KANSAS CITY, Mo. —The coach is looking back now, thinking about his first days in charge of an NFL team and remembering the decisions that might someday define him and an organization.
Back then, there was a long way to go. Some might say there still is.
The coach's assignment was to improve a team that had struggled for years. He instilled a new approach to meetings, practices and workouts.
"Having the right mentality, teaching a whole organization — a whole group — how you have to do things," he says now, "on a day-to-day basis to be successful. From meetings to the offseason — everything."
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That was the top priority, and then it became identifying and trading for a quarterback. The team found its man, executing a trade for a passer who'd been a career backup, albeit one with some noticeable upside. After that, the team's decision-makers opted to select a defensive end in the top five of the NFL Draft, a gamble at the time, and that decision was seen then as one that could shape all their futures.
This is Gary Kubiak talking about those early days, and how big plans can sometimes mean significant results. He's the Houston Texans' coach, and he helped launch a full-scale organizational shift that closely resembles the one the Chiefs began putting together in early 2009.
Both teams gave up draft picks to make a backup quarterback their starter, with Houston acquiring Matt Schaub in 2007 and the Chiefs getting Matt Cassel in '09. Both coaches selected a defensive end with their first draft picks — Mario Williams to Houston as the No. 1 overall pick in '06 and Tyson Jackson at No. 3 last year for the Chiefs. Both organizations underwent top-to-bottom house-cleanings, with a new coach and general manager hired the same year, and both vowed to alter a culture of losing.
"We were going to have some rough times," Kubiak says, "but knew in the long haul that it was the best thing to do."
If the plans are similar, though, some of the seeds the Chiefs planted have yet to bear the kind of fruit that Houston has seen. Schaub was the most valuable player of last year's Pro Bowl, and Cassel's reputation seems to take a worse beating by the week. Williams is a two-time All-Pro who averaged nearly 10 sacks in his first four seasons, and Jackson is seen as a draft-day reach who has yet to register a sack or show any signs of game-changing ability.
The Texans have, as Chiefs coach Todd Haley said this past week, gotten "over the hump," and that's an enviable position. Haley's team started 3-0 for the first time since 2003, but he admitted that the Chiefs are still trailing the Texans, who are among four AFC South teams with a 3-2 record, in both teams' effort to build themselves into contenders.
"They're a couple of years ahead," Haley says. "Their team is probably through that transition period; in my opinion, the record just hasn't necessarily reflected it. This is not a team that anybody wants to play.
"A team that I think we can learn from."
Even if the Texans truly have their most difficult days behind them, they remain far from perfect. Seen as an early favorite to win the division, Houston has been disappointing in blowout losses to Dallas and the New York Giants. Haley said today's game could help determine the directions of both teams — whether the Chiefs can rebound from last week's loss to Indianapolis and resume their surprising turnaround, and whether the Texans can enter their bye week with a winning record and keep pressure on other AFC South teams.
Still, the Chiefs would like to be closer to Houston's position within the NFL's realm of legitimacy. Even at 3-1, the Chiefs are one of the league's biggest mysteries, and much of that falls on Cassel's shoulders. The Texans seem reinforced for the future at their most important position, and the questions about Cassel's viability as a franchise quarterback have only increased in his first four games this season.
Schaub says that, for all the teams' similarities, there exists in Houston a mentality that just hasn't set in yet in Kansas City: a weekly confidence that comes from recent success and the fading memories of bygone losing seasons. The Texans never had a winning record, losing 72 games since their expansion year in 2002, until last season's 9-7 finish.
Now, Schaub says, things are different.
"We expect to win and we know we can win every game if we play our style of football," he says. "In the past... the thought here was: Try to play well, and hopefully we can maybe win."
One advantage the Texans had when they acquired Schaub was a go-to wide receiver in Andre Johnson. Schaub says Johnson's presence made Houston an appealing destination, and teaming him with a reliable quarterback helped fast-track the team's rise.
The Chiefs' two biggest questions are at quarterback and receiver, particularly after Cassel struggled last week and No. 1 receiver Dwayne Bowe dropped two passes, including a certain touchdown. If Houston built around its quarterback and best wideout, then the Chiefs are improving in spite of a weak passing game.
The Texans' earliest personnel decisions seemed to yield superstars. The Chiefs' first draft class and the Cassel trade, which also included linebacker Mike Vrabel, have yet to produce a player who's shown elite talent.
Kubiak and Haley agreed this past week that the most important and difficult task for a team in transition is to have those decisions pay off.
"That's the business," says Haley, who goes on to indicate it's too early to fairly grade Cassel or Jackson or any other of his young, core players.
Williams didn't show elite skills until his second year, but his rookie statistics — 4 1/2 sacks, 35 solo tackles and a forced fumble — were still more impressive than those Jackson produced in his first pro season, when he had zero sacks or forced fumbles and 27 solo tackles.
"They drafted who they drafted," Haley says, "and they stuck by their guy, and I think that you see that — no disrespect to anybody — but this defensive end (Williams) now is a big-time player. They kind of had to weather a storm."
Since Kubiak joined the Texans in 2006, the team has steadily improved. With that improvement came higher expectations and therefore more pressure on the key figures: Kubiak, Schaub, Williams and Johnson.
A win today would at least keep Houston in a tie for first place in its division, but a loss would be a frustrating setback and would increase the whispers that Kubiak might have been the coach to return the Texans to respectability, but perhaps he's not the man to lead the team to a Super Bowl. That's just how quickly the attitudes can change when an NFL team improves, and that's one more thing that Haley understands.
"You've got to do a good job," he says, "or they'll be talking about somebody else."
Kubiak admits that, as much as Houston has accomplished during his five seasons as coach, there's far more on the team's agenda. He says the organization's culture has changed, and that's not limited to players and coaches. The Chiefs can relate to that; employees at team headquarters have been shuffled in and out, depending on their adherence to the organization's vision and whether they fit into what the decision-makers view as the right way of thinking about things, approaching things and doing things.
Kubiak says it's a proven method. He says it works. He says to just look at the results — and understand that the work never stops.
"I don't think it's something that, all of a sudden, you flip the switch," he says. "It's an ongoing battle, trying to find some consistency in who you are and how you do things.
"You have to practice to win in this league.... Now we're trying to become a playoff football team, so we tried to be realistic, tried to lay out a plan for them. Now every day, go out there and achieve that plan. Not every season, but every damn day."