The talk coming into the preseason was whether this was going to finally be the season the Houston Texans break through and make it to the playoffs.
But that conversation has changed dramatically in the past few weeks.
The Texans have jumped from being a bubble playoff team in the AFC to the odds on favorites to win the South division. So much for taking incremental steps.
Part of the increased expectations stem from how the Texans looked in the preseason both offensively and defensive with the installation of new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’ 3-4 defense.
But the other issue has been the hard-not-to-notice quarterback turmoil in the AFC South that has all but anointed Matt Schaub as the premiere signal caller in the division. That distinction once belonged to the Indianapolis Colts Peyton Manning exclusively but Manning now out possibly indefinitely after having neck surgery this week for the third time in 19 months, Schaub has been elevated.
It also doesn’t hurt that Jacksonville and Tennessee both come in with quarterback issues, too. The Jaguars unceremoniously parted ways with four-year starter David Garrard this week and will now go with journeyman Luke McCown until rookie Blaine Gabbert is ready to go. Tennessee picked up Matt Hasselbeck, who appeared on the decline with Seattle, to fill the void left by Vince Young and Kerry Collins, who retired only to unretired two weeks ago to fill in for Manning in Indianapolis.
It all adds up to the Texans being thrust into the favorite status despite never having made the playoffs. But head coach Gary Kubiak cautions about making his team the team to beat based solely on quarterback stability.
“I just think it’s part of football,” Kubiak said of the quarterback turnover. “I think throughout the season in this league, every year I’ve ever been involved with pro football, there’s always issues with every team. You’ve got a small roster and how you work through those issues has a lot to do with how the season ends up. But as I tell you, as I tell the guys, we got to stay focused on our team and getting ready to play a good football team. If we don’t play well, then we’re not going to win, but if we play well, we’re going to have a dang good chance to win, so just stay focused on us.”
It won’t take long to figure out just how ready the Texans are to assume control of the AFC South with the dominant team in the division, the Colts, coming into Reliant Stadium on Sunday for the season opener. Of course, Manning won’t be in uniform and his replacement has been on the team two weeks but in the eyes of most the Colts remain the team to beat even without their best player.
“It means everything to us right now because it’s the most important game,” said linebacker DeMeco Ryans.”It’s the first one, it’s the next one and 1-0 is how you want to start, start the season off on a positive note. That’s our motto for every week just to go 1-0.”
But while the Texans are following the game at time model, they have become the media darlings of the country. All of the national publications, including Sports Illustrated, have come in and so have the networks to showcase the Texans as one of the premiere teams in the AFC.
The fact that they finished a disappointing 6-10 last season thanks to a series of heart-breaking defeats doesn’t seem to matter much.
But at least inside of the Texans locker room there remains the sense that they still have something to prove while others around them seem to be buying into the hype.
“Until we prove it to ourselves, to our fans and until we make it to the playoffs, we’ve got a lot to prove,” said guard Mike Brisiel. “The hype doesn’t really mean anything.”
Still there is the feeling that this is the Texans time. This is the third straight year they enter the season on the cusp of being a playoff contender based on a talented core of young players who are now proven All-Pros.
The offense is led by reigning NFL rushing champ Arian Foster, All-Pro wide receiver Andre Johnson and Schaub, who has emerged as one of the best quarterbacks in the league.
Defensively, the Texans have been led by defensive end-turned outside linebacker Mario Williams and Ryans. But that wasn’t enough last year as the Texans were one of the worst defensively in the NFL. Enter Phillips, who seems well on his way to working his quick turnaround magic on the Texans.
The team also made two big free agent acquisitions this offseason to improve a suspect secondary, bringing in cornerback Johnathan Joseph from Cincinnati and safety Danieal Manning from Chicago.
The signs are there that this franchise is ready to make the next step. But now it’s about going out and proving it on the football field.
“We really have a lot of talent and a lot of good players on this team,” Schaub said. “Offensively, we’ve stuck together and we have good continuity with the system and with the guys that are in the huddle. Defensively, we’ve got a great group of guys and with the system they’re running now. We’re really excited about getting going and getting started.”