|Dvaid J. Phillip / Associated Press|
|Rookie first-round pick Brian Cushing sports his new mohawk at Texans training camp.|
HOUSTON -- No one connected with or rooting for the Houston Texans wants to hear words such as promise or potential any longer.
The Texans are well beyond being the "little NFL franchise that could." They're the multi-billion-dollar investment of Bob McNair, and, like his players and fans, he's tired of them being a .500 club that comes close to making the playoffs ... but doesn't quite get there.
The Texans have been in business since 2002. They have yet to reach the postseason, a dubious distinction that they don't share with any other team in the league.
In the early stages of their eighth training camp, the talk (which is more like a roar) among the Texans and their faithful is that they are embarking on a playoffs-or-bust journey.
"It's time for us to be there, and we're ready for it," McNair said. "I think our team's ready for it, our coaches, and that's our expectation."
Said general manager Rick Smith: "I think our expectations need to be high. Part of the reason why they are is because people feel like we're a better football team. When you look back at the way that the season ended last year (five wins in the final six games), some of the momentum that we gained, I think our players feel good about what we're doing."
They do. To a man, Texans players express the strong belief that the team has all of the ingredients necessary to be a major force in the tough AFC South.
"It's just a lot different than when I first got here (in 2007)," wide receiver David Anderson said. "We wanted a winning team when I got here. Now we want a playoff team. That's just different expectations for us and for the city and for everyone."
Camp practices are drawing crowds of several thousands, including a family from Midland, Texas, which is more than 600 miles away. The fans loudly show their appreciation for big plays on both sides of the ball. Most of their entertainment comes from watching wide receiver Andre Johnson catch long throws from quarterback Matt Schaub.
But they're mostly here because of what they believe they'll be finally getting at the end of the year: A playoff appearance.
"This is a great football town and they want winners," McNair said. "Their expectation level is high, but believe me, when we're in the playoffs, this city is going to go crazy, absolutely crazy. That's what I'm in it for ... to see the excitement and the fun that the people have out of it really makes it all worthwhile."
» There were two plays that drew the loudest responses from the crowd Monday morning. One was a run by bruising, 6-foot, 265-pound fullback Vonta Leach, who knocked off the helmet of 6-foot-1, 200-pound cornerback Fred Bennett. As one fan on the sideline remarked, "I thought his head might still be in that helmet." Another play that drew cheers was wide receiver Andre Davis showing excellent concentration as he came down with a deflected pass from QB Dan Orlovsky.
» At 29 years old, Texans offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Kyle Shanahan is only a year older than Schaub and Rex Grossman, and four years older than Orlovsky. But don't let his relative youth fool you. Shanahan brings a great deal of knowledge to the job, and has no problem gaining the respect and holding the attention of his pupils.
"He's wise beyond his years as far as football goes," Schaub said. "When I first came here (in 2007), there was definitely some like, 'How's this going to go?' when I knew he was our quarterback coach. But once we got in there, talking to him and realizing how intelligent and how football smart he is as far as passing game, defenses, the route adjustments, the protections ... he's just so smart, the sky's the limit to him."
From the sound of his voice when he yells to his mannerisms, including the way he squats when he huddles with his quarterbacks, Shanahan reminds you of his father, former NFL coach Mike Shanahan.
» Linebacker DeMeco Ryans and tight end Owen Daniels have complained publicly about their contracts, yet they're in camp. And given the exuberance with which they're practicing, they seem far more focused on football than on the dissatisfaction with their pay. Although negotiations hit a snag with both players, the Texans aren't giving up hope that they could eventually work out long-term deals with them. For now, however, all parties feel the best approach is put off contract discussion until after the season. That's especially important for Ryans, who, as a captain, is one of the team's primary leaders.
"The contract side of stuff, it'll handle itself," Ryans said. "My job is to just go out there and be the best that I can be at my position and also lead the other guys to get it going."
» It's hard to believe that defensive tackle Amobi Okoye is entering his third season with the Texans yet is only 22 years old, the same age as some of his rookie teammates. Actually, some rookies are even older. But Okoye, who was born in Nigeria and came to the United States at age 12, was 15 when he graduated from high school. He was 16 when he entered the University of Louisville and 19 when he joined the Texans as a first-round draft pick. He's focused on improving his performance after a disappointing 2008 season.
One way he addressed that was to devote most of his offseason conditioning work to increasing the explosiveness of his lower body. He used plyometrics, exercises that incorporate resistance and weight training designed to increase the speed and power of muscle movements. Okoye also should benefit from the new defensive philosophy, which has him doing more attacking than reacting.
» New defensive coordinator Frank Bush has restructured the Texans' 4-3 scheme with greater emphasis on speed, simplicity, and forcing turnovers, something that has happened with great frequency since contact practices began on Sunday. The Texans have gotten much faster with the additions of players such as linebacker Brian Cushing, a first-rounder from USC; defensive end Connor Barwin, a second-rounder from Cincinnati; and free-agent defensive end Antonio Smith from the Arizona Cardinals.
