Monday, January 14, 2013

Replacing Schaub will not fix this Texans' mess.

Don't get me wrong, it won't hurt to replace Schaub, as a matter of fact it would probably help, but replacing him is not going to fix all that is wrong with this team.

The day after the Foxborough massacre v 2.0 there's much hand-wringing and soul-searching being conducted by the Houston Chronicle's terrible trifecta of sports columnists: John McClain, Jerome Solomon & Randy Harvey (mercifully hidden behind the pay wall)

Their analysis takes the easy road, blaming Kubiak and the play-calling, Matt Schaub for just about everything, the Texans toughness, local sports history with only passing mention of the sub-par defense (They gave up 42 & 41 points in two games against the Patriots) and almost no mention of how lacking in talent the team was proven to be in the last half of the season.

In some ways I have a different perspective of the Texans because I'm not a fan.  I'm a 49ers fan and all is well in the land Joe Montana built.  For the Texans however there are several issues that need to be addressed.

What happened to the defense?  I realize that the easy thing to do is look at this Texans team and blame Matt Schaub, and we'll get to him in a moment.  But in what world can you be expected to win a playoff game when the defense gives up 41?  This entire season has been built around #bullsonparade when really the Texans had a #bullsoncharade defense that came up severely lacking against playoff caliber teams.  Outside of JJ Watt there is no pass rush (If the team re-signs Conor Barwin for any money at all you have my permission to scream) the linebackers were worthless without Cushing in the line-up, and the defensive backfield depth chart includes Shiloh Keo.  The Texans' d needs a talent infusion and some depth, and despite all of the belief in Wade Phillips they're not going to be very good without it.

Oh that O-line.  You can talk all you want about the Texans' anemic (at times) run game and the poor play of their QB (more on that in a minute) but it all starts (and ends) with a very pedestrian offensive line.  Before you start screaming "Pro-Bowl" at me realize that the voting for that is a sham.  In all the Texans have 2 pro-caliber O-linemen on the roster: Brown and Myers.  The remaining rotational players (and yes, I'm including Wade Smith) need to be shuffled down the depth chart immediately.  Either through the draft or through free agency the Texans need to totally remake the guys up front.  Until they do there's going to be a lot more heartbreak in Texans' fans future than there is now.

Kubiak.  Some say he's too conservative, some say he can't make in-game adjustments, some say he's tone-deaf when it comes to how to use the NFL's challenge system.  I think all of these apply (somewhat) although he did, finally, muster up a successful challenge on Sunday.  The problem with Kubiak is that it seems the modern NFL game has passed him by.  In an age where even his mentor, Washington coach Mike Shanahan, has adopted a mobile quarterback Kubiak still seems stuck in an age where an immobile guy with below-average arm-strength can get you to a Superbowl.  In today's NFL you either need a mobile quarterback (Kaepernick) or a nimble QB with good arm-strength who, although not a scrambler, can move in the pocket and extend plays (Brady and to a lesser extent Ryan) or a guy who can utilize a strong run game and take a shot deep (That's right, Flacco) Kubiak doesn't seem to get this and he doesn't understand the need to audible. For Kubiak, the script is the key, but when the script gets figured out by opposing teams he doesn't have a plan B, or C, or 1-A for that matter.

OK, Schaub.  First off, I like Matt Schaub.  He seems like a decent, nice guy who's making the most of his limited tools. That said, he's not fleet of foot, and he's lost all confidence in his ability to throw the deep ball (this doesn't mean that he can't throw the deep ball).  Schaub's idea of evading a blitz means to either throw the ball away, or fall down and take a sack.  He's the ultimate quarterback for Kubiak's brand of ball.  On-schedule?  Schaub will (usually) make the play.  When the Texans offense gets off-schedule though he's a turnover or badly thrown pass waiting to happen.  Maybe, if the Texans get their defense back, he can win you some games behind a strong running game and timely passing, but since that's not looking like it's going to happen the Texans have probably been taken by him as far as they're going to go.  He's got a long contract in place, so their best bet is probably to draft someone and have them learn how to QB by carrying a clipboard for a year.

