We know who Kubiak went with, but should he have gone with someone else?
For Houston, the 2005 season could not end soon enough. A season that started with promise and hope for a major breakthrough saw a team suffer a massive breakdown across the board. Not surprisingly, a lot of coaches and team executives found themselves looking for new employment. The defensive-minded Dom Capers gave way to the offensive style coach Gary Kubiak and the experienced GM Charley Casserly yielded to rookie Rick Smith. The new regime was charged with rebuilding the young Texans and getting them back on the winning path. A big part of that challenge centered on the Quarterback.
At the end of the 2005 season, whatever luster the name David Carr once held long since vanished. No more exposes in Texas Monthly, and no more talk of him being the prince of the city. The bust label appeared more prominently next to his name. While it was not all on him alone, as suffering over 200 sacks and countless more QB hits in his 4 years rendered him a sack-shy wreck. He certainly could not elevate the play of his teammates. A number of fans would have been just fine to see Carr leave with the other C’s (Capers, Casserly).
However, Kubiak didn’t necessarily feel that way. There were still many Carr defenders out there, and Kubiak, a former back-up QB, felt Carr could be salvaged. New coaching and likely new personnel also factored in, as perhaps the new guys could do what the older hands couldn’t; protect David Carr and get the passing game on track to be more than Andre Johnson. Additionally, the team had Domanick Williams (nee Davis) coming off back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons. Putting that into a Shanahan running offense augured well for the Texans.
Carr started out well the 2006 season well, putting up the best passing efficiency numbers in his career (75% completion percentage with 4 TDs/0 INTs). He would finish the season with his highest career completion percentage (68.3, up nearly 8 percentage points from his 2005 numbers). However, the season would see him finish with more interceptions than TDs. Also, while he improved his passing yardage numbers, the numbers were nowhere near the numbers he put up in 2004. Most tellingly, there were games where Carr was benched while healthy, allowing new back-up Sage Rosenfels to take starting snaps. With the end of the 2006 season, Carr’s time was done.
This begs the question, could the Texans have gone a different route for starting QB, and who could that have been? With the 1st pick in the draft, the Texans could have repeated their 2002 draft by selecting the top QB prospect. For 2006, this would have meant Vince Young. A 2 time-Rose Bowl MVP and recent national champion, the home-state hero was a popular choice among many fans. A dual-threat QB like Young offered the escapability that Carr somewhat possessed, but to a much greater degree.
Young faced questions about his suitability in a pro-style offense, with concerns about passing accuracy and pocket presence. NFL offenses back in the mid-2000 were still more of a pocket-passing based scheme, as the spread concepts that current dominate the game were years in the future. Also, some would question whether Young could have handled being the “Chosen One” in Houston. Ultimately, Young would go to the former Houston team at #3, and his career started out well enough, winning Offensive Rookie of the Year and sweeping Houston in both of their match-ups.
However, if the Texans continued on the timeline of not using another #1 overall pick on a QB, then who could the squad have turned to? With Tony Banks’ time on the team done, the squad was in the market for a new QB. Enter Sage Rosenfels. A free agent from Miami, Rosenfels had shown some success as a back-up, leading Miami to two major come-from-behind wins in 2005. When Carr was benched in a Week 8 tilt against Tennessee, Rosenfels got off to a rough start, throwing a quick interception that the Titans turned into another touchdown. Yet, he would shake that off and lead the team to 19 second half points in a furious comeback effort that fell just short. He would not get the chance to usurp Carr in 2006, but he showed enough promise that some publications felt that Rosenfels would be a surprise player in 2007.
These are the two most likely candidates for who the Texans could have turned to for QB success if Kubiak decided that he wanted a completely new start at QB. Most in the fanbase would have accepted that notion as well. However, who would or should Kubiak have gone with? For all of the excitement that Young would have brought, some of the same problems that plagued Carr could have derailed Young. While Houston lacked the players at the 2006 Titans had, Young would have been given some grace by the fans, given the rebuild of the Texans. Still, issues with maturity, leadership and style of play would eventually derail Young, as they did Carr. Perhaps Young still does win Offensive Rookie of the Year and his dual-threat nature, combined with the Shanahan style running attack, portend an offensive revolution. Yet, if history reverts to form, the Texans would be looking for a new franchise signal-caller by 2010-11. Young’s issues hurt him in Tennessee, but it would have been far more difficult for him being back in Texas with more enablers and less people to keep him grounded.
Rosenfels would also not appear to be a viable option as a starter. While he had his moments throughout his career prior to 2005, he never projected as more than a backup. It is possible he could have played his way into a starting role, especially given some of his successes in 2007, when he led the Texans to a 4-1 record as a starter. However, it does not seem likely that a new coach and GM would stake their reputations on a commodity like Rosenfels, especially to start the 2006 season.
Is there a wild card in this scenario? Perhaps. After Young, two other QBs went off the board in the first 11 picks. Young’s rival in the 2005 National Championship Game Matt Leinart went at 10 to Arizona and Jay Cutler of Vanderbilt went 11 to Denver. Both of those two prospects rated more in the mold of the drop-back passer which better fit the NFL offensive schemes of that time. For some, Cutler was the top prospect of the draft, due to perceptions that Cutler had the strongest arm. Both Cutler and Leinart started in their rookie seasons with varying degrees of success.
Certainly the fanbase would not have been thrilled if the team took a QB not named Vince Young. Still, the team may well have drafted a QB, especially if they felt that this one would do what Carr couldn’t: lead the team to greater success. Perhaps Leinart is the one. The money favorite for #1 pick in the 2005, he returned to school for one more season. His play didn’t necessarily suffer, but in comparison with Young, teammate Reggie Bush and defensive end Mario Williams, Leinart just didn’t overshadow them. In reality, Leinart would join the Texans in 2010, serving as a backup for two seasons. Maybe he dons the Battle Red/Steel Blue a few years earlier.
Would Leinart, or Cutler for that matter, have made a big difference? Probably not. Arizona had more talent and was in a better position when Leinart joined them. Houston was in major transition. Leinart would have been fresher, and not as beaten down by sacks, but he would have taken more than his share of lumps. It might have been interesting to see how a player like Leinart, who played in a pro-style offense at USC, might have evolved under Kubiak. Perhaps the Texans don’t feel the need to send off multiple draft picks to obtain Matt Schaub from Atlanta to start the 2007 season. Yet, it is just as likely that circa 2009/2010, they would be looking yet again for a franchise QB.
In all of these scenarios, it is unlikely that the Texans do much to improve upon their 6-10 record. Additionally, since they likely don’t draft a pass-rusher like Williams, they would still have a significant gap to address for 2007. They would still have the rest of a great draft class (think DeMeco Ryans), but they are still on the outside looking in for a playoff team. While it may not have been the popular choice, Kubiak likely made the best play to see what they had in Carr for 2006, allowing Rick Smith to draft talent at other positions (DE, LB, OL), and reengage on the QB question for 2007.