Yesterday’s 23-20 overtime loss to Seattle was a microcosm of Gary Kubiak’s tenure in Houston: A mostly-well-executed bread-and-butter game combined with a failure to turn opportunities into points and a fatal predictability on offense that sabotaged the team in the most important moments of the game. It’s a pattern that’s been with Kubiak’s teams since he arrived in Houston in 2006. Through good times and bad times, you can always count on a solid zone-running game paired with an undermanned passing offense and passive decision-making that combines poor clock management, predictable play-calling, and the famed “two-yard pass on third-and-five” to create a team that scores far fewer points than it should and never really competes with the best teams.
How do we fix that? Having watched the Texans fairly regularly over the years, here are my thoughts…
Take decision-making away from Gary Kubiak, somehow. Firing him would be the obvious way to do so, but that leads to a tricky conundrum: Kubiak has built a fine zone-blocking run offense in Houston, and Wade Phillips has built an effective, attacking defense, although landing a historically great player in the draft helps. The real problem here is that new coaches almost inevitably want to run their own schemes, even if it means gutting the talent currently on roster. Sometimes you have to break things down to rebuild them; sometimes breaking things down just results in an even worse team (hello, Josh McDaniels and Eric Mangini). The Texans need to find a way to preserve what’s good about this team while replacing what’s holding it back. (The best example I can think of in recent memory was when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers replaced Tony Dungy with Jon Gruden, but Gruden managed to convince Monte Kiffin to stay on and continue running the defense that Dungy’s Bucs had built their success around.)
Gary Kubiak’s weaknesses are holding this team back. This is what I see those weaknesses as being:
- An extremely uncreative, vanilla offensive gameplan, with no new wrinkles or matchup-specific designs. If you’re a Texans fan, it must be infuriating watching teams like Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers installing a read-option package for Colin Kaepernick, then holding back on unleashing it until the playoffs, or watching Bill Belichick’s staff make chicken salad out of chicken crap every year with whatever receiving talent they find hanging around the facility. Good coaches make the most out of their talent and find ways to exploit matchups. Kubiak does neither. He has his zone run and his small package of play-action passes, and he doesn’t have a plan B. That’s what he runs against every single team, and if it isn’t working, he’s a deer in the headlights. He’s not helped by the team’s apparent refusal to bring in weapons in the passing game, seemingly depending on Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels exclusively since 2006. The NFL is an offensive, passing league nowadays; you can’t be a top team with one quality wide receiver. Drafting DeAndre Hopkins was a huge step in the right direction, but this team is still woefully undermanned in the passing game.
- An inability to close out games. This ties into the first point. I’m convinced that if Gary Kubiak gets a lead– any lead– in the second half, his offensive game plan reverts to “shut down and run out the clock”. Doesn’t matter if it’s 13-10 with 12 minutes left in the third quarter. Kubiak plays to hang on, not to win. Even if this were a viable strategy, it’s hampered by that vanilla offense, because defenses always know what’s coming, and they know how to stop it and get the ball back. (Granted, they’re helped by the fact that Kubiak calls plays with a seeming indifference as to whether or not those plays have a chance to extend the current drive.) Witness yesterday: The Texans didn’t score a single point after halftime.
- A seeming failure to understand that points win games, and that giving up opportunities to score points is giving up opportunities to win. The Texans are consistently one of the most under-performing red-zone teams in the league, particularly when compared to how the offense performs the rest of the time. Part of that is the same predictability that haunts the offensive play-calling. Part of that is occasional play-calling that makes no sense. (Why has Kubiak refused to use Andre Johnson in the red zone for so long, but is now doing things like throwing short crossing routes to Keshawn Martin?) In addition to the play-calling, Kubiak routinely mismanages the clock in the end-of-half/end-of-game situations, always taking the “safer” play. I’m convinced his optimal two-minute drill is “three kneels and take it into the locker room”. You combine these factors and it’s no wonder the Texans always seem to score fewer points than their talent and performance in between the 20s should indicate. Even yesterday is another great example: They ran 88 plays to Seattle’ 58, outgained the Seahawks 476-270, and still managed to lose.
This team simply needs an offensive mind who is willing to attack and be aggressive, who will put the pedal to the floor and make sure a team is put away, not just get a lead and then immediately start running out the clock and hoping for the best. It needs an offensive mind whose philosophy isn’t best described as “bland passivity”. If I were head coach of these team, I would keep the defense and the zone running game, but I would start crafting a more effective, aggressive pass offense almost immediately, and I would be much more aggressive in my play-calling and two-minute drills, actually attempting to sustain drives rather than taking the safe way out every play. Of course, doing so effectively might require this next change.
It’s time to look for Matt Schaub’s replacement. First of all, Schaub is 32 years old. He’s not young, and he’s going to start declining soon. Texans fans might argue the decline has already started, with three straight games in which Schaub has thrown an interception returned for a touchdown. Second, it’s clear that while Schaub is a capable starting quarterback, he’s not much more than that, and as he ages, he’s going to lose even the ability to be that. It’s also clear that Schaub is capable only when placed in ideal positions; if he faces pressure or has to make plays on his own, the results can be disastrous. (In a way, that makes him a perfect fit for a Gary Kubiak offense.) Fortunately for the Texans, the 2014 draft class is deep in quarterbacks, so they can take a prospect in the second or third round with the intent of grooming him for a year to replace Schaub eventually. Someone like David Fales or Zach Mettenberger would probably look better running the offense in 2015. Schaub has his strengths, but he’s an ultimately limited player, and when you combine his limitations with Gary Kubiak’s passive, predictable play-calling, you get… well, you get interceptions that tie the game and result in blowing a 20-3 lead at home.
This article is an opinion piece and I wanted to try to bang it out as quickly as possible, so it isn’t terribly well-sourced. If I had more time, I’d crunch the data on the Texans, because I researched this a few years ago (when I was arguing Kubiak should be fired after that dismal 2010 season) and concluded, for example, that they do in fact score touchdowns far less often than their offensive performance suggests they should.
Even when the Texans were winning the last two years, it was fairly clear that they were never going to get over the hump and be able to compete with the truly great teams until they opened up the offense with more aggressive play-calling and more offensive weapons. Their 2013 season thus far is just throwing into sharp relief what happens when you don’t address those problems in time.