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What can we learn from Gary Kubiak’s career in Houston?

by Chase Stuart on November 12, 2012

in Coaches, Team Building

Gary Kubiak.

Gary Kubiak doesn’t have a personality like a Ryan or a Harbaugh. He hasn’t been profiled to death like Andy Reid or Norv Turner. He doesn’t have the rings of Mike Tomlin or Bill Belichick. If not for the simple fact that he’s been in Houston forever, I’m not sure if most NFL fans could even name the head coach of the Texans. But his coaching career has been a fascinating one that leaves me with more questions than answers.

In January 2011, I wrote that Kubiak and Jack Del Rio were given incredibly long leashes in the AFC South. From 1970 to 2010, only four head coaches had (a) finished with a .500 or worse record in four out of five seasons with the same team, (b) finished with a .500 or worse record in the fifth season, and (c) were retained to coach for a sixth season. The four head coaches — Marvin Lewis, Dan Reeves, Bart Starr, and John McKay — all had extenuating circumstances for their failures, which differentiated them from Del Rio and Kubiak, who were about to become the fifth and sixth such coaches.

Things have changed dramatically in 22 months. The Jaguars have changed owners, head coaches, and quarterbacks, and likely will have a new general manager soon, too. Meanwhile, the Texans still have the same four men — Bob McNair, Rick Smith, Kubiak and Matt Schaub — in the four most prominent roles in the organization. Houston’s one big move, hiring Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator, has worked perfectly. Phillips has turned a dreadful Houston defense into one of the best units in the league.

The outlook is so promising in Houston that it’s easy to forget where things stood less than two years ago. Following a loss to the Tim Tebow-led Broncos — this was the year before Tebow-mania took the NFL by storm — most of the football world assumed the firing of Kubiak was a fait accompli. John McClain, a veteran writer in Houston for over 30 years, tweeted: “After the way the Texans blew Denver game leading 17-0 at halftime and 23-10 in the 4th quarter, I’ll be stunned if the staff isn’t fired.” McLain was so disgusted that he added, “I’ll say it again: The Texans have the worst pass defense in the history of football at any level since the beginning of time.”

Richard Justice attacked Kubiak via a more traditional media outlet, but the sentiment was the same:

It’s painful to watch Kubiak attempt to answer questions after a day like this one. How do you explain throwing away a 17-0 lead? How do you defend giving the NFL’s leading rusher, Arian Foster, five carries in the second half?

How do you think of anything to say when your offense — and offense is supposed to be the one thing you do well — fails to score a touchdown in its final six possessions against one of the NFL’s worst defenses?

In a season in which the Texans have stacked one embarrassment on top of another, this may not have been the low point, but it was pretty close. The Broncos have an interim head coach (Eric Studesville) and a quarterback (guess who?) making his second NFL start.

And the Broncos (4-11) are still one of three AFC teams with a worse record than the Texans (5-10).

To Kubiak’s credit, he didn’t even try to mount a defense. He seems to know where this is heading, and he’s handling it with grace. These Texans are his Texans. They are his players and his coaches. General manager Rick Smith is his guy, too.

In five seasons, Kubiak and Smith are 36-43. They’ve had one winning season and zero playoff appearances. There’s no way to argue either of them should keep their jobs. [Emphasis added]

Heading into the meaningless season finale, columnist Jerome Solomon wrote a pro-Kubiak article. Of course, in late December 2010, a pro-Kubiak article simply meant one that argued that Kubiak deserved to be fired after the season, not before the final game:

We all agree — and by “we” I mean pretty much all of us except Bob McNair, the man who will make the call — that Gary Kubiak is a fired coach walking.

As reluctant as McNair might be to pull the plug on the Kubiak experience, finding a logical reason to retain the fifth-year coach is nearly impossible.

Yet, the idea that McNair should fire Kubiak before the final game of the season is silly.

What would be the point?

“Anybody who says the guy should be fired now, with one game left, that’s just vindictiveness,” Hall of Famer and Super Bowl- winning coach Mike Ditka said. “It makes no sense to me.

Aside from coaching a team that has won only one game in the past 2 1/2 months, Kubiak has not done anything to embarrass the organization, its fans or this city. If your identity is so tied in to how your favorite team does that you are ashamed to walk around wearing a Texans jersey, here is a thought: Get a new wardrobe.

Kubiak will admit he has not done what he was brought here to do — build a winning team that can compete for a championship — but he has carried himself with class and is one reason the Texans are considered a class organization.

