No, we certainly didn't expect the 2013 Texans to become the worst team in the NFL at 2-14. But after the 11-1 start in 2012 that ended with a collapse to blow home-field advantage and ultimately another second-round playoff loss, we knew the era of Gary Kubiak and Matt Schaub would end without a Super Bowl.
The road back to Super Bowl contention begins at the two most critical positions in modern football -- head coach and quarterback -- and all the pain of 2013 has put the Texans in an ideal position on both fronts. The early firing of Kubiak gave the Texans a three-week head start on interviewing coaches and selling themselves as an organization to candidates, while the 14 losses allowed them to capture the No. 1 overall pick in next May's NFL Draft and the opportunity to draft the best QB available.
It sounds promising on paper, especially when you look at comparable situations such as Kansas City -- a 2-14 team in 2012 that transformed to an 11-5 playoff team in 2013, led by a new head coach and quarterback acquired in the prior offseason. It's certainly possible for owner Bob McNair to oversee a similar turnaround in Houston.
But with Rick Smith retaining his job as GM (a post he's held since 2006), it remains to be seen whether he and the front office can learn from prior mistakes and be more successful in their second attempt to rebuild Houston into a Super Bowl-caliber team.
To that end, here are four priorities that would serve as an opportune place to start:
Groovehouse Matt Schaub's time in Houston should be over.
To me, the lowest point of the dreadful 2013 campaign came vs. the Rams on October 13. The Texans were 2-3 at the time, and while reeling, were certainly very much in the AFC playoff conversation and needed only one win to return to .500. The main issue at the time, of course, was Schaub. He had thrown a "pick six" in four consecutive games and bottomed out the prior Sunday with no touchdowns, 3 interceptions and a woeful quarterback rating of 32.2 in a 34-3 primetime annihilation in San Francisco. And while Kubiak admitted considering a change at quarterback to Case Keenum or T.J. Yates, he ultimately stuck with Schaub despite his NFL record-setting streak of futility.
That lack of accountability led to something occurring vs. the Rams that I had never seen in my five years covering the Texans as a credentialed media member: they outright quit. They were lifeless from the start and were crushed at home, 38-13, by a losing team. When Schaub rolled his ankle late in the third quarter, many fans at Reliant Stadium cheered, sparking an entirely new controversy.
In the locker room afterward, the shock and anger seen after the Texans collapsed against Seattle two weeks earlier (Schaub's "Brad Lidge moment") were seemingly replaced by apathy. Players didn't seem particularly surprised or bothered. The season was officially off the rails at that moment, and there was no bringing it back.
Combine that with poor play when it mattered most in 2012, and there is no way Schaub regains respect as a leader in the Houston locker room. Yes, there might be a situation next summer when the Texans could use a veteran to offer guidance to a rookie QB and possibly start on a short-term basis if the rookie isn't ready. That's fine. Bring back Yates or Keenum, or sign a cheap veteran free agent that falls through the cracks. It just can't be Schaub. The change in culture that the Texans are trying to enact requires Schaub to exit completely, just as it did Kubiak.
Groovehouse Despite not playing, Arian Foster took up a big chunk of cap space.
The two most controversial decisions in recent history for the Texans were extensions for Schaub and Arian Foster. In the case of Schaub, the team's stubborn refusal to negotiate during the season and its reluctance to have Schaub's uncertain future as a "distraction" led them to give Schaub a long-term extension prior to the 2012 regular-season opener. Remember, at the time, Schaub was already 31 years old, had yet to play in even one playoff game, and was coming off a serious foot injury that has been known to end careers. But the Texans, reveling in their rare "contender" status, were so concerned with continuity and feel-good vibes that they cast those concerns aside.
Likewise, back in March 2012, the Texans gave Foster a five-year, $43.5 million extension to stay in Houston... even though Foster was still under contract for another year. With NFL running backs, a position known for its short shelf life, committing early is asking for trouble. In the case of Foster, his yards per rush slid from 4.9 in 2010 to 4.4 in 2011 and 4.1 in 2012, while his receiving yards fell from 617 yards on 11.6 yards/catch in 2011 to 217 yards on 5.4 yards/catch in 2012. Then, in 2013, the bottom fell out entirely with a series of injuries that ultimately led to major back surgery.
Had the Texans taken the hard-line approach to keep Foster on his original contract (or to "franchise tag" him and play it year-by-year), they'd have been able to take at least some of that information into account before spending such a large amount of future money. Instead, in the interest of keeping the locker room happy, they jumped the gun and are paying dearly for it today.
Of course, with a perceived Super Bowl contender, there is at least some value in keeping the locker room harmonious. I do understand where Rick Smith was coming from.
