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Houston, we have a problem!

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Neil Reynolds | 11:57 UK time, Tuesday, 15 December 2009

At the halfway point of the 2009 season, the Houston Texans had won five of their eight games and looked set to compete for a play-off berth for the first time in Gary Kubiak's four years as head coach.

And then the wheels came off for a team that seems to find it impossible to win big games when the chips are down.

The Texans twice lost games they should have won against the undefeated Indianapolis Colts and also suffered reverses at the hands of the Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars.

That four-game losing streak saw made Houston long shots to reach the play-offs as a wild-card team. They are, once again, on the outside looking in.

The Texans snapped that losing run in emphatic fashion on Sunday, romping to a 34-7 win over the struggling Seattle Seahawks.

That's what these Texans do - they wait until the season is virtually over and then they go on a meaningless winning run that makes everyone think they are the hot team to watch the following season.

They started the 2008 campaign with only three wins from their first 10 but manaed to finish 8-8. And in 2007 they won three of their last four after a very poor first half to post an 8-8 mark.

The late revivals have kept head coach Kubiak in employment because each season he manages to convince his bosses the Texans are just a play or two or a win here and there away from being a Super Bowl contender.

Matt Schuab and Gary KubiakMatt Schuab and Gary Kubiak have struggled to make the Texans a consistent team

There is no doubt this is a talented team and one that is exciting to watch. Quarterback Matt Schaub loves to throw the ball downfield and wide receiver Andre Johnson is a physical beast who is virtually impossible to cover. If he talked and jabbered like most of the guys who play at his position, Johnson would get a lot more headlines.

Defensively, there are also some big playmakers stepping up each weekend for the Texans. Defensive end Mario Williams and the young linebacker duo of DeMeco Ryans and Brian Cushing are cornerstones upon which a potentially dominant unit could be built.

Yet for some reason these Texans cannot put it all together when it matters the most. And that's why people are starting to point fingers at Kubiak, even though his background as an offensive coordinator means Houston are one of the most exciting teams in the NFL to watch.

Kubiak spent his entire playing career with the Denver Broncos, as the back-up for John Elway, starting just five games but appearing on the sidelines in three Super Bowls.

He can draw up a play in the ground and get you 20 yards at a drop of a hat, but he seems to have serious trouble instilling mental toughness in a set of players who appear flaky and prone to crumbling under pressure.

The two games against the Colts are perfect examples.

The Texans fought hard in both games but came away empty-handed. It was almost as if the players expected something to go wrong and knew there was no way they were coming out on top against the undefeated but there-for-the-taking Colts.

In game one, the Texans led 17-13 in the final period but allowed the Colts to regain the advantage with a late touchdown. But they still managed to get into position to take the game into overtime and sent Kris Brown trotting onto the field with just seconds remaining to attempt a 42-yard kick that would have forced sudden death.

What happened next was, in itself, another example of the Texans' inability to handle pressure. Earlier in the game when the stakes were not so high, Brown had landed a mammoth 56-yard field goal. But this time around, with the game on the line, he sent his very makeable effort sailing wide left.

In game two in Houston, the Texans had the Colts right where they wanted them with a commanding 20-7 lead at the half. Schaub was in outstanding form, completing 14 of 17 passes for 152 yards and one touchdown in the opening 30 minutes.

But in the second half, Schaub threw two interceptions and lost a fumble and the Colts out-scored Houston 28-7 to win 35-27.

Supporters of Kubiak, a group which who it should be noted includes his players, suggest he has worked wonders in building a contender from a club that posted just two wins in 2005.

That may be true and 8-8 may be an acceptable return for some teams, but this is a squad that could and should be much better. So owner Bob McNair has a decision to make.

Stick with Kubiak and hope the bounces start to go your way (the four recent losses came by an average of 4.75 points) or go out and find a head coach who can get inside the players' heads, make them believe in themselves and get them over the hump?