Obviously, Kubiak has had enough time to show what he is made of as a coach. McNair could have fired him a year ago, and should, at the very least, have given him a playoffs-or-bust standard for this year. [Emphasis added]

It has been a bust. When the Texans were 4-2, only three teams had fewer losses. Now, only four teams have fewer wins.

Next Monday, Black Monday as NFL coaches call it, is likely to be Kubiak’s last day on the job, but despite the widespread sentiment that he should be let go, he deserves this one final game.

Gary Kubiak is a good man, a good coach, and he knows the game of football, but if he doesn’t win, that’s the bottom line,” Ditka said. “The owner has to make that call.”

Less than two years ago, everyone knew Kubiak was a failure as a head coach. In April 2011, Jason Lisk justifiably argued that Kubiak would be his 32nd best choice to coach his favorite team. With five years and zero playoff appearances, it was hard to find any Kubiak supporters. Now, in 11 weeks, he might be hoisting a Lombardi Trophy. What does that say about Kubiak, and what does that say about head coaches in general?1

There was one person who actually thought keeping Kubiak on board was the right decision 22 months ago. Her name is Stephanie Stradley (@StephStradley), a Houston lawyer who writes a Houston Texans blog for the Houston Chronicle and also has a general interest blog. Here’s what Stradley had to say back then, when she argued that if someone had to go, it should have been the general manager:

Like most head coaches, he has his strengths and weaknesses. His strengths include being involved with the NFL far longer than Rick Smith. He can build a system offense with pieces and parts that other teams didn’t value as highly. Building a system offense that can plug and play is key in the passing oriented NFL, especially if they go to an 18 game season. He’s someone that can get along with a variety of people which is a skill that is underappreciated.

With Kubiak finally getting the offensive staff he wanted, the Texans are currently in the top 5 in rushing and passing offensive efficiency, right behind New England and Philly. Two of their three pro bowlers are offensive players that succeeded with the Texans offense but may have been overlooked by other offenses (though Arian Foster almost became a Saint and they could have used him effectively if given opportunity).

I know there are ABK folks out there–Anybody But Kubiak. But ABKers need to be prepared that it could get worse, especially if we are relying on someone as relatively inexperienced as Rick Smith doing the choosing (and staying?!) Do you have any confidence and hope he can get things right?

With Kubiak experiencing a remarkable turnaround — following the victory over the Bears last night, Kubiak is 18-7 since 2011 — I reached out to Stradley to discuss her thoughts on the head coach.

Q: What made you think Kubiak deserved to be retained after the 2010 season?

A: He has all the characteristics that you want in a head coach: Leadership, players wanting to play hard and hurt for him, history of success, coaches want to coach with him and he is good with bringing in assistants who have tons of experience without feeling threatened by them.

The problems of 2006-2010 were fundamentally defensive coaching ones and, to some degree, personnel. Houston had poor defensive coordinators with no proven defensive schemes. That made it hard to draft and develop defensive players, and to get performances from them that would lead to winning football. In 2010, the Texans had only inexperienced players in the secondary. You could look at that roster before the season and know that they were going to fail because the defense was destined to be terrible, and it consistently was. Given the injuries of 2010 and how terrible that defense was, Kubiak actually did a remarkable coaching job to get them to 6 wins. Even without Andre Johnson for a few games that season, the Texans ended up being one of the most prolific offenses in the league.

Q: Were you shocked that McNair did not fire him?

A: I was not shocked that Kubiak was kept because Texans owner Bob McNair respects the “patient NFL owner” model: Hire football people, write checks, pay attention, but give them resources and get out of the way. From day one, he talked about respecting how few coaches the Rooneys had with the Steelers. After 2010, he had the choice of either blowing up the team, and pretty much giving up on the type of scheme that the entire offense was built behind, or fixing the defense to go with his prolific offense.

And consider what Gary Kubiak was given in 2006: David Carr, an atrocious roster and a team that only won 2 games in 2005 because of its great special teams that year – both the offense and defense were among the worst in the league. He had to start from scratch. The team he took over was Andre Johnson and expansion team quality, only worse because of some bad contracts. But even with the cupboard bare in 2006, you could instantly see how much better the coaching made the team.

Getting an experienced defensive coaching staff at an earlier date to match the quality of the offense should have happened earlier, but at the time the hirings were happening, it wasn’t like there were a ton of great DC candidates out there. Since 2006, a lot of defensive coordinators have been engaged in musical chairs: good ones become head coach, bad ones go to the next job they can’t fix. Prolific offenses in response to rule emphasis/changes have made a lot of defensive coordinators look bad in recent years.

