HOUSTON (CBS Houston) – Not even 24 hours had passed since their deflating playoff loss the Baltimore Ravens and Texans players were back in a familiar place early Monday morning.
They were in their locker room at Reliant Stadium.
But instead hustling in to prepare for practice or a position meeting, the players mostly walked slowly, taking time to say their goodbyes before doing what the day was mostly about and that is packing up the belongings in their lockers. The most thrilling season in the Texans history has come to a close.
“It’s tough. It’s come upon us too early,” said inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans. “I was really looking forward to coming in and practicing this week, so it’s disappointing.”
The Texans, in their first playoff appearance in franchise history, came ever so close to earning a trip to the AFC Championship game ultimately came up short in a 20-13 loss against the Ravens on Sunday. A play here or a play there and any one of the four turnovers and this is likely an entirely different scene in the Texans locker room.
“I don’t think nobody was ready to end playing football right now,” said fullback Lawrence Vickers. “It was a whole team vibe. I’m really like `Wow, I can’t believe we’re not playing. We’re not at work today and we are supposed to be work getting ready for whoever we play next week.’ I guess it’s going to take a while to settle in that we are not getting a chance to do that.”
When it all settles in what the Texans may realize is that they just completed what could be the franchises’ most important season as it looks an elite team in the NFL. Despite some difficult injuries that included season-ending losses of quarterback Matt Schaub and outside linebacker Mario Williams and the prolonged loss of wide receiver Andre Johnson twice, the Texans managed to win their first AFC South title, set a franchise record for wins in a season with 11, win a playoff game and this was all accomplished with a rookie fifth round pick quarterback in T.J. Yates who didn’t even dress for the first 10 games this season.
But as important as this season was, this offseason may be the most critical yet. When you have a season like the Texans (11-7) had there can be a tendency to leave things alone with the nucleus of the team coming back for what could be an even better 2012.
Not making some tweaks, however, would be a huge mistake. The Texans are still in need of another big-time receiving threat opposite Johnson and one who might eventually replace him as the go-to playmaker.
But the biggest priority is deciding which free agents to keep and which to let go. Center Chris Myers and Williams are the two key free agents, while two-time Pro Bowl running back and back-to-back 1,000-yard rusher Arian Foster enters the offseason as a restricted free agent.
All indications are general manager Rick Smith and Foster’s agent will soon get a deal done to keep the young and talked back around for a long time. That might have been the assumption about Williams, as well, but his second straight injury plagued season and the performance of the defense with Connor Barwin shifting to his spot and rookie Brooks Reed’s play on the opposite side could make it hard for Williams to get the kind of money he is seeking. It sounds like the Texans would definitely like to keep Williams but certainly it will have to be at the right price.
“You worry about things you control. I can’t control that,” Kubiak said of the importance of re-signing Williams. Those things will work themselves out.
“We’re dealing with a great player. We’re dealing with a class young man and we all know we’d like him to be a part of our football team. We’d like that done tomorrow but that’s not how it works. It’s gonna take some time and we’ll just let the process take care of itself.”
As for the rest of the team, the future does look promising. It appears first-year defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and his 3-4 scheme will be around for at least another season. Rookie defensive end J.J. Watt has emerged as a leading playmaker on the line, while Brian Cushing has developed into one of the best inside linebackers in the game and cornerback Johnathan Joseph and safety Daniel Manning have solidified the secondary.
Schaub will be back from his foot injury and now the Texans have the luxury of a backup quarterback who has done something that not even their starter has done and that is win a playoff game.
“I’ve never been around a group of guys talk more positive about each other, about their teammates, how good a locker room we had, what type of football team we had, how they can’t wait to go back and play with that group of guys,” Kubiak said. “That’s what we’ve been after here in Houston and that’s why we took some big steps and obviously we took the biggest step this year that we’ve taken as a franchise, but I think it is also important, I also told the players, the biggest thing is do we come out of this thing hungrier next year?
“Obviously it felt great to play in these playoffs. We have a taste of that. We know what it’s like, but this will probably be our biggest offseason because we will have to step it up.”
Watt, who had an outstanding rookie season, couldn’t agree more.
“We’re extremely hungry,” he said. “There is a lot of motivation headed into this offseason.
“You get a little bit of a taste and it’s not satisfying what you’ve got so we want to go back and get the whole thing because you’re not satisfied with what you’ve got. I think that is our whole team’s (mentality) and that’s what we are using as motivation. We don’t want just a piece of the pie. We want the whole pie.”