I was thrilled to see the widespread reaction to the announcement that the Houston Texans are going to be featured on HBO and NFL Films' always-outstanding "Hard Knocks" series. Fans and media seem excited. And they should be.
I can't wait to watch this team on "Hard Knocks." The sports world will realize that the Texans have a great organization. Bob McNair is one of the best owners in the NFL, possessing a genuine thirst to win (and a plan for making it happen). The team has a winning culture, and the attitude permeates from the top. But there's even better news ...
This summer's "Hard Knocks" appearance will represent the beginning of what is going to be a statement year in Houston.
As one of 50 voters with a ballot in The Associated Press' NFL awards, I selected Bill O'Brien as my Coach of the Year in 2014. In his first year as an NFL head man, O'Brien promptly transformed the Texans from a two-win mess to a 9-7 squad that competed for the playoffs all season long. O'Brien kept this team playing winning football despite not having a quarterback and not having the services of the No. 1 overall pick (Jadeveon Clowney) for most of the season. O'Brien simply made the most of what he had. It was his idea, after all, to toss Watt into the red-zone offense -- a masterstroke that netted the Texans three touchdowns. Houston was disciplined and accountable. O'Brien's bunch overachieved.
Now, in a wide-open AFC, the Texans are on the doorstep of being a playoff team -- and possibly winning in January.
A Brian Hoyer-Ryan Mallett quarterback competition doesn't quite thrill the masses in a quarterback-driven league, but both guys are familiar with O'Brien's approach -- and everyone involved comes from the Patriots school of football. While they are indeed competing, the more detail-oriented Hoyer will help the raw-but-talented Mallett grow as a quarterback. That's important, since it is Mallet who has more long-term upside.
One way or another, O'Brien will turn an obvious weakness on paper into a manageable situation that won't doom the team. He's that good. Anyone who saw what he did last year -- and as head coach of Penn State during trying times -- knows what I'm talking about. Plus, Houston still has a solid offensive line anchored by Duane Brown. The Texans allowed just 26 sacks last season -- the fourth-lowest total in the NFL. And Foster headlines a rushing attack that has finished in the top eight in four of the past five years. Iconic Texan Andre Johnson has left the building, but general manager Rick Smith made a couple of moves to shore up the receiving corps around emerging star DeAndre Hopkins: wisely signing Cecil Shorts in free agency and stealing Jaelen Strong in the third round of the draft.
And then there's the defense, which could be fantastic in 2015. Obviously, when it comes to that unit, there's only one place to start: J.J. Watt is truly special, a bona fide game wrecker. He is the best defensive player in football, bar none. He changes games and alters game plans. And this offseason, Houston got the reigning Defensive Player of the Year some notable support.
I loved Houston's signing of Vince Wilfork. Sure, he's not the dominant All-Pro force he once was, but he is still good. And Wilfork knows what it takes to win, having logged 11 seasons with the Pats. That's needed in Houston. Also, he's reunited with defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel. Wilfork is invaluable -- on and off the field -- for the Texans.
In the draft, Houston went defense with its first two picks. First-round corner Kevin Johnson further bolsters a defensive backfield that wasn't too shabby last season. Benardrick McKinney, the Texans' second-round selection at No. 43 overall, is a prototypical inside linebacker who will immediately provide some thump at the second level.
And let's quickly go back to the No. 1 overall pick in last year's draft. Clowney still oozes talent and upside. I haven't given up on him -- and neither have the Texans. His rehab from microfracture surgery is "on the right track," according to O'Brien. Last winter, on my SiriusXM Radio show, O'Brien rushed to Clowney's defense when asked about the youngster's work ethic. And earlier this month, the coach said he's "been impressed with the way JD's been working." Now Clowney has to stay healthy and deliver.
If this defense is at full strength this fall, the unit can carry Houston to the promised land.
Every team in the AFC South has improved this offseason, as I wrote a couple of months ago. But Houston should be able to go 4-2 in the division -- at worst. I don't think that's an unrealistic expectation. Indianapolis will rightfully enter the season as the division favorite, but Houston won't lay down for the Colts. And they'll be right in the mix for a wild-card slot.
Houston, New York and Buffalo all have great defenses ... and up-in-the-air quarterback situations. I know O'Brien can handle this, but what about the other two coaches? I think Todd Bowles was a great hire, but we still need to see how he handles the quarterback position and the bright spotlight of New York City. As for Buffalo ... I've seen the Rex Ryan movie before. I know how it ends.
Houston has a fantastic coach. And in an AFC that appears to be pretty darn balanced, this will make a huge difference.
This August will be sizzling with Texans talk, as I predict they'll be a fascinating team to follow on "Hard Knocks." And the even better news is that we will still be talking about Houston in January. Yes, I believe this team hits the postseason.