After the Houston Texans fired head coach Gary Kubiak on Friday morning, the flares went up almost immediately: The chase to replace Kubiak would be a highly competitive one because the Houston franchise is a dynamite quarterback and the right kind of coach away from a serious and long-time return to contention.
The evidence for this optimism is impressive. In the two seasons before 2013's landslide, the Texans won the AFC South each year and compiled a 22-10 record over that time. There has been no team to take over the division in the wake of the Texans' demise: The Indianapolis Colts are impressive at times, but struggle just as often, and the Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars are impressive but unfinished rebuilding projects.
The common perception seems to be that if the Texans get the right head coach and take one of a few potential franchise quarterbacks with what very well could be the first overall draft pick (Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater comes to mind), this is a team set for a resurgence much like the Kansas City Chiefs have enjoyed this season. Kansas City replaced Romeo Crennel and Matt Cassel with Andy Reid and Alex Smith and shot up the charts from their 2-14 season in 2012 to their current 9-3 record.
At the press conference announcing Kubiak's firing, owner Bob McNair and general manager Rick Smith added to that choir of voices by insisting the Texans are just a few steps away from an impressive turnaround.
"We don’t have to do a lot to get us back on track," McNair said in an obvious vote of confidence for Smith. "We’re going to do everything we can to do that, and we expect to be right back in playoff contention next year. This is not a long-term rebuilding process. I want to make that clear. We’ve got core players who are outstanding players, and we still need to fill a few holes. We had some injuries that hurt us in key positions, in terms of leadership on the field. We have some things that we need to do, but we’ve still got a good core group of players that can make for an outstanding team.”
Smith said the Kubiak firing was Step One in what clearly needs to be a re-assessment of where the team is right now.
"We’ve got to right the ship and that’s what this decision unfortunately is about, but we’ve got to move forward as an organization," he said. "I’m confident that [interim head coach and defensive coordinator] Wade [Phillips] will have our team prepared and we’ll continue to evaluate every player, every coach, every process. You’ve got to really be honest and look at what you’re doing and why you’re doing what you’re doing to assess whether or not it’s been production. Clearly, right now, we have not been productive over the last 11 weeks, and we have to figure out why.”
It all sounds good on paper. The Texans signed quarterback Matt Schaub to a four-year, $62 million contract extension in September of 2012 after a 2011 season in which he finished fifth in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics for quarterbacks. It was a high watermark and an outlier year, but it's tough to blame Smith entirely for tying Schaub to the franchise, especially since the Texans engineered an out clause in the deal that will likely have Schaub moving on after the 2013 season.
And Smith has hit on some impressive draft selections over the last few years -- 2011 first-round pick J.J. Watt has been the league's best defensive player over the last two seasons, and 2010 first-rounder Kareem Jackson has developed into one of the better cornerbacks you'll see -- and hitting on undrafted assets like Arian Foster and Case Keenum certainly adds to Smith's cachet.
However, in the lower rounds of the draft over the last few seasons (where most depth is built on NFL teams), Smith's record of success is spottier, and that's what could keep the Texans from becoming a worst-to-first story like the Chiefs. Kansas City had five Pro Bowlers on defense in 2012 despite its league-worst record; Houston has two healthy sure things at that level -- Watt and defensive end Antonio Smith. Linebacker Brian Cushing would be the third sure thing, but he's seen each of his last two seasons end early due to injuries.
The Texans have struggled to find a dominant edge-rusher over the last few years, though they've certainly put enough effort into the process. They took Arizona endbacker Brooks Reed in the second round of the 2011 draft, but outside of his long hair and Pac-10/12 history, Reed has done little to resemble Clay Matthews with his 10.5 sacks over three seasons. Illinois pass-rusher Whitney Mercilus was the 2012 plan in the first round, and his six sacks per season is a bit more impressive but not quite at the level one would expect for that draft collateral. Houston tried to augment that role with LSU's Sam Montgomery in the 2013 draft, but he was released in October for violating team rules.
While the cornerback rotation seems to be on lock with Jackson and Johnathan Joseph, Houston has been through quite the safety dance of late, with inconsistent results at best. The attempt to resuscitate Ed Reed as an elite deep cover man failed miserably, and losing Danieal Manning to a fractured fibula was certainly a blow. Shiloh Keo has been decent in coverage at times, which is commensurate with his fifth-round status, but second-round rookie D.J. Swearinger has plastered his occasionally brilliant play with frustrating coverage and tackling lapses, not to mention a penchant for boneheaded penalties -- especially in Thursday night's loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, when he was flagged three times for 35 yards.
Perhaps the most disturbing element for a team so dependent on a power zone running game is the clear decline of the Texans' offensive line. Left tackle Duane Brown, rightly considered to be among the game's best in recent years, has clearly slipped in performance. He didn't allow a single sack in 2011, per Pro Football Focus' metrics, but he's given up seven total in the two seasons since. That's not a huge number, but it's especially disconcerting when you consider that the Texans roll to their right on passing plays as much or more than any other NFL team. That puts extra pressure on the right tackle, a position that's been a mixed bag for the Texans. Ryan Harris and Derek Newton have performed decently, but decently isn't enough for a roll-right offense that wants to pummel opponents into submission.
In short, there are reasons for Houston's face plant that go far beyond Kubiak losing the team or Schaub regressing at a crazy rate. And now that Kubiak has been cleared out of the way, the responsibility for a team transformation falls squarely on Rick Smith's shoulders. Based on recent indicators, it's no sure thing that the 2014 Texans will be the 2013 Chiefs -- or anything close to that.
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