NFL Nation: Rick Smith

ORLANDO, Fla. -- With a new head coach handling the roster he's building, Texans general manager Rick Smith wanted to offer something of a fresh start.

That was, in essence, what happened when they traded Matt Schaub.

"You don't go from being an effective quarterback playing at a high level like Matt did, and have one year where you just fall off, and can't play the game," Smith told me this afternoon. "It's not like Matt can't play. I think Matt can still play effective football in this league and I think that he will.

"To me it was the right time for our organization as we start continuing this foundation that we're building with coach [Bill] O'Brien and his staff that we did it in a way that we started fresh. I think that was best for him. That's why I worked so hard to find a situation that was a good one for him and a club that [understood his] value and worth."

That deal came together slowly as the Texans and Oakland Raiders, who sent Houston a sixth-round pick in exchange for Schaub, hashed out details. As it happened, former Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick became available during that process. The Texans, who had said they would sign a veteran quarterback regardless of any other circumstance, filled that void.

To me, the activity around the signings, re-signings and trades of veteran quarterbacks means teams are making sure they aren't put in a position where they're forced to start one of the rookies. Smith disagreed that it was any more active than normal.

"There's an importance placed on that position," Smith said. "If you have a good one you want to keep him and if you don't have one you're trying to find him."

In that process of trying to find him, Smith's view on the quarterback situation is similar to his coach's.

"There's some depth in this draft class in general and I think one of the positions that illustrates that is the quarterback position," Smith said. "A lot of people talk about the three guys -- Manziel, Bortles, and Bridgewater -- but there's some good quarterbacks out there, the whole group."
INDIANAPOLIS -- Texans running back Arian Foster's rehab is going well, general manager Rick Smith and head coach Bill O'Brien said Friday.

"He's working hard, he's in the building, he's in the training room consistently," Smith said. "The reports I'm getting from Geoff [Kaplan, head trainer] indicate he's going to be fine."

Foster struggled with several injuries last season, starting with a calf strain during organized team activities, then a back injury that healed in time for him to start the regular season. Foster also dealt with a hamstring injury and then finally a back injury that knocked him out for the rest of the season when he decided to have surgery.

Foster's back injury required microscopic lumbar discectomy surgery, which was performed by Robert Watkins in California in November.

The running back posted a video on Instagram of himself doing a backflip into water two weeks ago. It included the caption "Healthy, happy. Vibes."

Running back will be a position of need for the Texans in this year's draft, but they're hanging onto Foster. They'll have to address depth, though, as they're going to lose running back Ben Tate in free agency.
Six months ago, many of us thought there was a decent chance the Texans would be preparing for the first Super Bowl in franchise history this week.

Instead, we continue to discuss what they might do with the top pick a little more than three months from now.

Let's get to it.

Last season while writing a story for the Houston Chronicle about the Texans' focus on character, I talked with general manager Rick Smith about what that means to him.

Quickly, I learned that the perception that the Texans value character above all else was one that Smith disagreed with. To him, a player's character is important as it relates to what he does on the field.

The Texans take plenty of chances on players with questionable off-the-field pasts. Sometimes those chances work better than others. But would they gamble with the most important position on the field, with what might be the most important draft pick in franchise history?

They will if they think he can win. That's the only question that matters.

What the Texans have done so far at the position hasn't worked. The even-keeled David Carr and Matt Schaub never made off-the-field headlines the Texans didn't want. Instead, those quarterbacks made plenty of cringeworth on-the-field headlines. At their best, their play was as bland as their quotes and more dependent on everything around them than you want a quarterback to be. At worst it cost the Texans big.

Which brings us to Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, who will enter the NFL draft according to sources. An electric personality is not a reason to draft someone, but it doesn't hurt. More importantly, Manziel's ability to improvise, his success at scrambling out of problems (6.3 yards per carry during his time at Texas A&M) even against the fast and physical defenses he faced, and his increasing comfort at passing from the pocket could make him a successful NFL quarterback.

I'd have concerns about his size, especially since Texans coach Bill O'Brien likes big quarterbacks, his durability and whether he would resort to his legs too often. Improvisation isn't always necessary. That's a lesson Texans quarterback Case Keenum learned the hard way.

But I wouldn't have concerns about the celebrity lifestyle he's embraced.

He's already shown the ability to be an elite player despite the partying with models and Texas fraternities. The NFL spotlight won't be bigger than the one that's on him now, though the league's media rules will force him to be a more public face than he's allowed to be in college.

