After attaining their first-ever playoff appearance and postseason victory in franchise history last season, the Houston Texans enter 2012 already as a popular pick among many pundits to make the trip to the big stage in New Orleans.
“I think it’s Super Bowl or bust for them,” NFL Network’s Albert Breer said late last week on SportsRadio 610. ”I asked Andre Johnson and Matt Schaub about this and I don’t think they disagree with this assessment that they are in their window of opportunity right now and that the time is now for them to win.”
Breer released an in-depth editorial on Tuesday on how the Texans’ starting signal-caller and star wide receiver, both coming off tough injuries, feel about Houston’s high hopes heading into the regular season.
“That’s how I feel about it,” Andre Johnson said when asked whether that’s a reasonable way to assess the team’s approach for 2012. ”That’s the only reason you play the game. I mean, that’s the only reason I play it.
“You can make the playoffs, go to the AFC championship, (but) if you lose, you’re still getting the same thing the guys who didn’t make the playoffs got,” Johnson continued. ”The ultimate goal is winning the Super Bowl. That’s it.”
Last year, Johnson went down with a hamstring injury in the first weekend of October against the Pittsburgh Steelers. He didn’t return until after Thanksgiving, before he hurt the other hamstring a week later and missed three more games.
The 6-3, 226-pound star wide out played in just seven games (all starts) and made 33 catches for 492 yards and two touchdowns, albeit he was able to play (and excel) in the postseason.
As for Schaub, whose circumstances were worse, considering the Lisfranc fracture he suffered in his right foot forced him to stay off his feet, the 6-5, 241-pound quarterback didn’t return to practice until the start of training camp.
With this in mind, you might think his outlook would be more measured, but based on where this team has been and its current direction, Schaub sees the “Super Bowl or bust” point of view to be a fair statement.
“Given where we went last year, the next step is the Super Bowl. We can’t win it here in August or September; it’s a slow progression. We have to take one at a time, as the cliché goes. But ultimately, we wanna get to that final game in February. That’s our goal, and we’re not gonna rest until that happens.”
In 10 games (all starts) in 2011, Schaub threw for 2,479 yards with 15 touchdowns to six picks and completed 178 of 292 passes (61.0 completion percentage).
“There are always things you can get better at — little things, the details, the footwork drills,” Schaub said when asked how he spent the time away. “But I think the biggest thing for me is, it gave me the reminder to enjoy what we’re doing and not take things for granted, because of how quickly it can get taken from you. We have such short careers, the span of time where we can play this game. We have to embrace every opportunity where we can go out there. It really gave me a better appreciation for what we do.”
Both Schaub and Johnson are on the older side, having turned 31-years-old this summer.
“We have to have that sense of urgency to go get it,” Schaub said. “Nothing’s gonna be given to you in this league. We have a tough schedule, yes, but we know we have the type of talent in our locker room where we can go out and beat anyone on any given day. For guys like me and Andre, yeah, we’re in Year 9 and 10, but we’re hitting our stride, we’re hitting our prime.
“And we know that window of opportunity is small in this business. The talent level here is so good, we have to embrace every opportunity we have to go play.”
In a roundabout way, as Breer notes, the story of last season, which was subject to several significant injuries to former defensive leader Mario Williams (who was lost for the year in Week 5), Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson, has helped to fuel the optimism for the upcoming season. Last year’s AFC South Champions advanced over the Cincinnati Bengals in the Wildcard round 31-10 before giving the Baltimore Ravens a tough battle for four quarters in their 20-13 defeat.
That Ravens team finished unbeaten last season at M&T Bank Stadium. Despite all of the injuries suffered by star players, which also included running back Arian Foster and safety Danieal Manning (who both missed three starts), the Texans accomplished those things, illustrating the depth of talent amassed by general manager Rick Smith and head coach Gary Kubiak, who enters his seventh season.
The Texans face a relatively soft schedule, at least compared to the slate of games they faced last year, which was statistically the toughest schedule in the NFL heading into the regular season.
Houston will host Miami in the season opener, before taking a trip down to Jacksonville. In Week 3, Houston has a date with Denver (away), before returning home to take on Tennessee.
The Texans begin the month of October in a battle with the New York Jets on Monday Night Football. The Texans will welcome Green Bay (on Sunday night) and Baltimore to Reliant Stadium in Weeks 6 and 7 before a bye on October 28.
In Week 9, the Texans will tackle the Buffalo Bills, before facing the Bears on Sunday Night Football in Chicago. That’s followed by another get-together with the Jaguars and then a meeting on Thanksgiving with the Detroit Lions.
