July 27, 2007
In the (New) Beginning…
by Keith Weiland
It has been more than four months since the Texans acquired Matt Schaub to replace David Carr, and while so much time has already passed, there are still some not-so-subtle reminders that this team once belonged to Carr.
Training camp is one such reminder. Carr’s presence at the start of camp each year was the epitome of those happy, misguided times. Both under center and as the center of attention, Carr represented the promising centerpiece of the Texans v1.0 blueprint that instead turned out to be more like the whipped cream filling of a rotten Twinkie.
So while this is really the second season of the new regime headed by Gary Kubiak, it is still the first training camp minus David Carr. It’s hard not think of this season as being something of a benchmark where optimism has yet again been renewed.
On Saturday, Schaub and the Texans took to the practice field for the second day of training camp, and while it might make for a nice story to say that the differences were immediate – and in many ways they were – the reality is that like most offenses this time of year, there are still kinks to be worked out. The rotten Twinkie may have been tossed, but the souffle has yet to rise.
Give it time. Schaub looked fine, no concerns, at least not yet. My man love for the new passer has not wavered. He stood tall and poised under the duress of several pass rushes. He found some open targets, many of them tight ends, and he seemed to mix well with Kubiak and his teammates. All of which got me daydreaming about…
The “P” Word
There are an amazing number of words in the English language, though what I find interesting is that only a select few can be understood by a single letter. To wit, when I mention the F-word, you know I mean ****. See? I don’t even need to type it, just the asterisks, and you have a pretty good ****ing idea what the **** I am saying. Then there’s the C-word, well that’s ****, of course. And everyone knows the S-word (no, not “sword”, Mr. Connery).
Well in pro football, there’s such as thing as the P-word. No, not ***** or **** or even POTUS. I’m talking about playoffs.
Playoffs? Ooh, I feel a little dirty just typing it.
And what I’m about to type next isn’t just to make ol’ Jim Mora spin in his blue Colts sweatshirt, but the Texans might actually, possibly, just maybe have some eensy bit of hope for a surprise playoff run this season, perhaps even a little more than just an eensy bit.
There, I said it. And it felt good. Real good.
Houston hasn’t enjoyed an NFL playoff run since the 1993 season. I know how to do the math, nerds. That was officially a freaking long time ago. I’ll spare you the list of things that have changed in the years since the Oilers ended a streak of seven consecutive playoff seasons (and heartbreaks), but just know that I have a treasure chest full of pop culture history accumulated over that span. And VH1 isn’t returning my phone calls.
So why exactly is the P-word verboten around here? If I say it, will I jinx the team? If someone says it three times, will there be a Beetlejuice sequel? Or is it because the Texans, the woeful expansion team they have proven to be over the last five seasons, simply lack the ability to even think about the postseason? Like they haven’t even earned the right to consider the possibility?
Well, I’m considering it. Playoffs, playoffs, playoffs are a possibility, possibility, possibility.
Yes, this is still a flawed team. Very flawed. A lot of those flaws were quite evident on Saturday morning, and I realize a healthy percentage of them will not be fixed after a month’s worth of two-a-days.
But we live in an age of NFL parity, and honestly, if I still need to remind you of that, then let me be the first to welcome you to the 21st century. We’re glad you could make it. Teams these days can go from kinda crappy to kinda not-so-crappy pretty quickly.
Last year, the Texans won six games, which reads “kinda crappy” on that scale, but there are solid reasons to hope for – nay, expect – a significant improvement. Schaub is certainly one of those reasons. He is joining a team that finished the last eleven games of the 2006 season with a 5-6 record, including a 3-2 finish down the stretch that showcased a win against the Super Bowl champs.
Arguably the deepest position on the roster, and therefore one of the most interesting camp battles to watch, is at running back. That 3-2 finish last season featured a respectable ground game with guys named Ron Dayne and Chris Taylor, both of whom have returned for the 2007 season… as back-ups fighting for a job.
So effective were Dayne and Taylor over those last five games that as starters they ran for six touchdowns and averaged 22 carries for 105 yards during that stretch. If the Texans had that sort of backfield production out of their starter for an entire season, they’d have a Pro Bowler running for almost 1,700 yards and 19 touchdowns.
