- Tania Ganguli, ESPN Staff Writer
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HOUSTON -- At 12-4 last season, the Houston Texans had the best record in the young franchise's history, won their second consecutive AFC South championship, became the first professional football team in Houston to win a home playoff game in consecutive years and finished the regular season as one of only two teams to be ranked in the top 10 in both offense and defense.
Doesn't sound like a failed season, does it? But as the franchise has grown and checked off accomplishments, failure has begun to mean anything other than a Super Bowl win.
“We weren’t the last team standing last year, so ultimately we all failed,” quarterback Matt Schaub said. “We all didn’t accomplish our goals.”
This year's Texans are more businesslike. Most of this year's team was around for the slide at the end of last season, which coincided with a linebacking corps that took one hit after another even after taking its biggest hit in early October, when it lost Brian Cushing. They shook their heads at three losses in the last four games of the season. The offense mustered only 12 points per game in those three losses -- less than half its season average.
“Everybody was so excited and couldn’t wait for the next season to come around,” receiver Andre Johnson said. “As you can see, we came out of the gate smoking, but at the end we just didn’t finish it the right way. At times, maybe we could have been feeling ourselves or something. I think, I’ve told people this before, I think the game in New England, our last playoff game, it just showed you what kind of team you have to be in order to accomplish that ultimate goal. That was definitely a humbling experience, and we’ll be looking forward to the challenge again.”
Now they return with Cushing back and an additional offensive weapon in first-round draft pick DeAndre Hopkins -- the receiver with the massive, red-gloved hands. They should have more stability on the offensive line and more depth at safety with the additions of a future Hall of Famer (Ed Reed) and a college enforcer (D.J. Swearinger). They have healthy cornerbacks and the reigning defensive player of the year in J.J. Watt, who is sure he can play better than his unreal 2012 season.
They return with an edge they didn't have last year.
THREE HOT ISSUES
1. Hopkins' impact: It is impossible not to be impressed by Hopkins' skill and athleticism, owed in part to his unusually large hands. Particularly adept at scoring in the red zone while he was at Clemson, Hopkins is expected to help the Texans, who didn't struggle scoring in the red zone last season but did struggle at scoring touchdowns in the red zone relative to the best offenses in the NFL. Hopkins provides a dimension the Texans didn't have in 2012 -- a second receiver defenses should fear, taking some attention from Johnson. The rookie is at his best on contested catches and spends his practices learning from cornerback Johnathan Joseph. Hopkins struggled early in organized team activities, but as training camp has progressed, he has grown more comfortable with just about everything. If he plays in regular-season games like he has in camp, the Texans' offense will improve significantly.
2. Cushing's return: When Cushing was lost to a torn ACL in Week 5 against the New York Jets, a line of Texans greeted the fallen inside linebacker at the door to the locker room, shaking his hand and offering condolences. Losing Cushing hurt the Texans' safeties and outside linebackers as much as it changed their inside linebacker rotation. The pass rush suffered too.
“When Cush rushes, which we try to rush him a lot from the inside, if they have to pick up a back on him they are in trouble,” defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said. “We got a big advantage, so they try and pick him up with a lineman. Well, if they do that then the outside guys get a chance to get a back or a better matchup.”
Cushing's return brings back a maniacal, focused intensity that intimidates opponents.
“Brian Cushing is back,” outside linebacker Brooks Reed said. “He's going to bring the attitude back.”
3. When will Reed be healthy? Reed signed with the Texans amid great fanfare. The owner sent his team plane to Atlanta to collect the future Hall of Famer, and the team's official Twitter provided updates along the way. Reed met with coaches, underwent a lengthy physical and then left Houston for a family engagement before returning to sign a three-year deal worth $5 million a year. About a month later, Reed had arthroscopic hip surgery to repair a torn labrum that he thinks he suffered during the Ravens' AFC Championship Game win.
This week, Reed was out of town rehabilitating with a specialist after having spent training camp in Houston working with Texans trainers.
“No, absolutely not,” coach Gary Kubiak said when asked if that meant Reed had a setback. “It’s just something that we’ve made our progress here for a couple of weeks. [Head athletic trainer Geoff Kaplan] has been in contact with this guy. He’s worked with us before, so we wanted him to go see him for a couple of days and basically make sure we’re doing the right things. We’re going to do that for a couple of days each week.”
So far there hasn't been any clarity on when Reed will be available to the Texans or whether he will be able to play in the season opener.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
The Texans have the best defensive player in the NFL in Watt, who in 2012 had, according to his well-traveled defensive coordinator, the best season any defensive lineman has ever had. This was a good team last year that needed some cracks filled. Injuries had a lot to do with the Texans' defensive holes at the end of the season, and those injuries aren't an issue for Houston anymore. Watt also will be healthier this year. Offensively, the Texans have Johnson coming off a career year in receiving yards, running back Arian Foster and a quarterback who will benefit from a more stable offensive line and an extra receiving weapon.
There has been a lot of hand-wringing about Schaub, but I expect him to be a lot better this season with the changing personnel around him.
REASON FOR PESSIMISM
The abundance of linebacker injuries last season hurt the defense and special teams. The Texans still are vulnerable there. A rash of linebacker injuries in training camp has caused players to miss some time. Though none of these injuries were significant, a collection of linebacker injuries that keep players out for even two or three games at a time could be damaging.
Reed's health also could be troubling. Swearinger isn't ready yet, and safety Shiloh Keo has started in Reed's place during camp. Keo has improved since last season and has had a good camp, but he would be a downgrade from departed safety Glover Quin.
Earl Mitchell had about the loudest debut as the Texans' starting nose tackle as one could have. Sure, it was a preseason game, but in 10 snaps Friday against Minnesota, Mitchell had four tackles, three of them for loss, including one sack. He also had one quarterback hit. Mitchell is quick on his feet, powerful and has a new confidence this season. The Houston native says that comes from knowing he entered this season as the starter -- a position well earned.
Foster remains on the physically unable to perform list. He initially landed on the list with a calf injury, but that has healed. Now, the Texans are being cautious because of a back injury. I wrote it before and will again: There's no sense in pushing Foster too much right now, especially given the load he takes on during the season.
With one full NFL season accrued, receiver Keshawn Martin has made a dramatic improvement on both offense and special teams. It has caught the eye of teammates. Last season, Lestar Jean joined Martin on the active roster. Jean is an incredibly hard worker, but he finds himself back on the bubble two years removed from being an undrafted rookie.
The Texans' third-string running back battle took an interesting turn Friday in Minnesota when Cierre Wood, who progressed more slowly at first, seemed to have a better night than fellow undrafted rookie Dennis Johnson. It's far too early to determine a winner in that battle, but those two are ahead, with veteran pickup Deji Karim threatening from a special-teams standpoint.
There were times last season when starting cornerback Joseph didn't feel like himself. He had two sports hernias that he didn't even properly identify until after playing in the Pro Bowl. Joseph had surgeries to repair both, and feels healthier than he did all last season. That is great news for the Texans, who pair him opposite the constantly improving Kareem Jackson.
It's unclear exactly how long left guard Wade Smith will be out after having his knee scoped Tuesday morning. What's certain, however, is that Smith's absence will give the Texans a chance to test the versatility of sixth-round draft pick David Quessenberry, who started out the offseason playing mostly tackle. Quessenberry made news during the summer because his truck was stolen, then recovered in East Texas with police saying it was being used for human trafficking. More relevant to our purpose is that Quessenberry has been really impressive in camp and willing to learn. Kubiak said he expects both Ben Jones and Quessenberry to see time there with Smith out.