In Week 13, the Texans will clash again with the Titans and then return to the Monday night spotlight in a road test against the New England Patriots. The Texans wrap up the regular season with the Colts (home), Minnesota Vikings (home) and Indianapolis (road) again.
The team boasts a balanced, top-notch offense (when healthy) and an elite defense, along with an improving special teams unit. On offense, there’s a young backup quarterback T.J. Yates that can be relied on if injury strikes Schaub again.
Arian Foster and Ben Tate collected a combined 2,166 yards and 14 scores on 453 carries with 63 catches for 715 yards and two touchdowns through the air last year, making up easily one of the best backfields in the NFL today.
While the offensive line lost some of its luster with the departure of guard Mike Brisiel (to Oakland) and Eric Winston (joined Kansas City), the Texans maintained some much-needed continuity by bringing back center Chris Myers.
In addition, the 31-year-old starters at receiver (Johnson and Kevin Walter) will have help from several young guys at the position, including rookies DeVier Posey (No. 68 overall) and Keshawn Martin (No. 121 overall) in the 2012 NFL Draft. Lestar Jean, Jeff Maehl, Juaquin Iglesias, special teams specialist Trindon Holliday and veteran Bryant Johnson are all also on the roster right now.
Andre Johnson, Lestar Jean, Kevin Walter and Keshawn Martin are all locks to make the final roster. The odds of making the team are also very likely for Posey (despite seeing very limited time on the field in preseason) and Holliday, who returned a kick for a 90-yard score against the Carolina Panthers and followed it up with an 87-yard punt return for a TD against the San Francisco 49ers.
“Can you make the team as just a returner? Yeah,” Kubiak told reporters earlier this week. “You better be special, though.”
The 2009 NCAA 100-meter dash champion has surely been something special in the first two preseason games. One of the fastest athletes on the planet, Holliday has averaged 18.4 yards per punt return and averaged 44 yards on kick returns against the Panthers and 49ers, according to Sean Bielawski of CBSSports.com.
Despite the departure of Super Mario (joined Buffalo Bills), the defense has only gotten better this offseason with the additions of first-round pick Whitney Mercilus, who figures to split time with Brooks Reed and Connor Barwin at outside linebacker, providing defensive coordinator Wade Phillips with his Texans package, similar to the packages he had in Dallas and San Diego.
Ex-Cowboys linebacker and veteran Bradie James replaces DeMeco Ryans who was traded to the Eagles, as Antonio Smith and our 96th-best player J.J. Watt dominate the defensive line on the outside.
The only area of concern is the in the middle after nose tackle Shaun Cody sustained an injury in the first preseason game against the Carolina Panthers. There are a number of young players competing at that spot, however, featuring Hebron Fangupo, Jimmy Saddler-McQueen, Ra’Shon Harris and Earl Mitchell, though you’ve probably never heard of any of those names, except for maybe Mitchell.
Kareem Jackson, 24, has yet to live up to expectations as a first-round pick, but the young cornerback comes off a decent display in 2011 opposite Jonathan Joseph. The addition of Joseph last offseason was one of the main reasons the secondary performed so well last season. Glover Quin and veteran Danieal Manning were solid at safety and the depth at the back-end of the defense is almost just as impressive, featuring Sherrick McManis, Brandon Harris, Alan Ball and Troy Nolan.
With all of this said, Houston heads into the 2012 season with what looks to be the perfect mix of veteran experience and young talent, with great depth and exceptional units on both sides of the football. The Texans have learned how to handle inevitable growing pains with injuries and other obstacles last season and look to have the right attitude.
“This is our window of opportunity,” Johnson said. “Opportunities don’t last long in this league; those windows close real fast. We have a great opportunity right now. It’s up to us to take advantage of it. It’s not gonna happen just by talking about it, and we know that.”
Just 12 months ago this team was still perpetually seen by everyone as Next Year’s Darling and had plenty of doubters for failing to fulfill expectations. ”The Texans didn’t arrive at this point quite as quickly as they wanted to, as Schaub and Johnson readily admit now,” as Albert Breer points out. ”And they know that’s left them less time to make the next jump. Taking the next step — from contender to champion — is tougher, and these guys know that. Still, the players here buy into the idea of building off of 2011.”
Verse of This Piece: “My son, keep your father’s commands, and don’t forget your mother’s teaching. Keep their words in mind forever as though you had them tied around your neck.”—Proverbs 6:20-21
Michael Gartman is a College Football and NFL Senior Writer, the AFC South and NFC West Lead Writer and the Founder, CEO of GridironGrit.com. He also writes for RantPolitical.com, where he reports on topics across all sides of the political spectrum and analyzes important issues in the liberty movement. Follow @_MichaelGartman, @RantPolitical and @GridironGrit on Twitter!