Finally, WR talent.  Currently the Texans receiving core is Andre Johnson, Owen Daniels and......nothing. Kevin Walter is a good WR if you want someone who will block for the running game, Keyshawn Johnson is nothing special, and DeVier Posey might be the unluckiest player on the Texans roster.  It's time for the Texans to get serious about bringing in some real players to up the talent level in the receiving corps.  A first start would be a pair of big, pass-catching tight ends that are being used with great effect throughout the lead. The second step would be to get a slot receiver who runs good routes and is constantly open in the Wes Welker vein (Ryan Swopes?) and a stretch-the-field 2nd receiver who can take some of the deep-field pressure off of Andre (a poor man's Torrey Smith).

Despite all of the holes in talent the Texans were good enough to finish the regular season 12-4.  That most of the 12 wins were against bad teams went unnoticed until the 42-14 shellacking in the Foxborough Massacre v1.0.  They beat a not-ready-for-prime-time Bengals team before flaming out against that same Patriots team. After the hot start, this season felt like one long march down the road to eventual elimination short of even the NFC Championship game.  Texans fans are right to say "wait until next year" but for this to have any steam behind it the team needs to make several personnel upgrades before they even think about addressing the QB situation.  Schaub's number 8 at the end of the season may have more closely resembled David Carr's number 8 than say, Troy Aikman's but, it'd be OK if he didn't have to score 42 points against the Patriots to advance.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Nobody gives Houston the raspberry!

On the heels of the Texans beating the Cincinnati  Bengals in a 19-13 snooze-fest you could be granted a pardon for thinking that this weekend's tie against the New England Patriots is going to be the last game of the season the Texan's play.  On the heels of a 42-14 throttling at the hands of the same Patriots this Texans team doesn't look like the same team that went 11-1 (versus mostly inferior competition) and they're hardly storming into Foxborough with momentum on their side.  In a way then, the dust-up between Houston media talkers and what appears to be a sixth-grader with a perm is par for the course in the rapidly diminishing in importance world of professional sports journalism.

Journalism, and sports journalists, love a good controversy, and if there's not one to be found between the teams then they'll take it upon themselves to whip one up whether or not they have any factual basis behind their writing.  I've no doubt that Boston Globe bloviator Dan Shaugnessy has watched a lot of Boston-area sports. I've no doubt that he's been writing inflammatory columns for a long time as well.  I also have no doubt that what he is writing is designed to generate page-views in lieu of honest sports analysis.  Finally, I have no doubt that whatever he decides to write will have little effect on the actual game played on the field.

Let's be honest, it's very easy for me to sit behind my keyboard and say that the Texans have a quarterback problem, that their defensive backfield, despite having better numbers on Saturday, still left wide-receivers too-wide open.  It's easy to say that Tom Brady will not miss the openings that Andy Dalton did.  It's also easy for Shaugnessy to say that Kubiak and co. wet themselves when thinking about Belicheck, it's ridiculous on it's face, but it's easy to say.

The reason these things are easy to say is because there are no repercussions are either of us wrong. Our season isn't over, we don't lose out on our playoff bonuses, and we're running no major risk of a career threatening injury by churning out opinion from time to time. Besides, no one is going to care if our analysis is wrong.  The players and the coaches on the teams however are a different story.  They actually have something on the line and are the ones making the sacrifice.

Because of this it seems wise to keep player criticism to the events on the field.  Don't call out someone's manhood because it's going to be infinitely greater than your own.  For all of Shaugnessy's attempts at humor his little piece really boiled down to nothing more than first grade pee jokes and (no matter who you're rooting for) that really doesn't add anything to the conversation at all.  Oh sure, it might fire up Houston's talk radio and sports writers but, and I can promise you this, I doubt JJ Watt is concerned that Shaugnessy (and Keyshawn Johnson) don't think he's worthy of being the defensive player of the year*.

What JJ is worried about is getting more pressure on Tom Brady in Texans vs New England v 2.0. Gary Kubiak isn't soiling himself thinking about Belicheck, he's (hopefully, if you're a Texans fan) scouring game tape trying to figure out what could work against a team that's clearly better than his right now.

