On Gary Kubiak and the Texans’ Next Move

Last Thursday, the Texans lost to the Jacksonville Jaguars to drop to 2-11, all eleven losses coming in a row. The next day, Gary Kubiak was fired.

Houston is my adopted hometown and I’ve lived here through most of Kubiak’s tenure. Here now is a look back on the good and the bad, why he was fired, and what the Texans need to do going forward.

I can’t say I know much about Gary Kubiak the man. He seemed to handle his dismissal with class, taking out a full-page ad in the Houston Chronicle thanking fans for his time there. He came back from a TIA to coach the team, and whether or not that was a good idea, he was unquestionably dedicated to the job in the way a head coach should be. Mike Tanier, for one, thinks he deserved better than the ignominy of being dismissed with three weeks left in a season unmistakably lost.

I can say that, from a strictly performance-based level, his firing was a long time coming. The mistakes that helped lead to the total collapse of the 2013 Texans had always been present in his coaching and in the team. These problems were never addressed, and declines in several key areas this year exposed them badly. Matt Schaub’s cessation of being a capable NFL quarterback, combined with the injuries to Arian Foster, Brian Cushing, and Danieal Manning, revealed a lack of roster depth, lineup holes that had always been present but were covered for by the better players, and an inability to think outside the box to maximize the talent on hand.

I have criticized Gary Kubiak in the past. These criticisms tend to stem from one major problem: The team doesn’t maximize its opportunities or its talent. A coach from an offensive background should not struggle so much in the red zone nor fail to understand that points scored in a two-minute drill are just as valuable as points scored on methodical drives. Far too often, the team drove to the red zone only to stall out with bizarre play calling such as wide receiver screens nine yards out, halfback tosses, or this year against the Chiefs, lining up in an obvious running formation and giving the ball to a fullback who was carrying the ball for the second time this game– and the second time all season.1 Far too often, the team chose to kick on fourth-and-short instead of going for it, even when losing. Far too often, the team had significant clock time and timeouts at the end of a half, and chose the to kneel the ball rather than to use them.

I wonder if being a career backup quarterback affects Gary Kubiak’s coaching mindset. When the backup quarterback is in the game, the mission statement is clear: Don’t try to be a hero. Trust your system and play it safe. If you know your role and manage the game well enough, everything will work out, because you have a good team around you.2

Whether my amateur psychology is true or not doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that this overly conservative, risk-averse philosophy doesn’t work. It works for a backup quarterback, because there, you’re only a placeholder; you’re there to keep the train on the rails until the starter comes back. When you’re the head coach, your mindset has to be different. You are the leader. More than anyone (even the quarterback, arguably), the head coach sets the tone for his team.

A team whose head coach doesn’t believe in aggression, who believes big offensive plays are too risky, who believes that not screwing up is more important than going for the throat, is instilling both a gameplan and a mindset based on fear of failure.

I wrote that earlier blog post in 2011. It links to this Houston Chronicle opinion by Jerome Solomon from 2009 suggesting that Kubiak be fired. He mentions some of the points I’ve made already, but he calls for Kubiak’s dismissal for one reason: His record. The simple fact is that the Kubiak-era Texans had a mediocre record prior to 20113. Their mediocrity was improved by the additions of J.J. Watt, Johnathan Joseph, and Wade Phillips to the defense– by owner ultimatum, not because Kubiak recognized a problem– and their division titles were greased in 2011 by the collapse of the Indianapolis Colts and in 2012 by an easy schedule. People seem to forget that and act like the team made the playoffs for five straight years before this collapse. They were a mediocre team whose defense improved just enough for two seasons to make them a low-end playoff team with no real Super Bowl aspirations.

Even in those two successful years, Kubiak had a striking pattern of baffling play calls and passivity, a mentality that long drives ending in field goals were a fine result, not a disappointment. Because, hey, the important thing is that you got points and didn’t turn the ball over.

If you took out a quarter and offered Gary Kubiak a dollar if you flipped it and he called it correctly, he’d ask if you could just give him the quarter instead, because flipping a coin is too risky.

You can’t beat the best teams in the league settling for quarters, though. And that’s why, even in 2011 and 2012, the Texans lost soundly to the very good teams they faced, rarely having a chance to win the game. I believe Gary Kubiak’s risk-averse nature shied away from the new wrinkles or high-variance strategy an underdog would have to utilize in order to beat a better team. Kubiak’s philosophy on offense seems to be:

  1. Run our offense (inside zone, outside zone, play-action to tight end). Get first down. Repeat.
  2. There is no part 2.

Kubiak never seemed to draw up matchup-specific game plans or to introduce any new wrinkles or trick plays. His philosophy seemed to be, “This offense is our bread and butter, so if it can’t work, we don’t deserve to win.” He was either unable or unwilling to adapt when something wasn’t working, and didn’t seem capable of processing new information.

