Meet Matt Schaub, the most significant player in the NFL this season.
The Houston Texans are, in theory, ready to dance. Owner Bob McNair is one of the finest leaders in the NFL. The roster is rich, as general manager Rick Smith has put together a championship core with great surrounding parts. Arian Foster leads one of the most potent running games in football. Duane Brown is one of the game's best left tackles, if not the single greatest player at the marquee position. Andre Johnson is a star receiver. Brian Cushing is back, and thus so is the teeth of the Houston defense. J.J. Watt is a game-changing sack artist with Reggie White attributes and the ability to completely disrupt a game. Johnathan Joseph is a strong corner. Our Ian Rapoport reports that the other corner, Kareem Jackson, is having a great camp and is primed for a big season. Whenever he gets back on the field, Ed Reed will provide needed leadership and championship experience; even in the twilight of his career, the safety can show this team how to get over the proverbial hump.
Simply put: The Texans have the best roster in the AFC.
Still, there's a "yeah, but" attached to Houston. Conventional wisdom says this is a top-tier Super Bowl competitor. Yeah, but can Matt Schaub beat one of the living legends, Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, in the playoffs? Can he go on the road and knock off Joe Flacco and the defending champion Baltimore Ravens in Week 3? Can he take care of division rival Andrew Luck in December?
This is usually the time of year when the word "elite" overwhelms quarterback chatter. Which quarterbacks are elite? Who's declaring himself as such?
Nobody will argue for Matt Schaub in this discussion. Schaub is a very good, winning quarterback. The question isn't whether or not Schaub is elite, it's whether or not Schaub is capable of taking Houston to the one place the Texans expect to be in February: MetLife Stadium, for Super Bowl XLVIII.
Matt Schaub's 2012 season was somewhere between solid and strong. He finished tied for 15th in touchdown passes (with 22) while ranking 11th in passing yards (4,008) and sixth in completion percentage (64.3). Schaub threw just 12 picks in 544 passes.
That's all good. But it has to be better. Just ask Matt Schaub.
Schaub and I talked for a while last Thursday in a wide-ranging interview on my SiriusXM Radio show, "Schein on Sports." Nobody is more self-aware than the Texans quarterback.
Last year, the Texans were in position to get the coveted No. 1 seed, but they blew it by losing three of their last four regular-season games. Houston was blown out in New England, thumped at home by Minnesota and defeated in Indy in Week 17.
This team must mature and learn to properly deal with success and prosperity. The quarterback knows it.
"Everything's a process in this league, whether you're on an individual basis as a young player from your rookie year as you grow into your position and role, or as an organization, as you fight to make the playoffs, then you make the playoffs, then you try to put yourself in a position to win a championship," Schaub said. "It's all a process, and I think that's the next thing for this team, and we've addressed it, we've talked about it as guys on the team in the meetings and how we handle that situation the next time we are there.
"We'll find out come December what we learned from last year going through that, but I think we have the right people that are going to handle it the right way."
I thought Schaub gained necessary confidence and erased some of the sting of December's collapse by winning his first playoff game. And it wasn't so much that the Texans beat the Cincinnati Bengals -- it was how they clinched it. Facing a third-and-2 late in the fourth quarter, head coach and play caller Gary Kubiak didn't pound the ball with Foster like everyone expected. He dialed up play action, and Schaub threw a strike to tight end Garrett Graham for a first down. NBC cameras caught the usually stoic quarterback fist pumping with a deserved expression of satisfaction on his face.
Big deal, eh Matt?
"It was," Schaub confirmed last week. "To me, personally, after dealing with what I dealt with the year before, with my foot injury and coming back and fighting all the way back to that moment. How disappointing the last month had been. Winning the division, but falling short of the ultimate regular-season goal of getting a 1 seed. To go out there and win that game and have that play and to be put in that position to get the ball to Garrett to where we seal the deal. He made the play and took a pretty good hit for it, but it was a good moment. I guess that's what that expressed when the camera caught that, but I don't want to make too big a deal of it, because that was only one step in the climb towards a championship. But that was a big deal for me."
He needed it. Badly.
Schaub echoes my notion that this is the most complete team in the history of the Texans. He rightfully raves about the leadership and play on the line from Brown, left guard Wade Smith and center Chris Myers, and he gushes about how the young players on the right side "got trialed by fire, succeeded and are much more seasoned now, with a better understanding of what we do."
Schaub also thinks his passing attack deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as those of the Denver Broncos, Green Bay Packers, Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints and any other high-flying team you can think of.
"I think it's right there with them," Schaub said. "Obviously, we run the ball a little more than those other teams, with a guy like Arian and the way our scheme is operated. I think we are right there, as far as the pass game. I think our receiving corps is right up there with the best in the league."
The AFC is wide open. Frankly, compared to the NFC, I think it is very weak. The opportunity is there for Houston. Schaub craves a championship, knowing that the writing is on the wall with this group.
"At this point, after the last couple of years, it's a championship or nothing for us," Schaub said.
There's a positive vibe about Houston around the league. What's the vibe about Schaub?
A rival player told me this: "I like Matt. He's a good player. He got over a hump last year. I think that will help him get over the next one. And you can never underestimate his toughness."
As one general manager explained, "If DeAndre Hopkins steps up at receiver opposite Andre, that's big. Can Matt and Gary top Brady and (Bill) Belichick in the playoffs? I know Houston has a better defense and run game. Matt must be a positive in that spot. Last December was concerning."
Another GM says Schaub is not Brady or Aaron Rodgers and doesn't elevate his receivers: "He can spin the rock, but lacks the 'it' factor. Needs a great supporting cast and he has a chance. Not sure he has the receiving corps to get it done."
If you look at regular-season numbers from last year, Schaub was better than a certain quarterback named Flacco. Of course, the latter went on to throw 11 touchdowns against zero interceptions in the playoffs, carrying his Baltimore Ravens to an improbable Super Bowl title.
But the fact is, Schaub doesn't have to play like that to lead Houston to the Super Bowl. He needs to be clutch. He needs to deliver on those third-and-2's at winning time.
Schaub is entering his seventh season with Kubiak in Houston. Through it all, McNair and Smith have not waffled on the quarterback or the head coach, believing they have the right combination to take the franchise to the Super Bowl.
I believe in Matt Schaub. And I think this is the season in which he eliminates doubt.
Yeah, but ...
Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.