With the bulk of our talk in the books, I decided to ask one last overarching question to Texans general manager Rick Smith, as he got ready to take care of some family business.
His answer to this one -- How confident are you that your team is built to withstand the loss of Matt Schaub? -- left me scrambling back over my notes to see that, yes, he was very clear in his beliefs.
"If you can't tell that based on what we've talked about, then I don't know what to tell you," Smith confidently and politely shot back. "If we were ever built to deal with something like this, we are right now. With the way we're playing on defense, the weapons we have on offense, what we do offensively, this team's confidence level has really grown. What's most impressive to me about this team is how it works, how it stays focused. I'd expect that'll remain the same with this."
The Texans lost Schaub for five games in his first year in Houston, and five games in his second year. This particular team has dealt with the losses of its two top talents already, with Mario Williams out for the year and Andre Johnson shelved since the first Sunday in October.
This, of course, is different. The Texans were under .500 entering each of the four stretches they lost Schaub in the past, twice in 2007 and twice in 2008, and they're 7-3 now. And as good as Williams and Johnson are, it's that much harder to overcome attrition at Schaub's position.
Smith understands all that. He believes enough in the roster he and Gary Kubiak have spent the past six seasons building to look past the circumstances.
"I think our football team is capable of responding," Smith said. "We lost Mario, and we're still good defensively. We lost Andre, and the offense continues to be productive. Matt's a good player, but this is the nature of the game, and if guys aren't able to play, the others have to respond. What our team has shown is the resolve and depth to react to these situations."
Aside from the intangible "resolve," Smith points to two factors in his belief that the Texans are still capable of playing with anyone in the AFC: The players that were around Schaub, and the one who will replace him. We'll get to Matt Leinart in a minute.
Go back to Schaub's first three years as a Texan. In those respective seasons, the defense ranked 24th, 22nd, and 13th (and bottomed out at 30th last year), and the running game checked in at 22nd, 13th, and 30th. In 2010, behind Arian Foster, they got the running game up to Kubiak-in-Denver standards. This year, with Wade Phillips taking over and the personnel tweaked to fit his 3-4, the defense has caught up.
The Texans' running game (3rd in the NFL) now outranks its passing game (15th), and the defense is ranked atop the league, even though it's been without Williams the past five games. Is Schaub important? Sure. But he also threw no more than 30 passes in any of the Texans' seven wins, and slung it less than 25 times in five of those victories. That's a result, of course, of the team's newfound balance -- he averaged 36 passes a game in each of the past two years.
And that brings us to Leinart's ability to do enough with those 20-30 chances to throw the ball for the Texans to keep what they've built going. One good sign: Leinart signed with Houston in September 2010, after being cut in Arizona, and hit the free agent market this summer, with the Texans having seen enough to bring him back.
"We saw significant progress last year," Smith explained. "He learned our system, how we prepare, how we ask guys to get themselves ready in those spots. And one thing that we decided at the end of the season was that it'd be a priority to re-sign Matt, and have him come back as a backup. We have all the confidence in the world he can get this done."
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The reputation Leinart had in Arizona wasn't exactly stellar. As I detailed last week, word circulated widely in the league that the former Heisman winner was a "pretty boy" who didn't spend enough time at his craft, carrying a sense of entitlement from his days of collegiate superstardom.
The Texans have seen something else from the former first-round pick, whose talent has never been seen as the problem. Whether or not Leinart saw the light, or was simply judged differently behind Kurt Warner with the Cardinals, isn't altogether clear. But Houston hasn't had the same issues, according to the GM.
"Ever since he's been here, from a preparation standpoint, the guy has come in and worked extremely hard," Smith said. "Every practice, after practice, he's working with the quarterbacks coach and the young receivers. That's what I've seen from him, and it's why we expect him to play well. He's put in the work.
"I don't know where (the reputation) came from. But this guy's been working here, he's been in the building with (Schaub) at 6 a.m. He's there early and out late. I'm not here to judge what he was before, but I know what he's been while he's been here, and I'm excited for him."
So can it work? A 3-3 split down the stretch would likely be enough to get the Texans the AFC South title. Winning four or five could put Houston in position for a bye.
And as for what happens if the Texans can qualify for the big dance for the first time in their decade in the NFL, that's where Smith feels really good about his new quarterback, who played for national championships in each of his three years as USC's starter. The bright lights, you'd surmise, won't be too bright for this one.
"Where that's apparent is when he walks in the huddle. He's calm, he's confident, he's the leader," Smith said. "His teammates pick up on that. That's where you see the benefit of his experiences at SC."
And the way this Texans team is built should, in turn, be to Leinart's benefit. What will he do with the opportunity? Smith and those around Houston seem to have very little doubt that Leinart will do plenty.