The Jacksonville post-game press conference was the last straw. Kubiak, for the second time, benched Case Keenum for Matt Schaub, and when Schaub, for the second time, failed to lead a comeback, Kubiak insisted after the game that he might continue to start Schaub for the rest of the season.

That’s right, the head coach thought that, at 2-11, it was more important to re-insert the quarterback who was clearly on the decline and on his way out, than it was to give the young player a chance to grow and develop, and to give the coaches and executives a chance to evaluate him.

Even if Schaub was marginally more effective than Keenum, it is clear that he has lost too much arm strength to be an effective starting NFL quarterback for much longer (if he even still is now). More to the point, the team is 2-11. They have no playoff hopes, and even winning games is counter-productive to their long-term goals at this point. They need to be evaluating young players for the future and deciding whether to consider Keenum their franchise quarterback or to use their high first-round pick (likely the #1 overall) on one. Any decision to start Matt Schaub is indicative of a failure to process context that is a critical weakness in a head coach and that warrants dismissal.

Perhaps Kubiak knew this and deliberately said these things to fall on his sword. Perhaps he truly believed that Schaub was the best option for winning games (even if winning games wasn’t the best option) and thought winning would save his job. Perhaps he just remained loyal to Schaub to the bitter end, having decided that Schaub was his guy, and he came in with his guy and he’s gonna leave with his guy.

Owner Bob McNair fired Kubiak the morning after those comments. It makes sense: As much as McNair might have wanted the coach to finish the season, he was now publicly stating that he would proceed as though his own personal agenda was more important than the franchise’s long-term goals. Kubiak left McNair no choice.

Where McNair goes from here is vital. McNair has said that he wants a coach with NFL experience and head coaching experience, like a Lovie Smith. On the surface, I find this troubling: How does one get NFL and head coaching experience and become available for a job? By being fired from, and thus by definition unsuccessful, at a previous head-coaching job. (Which is in fact what happened to Lovie Smith.) I worry we might get someone like Mike Shanahan, whose conduct over the last year has made me seriously question his fitness as a head coach: first by grossly mismanaging RG3’s health in the playoff game– and blaming it on the team doctors and the quarterback himself!– and then by all the strangely timed leaks about his dissatisfaction with the owner and how he scuttled his previous plans to quit out of some sense of nobility. Leaders don’t deflect responsibility, and the “Since you’re going to fire me, I’ll just tell you that I was planning to quit earlier, but I stayed anyway because the team needed me!” sounds more like something Alan Partridge might say.

But then I heard Stanford’s David Shaw mentioned as a candidate. He has never held an NFL head coaching job, but he has nine years of experience as a position coach in the NFL. Shaw seems like he would be a fine choice; I don’t know much about him myself, but he seems to have the respect of football minds and has done a fine job taking over for Jim Harbaugh at Stanford, even post-Andrew Luck.

The important point is that Shaw’s career is on an upward trajectory. To me, that’s more important than hiring a retread: Hire someone who is forward-thinking, who is young enough to adapt, and who has some chance of taking the NFL by storm. Chip Kelly never held an NFL job before 2013, but I can promise the Texans wouldn’t be 2-11 with him as coach. I don’t know if there’s another Chip Kelly out there, but Gus Malzahn and Art Briles are the next-best things, and Briles is just a few hours up the road in Waco. I urge McNair to at least try to get an interview with them. He might be pleasantly surprised.4 Offense wins games, and I think someone who is offensively creative and tries to maximize the skill sets of his players is necessary to winning in the NFL.

I would make an exception for one defensive coach if he becomes available (who would also fit McNair’s criteria), and that’s Rex Ryan. If the Jets fire him, I think he’d jump at the chance to work with J.J. Watt (and potentially a Watt-Clowney tag-team), and the defense could be better than it’s ever been. Ryan is, as far as I can tell, a brilliant defensive mind hamstrung by a lack of offensive talent. Of course, I don’t know how much that lack of talent is his fault or the GM’s fault, and I also know that, even in this case, I still want the team to hire a young, innovative mind as offensive coordinator to maximize whatever the team has there going forward.5

Oh, and please don’t hire Wade Phillips. He is the opposite of everything the next head coach should be: he is an old retread stuck in his ways. He was a failure at three head coaching jobs, and in case anyone in Texans management forgot how uninspiring and underachieving he’d been in three previous full-time stops (as well as two other interim jobs), he gave them another demonstration by blowing the Indianapolis game in the second half6 and then losing out until Kubiak came back.

I don’t have any ill will toward Gary Kubiak. I’m not emotionally invested in the team in a way that I would wish bad things on an employee who did not perform. For his sake, though, he’d better recognize that passing runs the day now. He ought to look around and see the most successful coaches of his day are the ones who are creative and aggressive in their game-planning. He ought to look at Advanced NFL Stats’ win probability calculator and fourth-down calculator, because even if they’re not perfect, they can give him a strong idea of how misguided his decision-making has been. He ought to look at the example of Ron Rivera, another coach who inexplicably went into a passive shell with a talented team and caused them to give away games for two-plus years. One day in 2013, the light came on, Rivera began recognizing that his quarterback was a great asset in fourth-and-short situations, and that you win more games by taking the chances necessary to put teams away (or to come back from behind if you’re losing). The Carolina Panthers won eight games in a row this way and look like an easy lock for the playoffs and a top-five team. I hope Bob McNair considers all of this when choosing the Texans’ next head coach, and I hope Gary Kubiak takes it all to heart at his next stop.

