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AFC South tougher than expected, but Texans are ready; mail

HOUSTON -- While we digest the status of Mike Vick with his battered ribs and wonder if he'll ever play a full season of football again (he's played exactly one 16-game regular season), let's get updated on one team that's been very quiet in the first month of summer camp.

I didn't get to see the Texans practice Monday. Coach Gary Kubiak thought it best on a humid Houston day (are there other kinds in August?) to have his team simply stretch on the practice field, run, correct mental mistakes from the Saturday night preseason game with San Francisco and recover after a very physical game.

So let's update where the Texans are as they prepare to be the hunted in the AFC South for the first time in their existence, after nearly a decade of being the hunters:

• Quarterback Matt Schaub, who says he's fully recovered from the Lisfranc injury that cost him half the 2011 season, has played well in the first two preseason games. Coach Gary Kubiak isn't coddling him. He's full speed ahead.

• Rashad Butler and Derek Newton, battling for the right tackle job vacated when Eric Winston was whacked in a cap purge, could both play some early in the year, Kubiak told me. But look for Butler to start.

• Kicker could be a problem area. Fifth-round rookie Randy Bullock will likely beat out Shayne Graham, though Bullock's had some shaky moments in camp. He missed a 51-yard field goal attempt Saturday night.

• Houston's thrilled with its three-man rotation at outside linebacker -- Brooks Reed, Whitney Mercilus and Connor Barwin should combine for 25 sacks. Mercilus had the best 10-yard time at the combine this spring, and Reed tied for the best time in the 10- last year. I don't think they'll miss Mario Williams, barring injury.

• I watched rising star defensive end J.J. Watt work out with his dislocated left elbow Monday, punching a foam dummy, his elbow in a secure brace. Watt looked good, and all signs point to him being fine for the opener.

• Without team leader DeMeco Ryans, who was traded to Philadelphia before the draft because he didn't fit the inside linebacker mold of Wade Phillips' 3-4, Brian Cushing has emerged as the vocal leader the Texans had hoped he'd be. "I've always wanted all eyes on me, in high school, college and the pros,'' Cushing said. "But I hoped I would play with DeMeco my whole career. We got to be very close. This offseason, he came to New Jersey and stayed with me. We trained together. I'll never be able to thank him for how much he helped me, and what he taught me about leadership -- mostly, how to be accountable every day you step on the field.''

There's a good vibe in the building, from the locker room to the front office. GM Rick Smith told me about going to work out one night before the draft, and finding Reed swimming laps in the team pool. Reed told him he swam about 45 minutes most days, just to find another way to supplement his training. "So I went out and incorporated it into my workout,'' Smith said, suitably inspired by a player working out hard at night in the offseason.

Smith said Reed is having as good a training camp as any other player on the team. For a team of young stars, they know the work doesn't end because they made the playoffs once and won one Wild Card game.

"How hungry are we to get back?'' said Kubiak. "Nothing we did last year matters. All that matters is what we're about to do. And I like what I've seen from our team so far.''

Houston's task isn't as easy as it seemed a few months ago. Andrew Luck has shown in two weeks he's hitting the ground running and will have the Colts more competitive than we thought. Blaine Gabbert looks surprisingly good in Jacksonville. Jake Locker in Tennessee is a major unknown. I thought the AFC South would be a gimme for Houston. Now I think Houston won't have a walkover for the division title.

***

A correction on the Quote of the Week:

In my column Monday, I attributed a quote to Steve Gleason, the former Saints player now suffering from ALS, that was incorrect regarding the reaction to former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams' inflammatory speech the night before the Saints-49ers playoff game last year. In a release to some media members with quotes from the story on Gleason to air tonight on HBO's Real Sports, HBO quoted Gleason from the telecast as saying of the reaction of all those present in the room that night, including players, "The real problem was that no one seemed shocked.''

Gleason sent me an audio file of the interview, which I listened to this morning. And though his voice is somewhat unintelligible because of the ravages of his disease, what he actually says is, "The group I was with [pause], no one seemed shocked."

This is a significant difference to Gleason, because he was there with filmmaker Sean Pamphilon and former teammate Scott Fujita (and maybe another acquaintance or two) that night as a guest of the Saints. He was not there to mingle with the players or speak to the team, so he wasn't characterizing the reaction of all the players in the room, just those he attended the meeting with.

