|David J. Phillip / Associated Press|
|With another season like 2009, Matt Schaub could be mentioned among the game's elite quarterbacks.|
HOUSTON -- One of the problems with being part of a 9-7 team that missed the playoffs is that, besides watching with envy as others play deep into January, your strong individual accomplishments are easy to overlook.
Yet, when the NFL's top quarterbacks are mentioned, Schaub's name rarely enters the conversation. It should. He is as prolific as any of the usual suspects on the list: Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, and Aaron Rodgers. In fact, Schaub ranked first in the league last year in attempts (593), completions (396), and passing yards (4,770), and was fifth in touchdown throws (29).
He just doesn't have anywhere near the same level of recognition.
Much of that stems from the fact Schaub is a member of the Houston Texans, who have yet to reach the playoffs in their eight seasons in the NFL. Some of it also results from having his first two seasons with the Texans, 2007 and '08, shortened by injuries.
"I always said, once he was able to play 16 games, he would go out and show people what type of quarterback he was, and by him going through a full season last year, he went out and led the league in passing (yards)," wide receiver Andre Johnson said. "I know he always had that talent in him. He showed people the type of player he was last year, so hopefully we can keep him healthy for these 16 games coming up and I'm pretty sure he'll go out and do the same thing."
As the Texans proceed through the early phases of their training camp there is a clear sense of what it would take for Schaub to get more respect for the type of numbers he produces.
"It all stems from winning games," Schaub said. "We got to 9-7 last year. It was my first full season playing 16 games, so being able to come back this year and do the same thing and make the playoffs and get our team over the hump to where we want to get as a franchise, that's when you start getting your name put in (discussions) like that. We've got to win games in order for any of us to get recognition."
Nevertheless, offensive tackle Eric Winston can't help but feel frustrated hearing NFL analysts talk about quarterbacks and "not putting (Schaub) in the top two, three, four quarterbacks in the NFL. He's done it year-in, year-out the last couple of years."
"You see the decisions he makes as a quarterback; the guy's a smart player," said veteran safety Bernard Pollard, who joined the Texans early last season after being cut by the Kansas City Chiefs. "Everybody was talking about (him being) injury-prone and all this stuff, but this guy works his butt off. I saw him in my first offseason here, and he was in here 5:30 every morning."
Schaub was proud of the fact the Texans had five Pro Bowl selections in 2009. He was honored to be the game's MVP, although it should be noted that the fact it was played a week before the Super Bowl kept the Super Bowl XLIV quarterbacks (Peyton Manning and Brees) on the sidelines.
"That was a great time down (in South Florida)," Schaub said. "But ultimately we weren't playing in January, and that's the only thing I care about."
» The Texans have a spirited battle for the starting running back spot. Arian Foster, who joined the team last year as an undrafted free agent from Tennessee, took first-team reps in offseason workouts after playing a key role in the Texans' 4-0 finish to '09. "Arian Foster may have had the best offseason program of anybody on our football team," GM Rick Smith said. "He got a lot of confidence at the end of the year with the experience that he had, so he's taken that and improved on that." Third-year pro Steve Slaton, who has fully recovered from neck surgery, is also in the running. He has made a noticeable improvement in his quickness, and figures to contribute heavily as a receiver even if he doesn't start. Ben Tate, a second-round draft pick from Auburn, was slowed by a hamstring pull at the start of OTAs, but has rebounded and will compete.
» The Texans figure to have what could easily be the league's most intense place-kicking showdown between incumbent Kris Brown, the last original Texan, and Neil Rackers. Brown struggled badly last season, missing 11 of 32 field-goal attempts, including two in the final seconds of three-point losses to AFC South rivals Indianapolis and Tennessee. Rackers has had a long and accomplished career. "I don't know if you've ever seen two legitimate kickers in a competitive environment like this, but I wanted to create as much competition as I could so that at the end of the day we'd know we made the right decision," Smith said. "And the guy who makes our football team is going to earn his job. The thing I like about it this is that had you made a wholesale change or had you not done anything, the first time the guy misses a kick, everybody would have been second-guessing. This way, when that happens -- because they're going to miss some -- at least my feeling is that everybody will know that we've got the right guy and we have confidence in him to go make the next one."
» Despite the Texans' offensive explosiveness, they do have an issue on that side of the ball that is a primary point of emphasis in camp drills -- red-zone production. The problem was underscored by the fact the Texans were inside the opponents' 20-yard line 63 times last season, which ranked fourth behind the Saints (71), Vikings (69), and Patriots (65). However, they were 12th in the league with a red-zone touchdown percentage of 52.4. With Rick Dennison serving as the Texans' primary play-caller, there is reason to expect some improvement. After all, during Dennison's three seasons as Denver's offensive coordinator (2006-08), the Broncos were among the league's best red-zone scoring teams.
» On the Texans' first day of practice, there were problems with center exchanges with the quarterbacks. Some of that was probably due to opening-day jitters, but another factor was that the ball was getting caught in the baggy shorts the centers wore. On Day 2, the centers wore tighter shorts and there were no issues with exchanges.
» It's not often when the owner of an NFL franchise not named Jerry Jones calls out his players in public.
However, that was exactly what Texans owner Bob McNair did when he told the Houston Chronicle he wanted to see more passion from his players, and singled out two of them: Defensive end Mario Williams and defensive tackle Amobi Okoye. McNair pointed to second-year linebacker Brian Cushing as an example of the type of high-level intensity he wants the rest of the team to display on the field.