I hope Gary Kubiak is more successful at his next job, but to be so, he must learn from his mistakes. If he doesn’t, he certainly won’t get eight years to try to figure it out again. And he probably won’t get a third chance.

1

In Kubiak’s defense, he had no healthy tailbacks that day. But that traces back to his decision to carry only two tailbacks on the 53-man roster, knowing one of them was playing through injury: His third-string tailback, Cierre Wood, was sent home before the game and then released immediately afterward for an unspecified violation of team rules. Time has confirmed that my suspicions it was a flailing attempt to instill a “no one is safe” mentality to rally the team. Ironically, the Texans were stuffed on four tries at the goal line and lost by one; perhaps Wood might have scored where Jones failed.) back

2

If so, Jason Garrett apparently suffers from the same thing. Perhaps no statistic better exemplifies that than the fact that the Cowboys were the last team to go for it on a fourth down all year, and that only happened once they were down three touchdowns to the Bears late in the third quarter. (The previous drive, when they were down two touchdowns and facing fourth-and-4 from the Bears’ 41, apparently was not the right time.) back

3

37-43 in five seasons. back

4

Hiring a college coach can certainly go wrong: Even if Mike Glennon is playing better and the Bucs have won four of five, I’m sure the team regrets hiring Greg Schiano (though, bizarrely, he may have saved his job with this streak). That is why I stress innovation and results. Malzahn and Briles are offensive innovators who put up tremendous results in every situation compared to their predecessors. Schiano had a mediocre record and was not known as an “innovator”, but as a “disciplinarian”, which is what “old-school football” fetishists call a petty, controlling bully. back

5

Ryan’s offensive coordinators with the Jets were Marty Mornhinweg, Tony Sparano, and Brian Schottenheimer. No more of that, please. back

6

This comparison might tell you all you need to know about what uninspiring and ineffective leaders Kubiak and Phillips are and were. When Kubiak had his TIA in the Indianapolis game, and Phillips presided over a second-half choking of a 21-3 halftime lead, the reports that came out afterward, and the announcers’ observations during the games, were that the team looked “shell shocked” and like “the life had gone out of them.” Now compare this to last year’s Indianapolis Colts: When Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia, Bruce Arians took over and rallied the team around him, to the point that “one-two-three Chuck” became the team’s call for breaking practices and huddles. The Colts won eleven games and a playoff berth because Bruce Arians was enough of a leader to not let the team give up on the season, and Chuck Pagano inspired the kind of loyalty to his players that made him an effective rallying point. Kubiak does not inspire that kind of loyalty, and Phillips does not exert that kind of leadership. back

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5 thoughts on “On Gary Kubiak and the Texans’ Next Move

  1. I think that’s a little too harsh on the 2011 team. Sure, the Colts collapse helped, but those Texans beat the Steelers, Falcons, and Bengals (all playoff teams) during the regular season. And while Schaub was hardly a top-flight QB then, I think it’s safe to say that team would have won at least two more games, maybe three, if he hadn’t gotten hurt. And that defense was good enough that with an average NFL QB, the Texans were a Super Bowl contender.

    Anyway, of course I’m happy that Kubiak is gone, and share the wish for an innovative thinker. I hope Rick Smith is out too, though–because to me the bigger problem was the Schaub extension rather than Schaub himself, especially inasmuch as it meant losing guys like Ryans, Barwin, Winston, etc. (I personally do not miss Dunta Robinson!)

    What about the draft? Do you think the QB class is deep enough to take Clowney and then a QB at 33?

    • Ha, I usually try to get to comments sooner than this.

      You’re probably right that the 2011 team was better than I’m giving them credit for, and losing Schaub really hurt their playoff hopes. My real point there, though, is that the improvements weren’t really due to Kubiak at all, and bought him a stay of execution he probably didn’t deserve.

      I have mixed feelings on Rick Smith, which makes sense because he’s done a very mixed job as GM. I’m not sure what to do with him. He probably has to go on balance– the cap situation and the lack of roster depth are the big problems now that Kubiak is gone, and really, he’s responsible for all three.

      At this point in time, I would take Teddy Bridgewater #1 if he declares, but if he stays in school, I’m taking Clowney over any of the other prospects. I don’t think a guy like Tajh Boyd is much of a dropoff from a Derek Carr. Zach Mettenberger was a guy I really liked and expected to rise throughout the process, but his ACL injury really scuttled that. The Texans might be able to draft him late anyway and start a veteran for a year while they rebuild the team’s depth and clean up the cap mess.

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