The Houston Texans, our beloved heroes from down under, are embarking on their 10th season. That's right, it was a decade ago that David Carr led the boys from I-10 to a thrilling victory over the hated and over-hyped Dallas Cowboys in Houston's inaugural game. “19-10” will be remembered with great reverence by Texans fans for all of history.
The last time an expansion franchise won its first game was in 1961 when the Minnesota Vikings stumbled onto a victory over the Chicago Bears. It's hard to do. The expansion rules have always put new teams at a decided disadvantage with two noteworthy exceptions, the Carolina Panthers and the Jacksonville Jaguars. The league changed the rules when those teams were added in 1995 in an attempt to make expansion teams more relevant. Prior to that time, teams could flounder for decades as they tried to compete with teams that had better players. Before free agency, a team simply owned the rights to the guys they had and if they were good, the team was good until they retired.
Optimism was rampant in Houston after the opening-day win. The Texans were off to as good a start as you could hope for. Undefeated at 1 and 0 the future looked bright for the battle-red boys. Little did we know that it would be nearly a decade before you could even consider the “lowly” Texans relevant much less even mention them as a contender from week to week.
It takes time for an owner to develop a network of football people you can rely on if you're coming into the sport with no previous history in the league as Texans owner, Bob McNair, was. McNair's growing pains as an NFL owner were apparent and we as fans have suffered them right along with him. The only difference was that we all took continual hits to our pocket books while Mr. McNair ran one of the more profitable losing franchises in all of sports.
It wasn't just season-ticket holders who were paying to watch lousy football. In 2006, the CBS affiliate – KEYE – stopped showing the Texans' games. So if you wanted to see them you had to pay for the NFL Sunday Ticket or lay down a hefty bar tab at a sports bar. No one was watching. To add insult to injury, KEYE began broadcasting the Texas Longhorn's golden boy Vince Young on Sundays. “VY” was playing for the old Houston team that packed up in middle of the night and moved to Tennessee. But could you blame KEYE for making the switch? The Texans were bad. Young was coming off a storybook season at UT and the Titans were winning football games. Our Texans were breaking in a new head coach in Gary Kubiak who tried to revive David Carr's career one five-yard slant at a time.
No one could have known that Houston would have been this bad for this long. When asked if the Texans planned to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the franchise, Mr. McNair reportedly said, “I don't think we've done much worth celebrating over those ten years.” It takes a strong man to admit to that. Kudos to you Mr. McNair.
If you are new to the Texans bandwagon, let me give you a brief education as to why this team is worth suffering through a decade of substandard entertainment. In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans and left thousands of people homeless, the Texans new owner offered up his immaculate, three-year-old, state-of-the-art facility to those in need. Bus loads of people were dumped at Reliant Park and they were given anything and everything they needed to get back on their feet. Many of the facilities at Reliant Park had never even been used. Damages were incurred and never a complaint was heard from Mr. McNair, the consummate philanthropist, who simply thought it was the right thing to do.
Conversely, guys like Jerry Jones … well, do I really need to explain to you the difference?
Mr. McNair is a guy worth rooting for. A man who believes in doing things the right way. When he hired Gary Kubiak in 2006, he hired a guy cut from the same cloth. The Texans beat reporter John McClain once told me that Gary Kubiak is easily the most genuine, humble and honest, coach he's ever met in almost 40 years covering the NFL. Kubiak is also an offensive mastermind who orchestrated the plug-and-play 1,000-yard backs in Denver in the '90s. The Texans have had one of the Top 4 offenses in the NFL for the last three years. I'm predicting that Houston will have the No. 1 offense this season. To put some perspective on just how good Kubiak's offense is, let me introduce you to three fellas who play football in Houston.
• Arian Foster (the NFL's leading rusher from 2010)
• Matt Schaub (the NFL's leading passer from 2009)
• Andre Johnson (the NFL's leading receiver from 2008 and 2009)
No team in the history of the NFL has ever had the league's leading receiver, passer, and running back in consecutive seasons. The Texans have the most prolific and – allow me to coin a new term – undefendable offense in the game today.
One of the things that powers this machine is an offensive line that has played together for three consecutive seasons. (With the exception of left guard Wade Smith who joined the team in 2009.)
