Leinart injury takes air out of Texans' lofty playoff hopes
Texans need defense, run game to step up even more after Matt Leinart's injury
Patrick Peterson is neck-and-neck with Devin Hester for top return man this year
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Gary Kubiak's voice sounded defeated, deflated on the phone from Jacksonville, where his team had just defeated the Jaguars with a heavy heart. For the final 31 minutes of the 20-13 victory, the Texans' quarterback was rookie T.J. Yates, playing his first NFL game. The backup quarterback: tight end Owen Daniels. Nine years ago, Daniels had thrown six passes as a redshirt freshman at Wisconsin, but now this was the Houston backup plan if Yates, suddenly the most important player on the franchise, went down.
"Our first job was to settle T.J. down and get him going,'' Kubiak said, "and to make sure he was OK. We don't want Owen Daniels to have to play quarterback. So we had to manage things there.''
Imagine you're Kubiak. You've lost defensive cornerstone Mario Williams for the year, and offensive key Andre Johnson for six weeks, already this season; and in the last game, you lost your rock at quarterback, Matt Schaub, for the season. You get the ship steadied by spending two weeks (including your bye) getting Matt Leinart ready to play quarterback for his first meaningful snaps in four years. And 28 minutes into his first game, Leinart gets dumped on his throwing shoulder and, apparently, cracks his collarbone.
For Kubiak, and for the franchise, this is the best chance they've had in a decade of mostly bad football. And now, a freaky foot injury and a that's-football shoulder injury have left the team with a rookie trying to nurse the team with the best defense in franchise history (that really wouldn't be hard, though this defense really looks special) and a great running back and great receiver into the playoffs. A bye in the first round? Heck, the Texans will take hanging onto their two-game lead in the AFC South and just making the playoffs now.
"I feel terrible for Matt Leinart,'' Kubiak said, sounding crushed. "When he came here from Arizona, he was at the bottom. The absolute bottom. And he worked and he worked, and he's become a good professional quarterback. He goes out today and is 10 of 13 and throws a beautiful touchdown pass, and now this. You don't know what to say to him. I just said, 'Bud, I know how much this hurts you. I feel for you. But I am so proud of you.' Good things happen to good people, and good things will happen to Matt.''
Just not this year.
So Houston will take an Atlanta kid, Yates, who played amid the rubble of the North Carolina program, and try to beat his hometown Falcons and then the Bengals in the next two weeks. They'll get backup Kellen Clemens ready (he was signed after Schaub went down), and sign another backup, possibly Brodie Croyle. The savior won't be Brett Favre, barring a major change of heart from GM Rick Smith and Kubiak. "I don't think so,'' Smith told me about Favre postgame. "I don't want to bring the circus to town.''
The Texans have been the high-flying Texans in the last couple of years, having to outscore teams to win. Now they'll try to win with defense and a running game. After a seven-sack show in Jacksonville, it's amazing to think the Texans are now as reliant on Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed to win as they are on Arian Foster and Andre Johnson. What a story to watch down the stretch.
In other news from week 12:
Brady climbs Mount Montana. I remember a few years ago Tom Brady's father telling me how significant it was that his son had won the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year award. Young Tom, he said, would come home from school on Thursdays in the fall and look for SI to read about his 49ers and his quarterback, Joe Montana.
On Sunday, Brady caught his ex-idol, winning his 133rd game (regular-season and playoffs), matching Montana's career number. Brady did it at 34. Montana won his 133rd at 38. So there's time to stretch the record off into the distance. Doesn't that seem ... premature? Or strange that Brady's caught him with so much time left to play? I suspected, even four and five years ago, that Brady might one day catch Montana on the wins and stats list. Just seems odd to be here already, but here we are.
Measuring the two all-time greats:
I thought Devin Hester was a once-in-a-generation return man. You mean there's another? Amazing thing about Arizona rookie Patrick Peterson's history as a return man at LSU: He didn't have one. "I really wanted to do it," Peterson said by phone from St. Louis, where he'd wrecked another team's punting unit. "I always asked my coaches if I could do it, and they said, 'You have to wait your turn.' I'd say, 'Coach, I can make things happen.' But I only got to return 26, in my junior year."
Maybe the LSU coaches should have listened to Peterson. Sunday was Peterson's 11th game in the NFL, and his 80-yard punt return for a touchdown was not only his fourth score on a punt return in his short career -- it was the fourth of at least 80 yards this year. Peterson's made a contest of the all-pro return specialist this year. Hester's been superb this year too, but Peterson leads him in return TDs 4-3. The last five games of the season will be an interesting contest. "I loved watching him going back to his Miami days. It's a huge accomplishment to be doing what he does." His secret? Don't run east-west; only north-south. And don't be timid. Ever. "You gotta run hard, with power, and not just make people miss -- but be physical when you have to." Peterson hasn't had to be physical yet. He's making too many people miss.
Stop saying Denver's fluky, because it's a lie. The recipe for the Broncos winning five of six is not Tebow, Tebow and more Tebow. It's defense and the running game keeping things close. It's Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil rushing the passer and keeping him uncomfortable, and a reborn Willis McGahee (4.8 yards per carry at age 31) pounding defenses with the changeup ability of Tebow thrown in. And Eric Decker making circus catches. That about covers it.
"If it ain't broken, and it ain't, then don't fix it," McGahee told me from San Diego Sunday night. It was a 23-carry, 117-yard day by McGahee, with his 24-yard run in overtime setting up the winning field goal that led to the 16-13 overtime win. Afterward, McGahee said the game had the feel of another close one, and he said to Tebow in the middle of the second half, "Me and you gotta win this game." And the two men combined to do it, helped by a third-and-11 conversion catch by Decker that was upheld by review on the game-tying drive at the end of the fourth quarter. You know, when Tebow takes over. "It's cool everybody doubts us," McGahee said. "Don't respect us. All we know is, if it's close at the end, we're gonna win."
And the special teams shall lead them. Remember draft weekend 2000? (Of course you don't remember something that happened 11 and a half years ago. But play along.) That was the weekend when 31 teams kept passing on a gangly Michigan quarterback named Tom Brady. It was also the weekend Al Davis, unbeknown to any of us at the time, had the best special teams draft in NFL history. That day, Davis was more derided than praised for choosing a kicker in the first round -- Florida State's Sebastian Janikowski. In the fifth round, Davis chose Texas A&M punter Shane Lechler. On Sunday, Janikowski and Lechler were the gifts that kept giving in the 25-20 win over Chicago, a game the Raiders had to have to stay a game ahead of the ridiculously compelling Broncos. Seabass, as he is known in the Black Hole, kicked six field goals, making him 22 of 24 for the season. Lechler, the leading punter in NFL history (47.5 yards per boot) boomed an 80-yard boot, the longest of his career, on a day in which he averaged 54.6 yards per kick. Somewhere, Al Davis is having the last laugh about the most impactful draft anyone west of New England had in 2000.
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