More than 4,000 ventured to Methodist Training Center on Friday morning to romp inside the inflatable playground, make stilted small talk with cheerleaders, bob along to blaring top-40 radio and -- oh, right -- watch the Texans helmets-only practice in near 100-degree heat. Seeking a different kind of cool relief afterward, I ventured across the street to Reliant Stadium to watch workers install the Bermuda grass turf ahead of Monday's night homestand against the Jets. They bring it in from a nearby lot on flatbed trucks in 8-by-8-foot tiles and assemble it along the stadium floor with forklifts and steamrollers like a jigsaw puzzle. The whole process takes about nine hours, or -- as groundskeeper Daniel Ryan noted -- about three times as long as the average Texans game. Here's a short (raw) video of the before, and a snapshot of the after.
1. Arian Foster's body is not yet as willing as his mind. In the offseason the third-year back bid to strengthen his qi -- the mind-body energy flow at the foundation of much of Chinese medicine and philosophy -- in weekly yoga sessions (looking most to perfect his breathing) and through a summer reading list that includes Sun Tzu's The Art of War. While a hamstring injury has kept Foster from showcasing his physical dividends, he left no doubt about his stoutness of mind in conversation. Hint that he might be foolish for not holding out for a deal that more closely matches his league-leading rushing production in '10, and he'll scoff, "Who is your demographic?" and then quote you an income figure for the average American family. Solicit his take on the parallel predicament of the Titans' Chris Johnson (who has taken a more hard-lined negotiation tack), and Foster will tell you, "I think Chris Johnson is a grown man and he needs to do whatever is best for him and his family." Ask why it's more important for him to go into a game relaxed (specifically, with Janelle Monae's The Archandroid bumping on his iPod) as opposed to fired up, and he'll paraphrase, "an old proverb that says if you can control your breathing you can have the strength of 10 tigers." Count me among the eager pre-order customers for Foster's post-retirement book: Zen and the Art of Media Cycle Maintenance.
2. The defense is getting after it. Granted, defense usually has the early leg-up on offense in camp. But this group had an unmistakable hop in its step. It was more than just players flying around the ball; it was the types: You had DBs shooting running gaps, defensive ends jumping passing lane and linebackers marauding inside the hashes. There was even one genuinely scary moment when safety Maurice Rolle collided with fellow rookie Terrence Toliver over the middle, but both walked off unhurt. There's no question switching to a 3-4 scheme and importing intense leaders to the secondary such as corner Johnathan Joseph, safety Danieal Manning and coach Vance Joseph has brought much-needed swagger to this group. "The pass breakups, the interceptions, the hands on balls -- I've never seen as many as this year, and Coach Kubiak has pointed that out as well," said third-year linebacker Brian Cushing. "We felt very liable for a lot of the game's last year. Now, we're starting with a clean slate, a whole new outlook." Yeah, a scary one.
3. Matt Leinart may turn out to be a great player yet. The fifth-year vet had considered reuniting with former USC coach Pete Carroll in Seattle, where he'd have a good chance of becoming a starter again. But in the end he decided to re-sign with Houston as a backup because the offense here fits him so well. That much was obvious in his practices with the second string, which have been starter-level crisp -- a veritable clinic in sound mechanics, sure decision-making and accurate passing. The display is a testament to the work Leinart put in back in his native California and to a system that plays to his strengths as mover in the pocket. At Arizona, Leinart said, "we were more spread out -- four wides, three wides, get the ball out quick. Here, there's more play-action under center. It's a lot more stuff that fits my style." Leinart isn't threatening Matt Schaub's job, but he gives the Texans one heck of an insurance policy.
Mario Williams, outside linebacker. After years of terrorizing passers as a defensive end, the top pick in the 2006 draft moves up a level in Wade Phillips' 3-4 scheme. For Williams, the transition brings technique changes like standing up instead of starting from a three-point stance. (The sight alone of the 6'6," 290-pounder bearing down on the line of scrimmage isn't for the feint of heart or fair of pants.) But otherwise, the overall mission remains the same: sack up. And Phillips' defense has a knack for manufacturing league leaders of that sort like DeMarcus Ware, whom Williams spent time studying during the offseason. Which of Ware's skills would Williams most like for himself? "How he gets off [the line] and how his two-point stance allows him to be fluid off the ball for such a tall guy," Williams said. "I was really looking at stuff like whether he leans in a little more, or how he turns his feet before he takes off. Looking at those fundamentals helped out."
Wade Phillips, defensive coordinator. What does it say about the NFL's biggest intrastate rivalry (because, you know, everything's bigger in Texas) that the Texans would stoop to bringing in a former Cowboy to them help get into the playoffs? That question got a chuckle out of Phillips. "They brought in a former Cowboy," he said. "But they also brought in a former Charger, a former Eagle, a former Falcon and a former Oiler. I've been a few formers." Part of the reason Phillips keeps having to find new employment is the fact that he's won just one playoff game in four attempts as a head coach. What makes him such an attractive job candidate is that he knows how to get there -- and fast. Of Phillips' 11 career playoff appearances, seven have come in his first season with teams. For the Texans, who have yet to crash the postseason party, merely showing up could be enough to guarantee Phillips gold-watch job security.
Early games against pass-happy teams like Indianapolis and at New Orleans don't bode well for a secondary that's still congealing, and North division clashes against Pittsburgh and at Baltimore will take a toll on the offense. But if the Texans hover above .500 through their Week 11 bye, the South will be there for the taking.