Pollard, for one, understood where the boss was coming from. But he doesn't believe the Texans have a problem in that regard.
"(McNair) loves what he sees out of Brian," Pollard said. "Brian's a great player and he wears his heart on his sleeve. When you see that kind of player making plays and will bark back in your face at any time, you've got to want everybody like that. But some players take a different direction. I really think, when it's time to play football, whether it's Mario, whoever, these guys are going to be here to play because we expect them to be accountable for their actions on that field.
"Coming from that standpoint, I really think everybody's going to be ready. Everybody shows their passion differently. Brian's crazy, I bark. (Linebacker) DeMeco (Ryan's) quiet, but he'll knock you out. That's how we are. It really doesn't matter."
» Wide receiver Dorin Dickerson, a seventh-round pick from Pittsburgh, could be one of the true sleepers on the roster. He shows outstanding speed and an ability to make plays, a reflection of the tremendous versatility he displayed in college and high school. At Pitt, the 6-foot-2, 230-pound Dickerson excelled as a tight end, but was a receiver/kick-returner as a true freshman before moving to linebacker as a sophomore. At West Allegheny High School in Imperial, Pa., he played running back, quarterback, and defensive back, as well as wide receiver and kick returner.
"He's just such an athlete," Smith said. "You can throw him in at a couple of places. He's got a tremendous work ethic and he's mentally tough because he's played different positions his whole life and he's met the challenge. We're excited about his ability and the possibilities of what he might be on our team."
» Tate wants to do much more than win the Texans' No. 1 spot at running back. He intends to establish himself among the new breed of backs in the NFL, which he mentioned in a recent conversation with a friend.
"(They were) talking about how it's time for a new generation of running backs to start establishing themselves and being the stars of the NFL," Tate said. "Right now, you currently have Adrian Peterson and Chris Johnson and maybe one or two others. But LT (LaDainian Tomlinson), Larry Johnson, Brian Westbrook, those guys are getting older now, so now it's just time for a new generation, and I'm trying to put my name in that hat."
"(People) talk about Amobi Okoye and his lack of production," Smith said. "(But) one of the things that people don't understand about Amobi is that he's played 80-plus percent of the snaps every year, so he's out there on the field (a lot). I think Earl's addition will give us a chance to rest him a little bit more and his productivity may increase (as a result). But the production that I think we may see from Earl Mitchell, I think's going to help us. He's athletic; he's got a good, (wide butt), and for a defensive lineman, you know how important that is.
"And he's an explosive guy. He's got quickness. He (also) jumps out. He makes a play or two in practice where you say, 'Golly, this guy's got some good football instincts.' With that combination, I think he's got a chance to develop."
Make no mistake, Andre Johnson is not a happy camper. If he were, he wouldn't be pursuing a new contract that would make him the highest-paid wide receiver in the NFL.
It is the way Johnson and the Texans are going about that process, however, that provides a fairly strong indication of both the character of the players on the roster and the way the franchise is managed.
This contractual showdown is, by far, the biggest challenge McNair has faced to date. Johnson has clearly established himself as one of the best players at his position, if not the best, yet his contract has five years remaining at a pay structure that puts him well below that of Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald and Miami's Brandon Marshall.
Nevertheless, since missing the first few days of OTAs to express his dissatisfaction over his salary, Johnson has been fully aboard with the team's preparations for the season. He also has not shown any anger or bitterness in his public comments about his contract.
"I just try to do the right thing," Johnson said. "I try to represent this organization well in everything I do, so hopefully it'll all pay off for me."
Much of that is due to the fact McNair has been making a genuine effort to increase Johnson's salary, although the owner has not promised he would make him the league's highest-paid receiver and probably won't.
"Both sides are talking," Johnson said. "Mr. McNair made a statement (Friday), saying hopefully something can get done in the next few weeks or whatever, so I'm just waiting it out. I'm not really worried about it.
"It frustrated me a lot during (the offseason), not being here for the first three days of OTAs and things like that. Now, I don't really worry about it. I just feel like if it's meant to happen, it'll happen. If I'll be the highest paid, then I'll be happy with it. If not, then I'll just have to move on. But just for them to be even sitting down, talking to me, talking to my agent, it just shows what type of owner we have here."
"I think last year we all felt like we were a playoff-caliber football team and we just didn't take advantage of some of the opportunities that we had. We're better this year, we're more seasoned, we've got a mature football team, and I think it's time. We're ready. I feel as confident about this team as any team I've been on."
-- GM Rick Smith.
Tight end Owen Daniels is making good progress from the ACL surgery he had last November, and is expected to be ready for the start of the regular season. Daniels is not participating in practice, which is more of a precaution because he insists he has no limitations on the knee. Whether he will play any preseason games is uncertain, and hardly a priority beyond the ability to knock off a little pad-wearing rust. "Maybe third game, maybe a series in the fourth game," Daniels said. ... The Texans are expressing confidence that former starter Xavier Adibi will do an adequate job while Cushing, the 2009 Defensive Rookie of the Year, serves a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy. ... The fans have made a resounding statement about their expectations by buying a record 64,000-plus season tickets. Before the first preseason game last year, the most tickets the team had sold to a single team was 65,000. Now, the fewest tickets the Texans have sold to any game is 68,000.