I've been anywhere from indifferent to fervently anti-Gary Kubiak ever since the Texans fell to 5-7 in 2009. The problems that he's had in Houston have been fairly obvious ones, and this year they manifested themselves in a spectacular failure, with multiple heartwrenching losses in close games and one of the worst defenses in NFL history. However, in the interest of fairness, lets play a little Devil's Advocate here. There are plenty of reasons, in the eyes of the fans, that Kubiak should be fired. I find some of these reasons spurious, and some of them pretty telling. Lets start with the real ones:
Problem: Gary Kubiak doesn't know defense.
He can't coach it, he can't find coordinators who can coach it, and his coaches have consistently beaten the good football out of just about any non-Mario Williams/DeMeco Ryans player that they've brought in. For that matter, the entire Shanahan-rooted Broncos system appears to be terrible at coaching up defenses. Just look at how fast Washington fell off this year after disposing of Greg Blache. Look at Denver's postseason resume where, even with Champ Bailey, the Indianapolis Colts destroyed the Broncos defense in the playoffs. It's clear that letting Kubiak have control of any aspect of the defensive staff is setting him up for failure at this point. He needs to spend as little time on that side of the ball as possible if he wants to be a good coach.
Devil's Advocate: Bob McNair should have hired a babysitting defensive coordinator years ago.
After three years of investing players and picks on the defensive side of the ball, Richard Smith was finally forced out of the defensive coordinator role following 2008, when it was clear that he had no idea what he was doing. It was viewed as a compromise at the time: Kubiak would get one last chance to keep his job and find a defensive coordinator who had the gumption to get the defense on the right track. Instead of finding one who was actually good, ala Sean Payton with Gregg Williams for the Super Bowl winning Saints, Kubiak just went right back to the old boys network and dug up Frank Bush, who to his credit, has actually fixed the Texans run defense to an extent. But of course, nobody cares about that when you're neck and neck with the Broncos for the worst pass defense in NFL history.
Had McNair stepped in and actually demanded a change from outside of Kubiak's social circle, and perhaps pressed harder to get Williams or one of a number of other well-regarded defensive coordinators in the first place, the Texans would arguably be a playoff team right now.
Problem: Gary Kubiak is loyal to a fault.
Chris Brown, Kris Brown, Eugene Wilson, Kareem Jackson, Zac Diles, Shaun Cody. The Texans could have anticipated breakdowns from a few of these players and had people on-hand to stop the bleeding from the get go. On the other hand, the NFL has a vast free agent database full of players who should theoretically be able to give you replacement level performance, with the occasional chance of finding a gem. Cameron Wake says hello.
All of which is to say, Kubiak trusts too much in his hand-picked guys to get the job done in every phase of the game. Jackson shouldn't have been starting after it was clear that he couldn't cover NFL receivers, and you can make a pretty good argument that as a rookie corner, he shouldn't have been starting in the first place. How many more shanks did he need to see from Kris Brown? How many stuffed one-yard runs from Chris Brown? With how poor the free safety play has been this season, why have both Wilson and Troy Nolan essentially been given a free pass on their roster spots? Hell, why does Steve Slaton even have a roster spot anymore? The Texans continually let their players embarrass themselves long after the rest of the league has figured out they aren't any good. This is a fairly big problem.
Devil's Advocate: Bob McNair is loyal to a fault.
Dom Capers, David Carr, Charlie Casserly, Gary Kubiak? It's clear that the Texans loyalty starts up top. It's also clear that it's not really a good thing. I feel like I've been writing this passage for a solid year, but patience is only a good quality if you also know when to pull the plug. Bob McNair has proven time and time again as an NFL owner that he doesn't know when to say enough, despite the fact that he's only owned a team for nine years. I don't know if he needs a football czar like the Browns now have, or a formal advisor as Dan Reeves used to be, but it's clear that McNair needs somebody who answers to nobody in his organization. Someone to let him know when a guy has to go.
Instead, the Texans have taken on a country club atmosphere. Everyone is unfailingly polite and optimistic, everyone is aware of their problems even if they don't actually try anything to fix them. Longevity is valued over talent, even to the point where long-time kickers get severance packages, and as long as the money keeps flowing in, what happens on the field is marginalized. Kubiak is doing a heckuva job, dontcha know?
That is what the Texans are right now: a country club. And it will stay that way as long as McNair runs things unfiltered. He needs to realize this and hire somebody to be his buffer zone.
Problem: Gary Kubiak sucks at game theory.