Save for egregious criminal offenses, the only kinds of character concerns that scare the Texans away are ones that will impact someone's play. So far Manziel has shown that his antics haven't.

Can Texans mimic Chiefs' turnaround?

December, 12, 2013
Our Jeffri Chadiha thinks so.


Can the Texans mimic the Chiefs' turnaround?


Discuss (Total votes: 399)

In fact, Chadiha thinks the Texans will improve on the turnaround that the Chiefs made. Last season, Kansas City went 2-14 and earned the top pick in the draft. They've gone 10-3 so far this season. Kansas City's defense is far superior to its offense, but two of the major reasons for that turnaround were the additions of quarterback Alex Smith, general manager John Dorsey and head coach Andy Reid.

On the Texans, Chadiha writes: "The Texans don't have to worry about hiring a general manager, because Rick Smith is one of the best young executives in the business. They also have far more talent than Kansas City had at the end of last season, which is why they might be able to put their disastrous season -- now 2-11, with 11 consecutive defeats -- behind them quickly."

Chadiha likes the thought of former Bears coach Lovie Smith or Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt as the Texans' next coach. He also echoed my thoughts from a week ago, that no decision Texans owner Bob McNair has made in his time as the Texans owner has been bigger than this one.

Give it a read, and offer your thoughts.
When you interview someone in their office, the office becomes part of the interview.

So when I sat down across from Texans' general manager Rick Smith three months ago, I looked around to see what noteworthy details would find their way into my story. I didn't notice the most interesting thing: an empty glass box.

During the course of the interview Smith pointed it out. He's not shy about the Texans' expectations, and neither are most of the members of the organization.

That empty glass box matched two others that aren't empty. They contain footballs that commemorate the two Super Bowl wins he was part of with the Denver Broncos.

The empty box awaits his first Texans' Super Bowl ball.

My final piece for the Houston Chronicle profiled Smith and ran on Sunday in the Chronicle's special section.

In it, Smith gives insight into why he has been so successful at such a young age. He talked about the lessons he learned from a semester he had to spend at a junior college, away from Purdue, when he became academically ineligible.

We also talked about balance, meditation and his spiritual beliefs.

My favorite little anecdote in the story was one about how Smith's first NFL job came to be. Very shortly after he took a job with TCU, the Broncos called to offer him a job.

To the shock of his new coworkers, he turned it down.

"I felt like I was led to TCU," he said.

He spent the spring with TCU, then returned to Indiana to finish moving out of his apartment. He had already requested for his phone service to be turned off and went back one last time to an apartment that was completely empty except the phone in the kitchen.

Then the phone began to ring. A Broncos employee on the other line said Mike Shanahan wanted to know why he turned them down. They did what it took that time to hire Smith.
The Texans have said for some time that their intention is to extend the contract of linebacker Brian Cushing and defensive lineman Antonio Smith.

The two are key pieces to Wade Phillips’ defense, and need to be around long-term.

New deals would also help the Texans gain some cap cushion. Cushing’s 2013 cap number is $4.643 million; Smith’s is $9.5 million.

As far as Cushing knows, no conversations have started up, per Tania Ganguli of the Houston Chronicle. He allowed for the possibility that his agent has talked to the Texans and said he wouldn’t necessarily know. He’s concentrating on knee rehab.

While I understand the singular focus players like Cushing like to have, even in May, I also think an agent is bound to mention to a client that some level of contract talks have kicked off. Cushing is represented by Drew Rosenhaus.

Cushing’s ACL tear suffered early in the 2013 season certainly didn’t help accelerate things. All reports say he’s recovered well however, and will be ready to go for training camp. So any concerns about the knee that might have prompted the Texans to wait before initiating contract talks should be past.

“I know it wasn’t the best thing to really help with getting it done,” he told Ganguli. “I think they know the kind of player I am, they know I’ll come back to be the same player if not better, so I’ve got that going for me. I’m on the right track right now and very confident that I’ll be back and won’t miss a step.”

There is no real ticking clock here. General manager Rick Smith doesn’t talk contract during the season. The Texans got deals done with Duane Brown and Matt Schaub last year, with Schaub’s deal revealed after the team’s opening day game.

If the Texans fail to extend Cushing and/or Smith, it won’t be because they didn’t have sufficient time or because they didn’t give it a solid shot.
Sam MontgomeryBrett Davis/USA TODAY Sports"I'm sure with the right coaching I will be fine," Sam Montgomery said of questions about his effort.

During his time at the NFL scouting combine, Sam Montgomery addressed concerns about the consistency of his effort as a college player.