Kubiak would argue, as you would expect, for more time. If the Texans can turn those close losses into wins in 2010, they will be a playoff team. And they will have a couple of key offensive players back from season-ending injuries in running back Steve Slaton and star tight end Owen Daniels.

In any other season, when most of the head coaching candidates would be emerging offensive and defensive coordinators, I would expect the Texans to stick with Kubiak and give him time to produce a playoff team.Mike Shanhan

But this is not going to be any other off-season. Some big-name, Super Bowl-winning coaches are lurking in the shadows - Bill Cowher, Mike Shanahan (whose son, Kyle, is offensive coordinator in Houston), Mike Holmgren, Jon Gruden and Brian Billick.

Some of those guys have television gigs at the moment but could surely be tempted back to the sidelines in the right situation.

And it could be hard for McNair to ignore a group of head coaching candidates with such outstanding pedigree.


  • Comment number 1.

    They aren't going to make the post-season and Kubiak goes this year, I'm afraid.

    I think the most notable point about the 4 consecutive losses is that they were all to divisional rivals. Not sure the precise stats, but the Titans and Colts have dominated the Texans for several years, and the fact Houston never make the post-season rather suggests that they struggle in these most important games.

    So perhaps it's less that the Texans don't have big-game temperament, and more that they are weighed down by the fact they win so rarely against their closest rivals. Maybe it's psychological, maybe it's that they get routinely out-coached, but it is a clear pattern and it costs Houston every year.

    Another thing this year is that Houston cannot run the ball. Slaton was a bust before his injury, and it's no secret that without a running game, there's no way to manage the clock. Against a team like the Colts, that's a huge problem, even with a 17 point lead.

    There was talk that they might sign Larry Johnson, you can understand why they didn't... but new coach or not, next year the running game has to be upgraded.

  • Comment number 2.

    I think you can tie it all together in a nice, neat little bow. During last week's stomping of the Seahawks, Kubiak unleashed and emphasized the team's talented air attack, led by Andre Johnson. He did not even -- as he often does -- back off and start playing ball control (read: running) offense once we got a lead. Magically, the lead just kept expanding and the game was over at halftime.

    The problem with Kubiak is that, despite having a great passing team, he always wants to recreate the Denver teams that he assisted for that ran the ball most of the time. Even when his only options at back are retreads like Brown or 3rd down size backs like Slaton, he wants to run the ball all the time. So he actually handcuffs his powerful offense by forcing it into traditional, conservative playcalling where the run has to be established before passing opens up. The irony being that Houston burned Seattle last week on the first play by simply throwing deep. No need to set that up with a run. Kubiak just refuses to play some of the nice cards in his hand as often as he could. If I were him this would be a dominant passing team, not some goody "balanced" attack.

    You also have to question how Kubiak manages games. Usually what happens in games like the one he blew against the Colts a few weeks back is that, once he gets a lead (usually by passing), he tries to milk the clock by running the ball. But the running attack can't sustain enough drives and the Texans end up punting. Against a powerful offense like the Colts', you start providing opportunities to come back, and they often get taken. I mean, can you really "run out the clock" on Peyton Manning? No, his offense will get down the field too quick. It's all misguided. And the irony is that if he left his foot on the offensive gas and kept passing -- like he did against Seattle -- perhaps they blow the opposition out and it's not even close. His "clock" tactics keep the score down and the opposition competitive.

  • Comment number 3.

    Before we consider these new pearls of wisdom, would you like to revisit your September piece about Reggie Bush being washed up now that the Saints are 13 - 0 with Bush playing an integral role in the Saints offense all season? That might gives us folks a baseline for assessing the quality of the punditry on offer here.

  • Comment number 4.

    Ahhh the modern sports fan craving instant success. It doesn't work like that very often. Look at any sport and the best teams stick with their manager for the long haul. NFL franchises that have done this have, on average, been more succesful than those that chop and change at a whim.

    You article is also in complete contrast to one posted elsewhere on the web that points out that past Superbowl managers rarely go on to have similar levels of success again. So there is no guarantee that any of the 6 former Superbowl winning managers potentially on the marker would deliver overnight success to Houston or any other team.