Kubiak has made some rather legendary clock blunders, not to mention some incredibly bad statistical moves, in his career in Houston. Punting on a 50 yard field goal in overtime was one that worked out for him despite how bad it was on paper, but he's also punted several times when the Texans were getting beat and had no business giving up the football. They had one of Matt Schaub's third and 15 options in the Jacksonville game with very little time remaining be a pass to the middle of the field, which regardless of who threw it, was stupid. They failed to take a field goal in the Chargers game that would have given them a multiple score lead, instead getting stuffed on fourth down. A goal line halfback pass with someone that had never thrown an NFL pass before in his life, in just a two-score game. It's been pretty ugly.
Devil's Advocate: Who doesn't?
Which NFL coach do you actually trust to not bungle a game? It's a very short list for me: Bill Belichick. That's it. Look at some of the coaches of other successful NFL teams and tell me that they haven't had a few very noticeable failures with game theory. Norv Turner? Ha. Jim Caldwell? Reggie Wayne's intercepted pass in the first 09 Texans-Colts game would like a word with you. John Harbaugh? Did you watch the Ravens-Texans MNF game? Andy Reid? Philly fans can name you five famous foibles he's had by their first beer.
As much as I hate to say this, because I really despise Kubiak's game theory skills, the Texans aren't really losing anything there against most of the league. Now, it'd be one thing if there was an obvious target who would cede to commonly known football knowledge in his decision making skills, but none of the proven candidates have that. Bill Cowher has had his screw ups, Jon Gruden and Tony Dungy have as well. Maybe there's an unproven coordinator who would be better at this, but if Kubiak is fired, that means it's incredibly likely they'll go with an established win-now candidate. The odds are pretty likely that while this candidate may be better at game theory than Kubiak, he will probably screw up at some point.
Problem: Gary Kubiak's offenses don't start playing until The Script is over.
One of the very clear problems with Gary Kubiak's offense this year is that they've spent a lot of time playing from behind. This can be shown in both points and DVOA: the team doesn't wake up on offense until the first quarter is over. Firing Kubiak hypothetically gets rid of the slow starts, and the fact that this team now has a running game means that they can salt the game away once they grab the lead. Also, people who talk about the emotions of the game will say something along the lines of "the offense doesn't support the defense, they rarely get a lead to start the game."
Devil's Advocate: And?
This is one of the best offenses in the NFL despite all the hand-wringing over the slow starts. The run game was completely rebuilt over the offseason, and while the passing game has suffered setbacks in pass-blocking and catching this season, the Texans still have one of the better passing attacks in the league. Lets call this out for what it really is: scapegoating. The offense isn't the problem with this team, and it never has been. The overall package is great, even if it could be fine-tuned a bit.
How many times have the Texans allowed 24 or less points this season? Think about this one, because it's a toughie. The answer is: four. Four times over the course of 15 games. The Texans record in those games? 3-1.
This is a team with plenty of solid offensive talent. Beyond Andre Johnson though? Hardly transcendent. Matt Schaub is in the 6-10 range when you bring up best NFL quarterbacks. Arian Foster, great as he's been this season, was a nobody three months ago. Kevin Walter is more of a possession receiver than a true #2 receiver, the offensive line isn't highly regarded at any position. Talent-wise, you could hardly call this group star-laden. Yet they're one of the best offenses in football on a down-by-down basis, third to only the Patriots and Eagles according to DVOA through last week's results. If anything, shouldn't that be a point in Kubiak's favor?
I still want Gary Kubiak fired.
I think that the first two points hold sway over the good that he brings to the table right now, and that there needs to be a change so that this team can move on from it's culture of unaccountability. But I also think that some of the problems that Kubiak has brought to the table are imagined or unlikely to be solved by a new coach. Finding problems in Kubiak's offense this year is the definition of nitpicking, and until Bob McNair gets that cloning machine put together, it's unlikely that Houston's next coach is going to be William Gongabalance.
Ultimately though, the man has had five years to put together a defense that resembled decent, and he hasn't been able to do it. A lack of talent (and a specific ignorance of some very key parts of his defense) is one thing, but other than Williams, Antonio Smith, and Ryans, every defensive player that this club has brought in with high hopes has had their growth stunted under this coaching staff. Amobi Okoye, Diles, Glover Quin, Bernard Pollard, Wilson, Brian Cushing. All of these guys have regressed under this set of coaches. If Kubiak manages to keep his job, I'm sure we'll be talking about the startling decline in Darryl Sharpton's play next season. Then bring in the fact that even team insiders have trouble figuring out whether personnel decisions start with Kubiak or Rick Smith, and it's clear that he deserves more of the credit for putting together this mess than the average coach.
Kubiak has done a great job taking this organization from wretched to mediocre. He's clearly a better offensive coordinator than he is a coach, but under the circumstances I think he's given all that he can and then some. However, now it's time for the Texans to relish the challenge of turning mediocre to great, rather than settling for the same old thing. It's a little scary to leave the comfort of the country club, but maybe, just maybe, there's a winner out there for the Texans.
It all starts with being willing to actually make a move.