Maybe that player will be Ahman Green, though now at a thirtysomething age that kind of workload seems a bit out of reach. Green at least ran like a twentysomething on Saturday. But this is July, and teams don’t make the P-word in July.
One of Green’s possible back-ups, Wali Lundy, appears ready to spell the old man. He never stopped moving forward during Saturday’s morning workout, making cuts and jukes with a forward lean and terrific balance. A sixth round rookie last season, Lundy struggled to keep the job, and before Saturday, I struggled to give him serious consideration for keeping a roster spot with teammates like Dayne, Gado, and Taylor. Not anymore. Lundy is ready for the fight.
Perhaps the most exceptional player during the morning workout was cornerback Fred Bennett, the South Carolina rookie taken in the fourth round. At six feet tall, Bennett is a giant amongst shorter corners like Dunta Robinson and Jamar Fletcher. In drills, his size betrays him, but those long arms and legs benefited him when it mattered most, in live coverage. He went stride-for-stride on a deep post with receiver Andre Davis, cleanly batting the ball away with his right hand. Later, Bennett snared an interception off a long Sage Rosenfels pass attempt to Keenan McCardell.
Since camp practices don’t feature tackling, that will have to remain something of concern area for Bennett. And as a rookie corner, Bennett doesn’t yet even figure into the depth chart on passing downs, but with a couple guys ahead of him in Fletcher and Demarcus Faggins that are susceptible to being beaten by the deep pass, it might not be too long before Bennett moves up if he continues with these types of performances.
After draft day, no single day on the NFL calendar represents more unbridled optimism than the onset of training camp (reference my P-word discourse above as Exhibit A). That’s not to say everything is sunshine and lemon drops, especially for one of the newest Texans, wide receiver Bethel Johnson.
Johnson is new, and that newness ought to buy some time to get comfortable. Not so at Camp Kubiak. Johnson twice failed to run the right route resulting in two passes thrown his direction that he never saw coming. Not only was Kubiak displeased, he made a special effort to call out Johnson’s lack of effort running hard through the route, something coaches have reportedly done at Johnson’s previous NFL stops.
There’s always a few things I pick up at the first camp practice each year that I have to share; not necessarily important things, but the sort of eye candy that you don’t fully appreciate until you’re there watching it happen. So here goes…
Rookie Amobi Okoye has NFL arms and a top heavy frame. He made one swift pass rush during 11-on-11 drills, but for the most part, I saw a player who needs to get better leverage… Another rookie, Jon Abbate, is playing a new position, fullback. He’s listed at 5-11, but you’d swear he was shorter. Stocky and hard-nosed, it’s as if he were destined to play the position…
Von Hutchins is another player in a new position this season, making the switch from corner to free safety. A pair of interceptions is a nice way of telling his coach he’s ready to play centerfield… Defensive coordinator Richard Smith dedicated a healthy portion of practice getting his unit working on their turnover skills. Given the lack of big plays last season, this was a welcome change to the routine, but there was no better unintentional comedy than seeing defensive end N.D. Kalu stand in as the quarterback getting the ball knocked out of his hand every repetition…
Players all wore shorts and no pads for the session, save for defensive tackle Travis Johnson, who sported the official team sweatpants. Punishment for too many cheeseburgers during the offseason? Inquiring minds want to know… Receiver Jerome Mathis practiced! Hooray! Better yet, he caught a deep ball using his smarts, not just his speed! Rejoice!! Oh, then he tweaked hs hammy. What a buzzkill… Speaking of hurt players, I missed not seeing Taylor out there. Kubiak said he had “a little knick” in his knee. Now comes word he’s gone for the year …
I’ll be shocked if Matt Turk isn’t the team’s punter this year. Awesome hang time from a fellow who looks like he just finished a season playing center-back for Chelsea… If you find a lost wallet that reads “Bad Mother ****er”, it probably belongs to Mario Williams. Holy crap. If Williams, who reportedly is down to 280 pounds, can play half as badass as he looks, he’ll be going places this season, like Honolulu … Fred Bennett Home