The problem is that he admitted there were concerns about his effort as a college player.

He’s now a member of the Houston Texans, who Friday used their second third-round pick, 95th overall, on Montgomery, the LSU defensive end.

If there is an effort issue, it will fall on defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and linebackers coach Reggie Herring to get week-to-week and snap-to-snap effort from Montgomery. He seems to be a more complex character than they discussed.

At the combine, Montgomery said he didn’t play all-out because weak opponents allowed for some respite.

“You know, some weeks when we didn't have to play the harder teams, there were some times when effort was not needed,” Montgomery said in Indianapolis. “But when we had the big boys coming in, the Bamas or the South Carolinas, I grabbed close to those guys and went all-out.

“Of course, this is a new league, the NFL, and there are no small teams, small divisions. It is all Alabamas and LSUs every week. It's definitely something I have to get adjusted to, but I'm sure with the right coaching I will be fine.”

In a conference call with Houston media, Montgomery said his best quality is his relentlessness -- contradicting the idea that he didn’t give his all against teams like North Texas, Idaho and Towson.

Herring suggested that Montgomery got caught up in entertaining the media, given that he likes to talk, and that his film didn’t show a lack of effort -- something general manager Rick Smith has said he cannot accept from a player.

“If anything, the young man is guilty of being a bit naïve," Herring said.

A scout I asked about Montgomery didn’t reply with an effort question.

“He plays very hard,” he said. “Good pick.”

The Texans plan to start Montgomery out as a strongside linebacker, so their first four picks have addressed three areas of concern.

DeAndre Hopkins should be the No. 2 receiver, D.J. Swearinger could play a lot as a nickel or dime safety, tackle Brennan Williams could win the right-side job from the recovering Derek Newton and Montgomery should be part of a rotation.

Houston hopes he’ll be part of a three-man gang, along with Brooks Reed and Whitney Mercilus, that splits up the work at outside linebacker.

Last season, when the Texans drafted Mercilus in the first round, they said the same thing about using him with Connor Barwin and Reed.

But Reed’s playing time only really dipped when he missed four games hurt. Barwin, who’s since gone to Philadelphia as a free agent, played 93.8 percent of the defensive snaps last season. Even with four starts, Mercilus was on the field only 46.6 percent of the time.

The Texans will have to learn how well Montgomery can drop and cover, something he wasn’t doing as a college defensive end in a 4-3 scheme under LSU coordinator John Chavis.

“He’s big, strong, powerful, explosive individual,” Herring said. “The one thing that he will have to learn is that he will have to learn to drop a little bit and things that he hasn’t done as a defensive end at LSU -- understanding that they don’t cultivate OLBs in college, so we have to pull from the defensive end position.

“Basically, you have to give and take with their ability to drop out in space, something they haven’t done. That remains to be seen. That’s something we’ll have to work on. As far as playing the run and having pass rush skills and having the play strength that’s above average in college, he has a foundation to be a good outside backer for us.”

One thing that might have hastened the draft drop by Montgomery, once rated as a first-round prospect, was his inclusion on a list of 10 players by LSU strength and conditioning coach Tommy Moffitt.

Moffitt posted the names for scouts and said they were athletes who “miss workouts and always have an excuse.”

“They lack the self discipline and motivation to take care of their responsibilities,” the sign on an office door in the Tigers' facility said. “I will not answer questions regarding their performance numbers or character, as they care only about themselves.” scout Matt Williamson said he likes the idea of Montgomery as a strongside linebacker in Phillips’ system.

“They really play a 5-2, so strongside 5-2 defensive end/outside linebacker,” Williamson said. “Supposedly had some awful interviews at combine, though.”

Williamson is the second person in one night who mentioned that to me.

Clearly, Montgomery’s interview with Houston was fine, but a guy who bombed in multiple other opportunities seems concerning.

Perhaps what Montgomery said about playing with Antonio Smith hints that he can qualify as wacky to some, wacko to others.

Montgomery said he knows Smith, the Texans defensive end who calls himself the "ninja assassin."

"I'm willing to take the ninja's teaching," Montgomery said, “and make ninjasonic out of it."

AFC South free-agency primer

March, 11, 2013
» NFC Free Agency: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Houston Texans
HEAD COACH: Gary Kubiak

Cap status: Pretty tight, with just over $9 million in cushion. But the Texans can gain room with a cut (receiver Kevin Walter is the prime candidate) and have lots of room for restructures with receiver Andre Johnson and/or cornerback Johnathan Joseph.