Q: I agree that Houston essentially was an expansion team twice — it’s something I wrote about here — so I agree that Kubiak did a nice job rebuilding the team. But the recent success he’s had is unprecedented, so do you think Kubiak is a better coach now that he was two years ago? Or is he the same person, but now has Wade Phillips, J.J. Watt, and Johnathan Joseph on board to make the defense elite while Kubiak is still simply making the offense effective?

A: I think Kubiak is Kubiak, although I think he is a better game manager than he was in his first couple of years when he was just learning to be a head coach. I think having a competent, proven defensive coordinator to put together a sound defense clearly has made all the difference in the world. It all starts with Wade. Wade knows what he wants, and he made J.J. Watt, Joseph, Danieal Manning possible. He knows what he wants for his defense and knows how to best use the players he already had.

Bringing Rick Dennison in as offensive coordinator also helped. Dennison was Kubiak’s first choice as offensive coordinator in 2006, but was under contract with Denver. Dennison has helped improved the running game that pairs with Kubiak’s expertise in the passing game. Sometimes it takes time to build a staff to get the right guys in place. From top to bottom since 2011, I think the Texans have one of the strongest coaching staffs in the league. And this coaching staff coming together is all due to McNair’s patience despite circumstances that make it difficult to be patient.

Q: Would you say that Kubiak is one of the better coaches in the league? Is he a coach of the year candidate?

A: I think Kubiak is an underrated coach in the league. He kept teams playing hard even when the talent level/schemes they had on the defensive side of the ball were not good. I really enjoy watching his form of the old Broncos offense, with a new wrinkle this year given the experienced tight ends he has on the roster.

He should be considered a coach of the year candidate given all the players he lost due to the salary cap and that he was still able to keep his team going. How many teams could weather losing 2/5ths of their offensive line in the offseason and still function? Or for that matter, last year win a playoff game with a third-string rookie quarterback?

It’s been great seeing what the Texans could do once they got an experienced defensive staff, and just sound scheme and coaching on that side of the ball.

Q: Last question, Stephanie. You’re obviously a fan of Kubiak, but how is he viewed by the average Texans fan? Has the fan base done a 180 on him?

A: Kubiak sometimes jokes that the hand gestures that fans give to him have changed some over the last couple of years. I think Texans fans want him and Phillips to succeed here, not just because it would be great for fans, but because of Kubiak’s and Phillips’ (and Bum Phillips’) ties to the city.

Remarkably, Gary Kubiak has never been fired from a coaching job. It’s hard for most coaches his age to claim that. If he were a bleephole, he probably would have been gone a long time ago. But players want to play for him, coaches want to coach with him, and he tends to treat people fairly and decently. Manners go a long way in this part of the world.

  1. Jason Lisk and I, and I am sure countless others, consistently criticized the late-game decisions an overly-conservative Kubiak made prior to 2011. During his successful run the past two seasons, this hasn’t really been an issue. I’m not convinced this issue won’t come up again later in the year, although his personnel now clearly more suits a more conservative style relative to the 2008-2010 teams. []

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Pat Patterson November 12, 2012 at 1:23 am

This game seemed to validate your piece. It has all of the characteristics of someone who has a passion for facts and truth.
My dad was a high school coach for more than 20 years in Houston. My oldest son is a lawyer. I like it!
email apatpatterson@yahoo.com
twitter patp63
facebook adrainpatpatterson

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Shattenjager November 12, 2012 at 2:31 am

“Gary Kubiak and Coaching Scared” was one of my favorite posts ever at the p-f-r blog. It’s the first thing I always think of with Kubiak, which is probably odd since I’m a Bronco fan.

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Danish November 12, 2012 at 1:40 pm

I’m embarrased to say that that was the only game I’ve ever rooted against the Broncos. I love Kubiak and that game was essentially meaningless to the Broncos. Heck I wanted nothing to do with Tim Tebow, so a loss was probably beter long term anyway. Also the win darn near cost us Von Miller.

Kubiak seems very even keeled (sp?) and always seems in control. But the main reason i love him is probably nostalgia – his offenses, especially now a days, look a lot like the the ones he coordinated i Denver in the late nineties. That Shanahan version of WCO i by far the most beautiful form of offense I think.

On a larger point it’s good to see McNair being rewarded for patientence.

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Shattenjager November 13, 2012 at 2:34 am

If it makes you feel better, I rooted against them the last three games of 2010 and the last 13 (including playoffs) of 2011. You may notice a theme to those games.

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Danish November 13, 2012 at 7:47 am

I wouldn’t go as far as saying rooted against, but there was definetely a sense of “yay we won! But now we’ll be stuck with the theme for two more years.”

I don’t know how Elway did it, but somehow getting rid of Tebow AND upgrading to Peyton MAnning is the roster move of the decade, if not all time.

