Game Time: Defend Gary Kubiak? I'll Take A Stab At It
Much has been made about Gary Kubiak's alleged hell, fire and brimstone speech he gave to the Texans in Saturday's team meeting before Sunday's workmanlike 34-7 win against the Seattle Seahawks. Actually, I didn't see the speech, so to portray it as "win one for the Gipper 2009" may not be entirely accurate; let's just say by all accounts Kubiak spoke from the heart and reached a corner of his team's emotional ticker that he had yet to reach this year.
To be fair, Kubiak was not tooting his own horn when the subject of this speech came up after Sunday's game; he was asked about it in the post-game press conference. Should Gary Kubiak's ability to pull this emotional rabbit out of a hat effect our assessment of him? Not really. To me the fireside chat with his team was an interesting anecdote, no more, no less. Let's be real -- it was the SEATTLE SEAHAWKS. Gary Kubiak's firing up the pep-talk jukebox for Matt Hasselbeck and company is a little like giving your buddy a boost to dunk on a seven-foot goal -- a pretty funny visual, but in the end probably not necessary.
I've been as critical of Kubiak's game management as anybody. He's gone conservative at times clamoring for aggressiveness (like setting up the final field-goal attempt against Tennessee on Monday Night Football), he's gone aggressive on downs where three yards and a cloud of dust would have done just fine (3rd-and-1 before the half against Indianapolis here),
and he even managed to go clinically brain-dead at one of the most critical junctures of the season ("Chris Brown rolls out.....oh my God, he's gonna throw it....NOOOOOOOO!!!!!").
Kubiak is the first person to accept blame after a loss, which is noble if not repetitive. While there are times I'd like to see him rip into someone, I understand why he doesn't -- some coaches are wired to succeed amidst constant conflict (Call it the Parcellsian Method; you can ask Terry Glenn about it), some believe harmony breeds success. Kubiak is in the latter
camp, and as a result, to a man, all of his players back him publicly and, of the guys I know on the team, privately as well.
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Bernard Pollard, who off the scrap heap from Kansas City has become a tone-setter for this team in the secondary and an honest voice in the locker room, put it best: "[Kubiak] continued to come in the last few weeks saying it was his fault. No, it is not his fault. We run the ball, we catch the ball, and we make tackles. He doesn't do it. He just puts us in position.
It's on the players to go out there and play. The coaches don't tell us to go out there and hold. The coaches don't tell us to go out there and hit a guy late."
At this point, the Texans are 6-7 and while a fortunate loss by the Jaguars yesterday and the Steelers' continued downward spiral have raised hopes for 7-6/6-7 sludge everywhere in the AFC, if the Texans make the playoffs it's going to be because they swept the board at the end of the season and woke up on January 4 as the tallest midget. Forget the playoffs, the storyline hanging over the balance of 2009 is "What do we do with Kubiak?"
Understanding that how the team performs in the final three games will be a part of the criteria (i.e. a loss to St. Louis this Sunday probably negates anything I'm about to say), the overriding question is "Do you feel like the Texans are close to being a playoff team?" If you don't, then you would most assuredly fire Kubiak. If you do, I truly believe the next question is
"Who gives the Texans a better chance to succeed in 2010? Kubiak or [fill in name of new guy here]?"
I don't care if the new guy is Bill Cowher, Brian Billick, or Jesus Christ himself (and to be clear, it won't be any of them or anyone in the same tax bracket), they're going to want to implement their own system and bring in their own guys, giving them an understood "transition window." And keep in mind, this isn't college football where a head coach effecting winning right away is much closer to a sure thing; Cowher had a few clunkers along the way
in Pittsburgh before he finally won a Super Bowl. (Skeptics will say "What if they bring in Mike Shanahan? He runs the same stuff as Kubiak." For some reason, this feels too much like a little leaguer giving up seven runs in the first inning so his father goes in to pitch the rest of the game for him and clean up his mess. Just too weird to happen.)