Strategy: Lay back. They are most concerned with their own guys, and safety Glover Quin and outside linebacker Connor Barwin head that list. Lose them and they could be shoppers for replacements, but we're talking midlevel to low-level guys, not the high-priced, top-tier guys getting all of the hype as free agency opens. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has an affinity for guys who've played in his system before, so keep an eye on safety Gerald Sensabaugh and, if he's released, defensive tackle Jay Ratliff. They could patch in some guys later, but anything big early would amount to a big surprise.

Indianapolis Colts
HEAD COACH: Chuck Pagano

Cap status: The Colts have just under $40 million of room. They pledge not to behave like it's burning a hole in their pocket.

Strategy: They will look to strike the right deals with some key new people who can fill holes and add production and leadership. It's easy to draw lines that connect Pagano to guys he's coached in Baltimore such as outside linebacker Paul Kruger and cornerback Cary Williams. They are still looking to fill out the roster with people who can play in Pagano's 3-4 front. The scheme requires at least one more cornerback who can play a lot of man-to-man coverage. Maximizing Andrew Luck's chances for success is a priority, and a couple of linemen are necessary to stay on that mission. Another receiver could be a target, too. But Grigson won't force free-agent moves and hopes to have another impact draft that will have a big bearing on how this team fares, too.

Jacksonville Jaguars
HEAD COACH: Gus Bradley

Cap status: They've got more than $26 million in cap room, but they also have a couple of empty spots on the depth chart, such as strong safety, right tackle and left guard.

Strategy: All indications are the Jaguars will slow-play free agency. They are unlikely to jump out and sign a guy or two to big contracts, as some bloated free-agent contracts are one of the issues Caldwell inherits. But Tier 2 guys who the team thinks can be pillars of a new program and lead the way for young players will be the core of the franchise moving forward. They have two guys heading into the market in linebacker Daryl Smith and cornerback Derek Cox. They won't overpay, but losing them will create more holes. And this team is super thin at cornerback already.

Tennessee Titans
HEAD COACH: Mike Munchak

Cap status: Over $16 million of room with easily makeable cuts that will save more as the team needs the room and finds guys to add to the roster.

Strategy: More aggressive than usual, in both willingness to spend and number of people they will bring in. This team needs an infusion of talent and leadership. Their top free agents -- tight end Jared Cook and defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks -- are expected to leave. Look for one big signing, perhaps Buffalo guard Andy Levitre, and several more with a lower price tag. Positions that could be addressed include guard, defensive tackle, tight end, cornerback and safety. They may be waiting on their pass-rusher until the draft. This is a huge time for Webster and Munchak, who will really be putting their stamp on the roster with guys they need to lift the team to a better level of play if they want to hold on to their jobs.

Combine takeaways: Houston Texans

February, 26, 2013
A combine rewind on what we heard from the Houston Texans in Indianapolis…

Connor Barwin is a core player: Sure he is, as long as he’s affordable. Barwin had 11.5 sacks in 2011 and there was an offer on the table as the 2012 season kicked off. He passed, and was far less productive after his gamble. General manager Rick Smith can call him core, but to me a core guy is one you can’t survive without, and they certainly should be able to replace him if he finds a free-agent deal that compels him to leave.

They seem content with what they have on the right side of the offensive line: They platooned at both right tackle and right guard in 2012, and it sounds like they’ll be content to allow Brandon Brooks or Ben Jones to slug it out at right guard (or perhaps split time again) and see Derek Newton as the right tackle going forward.

They will keep the option of a franchise tag for Glover Quin as a possibility for as long as possible: The safety tag is about $7 million. It’s a palatable number, but the Texans have only $5.768 million in cap room. If they can’t reach a long-term deal that will produce a lower salary-cap number for 2013, tagging Quin will force the team to restructure a deal or two or cut someone that helps create room.

Brooks Reed could play inside: But that doesn’t mean the Texans are planning to move him. Gary Kubiak made it sound like they want more of a contingency plan if they have the sort of issues inside like they did last season. Move Reed inside and you create a hole outside, especially if Barwin leaves.

They’re still a young team, experiencing what they need to in order to make a jump: Yada, yada. This was quite a bit of spin, but what else can Smith say at this point when evaluating where the team stands? “We’re going to continue to add players, which is what this weekend is all about,” he said. “But I see a group of men that have gotten the experience that’s necessary to go make a real run at it and I think that’s where we are right now.”

