Postcard from camp: Texans
At Reliant Stadium, where the Texans have conducted training camp in each of their 11 seasons of franchise existence. I had not visited a Houston camp since reporting day of year one (2002) under then-head coach Dom Capers, but not much has changed in 10 years. Houston has a practice bubble and a complex of fields across the street from Reliant, and a crosswalk bridge connects the whole operation, making it all very convenient. The Texans were outside in the muggy Houston heat for an early morning practice on Monday, but then repaired to their climate-controlled bubble (praise be!) for their afternoon walkthrough session. In Houston in August, it's both the heat and the humidity. There's no escaping either one for long.
Schaub has made it clear he wants to remain a Texan and finish his career here, and the club is eager for the marriage to continue as well. Were it not for his ill-timed injury last season, Schaub might already have a long-term deal done. But the Texans did find out what they have in third-team rookie quarterback T.J. Yates after Schaub and backup Matt Leinart both went down in November, and Yates looks promising. A healthy and productive Schaub will be re-signed and have his long-term future assured. But if he can't stay on the field this year, all bets are off. So far in camp, after a rusty first week of work, Schaub looks sharp again and his foot is completely healed. But stay tuned.
I stood next to Texans general manager Rick Smith on the sideline Monday morning for a bit, and it didn't take long for his mood to brighten when Johnson flashed some of his trademark form and hauled in a bomb from Schaub. "Man, it's good to see No. 80 out there again,'' Smith said, to no one in particular. "We need that.'' Johnson probably won't be allowed to play in Houston's preseason opener at Carolina Saturday night, and after he missed the Texans' OTA and minicamp sessions following arthroscopic knee surgery, you can understand the air of caution that prevails regarding his health. Once a receiver's legs start to go, his game usually goes with it.
"He's looked good,'' Phillips told me. "We don't have a lot of pressure on him, but there is some pressure on him because we want him to play this year, like [top picks] Brooks Reed and J.J. [(Watt] did last year. We expect him to come in and play at a high level. He was thinking too much early on, but he's kind of caught on now. He's got everything, plus he's smart, has a lot of pride, wants to win, and wants to do really well. He's going to be a good player.''
In reality, you don't spend a fifth-rounder on a kicker unless you're in it for the long haul with him, so Bullock should beat out journeyman Shayne Graham for the job. Bullock had a strong showing in OTAs, but he has scuffled some and missed a few kicks in camp early on and is now dealing with a slight groin pull. Obviously his performance in the preseason games could determine his fate. But even with Super Bowl hopes, Houston seems willing to live with the rookie this year, believing it will benefit from that patience over the course of what the club hopes is at least a four- or five-year window of playoff contention. To some degree, it seems up to veteran Texans special teams coach Joe Marciano to make this gamble pay off in 2012.
James was signed to a bargain basement one-year deal at $890,000, but he's being counted on as a major contributor this season, and plenty of Texans sources believe he'll even be an upgrade over Ryans, who wasn't an ideal fit in the 3-4 and was slowed by last year's recovery from his 2010 Achilles' tear.
The NFL always loves a new winner, and Houston will finally get its turn in the national spotlight after its long quest to claim the AFC South title culminated with last year's breakthrough season. The Texans have five national games this season, including two on Sunday night, two on Monday night and a Thanksgiving Day date in Detroit. But it's a challenging big-stage slate, because Houston is home for only one of those games -- Week 6 on Sunday night against Green Bay. Tough road games await in Week 3 in Denver, Week 5 at the Jets, Week 10 in Chicago, Week 12 in Detroit and Week 14 in New England.
The biggest home game is easy to spot. The Texans get their revenge match with visiting Baltimore in Week 7, after the Ravens narrowly knocked them out of the AFC playoffs in the divisional round last season. The Week 9 return of ex-Texan Mario Williams (and the Buffalo Bills) to Houston should be fun as well.