Beware the Ides of November?

Posted Nov. 17, 2011 @ 12:48 p.m.
Posted By Tom Danyluk

If the Houston Texans had their way they'd call up the calendar people and have them X-out November completely. Who needs it? What a disgraceful month it has been over the years, they'll remind you.

Pompeii took its famous lava bath in November. Tecumseh Sherman and his vicious march to the sea? Yep, that was November. We lost George Harrison and Cary Grant and Enrico Fermi and Tchaikovsky and Man o'War in this cursed month. Who needs it?

The Texans have made it personal because their combined record in November under head coach Gary Kubiak prior to this season was a raunchy 6-14, which has helped eject them from the playoff scramble every year. It has helped keep the media in a never-ending sing-along about this club — with all that hotshot talent, they should be better.

But this year the Texans finally thought they had November licked. They drilled Cleveland to start the month, and last Sunday they diced up Tampa Bay. Then wicked ol' November sat up in his chair and said, "hold it right there, boys. Let's see how you handle this one — Matt Schaub, your quarterback, is out indefinitely."

Schaub had been fourth in the AFC in passing yards. Coaches don't flip around the word "significant" when discussing their injury problems unless they're actually worse than significant. Significant sometimes means broken, which seems to be the case with Schaub … a broken right foot. The mildest way Kubiak could put it was, "He's going to miss some time. … I'm bummed."

Kubiak is now 7-3, his best record ever as the Texans' coach. It's the quickest start in Texans' history. But now Kubiak has to deal with losing his starter, and the No. 1 backup QB for Houston is a guy who has had a hard time extending drives and a hard time ditching a reputation for being a bit of a marshmallow — Matt Leinart.

The Cardinals bailed on Leinart after just 17 starts (11 his rookie season). Too skittish in his decisions, they believed, a 57.1 percent passer who was way behind in the maturity curve. So the Texans brought him in as a fixer-upper, where he has had a chance to pantomime the game plan and get his head together for a year.

Houston's not a bad place for a guy like Leinart to resurface in. Statistically, the Texans are playing the grade of football that's comforting to reserve quarterbacks. They're a high brow rushing club (Arian Foster and Ben Tate have a combined 1,426 rushing yards), and defensively they've been pretty good at stiffing the scoreboard; opponents are scoring 16.6 points per game against them.

There's more good news. In theory, the schedule tilts in Houston's favor the rest of the way. They play at Jacksonville, at Cincy, at Indianapolis; home games are with Atlanta, Carolina and Tennessee. Combined record of that group: 21-34. If Leinart can manage a split, then Houston will finish up at 10-6 and that should be plenty to bolt down the chiffon AFC South.

You look around the league this week and you'll see the backup QBs are restless all over the place. In Kansas City it's Matt Cassel done; introducing Tyler Palko. Michael Vick has a pair of busted ribs, so Vince Young or Mike Kakfa might take over in Philly. Ben Roethlisberger messed up his passing thumb, but Pittsburgh's second stringer gets some relief because it's a bye week.

And in Houston they're wondering how Leinart is mentally these days, how his brain will readjust to the heaviness of the spotlights. Once again, he's being handed the keys to a win-now team. It has been such a high drop from the mountaintop.

He was Mr. Heisman in 2004. I listened as Bill Walsh called him "the most polished, pro-ready quarterback since Peyton Manning. I remember watching the hokey intro to ESPN's 2005 Draft Day coverage. Metrosexual football, with Leinart strutting across this fashion show catwalk, the sunglasses and the Joe Cool confidence. Reggie Bush, his USC teammate, did the same strut. "Yeah, brother, pick us. We got it all under control." You'd think those guys have been humbled a bit since then.

Ego is a tricky thing with quarterbacks, especially the high draft guys. A heavy blast of humiliation makes some guys just dig in harder. The "fight" part of their fight-or-flight mechanism kicks right in.

With others, failure leads to losing their taste for football. They give up. Failure is a strange, uneasy concept for them. Their confidence evaporates. They can't find the back door fast enough.

Confidence. I remember an old story about Y.A. Tittle that kinda fits in here. At the time, Tittle was a 10-year pro and his game was slipping, and there was growing pressure around San Francisco to finally give John Brodie a look.

One week they were getting ready for the Giants, and coach Red Hickey instructed Tittle, "Don't throw anything inside deep against these guys. That little bastard will pick off everything you send there." The little bastard being Jimmy Patton, the Giants' All-Pro safety.

So Tittle ran the game plan that day as written, but at some point he must've gotten bored or itchy, so he called for a deep middle throw to his top receiver, Clyde Conner. And yes, Patton picked it off.

Then it got strange. During the runback, Tittle had a clean shot at Patton but avoided him, instead running downfield and frantically hollering about something. Meanwhile, Patton returned it 85 yards.

A day or so later, during film review, Hickey ran that play back five or six times in a row, making faces and shaking his head as most of the 49ers bit down on their chuckles. Tittle was humiliated.

Finally, Hickey's only statement:

"Well, goddamn … I guess I never will understand this play."

Later it came out why Tittle never went for the tackle his interceptor. Desperate, the gnawing tension of a career that was slipping away from him, he had been running directly toward Connor, his receiver.

"Clyde, dammit, please! Tell Red that was your idea!"

In Houston, if Matt Leinart can't handle the load, the playoff-dreamy Texans will be out of ideas.

Tom Danyluk is an award-winning freelance writer based in Chicago. His book on pro football, "The Super '70s," is available at Amazon.com. You can contact Tom at Danyluk1@yahoo.com.