Chargers 29, Texans 23: If The Offense Can't Be Trusted, Then Why Is Kubiak Here?
See photos from the game and the tailgating competition in our slideshow.
The Andre Johnson drop-turned-interception was the epitome of fluke. The Arian Foster touchdown-that-wasn't was an awful call that resulted from a terrible rule.
But when the 4-4 Texans reflected on their heartbreaking (and potentially season-ending) loss to San Diego (4-5) on Sunday, it wasn't those two plays that topped the "what if?" list. Instead, it was the pair of 4th-and-1s deep in Charger territory in the fourth quarter that were each turned away.
"The two fourth-and-one plays that we didn't score on were the difference," right tackle Eric Winston said. "We had four possessions in the second half and we did not punt on any of them, but we only scored three points."
On the surface, it might seem silly to blame run blocking in a game in which Foster rushed 27 times for 127 yards.
However, a large question of the Kubiak regime has centered around whether the zone-blocking system includes the physicality needed to win big in the modern NFL. The Texans' line was tossed around like rag dolls against the defensive bullies of Dallas and New York. While it performed admirably for much of Sunday, it failed on two crucial occasions to get any semblance of a push.
It also could explain the seemingly bizarre decision-making from Kubiak in Indianapolis, when he drew heat from Houston fans for opting to pass on third- and fourth-and-short in the first quarter. Perhaps he doubted his line could handle a run blitz in a short-yardage situation.
Making matters worse, the Texans failed on Sunday in multiple ways. On the first attempt -- which came on the opening play of the fourth quarter with Houston up, 23-21 -- the Texans went to their power formation and sent Foster to the right behind Winston. Foster was tackled from behind by edge-rushing Shaun Phillips, but even if he wasn't, the holes were plugged.
Someone here can play this game, right?
With that in mind, the Texans on their second attempt -- trailing 29-23 with 3:30 left -- opted to take away a run blitz by hurrying to the line of scrimmage and leaving three receivers split wide. The hope was to spread the defense by lining up in a passing formation, giving quarterback Matt Schaub room to quickly find a hole.
But even in a non-blitz scenario, the Texans' offensive front was tossed backward, and Schaub went nowhere. Neither fourth-down attempt even came close.
"It was a bad call by me," Kubiak said. "We work on that in our two-minute drill. Goal-line quick, protect our edges, and run the quarterback sneak to move the chains down the field."
"It's one of those situations when you catch them in a personnel group and it's hard for them to regroup and stop it," Winston added. "I guess we give them credit for getting the guys down there to plug the hole."
Kubiak noted that he thought the Texans only needed a half-yard to pick up the first, whereas the yard marker made it clear that Houston was at least a full yard short.
In the big picture, the issue is that the Texans -- despite their big names and flashy statistics -- still lack an offensive identity. They can run the ball superbly at times, but too often struggle in short-yardage, obvious running situations.
Moreover, Schaub and his receivers have been wildly inconsistent, and frequently unable to take advantage of the matchups that a sound running game should give them. The dropped passes from Johnson and Joel Dreessen in the final two minutes were the latest evidence.
Given that, does it even make sense for Kubiak to go for fourth and a VERY long one to start the fourth quarter? A field goal would have been 35 yards -- almost a chip shot -- and extended the Texans lead to 26-21. Take that, and the Texans would only have needed field goals down the stretch -- not touchdowns.
Usually, the right call in the NFL is to go for fourth and short, especially with a bad defense like Houston's. But good coaches adapt to their personnel, and the Texans just don't have a go-to, short-yardage option.
They tried both Foster off-tackle and a Schaub quarterback sneak. Both failed. In the third quarter, the Texans had a third-and-one at the San Diego five-yard line with an opportunity to go up two touchdowns. In that instance, power back Derrick Ward sprinted left (opposite of Foster's later attempt) and was still stuffed behind the line. The Texans settled for a field goal -- their final points of the game.
The problem wasn't the playcalling, because the Texans went through a myriad of plays and in multiple directions. Rather, it was that the offensive line couldn't get enough of a push in key situations to give any of them a chance.
In the past, Texans fans have attributed such issues to the necessary evils of a zone-blocking system. But with a once-promising season apparently destined for more 8-8 mediocrity, the question must be asked as to whether the system can work on a frequent-enough basis for Houston to contend.
None of this excuses another poor performance by rookie cornerback Kareem Jackson and the dead-last Houston defense. However, Kubiak and the Texans are an offensive-oriented team. The majority of their stars are on that side of the ball, and it's where Kubiak's supposed expertise is.
As such, three points in the second half in a must-win game is unacceptable, just as it was in the first half in Indianapolis.
"We left plays and points out on the field," Schaub said.
If Kubiak can't solve issues on HIS side of the ball with HIS players and HIS system, how can owner Bob McNair trust him to oversee the entire operation?
The evidence is overwhelming. Barring a miraculous turnaround in the season's final eight games, the most intriguing subplot will be whether McNair cares enough to do something about it.