Beyond the Boxscore
Brooks Reed cannot help himself. He needs a better look. So he climbs up on top of the Houston Texans' metal bench, certain he is about to see a miraculous win.
"I'm standing up on the bench, praying," Reed says later. "It seemed like (Matt) Schaub was going to run it in for the win. I thought our offense was going to make a play. That's what they always do."
Forgive Reed. He hasn't been around here very long. Reed is a rookie from Arizona. He still believes in football miracles. Texan fans mostly know better.
Schaub sees plenty of daylight on that final, faithful play — but the Texans still ends up clouded in gloom. Isn't that's how it always goes for Houston?
Afterwards, several gleeful Raiders charge Schaub with choking in their 25-20 steal of a win. Some talk around it, but make their belief clear — noting how Schaub threw the ball right into their defensive back's hands with a chance to run it in for the game winner. Oakland defensive tackle Tommy Kelly comes right out and says the Texans' quarterback "Choked."
And suddenly, Schaub's composure in the clutch (or lack thereof) is guaranteed to be a hot topic in the sports world this week. PTI will be talking Texans. With a gag line.
Much like in high school, reputations are hard to shake in the NFL. And right now, Schaub is building one as a talented choker. It's not pretty. It's probably not fair. But as the pros love to say these days, "It is what it is."
Schaub does the hard things — converts a first-and-25 and a third-and-23 on the last-chance drive. He rescues his team from the cliff again and again. And then just when it finally feels safe to look, he takes a flying leap off that cliff untouched, taking everybody else down with him.
Much like in high school, reputations are hard to shake in the NFL. And right now, Schaub is building one as a talented choker.
It's hard not to see a pattern now. Maybe, Schaub couldn't have scored on that final play if he'd simply run full speed ahead at the sight of the opening rather than hesitating, hesitating . . . looking like a kid nervous enough to throw up on prom night. Maybe, the 70,000-plus witnesses at Reliant Stadium are wrong. Maybe, he has a better gauge of his lack of speed than anyone else.
"I'm not necessarily a guy who's going to make a lot of guys miss in the open field," Schaub says at the podium later, knowing that the dissection of the final play is only beginning.
Still, even if all of that is true . . . he ends up throwing a pick in the end zone with a chance to win the game on the final play. One where Raiders safety Michael Huff's biggest worry is holding onto a football flung right in-between his numbers.
"Those are the hardest ones to catch," Huff says. "The ones that come right to you."
It's not Schaub's fault that he's stuck with a horrible No. 1 wide receiver with Andre Johnson hurt (that's on general manager Rick Smith, who settled for resigning Jacoby Jones in the offseason when the Texans needed more and Plaxico Burress wanted to be here). It's probably no coincidence that One Catch Man Jacoby is the intended receiver when disaster strikes. Jones doesn't exactly look in control either when Huff steps by him to steal the game.
But still, the pattern goes beyond Jacoby.
Schaub leads an amazing comeback against Baltimore last year on Monday Night Football, drives the Texans up and down the field on that vaunted defense. Then . . . he throws a pick-6 on the very first play of overtime for the loss.
The Texans cannot depend on their quarterback to rescue them every single game. But finishing one of those attempts would sure be nice.
"Absolutely," center Chris Myers says when asked if he expected the Texans to win. "I never thought it would come down to a loss. I thought we'd get the job done. We drove it — what, 90 yards to set up that play."
Myers pauses when asked what he saw on the final play — a snap from the Raiders' five-yard line with seven seconds left. "It looked like Matt was going to make a play," Myers says. "That's what he does for us. He makes all kinds of plays. He did what he needed to do and threw it where he thought he needed to throw it. That's why he's our quarterback."
No Texan's going to dare pile on Schaub publicly — not after the beating he took against those Al-Davis-death inspired Raiders. But you have to wonder if some doubt is creeping in with Schaub's teammates. It certainly is around the rest of the league.
There are few worse things you can be called in the athletic world than a choke artist. Just ask Texas' other starting NFL quarterback, the Cowboys' Tony Romo. Once a choker tag lands on you, it's as impossible to remove as one of those purposely annoying parking violation stickers.
Schaub looks out of sync for most of the Raiders game, looks lost without Johnson really. Even worse, he rather lamely tries to blame his under-50-percent completion percentage on the fact that the Raiders play a lot of man-to-man coverage. But he's not giving up a 27-3 lead a la Romo. Schaub still gives the Texans a chance to win, finding a way to cobble together 416 yards passing on a day when he targets Jones 11 times and gets one measly catch out of it.
Schaub is way off his game — and it's still almost enough.
It's easy to picture John Elway making that flying leap in Super Bowl XXXII, getting spun through the air like a helicopter in an all-guts-out attempt to make a first down in this moment.
On the last snap, he has backup tight end Joel Dreessen, who had to turn into a major weapon, and Kevin Walter on the right side. On the left side, Jones runs a fade route and tight end Owen Daniels runs an inside route with the two crossing. Schaub looks right first, ends up rolling left toward Jones and Daniels.
Only the field is more open than any of his receivers.
It's easy to picture John Elway making that flying leap in Super Bowl XXXII, getting spun through the air like a helicopter in an all-guts-out attempt to make a first down in this moment. Easy and damaging to Schaub's reputation. America expects its quarterbacks to be tough, to sell out their body to win in the crucial telling point.
In truth, if Schaub goes for the touchdown at an all-out gallop and ends up getting absolutely squashed by charging Raiders safety Tyvon Branch at the 1-yard line, he's likely lauded as a hero. Even if the end result is the same loss.
In a way, Schaub's being penalized for thinking it out. That's clearly what Schaub did with the game on the line, needing one play to win it. He calculated — OK, probably overcalculated — and ending up losing the chance to run it in. Is that a fault in the clutch? The scoreboard doesn't lie.
But Schaub wouldn't be a Top 10 quarterback, if he wasn't a thinking man quarterback. That's part of his strength. That's his skill set. It gives the Texans the chance to win a lot of games early. And a greater possibility of losing some late at the end of a rescue. Does that make him a choker?
"In the heat of the battle, you don't really have time to get excited for much," Schaub says, looking spent and much slighter than usual in a simple long sleeve Texans shirt. "You just try to make a play. It didn't turn out for us the way we wanted it to."
Schaub talks about the "heat of the battle" a lot on this lost day. It'd be easy to spin that into some sense of being overwhelmed. But Matt Schaub is far from Tony Romo. The Cowboys quarterback seems to forget to think. The Texans' seems to over think.
Choker as charged? Probably not, but that doesn't make the losses any easier to stomach. Only winners get to make their own labels.
"It's tough," Texans linebacker Connor Barwin says. "Hell yes, it's tough. You think you're going to win the game and you end up getting your heart stomped on. But that's the NFL.
"You've just got to deal with it."
There's no crying in football. Even if you're called a choker.