Everything has been lining up right for the Houston Texans to finally break through in the AFC South this season, from their defensive improvement to the transformation of the run game from novelty to reality. Riding the heels of a four-game winning streak, the Texans had opened up a two-game lead in the division, the largest in team history, when disaster struck.
Quarterback Matt Schaub, the first key in the rebuilding of the Houston team, was suddenly and mysteriously diagnosed with an injury that didn’t appear to affect him in the game, and which would eventually require surgery and end his season.
Now, even after a brief temptation with the recently released Kyle Orton, the Texans are ready to place their playoff hopes in the hands of Matt Leinert. Yes, that Matt Leinert. The one who burned more bridges in Arizona than we knew existed. The one who lost his job to Kurt Warner, twice, and Derek Anderson. The one Houston picked up off the street, and has been carefully rehabilitating on their bench.
Head coach Gary Kubiak is no stranger to working with odd commodities at quarterback. His decade in Denver as offensive coordinator managed the transition from John Elway to Brian Griese, and from Griese to Jake Plummer. And if Kubiak could coax winning seasons from Plummer — and he did, four of them in four years — the hope is that he can do the same with Leinert.
If there’s an analogous player to Leinert in recent pro history, Jake The Snake might be it. They’re both enigmatic personalities whose commitment to football was often called into question, even if their base level of talent wasn’t. Both guys are natural athletes who can flat out throw the ball. But their patience for dissecting defenses and avoiding mistakes were both called into question while playing as members of the Arizona Cardinals.
Kubiak took Plummer in and didn’t try to iron out all of the player’s quirks, but he was able to lighten the load on his shoulders, and make him into a useful player. Compare Jake’s last season in Arizona to his first season in Denver:
AZ 2002: 530 passes in 16 games, 53.5%, 2972 yards, 18 TDs, 20 INTs
DEN 2003: 302 passes in 11 games, 62.6%, 2186 yards, 15 TDs, 7 INTs
While still relying on the pass to win games, Kubiak didn’t force Plummer to be the focal point of the offense the way Arizona (who had little else to work with) had. His passes per game dropped from 33 in the desert to 27 at Mile High.
Even though he had a proven quarterback in Schaub, Kubiak has already been busily transforming Houston’s offense away from being so dependent on the pass as well. Schaub had averaged 36 passes per game from 2009-10 in Houston, but was throwing only 29 per contest this season.
Continuing his trend should make the pocket a friendlier place for Leinert than he had ever known in Arizona.
We don’t have much recent evidence to judge Leinert on, outside of relatively meaningless preseason stats. But one stat that does jump out from those preseason numbers is yards per attempt: while Schaub was getting yards from his passes at an 8.1 per attempt clip, right in line with his career average, Leinert (6.2 ypa) was shortening his stroke and avoiding mistakes.
If this experiment works out and Houston makes its way into the playoffs, Kubiak and Leinert will be feted, and a cursed football city will finally get some relief. If not… maybe Jake Plummer could use some help doing whatever it is he’s doing now.