Supporting cast good enough to lead Texans with Schaub out

Each Tuesday, NFL Network reporter Albert Breer will share his thoughts on topics around the league as teams transition from the previous Sunday's game to the next encounter on the schedule. Today, he begins with why the Texans might not miss a beat without Matt Schaub.

The quarterback is as important in football as it's ever been. No one can argue that. But what the history has taught us is, more often than not, it can't be all about the guy calling signals on a championship team.

Terry Bradshaw has four rings thanks in large part to one of the game's all-time defenses. Joe Montana was part of an enduring program that won well past his retirement. In more recent vintage, the occasions in which John Elway, Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger won it all, they did it with teams capable of carrying the day even when the quarterback wasn't at his best.

That's the great shame of Matt Schaub's Lisfranc injury. He drove top five passing offenses in 2008, 2009 and 2010. Last year, he got a running game to complement that. This year, he finally got the defense. And so 2011, presumably, would be the year we'd find out just how far Schaub could take the Texans.

Instead, we'll find out how good the pieces around him are. And we'll find out how capable Matt Leinart is of driving a bus that's packed with talent. Folks in the organization have privately expressed confidence to others around the league that the ex-Cardinal draft bust can keep things on course.

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"If Andre Johnson is back, he'll be fine," said one rival personnel director, in a text message Monday night. "You'll probably see a lot more from them in the short passing game and running the ball. But the bye came at a good time. He has two weeks to prepare as the starter. ... As long as he uses his weapons and doesn't try to do too much, he can win."

This personnel director added he doesn't see the huge drop-off from Schaub to Leinart that others do -- "Not from a talent standpoint, no," he said -- but the 2004 Heisman Trophy winner does come with baggage from his four years in Arizona.

There, Leinart had a reputation as a "9-to-5" guy and "pretty boy", and carried the same derisive tag of "celebrity quarterback" that draft classmate Vince Young had. You could argue, of course, that with just 17 starts as a Cardinal, he didn't have a great chance to distinguish himself, particularly after it became clear Kurt Warner was the better option. But he didn't do much in the playing time he did get -- throwing 14 touchdowns and 20 picks, and completing 57.1 percent of his passes -- to merit more chances.

And the numbers might not be harsh enough for how he was viewed by scouts and coaches then. As one NFC personnel executive described how defenses would attack Leinart in Arizona: "He is gun shy, so hit him early, and it's over." That said, the exec continued, "He does have talent around him (in Houston), and that will help."

The point brings us back to the original line of reasoning -- how the environment and team structure around a quarterback is so important.

It's really too bad that now, given the right mix around him, we probably won't get to see Schaub -- statistically one of the most productive QBs of the past half-decade -- with the advantages a lot of his peers have had. On the other hand, Leinart gets his shot, and maybe the final one he'll get, to prove there was a reason he came off the board in the top 10 just five years ago.

Sean Payton: Back where he belongs

Sean Payton returned to the sidelines Sunday for the first time since undergoing knee surgery.
Sean Payton returned to the sidelines Sunday for the first time since undergoing knee surgery. (John Bazemore/Associated Press)

For what it's worth, the Saints were 2-2 in the games Sean Payton was forced from the sideline, including the one in which tore his meniscus and broke his tibia. They're now 5-1 with their coach starting and finishing the game with them, on the field.

Circumstantial? Maybe. But the original plan, as most folks with the club had been apprised of it as late as Sunday morning, was for Payton to spend the Atlanta game in the booth and return to the sideline following the team's Week 11 bye. And the fact that he pushed it to be on field at the Georgia Dome is a pretty strong indication of how valued he is down there.

Following the team's win, defensive end Will Smith joked that Payton "talks too much," and there might've been some people who were happy to have him upstairs.

But for Drew Brees, it was a pretty pleasant surprise to see the coach, dressed in gym shorts, a t-shirt, a visor, and a bulky knee brace, close by again.

"He's talked about it, but that's just because he's a competitor. If anything, I thought it'd be wishful thinking for him to be down there, and that he'd be in the box again," Brees told me. "And then all of a sudden, the game starts, and there he is on the sideline. Obviously, just his presence, he's our head coach and we all look up to him a great deal.

"And certainly throughout the course of the game, the ebb-and-flow, he's got his hand in everything. He's coaching everybody, and you see things on the field you don't see up in the box. I think he missed that fire, that part of it. It was great having him down there. Obviously, I heard from him quite a bit, but it was all good."

In the aforementioned four-game stretch, Brees threw six interceptions. With Payton back on the sideline, Brees didn't throw any, while completing 70 percent of his passes for 322 yards in the club's biggest win of the year.

Again, it might be circumstantial. But it's indisputable that the Atlanta game was vital for a Saints team that was still searching for its stride, and Payton's presence was, at the very least, acknowledgment of that. Now, the club gets its bye, having hit that stride, with the Giants and Lions in a six-day stretch on the other end.

"I think this bye week is coming at the perfect time," Brees said. "We can get healthy, get away -- but not too far away. I think we realized today what we can accomplish with this team. We've got a special group. It's gonna be what we make it."