Houston runs the purest form of the zone offense in the NFL. Most teams use some form of zone blocking but Houston has it perfected. The zone scheme requires all players on the line of scrimmage moving in fluid motion in one direction to the “play side” while the running back glides along behind them waiting for the defense to dictate what he'll do. You may have heard the term “one cut and go." This describes how the zone system works in that the running back is asked to read the defense and either choose to follow the play side flow and cut upfield or, depending on how the defense attacks the play, cut back against the flow and run to daylight. Both cuts are made upfield and there is no time or tolerance for “scat backs” or runners who spend too much time shifting their weight horizontally.
The key to being an effective zone runner is patience. Arian Foster excels at this. The reason Foster is so special is that he has the uncanny ability to run slowly until the hole opens up. That sounds easy to do but I assure you that it's inherent in a person's nature to run quickly when 300-pound monsters are trying to take your head off. Foster has the smoothest approach to the line I've ever seen from a zone back.
The offense is returning all of it's starters from 2010 except for All-Pro fullback Vonta Leach, who they lost in free agency. Believe it or not, I think this is a good thing. Leach was a wonderful in-line blocker but his absence has caused Kubiak and company to think outside the box and they've decided to utilize third-year tight end James Casey in a fullback/H-back roll that I believe will push the Texans offense to the previously mentioned “undefendable” status.
The Houston Texans will revolutionize use of the fullback position in 2011 creating mismatches at every skill position. When the Texans line up in any given formation they can have a mismatch on a linebacker on every play. Casey is no typical fullback. He can block like a fullback but he can come in motion out of the backfield and line up as a tight end or even as a wideout. This will inevitably force opposing defenses to find a way to defend against this. If they do then the best receiver in the NFL, Andre Johnson, will be left one on one. If they focus on Johnson, Foster will run wild. If they somehow can stop both Johnson and Foster, the tight ends will eat them alive.
Houston's offensive line was rated as the No. 1 offensive line in the NFL this preseason, which is especially satisfying since prior to Kubiak's arrival the Texans were notorious for terrible line play. Left tackle Duane Brown is a top-tier blind-side tackle with great athleticism and the ability to recover quickly should he get out of position. Second-year free-agent guard Wade Smith is a fierce cut blocker and center Chris Myers is coming off of a career year. On the right side Mike Brisiel and second-year man Antoine Caldwell will share time. Both have played plenty of snaps and are in a permanent battle for the starting spot at right guard. Eric Winston is exceptional at sealing the edge on run blocks.
Tight end is a source of great depth with Owen Daniels returning to his pre-ACL injury form. He really showed signs of being his old self over that last four weeks of the 2010 season. Joel Dreesen is an above-average blocker who does everything well.
James Casey was the third tight end but as I mentioned, he's been moved to fullback. The key to this move is that Casey is diverse enough to succeed as an in-line blocker while being athletic enough to come out of the backfield and create a mismatch for any linebacker or safety on the field. Casey's role in the offense will be the key that forces teams to spread their coverage and keep them from keying on any one position.
Arian Foster's backups are almost as exciting as he is. Derrick Ward is an every-down back but he'll be more than likely leapfrogged by second-year running back out of Auburn Ben Tate. Tate is incredibly explosive but also possesses great agility and vision. During the preseason, when Tate was in the game there was little to no drop off from Foster.
Wide receiver is always a strength with Andre Johnson, the best wide receiver in the NFL, healthy and in the prime of his career. Kevin Walter and Jacoby Jones combined for more than 100 catches last year as they shared duties.
Distributing the pigskin to all these weapons is Matt Schaub who has quietly solidified himself as one of the top seven or eight quarterbacks in football. Schaub's biggest strength is his mastery of the offense and his accuracy. Schaub finished fourth in the league in passing despite Houston having the league's leading rusher.
The Texans are basically loaded at every single position on offense with virtually no weaknesses. It's not that bold of a prediction to suggest that Houston will have the top offense in the league in 2011. If only the defense wasn't atrocious. Well guess what, it's going to be anything but this year. Keep it clicked on The Austin Chronicle's Sports blog as we address the defensive side of the ball in our second edition of the Houston Texans season preview.
[Barrett Walton is the managing editor of Texans Bull Blog. Visit www.texansbullblog.com for news, analysis and commentary about the Houston Texans.]
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