If there is a glimmer of hope flickering for the Houston Texans in a season that has been devastating, it's that their misery doesn't have to last long.
They still have plenty of playmakers on offense. They also have one of the game's most dominant defensive players in end J.J. Watt, who is one year removed from leading one of the league's best units. More than anything, the Texans have the example the Kansas City Chiefs are setting this season. As remarkable as the Chiefs' turnaround has been, the Texans can do far better in 2014.
Kansas City went from 2-14 to its current record of 10-3 by making several savvy moves this past offseason. The Chiefs found the right coach (Andy Reid), the right general manager (John Dorsey), and the right quarterback (Alex Smith) when many wondered how they would transition out of the chaos that was the Scott Pioli era. The result was a team that opened this season with nine consecutive wins. As much as skeptics want to point to a soft schedule as the reason for the Chiefs' instant success, the team's leaders deserve credit for taking a squad with respectable talent and nurturing it into an immediate contender.
The Texans don't have to worry about hiring a general manager, because Rick Smith is one of the best young executives in the business. They also have far more talent than Kansas City had at the end of last season, which is why they might be able to put their disastrous season -- now 2-11, with 11 consecutive defeats -- behind them quickly. The first step was firing coach Gary Kubiak, which happened Dec. 6, a day after Houston lost to Jacksonville. The second step would be not hiring Wade Phillips, the team's interim coach, to a full-time position.
Phillips is a nice man and a phenomenal defensive mind. He is not a dynamic head coach. He has had three shots at that opportunity – in Denver, Buffalo and Dallas – and his career record of 82-63 obscures the fact that he's never had a remarkable impact at any stop. Hiring Phillips would be the easy way out for a team that requires a bold move when this season finally ends. They need a coach who can jump-start a frustrating franchise that too often has lacked the toughness to reach the next level of contention.
Lovie Smith, formerly of the Chicago Bears, is a smart choice to have on that short list. The same is true for San Diego Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt. Unlike Stanford coach David Shaw -- another reported candidate for the job -- both of those men reached the Super Bowl in their first jobs as head coaches (Whisenhunt was in Arizona from 2007 to 2012). Each also has an area of expertise that could benefit the Texans immediately -- Smith as a defensive guru, Whisenhunt as a respected offensive mind.
The other key move this team has to make in the coming months is determining who's going to be under center. Houston very well could be in position to have the first overall pick in the 2014 draft, and that could mean somebody like Louisville junior Teddy Bridgewater, should he leave school early, becomes the Texans' quarterback of the future.
The problem in that scenario is that there isn't a quarterback in this class who currently looks ready to step in and perform as ably as Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III did as rookies last season. There are bound to be growing pains more along the lines of what the New York Jets have endured with Geno Smith this season.
A more intriguing option for Houston could be found in a player already in the league. Current starter Case Keenum has a few more games to make his case after replacing Matt Schaub earlier this season. The Texans also might think about trading for Washington backup Kirk Cousins, who basically has three weeks to showcase his value as a starter in the Redskins' final three games. Vikings quarterback Josh Freeman also should be looking for a new team after Tampa Bay gave up on him, and Minnesota hasn't found a way to use his talents. Though many people seem to be writing off Freeman, he could resuscitate his career in the same way Smith did in San Francisco in 2011.
The most important consideration for the Texans is that they need to find a quarterback with the potential to win now. Anybody who hasn't produced any success at the NFL need not be an option for 2014. This team has too much talent to wait on a quarterback to grow up on the job. The Texans did win two consecutive AFC South titles before watching this season implode at warp speed.
Of all the decisions owner Bob McNair has faced in the 12-year history of this franchise, none is bigger than this. He has dumped the only coach who has ever taken his team to the playoffs. He's watched the best quarterback in franchise history (Schaub) lose his confidence, his effectiveness and, ultimately, his job. Most concerning, McNair has witnessed something no owner ever wants to experience: a championship-caliber team in its prime stumbling all the way to the NFL's cellar.
McNair can still fix all of this with the proper decisions.
If he really wants to cover his bases, he might even place a call to Chiefs owner Clark Hunt, who was selling Reid on becoming the team's coach within hours of the Eagles firing him in January. McNair already appears to have his candidates nailed down and is ready to begin the vetting process. His next move will determine if this team escapes a hell it never should have fallen into in the first place.