The Houston Texans are in one of the rarest positions in sports. They are good, but not good enough. They need to get better, but they can't make any big changes.
As Texans' seasons have gone from being about just making the playoffs to being about winning the Super Bowl, the Texans have experienced the magnifying effects of success and expectation. Rapidly, the answer on Matt Schaub has gone from "certainly yes" (Can he take you to the playoffs?) to "not so sure" (Can he win you a Super Bowl?). The questions about Gary Kubiak used to be general (Is he too much of a player's coach?) and now they've become specific (Is he irrationally eager to send out the kicking teams? Does he put enough pressure on the opposing coaching staff?)
Perhaps in a less successful context, the Texans would make serious evaluations of these two issues. But this is the irony of the Texans' situation: They've had enough success to reveal their tiniest flaws, and yet they can't mess with success. What are they going to do, fire Kubiak? Draft a quarterback in the first round?
It's too late for that. They're too close. They've built too much. You know, a lot of people thought Ringo Starr was a bad drummer. But once you've become The Beatles, you don't fire a Beatle. I don't mean to say the Texans are the football equivalent of The Beatles, I just mean to say that success has a way of pushing organizations past the point of no return.
The Texans, in every way but the ultimate way, are a success.
"We have to go back and put a team together next year that has a very strong nucleus right now that gives us a chance to be, in my opinion, successful for a long time," Kubiak said.
Kubiak on Monday dismissed the notion the Texans would take a quarterback in the draft with an eye toward replacing Schaub. It was a fair question, given the way Schaub performed in the playoffs, but it's the right call. By the time that new quarterback was ready to win a Super Bowl, Andre Johnson would be retiring and Arian Foster would be pushing 30.
The Texans are, in a way, trapped by their own success. A bad team could easily part with Schaub and Kubiak. But when you're this close?
"Our whole team has got to get better that includes coaching and players for us to take the next step," coach Gary Kubiak said. "And Matt is part of the team, but I've got a lot of confidence in him."
This period (roughly 2010-2015) is the Texans' big push. For better or for worse, this is what they are until they decide to sell everything off and start over again. It's Gary Kubiak, Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson and Arian Foster and it's that defense. Ride or die.
The Texans can improve in subtle ways. They'll probably make some changes in the secondary. There will be some changes on the offensive line. They're still looking for a No. 2 receiver. I am not saying the Texans can't get better.
But, look, this is a 13-5 team. You can't realistically expect to get much better than that. Maybe next year they take a quarterback in the sixth round, Schaub gets hurt, and that quarterback ends up being Tom Brady and leads the Texans to the Super Bowl and they trade Schaub to the Buffalo Bills in exchange for a first-round pick. Maybe something crazy like that happens.
But probably not.
Instead, whatever time these Texans have left together two, three, four years? has to be spent tinkering. Scheming. And hoping Peyton Manning and Tom Brady hurry up and retire.
The Texans have been the next big thing in the AFC since about 2006. And they just have not been able to make any headway on Manning and Brady. That's what it's going to take. They're going to have to find a way to beat those guys, and they're going to have to find a way to do it mostly with the players they have now.
We should appreciate the nobility of the endeavor. This is the only team Gary Kubiak has ever coached. He grew up just in Houston. This is the only team Andre Johnson has played for. If Arian Foster remains in Houston for the remainder of his contract, it might be the only NFL team he plays for too. The best players on the defense are mostly Texans draft picks.
There is an organic feel to the Texans. You know, it's a young franchise, and nobody knows really what it means to be a Houston Texan the way they know what it means to be a Steeler or a Cowboy or a Raider. This is the group that will define that, or is trying to.
But no one remembers a loser (except for the Buffalo Bills). For this great push to have meant anything, it has to end with a Super Bowl trophy. It's just that if the Texans are going to get there, they're going to get there looking a lot like they do now.
"Tweaks here and there, some players we lost here and there, and some plays," said safety Danieal Manning. "That's pretty much how everybody's season will end at some point. That's what happened to us."