There's a larger point to be made here about the downfall of sports journalism over the years that I truthfully believe needs a full vetting.  At one time fans looked to their sports columnists to provide them with the sober view of what's happening, to sort through the team PR and give them the real scoop.  Today's sport's writers typically feel the need to inject themselves into the story.  We see this with John McClain in Houston all the time.  When he's not reminding us he's on the Hall of Fame committee he's reminding us that he's been doing this for 30+ years.  What Shaugnessy's reminded us of is that he's nothing more than a man who can somewhat turn a phrase but who doesn't have any respect for the players he covers.  The result is equivalent to a 6 year old going "nyah nyah nyah".

While that type of taunt might fire up Houston's sport's media and some of the fan base it's not going to move the needle at all with those who matter, The Texans.  Because of this none of the sound and fury you hear over the coming days will do anything to move the line on the game, it will not get the Patriots one additional yard and it will not change the fact that the Texans need to figure out a way to improve massively on both sides of the ball.

In other words, Shaugnessy has done nothing more than stick his tongue out at recess. It's time for the bell to ring.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

The Texans won, Kubiak's a genius so let's all just move on.

Normally, a 19-13 win over the 6th seed in the AFC playoffs would have a team scrambling  to find the answers to what went wrong.  However, these are the 2012-2013 Houston Texans that we're talking about so coming out on the up side of the ugliest playoff game in recent memory is considered a positive. For the fans (who are increasingly booing) and the New England Patriots however the Texans aren't someone to be feared, but just another insignificant something to step over on their journey to the Super Bowl.

If you're a Houston Texans fan(atic) then you're absolutely certain this is the game in which the Texans turn the corner and return to the form that had them at 11-1, and not a signal that we're seeing the same team that lost 3 out of 4 down the stretch to fall from the 1 seed to the 3 seed thus losing the much needed bye week.

If, as am I, you're an interested, although not particularly vested, observer, you see that there are still several problems that need to be answered.

1. Quarterback:  It's becoming increasingly clear that Matt Schaub is an average quarterback instead of the good but not great signal caller that he's been identified as by Houston media. It's pretty clear that the Texans have the defensive talent to make a deep run into the playoffs, but they'll never go very far with Schaub calling the signals.

2. O-line:  Yes, I realize that the line did a good job in this game but the Texans right now are a one-handed rushing team, running only to the left and almost never to the right.  Against fringe playoff teams like the Bengals this is OK, against teams like New England and Denver this is going to be a glaring issue.

3. Kubiak:  The Bengals are a team the Texans should have routed.  That they didn't is testimony to some bad head coaching and play-calling by the Head Coach.  To me, Kubiak is a good to great OC, but a below average head coach.  This will be exposed next week as Belicheck and Co. out-coach him  again.

None of this means that the Texans can't win next week in New England, but it does mean that they have several deficiencies heading into the game that place them at a disadvantage before the game even starts. The fact is there's a bigger talent gap between New England and the Texans than there is between say...the Colts and the Texans.  Too many in the media have a habit of overestimating the talent the Texans do have on the roster.  It's not a conversation that Houston's cheer-leading media handle well.

For now however, all is well and there will be a lot of talk about how a "win is a win" and that all Texans fans need to look forward to New England.  For me, it's early but I'm guessing that the 49ers will be matched up with the Packers in an offensive shoot-out.  Gulp.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Bowl results don't matter (unless they do)

I have to admit.  I told people yesterday (but did not blog it) that a healthy Teddy Bridgewater gave Louisville a chance to be competitive against the Florida Gators however, I did not see the Cardinals, under any circumstance, dominating Florida as they did.  It's tempting to write this one off to Florida being "flat" as often happens in bowl games when teams play what is considered to be a lesser opponent or they were aiming higher and didn't make it.  The problem with that analysis is that Florida was genuinely fired up for this game.  At least, their defense was.  On several occasions they laid the wood to Louisville and they played fast and with conviction.

What happened then is that the Cardinals were just better than the Gators, which raises some questions about the quality of play in the SEC.

This, of course, has aTm fans and Tim Brando  very angry right now. Angry enough that they're either calling bowls 'meaningless' or going back to old habits of mocking University of Houston fans about their pathetic play this year.  Of course, there's always going to be the UT-Austin mocking and that's fine, but picking on Houston?  That's like the varsity beating up on the Jr. varsity and then doing a victory dance in the lunch-room.

