Matt Schaub needs one more gear

We all know the job of playing quarterback in the NFL isn't always a great deal. It's especially difficult when a team disappoints, scapegoats emerge and fans start turning on a franchise. Houston's Matt Schaub should be thinking long and hard about how he'd feel if he ever found himself in such a dilemma. If his team looks anything like it did at the end of last season, he'll be the first person critics target in the aftermath.

Fair or not, this is the year when Schaub has to be more than a very good quarterback for the Texans. He's been that for six years with that organization, and it's worked out well for the most part. He's been selected to two Pro Bowls. The team has made the playoffs for two consecutive seasons. Most importantly, all that bitterness that festered after the Houston Oilers moved to Tennessee 16 years ago seemed to vanish.

That was a great narrative until we saw how the Texans fared with Schaub under center for the final few weeks of the 2012 season. There were many reasons for their implosion after an 11-1 start -- including lethargy in the wake of clinching the AFC South title and some defensive letdowns -- but his play was as big an issue as any. Schaub threw a meager three touchdown passes in his final six games (including two playoff contests). He declined at a time when most star quarterbacks should just be finding their rhythm.

This isn't the kind of effort the Green Bay Packers get from Aaron Rodgers when moments become most critical. The same is true for Tom Brady in New England, Drew Brees in New Orleans and Peyton Manning in Denver. Those quarterbacks tend to be at their best in the biggest moments. It's time for Schaub to prove he has the goods to do the same things.

It's no longer enough that the 32-year-old Schaub is the quarterback who stabilized that position in Houston with his arrival (via a trade with Atlanta) in 2007. It doesn't even matter that he's thrown for 4,000 yards in three of the past four seasons. Those numbers were exciting when Texans fans still were trying to shake the discouragement of the David Carr era. Now those statistics only put Schaub in the same class as a Matthew Stafford, Jay Cutler or Matt Ryan -- gifted passers who are searching for titles of their own.

For Schaub to be special, he has to do something memorable this season. That's probably his biggest problem at the moment. For all his success, there is no defining play that has made us delight in his talents. He's like Baltimore's Joe Flacco before the Ravens went on their magical Super Bowl run last season. He's a talented star with a strong supporting cast doing his best to get the job done.

That would be fine if the Texans were still an up-and-coming team trying to establish themselves with the big boys. The truth is they stopped being that once they surpassed the Indianapolis Colts as kings of the AFC South. The most telling fact about the Texans over the past couple of years is that their rise coincided with the emergence of their vaunted running game and an improved defense. The less the team relied on Schaub, the better it got.

It's hard to win championships without a quarterback dominating at some point. The Ravens did it in 2000 and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers did it in 2002, but there really aren't any other franchises that can claim success with that formula. The rest of the title-winning teams in recent history all had quarterbacks who raised their games to places we'd rarely seen. Those organizations won because their signal-callers proved why they'd been made the faces of their franchises in the first place.

That's not to say Schaub literally has to become something that he's not. He only has to produce his own signature moments, the type that remind us of why he was so coveted in the first place. And please don't tell me about the other issues that led to Houston stumbling down the stretch last season. It's not as if any of those other quarterbacks haven't had to play through their own problems.

Rodgers has won games with an offensive line so shoddy that he's taken routine beatings. Brady has rarely had a defense as dominant as he had at the start of his career, and Brees has thrived with even less. On a lesser note, Eli Manning produced the two most impressive scoring drives of his career when the New York Giants were winning Super Bowls. To go even further, Ben Roethlisberger led the Pittsburgh Steelers to a last-second, game-winning touchdown over the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII.

Then there's Flacco. All he did last season was throw 11 touchdown passes and no interceptions in the postseason, claim Super Bowl MVP honors and sign a fat extension a few weeks later. Some skeptics were questioning his skills as recently as last December. Now Ravens fans worship him because he delivered when his team needed it most.

Schaub has such moments in him. He had that potential when he was an unheralded backup in Atlanta, and he flashed some of it when the Texans were trying to mature into a contender a few years back. This used to be a team that depended heavily on its ability to throw the football to win games. It once needed Schaub to be a guy who could air it out 40 to 50 times a contest just to compete.

The Texans don't require so much volume from their quarterback any longer, not with Arian Foster in the backfield and J.J. Watt on defense. They actually need only a little boost in productivity from the man under center. The Matt Schaub we've been watching all these years has been good enough to make Houston fans feel good about their once floundering franchise. If they dare to dream even bigger, he'll have to give them something far more memorable in the coming months.