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Danish November 12, 2012 at 4:54 pm

Minor bug report: On the front page it shows 5 comments while there’s actually only three.

Chrome and Vista if that makes a difference.

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Chase Stuart November 12, 2012 at 5:02 pm

It’s not a bug as much as it is a misnomer. The “comments” includes comments and trackbacks, and there are 2 trackbacks to this post.

Do you see trackbacks — it might only be viewable to an administrator?

I also don’t know what makes a site get a “trackback” and what doesn’t. More than two sites have linked to this post, and I’ve got traffic from several sites that came to this post, but they didn’t get “trackbacks.”

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Danish November 12, 2012 at 6:09 pm

Ah.

And yes I do see trackbacks.

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Richie November 12, 2012 at 7:52 pm

I love that Wade Phillips’ twitter handle is @sonofbum.

I am not following the Houston situation closely, but I see one particular relevant trend: when Wade Phillips takes over as HC/DC, the teams’ defense improves every time – many times by a significant amount.

Here are the Defensive SRS improvements between year 1 of Wade Phillips and the year before he arrived:
Houston – 6.9 points (took a negative DSRS and made it positive)
Dallas – 3.0 points (neg to pos)
San Diego – 9.2 points (neg to pos)
Atlanta – 3.5 (neg to pos)
Buffalo – 1.4 (took a negative DSRS, and improved it, but it was still negative)
Denver – 9.1 (neg to pos)
Philadelphia – 0.1 (the only time he took over a positive DSRS team, and it improved by a tiny bit)
New Orleans – 7.1 (neg to pos)

I don’t see any reason to think that Gary Kubiak suddenly became a better coach. I think he added one of the best defensive coordinators of all time. I’m not saying that Kubiak is a bad coach, I’m just saying he probably hasn’t changed much.

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Richie November 12, 2012 at 7:57 pm

I’ve been looking at NFL names for 30 years (football cards, fantasy football, general research). I always love finding names I’ve never caught before. The 1981 Saints’ leading receiver was Guido Merkens. Never heard of him until now. Strangely, he played for Bum Phillips in Houston. During the 1980 season he moved from Houston to New Orleans, then in 1981 Bum Phillips followed him to New Orleans.

Then, in 1986 Wade Phillips moved from New Orleans to Philadelphia. And in 1987, Merkens went to Philly (presumably as a replacement player) after not being on a team in 1986.

Chase, on the next podcast, I need you to do a Guido Merkens profile. Thanks. :)

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Richie November 12, 2012 at 8:01 pm

I guess he only led the Saints in receiving in 1981 because Wes Chandler was traded to San Diego during the season. Chandler averaged 71 yards/game in his 4 games with the Saints. Merkens had an impressive 28.6 yards/game.

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Chase Stuart November 12, 2012 at 9:04 pm

On the bright side, Richie, I believe you now are alerted when people reply to your comments!

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Richie November 12, 2012 at 9:09 pm

Correct. Did you find the “switch”?

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Chase Stuart November 12, 2012 at 9:15 pm

Yeah it was a plugin that I has installed but somehow the setting was incorrect. Should be good moving forward.

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Richie November 13, 2012 at 2:25 pm

Looks like I only get an e-mail with a direct reply to my comment. If somebody posts a new comment on the same post, no e-mail.

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Ron December 31, 2012 at 12:15 pm

Gary Kubiak’s greatest failing as a coach is his insistence on filling his coaching staff with his old buddies from the Denver Broncos and Colorado U. His loyalty (which I admire to a certain extent) is his downfall. The Texans would still have Frank Bush as defensive coordinator if McNair hadn’t forced the change to Wade Phillips. Kubiak is no doubt a good man but the 3 embarassing recent losses out of 4 games leaves a lot of doubt in my mind about his abilities as a head coach.

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Jack January 4, 2013 at 6:16 pm

Gary Kubiak coaches scared. And he’s vanilla. And he’s predictable. Coaches like Bill Belichick looks at this guy’s gameplan and chuckles at how pleasantly uncomplex it is. Like a certain coach in Tennessee, Kubiak will keep you above .500 for years, but he’ll never get you to the promise land. Maybe he’ll get lucky and get there once, but he wouldn’t know how to win it if that happened. But in today’s NFL, a coach that can get you wins in the regular season seems to be assured of a long coaching career. I stopped expecting this guy to do anything great years ago.

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Reagan September 5, 2013 at 4:04 pm

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little something from their sites.

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منتدى المرأة العربية ، عالم الموضة November 5, 2013 at 10:55 am

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