NAPA, CALIF. – The phone calls came with the fall. Around midseason in 2013, when then-Texans quarterback Matt Schaub was tossing interceptions more frequently than touchdowns, his phone buzzed with unfamiliar numbers. Super Bowl MVP Kurt Warner left a message, Jeff Garcia offered advice, then Trent Dilfer, and then Steve Young. Those close to Schaub and connected around the NFL were giving out his number to former quarterbacks who had once or twice been through the ringer, which is a long-winded way of saying former quarterbacks.
Says Young: “I told him, ‘Matt, you only have one thing to focus on—playing great football. That’s it. Forget everything else.’ ”
A season later Schaub is a starter in Oakland, traded to the Raiders for a sixth-round pick by a franchise with whom he spent seven seasons, led the league in passing yards in 2009 and made two Pro Bowls. The low point last year came with a three-interception performance in a blowout loss at San Francisco in Week 5. Houston fans booed Schaub off the field a week later against St. Louis, and he was benched for three games in favor of untested Case Keenum.
During Schaub’s tailspin, Young advised him to narrow his focus: “Forget all the woe-is-me stuff,” Young says. “Forget thinking, ‘I wish, I wish, I wish they’d support me better, or whatever.’ Just play. Figure out how to play great football. Don’t blame anyone. In the end, it doesn’t matter.’ It was really a little bit of tough love.”
But there would be no quick fix. When Schaub did return to action—he was subbed in for an ineffective Keenum in Weeks 10 and 13, and started the final two games after Keenum injured his thumb—his teammates say he was a shell of himself. “I really don’t know what happened to him,” said a former offensive teammate of Schaub’s in Houston. “But once it went downhill, his confidence was shot, and I think that’s what really killed him.”
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It wasn’t until March 23 that the Texans were able to find a trade suitor for the 33-year-old Schaub, who came to Oakland as the assumed opening day starter before the team drafted Derek Carr. No doubt, QB-needy NFL teams around the league asked themselves the same question Schaub’s been asked early in Raiders camp: Is he actually over it?
“I moved on,” he said. “If you want to be successful in this business, you’ve got to have a short memory, good or bad. Sometimes you get too much praise. So much goes into being successful as a team and an individual that sometimes it doesn’t go your way, and sometimes it doesn’t go your way over and over again. You just keep playing and working through it.”
Oakland fans desperate for evidence that Schaub has worked through it could not have been encouraged by last Friday night’s preseason opener, in which he went 3-of-7 for 21 yards, leading the Raiders to just one first down in three series, in a 10-6 loss to Minnesota. Yet the team publicly insists Schaub has turned the page on last season. In practice he has shown a better command of the offense than Carr (though perhaps not than second-year QB Matt McGloin, who started the final six games for Oakland last year). Where Schaub seems to be struggling most is in his deep accuracy.
He is, however, acting like a No. 1 quarterback. During the first week of camp he unexpectedly demanded an audience in a team meeting and speechified. The message, says tight end Mychal Rivera, was about changing the culture on a team that hasn’t finished above .500 since the Super Bowl season of 2002. “He said, it’s time,” Rivera says. “It’s time to stop talking about it and start being about it. It’s time to take action. He’s the real deal. He’s about winning, and that’s what we’re all about.”
Raiders senior offensive assistant Al Saunders was in the room and came away thinking, Now we know who’s in charge.
Saunders and other holdovers from Greg Knapp’s one-year stint as Oakland’s offensive coordinator in 2012 were the ones who lobbied for Schaub in Oakland in the first place. Knapp had come from Houston, and when he brought that offense to Oakland, coaches prepped for the install by watching almost exclusively Matt Schaub operating the scheme for the Texans. “So those of us who were on this staff when Greg was here saw the capabilities he had and how he directed an offense,” Saunders says. “In our view, we felt he was the best QB available who would fit what we were trying to do on offense.”
That is, if Schaub is emotionally capable of running another NFL offense. He’s shown a great deal of investment, gathering wide receivers and running backs at Laney College during the offseason for players-only passing sessions, and doing the same at Dublin (Calif.) High the week before camp began. It showed the kind of commitment and confidence from a quarterback that’s been uncommon of late in Oakland, where the list of starting QBs since 2002 has reached Cleveland Browns proportions (Rick Mirer, Marques Tuiasosopo, Kerry Collins, Andrew Walter, Aaron Brooks, Josh McCown, Daunte Culpepper, JaMarcus Russell, Bruce Gradkowski, Charlie Frye, Jason Campbell. Carson Palmer, Kyle Boller, Terrelle Pryor, Matt McGloin, Matt Flynn). Schaub says he did not seek the help of a sports psychologist at any point—he just declined to harp on the failures and the boos.
“Fans have a right to boo when you’re not getting the job done. There’s a lot we can control in the business, but a lot that we can’t. That mental toughness and thick skin—it’s a response you develop over time,” he says. “This has been a great transition for me, and I’m excited for what’s ahead.”
Those who reached out with advice a year ago continue to watch closely. A single preseason performance is nothing to harp about or hang your hat on, but, boy, wouldn’t it have been sweet if Schaub had lit up the Vikings?
It’s just never that easy, according to those who know. “I think it was to a point where ghosts were haunting him,” Young says. “And at that point, there’s nothing to do but work as hard as you can to beat down those ghosts.”