We all know that CBS College Football coverage is bought and paid for by the Southeastern Conference.  If this surprises you then you just haven't been paying attention.  Right now, in an unfortunate world where ESPN dominates college football coverage, CBS is a one-conference company and that conference is the SEC.  How else do you explain Brando & Co. immediately coming out after the Alabama loss to aTm and arguing forcefully that 'Bama was not dead? They did this despite the fact that no-one was seriously saying they were.

After Alabama lost pretty much everyone in the country understood that the likelihood of two teams ending the season undefeated was remote and that, being viewed as the best 1-loss team, 'Bama was likely to back into the B(C)S Championship game provided they took care of business.  It's because of silliness like this that people pile on to Brando et al with "SEC hate" which is really "bad punditry on CBS" hate viewed as directed toward the conference because that's all CBS does.

The problem that CBS, and the SEC, now have is this:  If losses by then 10-2 LSU to then 10-2 Clemson and then 10-2 Louisville to then 11-1 Florida don't mean that the SEC is losing it's grip as the nation's premier conference due to them being "meaningless bowl games" then there's no way you can argue that a win by then 10-2 South Carolina over then 8-4 Michigan proves the reverse. 

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

In college football, speed and power are king.

I wish I didn't have to be at work later this morning (I'm writing this early in the morning but will schedule it to publish later in the day) because, after Michigan's loss to South Carolina I'd like to sleep in, and wake up pleasantly hungover.

Instead, I had to watch the game (mostly) sober.

That said, even had I tied one on I'd probably be feeling better this morning than Vincent Smith.  You remember Smith, the Michigan running back that got destroyed by SC defensive lineman Jadeveon Clowney?  Yeah, him. I feel really sorry for him. Not as sorry as I'm feeling for Michigan right now, a team that is losing their marquee player and is in the middle of yet another retooling.  Fortunately, I do believe that Brady Hoke is the long term solution, but it's going to have to be long term because the Wolverines have a long way to go.

Too bad for Northern Illinois as well. Sure there were plenty of people who were rooting against them, including the Orange Bowl committee itself but, for a lot of us, those B(C)S busters serve as proof of case that the system is flawed.  For those that support "college football elitism" this is just another data point in their argument that some schools just shouldn't try to play with the big boys.

What everyone forgets however is that the problems that plague Michigan and NIU are very, very similar.  In both games each team was lacking in overall team speed, and power.  It's easy to point at NIU and laugh at their ineptitude last night against FSU but the fact is the Seminoles are the ones that should be mocked.  With all of the talent, speed and power on their roster it's they that shouldn't have been in that bowl.  They should have taken care of business and been in the National title game.

But they weren't, because they apparently don't have very good coaching at the position level and (especially at QB) they have talented players who can't consistently produce.  Contrast this to NIU, who has less talent, but who gets every last inch out of it and you had the makings of what could have been a pretty good game.  However, NIU lost their coach and that was probably too much to take for a team that needed everything to go right.

There's a reason college football on Saturday's is often a much more entertaining product than what you see on the NFL on Sundays.  It has a lot to do with speed and power mis-matches all over the field that teams can take advantage of.  When you add-in modern offensive schemes (the NFL is 20 years behind the College game in offense) and coaches who aren't 100% risk averse you get a better product for entertainment, despite the fact that the quality of talent is uneven and lower than that of the professional league. If the NFL is about schemes and systems, then college football is about speed, power and passion.

In that respect, give me the college game any day of the week when it's available, except for any bowl game played before Christmas Day.  To succeed in today's college football market however Michigan is going to have to take care of a couple of things:  They're going to have to get faster and they're going to have to get stronger.  For teams like NIU (read: Non B(C)S conference teams) the answer is speed.  If you can get enough athletes to run with the big dogs you can beat them in bowl games with large payouts.  In the coming environment, it could be possible that you could win two games and a championship, unlikely, but possible.  Until we expand to 5 sixteen team super-conferences that is, then you're all getting a demotion anyway so that will be that.