A young quarterback is always a possibility: Said Kubiak, "In this business, you better be looking for young quarterbacks you think have a chance to be a 10-, 12-year guy. This year will be no different." T.J. Yates isn’t a sure thing. But the Texans only carried two quarterbacks in 2013, so the team would have to find someone it prefers to Yates in order to draft a QB. I don’t think they spend a premium pick on the position.
INDIANAPOLIS -- When the Houston Texans traded DeMeco Ryans after the 2011 season and as they look to recover from a 2012 filled with injuries at inside linebacker, I’ve maintained that a one-dimensional position doesn’t require big attention. It can be easily filled.

Tom Gower of Football Outsiders and Reading and Thinking Football sees it as a bigger need. He argues, basically, that if the Texans had a better inside linebacker to go with Brian Cushing, they wouldn’t be so quick to get out of their base defense.

That versatility would be helpful and give defensive coordinator Wade Phillips more options for how to, say, cover a tight end like Rob Gronkowski.

It’d be good if Phillips had extra alternatives, sure. The Patriots' quick-snapping offense gave the Texans all kind of troubles last season, twice. Perhaps if Houston could simply have stayed in base, we'd have seen less panic and more preparedness to matchup with what New England does so well.

So what’s general manager Rick Smith think about an inside linebacker spot where injury-prone Darryl Sharpton is the primary option at this point?

“Obviously you want the best players you can find, a guy that can stay on the field,” Smith said at the scouting combine. “You make a mistake if you try to limit yourself just to trying to fit a particular player in a particular role. I think what you try to do is you get the best football players and you let it sort itself out.”

If the team adds an inside backer who could be a three-down player, how much might Phillips change how he deploys his personnel?

“What I think is it gives him some options,” Smith said. “If we have two inside backers who can stay on the field in passing situations and matchup better against [tight ends], I think that’s a positive. If he wants to employ a three-safety system in other situations whether it’s longer distances or a blitz package or whatever it is, if he wants to employ those he can. I think the more you have players who can stay on the field and impact the game I think that’s the option, that’s the ultimate for him because it gives him the flexibility that he likes.”

There is one other possibility at play here.

If the Texans re-sign Connor Barwin, as they say they want to, then they’ll have Barwin, Brooks Reed and Whitney Mercilus as outside linebackers.

Coach Gary Kubiak indicated they could look at Reed inside.

"He's very capable of being a stack player, playing inside in our 3-4,” Kubiak said. “Yes, that could happen. But we'd liked him as a Sam, he's a heck of a Sam player. But you've always have to have some flexibility with one player or two players in various situations when you come across like what we did last year.

“Depending on what happens with our football team moving forward right now with Connor (Barwin) and some other things, we're always looking for some flexibility."

We’ll have to stay tuned.

But with or without Barwin, I expect the Texans will be adding a linebacker in free agency or the draft. The questions remain, with how much of an investment or with how high a pick?
INDIANAPOLIS -- When Brian Cushing was lost for the season to a torn ACL in New York against the Jets in October, the low hit from behind by Matt Slauson that caused the injury was illegal.

It wasn’t flagged, but it was illegal.

[+] EnlargeBrian Cushing
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesA low block from behind against the New York Jets ended Brian Cushing's season.
It’s too easy to point to it as we discuss the competition committee’s conversation about the dangers of low blocks and the potential for the committee to recommend rule revisions.

It’s too tidy to say, the Texans (legally) cut block in creating space for Arian Foster and there is irony in Cushing falling victim to a low block being a central image in this.

It’s not. Or at least it shouldn’t be.

Still, any significant restriction of low blocks could hurt the Texans as much as any team in the league.

Texans general manager Rick Smith, who’s on the competition committee, and coach Gary Kubiak both discussed the potential for change regarding low blocks at the NFL scouting combine on Thursday.

“Obviously it’s a big part of what we do, I mean we cut offensively,” Kubiak said. “It’s part of the game, but I understand what the league is doing. There are some peel back situations where players are coming back toward their own goal line and cutting people, which I think we need to find a way to get cleaned up. I think the league took some steps to doing that outside the box if I am right and now they’re working on doing that inside the box. Anything they can do to make the game safer and protect players, I understand that.”

Said Smith: “That block [on Cushing] is already illegal. Where we’ve had conversation with effect to that is, in the box, it’s legal. The question that we’ve got to answer is, should it be? And I don’t think anybody thinks so, so that’s something that we’ve got to talk about and think about.”

That’s a relatively minor rule alteration and safety improvement that seems easy enough.

Let’s work together to slow the snowball that seems to be rolling regarding much more drastic measures.