Dolphins eyeball ex-Chief?

Carl Peterson's name has been a much-discussed one since Stephen Ross bought the Dolphins, given the owner's close relationship with the former Chiefs general manager, the team's struggles, and the possibility that the organization might need -- among other things -- a top-of-the-flowchart tone-setter to replace Bill Parcells.

For now, Peterson is simply a business partner of Ross' in ventures such as the FanVision product that allow folks to track other games and players across the league from the stadium. But few have doubted that the business relationship could eventually evolve into a football relationship.

If Ross is considering it, he'd be well-served to keep an eye on what becomes of the Chiefs over the next seven weeks, because that Kansas City club will be leaning fairly heavily on the final remnants of the Peterson Era.

Tony Moeaki and Eric Berry, acquired by Scott Pioli, are done for the year, and chances are Matt Cassel is as well. Peterson draft pick Jamaal Charles is too, of course, but with Tyler Palko at quarterback, there will likely be more pressure on veterans like Dwayne Bowe and the defense. And if you look on that side of the ball, you see Glenn Dorsey, Brandon Flowers, Brandon Carr, Tamba Hali and Derrick Johnson, all guys drafted by Peterson that Pioli and Todd Haley have stuck with.

The Chiefs' schedule is brutal the rest of the way: at New England, Pittsburgh, at Chicago, at the Jets, Green Bay, Oakland and at Denver. But the team does control its destiny, and if it can ride that bumpy road out, King Carl's résumé will look a little better than it does today. And maybe -- just maybe -- that has some effect on how things in Miami play out.

Tall task for Jets

I'll tell you who I wouldn't want to be this week -- a Jets defensive coach.

For all the jokes you hear about the Broncos playing caveman football on Sunday in Kansas City, there's a reason why they played the option game, and why so many at other levels of the game swear by some form of it. If run correctly, it works, and it is an absolute terror to prepare for.

So now, the Jets come off a devastating loss in a Sunday night game, have to turn around and get ready for Tim Tebow doing the things he did at Florida, travel three-quarters of the way across the country on three days rest and try to actually turn the trick.

A couple weeks ago, I discussed the option game with Tebow's offensive coordinator, Mike McCoy, and he said, "The one thing that's different is the level of talent here, he can't just run away from everyone, or run over guys. We have to teach him to be judicious with it. But we can do it. Certain plays aren't going to work against certain teams, but we've gotten a lot of good ideas from what he did at Florida."

To me, this is a fascinating storyline to watch going forward. The Wildcat craze of a couple years back hinted to us that an option-style of game works conceptually in the NFL. But in most cases, the option QBs were throwers and not passers. While Tebow's not Peyton Manning back there, he has been trained to sling it from those sets, so it's a different element he adds in what should be more of a true test of this kind of offense.

We'll see what happens. What I know now is it probably is a pretty unwelcome development for Rex Ryan and Co.

AFC playoff picture becoming clearer

Bad news for the clubs in the AFC South and West -- It looks like the AFC North and East could have five teams with 10 wins, making it much more difficult for anyone from the other divisions to grab a wild card.

Thursday, Dec. 13, 8 p.m. ET
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Just look at the schedules:

BALTIMORE: Cincinnati, San Francisco, at Cleveland, Indianapolis, at San Diego, Cleveland, at Cincinnati
CINCINNATI: at Baltimore, Cleveland, at Pittsburgh, Houston, at St. Louis, Arizona, Baltimore
NEW ENGLAND: Kansas City, at Philadelphia, Indianapolis, at Washington, at Denver, Miami, Buffalo
JETS: at Denver, Buffalo, at Washington, Kansas City, at Philadelphia, Giants, at Miami
PITTSBURGH: Bye, at Kansas City, Cincinnati, Cleveland, at San Francisco, St. Louis, at Cleveland

Chances are, four of the six AFC playoff teams will come from that group. That should leave Oakland, San Diego, Kansas City, Houston and Tennessee fighting for the other two spots and, most likely, the home games on wild-card weekend.

Five one-liners

1) Caught a lot of folks' attention when I said next year is the start of decision time for the Jets on Mark Sanchez -- and I'd add to that point, from a contractual standpoint, that's where the Falcons and Ravens are with Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco now.

2) If you ask me to pick whether it'll be Detroit or Buffalo rolling with these November punches, give me the Lions, because of the lead horses (Ndamukong Suh, Calvin Johnson, Matthew Stafford, etc.) they have.

3) I've said it since the start of the season, I'll say it again: The Redskins have committed to slow-building that thing, counter to the way the club has been run for most of the Dan Snyder era, and need to stay the course through their struggles.

4) I loved what I saw from Colt McCoy in preseason, and I know he won the staff over, but I also believe, based on the events of the past two months, that the Browns will be back in the quarterback market in April.

5) Every single football coach, GM or exec I've talked to in the past week has expressed shock over the Penn State situation, though in part because NFL folks weren't very welcome at the remote campus, all also said there was no way to see any of this coming.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer