Just when you thought it was safe to call the Houston Texans the AFC's one-seed (which they were after they thrashed the bejeezus out of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 37-9, last Sunday), the news came down on Monday that quarterback Matt Schaub's foot injury would most likely put him on the sidelines for the rest of the season. The quarterback said on Tuesday that he was hurt when Bucs defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth fell on his foot during a run.
"It wasn't deliberate," Schaub said on Houston radio. "Anytime you run a sneak, there's going to be a pile. … I'm extremely frustrated. I'm pretty bummed, to put it lightly, especially on such a small play like a quarterback sneak out of the end zone. If it had to happen, I wish that it had been me diving over a pile."
Schaub is trying to find a medical option that would allow him to return later this season. In the meantime, Schaub will be replaced by backup Matt Leinart, who's been a singularly unimpressive NFL quarterback for the most part since the Arizona Cardinals selected him with the 10th overall pick in the 2006 NFL draft out of USC. In 17 NFL starts, Leinart has 14 touchdowns and 20 interceptions, and he hasn't made a dent in a stat sheet since January of 2010, when he threw two picks and no touchdowns in a 33-7 loss to the Green Bay Packers for those Cardinals.
He then mopped up in Arizona's playoff loss to the New Orleans Saints (which was the end of the Kurt Warner Era), and was quietly released in September. The Texans signed him as a cursory concern, no doubt, but Leinart is now once again The Man for an NFL franchise.
Before Texans fans starting ripping their garments in emotional protest against the sour luck of a franchise that has never made the playoffs, there is room for hope and belief that the Texans aren't completely sunk.
The Texans have the best offensive line in football, and they know how to use it.
Especially from guard to guard, there's no better and more consistent offensive line in the league right now, and that makes any quarterback's life much easier. Not only are the Texans led by their run game, forcing enemy defenses to stack the box, but they're also well-versed on how to set defenses up to think run when a pass play is coming. They do this through the expert use of "run-action," which happens on a pass play in which the line fires out as if a run play is coming. Schaub's 80-yard touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones on the first offensive play of the win over Tampa Bay was a perfect example of that — watch the blocking on the replay and imagine any quarterback, no matter how average, being able to get things done when an entire defense is faked out the other way.
Leinart has a series of favorable matchups.
Through his career, and most notably in the "The Bears are who we THOUGHT THEY WERE!!!" game made famous by one Dennis Green, Leinart has fared much better against defenses running primarily 4-3 looks with a lot of zone coverage. In that October 2006 game, Leinart went 24 of 42 for two touchdowns and no picks against the defense that would take Chicago to the Super Bowl that season.
Not only do the Texans have a bye week to get Leinart up to speed, but they also have a remaining schedule full of defenses that aren't generally multiple in looks and fronts, and all of the teams Houston has left in the regular season are 4-3 teams with a lot of zone — the Jacksonville Jaguars, Atlanta Falcons, Cincinnati Bengals, Carolina Panthers, Indianapolis Colts and Tennessee Titans. And only the Bengals and Titans have defenses you could feel safe in calling consistently above average.
This is a drop-off, but it isn't catastrophic.
Lest you think the drop from Schaub to Leinart is close to the Peyton Manning-to-Curtis Painter plummet, it's not quite that bad. Schaub has been very prolific since he came to Houston in 2007, but per Football Outsiders' efficiency metrics, he's generally hung around at the bottom of the first tier (or the top of the second tier) of NFL quarterbacks. That's not to denigrate him, but Schaub has also benefited from what Leinart will get on the field.
Leinart doesn't have to do it all.
It's estimated that receiver Andre Johnson, perhaps the best in the game, will be back on the field when the Texans get back from their bye. In addition, the Texans' rushing attack features Arian Foster and Ben Tate, and it takes a very powerful defense to even slow it down. If you want to know where all that run action comes from, wonder no more. The Texans also have one of the best defenses in the NFL this season, so if and when Leinart does make a mistake, he won't have to view it as a catastrophic failure that will sink his team. Sometimes, the best way to help a quarterback succeed (especially when he's failed before) is to simply let him know that in the short term, failure isn't fatal.
"He's gotten a lot of reps in practice," head coach Gary Kubiak said this week. "The key is that the team rallies around him. Matt [Leinart] doesn't have to win a game. The team has to win a game. We'll rally around him and get him ready to go."
Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, who coached Leinart at USC, expressed confidence as well. "It's a great opportunity for Matt," Carroll said on Wednesday. "Unfortunately, it came about through injury, but I've watched all of that very closely. This is that opportunity with a really good football team and a terrific running game and a hot-as-can-be defense. I'm really excited for him and I hope that he'll get moving and things will happen and they'll get off to a great start with him as he gets his chance. He's waited and worked really hard for this and he's been, at times, not as patient as maybe the situation called for. But he was not patient because he's a great competitor and he wants to battle and play, so I'm excited to see what he does."
It's an ideal setup for any quarterback looking to redeem himself and help a team that took a shot on him, and for the reasons listed above, Houston's "problem" isn't quite as huge as some make it out to be.