Kubiak was asked for his reaction to the idea of something radical like a total ban on low blocks.

“Me? I think you know that answer,” Kubiak said. “It’s part of what we do. I think it’s part of football. We teach it the right way. Hopefully that part stays with us.”
Foster-SchaubElsa/Getty ImagesMatt Schaub and Arian Foster find frustration again in New England.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Player after player fell back into a common NFL safety net following the Houston Texans' 41-28 loss to the New England Patriots.

We’ve just got to make more plays, they said.

It’s a blanket, clichéd and too-easy solution to a loss like this one, five weeks after a 42-14 drubbing here at Gillette Stadium.

In many ways, the 2012 Texans maxed out, and here they finished at the same stage as last year’s team, an overachieving bunch that lost several key players to injuries and rallied behind a third-string rookie quarterback.

It’s the nature of an NFL player to defend his teammates and to believe his locker room is filled with the ingredients needed to be a championship team.

“We’ve got the guys right here in this room capable of getting the job done,” cornerback Johnathan Joseph said. “We got the job done all year to win 13 ball games. There a lot of teams out there that won three, four ball games. Of course we’re capable of doing it. It’s just about doing it all the time. I have no problem with the people we have here on this team.”

Hopefully, coach Gary Kubiak and general manager Rick Smith will see more need for change than Joseph does. The Patriots aren’t going to come back to the pack in the AFC. Houston has to hunt them down. And with these two losses the Texans simply proved they don’t have enough, in scheme or in personnel, to do so.

To catch and pass the Patriots, they don’t need cosmetic surgery, they need genetic alterations.

On offense, the Texans have developed a power running game that comes out of the zone-blocking scheme and a play-action passing game that plays off of it. But they bog down in the red zone and need a receiving threat or two that can present an option in the end zone. Houston, too, needs to alter a generally conservative mindset. Sunday, it allowed for Matt Schaub, taking a snap from the New England 1-yard line in the fourth quarter with time running out, to throw a quick pass to Andre Johnson short of the end zone that allowed him to be tackled for no gain.

Defensively, the Texans need more quality depth at linebacker and in the secondary to match New England’s variety and depth of weapons. And the Patriots' attack rarely makes mistakes and typically scores a lot.

New England can simply rotate through different pieces on offense to present problems. In the regular-season game, Houston did nice work limiting Wes Welker but got clobbered by Aaron Hernandez. This time Welker turned eight catches into 131 yards while Hernandez was also an issue again.

Houston struggled with the combination of pace and personnel the Patriots weave together.

“The hurry-up, again we weren’t fully prepared for some reason,” said outside linebacker Brooks Reed, who didn’t play in the first matchup because of a groin injury. “It’s extremely hard to get the call in and line up when they are going hurry-up. They’re not going to wait for you. They’ve got plays planned out and one audible and they’ve got their play ready. Whereas we’ve got to get the call from the sideline, get lined up, recognize the formation.

“It takes us a lot more time to get lined up than they do. That’s the challenge and again that’s what kind of got us today. And making plays too, it’s them making plays not just them hurrying up. I think we could have been a little bit more prepared. We knew that was going to happen. We saw it on film, them lining up quick and defenses not being ready. We didn’t think it was going to be us and in some cases today it was.”

And questions about mental toughness will linger in the offseason. At 11-1, they controlled the AFC. They blew a first-round bye and home-field advantage and a chance at a deep run with a 2-4 finish.

Like Joseph, though, Kubiak didn’t talk of change but of staying the course.

And owner Bob McNair didn’t help with his immediate reaction, saying at least three times in his conversation with reporters that the Texans are close. (If you’re that close and you get every officiating break in the game, you should win, shouldn’t you?)

Schaub put up 343 yards in a come-front-behind effort, but was uneven. He has the continued unwavering backing of Kubiak and the franchise.

“I’ve got a ton of confidence in him. I think he’s one of the top quarterbacks in football,” Kubiak said. “You don’t get over that hump unless you’re willing to keep going back there and keep getting yourself in that position. It’s very, very difficult. I do not take anything for granted for where we are tonight; it’s very hard to get there.

“We’re going to continue to push him to a new level as a player. And that’s all of us. But he’s definitely the one leading the way.”

Schaub was asked if he belongs on a list with the quarterbacks who will be playing next weekend -- Colin Kaepernick of the 49ers, Matt Ryan of the Falcons, Joe Flacco of Baltimore and Tom Brady of the Patriots.

Logic at this point says Schaub does not, or he’d have advanced as they did.

“No doubt I belong,” he said. “I think I belong up there with every one of them.”

