Texans' wise investment

Jason Cole

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Houston Texans quarterback Matt Schaub may not have a lot behind what he says, dodging the slightest hint of controversy with one bland answer after another.

But as Schaub worked his way through three postgame radio shows, a TV appearance and a news conference, and even agreed to follow a Houston television reporter back to the station after the 2-0 Texans flew home, he demonstrated one important quality.

Schaub can make the connection again and again. He did that in the most important sense Sunday, completing 20-of-28 passes for 227 yards and two touchdowns in a 34-21 win over Carolina. Through two games, Schaub is a scorching 42-of-54, displaying the kind of skills Houston spent five years hoping to get from David Carr.

In a more general sense, Schaub has been making the connection since the moment he arrived in an offseason trade. He called each member of the offense to introduce himself, developing a bond Carr never had.

As a result, the Texans are in a position they've never been in. Next Sunday, they host the defending champion Colts for the early lead in the AFC South. It may be only Week 3, but after five years of listless play, Houston will take it.

"You just knew from the beginning he was going to be different," said Houston wide receiver Andre Johnson, who helped his team rebound from a 14-0 deficit with two touchdowns. Unfortunately, Johnson limped away from his seven-catch, 120-yard performance with a strained right posterior cruciate ligament.

"Matt is real calm, and you can tell he wants to be here," Johnson said, making an obvious parallel to Carr, who stood on the Carolina sideline Sunday as a backup. "With David, he wasn't around the team as much as Matt. He wasn't with the guys like Matt is."

Or as tight end Owen Daniels put it: "I knew he was the right guy before I even met him."

After Schaub was acquired in a March trade, signing a six-year, $48 million contract extension in the process, he started dialing more numbers than a teenage girl with a new cell phone. The conversations weren't long – maybe a one-minute message or a five-minute chat – but the calls made an impression.

"It was kind of shocking that he'd take the time to do that with everybody," Johnson said.

Said Daniels: "I was like, wow, we needed that kind of leadership, especially at that position."

Schaub showed leadership in another way, deflecting any notion of self-importance when asked if he felt like "the man" yet.

"We have a lot of good players on this team," Schaub said.

Of course, leadership is only as good as one's on-field performance, and Schaub's has been exemplary. Moreover, he's not completing meaningless dump passes like Joey Harrington, his replacement in Atlanta. Given everything that's happened, the Falcons may rue the Schaub trade for a long time.

Schaub also performed under difficult circumstances, as the first 10 minutes of this game had the makings of a Carolina blowout. Wide receiver Steve Smith was toying with Houston cornerback Demarcus Faggins, scoring twice with ease. Houston also contributed a Daniels fumble.

That's when Schaub went to the defense and apologized for the poor start. It wasn't the deepest conversation, but it played to the spirit of the moment.

"When he said that, it made everybody hang together," Texans cornerback Dunta Robinson said. "When you have a guy like that, stepping up like a leader, you want to play hard for him."

Said Schaub: "It's a team game, and there are no divisions between the defense and the offense. I wanted those guys to know that. We put them in a bad situation with the turnover, and I wanted them to know, 'I got your back and you're going to have mine at some point.' "

Schaub responded by hitting Johnson on two of three plays during a 65-yard drive, including a 32-yard score as Johnson ran untouched through Carolina's suspect secondary.

On Houston's next drive, Schaub evened the game by leading a 16-play, 80-yard drive. Schaub overcame his worst play of the day – a pass that appeared to be intercepted before it was overturned on review – and eventually hit Johnson for a 9-yard score.

After a field goal gave Houston the lead just before half, Schaub helped put the game away with a critical run to open the second half.

Carolina went three-and-out to open the second half and then Houston drove 56 yards in five plays, running back Ahman Green basically walking into the end zone on a 13-yard run for a 24-14 lead. Schaub was 3-for-3 for 39 yards on the drive and showed his patience with one subtly terrific play.

With Johnson wide left and running a deep out, Daniels ran a delayed pattern underneath. Schaub looked at Johnson, forcing Panthers safety Deke Cooper to cheat to Johnson's side.

Most quarterbacks, particularly young ones with something to prove, might have forced the ball to Johnson. Schaub went the other way, flipping a 12-yard completion to Daniels.

"I was just trying to hit the open guy," said Schaub with an answer that would have made Joe Montana proud.

Then again, that's the message Schaub had from the beginning.

"That's exactly what he said he was going to do when we first talked," Johnson said. "Matt doesn't act like a young guy who hasn't played. He acts like a guy who has been around, and he said he's going to involve everybody. He told me that, and when you do that, it's a lot more fun for everybody."

And right now, every Texan seems to be having plenty of fun.