The Houston Texans were headed for a biceps-flexing victory over the powerful Seattle Seahawks on Sunday, clinging to what remained of a 17-point second-half lead while marching toward a potential game-clinching field goal, when a calamitous chain of events underscored all that is maddening about this tantalizingly talented team.
It's a feeling, incidentally, to which at least one other would-be contender can relate: The Cincinnati Bengals, who received another reminder Sunday -- in a 17-6 defeat to the Cleveland Browns -- that third-year quarterback Andy Dalton isn't good enough to allow them to compete, in the bigger picture, with the NFL's elite.
At least Dalton, a 2011 second-round draft pick who has started from the get-go, still carries a shred of theoretical potential. In the case of 32-year-old Schaub, now in his seventh season as the Texans' starter, we pretty much know what his upside is -- and it's essentially holding down a team's ambitions.
Back when the Texans were the perpetual underdogs trying to break into the postseason for the first time in franchise history, Schaub wasn't so much of an anchor. He ran Kubiak's offense proficiently, was consistently productive and moved well enough in the pocket not to be a total liability. The standards were lower, and Schaub routinely exceeded them.
Last season, however, Schaub played poorly down the stretch, and a team that looked Super heading into December flamed out with a 2-4 finish, bookended by resounding defeats to the New England Patriots (the latter in a divisional-round clash). Houston entered this season with a stacked roster that includes defensive end J.J. Watt, the 2012 NFL Defensive Player of the Year -- but without having upgraded the most important position.
As we saw Sunday, that means the Texans (2-2) can only do so much. After outplaying the undefeated Seahawks all afternoon, Houston led 20-13 and faced a third-and-4 from the Seattle 40 with 2:51 left in regulation. One conversion, and the Texans likely could have bled the clock while settling into field-goal range.
With Schaub looking about as comfortable as a man preparing for a colonoscopy, the smart play was to have him hand the ball to Arian Foster and let the star halfback try to run for the sticks behind a powerful offensive line.
Instead, Kubiak went with the precise play that Sherman hoped he would, which called for Schaub to execute a play-fake to his left (to Foster) before rolling right and looking for veteran tight end Owen Daniels on a swing pass.
Later, when I asked Sherman (via text) if he was surprised that the Texans would throw it in that situation, he replied, "I was, but it's a play (on which) I picked (off the pass) in practice."
Chancellor did his part by blitzing and rushing straight at Schaub rather than falling for the fake. At that point, the quarterback should have cut his losses and either taken a sack or thrown the ball away. Instead, he floated a high, lazy pass toward Daniels, and Sherman swallowed it up like a "First Take" interview question.
Sherman scooted for the tying score -- the third interception for a touchdown that Schaub had thrown in three games. The cornerback's right shoe stayed behind on the turf, a symbolic remnant for the benefit of Schaub, who was about to get kicked around by a grumpy fan base.
And, of course, people in my business felt compelled to point out the obvious: It's tough to imagine the Texans getting past the divisional round of the playoffs (their final destination in each of the past two seasons) with this kind of quarterback play.
In reality, the bulk of the anger shouldn't be directed at Schaub. Rather, Texans fans should be ticked off at general manager Rick Smith, who didn't explore other options, and Kubiak, who clearly has more faith in his quarterback than logic suggests he should.
It was telling that after Sunday's game, Daniels admitted to CSNHouston.com that he thought Kubiak should have called a running play on third-and-4.
"We run the plays that are called, that they tell us to run," Daniels said. "I'm not the coach, but we have a pretty darn good running back and guys up front, and that's a situation where I wish we would have run it."
The Bengals, as I told you before the season in picking them (somewhat ambitiously, it turns out) to win the AFC, might have more top-to-bottom talent than any team in the conference. Alas, when your quarterback is holding you back, it's hard to compete with the Bradys and the Mannings -- or, on Sunday, even the anonymous guy under center for that other team from Ohio.
In losing to a Browns squad that eight days earlier was presumed to have given up on its season (after having traded running back Trent Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts), the Bengals (2-2) had almost nothing to offer offensively. That was largely on Dalton, who was outplayed by a journeyman, Brian Hoyer, making his third career start.
Though the Bengals spent high draft picks last April on a halfback (Giovani Bernard) and tight end (Tyler Eifert) to complement star wideout A.J. Green and give Dalton additional firepower, Dalton's not showing signs of developing into anything more than a decent quarterback. And it isn't just a matter of putting forth underwhelming performances in games: Sources say Dalton also routinely produces uneven efforts on the practice field and that coaches, rather than admonishing him to improve, tend to offer primarily positive reinforcement.
If so, they're in denial. Kubiak might be, as well.
Most people who watched Schaub and Dalton play on this particular Sunday, however, received a cold, hard dose of reality.
Right now, without question, they're just not good enough. Speaking of which, here are our weekly queries, beginning with the team Schaub had such a splendid opportunity to defeat and descending to the flailing franchise that resorted to offering free booze to seduce its suffering patrons:
Forgive Adam Schein. He merely was using logic to question Denver's elite status -- a silly conceit, he now knows. READ