I don’t think he’s delusional, just well-programmed in what he believes a confident quarterback is supposed to say. I hope when he and his coaches review this game, that is not the conclusion they come to. They have to address the sense of panic that creeps in at moments like the middle of the third quarter, when flushed to his left from the pocket Schaub simply dropped the ball as he ran and had to dive on it for a 9-yard sack.

I’m not sure the panic problem is completely fixable. He can improve still, but he’ll be in his 10th season next year, and that deep into a career most players have become what they will be.

The Texans need to surround him with better players, particularly on the right side of the offensive line and at receiver beyond Johnson, to maximize his chances and theirs.

There is only so much they can do with the roster given salary-cap constraints. While they’ll be looking to chase the Patriots, they’ll also need to hold off Indianapolis in the AFC South, and the Colts have plenty of money to spend as they look to build on a breakout season.

After the playoff loss in Baltimore last season, defensive lineman Antonio Smith and his teammates made a pact to get to the Super Bowl this year.

“This was not an achievement to any of us,” he said of finishing a second season in a row on the road in the divisional round. “It’s the biggest disappointment you can have.”

“It’s always a gut-check, proving the naysayers right.”
Bill Belichick and Gary KubiakGetty ImagesBill Belichick has steered the Patriots to the top of the AFC, but Gary Kubiak and the Texans are now gunning for the conference's perennial top team.
It’s been a while since the New England Patriots won a Super Bowl, but they remain the standard-bearers in the AFC.

They’ve been to two of the past five Super Bowls, including the most recent one. They’ve been in five of the previous 11 Super Bowls and won three in four years from 2001 to 2004.

For teams looking to become consistent AFC powers, the Patriots are the target. One of those teams, the Houston Texans, is heading to New England for "Monday Night Football."

No matter the result, the Texans will still have at least a one-game lead for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. This could be an AFC Championship Game preview.

Can the Texans overtake the Patriots?

"I think they can," one AFC executive said. "They have the talent, they have the consistency of scheme on both sides of the ball to do it. The wild card is their health, particularly on defense."

"That's going to be a tough one," said Rosevelt Colvin, who played six of his 10 NFL seasons as linebacker with the Patriots and spent a training camp with the Texans. "Patriots are the closest thing to consistency you will find in this era of NFL ball. Two big reasons: Bill Belichick and Tom Brady."

New England’s coach and quarterback have the skins on the wall and the credibility that come with them. That doesn’t mean someone new can’t break through, though only three other teams have represented the AFC in the Super Bowl since the Patriots came to prominence: Oakland once, Indianapolis twice and Pittsburgh three times.

Are the Texans poised to break through?

"Everybody would like to do what they’ve done over a long period of time," Texans coach Gary Kubiak told Houston reporters. "This league’s about consistency. I think I learned a lot about that in my time in San Francisco and Denver. Doing things right all the time.

"We’re trying to become a very consistent organization here and put a consistent product on the field week in and week out and do things the right way. We’re very young in the process, but we have a lot of respect for what they do."

One major similarity: Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Texans owner Bob McNair are widely regarded as two of the best owners in the NFL. They are willing to spend to make things first-class, and they back their coaches.

Let’s look at some other ways the Texans are similar to the Patriots and some ways they are different:

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
AP Photo/Charles KrupaTom Brady's consistent play has made the Patriots annual Super Bowl contenders.
Scheme: The Patriots morph as required, not just season to season but sometimes week to week.

They drafted two high-quality tight ends when they saw Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez available and shifted their offense to be predominantly two-tight. When both missed time because of injury -- Gronkowski won't play Monday -- they easily shifted to three-wide. They’ve been a 3-4 team. They’ve been a 4-3 team.

Belichick adapts to what he has and the circumstances.

The Texans don’t morph.

They’ve updated and improved Kubiak’s offensive system since he took over in 2006, but the principles are the same. The zone-blocking line cuts defenders down, and the back is asked to make one cut and go. They run a ton of play-action and ask quarterback Matt Schaub to roll out and run bootlegs off that. It’s not a common scheme, which makes it a bit tougher for defenses to handle.

Defensively, they struggled to find an identity until they brought in defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. As leader of the defense, he installed his brand of 3-4 and stamped the Texans with a personality they had been lacking. Now they are locked into a defensive system that same way they are locked in on offense.

They are both top-eight rushing teams, but running is less important to New England because its passing game is more straight drop-back and shotgun while the Texans rely on far more play-action.