HBO this morning agreed with Gleason, calling the mistake a "transcription error,'' and said it would correct the misquote in its story -- which runs in a subtitle while Gleason is speaking -- airing tonight. Even though the quote was provided by HBO and it's very rare for a team or network to provide a quote that is incorrect, it's still my column and I ran the wrong words from a quote. I take responsibility and regret the error.

***

Now onto your email:

HE FEARS HALEY. "You just said all of the things I fear about Todd Haley being the offensive coordinator of the Steelers. On one hand, he ruined KC. On the other hand, maybe a head-coaching job was too much for him to handle, and moving down to just the coordinator will help him focus. Ben plays open and wild (successfully) and doesn't seem like it mixes with Haley's style. What's the over/under on the first sideline blowup between them? Four games here.''-- From Mike, of Chattanooga

It's unfair to say Haley ruined the Chiefs. He did lead them to the playoffs his second season. But I think he lacked the temperament to be a good head coach -- at least for now -- and he failed to earn the respect of his players. I think it's a questionable choice for the Steelers, because the Rooneys aren't going to stand for a coach who rants on the sideline. Haley controlled his temper better as his time in Kansas City rolled on, but I don't know that that's been totally solved. We'll see how it works out.

INTERESTING OBSERVATION. "After watching the excruciatingly painful dismissal of Chad Whatever His Last Name is Now on 'Hard Knocks,' is it fair to say that the era of the diva receiver is coming to an end? Seems to me that the new 'cool' is the go-out-and-just-get-it-done type.''-- From Jamie, of Gloucester, Mass.

I certainly hope so.

YOU'VE GOT YOURSELF A DEAL. "Please do not stop beating the drum on bringing the real officials back! Do it in print, on the radio and TV! I think the awareness of how bad the situation really is will skyrocket because everyone just saw their starters for a half and are starting to pay attention. Do you think there is a potential safety issue with refs that are this incompetent?''-- From Mike C, of Baltimore

There are many issues, and safety is one. The NFL has asked officials to be the "first responders'' in the event of players looking woozy or with suspected concussions on the field. How can these replacements, who clearly don't know the rules of the pro game well enough, be expected to add EMT to their job responsibilities?

THAT'S JUST ABOUT WHAT THEY DO NOW. "In the wake of the light fine to Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, I think the league should consider a change to the way it assigns fines. What if the fines included escalators that would significantly increase the fine if the player committed another personal foul within a set number of games? For example, in Cromartie's case, a base fine of $21k, increasing four times to $84k if he commits a personal foul during the next six games.''-- From Matt, of Pittsburgh

The league increases the discipline for players when they are repeat offenders, but it'd be hard if a player got fined five figures for a personal foul during a game, unless it was an illegal or vicious hit. My issue with this one, simply, is that the hit should have risen to a far more severe fine on its own.

THE BEARS ARE BETTER ON DEFENSE. "I've got a bone to pick with you after writing, "If the defense is markedly better, division dominance is possible. If not, Green Bay will be in a dogfight with the improved Bears." WHY, WHY, WHY has this analytical echo defined the NFC North this offseason? Has everyone forgotten that the Lions were a stronger, faster and better-coached team than the Bears last year? Especially in the trenches, Detroit possesses much better and YOUNGER talent than Chicago -- there's no comparison.''-- From Tim, of Alberta

You could be right. When I look at the two teams, I think Detroit's defense, the secondary in particular, is an Achilles heel, and Chicago will play better on D. Both Chicago and Detroit will play well on offense, but I'm sorry. I can't get those 90 points Detroit allowed in the last eight quarters of the season out of my mind.

GOOD TO SEE AN EMAIL FROM DUBAI. "If you were picking between Cam Newton (who already has one record-breaking season under his belt) or Andrew Luck (yet to play in a regular season game) today, who would you choose?''-- From Talal, of Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Luck. I'd choose Luck over any current quarterback except probably Aaron Rodgers if we're talking about which quarterback I'd want to build my franchise around. It's simple: I think Luck has a good chance to be a top-three quarterback over the next 15 years, and he has an age edge over the great ones today.

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