- Elizabeth Merrill, ESPN Senior Writer
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HOUSTON -- There is a marketing tool called the Q score that measures the familiarity of famous people. Maybe Matt Schaub doesn't know much about it. Aside from a smattering of billboards featuring his smiling mug on a BMW dealership ad in Houston, Schaub does a pretty good job of blending into a Texas autumn. Media types who cover the Houston Texans call him vanilla because he rarely gives them anything colorful. Schaub insists he doesn't do this on purpose. Local columnist Richard Justice once wrote, "Matt Schaub must be saving the good stuff for his book."
It is rare, in any city, for the quarterback on one of the NFL's best teams to not be the first, second or even third most talked about athlete. But here, Schaub falls somewhere behind J.J. Watt, Arian Foster and Jeremy Lin.
How could Matt Schaub have a Q score of 7? The average NFL player who makes the list has a score of 15. Peyton Manning's is 32. Now, it should be noted that the study, conducted by Marketing Evaluations, Inc., was done before the season. It should also be noted that only 56 percent of sports fans from this same study even recognize Schaub.
But Schaub doesn't worry about these things. He doesn't seem fazed by much of anything. There was the time last spring when a number of teams were courting Manning, and Texans coach Gary Kubiak texted his quarterback and asked him to pick up the future Hall of Fame quarterback at the airport. Kubiak was kidding, but that's not exactly the type of thing you joke about via text. Manning was causing insecurity complexes all over the league last spring.
Schaub said he simply laughed and texted, "I'll send him back to Terminal C."
Houston, a young franchise in one of the largest markets in the country, is unusual in that it is so seemingly normal and drama-free. Receivers don't make headlines for spouting off, scandals don't arise most Sunday nights, and the owner spends money and stays out of the way. Schaub is the quiet face behind this franchise.
He is closing in on 20,000 career passing yards, he is 10-1 in his past 11 starts, and he would rather play it close to the vest. Schaub has a tendency to roll his eyes a bit when someone asks him if he's becoming one of the NFL's elite quarterbacks. It's a list the media and the fans like to talk about, he'll say. It can't be up for debate yet, before the Texans have really done anything.
"I don't know if it's [just] Matt," Kubiak said. "I'd say this organization is working its way toward a respect factor. He's the quarterback. He's part of the organization. Hopefully, we've come a long way in our 10 years. Respect is earned. They don't give it in this league.
"Matt's all football, and then he goes home to [his] three kids. There's nothing wrong with that."
Perhaps this will seem boring, that Matt Schaub never dated Jessica Simpson, that he grew up in a white-collar area outside of Philadelphia, that he's low-key because he was taught to be humble and quite frankly, in between becoming a master of the Texans' offense and spending time with his wife and daughters, he really doesn't have the time to work on his brand.
Schaub thinks it's funny that the biggest headlines he has probably ever received came last month in Denver. They did not focus on the perfect passes he threw in a 31-25 victory over Manning's Broncos. They came because his left ear was bleeding. He took a vicious hit from defender Joe Mays, lost his helmet and ripped his ear. Because he was back after one play, he was instantly hailed as a tough guy.
But in Schaub's long and winding career, this was barely a scratch.
He was born in Pittsburgh, but grew up on the other side of the state in West Chester, Pa. His high school coach at West Chester East, Joe Carroll, described Schaub as sort of a throwback, a tough kid who was one of the last who didn't specialize in one sport. Schaub was a 1,000-point scorer in basketball, played baseball and was a member of the National Honor Society.
"He didn't draw any attention to himself," Carroll said, "even though he was the best athlete in school."
He went to the University of Virginia and toiled in a two-quarterback system. Just when it looked as if he'd finally have his name alone on top of the depth chart his junior year in 2002, Marques Hagans replaced him as the starter in the second game. Schaub was not defeated. He won the job back, threw for a school-record 2,751 yards and beat out Philip Rivers for ACC Player of the Year.
At Virginia, where he earned his undergraduate degree in economics, Schaub was known for his patience and confidence.
"Matt is a low-key guy," said Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, who used to coach Schaub at Virginia. "He's very sharp if you talk to him. He's quick-witted. He could definitely host 'Saturday Night Live' if he was ever asked to do so. He's definitely comfortable in his own skin."
Schaub entered his senior season as a Heisman Trophy candidate, but on the first series of the season opener against Duke, he was blindsided and his throwing shoulder was driven to the turf. He stayed in for two plays with a separated shoulder, holding for the Cavaliers' field goal kicker.
He missed several games and missed out on his chance to be a high draft pick. Atlanta drafted him in the third round, but playing time would be scarce with Michael Vick under center. For three years, he backed up Vick, occasionally getting the chance to show flashes of brilliance.
"I felt like he could be a superstar in the league," former Falcons running back Warrick Dunn said. "Just being around quarterbacks, I knew the time he really put into his craft and how dedicated he was. But he also threw a great ball, a catchable ball, all the time. And that's hard to find in the league."
