Postcard from camp: Texans

Publish date:
matt-schaub.jpg has dispatched writers to report on the 32 NFL training camps across the country. Here's what John P. Lopez had to say about the Texans' camp in Houston. For an archive of all the camp postcards, click here.

Houston not only is the fourth-largest city in America, it's also one of the quirkiest. The perception is that cowboys and oil tycoons roam the streets. And, well, yeah. They do.

But there also is an eclectic mix of people from virtually every tax bracket, ethnicity and lifestyle. Show up for a day at the Texans camp at Reliant Stadium and you'll everyone from the nouveau riche Midtowners and suburbanites from The Woodlands to tattooed oil rig workers of Pasadena.

Seriously, why would the Texans ever want to leave Reliant Park? The facilities are among the best in the NFL and camp is surrounded by flavors of Houston at its finest.

1. Whenever it is that the Texans finally make a playoff run -- and it is widely expected to be this season -- this city will explode with Luv Ya (Steel) Blue bedlam. Even if you take away the five years without football in Houston from 1997-2001, not a single NFL city has had a longer playoff dry spell. The Oilers (now Titans) missed the playoffs in their final three years in Houston from 1994-1996. And the Texans have not had a playoff appearance in the seven seasons of their existence.

Even Detroit has enjoyed a playoff berth in its past 10 years of fielding an NFL football team. That's how hungry football-loving fans in Houston are for a winner.

And you can feel a difference in the air at Texans camp this time. Players are embracing the challenge. Coaches are facing the task head-on, rather than talking in ifs and buts. And naturally, fans and media are buzzing around Reliant Park as they watch a much deeper, more talented team get ready for what could be an historic NFL season.

2. As second-year left tackle Duane Brown goes, so goes oft-injured quarterback Matt Schaub. And thus far in camp, Brown has only given Houston fans more reason for optimism. As much as left tackles are valued in the NFL, perhaps no team values theirs more than the Texans.

Throughout their existence, the Texans have struggled to find a left tackle capable of doing the job -- dating all the way to their first-ever expansion pick, Tony Boselli, who was a complete bust in Houston. They may be onto something with Brown, who protects the vastly under-rated Schaub, who has yet to finish a season healthy. Keeping Schaub upright is crucial.

But in a division with two of the best pass-rushers in the NFL in Kyle Vanden Bosch and Dwight Freeney, Brown performed admirably as a rookie in 2008. He also faced James Harrison, Joey Porter and Jared Allen last season. Welcome to the league, kid.

This year, Brown is lighter and better. Considering this is only Brown's third season, ever, playing left tackle, the Texans may have found a gem.

3. As much as Mario Williams always will be thought of as the hidden gem in the controversial 2006 Texans draft, let's put that aside for a moment. Williams could well be one of the brightest and best NFL stars to come along in a decade. He never gets in trouble on the field or off, could care less about headlines, Twittering or brash talk, is a total professional and despite having more reason to be bitter than any player in town, he loves Houston.

Four years after being booed when he was drafted, Williams now is in line to have a monster season. Coaches are talking about an NFL Defensive Player of the Year-type season for Williams, who has only continued to get better.

And they're surrounding him with more talent on the defensive line, too, which should eliminate a few double-teams and help Williams to an otherworldly level in defensive coordinator Frank Bush's new attacking defensive scheme.

Antonio Smith, defensive end. The biggest and most important acquisition in the Texans' off-season was Smith, who also is the biggest reason Mario Williams should dominate. Smith brings not just Super Bowl pedigree from Arizona, but experience and a pocket-pushing presence on the opposite side of the Texans' defensive line. The most impressive stat Williams posted in 2008 was not the 12-sacks he managed despite getting virtually ZERO help on the defensive line. It was the 25 quarterback pressures.

This year, several of those quarterbacks pressured to run away from Super Mario should run right into the waiting arms of Smith. And when rookie pass-rushing specialist Connor Barwin enters, Smith will slide to the tackle position, making the opposing offensive line have to account for three elite-level pass-rushers.

The Texans suffered a huge setback in camp this week when first-round pick Brian Cushing sprained his left knee, which will force him to miss at least two preseason games. On a defense that desperately needs to improve, especially pressuring opposing quarterbacks, you cannot overstate the importance of getting Cushing back.

That's the bad news. The good news is GM Rick Smith's golden touch in the middle rounds of the NFL draft may well have struck again.

Fourth-round pick Glover Quin and sixth-round pick Brice McCain, both cornerbacks, have stepped in and done terrific work in place of injured starter Jacques Reeves and holdout former Pro Bowler, Dunta Robinson. Quin and McCain will both log legitimate playing time this year.

The best steal, however, could be tight end/fullback James Casey, taken in the fifth-round out of Rice. His nickname is Thor, after the comic book character and because of his chiseled physique. And he's mighty good.

There's reason to believe James "Thor" Casey will make a big play in every game in which he plays. Why not? The fifth-round pick has made a play in virtually every practice so far. It may be on special teams, as a blocking back, in a "wildcat" formation or as a receiver in a two tight end set.

But day after day, Casey does something big -- nothing more memorable than an 11-on-11 drill recently when backup quarterback Dan Orlovsky tossed a throw-away ball over the middle. Casey revved his engine, chased down the ball and made a one-handed grab flying parallel to the ground. The crowd at practice roared. Coach Gary Kubiak shook his head in amazement.

• If you're buying into the buzz that Gary Kubiak is among those coaches on the hot seat in 2009, don't. Texans owner Bob McNair realizes the job Kubiak has done transforming this franchise. Barring a total collapse, even if the Texans fall short of the playoffs, Kubiak will be back.

• Since Kubiak and general manager Rick Smith have arrived, the Texans roster has changed so much in just four years that only five players remain from the team they inherited. They are guard Chester Pitts, kicker Kris Brown, receiver Andre Johnson, defensive tackle Travis Johnson and cornerback Dunta Robinson.

• You can just call defensive linemen Tim Bulman and Shaun Cody the Cockroach Twins. You just can't kill them, no matter how hard you try. Despite all the additions the Texans have brought in, Bulman and Cody continue to play good football.

• With Bulman and Cody playing well and the additions of Antonio Smith and Connor Barwin on the defensive line, the odd man out may well be former No. 1 pick Travis Johnson. He's always been either injured or under-achieving. He has yet to suit up this year. He's THAT close to being a bust.

• If the NFL had a passing accuracy contest, I'm not so sure I wouldn't take Matt Schaub. He seemingly can put the ball anywhere he wants -- given time.

• How can I go the entire postcard without talking about Andre Johnson being maybe the best receiver in the game? Typical. Everyone forgets about this quiet guy. But pencil in 100-plus receptions and 10-plus touchdowns.