"What if this is the best I'll ever look, the best I'll ever be, the best I'll ever do-and it's not very good?" -- Mitch Robbins in City Slickers
For the Houston Texans, 2012 was supposed to be better than 2011. I suppose if you want to take the term "better" to its ultra-literal core, the team's record was two games better to close out their 2012 season (13-5) than it was in 2011 (11-7).
Any argument that 2012 exceeded the previous season ends with the math of a better record, because as the clock wound down Sunday on the New England Patriots' second beatdown of the Texans in a little over a month (a 41-28 laugher that was not as close as that score indicates), as Matt Schaub was done throwing his umpteenth dump pass of the afternoon, every Texan fan with a brain came to this stark realization:
This may be the best this group of Texans, with Matt Schaub at quarterback and Gary Kubiak as their coach, will ever look.
Any assessment of where the Texans go from here in this space will be done with the assumption that Matt Schaub and Gary Kubiak are not going anywhere. For the foreseeable future, Texan fans, this is your quarterback and this is your head coach. Save the "What if we cut Schaub?" and "Fire Kubiak!" phone calls to talk radio. The former is locked in courtesy of a four-year, $62 million extension that he was gifted the day before the 2012 season started, and the latter is locked in thanks to a culture that, top down, handsomely rewards being "pretty good," eschews change and craves comfort over conflict.
You can cite all of the statistics that you want to regarding Matt Schaub, his performance in the good times and, for the better part of the last two months, his lack of performance in the bad times. You can point to his inability to convert third and long (25 percent during the regular season), his exasperating proclivity to seek out underneath, "five yards short of the chains" receivers in said third and long situations, and his passer rating in games against elite quarterbacks.
Before this game, we weren't totally sure what Matt Schaub would do in a pressure situation in a playoff game where he'd have to match one of the upper-echelon quarterbacks score for score, although regular season games against the Packers and Patriots gave us an inkling.
By the fourth quarter the answer was obvious -- Matt Schaub can't handle that stage, and it has nothing to do with his questionable arm strength or the two cinder blocks he calls his feet.
Matt Schaub simply can't take the heat.
When he wasn't rolling out to his left and getting stripped by, well, no one, he was rolling right and throwing the ball away on third down with nary a defender within ten yards of him. When he wasn't badly overthrowing Andre Johnson on third down inside the red zone, he was badly overthrowing DeVier Posey on fourth down trying to keep the game alive.
As he had been the entire last month of the season, Schaub was jittery, nervous and uninspiring.
But to me, the coup de grace on the day that Schaub finally lost me occurred with 9:58 to go in the fourth quarter. The Texans were trailing 38-20 and any chance of fishing this game out of the fire required a quick score, replete with long strikes down the field and a palpable sense of urgency.
What we got instead was an 11-play, 73-yard dink-and-dunk fest that, while ultimately successful on the scoreboard in cutting the Patriots' lead to 38-28, was an abject failure in clock management in burning 4:47 off of the clock.
That drive was the perfect Schaubian metaphor with seemingly gaudy statistics (9 of 10 for 61 yards, a touchdown pass, 125.4 passer rating) masking his glacial pace getting to the line play to play, his methodical instruction to everyone in the huddle, and his utter disregard for a dwindling game clock. ZERO game-management chops.
In short, those nearly five minutes perfectly encapsulated the Matt Schaub Conundrum whereby his ever shrinking number of supporters will cite his career statistics, his passer rating and his list of largely meaningless wins over the last two seasons, but his critics will know what they see -- a plodding, deliberate, decidedly average quarterback to whom his head coach delegates almost zero freedom.
(Seriously, when the Texans had three timeouts left in the first half and the clock was running with 21 seconds left after a nine-yard pass to James Casey on first down, Schaub looked over to the sideline to see if he should call timeout. I mean, REALLY?? You need to check with the coach on that??)
Look at the other teams that played playoff games this weekend. Seattle and San Francisco have young, fleet-of-foot quarterbacks who are redefining the way the position is played. Atlanta finally broke through after investing heavily in weapons (Julio Jones, specifically) for Matt Ryan the last couple years. New England's hurry-up offense caught the Texans off guard all day long. Aaron Rodgers has four receivers who are constant threats to take it to the house on every play.
SPEED, SPEED, SPEED.
The Texans' response to this high-octane arms race? Draft DeVier Posey, take a wrecking ball to the right side of the offensive line and lock up Matt Schaub for another four years.
Why? Because he's "their guy."
When asked about Schaub's performance, Texans owner Bob McNair said:
"I thought Matt was very gutty," McNair said just outside the Texans' locker room in the bowels of Gillette Stadium. "A few times when we were in position, he made good throws and passes got dropped.
"I thought he played well."
And if that quote wasn't enough to scare you about just how rock solid the futures of the core pieces (mainly the quarterback and the head coach) are, how about this McNair dilly:
"We're very close," McNair said. "Last year and this year for some reason, players we lost to injury happened to be some of our key players."
Forget that Brian Cushing is the only significant player lost due to injury this season (I'd love to hear exactly who McNair sees as "key players."), and forget that, miraculously, the Patriots somehow managed to scrape by without a fellow named Gronkowski. When your owner is citing injuries to someone other than your starting quarterback as a reason for your team's season ending badly, that's a red flag, my friends.
What that means is that when it comes to the Texans' bowing out listlessly on Sunday, it wasn't Matt Schaub's inability to cope with the pressure of the postseason, and it wasn't Gary Kubiak's unflinchingly conservative play calling and lack of imagination offensively, and it wasn't Wade Phillips's (remember him?) playing Candy Land while Bill Belichick's playing chess.
It was just bad luck, folks. A break here, a break there, and perfect health, and well gosh dang it, Matt Schaub can get this ox out of the ditch!
I got news for you, Bob. No, he can't. Not with this group, not without last year's defense, last year's offensive line, vastly upgraded special teams, and about three more playmakers alongside him offensively.
Certain quarterbacks can get things done off schedule, with deficiencies in some areas around them and on the other side of the ball. Matt Schaub's not one of them. His only chance of winning at the highest level is under optimal conditions, with perfect surroundings, and a roster flush with A- to A players.
Put simply, if the NFL were a high school or college, Matt Schaub would be the most exasperatingly high-maintenance chick in the entire school, just good-looking enough to make you jump through every hoop and then making you wait nine years to get to second base.
And unfortunately, with high-maintenance Schaub at the helm, right now the Texans have no chance of going all the way.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. weekdays, and watch the simulcast on Comcast 129 from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.