It was the best of runs, it was the worst of runs…
The 2008 season. In merely glancing at the numbers, you would find a season where the Texans finished with their second straight non-losing campaign (8-8). The squad set offensive records for the team, finishing 3rd in offense. Andre Johnson did Andre Johnson things, and Steve Slaton emerged as the latest 1000 yard rusher. The team even managed to win its first Monday Night Football matchup.
Yet, not all was great in 2008. Even before the first kickoff, the season saw a major upheaval. Hurricane Ike caused enough damage to Houston to force the league to shuffle the schedule. Thus, the Texans got an early bye (Week 2) and found themselves opening the season with 3 straight road games (all losses), The team started the year 0-4 for the second time in 4 years.
(NOTE: For counterfactual purposes, while Ike had a role in disrupting the Texans season, the impact of shifting bye weeks probably had a bigger impact on the other team that had to share the early bye with the Texans, the Baltimore Ravens. After that Week 2 bye, they would have to play 18 straight games, culminating in a brutal slugfest against the rival Steelers in the AFC Championship, which they lost 24-13. It is fair to ask that if Baltimore had a later bye, might they have managed to get past the Steelers in such a physical game?)
The Texans ran a lot that season, especially the aforementioned Slaton. Yet, it was two QB runs that drove the fate of the Texans:
Week 4 Sage Rosenfels Scramble Against the Colts:
If you have followed the Texans for any length of time, you know this play. If you don’t remember the down and distance, or even the exact game/season, you at least know the name: The Rosencopter.
The scene: The Texans, 0-3 and playing their first home game take a commanding 27-10 4th quarter lead over the Indianapolis Colts. The Colts cut the Texans lead to 27-17 with 4 minutes left. The Texans recover the subsequent on-side attempt. Houston would face a 3rd and 8 at the Colts’ 39 yard line. Converting another first down would not ice the game by itself, but it would allow the Texans to bleed off more clock/Colts’ timeouts. The ball is snapped, and Rosenfels executes a patented Kubiak play-action boot-leg. What happens next:
After the scoop and score, the Texans held a 3 point lead, and they still could, in theory, close out the game. However, the Rosencopter broke the Texans’ back. On the next drive, Rosenfels suffered a strip-sack at the Texans’ 19. Manning wasted little time finding Reggie Wayne for the go-ahead TD, putting the Colts up 31-27. Houston got the ball back, but a Rosenfels INT ended the game, and Houston fell to 0-4.
Week 5 Matt Schaub QB scramble for a TD Against the Dolphins:
The scene: The Texans, 0-4, face off against a Dolphins team armed with The Wildcat. Miami surges to the lead, only for the Texans to battle back. With 7 seconds left, Houston trails Miami 23-28. It is 4th and 2 at the Miami 3 yard line. What follows: (go to the 5:01 point in the following link)
Whether you timed the Schaub QB draw with a stopwatch or sundial, it caught the fans and the Miami Dolphins off-guard, as he trotted into the end zone to give the Texans a 29-28 win. This would start one of the more productive stretches in franchise history, as the team went 8-4 the rest of the way.
Both QB runs shaped the season for the Texans. The Rosencopter all but killed the Texans’ hopes for a truly magical season, adding more misery to Houston fans. The Schaub scramble halted a disastrous turn, offering genuine hope for a hopeless franchise. Yet, both plays have significant counter-factual angles.
Counterfactual 1: The Rosencopter never happens. Rosenfels going airborne only to drop the ball (literally) still torments the Houston fanbase. Coming into this game, the Texans had only ever beaten the Colts once. The Colts came in an uncharacteristic 1-2. What might a win have done for the franchise? Few could begrudge the Texans their 0-3 start. A win over the Colts could have sparked something big for Houston.
It was oh-so-close to happening. Generally, players are taught not to leave their feet, for risk of losing the ball. However, Rosenfels was not noted for conservative, safe playing. As a backup, he had his share of aggressive games, which sometimes did much to help the team. If he did manage to airlift to a first down, the Colts has already used two of their precious timeouts. At the Colts 31, Houston could bank on an insurance FG after bleeding the clock down to the 2 minute warning (Colts had 1 timeout remaining).
Yet, even if Rosenfels holds on to the ball, the Texans had a problem. There was a holding call on the play. The Texans would have gone from either a 4th and 1 or a 1st down to 3rd and 18. From the 48 yard line, Kubiak is likely to have gone conservative, likely forcing the Colts to burn their last time out. Indy will get the ball back, but barring a catastrophe on the 3rd and 18, or a special teams gaff, they would still be down 10 with say 3:40 to play and no timeouts. Manning might be able to pull that one off, but the odds are way more in the Texans’ favor.
You could argue about Houston still winning the game after the Rosecopter, but given the emotional nature of that game, it is highly unlikely Houston would still win. Houston was not likely to get the two first downs needed to ice the game with only a 3 point lead. Momentum was too much in Indy’s favor. Maybe the game goes into OT without the strip sack, but after the Rosencopter, Houston was doomed.
Counterfactual #2: The Botched 4th Down Scramble. Say the Rosencopter still happens. Schaub was never noted for his scrambling, but like most who play the QB in the NFL, there is athleticism to at least run for a few yards. An empty-set spread formation has two possibilities: pass or QB draw. The Dolphins played the pass. Yet, what if a Miami DL beats block and stops Schaub? The battered Texans would now be at 0-5. Few teams ever recover from such a start to get back to .500. The schedule would be lighter, and plenty of wins would remain on the docket for the team to have a better finish than start.
Still, the loss of two close games against two playoff teams could drag a young team down. With both QBs losing winnable games, what would that do their mind-sets, to say nothing of the team’s? A 7-9 or 6-10 finish after a 0-5 start would probably not see Kubiak or Schaub lose their jobs. Yet, 2009 would be one of the most pressure packed seasons in team history. Kubiak, Smith, Schaub, even Mario Williams, would be under the gun to try to bring a semblance of good pro football to Houston. Likely Kubiak would need a winning season at a minimum just to hang around. In the real timeline, the Texans get that winning record, but if they didn’t have a win like the one against Miami in their back pocket, giving them a strong 8-4 finish, would they still be able to get that winning record? Possible, but it might have required a spark in 2009 that had not appeared in 2008.
The 2008 season was arguably the best season for the Texans to date. Still, it was season on a knife’s edge. A shift of one or both plays may have made no discernable difference, and the team still ends the year 8-8. This is a possible outcome. More likely, a shift, especially if the Rosecopter doesn’t happen, might have been the doorway to a winning season and maybe a playoff berth in 2008. Consequently, the Rosencopter + a failed 4th down run against Miami might have put the team back in the same situation at 2005, where the squad faced another false dawn, and the long-suffering Houston pro-football fanbase would have to face another rebuild, so soon after the last false dawn. It could have been painful, but the typical Houston sports fan would be all-too-used to that feeling.