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McNair Raises The Stakes In Houston

The Houston Texans entered the NFL in 2002. And they’ve yet to play more than 16 games in a season. The time has come for that to change. And that’s not just our viewpoint. It’s the opinion of owner Bob McNair. “I’ll be disappointed if we don’t make the playoffs,” McNair said recently, according to the Houston Chronicle. “I don’t make predictions, but I fully expect us to do it.

Here’s our prediction. If they don’t make the playoffs, we fully expect that Gary Kubiak will be looking for a new job in 2010.

The Texans started off at 4-12 in their first season, and then slowly improved. They won five games in 2003 and seven in 2004.

The flirtation with .500 prompted many to think that their fourth season would result in a trip to the postseason. It wasn’t an unrealistic expectation. The Browns qualified for a wild-card berth in their fourth season back in the league, and the Jaguars and Panthers both were playing in conference championship games only a year after joining the NFL in the mid-1990s.

But the bottom dropped out in 2005, with the Texans winning only two and losing 14.

Coach Dom Capers promptly was fired after the season, and G.M. Charley Casserly “resigned” after the draft. (We know that this was a sore point for Casserly at the time, but the prevailing theory in league circles was that McNair didn’t want to fire both men right after the season, in order to avoid the perception that McNair swung and missed on both hires. And though Casserly now gets praised for passing on Reggie Bush and draft Mario Williams in his last official act for the Texans, the story at the time was that Casserly had no input in the decision given his short-timer/Scotch-and-Splenda status.)

[Editor’s note: We’re not suggesting that Casserly was drinking Scotch and Splenda or any other alcoholic beverages during the final days of his tenure in Texas. Or at any other point during his professional career. We’re merely making a reference to the Michael Scott Paper Company story arc from The Office, during which Michael Scott was drinking Scotch and Splenda in the time after he gave his two-week notice. Hopefully, that disclaimer will be enough to get the lawyers to leave me alone so that I can enjoy my Rum and Rice Krispies in peace.]

So now Kubiak, who enters his fourth year on the job, steps into the shoes that Capers was wearing in 2005. The Texans gradually have improved under the long-time Broncos assistant’s leadership, winning six games in 2006 and eight in 2007.

Last season, the wheels were wobbling and threatening to come off early, thanks to an early schedule including games against the Steelers, Titans, Jaguars, and Colts. They lost each one, and the whispers started regarding Kubiak’s job security.

But then the Texans woke up, winning eight of their last twelve games.

The improvement saved Kubiak’s job, but it only raised expectations entering 2009.

And that’s the reality of life in the modern NFL. A coach’s performance is determined not by what his squad does in relation to every other team, but what his team does in relation to the expectations entering each season.

In Detroit this year, five wins could result in a ticker tape parade; in Houston, a similar outcome probably will result in Kubiak getting canned.

After the 2-14 effort of 2005, the proper outcome was easy to identify. It’ll get more difficult if Kubiak generates another 8-8 season and misses the playoffs by a game or two. The challenge at that point would be for McNair to determine whether to stay the course -- or whether to turn the keys over to one of the four big-name unemployed coaches with Super Bowl rings in their jewelry boxes: Mike Holmgren, Jon Gruden, Bill Cowher, and Mike Shanahan.

Of that quartet, Shanahan is the most intriguing. On one hand, he’d likely not be interested in coaching the team that fired his friend and protege. On the other hand, maybe there would be a way to bring Shanahan on board without firing Kubiak.

The issue will be moot if the Texans play beyond Week Seventeen. If they don’t, all options will be on the table.