Photo by Marco Torres Gary Kubiak's play call wasn't the reason for Matt Schaub's latest interception.
I remember the apartment and spot on the couch in December 2011 where I watched T.J. Yates find Kevin Walter for an improbable last-second touchdown in Cincinnati, clinching the Texans' first playoff berth. On a trip to my childhood home, jaws dropped to the floor in front of my old TV during Tracy McGrady's "13 in 35" miracle to beat the Spurs.
On the other side, I recall frozen stares at an Astros' party after Albert Pujols blasted a game-winning, 3-run homer off Brad Lidge in Game 5 of the 2005 NLCS, when the Astros were one out away from their first-ever World Series. We barely moved or spoke for the next hour amid an almost-paralyzing state of shock. I still cringe entering Velvet Melvin Pub on Richmond, because that's where I watched my beloved Missouri Tigers lose to No. 15 seed Norfolk State in the NCAA hoops tournament back in March 2012.
Guess which category Matt Schaub's latest "pick 6" falls into?
The scene from Sunday
I've spent large chunks of the past 10 years around professional athletes. The scene in Reliant Stadium's home locker room after Sunday's game was among the most depressing I've witnessed. Frustration. Anger. Hurt.
Above all? Silence.
This wasn't just any game. This was a statement game. After losing embarrassingly in Baltimore, largely due to a game-changing "pick 6" from Schaub, players said the sense of urgency was at an all-time high. For most of Sunday, they played like it.
Marco Torres, Houston Press Ben Tate's fumble was costly.
Even if the Texans had punted the ball back to Seattle with a 20-13 lead and 2:30 left, the odds of the Seahawks marching 90 yards for a tying touchdown in that timeframe were incredibly long.
Head coach Gary Kubiak blamed himself after the game for not running the ball on 3rd-and-4 from the Seattle 40-yard line. Hopefully he did that to spare Schaub's feelings, because the play call wasn't the issue. I loved that the Texans were aggressive and tried to seal the game on offense. It worked against Cincinnati in last year's playoffs when Schaub hit Garrett Graham for a game clincher, giving us an unforgettable Schaub celebration.
Unless you have the defense of the 2001 Ravens -- and possibly not even then -- an NFL team can't seriously contend for a Super Bowl with a game plan that hides its quarterback. They have to have trust in the quarterback's basic instincts to make some plays and avoid debilitating mistakes.
On Sunday's defining play, Schaub could have taken a sack. He also could have thrown the ball away. Instead, with a seven-point lead and a defense playing fantastic football, he did the one thing he couldn't do -- throw a ball up for grabs against a blanketed receiver. In an instant, all the fantastic work the Texans did for the first 57 minutes against one of the NFL's elite teams was rendered meaningless.
This was one of those moments, and Schaub knew it. That's why he stayed on the ground, head in hands, for what felt like an eternity. It was atypical for Schaub, who has bounced back many times before. Two weeks earlier, he led game-tying and game-winning touchdown drives in the closing minutes of regulation and overtime against Tennessee, mere minutes after throwing a dreaded "pick 6".
It wasn't happening Sunday. The Texans took the ball for three more series after the Richard Sherman touchdown, each time with the ability to end the game on a score. They never even crossed the Seattle 40. After being sacked just twice in the first 57 minutes, the shell-shocked version of Schaub we saw going forward went down twice in 10 minutes -- each crippling a drive that seemed to have momentum.
The Texans said what they had to say in the locker room about "trusting" Schaub. It's against unwritten NFL player code to throw a hard-working teammate under the bus, publicly. But we're already four games into the 16-game season. More than 20 percent of points allowed by the Texans have directly come off the right arm of Matt Schaub, now with a "pick 6" streak of three games. For the fifth time in the last six Texans games -- including the season-opening interception in San Diego and the "pick 6" in the AFC Wild Card game against Cincinnati -- momentum largely swung due to a Schaub turnover.
The trust in that room -- both within Schaub himself, and from fellow coaches and players -- is mostly gone, no matter what is said. Athletes have more perspective than fans, but they understand the gravity of these situations. Behind closed doors, the team's confidence in Schaub was already on thin ice following the playoff loss in January.
Why Schaub won't move past this in Houston
Brad Lidge was once beloved in Houston.
Why was it such a big deal? Why would she choose that as her favorite moment, especially compared with options from other recent years when her Cardinals actually won championships?
But upon reflection, that choice accurately depicts just how powerful the "Pujols moment" was. In an instant, defeat became classic glory for the Cardinals. And monumental triumph spiraled to soul-crushing defeat for the Astros. The players directly involved were never the same -- namely, Lidge in this very city. From a Houston sports standpoint, the Texans' loss on Sunday against Seattle was the closest feeling I've had since.
To this day, Lidge is my favorite athlete that I've ever covered. He was kind, open, honest and took responsibility for his mistakes. In 2006 and 2007, I defended him relentlessly because I so badly wanted him to succeed again in Houston. I cited injuries, the small sample size of his recent statistics, bad luck and several other factors.
But he would never be "Lights Out Lidge" in Houston again. Boos rang out from Minute Maid Park at the slightest sign of trouble, much like they do for Schaub at Reliant Stadium. While Lidge may not admit it, the burden of constantly trying to "make up" for the Pujols mistake appeared to become too much to bear.
Lidge wasn't himself again until the 2008 season in Philadelphia, when he went a perfect 48-for-48 in save opportunities and closed out a World Series title for the Phillies. And despite the vast majority of his MLB success coming in Houston, he opted to retire as a Phillie and not an Astro.
Matt Schaub isn't a bad quarterback, much like Brad Lidge wasn't a bad closer. He has a very good quarterback rating of 92.8 in his seven seasons in Houston. 122 touchdowns to 70 interceptions. An impressive yards-per-attempt figure of 7.8. Two Pro Bowl berths.
But winning a Super Bowl requires winning at least three extremely high-profile games in January and February. The Texans have a very good team around Schaub, but they're not the 2001 Ravens. They need some plays from the quarterback position -- along with the elimination of back-breaking mistakes -- to beat the likes of Denver, Seattle and New England when it matters. Being "not bad" isn't enough for Houston's quarterback.
It's almost impossible to see Schaub making those plays for three consecutive games with a championship in the balance, especially with the backdrop of teammates and fans in Houston with long memories of these dramatic failures. He may find success elsewhere, like Alex Smith in Kansas City, but not here. Not after Seattle.
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Time to consider other options
I wrote in January that the Texans should take a Daryl Morey approach to the QB position. The only factor that should be considered is the likelihood of winning a Super Bowl, much like when the Rockets jettisoned veterans Luis Scola and Kyle Lowry to get off the "mediocrity treadmill" that plagued them for three seasons after Yao Ming's retirement. In other words, sink or swim. Both are better than floating in mediocrity.
Would Yates or Case Keenum be better than Matt Schaub? We don't know. Could they be worse, and possibly drop the 2013 Texans from a 9- or 10-win, fringe playoff team (with Schaub) to a 7-win group that isn't all that close to the postseason? Sure. But those concerns are secondary issues. Moreover, even if Yates/Keenum flop, the Texans would then be in a better position to take a first-round QB in the 2014 draft.
The primary end goal is winning the Super Bowl. After Schaub's latest self-inflicted collapse, it's more apparent than ever that he isn't the guy to take these Texans there. The process of finding who can be should start as soon as realistically possible.