Throughout their 11-year history, the Houston Texans have been a team desperate for exposure. The media friendly organization made life easy for reporters while habitually coming up short on the football field – until last season, when the Texans finally broke through and reached the playoffs.
In 2012, Houston came out hotter than "Modern Family" at the Emmys – until last Sunday night, when the Green Bay Packers ransacked Reliant Stadium and rolled to a lopsided victory over the mistake-prone home team on national television.
At that point, it was fair to ask whether the Texans had been exposed.
On Sunday, we got our answer, and it was delivered in ruthless and resounding fashion. The Texans, in dismembering the Baltimore Ravens 43-13, made it clear to 71,708 fans at Reliant and a football-watching nation that they are the team to beat in the AFC, and that their face-plant against the Pack was likely an aberration.
Or to put it another way, while borrowing from the late, great Notorious B.I.G.: And if you don't know, now you know …
"Our team knows how to respond," Texans defensive end J.J. Watt said afterward when I asked him about the fallout from the defeat to Green Bay. "I knew we wouldn't be down on ourselves. The way we attack practice and go out with intensity and focus every single day, there was no chance of that happening. No one gets too high or too low on this team. We just grind, every single day."
Watt, who should be an MVP candidate given his superlative play during the season's first seven games, did his part to help the Texans (6-1) defeat the AFC's other perceived power, deflecting a Joe Flacco pass that teammate Johnathan Joseph intercepted and returned for a 52-yard touchdown early in the second quarter. Watt had plenty of help from defensive teammates like Connor Barwin, whose first-quarter sack of Flacco in the end zone gave Houston its first two points, and Antonio Smith, who added a pair of quarterback takedowns.
In its second game since energetic, playmaking linebacker Brian Cushing went down with a season-ending knee injury, the Texans' defense rediscovered the mojo it seemed to have surrendered against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.
The Ravens (5-2), who came into the game with an NFL-best 34 offensive plays of 20 yards or more, didn't have one longer than 17 yards against the team they eliminated from last January's postseason. After what we saw on Sunday, it's quite obvious that this Houston squad is much better than that one.
One obvious difference: Quarterback Matt Schaub, who missed the final six games and two playoff contests last year, is healthy. While there are plenty of more celebrated passers, Schaub is a reliable distributor well-versed in Texans coach Gary Kubiak's neatly constructed offense. Both men are survivors, having fought through labels of mediocrity and calls for their ouster in previous years, and now they're dictating to opposing defenses in a highly efficient and effective manner.
If Sean Payton and Drew Brees are Scorsese and De Niro, Kubiak and Schaub are more like the Coen brothers and Frances McDormand – still critically acclaimed, but without nearly as much hype.
While Schaub doesn't command the fanfare of veteran wideout Andre Johnson or workhorse halfback and fantasy-football darling Arian Foster, he's executing Kubiak's scheme at a high level. Against the Ravens, he completed 23 of 37 passes for 256 yards and two touchdowns without throwing an interception. Few teams are as balanced as the Texans, and Sunday was no exception: Foster (19 carries, 98 yards) and fellow halfbacks Ben Tate and Justin Forsett combined for 177 yards while collectively averaging more than five yards per carry.
It's apparent to those who've watched the Texans for a long time – and have been frustrated by their inability to break through – that this is not something that just happened. Kubiak's attack has been years in the making – from his playing days with the Broncos to his long stint as Mike Shanahan's offensive coordinator in Denver – and we're now watching it achieve peak performance.
"It's football's version of Newton's Third Law of Motion," longtime NFL quarterback Sage Rosenfels, who played for Kubiak's Texans from 2006-08, said Sunday night. "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. In this case, whatever the defense decides to try to take away, he has an answer for it."
The foundation of Kubiak's offense, according to Rosenfels, is that players are coached to behave almost identically on running and passing plays. Defenders are constantly kept off balance because they can't be sure that what they're seeing is actually what's taking place – and because if they take aggressive action to stop a particular type of play, Kubiak has a built-in mechanism for making them pay.
