HOUSTON -- It's been well-chronicled that it took the Houston Texans 10 long, often frustrating years -- and perhaps one fortuitous Peyton Manning-less season in Indianapolis -- to conquer the AFC South and reach the playoffs for the first time. But now that they've at last scaled Colts Mountain and had a taste of success in their division and the postseason, the storyline inevitably has changed.
Will the talent-laded Texans use their breakthrough season of 2011 as a springboard to the AFC's elite class this season, becoming a legitimate Super Bowl contender in the exclusive neighborhood occupied by the likes of New England, Pittsburgh and Baltimore? Or will they discover one of the realities of life near the top in the NFL, that it's easier to get there than stay there? The 2012 season in Houston will provide the answer.
Not that there were any shortage of opinions during my recent one-day stay in Texans training camp.
"I think we'll respond well, because the experience of last year gave us a whole new mindset,'' said Andre Johnson, the Texans' stellar 10th-year receiver, who has been with Houston for all but the first season of the expansion team's existence. "I think you can sense it. Guys want it. When we left the field and got in the locker room after that Baltimore game (a 20-13 loss in the AFC divisional playoffs), that was a lot of hurt. It was like, 'We need to be back in this game next year, but instead of being on the road, we need to have it at our place.' We knew we were only one play away from moving on to the AFC Championship. If we made one more play, it could have been a totally different outcome. That was just a wake-up call for us.''
Obviously it's not difficult to predict the Texans being at the beginning of a sustained four- or five-year playoff run, given they have one of the AFC's younger and more talented rosters, combined with the there-for-the-taking state of the division they play in. The Colts dominated the AFC South from its inception in 2002 until 2010, but clearly Indianapolis is in rebuilding mode with Manning gone and quarterback Andrew Luck now the focus of the offense. Tennessee is a scary team at times, but wildly inconsistent in recent years, usually winding up in the range of .500. Jacksonville has a top-five defense and a superb running game, but its passing game issues have consistently held it back, and the jury remains out this season on second-year quarterback Blaine Gabbert.
But the best thing I heard coming out of Houston about all the talk of dominating the division was a take-nothing-for-granted attitude that seems to permeate the locker room and the entire organization. After all, this is a team that scratched its way to a 9-7 record in 2009 -- the first winning season in franchise history -- and then fell flat on its face in 2010, swooning to 6-10 under the weight of increased expectations. In the city made famous by our country's space program, Houston learned that what goes up can easily come down, just as rapidly.
"We have a lot of guys here who went through that, that 9-7 to 6-10 thing, and that's a feeling you don't want to experience again,'' Johnson said. "I think guys remember that. If we were to go 6-10 this year, it would probably be so devastating.''
There is a take-care-of-business vibe to Texans camp that seems fairly air-tight. Kubiak, the team's seventh-year head coach, consistently preaches a message that if his players focus only on what matters to Houston, blocking out the rest of the NFL world around them, good things will ensue. That mentality helped the Texans persevere last year through a string of adversity, with Houston losing its top two quarterbacks (Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart) to season-ending injuries in November, with Johnson missing nine games due to hamstring issues and defensive standout Mario Williams having his year cut to just five games by a torn pectoral muscle.
After 2011, the Texans know that stuff happens in an NFL season, so trying to project where you stack up in the division or the conference before the season even starts is basically wasted energy. No big talk is forthcoming from Houston, even if the goals remain sizable.
"In our meeting before camp, I told them, 'Hey, guys, we got a little taste of it last year,' '' said Kubiak, whose Texans went 10-6 last season, winning their playoff opener at home against Cincinnati before falling in Baltimore. "But it's really hard to stay there. We'll find out how much we liked it and how hungry we are as a football team. We've got a good team, but we've got to go back to work and pay the price to be good again.''
To me, one of the encouraging factors about the Texans' offseason was that they didn't fall into the easy trap of trying to keep the whole gang together and take another shot after coming so close last year. A lot of young teams that win for the first time make that mistake, but Houston didn't.
The Texans bid farewell to the gifted pass rusher Williams, who signed with Buffalo, rather than make a salary cap commitment to him that didn't fit with their future plans. And they made the very tough choice to trade defensive team leader DeMeco Ryans to Philadelphia, knowing that it would be wildly unpopular in the locker room, but also cognizant that Ryans was no longer worth his hefty salary playing only limited snaps on first and second downs in a 3-4 defense where he wasn't the most comfortable fit at inside linebacker.
Those weren't the moves of a team content with the status quo. They were risky decisions, but calls that were made to improve the team and put it into the best possible cap position for the years just ahead. Houston took a cold-eyed look and realized that it won last year despite Williams' prolonged absence, with rookie Brooks Reed stepping into his outside linebacker slot and producing. And the Texans also gambled that veteran free agent pickup Bradie James could actually provide an upgrade over the well-respected Ryans, for a fraction of the cost. Houston didn't want to lose Ryans' leadership presence, but felt like its locker room now had enough maturity and self-motivators to withstand his departure.
"What you do is identify your core group of players, and how you're building your team, and then that becomes a living, breathing thing,'' Texans general manager Rick Smith said. "It's not a stagnant thing. It's a constantly evolving thing, and you've got to understand that. If you make decisions based solely on emotion, then you run the risk of making mistakes.
"We feel good about this team. The reason why we were successful last year was our guys put the work in. It seemed like every week I was coming off the practice field saying that was the best Wednesday, Thursday or Friday practice since I've been here. That's why we had success on game day, and that's what we're doing again now. They did it in the offseason and they're doing it now in camp. There's an inner confidence that I like, but it has not in any way diminished our attention to detail or work ethic. You want them to stay hungry and it seems like they are.''
Like any team, the Texans have issues to contend with this preseason, and questions that need answers. Can Schaub stay healthy and productive in a pivotal contract year that will decide his future in Houston? Can the Texans' 3-4 defense, which soared to second overall in the league in coordinator Wade Phillips' first year on the job, sustain that kind of performance? Can Houston keep Johnson healthy and surround him with enough receiving weapons to keep defenses honest? Can first-round rookie Whitney Mercilus provide the edge pass rush expected of him in his transformation from collegiate defensive end to 3-4 outside linebacker?
But by a considerable margin, I like the Texans' chances to have fewer question marks remaining by Week 1 than any of their three division opponents. This is a club that looks built to own the AFC South for a while, and maybe the only team that can really block its path in the division is Houston itself. But that won't be a problem if Kubiak's mantra of focusing on their own house carries the day, and the Texans keep their eyes steadily on the prize all season.
"Believe me, we have much bigger expectations in our locker room than anyone outside does,'' said second-year defensive end J.J. Watt, one of the Texans' premier playmakers. "People act like there's a ton of pressure on us, but we put the pressure on ourselves and we did the same thing last year. We expect to win the division and win it handily, but we don't do that without putting in the work and putting in the time. Last year, we got a taste of the pie and now we want the whole thing. We got a taste, the city got a taste, the fans got a taste, and now everybody in this community is ready for that championship.''
Houston wants more, and the Texans have every right to dream the 2012 season will bring it their way. That's always a proven formula for dealing with success in the NFL. Keep the expectations climbing higher, and always just a little bit beyond your reach.