What ultimately will get Gary Kubiak fired might be his division record (5-19 since taking over in 2006), which is as much a reflection of the division's stoutness as it is Kubiak's shortcomings. We've all agonized all season over how close most of the losses have been, but if you're looking for a couple more baby steps, then know that the Texans are taking care of business against the teams they are supposed to (split with the Titans, beat the Bills, Seahawks, 49ers, Raiders, and even mixed in an impressive road win over Cincinnati amidst Cincy's hot start) and the losses have all come to teams .500 or better (if you count the VY Titans as being above .500 and a different group than the Collins Titans, which I know roughly four million of you do).
You may not want to hear this, Texans Fan, but that's progress. Ask anyone who's lost to the Raiders this season.
People who want Kubiak fired will say that he makes just enough mistakes to ensure that he can't beat teams that are .500 or better; people who back Kubiak will say that winning consistently is a learned process and one breakthrough in a tight game will be the tonic the team needs to go to the next level.
People who want Kubiak fired will say "You can't fire the players!"; people who back Kubiak will say "You can fire some of them!" I think this storyline is underplayed in the soap opera that the Texans' season has become. Does Kubiak's endless parade of self-blame each Sunday create an environment where we, as fans and as the media, are holding the players less accountable than we should?
Dunta Robinson has been, at best, mediocre this year. Mario Williams has been disappointing. Amobi Okoye hasn't lived up to top-10 draft-pick status. Jacoby Jones seemingly follows each spectacular play with a play where you think he might actually be a spy for the other team (Signed, Catching Punts Inside the Five Yard Line). Two of the five most soul-crushing plays of the year have been pick-sixes thrown by Matt Schaub. Kris Brown couldn't hit the side of Reliant from Budweiser Plaza right now. And because Gary Kubiak doesn't bring it up (nor should he), I will -- the injuries do matter. The offense right now is without both starting guards, the starting tailback, and its Pro Bowl tight end.
So why not fire some of the players??
Player evaluation, save for a few missteps in free agency and the fact that everyone is still waiting on Amobi, has overall been pretty good under Rick Smith and Kubiak. The talent level of the team is night and day compared to the Casserly Regime. They're going to have a pick somewhere in the teens again in this draft; last year, that netted Brian Cushing, who would be a top-five pick if you did the 2009 draft over again. Do we trust them to make bold moves in a salary-capless season and in the upcoming draft to where they can find a big, downhill runner, a couple of interior lineman (either side of the ball would do), a cover corner, and a ball-hawking safety? Oh, and maybe a new kicker?
The Texans are winning the games they should, damn near winning a few they shouldn't, trust in each other, trust in their coach, and have the look of evolving into a real team. This is a far cry from 2006.
Who gives them a better chance to win in 2010? Kubiak or a REASONABLE replacement?
The line between success and failure in the NFL is slimmer than in any other sport. The same Seattle team the Texans slapped around 34-7 yesterday -- well, they beat up on Jacksonville 41-0 earlier this season. The same Jacksonville team that swept the Texans. My point is that right now, there's about five good teams, eight bad teams, and everyone else. I think the Texans are closer to becoming one of the good teams than they are backsliding to the bad teams.
Barring disaster these last three games, I say let Kubiak have another crack at it in 2010. Playoffs or bust. No playoffs, then GOO' BYE. The clarity will either galvanize the team, or traumatize the team. If it's the former, you did the right thing; if it's the latter, it was never gonna happen anyway.
And if you're Bob McNair, starting January 4, 2010, you make like a college athletics director, and you start your evaluation process now for your "short list" of candidates that should always be right there on your blackberry if your head coach and GM fail. Even quietly, privately reach out to a few of them if they're not currently employed by another team just to check their temperature. Ask for help, seek out educated opinions, and hope you never have to consult the list.
See? I'm all in with you, Kubes. And I didn't even need a speech!
Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game from 3-7 PM weekdays on the "Sean & John Show", and follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.
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