"They're the ultimate play-action team," Rosenfels explained. "They teach you to behave very similarly on run plays and pass plays, and it's very easy to get fooled. There were times when I played there that the back judge would walk up and say, 'Guys, I can't tell when it's a run and when it's a pass – your play action's that good.' For example, the fullback on a pass play will still hit the linebacker as hard as he can, like he would [run-blocking]. You really keep the defense on their toes, 'cause everything looks the same."
As a result, defenders are constantly in danger of being duped by Kubiak.
"Kubiak decides what is causing the offense issues, and he has some sort of way to react that counters it," Rosenfels said. "For example, if [tight end] Owen Daniels is struggling to block the defensive end [on running plays], the next thing Kubiak will do is have him peel off and catch a screen. If the linebackers are flowing too hard to the line, he'll have [Schaub] throw over-the-top to Andre. If the defensive end is chasing down the backside too much, he'll call a bootleg."
The scheme succeeds partly because of painstaking preparation, beginning over the offseason and continuing in the days leading up to games, and requires skill-position players to achieve a comprehensive understanding of the offense. Receivers must learn not only their own routes but also those of their counterparts, because another Kubiak staple is to disguise plays by transposing players at the line of scrimmage.
"They're so successful because their run and pass plays, both formationally and the way they're taught, are so identical," Rosenfels said. "They only have so many actual concepts, but he does a ton of formations. He might run the same play that they've seen on film, but the defense can't figure it out, because he'll have Owen Daniels running Andre Johnson's route, or Kevin Walter running Owen's – they've switched places.
"If you think about it, there's not a lot of play-changing at the line, or declaring [which player is] the Mike linebacker, or holding the ball because no one's open and trying to make something happen. It's less playmaking than straight execution. You go through your reads and there's somewhere to go with the ball. And as somebody said to me the other day, 'Nobody gets people more wide open than Gary Kubiak.' "
After Sunday, it's fair to say that Kubiak has also become adept at getting his players motivated, especially after a disappointing outing.
"We just went back to work with great focus," Forsett said. "We really wanted to get that bad taste out of our mouths."
Watt agreed, saying, "We had a bad taste in our mouths and were chomping at the bit to play another game. Now we've got a good taste in our mouth heading to the bye. I don't think you can judge everything off one game, but look at the game [Sunday]: We were able to do everything we wanted to do on offense, and as a defense – scoring points, changing the momentum with that safety – we had a great day."
Some of us saw potential greatness in the Texans heading into the season – thus far, I'm feeling reasonably good about having picked them to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.
A lot can happen between now and early February, but in the meantime, I'm curious to see how many perceived contenders Kubiak and his players will expose in the coming months.
The next time someone tries to tell me that someone other than Adrian (All Day) Peterson is the best running back in football, I will fight you – or, more realistically, show you highlights from his relentless, 23-carry, 153-yard performance in the Minnesota Vikings' 21-14 victory over the Arizona Cardinals less than 10 months after reconstructive knee surgery. For what it's worth, I will also (pretend to) fight you if you call him "AP," rather than his rightful nickname "AD."
2. As big of a bummer as it was for the Washington Redskins to lose tight end Fred Davis to an apparent Achilles tendon tear in Sunday's 27-23 defeat to the New York Giants, they are very fortunate that Chris Cooley was still there for the taking (he'll reportedly be back pending a physical on Monday).
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. How ridiculously good Cal's women's swimming program is going to be for the foreseeable future. The Golden Bears have won two consecutive NCAA titles, and three of the last four – and the news just keeps getting better. This year's team, led by 2012 Olympic medalist Caitlin Levernz, includes the top-ranked freshman class in the country, featuring Olympian Rachel Bootsma and fellow elite backstroker Elizabeth Pelton. And on Saturday news broke that the best female swimmer in the world, Missy Franklin, will turn down millions to compete for Cal. Nearly a decade ago, when I collaborated with future Olympic legend Natalie Coughlin on the book Golden Girl, I told you that Teri McKeever was the best coach in the country, and why. Now, it's obvious; it certainly was to Franklin, who won four gold medals in London while swimming for McKeever, who coached the U.S. women. It doesn't hurt that McKeever has the top assistant in the nation, Kristin Cunnane. There is so much to celebrate in Berkeley, where Dave Durden has also coached the Cal men to consecutive national titles and where, on Saturday, Kirk Everist coached Cal to a 14-8 water polo victory over Stanford in the annual Big Splash. As for that other Cal-Stanford clash on campus – um, I don't really want to talk about it (thanks bye).
