|By Dave Mundy
If you’re seeing some
folks around Houston with a little extra swagger to their step, a little
more excitement to their voice when they start talking about football,
or maybe even one of those red-and-blue hats with horns sticking out of
it – be understanding.
It’s been a loooong
time since Houstonians have had much to cheer about come football season.
For the fans of the
Texans, the future is now.
As the National Football
League opens its 2009 season this month, the Texans find themselves in
an unusual position. For the first time in their short history, the Texans
are the favorite to win their division.
The Texans admit it’s
nice to be highly regarded—but they’re taking a cautious approach to it
all, if you don’t mind.
“As a player, you enjoy
when people say positive things about you or your organization,” defensive
tackle Frank Okam said when told many pundits are comparing the Texans
with last year’s Arizona Cardinals. “I hope we can finish with a better
record than Arizona did last year. But it's really about getting to the
playoffs, getting to the Super Bowl and winning the thing.”
Head coach Gary Kubiak
says his crew will enter camp a better team, but he’s still not satisfied.
“We’re a better team,”
he said at the conclusion of the three-day mini-camp June 17. “We’re more
competitive than we were last year and that’s important because when you’re
competitive your team gets better.
“I told the guys this
morning, I talked to them for 20 minutes and I said, ‘You know we can talk
about playoffs; we can talk about this, we can talk about that. The bottom
line, we’ve got to talk about improvement. Because if we improve,
we improve on what we’ve been doing, then we should be in line to reach
our goals.’ So the focus needs to stay on us.”
The Texan offense was
prolific last season, and enters the 2009 campaign little changed—read
that as “more experienced.” It’s on defense where the team took its biggest
strides in the off-season, with Frank Bush replacing Richard Smith as the
defensive coordinator and off-season moves and draft picks bolstering the
front seven immensely.
The biggest question
mark for the Texans will be in the defensive backfield, where veterans
like Demarcus Fagins and Glenn Earl have moved on to other teams and All-Pro
Dunta Robinson may sit out for weeks in a contract dispute.
Can the addition of
veteran safety Nick Ferguson, draft picks Glover Quin and Brice McCain,
and second-year strong safety Dominique Barber solidify around Robinson
and third-year man Fred Bennett?
Ferguson said it’s
not necessarily the secondary personnel who will make the big difference.
“Well, the reason I
think is going to be better is for three things,” he said during the organized
team activities in early June. “Frank Bush is our defensive coordinator.
We have David Gibbs as our coach. And the acquisitions we made in the off-season.”
Just about everyone
who has seen top draft choice Brian Cushing and second-round pick Connor
Barwin has been impressed, and the acquisitions of DE Antonio Smith, LB
Cato June and Okam are making the front seven anchored by DE Mario Williams
and MLB Demeco Ryans look pretty stout.
Bush’s style calls
for a more aggressive front seven, allowing the DBs to make plays rather
than sit back in zone coverage. Barber thinks just the change of
style will answer questions about the secondary.
“I think people are
going to see a completely new defense this year with us wreaking havoc
and causing turnovers and getting the offense the ball back,” he told the
team website. “Coach Bush is bringing back the old days of flying around
back there and making plays. You have to track and trust the guys next
to you and know that he knows his assignment and what he has to do.”
Barber said it’s a
gambling style of defense, but one that focuses on multiple defenders flying
to the ball.
“We are going to make
mistakes, but it’s about continuing to go out make another play and backing
each other up,” he said. “If someone misses a tackle, there should be 10
other guys right there and have that person’s back.”
Gibbs, whose Kansas
City Chiefs DBs were among the league leaders in pass defense 2006 and
2007, is enthusiastic about his group.
“I like my group,”
Gibbs said after one OTA workout. “I think they’re a bunch of guys who
have been beaten up, who’ve probably not played as well as they should.
“It’s nobody’s fault,
whether it’s coaching or players. Their job is to play good on Sundays
and my job is to make them play good on Sundays, and if they’re not playing
good, then obviously, it goes back to the coach.”
Offensively, the Texans
will field a group that only improved after putting up the league’s third-best
offensive numbers a year ago.
Quarterback Matt Schaub
is healthy again, but the Texans aren’t taking any chances after the departure
of popular backup QB Sage Rosenfels. The team signed former Lions starter
Dan Orlovsky this spring, and added Rex Grossman, who took the Bears to
the Super Bowl a couple of years back, just before mini-camp.
“Right now, I have
three guys that have taken a lot of snaps in this league,” Kubiak told
the team’s media circular. “As a coach, that makes you very comfortable.
We just need to get (Grossman) to a point where he is legitimately competitive
with those guys mentally as well as physically, and we’ll do that.
“It’s like I told Rex.
I have carried two; I’ve been a product of a two-quarterback system,” Kubiak
added. “After what I have been through the last two years, that might be
the way that I would lean today. I am going to keep them because they can
all play. I am not going to keep them just to have three quarterbacks.”
There’s no question
who Schaub and whoever his backups will be get to throw to: Andre Johnson
is the best wide receiver in football, and posted 115 receptions last year.
On the other side of the line, Kevin Walter finished with 60 receptions,
while TE Owen Daniels joined Johnson at the Pro Bowl.
The Texans have depth:
Andre Davis and Jacoby Jones are legitimate burners, while David Anderson,
like Walter, is a sure-hands guy. Behind Daniels, the Texans drafted James
Casey and Anthony Hill, and they also carry veteran Joel Dreesen to camp.
Running back Steve
Slaton was a huge bonus for Houston in 2008, gaining more than 1,200 rushing
yards and catching 50 passes to lead all rookie RBs. There’s some competition
for the backup spot, while fullback Vonta Leach has become a fixture.
The offensive line
– maligned for the Texans’ first few seasons as the group that couldn’t
protect the indecisive David Carr – has begun to mature into a solid bunch.
The key there this season will be the development of second-year left tackle
It’s a year that begins
with a lot of optimism in Houston – but the Texans aren’t starting any
end-zone dances just yet.
“I like what I see
so far,” General Manager Rick Smith told TexansTV’s Brooek Bentley. “It’s
obviously very early and you have limited exposure so far, but I like the
athleticism; I like the competitiveness of the group.
“At this point, I feel
pretty good about our team. We are always aware of players who are available
and if we feel like there are players out there who can upgrade us, then
we certainly are tweaking that roster and turning it over. I feel good
about the group we have going to training camp.”
the Texans' official website