Leadership: Belichick is the team’s authority, although while the Patriots came to prominence much was made of how he worked in tandem with Scott Pioli in the front office. If they didn’t agree on a player, they would move on to the next one.

Pioli left to become the general manager in Kansas City in 2009. Belichick remains the powerful agenda-setter, but he has resources when he wants them -- including director of player personnel Nick Caserio and senior football adviser Floyd Reese.

Although the Texans have always stayed mum publicly about who has final say, Kubiak was hired first and general manager Rick Smith joined him. League insiders see the Texans as a coach-steered franchise. Kubiak and Smith have an excellent relationship and get good input from front-office personnel, coordinators and assistants.

Kubiak and Belichick have vastly different public personalities. Belichick is gruff and controlling. Kubiak is personable and agreeable.

Belichick wields more power, but the setups for both coaches in their organizations are comparable.

Depth: Belichick once lost Brady in the Patriots opener. He plugged in Matt Cassel and won 11 games.

Overall, New England has done exceedingly well plugging reserves in when needed and getting sufficient production. The Patriots also move guys around with success. We’ve seen them play receiver Troy Brown at corner. Currently, Devin McCourty can line up at cornerback or safety.

Although veterans generally want to stay in their winning atmosphere, the Patriots have not been sentimental about keeping guys. If a player gets too old or too expensive, they’ll let him walk.

The Texans went to the playoffs for the first time in franchise history last season with rookie quarterback T.J. Yates playing because starter Schaub and backup Matt Leinart both got hurt. Outside linebacker Mario Williams was out after five games, and receiver Andre Johnson missed nine. Houston showed off its depth in overcoming the absences.

The team let Williams leave as a free agent, traded inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans and released right tackle Eric Winston in the offseason while fitting other pieces under the cap. They got Schaub and left tackle Duane Brown locked up with long-term contracts before the season kicked off.

Houston is showing off its depth again this season. Inside linebacker Brian Cushing went down after five games, and Tim Dobbins has played well in his place. Brooks Reed missed last week and will be out a few more, and the team has first-rounder Whitney Mercilus to insert into a shuffled linebacker corps.

"Keeping the talent pool full of younger guys that can run that system is key, as well as coaching consistency," Colvin said. "They have a good mix right now."

Has Barwin cost himself a lot of money?

November, 28, 2012
The Texans have said over and over this season that while Connor Barwin’s sack production is down from last year, the outside linebacker is playing well.

On Thanksgiving, he jumped from his weakside linebacker spot to the strong side when Brooks Reed went down with a groin injury, and he’ll stay there while Reed is out for a while recovering from the injury.

I hardly think Barwin’s been terrible. But one big theme with the Texans right now is that they need more pressure, more consistently from places other than J.J. Watt. Barwin should be leading that charge. Instead, he’s got only two sacks. His 10 tackles for a loss and 13 quarterback hits rank behind only Watt on the Texans.

Barwin is a smart guy and I am sure he’s able to compartmentalize.

Still, somewhere in the back of his head it has to crop up that he’s costing himself a lot of money this season. The Texans had a contract offer on the table for him before the season and he decided not to sign it.

Pro Football Focus, which rates players on every snap, has Barwin 27th in its ratings of outside linebackers in 3-4 schemes. Last year he was 19th. But his rating was minus-4.6 in 2011 and is minus-5.8 now, not a gigantic difference.

After the season, as he approaches free agency, the deal the Texans present is unlikely to be as good as that last one. He was coming off a team-leading 11.5-sack season then.

His agent is sure to pull out comments like this one from Gary Kubiak, from his conference call with Nashville reporters this morning.

“I think he has played well,” Kubiak said. “I do know that the numbers aren’t there like they were last year. But his effort and his consistency as a player and the way he grades out every week it’s been every bit as good as last year.

“We’re asking him to do something new, he played like 70-plus at the Sam position, switched positions right in the middle of the game last week. A lot of that’s on us and what he’s had to do. What we get from him every week has been consistent and I think the other things will take care of themselves.”

Rookie first-round draft pick Whitney Mercilus will be playing in Barwin’s regular weakside spot while Reed is out, probably about three weeks. Bryan Braman will see action as the third outside linebacker.

If those two fare well, it’ll show the Texans how expendable Barwin may be in the harsh realities of the NFL. General manager Rick Smith has shown he’s not afraid to let key people walk.

And Barwin’s best chance to cash in may wind up coming elsewhere.

Neither side is thinking much about that now, since the Texans are nearing the home stretch of what might turn into a dream season.




Sunday, 2/2