  • Comment number 5.

    apxt505... Always happy to defend my punditry!! While I do that, it might be worth you taking a quick look back and re-reading my September piece on the 'demise of Reggie Bush.'

    Actually, to save you some time... here are a few excerpts... you will see that what I was actually saying was that Bush is not and never will be an every down feature back in the NFL. He is a luxury player and drafting him as high as the Saints did might have been a high price to pay.

    But that is a different argument. Some might suggest he is worth what the Saints invested in him because he is making plays on the best offense in the game.

    I am not disputing that... my original article merely said Bush is not capable of being a feature back and many expected him to become that when he came out of college. He has never carried more than 13 times in a game this season (Week 3) and is more often around the 5 or 6 carries per game mark. He also chips in with 4 or 5 receptions per game.

    Would you compare that favourably to the contributions being made by the likes of Chris JOhnson in Tennessee and Adrian Peterson in Minnesota, who is still one of the best in the league despite taking something of a back seat to Favre this season.

    Bush is exciting to watch but I cannot see him ever being considered one of the best in the NFL... and many were predicting he would become that at some point in his career. The contribution level he is making now is about what we can expect for the rest of his days in the NFL, in my opinion.

    Here are the excerpts from my original column...

    "And now more than ever, Bush looks like being a luxury player and little more than that - he is someone who can carry the ball 10 times per game, catch five or six passes and return punts.

    With his speed and moves, Bush is a highlight reel play waiting to happen. But there is more to being an NFL running back than that. It's also about heart and passion - there are times when you have to lower your head and plough forward for a two or three-yard gain. Grinding out those tough yards is an every-down runner's bread and butter.

    With Bush in his fourth season, I'm not ready to paint him as a complete bust - he is too talented for that. But I also don't think we'll ever feature him in discussions about the best running backs in the business."

  • Comment number 6.

    I wouldn't defend everything you write, Neil, especially not your predictions(!), but you were right about Reggie Bush not performing to the level his draft-pick suggested he should.

    Will be very interesting to see what happens this off-season with Bush. I'd not be at all surprised to see another team look at a player with Bush's mercurial skill and show him the money that Payton won't. He's got the potential to be a game-changer, and can add spark to any offense. Of course the Saints are the one franchise least in need of this sort of talent.

  • Comment number 7.

    "Ahhh the modern sports fan craving instant success."

    No its not Chris the Texans have every right to expect post-season football.
    6-10 in 2006.
    8-8 in 2007
    8-8 in 2008

    It looks again this year that they will be an 8-8 team, if this is the eventual outcome then Kubriak has to go because it shows the team have become stagnated and he has taken as far as he can.

    Imperiative, add to poor play-calling also. The RB half-back pass versus the Jags was a shocking play-call especially as the Texans had drove down to 5 and had got a first down.

  • Comment number 8.

    The Same Eddie George... You're right - there is no defending my picks this year.

    They have been occasionally correct, often average and unfortunately, very very poor !

    I blame the NFL and their 'Any Given Sunday' approach which makes picking games so hard :-)

  • Comment number 9.

    All said about Reggie Bush, the Saints' use of RBs remains guesswork and might be contributing to his underachieving - They have three decent tail-ends.

    Pierre Thomas (5.3), leads Reggie Bush (5) and Mike Bell (4.2) in average YPC, yet Bell is the highest recipient of Brees' hand-offs. Bush, meanwhile, seems to be the RB targetted most for their passing game. Thomas seems to be the flex option, despite being the more productive in both plays. Yet can we predict how Sean Payton is going to deploy his backfield? I can't, which makes Fantasy Football ownership of any of them a nightmare!

    I suspect Bush would benefit from from a set-up like the one Chris Johnson has at Houston, or Jamaal Charles at Kansas ("Hike, running left, AGAIN, hike, hike") before deciding this argument.

  • Comment number 10.

    *Correction: Chris Johnson at the Titans. But I like the way I brought the discussion full-circle back to Houston!


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