In an era of professional football, where high-flying offenses rule, injuries and misfortunes to the game's most-heralded position have not been kind to the AFC South. It started with the dismissal of the Titans' first round pick Vince Young, continued with the Colts losing Peyton Manning for the year after neck surgery, and finished with a surprising move by the Jaguars to release starter David Garrard. Now, the misfortune lands in Houston, Texas. Matt Schaub is reportedly out for the year with a foot injury.
At 7-3 the Texans were running up talk about being the best team in the AFC. They've had an unstoppable backfield matched with smart quarterback play and a resurrected defense that currently ranks first in the fewest yards allowed per game (despite losing Mario Williams for the season). It seemed that they had the perfect balance of offense and defense and that those of who picked them to win their division for the last three or four years would finally be justified. But after the loss of Schaub, the Texans suddenly find their season jeopardy.
Schaub's status in quarterback rankings statically put him in the top ten, with a passer rating of 89.9 and 15 touchdowns to 6 interceptions. His theoretical status finds him short of elite but above average, jumbled in there with Joe Flacco, Tony Romo, Matt Ryan and Eli Manning. The questions surrounding Schaub are the same that surround every quarterback, especially those complimented with superior offensive weapons. Does he have the leadership to take them to a Super Bowl? What about his accuracy? His decision making? Can he preform under pressure? How will he handle the no-huddle offense when the game is on the line? Those questions will have to go unanswered until this time next year.
In his place is Matt Leinart. The former Heisman Trophy winner, former first round draft pick, and current NFL bust is eager to prove himself. This may be his last chance. Leinart hasn't thrown a pass of consequence since 2009 and has a short pedigree of 17 starts, winning seven of them. His legacy, or lack thereof, is one that started with a holdout after being the 10th overall pick by the Cardinals in 2006, and ended with him losing his starting job to Derek Anderson, who is currently battling to be the second-string QB in Carolina. Leinart was released in 2010 and subsequently claimed by the Texans shortly thereafter.
The issues with Leinart aren't so much about his physical skill as they are about his mental toughness. His heart and his desire to learn and improve as a player are what have been questioned since his days at USC. He has been perceived as being lazy and unenthusiastic. Tie that to a career 14 touchdowns to 20 interceptions and it's no wonder his time on the field has been cut short.
There is good news. The Texans will have a full two weeks to prepare Leinart before traveling to Jacksonville. Hopefully by then all-star wide receiver Andre Johnson will be healthy enough to play. On top of that, Leinart will inherit a ferocious running game, highlighted by Arian Foster and complimented by Ben Tate. There is no question that defenses will key on stopping the third ranked rushing offense and force Leinart to throw, so the tests will come early and often.
If there is a good time to lose a starting quarterback, the Texans found it. Aside from a bye week to rest and prepare, they have a game lead over the Titans who face a tough team in Atlanta. The Texans will meet that same fate in three weeks when they host the Falcons after a challenging road game in Jacksonville. From there the schedule stiffens when they travel to Cincinnati to face one the league's toughest defenses. But there are signs of life. The Texans finish the season against three teams who currently have a combined record of 7-21. The grand finale will be in Houston against the Titans, a game that could represent the battle for the division.
From offensive play-makers, Foster and Johnson, to the defensive leadership of Williams, the Texans have been cursed with the most significant of injuries a team can have. Add Schaub to that unfortunate list and you have a full slate of excuses for them to miss the playoffs. Expectations going forward might be slightly tempered. Unless you're Leinhart. He's a young quarterback with a second chance looking to prove himself. In a way, he's a perfect fit for the Texans, who are also looking to prove themselves. In another way, Leinart has done nothing in his career that would suggest he could carry any team to a play off victory.
But it could be worse. They could have Curtis Painter. I, for one, am looking forward to seeing Leinhart's first playoff appearance. I have faith in the southpaw and a head coach in Gary Kubiak who knows how to get the most out of his players. There is no question in my mind that the Texans will be the victors of the AFC South. Barring more injuries of course.