Can Matt Schaub pull himself out of the rut and save the Texans’ season (and maybe his job)? A veteran quarterback explains the mental toll of mistakes—how they can build on one another and ruin a player’s confidence
Editor’s note: Quarterback Sage Rosenfels had an 11-year NFL career, mostly as a backup, including two years as a teammate of Matt Schaub’s in Houston.
By Sage Rosenfels
Recently, I’ve been asked by friends, current and former players, coaches, and even my son, “What’s wrong with Matt Schaub?” I struggle for an answer. I don’t think there is anything wrong with his mechanics. Watching from afar, it seems the offense Houston is running still uses the same battle-tested concepts I remember from my time with the team that head coach Gary Kubiak has used for years. The Texans still have a lot of talent on the team and have continued to run the ball well, throw for a lot of yards and play solid defense. So why the interceptions, and why the four straight games with a pick-6, the deadly interception run back for a touchdown?
I spent the past few days trying to figure out why, at what seems to be the most inopportune times, Schaub has thrown interceptions, causing a team with Super Bowl aspirations to be in soul-searching mode—and, according to Kubiak, maybe even quarterback-searching mode. The only thing I can do is relate this to a situation I went through as a player and how it affected me.
It was Week 5 of the 2008 NFL season and we, the Texans, were winless at 0-3 (we had an early bye week that year). The previous season I had played the best football of my career as a backup to Schaub. I ended the year with a 4-1 record as a starter. Matt kept his starting job, and I was again relegated to the backup role, a position I always accepted, but not as graciously this time because I had played so well the year before. As we entered the game against the Peyton Manning-led Indianapolis Colts, I found out at the team breakfast that Schaub had come down with the flu in the middle of the night and there was a good chance I would be playing. I wasn’t officially told I would be the starter until about 90 minutes before kickoff. I was excited to get back out there and show I could turn our team’s fortunes around. I also knew there was a huge challenge in front of my team and me. But I hadn’t practiced with the first team since training camp. And so starting a game against a premier team with no practice reps is not an ideal situation.
For the first 56 minutes of the game, I played the best game of my life. High school, college, NFL. Hands down. We built a 27-10 lead early in the fourth quarter. Manning led a touchdown drive to score with 4:04 to go, and the Colts onside-kicked. But we recovered. We ran two running plays to run off some clock as the Colts burned their first two timeouts. On 3rd-and-8 at the Indianapolis 39, we decided to run a bootleg to the left. I got to the edge and saw nothing but green grass in front of me. Run it, I thought. A Colts cornerback left the tight end he was covering and came up to make the tackle. Rather than playing it conservative, I made the split-second decision to try and dive over the cornerback and hopefully land near a first down. This is what I had always done in the past, so my instinct told me to go for it rather than slide. When you are a backup quarterback fighting every year for a roster spot, earning respect and turning heads by pushing the envelope is one of the reasons I had made it in the league to that point.
What happened next changed everything.
As I leaped over the defender, Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis hit me while I was in midair and spun me around. I lost most of my senses and the ball before I hit the ground. Linebacker Gary Brackett returned the loose ball 68 yards for a touchdown. Now we led only 27-24. Shocked by what just happened, I got strip-sacked by Mathis on the next possession, and Manning took two plays to get the Colts in the end zone. Colts, 31-27. I got picked again on our last possession.
My crown jewel moment? No. In only a few minutes, it became my worst nightmare.
Mentally, getting beyond that game was nearly impossible. I was disappointed that I let my team down. I knew I missed a huge opportunity to possibly be the starter going forward. It was difficult to look my teammates, coaches and even support personnel in the eye. I knew how hard everyone worked to create a winning organization, and I carelessly threw it away. The moment and game burned deep into my conscience, and it was a challenge for me to focus about anything else. This game haunted me for months.
I ended up having four more starts for the Texans that year and went 2-2, but my confidence was still shaken, as I battled day to day to get over what happened months before. I was more game-manager than playmaker. My play was tentative. I didn’t want to screw up again. I played overly conservative, which led to worse results. I couldn’t wait for the offseason so I could get away from football and regain my confidence.
Fast forward to 2013. I am retired from playing, and I'm watching one of my old teams, the Houston Texans. They are playing a Super Bowl contender, Seattle, and have built a strong lead heading into the fourth quarter. With a few minutes left, Schaub gets called to run a bootleg on a key third down to possibly ice the game. He gets pressure, and instead of taking a sack or throwing it away he attempts to make a play and throws a lofted ball into traffic. It ends up going the other way for a touchdown. A week later he threw another pick-6 90 seconds into a huge game at San Francisco. Heartbreaking loss, again. On the news, fans were shown burning his jersey and booing him. There were calls for his benching despite having been the franchise quarterback for roughly six years and owning nearly every quarterback record in the team’s young history. Pro Bowls, passing records, playoff runs, and being a captain of the team are all disregarded by many fans because of some very untimely turnovers that might have cost the Texans some early-season wins.
Whether the fans are right in asking for Schaub’s benching or if he gives the Texans the best chance to win is not the reason I am writing this article. My point is to give you an inside look at what might be going through a player’s head after a handful of devastating mistakes. These can overwhelm a player and cause more bad things to happen. It is a huge challenge to get out of that mental rut, but it is possible. I’m not sure what’s going on in Schaub’s head as he battles through a difficult stretch in his career. What I do know is the experience I went through and the challenge and perseverance it took to overcome it.
Being that I played the best football of my NFL career in Houston under Gary Kubiak, I am rooting for the Texans to get back on track. Having played with Schaub for two years and knowing how mentally strong and dedicated he is to his team and his profession, I believe he will get his play turned around soon. But only one person, Matt himself, knows his confidence level after being mentally battered early this season. And the mental part of the game, the part no one sees, plays such a big part of success and failure in the NFL. I know. I’ve felt it.