"The way that Frank wants to structure the defense, we want aggressive players," GM Rick Smith said. "We've got to do a better job of getting after the quarterback, and I think we'll be able to do that with this group that we've put together here now."
McNair expects Barwin to make standout veteran end Mario Williams a "much better player because No. 1, he has a little more speed than Mario, and Mario notices that and so Mario's going to pick it up a little and the other thing is, (opponents) aren't going to be able to double team Mario as much because Connor is so quick."
Having running back Steve Slaton go from a third-rounder to a dominant force (and a highly coveted fantasy choice) in 2008 was impressive. Could the Texans see the same thing happen with a free-agent running back?
|David J. Phillip / Associated Press|
|Rookie free agent Arian Foster is aiming to secure a roster spot with an impressive camp.|
Their training camp roster includes two who are grabbing and holding the attention of the club's brass. One is Arian Foster, from Tennessee. The Texans' coaches and personnel evaluators are particularly impressed with his combination of size (6-foot-1, 222 pounds) and speed. The other rookie free-agent running back turning heads is Jeremiah Johnson, from Oregon. He's showing a great deal of shiftiness with the ball in his hands.
"I'm excited about those two young players," coach Gary Kubiak said. "I think everybody thought they'd get drafted, they were disappointed (they weren't). We pick them up, we give them a chance, (and) it looks to me like they're on their way to taking advantage of their opportunity."
» Cushing became the first "victim" of rookie hazing Sunday night -- after his first day of practice since signing his contract on Saturday -- when several veteran teammates shaved off his long, black hair, which he had worn in a ponytail, into a tightly cropped Mohawk. The original plan was to shave his hair so that it resembled that of Schaub, whose hairline is receding on the sides, leaving a long and short patch of hair in the middle. But the Mohawk look actually is more dramatic. By all accounts, Cushing was a good sport about his rookie rite of passage. And the haircut didn't seem to bother his performance on the field. Late in Monday morning's practice, he made a nice interception of an Orlovsky pass.
» Glover Quin, a fourth-round draft pick from New Mexico, was having a strong camp before developing a leg problem that caused him to spend most of Monday morning's session on the sidelines. Kubiak said Quin had a "knot" on the outside of his leg that was bothering him.
"We're keeping our fingers crossed (that it is nothing serious)," the coach said.
Through the first few days of camp, Quin was showing excellent quickness and ball skills. With veteran cornerback Dunta Robinson being the lone Texans player missing from camp because of his refusal to sign the tender offer that goes with his franchise tag, Quin and other younger members of the secondary are getting additional playing time.
"We feel like we've got some good, young corners out there competing," Kubiak said. "This league's about opportunity. When it knocks, if you go out there and do it, nobody can take it away from you. Right now we've got some young kids that are taking advantage of the reps."
The Texans' offensive line is something to behold. Its collective movement is almost always smooth and well choreographed, whether the play is a run or a pass.
This didn't happen by accident. For one thing, the unit is loaded with talented players. For another, it has excellent coaching from Alex Gibbs, by far the most vocal person on the field, and John Benton. Additionally, the line had the good fortune to avoid injuries and remain intact throughout the 2008 season. That did plenty to create an incredibly tight bond among center Chris Myers, guards Chester Pitts and Mike Brisiel, and tackles Eric Winston and Duane Brown.
"You have five guys really dedicated to each other," Winston said. "We're putting it out there every day, every week. (We) put it on the line for each other."
How good is the line's cohesion?
"We're not even really making calls up front," Winston said. "We kind of just look at each other and we know what call needs to be made. That's when you get to that point where you start getting really good -- when you know, even if you can't get a call out (before the snap), you do it anyways because you know the guy next to you."
Part One: "He does have a nice, receding hairline. It goes back about an inch and half and it has a nice peninsula at the top." -- Wide receiver David Anderson on why he decided to shave his head so it resembles Schaub's.
Part Two: "My mom warned me, 'You'd better hope that grows back, David. Otherwise, you're going to ruin some good genes.'"
» The team's hierarchy isn't happy that Robinson is missing from camp, especially since, according to league sources, he has been offered a deal that would make him the NFL's second highest-paid player at his position. Robinson also is missing valuable work in Bush's new scheme.
» McNair said the Texans won't sign Michael Vick because he thinks Vick "would be a tremendous distraction." His advice to Vick: "Go to the Canadian Football League, play a year, show that he's rehabilitated, get the rust off, show what he can do, and then I think (an NFL team) can step up and have a much better idea of what they're getting."
» Kubiak said defensive tackle Travis Johnson is about two weeks away from returning after undergoing surgery to correct a sports hernia.
» The Texans are excited that their Sept. 13 season-opener against the Jets in Houston is slated to be CBS's most widely shown telecast that day, a franchise first for a Sunday afternoon appearance. "We appreciate the fact that we're getting a little bit of national exposure," Smith said. "The more we have success, the more we will gain some national attention."