While Schaub was getting ready to be traded in 2007, the Houston Texans were preparing for a major shift in their franchise. They'd given up on David Carr, their No. 1 overall draft pick in 2002. By the spring of 2007, Kubiak had just wrapped up his first season as head coach, and was looking at his options. He'd watched Schaub in college, and liked him a lot.
After ringing endorsements from two people Kubiak trusts -- Musgrave and former Broncos colleague Alex Gibbs, who'd worked with Schaub in Atlanta -- Kubiak knew he had to act quickly. He asked Schaub to meet him in California. They played a round of golf. They talked about the future. And by the end of the day, Schaub knew he had to be in Houston.
They were kindred spirits. Schaub loved the fact that Kubiak was a grinder, that he lived to figure out how to attack defenses, just like him. After that one round of golf, Kubiak knew that this was a guy competitive enough to handle the daunting task ahead.
Houston, like most young franchises, had many problems. The offensive line was traditionally so porous that it allowed Carr to be sacked 249 times in five seasons. The Texans hadn't had a winning season since the franchise started in 2002. But Schaub loved the idea of helping to build something.
"We had a long way to go to become a good football team," Kubiak said. "He was in there and he was getting hit too much, and that's what happens to your quarterback when you're not built the right way to protect him. I thought he showed a ton of toughness as he was growing as a player."
Injuries kept Schaub out of games in his first two seasons. Critics started to question his durability. Schaub showed how good he can be when he's healthy in 2009, when he led the league with 4,770 yards passing. The pieces they needed to be successful were coming together, and Schaub could feel it. He said he didn't care when the Texans became more run-heavy in 2010 with the emergence of Arian Foster. Whatever it took to win, he said.
Houston was sort of a chic preseason Super Bowl pick in 2011. The Texans were balanced and loaded on offense; they had Wade Phillips guiding a young and talented defense. Finally, Schaub would have a shot at his ring. In Week 10 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Schaub was in a pile when 350-pound defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth fell on him and crushed his right foot. Schaub suffered a Lisfranc injury, which can be career-threatening, but Schaub tried to keep playing.
He was finished for the season.
Schaub says the injury was "very tough." Teammates said it was devastating. None of them would've blamed him if he limped away and sulked for a while. But Schaub was around the facility so much that it was almost as though he was playing. He wanted to help rookie T.J. Yates get ready to play. He wanted to see the season through for Kubiak, for owner Bob McNair, and all of his teammates.
"Nobody could've helped me more than he did," Yates said.
"The coaches were coaching me up as much as they could, but it's so much better to hear it from a guy who's been in the position and [is] seeing the same things you are. He just gave me so much advice all the way through."
The piece of advice that stuck with Yates the most was what Schaub said after a bad game. Schaub told him that when he came in tomorrow, he had to make sure that nobody saw that it affected him. He was the leader of the team. And he needed to show the rest of them that it didn't get him down.
Schaub was always doing things to promote team-building. Every year on the Monday before the season starts, Schaub invites the entire offense to his house and caters in dinner. At least three times a season, he'll pop in for the offensive line's Thursday night meals together.
He is one of them, center Chris Myers said. At the end of the year, he sprung for airfare for the linemen's annual postseason trip to Las Vegas. He did it to say thank you, as he does every year for his line, but Myers said this act of generosity was even more impressive because Schaub didn't even play the final two months of the season.
He didn't have any profound speeches for Yates before the Texans' two playoff games. Schaub's not into that.
"I mean, you should see us before games," Yates said. "We're just sitting at our lockers, chatting it up about anything. He's not the type of guy that's going to sit there and get pumped up and block everything out. We like to keep it loose and open before the games. We just go on like it's another day."
Henry Schafer, executive vice president of Marketing Evaluations Inc., said Schaub would be wise to get busy. He needs to get in front of the camera more. If he is so inclined, he should take advantage of the Texans' success and build his brand.
"He's on his way," Schafer said. "But if he's a recluse "
Schaub isn't that. He said he actually has deals with Nike and Verizon, but nothing that requires him to have his face plastered all over TV and magazines. He likes it that way. He can't help it if he makes life tougher for the media. If you want to get a juicy story, he says, don't come to him. He can't even make the bloody ear story sound gory.
He shows you the ear. It's pretty much healed already. He scoffs at the talk that he needed stitches.
"That would've made it a whole better story," he said.
But the more the Texans win, the more Schaub might be fielding questions on whether he's an elite quarterback. He has a 93.1 passer rating and has completed 63.1 percent of his throws. He is one of only 12 quarterbacks to have back-to-back 4,000-yard passing seasons.
"I wouldn't want anyone else taking snaps from me," Myers said.
And Schaub wouldn't want to be anywhere else. He said Houston is the perfect place for him, a place where he doesn't have to worry about being on Page 6, a place where normal isn't necessarily viewed as bland. He said his team is a bunch of relatively quiet personalities. Maybe they take cues from their quarterback.
But in February, things could be different. Maybe the Texans will finally get everything they want, and Schaub will finally feel comfortable enough to utter words such as "elite quarterback" and "shoe deal."
Now that would be a story.