What does it take to build a winning franchise in the NFL? A simple question that 32 organizations are trying to decode, with front office personnel numbering in the hundreds across the league all trying to figure out the answer. The Houston Texans will always been seen as the bridesmaids competing for the hearts of football fans in the Lone Star State, but quietly they have built one of the best teams in the NFL– not through spending millions in free agency each year, or by hitting with all their draft picks, but by believing in their system, remaining malleable, and ensuring the best players are on the field at all times.
Gary Kubiak spent 12 years in the NFL as a coach an coordinator before landing his first head coaching job with the Texans. An offensive-minded coach, he moved from working with QBs, to being an offensive coordinator, to finally becoming the head coach of the Houston Texans in 2006. Though he got started a little later, Ron Rivera also took 12 years working in the NFL before getting the opportunity to run a team. He took the path of linebacker coach to defensive coordinator, but nonetheless both sides mirror each other.
In 2006 the Texans under Kubiak went 6-10, and entering 2007 they made the defining move to trade for Falcons backup Matt Schaub, who they believed would be their franchise quarterback. Luckily for Houston, they were right. Schaub was as good as advertised, and while excitement was high they were seen as under-achieving, improving their win total by just two, finishing at 8-8 on the year.
The next three years didn't bode well for the Kubiak era: 8-8, 9-7, 6-10... it seemed like patience was running out, especially from fans who were tired of mediocrity. Five years into his tenure the Texans were just 37-43, hardly inspiring. Each year he flirted with being fired, but Kubiak and the Texans elected to stay the course, and stick to their plan of building through the draft.
Since arriving in 2006 something was abundantly clear: Kubiak wanted to get his defense shored up, taking a spate of pass rushers and linebackers to fill this goal. Look no further than his draft picks from 2006-2011:
|1st||Mario Williams DE||Amobi Okoye DT||Duane Brown OT||Brian Cushing LB||Kareem Jackson CB||J.J. Watt DE|
|2nd||DeMeco Ryans, LB||*Matt Schaub||*Matt Schaub||Connor Barwin DE||Ben Tate RB||Brandon Harris CB|
* Denotes trade
The road Kubiak and the Texans took was slightly different to Rivera and the Panther after their first two drafts. Carolina were able to get their franchise defining player with their 1st overall pick, and without a 2nd round selection they were forced to wait. However, look at what Houston did– three defensive ends (now OLBs), two linebackers, two corners. Not all these players are all-pros, and Okoye was an out-and-out bust for Houston, but all are solid contributors.
Signing Jonathan Joseph was the lynch-pin in making this plan work. Bringing him on board in 2011 allowed the organization time to develop Kareem Jackson and Brandon Harris, without needing to put too much on them too quickly. It's here where Carolina need to make a move in 2013. Whether it's through trade, or free agency the Carolina Panthers need to find another cornerback who can be their stop-gap across from Chris Gamble, while they groom both player's eventual replacements.
The same can be said for defensive end, though Charles Johnson already fills the role of effective veteran. Now it's just about Greg Hardy and Frank Alexander developing, and either proving they're a long-term option at the position. Meanwhile, the defensive tackle position is vastly improved with Edwards and Edwards (despite how bad the run defense was against New York), but it's imperative the Panthers take a DT early in the next draft.
A strong armed QB with a vertical offense, an excellent duo of running backs, one amazing WR, a solid but not amazing offensive line– on one side of the ball the Panthers and Texans are bedfellows. The difference is Carolina are flirting with an innovative zone-read scheme, whereas Houston are playing it simple: Make them fear Arian Foster, then bomb it over their heads.
It's defense where the Panthers are a shadow of the Texans. Lacking pass rushers, lacking talent in the secondary, that part will take time. However the Texans, in Kubiak's 7th season are putting it all together, and while Houston fans were once questioning whether he could be the coach to lead them, now they wouldn't trade him for anything. Staying the course isn't easy, but if the Panthers manage their next few drafts correctly they'll be in good stead moving forward.