball on the move, but he's not going to do it because he's avoiding pressure. He doesn't have that extra dimension. And from the pocket, he doesn't have the strongest arm in the world to throw it all over the place. If he were asked to be that type of quarterback, he could probably do it, but that's not what Gary Kubiak has asked him to do since he got there.
"You have to stay within your scheme. It's just like with Colin Kaepernick -- he's not doing the things that he does best. Jim Harbaugh is asking him to do more than he can do as a young quarterback, and you're seeing the result of that. You have to stay within yourself, and that's what the Texans have to do."
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For his part, Seattle head coach Pete Carroll isn't taking anything for granted after studying Houston's offense.
“He’s really good, he’s really accurate, he has a tremendous group to throw to," Carroll said Wednesday. "They have a style of getting the ball down field. It’s really effective. They are such a committed run team, that their passing game is huge and they know to try and strike you dead when they get into play action. So he just does a really nice job. He’s really a pinpoint guy against tight coverage, like the really good guys are. You can be all over a [receiver], and he can put the ball where the receiver is the the only guy who can get it. So we think a lot of him. He’s a pocket guy. A little different. Not going to run around a whole lot. But they handle that system really well.”
With Schaub, "system" seems to be both praiseful and pejorative. He has been an (if not the) ideal quarterback for the offense Houston would prefer to run, but the tag of "system guy" is one that no NFL player wants. It's an implication that without the best circumstances around him, the player will fade away.
When I asked defensive lineman J.J. Watt about his quarterback on Wednesday, even the generally positive Watt seemed to hedge his bets just a bit.
“You know, Matt is a good player," Watt told me. "Obviously, the quarterback is important to any football team. He takes a lot of heat, which is a full team effort. Football is a team game. I mean, the defense, we need to get more takeaways. So you can never put a football game on one player.”
Problem is, in the NFL, the game is frequently put on one player, and that player is the quarterback. And if Schaub can't prove that he's up to that challenge, the Texans will have some hard choices to make in 2014. Schaub is set to make $10 million in base salary, plus $1 million in roster bonuses, which puts the team on the hook for a great deal of money if Schaub isn't the guy.
“I think he’s a winner, and everybody is looking for winners in this business and people that are consistent, and that’s what he’s done," Kubiak told me Wednesday. Yes, but is that enough? Every bit of praise about Schaub seems to be followed by a thought of how everyone needs to play well around him. And for the best quarterbacks, that isn't a constant requirement.