But that mentality should not drive decisions going forward. This offseason, Smith has to look at the Texans for what they truly are: a 2-14 disaster. They need to be rebuilt, and from a leadership standpoint, that means throwing out the external "feel-good" factors and putting a narrow focus on getting the best contracts possible for the team. If that means a star is upset or eventually leaves Houston, so be it.
Marco Torres Please don't hire Wade Phillips as your permanent head coach.
The other concern, however, was Kubiak's tendency to lead from a position of fear. His fear of turnovers infamously led to numerous draw and screen plays in 3rd-and-long situations. His fear of the small chance of losing field position kept him from going for numerous fourth downs, even when it clearly made sense to do so.
From an organizational standpoint, Kubiak's fear of moving on from Schaub defined the 2013 season. A year earlier, his fear of another injury to Schaub led the Texans to essentially remove the "QB sneak" from their playbook entirely. Two years before that, an apparent fear of change kept defensive coordinator Frank Bush employed until McNair mercifully forced Kubiak's hand after 2010.
While frustrating, Kubiak is far from alone with many of those problems. The "old guard" of the NFL coaching circle is filled with men who allow their fear of worst-case outcomes, no matter how small the probability, to guide their decisions. In even simpler terms, they don't want to be second-guessed by fans and media.
One classic example was interim coach (and current defensive coordinator) Wade Phillips in the Texans' season-ending loss in Tennessee. Trailing 16-7 with three minutes left, the Texans had a 4th-and-goal on the 1-yard line. Phillips kicked the field goal, in large part because conventional wisdom says to "extend the game".
Problem is, that conventional wisdom is dead wrong. The point isn't to allow your team to stay semi-competitive in the game for as long as possible. The point is to give you the best percentage chance to actually win the game, period. In Sunday's case, the Texans had to score a touchdown at some point if they wanted to win... and when would they ever have a higher-percentage chance than from one yard away?
The Texans did get one more chance at a touchdown due to "extending the game". It came inside their own 10-yard line with 1:05 left, all with no timeouts. Tennessee was then able to play an extreme prevent defense and intercept a pass on the first play to end it. Somehow, I think that wasn't the higher-percentage option.
Recent NFL coaching hires to find immediate success include Chip Kelly, the now Philadelphia coach known for his innovative offense at the University of Oregon; Jim Harbaugh, the San Francisco coach known for his discipline and aggressive style at Stanford; and Pete Carroll, the Seattle coach known for his explosive offense and player-friendly personality while coaching at USC.
So, what is the most common thread? To me, it's that each spent most of the prior decade away from the conservative NFL culture and in an environment where innovation is better received. Those coaches then brought that mindset to the NFL and haven't been afraid to make outside-the-box decisions when necessary.
Using that criteria within the known Houston candidates, I would strongly favor 44-year-old Penn State coach Bill O'Brien over the likes of ex-Chicago coach Lovie Smith and current San Diego offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt.
Now on the clock...
Want a Hall of Famer? It's fairly obvious that taking a first-round quarterback -- the best available in the view of Rick Smith and the new coach -- gives the Texans the best shot at that possibility. But even if the drafted QB isn't quite a Hall of Famer, he can still fit the modern NFL model by merely being a "pretty good" starter. That's because an affordable initial contract allows those teams to better fill out their roster with surrounding talent.
What doesn't work at quarterback is paying big bucks on a veteran that isn't elite. That's the road the Texans have just been down with Schaub, and one they must avoid with Jay Cutler or other potential free-agent options. Even if the Texans could conceivably afford it, they'd be much better off spending that money on other holes (offensive line, linebacker, secondary) and finding comparably cheaper QB production from the draft.
The other factor to remember is that the Texans are more than one piece away. Some have argued that South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is the most "sure thing" prospect in the 2014 draft. Great, but what does that mean for winning? The Texans already have J.J. Watt, the best defensive lineman in the NFL, in his prime -- and just finished a season at 2-14 in which Watt played every game.
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The driving force for the No. 1 pick should be what gives the Texans the best opportunity to win a championship. It shouldn't be playing it safe and simply trying not to bust. The Texans say they want a quick rebuild and a change in culture. For that to happen, it starts with a defined leader at the game's most critical position -- and defensive end isn't it.
Quarterback play was the catalyst that expedited Houston's faster-than-expected decline from AFC South champion to 2-14. Similarly, it's also the key to bringing them back. Maybe it'll be Teddy Bridgewater of Louisville. Maybe it's Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel. Just pick the best available and build around him.
Whoever it may be, the Texans have a golden opportunity over the next four months and shouldn't overthink it. Rick Smith can have his pick of the litter at the game's most important position, all on relatively-friendly contract terms.
A true franchise quarterback has eluded the Texans for their entire existence, and there will never be a better opportunity for the Texans to take their next shot.