That rookie wideouts Josh Gordon (Cleveland Browns) and Stephen Hill (New York Jets) dropped crucial fourth-quarter passes that helped doom their teams to defeat. No worries, guys, there are just a bunch of people's jobs on the line, but go ahead and develop the requisite professional focus on your own timetable. And just as troubling is that Cleveland coach Pat Shurmur compounded Gordon's error by getting unconscionably wimpy under pressure. After Gordon failed to come down with Brandon Weeden's gorgeously placed deep pass to the end zone with 6:38 remaining in a game the Browns trailed by four points to the Indianapolis Colts, Cleveland faced a fourth-and-1 from the Indy 41. Weeden lined up to take the snap, but as the final seconds of the play clocked ticked down, the quarterback felt rushed and called timeout. During that break, instead of discussing which play in his arsenal was most likely to keep the drive alive, Shurmur was losing his courage: He sent the punt team onto the field. Apparently, the football gods disapproved: Reggie Hodges shanked the ball and it went out of bounds at the Indy 20. Shurmur later justified his decision by noting that the Browns did get the ball back, venturing back into Colts territory before a fourth-and-6 play failed – but the coach missed the point. Television cameras showed new Cleveland owner Jimmy Haslam wincing when the punt team took the field on that fateful fourth-and-1, and he had every reason to be disappointed in Shurmur, whose fate he'll decide following the season. Yes, the ultimate arbiter of success is winning and losing, and Shurmur has good reason to fear for his job given his 5-18 career record after Sunday's 17-13 defeat. And yet, successful businessmen like Haslam tend to value boldness and assertiveness, especially in times of stress. Shurmur, like so many coaches, reacts to tough circumstances by getting gun shy and conservative. I don't get it – if you think there's a good chance your job is on the line, isn't it better to go down swinging? From what I've gleaned over the years, when the boss is thinking about making a change, coaching scared just confirms any negative feelings he/she might possess.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
If it seems like I'm picking on the Browns – well, blame them, not me. As faithful diatribe readers are well aware, falling for the ol' fake-go-for-it-draw-'em-offsides stunt is virtually guaranteed to provoke my ire, and Sunday's perpetrator (Browns rookie defensive tackle Billy Winn) is particularly culpable given the context. With 2:56 remaining in the first half and Indy up by a 14-6 score, the Colts lined up to go for it on fourth-and-1 from their own 23. Was interim Indy coach Bruce Arians prepared to have rookie quarterback Andrew Luck snap the ball in that situation? Yeah riiiiiggghhhttt. Cleveland middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, a shrewd and underrated veteran, knew this was an obvious trap, and he instructed Winn and the other Browns in the huddle not to fall into it. Naturally Winn, apparently hypnotized by Luck's hard count, jumped into the neutral zone anyway, giving the Colts a free first down. Indy didn't end up scoring on the drive, but that unconscionable brain freeze told you everything you need to know about the 2012 Browns. As Jackson said afterward via text, "That's why I'm freaking bald." There is some consolation for Winn, however: He can commiserate with teammate Phil Taylor, currently on the physically unable to perform list, who made a similar gaffe last year to help the Ravens clinch a victory over Cleveland, and with teammate Juqua Parker, who (then with the Eagles) did the same at the end of a 2011 defeat to the Buffalo Bills.
TEXT/DIRECT MESSAGE/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"you mad bro"
– Tweet Saturday afternoon from friend, colleague and hater extraordinaire Jason Cole, mimicking fellow Stanford alum Richard Sherman as the Big Game turned ugly for the good guys.
"I'm not going to like playing that guy I can see that now"
– Text Sunday evening from Giants defensive end Justin Tuck, after his first Robert Griffin III experience (a 27-23 Giants victory over the Redskins) .
"Hey he's drew brees… 100 million dollar man and probably still underpaid lol"
– Text Sunday evening from Saints linebacker Scott Shanle.
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