If good is the enemy of great, the Texans are in a lot of trouble as they map out a plan to break through their second-round ceiling.
Owner Bob McNair and head coach Gary Kubiak are publicly saying the happy, feel-good things. "We're very close," McNair said after the loss in New England, while Kubiak added that Matt Schaub has a place among the league's "top quarterbacks."
Behind closed doors, it's hard to believe they don't have major concerns. In the final six games of the season, the offense that led the Texans to an 11-1 start fell apart. The starters scored 7 points on Monday night in New England, 6 for the full game against Minnesota and 16 (including a woeful 6 in the first half) against a bad Indianapolis defense. A win in just one of those three games would have secured home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs for the first time in Houston history.
They talked about turning the page heading to the postseason. But it was more of the same. Despite putting up over 400 yards of offense against Cincinnati, the team scored just 19 points, including settling for four field goals. In meaningful situations in New England, they put up 13 points -- six of which came directly from spectacular special-teams efforts.
In a league where the average point total for the divisional round was 35, the Texans were nowhere close. And this wasn't like 2011, when injuries to Schaub, Andre Johnson and Arian Foster were sprinkled throughout the season. This year, the Texans offense stayed remarkably healthy. It still wasn't good enough.
If they want to change that, it may require a radical shift in team-building philosophy.
Starts with Schaub
When it comes to offensive production, it begins with the game's premium position of quarterback. Long known as a master of playaction, Schaub had more on his plate this year with the offseason departures of right tackle Eric Winston and guard Mike Brisiel. Those losses helped drop the Texans from number two in rushing yards/game and number eight in yards/carry in 2011 to number eight and number 14, respectively, in 2012.
It wasn't a bad rushing attack by any means, but it was no longer elite. This meant more situations in which the threat of the run was marginalized and Schaub needed to make plays as a pure passer.
Too often, it didn't work.
In the playoffs, Schaub twice missed a wide open Johnson in the end zone, with both trips ending in field goals. Making matters worse, he looked jittery in the pocket and bailed out on plays too early. While rivals like Joe Flacco were able to improvise and make big plays down the field, Schaub went without a single 30+ yard completion this postseason.
It can't be said that Schaub didn't have help. The run game is still above average. Johnson remains one of the league's top-flight receivers, and the same can be said for Owen Daniels as a tight end. Arian Foster is one of the best receiving running backs in the league, and DeVier Posey stepped up and provided a viable secondary option out wide. The offensive line allowed just one sack in two games.
Schaub still couldn't make the plays to sustain drives.
Where the Texans stack up at QB
Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Drew Brees, Robert Griffin III, Ben Roethlisberger, Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson, Matt Ryan and Andrew Luck.
That's 11 quarterbacks -- over 1/3 of the league -- that are clearly superior to Schaub.
But that's not all. There's a second tier of Matthew Stafford, Joe Flacco, Tony Romo, Cam Newton, Jay Cutler and Philip Rivers, almost all of whom have higher upside than Schaub.
They might also have higher implosion potential, but in terms of putting a team on their back as a playmaker and winning an important playoff game -- the way Flacco did last weekend in Denver -- they're each more likely to do so than Schaub.
We're now at 17 quarterbacks. Granted, the last six are debatable, and Schaub isn't without some good qualities. He's efficient, widely considered a strong leader, has a great rapport with the head coach and knows the system inside and out. Those have value.
But to rank the league's quarterbacks, he's at best around number 11 or 12 and could be as low as 18, depending on the criteria. And soon to turn 32, he won't be improving.
Schaub is what he is: average. To have realistic Super Bowl aspirations, the front office must be open to better-than-average options at the game's most important position. A realistic path forward
For financial reasons, Schaub isn't going anywhere over the near term. The Texans regrettably signed him to a massive extension before the 2012 season started, essentially guaranteeing his roster spot in 2013 and likely in 2014 as well.
That doesn't preclude the groundwork from beginning this offseason, though. Seattle drafted Wilson in the third round last April with the intent of grooming him under highly paid starter Matt Flynn. San Francisco took Kaepernick in the second round a year ago and allowed him to develop under incumbent Alex Smith.
Wilson proved ready to start as a rookie and Kaepernick took over midway through his second season. Both are now among the league's elite quarterbacks, and each of their franchises has an incredibly bright future.
Sure, the Texans have other holes. They need depth at inside linebacker behind Brian Cushing. Like most teams, they need more cornerbacks, receivers and offensive linemen.
But without a better-than-average performance at quarterback, what does it all mean? More than likely, it's a best-case scenario of an AFC South title and a second-round exit.
Look to the Rockets
Just across town, the Rockets were trapped in a similar situation. Though they missed the playoffs based on the absurd strength of the Western Conference, the Rockets posted winning records in each of the past three years and seemingly had a decent roster.
But in terms of ultimately winning an NBA championship, the team wasn't going anywhere. So General Manager Daryl Morey tore it down. Luis Scola, Kyle Lowry, Goran Dragic, Samuel Dalembert and countless other starting-quality NBA players were all jettisoned in order to keep the flexibility needed to acquire a star.
There was a risk of it not working out, of course, and the Rockets could have slipped from an above-.500 team to a cellar dweller. But if the primary goal is to win a championship, then backsliding from "good" isn't a huge concern. (Plus, bad teams get higher draft picks, which can help in acquiring star talent.)
As it turned out, the Rockets did find their star in James Harden, all while saving cap room for another impact trade or signing in the near future. Their direction to contention is clear. Morey didn't settle for good; instead, he was willing to risk good to become great, and it's easy to see the Rockets becoming that in the next few years.
Texans must take similar risk
Are McNair, Kubiak, General Manager Rick Smith and their Texans willing to make that same gamble? The extension they gave Schaub before the season would seem to indicate no. But they didn't have the information then that they do now. The 2009 and 2010 seasons were torpedoed by defensive and special teams breakdowns. The 2011 season featured T.J. Yates down the stretch. It took until 2012 to see Schaub and Kubiak's full offense in meaningful December and January games.
We now know the results, and they aren't pretty. In an ideal world, the Texans would've taken a philosophy similar to that of the Ravens, who were willing to let Flacco play out the last year of his contract to better understand his value. Unfortunately, the Texans opted for stability, and what's done is done.
But the situation can still be rectified, even if their hands are tied financially for the next year (preventing a run at Alex Smith or Michael Vick). They can consider a young quarterback with an early-round draft pick. They can give an extended look to Yates, who will be entering his third year. They can make an under-the-radar free agent signing.
None are ideal options. They might cost the team time and resources that could be allocated to other positions. It could cause the Texans to fall from their perch atop the AFC South to an also-ran.
But the downside pales in comparison to the upside, which is the only thing that matters -- true Super Bowl contention.
That's something Schaub clearly cannot give them. The process of finding someone who can should start today.