Before Gary Kubiak took over as the Houston Texans’ head coach in 2006, the franchise had endured a tough start to existence. Having been an expansion team in 2002, the Texans predictably stuttered out of the tracks under Dom Capers. Capers started out with a 4-12 season that improved to 7-9 in his third year, but the failings of a 2-14 fourth year in charge resulted in his departure.
A franchise that had endured the failings of David Carr, and many more underwhelming draft picks from the 2002 to 2005 seasons, had long lost the novelty of just having their own franchise to support by the time Kubiak arrived in town. Dysfunction and losing season after losing season replaced excitement with pessimism as Dom Capers led a unit of perennial losers.
Kubiak was arriving to a franchise that didn’t know success. A team that couldn’t see the playoffs. A fanbase that couldn’t recognize winning. It was the perfect setting for a first time head coach. He couldn’t make things worse and any relative success would be viewed in a much greater light because of the darkness the franchise was enveloped in.
Now that is not to take away from Kubiak’s achievements. The former Denver Broncos’ offensive coordinator quickly brought the team to respectability, as they finished the next four seasons with 6, 8, 8 and 9 wins. Kubiak elevated the expectations in Houston, but he also earned enough respect for his work to avoid the same fate as Capers after the 2010 season, when his team finished 6-10.
Although some may point to Peyton Manning’s injury as the primary reason, the Texans were rewarded for sticking with Kubiak in 2011, as he brought them to a 10 win season, their first divisional title and first ever playoff appearance. Not only did Kubiak get them there, but victory over the Cincinnati Bengals brought them into the divisional round on their first attempt.
But that was where the fairytale ended. A 13 point output with quarterback TJ Yates leading the offense ended their journey in Baltimore against the Ravens. Yet, the off-season brought with it great optimism.
Many attributed the Texans’ failings in 2011 to their faltering healthy. With key players such as Matt Schaub, Arian Foster and Mario Williams all dealing with their own injuries at different points during the season, the Texans fan-base couldn’t help but dream about the potential of a fully healthy roster in 2012. Throw in the expected development of JJ Watt, Connor Barwin, Brooks Reed and Glover Quinn, and expectations in Houston had cranked up even further than Kubiak had initially carried them.
Entering this most recent season, the Texans were again expected to win the division and get to the playoffs, but limping out like they had last season wouldn’t represent progress. Long forgotten were the dark days of Dom Capers’ regime. Now the Texans had an easy road to the post-season, as their roster was clearly superior to each of the teams in their division and they were playing in the supposedly weaker conference.
Even considering the departures of Mario Williams, DeMeco Ryans, Eric Winston and the ACL injury to Brian Cushing, the Texans weren’t a team that could be happy with just making the playoffs. Progress was expected because Matt Schaub was fully healthy this time around and JJ Watt had flourished into the defensive player of the year after a historically good regular season.
The Texans again swept past the Bengals in the wildcard round, but then were easily pushed aside by the New England Patriots in the divisional round.
Kubiak’s Texans hadn’t regressed, in fact they had plateaued by reaching the same point of the playoffs in successive seasons. However, they hadn’t met or surpassed expectations this time around. Were the Texans demanding a Super Bowl appearance or victory? No. Were they even demanding a trip to the Conference Championship? No. But at this stage, with plenty of winning permeating through the franchise, the lack of development on the field was a major concern.
When the Patriots dumped the Texans out of the playoffs, they did so by scoring 41 points. An incredible number considering the talent on that side of the ball for the Texans. However, while their defense couldn’t stop the Patriots, their offense was the real problem. They couldn’t sustain drives and scored 15 of their 28 points in the fourth quarter when the game had long been decided.
The Texans are undoubtedly a defensive team, but that doesn’t mean that they can forget the offensive side of the ball. During both of their playoff runs over the past two seasons, it’s the offensive side of the ball that has hurt them the most. Obviously injuries played a major role in 2011, but even if Matt Schaub had been healthy, he showed in 2012 that the offensive setup in Houston is simply too rigid and lacks the dynamism to compete with the better teams in the league.
