Houston in a Texas-Sized Pickle

Though the ugliness peaked in week six when the Reliant Stadium faithful barbarically cheered Houston quarterback Matt Schaub’s injury, things have been snowballing out of control since about the third week of the season, when the middling Baltimore Ravens slapped around the Texans. Houston’s wins in weeks one and two were the definition of shaky, capitalizing on a late Phillip Rivers implosion in the opener and then sneaking by Tennessee in overtime. So why was Houston already on the road to making tee times in January before Schaub went down? If you’ve watched much of the Texans lately, Mr. Schaub had been doing an admirable Mark Sanchez impression – unable to minimize turnovers nor throw the ball down the field well.

In light of Schaub going down, one would have thought Coach Gary Kubiak would have tabbed backup T.J. Yates, who has shown he has the ability to be a competent NFL quarterback. In case you forgot, Yates has one playoff win on his resume – exactly the same number as Schaub. Instead, without much explanation, Kubiak turned to Case Keenum, a second-year formerly undrafted player who was a standout at the University of Houston. Keenum put up eye-popping numbers at Houston, such as 5,631 yards, 48 touchdowns and only 5 interceptions in his senior season. However, teams at the draft passed on him because he stayed in college two extra years, is undersized at six feet and was thought only able to operate in a spread offense. 

Whether the thought of turning to Keenum amounts to hitting the panic button, the

Texans should have hit as many panic buttons as they could. There were few positive signs coming out of Houston. Presently, the Texans have a minus-11 turnover ratio, tied for 15th in the American Football Conference (AFC). That’s compared to 2012 when they posted a plus-12 turnover ratio – second in the AFC – and in 2011 when it was plus-seven – also second in the AFC. Houston was essentially a rich man’s New York Jets the last two years, a team that stifled opponents with balance, precision and an ability to limit turnovers. Though the Texans have two very talented skill players on offense in WR Andre Johnson and RB Arian Foster, the Texans’ offense has always been spectacularly stable though never explosive. In 2011 and 2012, when the Texans won a combined 22 regular season games, Schaub only surpassed 300 yards in four out of the 26 games he started. Where Schaub excelled was in limiting turnovers, posting 37 touchdowns and 18 picks in those 26 games. In the six games he started in 2013, Schaub kept a similar touchdown clip, producing nine, but his interception numbers spiked to nine as well.

The Texans have also produced vastly different results on the defensive side of the ball. What was a top-seven run defense in the last two years has now slipped to 25th, allowing opponents a scary 122 yards per game on the ground. The Texans have stepped up their game on pass defense, however, only allowing opponents 146 yards per game through the air. This can either be read as one of the few bright signs coming out of Houston or a potential pitfall, as those numbers are a strong candidate for regression. Though the loss of star LB Brian Cushing for the season to a broken leg is a major setback, the Texans also face approximately zero elite running backs the rest of the way so there’s hope they can improve their run defense.

The sample size with Keenum is way too small to read into, but there were some positive signs that emerged from Sunday’s game in which Keenum performed fairly well against an elite Kansas City Chiefs defense. For one, Keenum showed the ability to produce the big play, with four passes going for over 25 yards. For Schaub and Yates, airing it out consisted of a downfield throw deeper than five yards, with their respective passing games limited to check-downs and play-action. Second, Keenum didn’t turn the ball over through the air, which cannot be overstated. Look for Kubiak to further loosen the leash on Keenum and let him take even more chances down the field, especially against less stingy defenses. If he produces consistent success throwing the ball down the field, it will almost certainly be the final nail in the coffin for Schaub. Opposing defenses would for once have to respect Houston as a downfield threat, which would additionally give their running game some

much-needed breathing room.

The AFC has five, clear top teams, but significantly thins out after that, so nine wins may be enough for Houston to sneak into the final playoff spot. Still, they has games remaining against Indianapolis, Denver and New England. They need to avoid slip-ups against lesser opponents, which should never be counted on with a team this inconsistent. Hope is slim in H-town but, on the bright side, the Texans have two games left against Jacksonville. Let’s hope Kubiak keeps playing Keenum so we get to see him put up 500 yards on the Jaguars.

Contact Pete Koehler at [email protected].