It came as no surprise when the Houston Texans rewarded both head coach Gary Kubiak and general manager Rick Smith contract extensions on Thursday. Both men were entering the lame duck year of their current deals and had just finished a 10-6 season that included the first AFC South title and playoff appearance in franchise history.
Accomplishments like that tend to get rewarded.
General managers and head coaches get as much attention and credit for a team's success these days as any superstar player. Successful football coaches have always been lauded, but general managers have become more prominent and more exalted in the era of the educated fan. That fact makes Smith's absence in the conversation of the league's top executives even more curious.
Both Kubiak and Smith deserve a heaping helping, or least a better-than-average serving of it, for their work in 2011, and more importantly for captaining a ship that could take over the periennial favorite in the Manning-less AFC South.
The Texans hired Kubiak away from the Broncos in 2006, tasking him with turning around a franchise that was mostly just a cautionary tale about expansion teams. Kubiak brought no prior head coaching experience with him, but he did have an impressive resume with 11 years working with quarterbacks and running the offense for none other than Mike Shanahan in Denver, including Super Bowl wins following the 1997 and 1998 seasons.
2006 was a watershed year for the Texans, the first milestone on their journey to this spot. Kubiak was the first move made that year. Their next move is the one that dominated headlines and overshadowed a third move. In April, Houston famously made Mario Williams the first overall pick in the draft, over Reggie Bush. In June, the Texans hired Rick Smith, the Broncos director of player personnel, to replace Charlie Casserly as their general manager.
Houston improved to 6-10 in its first season under Kubiak. Following that year, Smith and Kubiak conspired to bring in Matt Schaub from the Falcons, sending a pair of 2nd round picks and flip-flopping first-rounders that year. Schaub was a much better quarterback for Kubiak's West Coast Offense, and the offense went from one of the worst in the league to the upper half in both points and yards in just one season.
Four years is an eternity in the NFL. Coaches and general managers come and go during four-year stretches, and it looked like Kubiak and Smith could be in trouble in the spring of 2011. They had one winning season during their time together, and were coming off another 6-10 season, the first time Houston finished with a losing record since 2006.
Kubiak even had a grassroots website dedicated to getting him fired. Few things signal pop cultural relevance like someone laying down $30 out of their own pocket to buy a URL campaigning for a coach's head.
With the vultures circling, the Texans' brass made some big moves during the last offense, moves that put the Texans over the hump last season.
Houston's offense prospered under Kubiak, finding its way into the league's top ten units. The defense was another matter entirely. In five seasons under Kubiak and two different coordinators, Houston's defense just once made its way out of the bottom third of the league's units. Their best season prior to last was 2009, when first-round pick Brian Cushing bolstered the linebackers. In 2010, the Texans' defense was once again one of the league's worst.
Smith hired Wade Phillips in January 2011, after Phillips had been cast out in Dallas the previous November. Not only did Phillips bring an impressive resume as a defensive guru with him, he also brought some familiarity. His dad, Bum, coached the Houston Oilers for six years, from 1975 through 1980.
To fix a sagging secondary, Houston handed out nearly $70 million in contracts to a pair of free agents, cornerback Johnathan Joseph and safety Daniel Manning. They beefed up the defensive line that April when they made defensive end J.J. Watt their 1st-round pick and added another pass rusher in Brooks Reed.
Phillips flipped the defense to a 3-4, using that year's additions and a collection of talent, particularly at linebacker, that the team had previously acquired. The results speak for themselves. Houston's defense allowed an average of 17.4 points per game, fourth best in the NFL.
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Kubiak probably deserved more credit than he actually got for the Texans' season. Houston lost, for varying amounts of time, almost all of their top players last season. Andre Johnson started in just seven regular season games. Arian Foster missed time early. Mario Williams landed on injured reserve after the fifth game of the season. Worse, or most impressive depending on your perspective, they took the Baltimore Ravens right down to the wire in the second round of the playoffs with third string quarterback T.J. Yates, who started the last five regular season games in place of Schaub and backup Matt Leinart, who broke his collar bone before the end of his first start.
From here, it is difficult to pick any team other than the Texans to win the AFC South in 2012. Anything less would be a disappointment, thanks to the stewardship of Smith and leadership of Kubiak. Together, they lead a young, talented team poised to keep on winning for the immediate future, or at least until their current contracts lapse.
Just how important are Kubiak and Smith to the whole thing? SB Nation's Battle Red Blog sums it up:
It took longer than any Texans fan would have liked, but Smith and Kubiak have built and developed a deep roster that has a Super Bowl window open for the Texans. In his six years as head coach, Kubiak has a 47-49 career record with a 1-1 playoff record. The record isn't indicative of the job he did during last year's division championship run, which had him keeping a locker room together as injuries depleted their ranks.
For those who like making comparisons, Bill Belichick had a 41-55 record at this point in his career while also going 1-1 in the playoffs. In his seventh coaching season, Belichick led New England to a Super Bowl championship. I'm not saying, but I'm just saying.
Coaches and general managers come and go quickly in the NFL, where patience is seen as a burden rather than a virtue. The insatiable demand to win constantly makes Kubiak and Smith's situation that much more remarkable. For Texans owner Bob McNair and the team's long suffering fans, a Texas-sized dose of patience has finally been rewarded.