Before he switched to tight end at his alma mater, Wisconsin, Texans tight end Owen Daniels spent two seasons backing up Brooks Bollinger and Jim Sorgi at quarterback for the Badgers. When a visitor to the Texans' complex expresses surprise at this news, Houston quarterback Matt Schaub deadpans, "You'd be even more surprised if you ever saw him throw."
What, is Daniels' motion less than fluid? "Well, he's bulked up so much" to play tight end, explained Schaub, "and he's had some shoulder issues." While Daniels is the Texans' emergency quarterback, he's proved far more adept at creating emergencies in opponents' secondaries. In seven NFL seasons, the 6-foot-3, 250-pound Daniels has caught 361 passes for 4,365 yards (12.1 per reception) and 26 touchdowns. He's the second-leading receiver in Texans history (future Hall of Famer Andre Johnson has all the franchise records), and is much more than a safety valve for Schaub; those two share a chemistry and rapport and awareness of what the other is thinking that borders on telepathic. And part of that rapport, Schaub said, is rooted in Daniels' deep understanding of the quarterback position.
"We're constantly talking," said Schaub. "A lot of guys know their route, they deal with the defenders in their vision. With Owen, I can talk in terms of the whole field. He sees the big picture."
The big picture for this franchise is promising ... for now: Arian Foster, a 1,000-yard rusher each of the past three seasons, came off the Texans' physically unable to perform list on Wednesday, having overcome injuries to his calf and back. He'll start the season sharp and fresh. Ageless Andre Johnson will benefit from the attention defenses must now pay to his rookie bookend DeAndre Hopkins, a first-rounder out of Clemson who was the revelation of the preseason.
While defensive coordinators puzzle over how to contain that winter-spring wideout combo, Daniels will do his thing, prowling the seams, creating separation on crossing routes, settling into soft spots in zone coverage.
"A lot of times, he'll end up with a linebacker or a safety on him," said Schaub. "And that's in our favor."
Even going into his eighth NFL season, coming off his second Pro Bowl, the man known in Houston as OD has "a great burst -- a suddenness in and out of his cuts," said the quarterback. "He knows how to work a defender, to maintain leverage on his route, to get where he can be the most open." Schaub also appreciates Daniels' "exceptional" hands, his ability to hold onto the ball "even with guys hanging on him." Indeed, Daniels hasn't fumbled since 2009; hasn't lost a fumble since '08.
That tensile strength was on display during Kentucky Derby weekend in May, when Schaub bet the tight end that he, Daniels, would not be able to shimmy up the fire pole at a Louisville watering hole called The Silver Dollar. Schaub lost that one.
An Illinois native, Daniels now has a connection to the Bluegrass State. In the spring of 2010, he met Angela Mecca at a charity touch-football game. Raised in Ashland, Ky., she'd recently moved to Houston to take a job as a criminal lawyer with the Harris County District Attorney's office. While he may have been intellectually outgunned in their first conversation, "She gave me a chance," recalled Daniels. "I'll always be grateful for that."
She also gave him her digits, when he asked for them. They were married in June at a dramatic Houston venue called The Corinthian. According to a write-up in the Houston Chronicle, the reception featured several unique elements, including a tequila tasting, a champagne lounge in the ladies room, and a "red velvet, Nutella iced groom's cake designed after Owen's Air Jordan II Retro Concord sneakers."
While married for fewer than three months, they've been together for three years -- long enough for Daniels to come up with a stock response when people note that he married a lawyer: "Yeah, I'm not winning any arguments. I'm learning, slowly, that I shouldn't try."
The truth is that he savors the intellectual give and take, in his personal and professional lives. While an exceptional athlete -- he was also a long- and triple-jumper, and starred in basketball, at Naperville Central (Ill.) -- he uses his football intelligence, as much as his legs, to get open.
On spectrum of tight ends, with rangy, glorified blocking-challenged pseudo wideouts on one side and stone-handed, misplaced tackles on the other, Daniels falls squarely in the middle. A better than serviceable blocker, he is also an outstanding route-runner and receiver, which means he rarely comes off the field.
When the Texans go with a two-tight-end set -- a formation favored by head coach Gary Kubiak -- Daniels becomes the "U" receiver. He's the guy in the slot, going in motion, running around before the snap, trying to create a mismatch. Asked if he likes going in motion -- it looks like fun! -- Daniels laughs, and says, "It's fun to a point. It's a lot of running."
He is 30 and at a sweet spot in his career: rich in wisdom and experience; still young and healthy enough to run all day. In this way he embodies the team for which he plays. The time is now for the Texans, who in recent seasons have moved into one of the NFL's better neighborhoods. Two years running, they've made it to the playoffs, and won a game each time. After winning 11 of their first 12 games last season, they lost three of four, backing into the postseason. A big part of the problem was defensive inconsistency: key players were lost, or hobbled. The loss of linebacker and emotional leader Brian Cushing sent the defense into a kind of time-delayed, entropic spiral.
The offense was often similarly becalmed and ineffective. Schaub took the brunt of the criticism. He threw just a single touchdown pass over those final four regular-season games. The 10th-year quarterback is often described as "unflappable" when engineering comeback wins. But his lack of overt emotion when the offense is flailing is widely interpreted as lack of leadership. (Which is it, folks?)
Daniels isn't buying the line of reasoning that Schaub somehow lacks the wherewithal -- physical, intellectual or emotional -- to get the Texans deep into January. "It's in the nature of that position that he's going to be under the microscope," said Daniels. "But the truth is, we weren't playing well as a team at the end of last year. We had a lot of penalties, turnovers. We weren't playing smart or playing together."
This season feels different, he said. "We're there, man. We're right there."
Cushing is back at "Mike" linebacker, lining up on the same side of the field as 2012 Defensive MVP J.J. Watt. The offense has added a weapon, in the rookie Hopkins, to an already bristling arsenal.
"We've had two good seasons, won a lot of games, won a couple playoff games," said Daniel. "Now it's about taking the next step."
If the Texans can't take that step soon, they're going to start going backward.