Texans 34, Jaguars 17: Will Strong Finish Outweigh Weeks of Futility?
The beast could be about to rear its ugly head yet again.
A week ago, the thought was that eight losses in nine games -- including two consecutive against doormats Tennessee and Denver -- was a feat embarrassing enough that even Gary Kubiak and his long leash wouldn't be able to withstand it.
But late in the week, the Houston Chronicle and other news outlets reported that McNair was likely to retain Kubiak, pending the result in Sunday's season finale in Reliant Stadium.
As they usually do when the stakes are low, the Texans (6-10) dominated.
The offensive performance was remarkable. Matt Schaub's unit racked up 497 total yards, with a nearly even split of 253 in the air and 244 on the ground. Arian Foster ran roughshod through the Jacksonville (8-8) defense, picking up 180 yards and two touchdowns.
Foster's 1,616 rushing yards for the season were the most by an undrafted player in NFL history and clinched the rushing title for the 2010 year. It also marked a dramatic reversal from 2009, when the then 9-7 Texans were unable to mount any kind of a run game.
So why did the Texans, with a suddenly resurgent rushing offense, somehow slide backward by three games, in a season where so many predicted them as a 10- or 11-win playoff team?
Aside from a brutal schedule, the answer is a historically bad defense that on Sunday narrowly avoided becoming the first unit in NFL history to give up 24 points in 15 games. (They'll have to settle for tying the league record of 14.)
Kubiak, a former quarterback, is regarded around the league as an offensive-minded coach, and he and hand-picked general manager Rick Smith built the 2010 team as such.
In the offseason, the Texans let veteran cornerback Dunta Robinson depart for the suddenly 13-3 Falcons, and turned over the reins at the defense's premium positions to exclusively first- and second-year players.
At the corner spots, even the league's elite typically take into their second and third years to become starting-caliber. Instead, the Texans put immense responsibility in the hands of youngsters like Kareem Jackson, Glover Quin and Brice McCain.
The safety and outside linebacker spots were again neglected and left in the hands of late-round draft picks or bargain-basement free agent signings like Troy Nolan, Bernard Pollard, Eugene Wilson and Zac Diles.
When pass-rushing defensive end Connor Barwin went down for the season in Week 1 with a broken leg, the Texans had the opportunity to sign proven veteran Aaron Schobel, but decided he was too expensive.
As they have throughout their history, the Texans decided against making free agent splashes, naively believing they could develop several longshot, late-round players in their system.
It didn't work, with the league's 29th-ranked defense lacking both talent and leadership.
"It's pretty obvious we have some problems on defense," Kubiak said following the game. "We have some serious problems. We struggled all year on defense."
On Sunday, the defense looked improved, allowing just 322 yards and only 140 against the pass. But the Texans were facing Jacksonville backup Trent Edwards, a former first-round bust that might be the second-worst QB the Texans faced all season.
If history is any guide, McNair may not take the competition and the limited sample size into consideration.
In the past three years, the Texans lauded strong finishes by Kubiak as reasons to keep him around, believing that the problems that caused their slow starts had been solved.
That appears unlikely to fully happen this time, with defensive coordinator Frank Bush almost certain to be fired, potentially replaced by native son Wade Phillips. Phillips would represent a proven coordinator, which the Texans haven't had under Kubiak. In theory, that should help.
But the defensive woes for the Texans go beyond merely schemes. The entire organizational blueprint for how to build a defense has clearly gone horribly wrong, and someone -- whether it be Kubiak, Smith, or both -- should be held accountable.
That's happened already in places like San Francisco, Denver and Carolina, where underwhelming seasons have led to coaching dismissals.
It rarely ever happens in Houston, though, because McNair usually allows short-term successes to override years of trends.
Even with the win, the Texans -- who could have drafted as high as No. 6 overall with a loss -- appear set to draft at No. 11, giving them ample opportunity to find a defensive playmaker.
But if the management structure remains intact, does such a draft pick matter, given recent selections such as Jackson? And if an impact safety is available, would the Texans actually spend a high draft pick on one?
Kubiak insisted on Sunday that he hadn't learned his fate, and would meet with McNair on Monday to decide his future.
Texans fans should know shortly whether McNair has truly learned from his many prior mistakes.