Kubiak is a former running-back coach, quarterback coach and offensive coordinator. He has watched over the offense as it has grown into a dominant running-team in the regular season that prioritizes the tight-end position in the passing game. The running-philosophy in Houston sets up the play-action pass, that works to perfection because of the consistent execution. The success of the offense is predicated on breakdowns in the defense’s discipline and preparation.
There is no doubt that the system can function on this level, as the Texans offense has ranked in the top 10 in points scored during each of the last four regular seasons. However, once the playoffs come around, teams are fully focused on their preparation and the defenses that make it that far don’t normally lack discipline. For this reason, the Texans’ offense becomes limited and is too rigid to score with flexible offenses such as those of the New England Patriots or Denver Broncos.
Schaub received much of the blame from the general public after the Texans’ most recent early departure in the playoffs, but the reality is that he can only do so much in the offense that was built around him. Andre Johnson is a superstar receiver, but Johnson’s 159 targets last year is nearly double that of Kevin Walter, the team’s second starting receiver who had 71, while tight end Owen Daniels had 123 targets, backup tight end Garrett Graham had 40, running-back Arian Foster had 69 and H-Back James Casey had 48.
Considering Schaub only threw the ball 544 times, that leaves just 31 targets for every other receiving option on the roster.
Now, each of Casey, Foster, Graham and Daniels are very good players in their respective roles, but targets to those players, and to an extent the limited Kevin Walter, are not valuable targets in today’s NFL. Today’s NFL rewards the vertical passing offense that stretches defenses to put pressure on defensive backs. Pulling the defense horizontally with wide formations before attacking the deep part of the field is seemingly the way forward for most successful offenses. Therefore, targets to slower tight ends and running-backs are less valuable than targets going to dynamic receivers who can catch the ball deep down the field or in space underneath.
The Texans appeared to understand that last off-season, when they drafted wide receivers DeVier Posey and Keshawn Martin, while also carrying undrafted rookie Lestar Jean on the roster into the regular season. Those three wide receivers offered the Texans’ offense that dynamic threat that was lacking behind Andre Johnson outside. The potential for more three, four and even five wide receiver sets became a reality rather than just a desired dream.
Yet, Martin, Jean and Posey combined for just 693 snaps in 18 games all season long. After the season, Kevin Walter was released and DeAndre Hopkins was drafted in the first round. Hopkins is a very intriguing addition because he fits the mold perfectly as the complementary receiver to Johnson in the Texans’ current scheme, but he could also be part of a new wide-open offense that will look to spread the defense with more receivers.
If the Texans are simply looking to plug Hopkins into the current offense and keep on moving regardless, then he will never reach his potential and the Texans will already have reached their peak under Kubiak. Their window of easy routes to the playoffs is journeying towards a close. The end may still be a distance away, but Andrew Luck’s development is accelerating with a roster that is upgrading with him, while the Jacksonville Jaguars appear to finally have a winning direction installed.
Because Kubiak has already brought the Texans to this point, his expectations could now start working against him if he doesn’t evolve to push the standard even higher. Would another early exit in the playoffs prove satisfying enough for him to keep his job past this season? After adding all of his guys to the offense at positions of need, the young receivers and veteran Ed Reed, there is really no excuse for Kubiak to not evolve past the previous levels that his team has reached.
The NFL is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business. If a coach such as Lovie Smith can get fired after winning 10 games in the regular season and after a tenure that saw him bring a team without a star quarterback to the Super Bowl, then anyone can be let go in any circumstances that don’t meet expectations. Smith was let go to bring in a head coach who better fits the league’s current offensive, quarterback inclined setup.
If Kubiak fails to adapt his offense and evolve his philosophy the way Smith did, then he could easily be in a new role with a new franchise this time next season.
Comparisons to Dom Capers will no longer flatter him. Weak roster excuses haven’t existed for some time. At this point, it’s all about winning in the playoffs. Not winning the division. Winning in the playoffs.
Success breeds success and expectations will always grow. Nobody settles in the NFL anymore.
You can follow Cian Fahey on twitter @Cianaf