Early Observations from Houston Texans' Training Camp
Experienced observers of NFL training camps know it is still too early to draw a clear picture of what is happening with any given team.
Some goings-on are distinct enough that they can be offered as statements, and then there are others that make more sense when presented as questions.
In any case, NFL football for the 2013 season has officially commenced. Free agency, the draft and OTAs are all just a prelude to when these world-class athletes start hitting each other in earnest at training camp.
Inquiring minds want to know everything they can about this year's respective Super Bowl contenders, and the following will touch upon some of the most intriguing issues surrounding one of those contenders in 2013, the Houston Texans.
The Darryl Sharpton Ripple Effect
Yes, the left inside linebacker who was slated to be the starter in 2013 is back on the shelf. He was placed on the Active/Non-Football Injury (NFI) list at the start of training camp.
This pushed Tim Dobbins up to the first team, making his missed OTAs transgression a thing of the past. Also, it now looks as if guys like Cameron Collins and Mike Mohamed might have their dreams of gaining a spot an NFL roster come true.
At this time of the year, the scrap heap of discarded veterans starts to grow. In fact, a familiar name already showed up on the waiver wire since the start of camp, and the Texans felt they had to take a look.
Former Denver Bronco Joe Mays, whose hit on Matt Schaub last season tore up the quarterback’s ear, was invited in for a tryout. Mays could prove to be as brittle as Sharpton, though, after having missed the last nine games of 2012 with a fractured leg. Mays’ injury history may have led to his release in Denver, in addition to the $4 million he was due in base salary for 2013, according to Sportrac (subscription required for Premium Stats).
Lingering health concerns did not prevent GM Rick Smith from signing the inside linebacker to a one-year deal, though. Whether his signing stops the succession of physical damage to the occupants of this position remains to be seen.
Schaub Takes the Blame, But Just a Little
As with most NFL quarterbacks, the field general of the Houston Texans is the chief whipping boy for the failures of his team. Therefore, he tends to keep a low profile in the offseason.
On the eve of training camp, Matt Schaub tried to come clean on what went down in 2013, per Dale Robertson of the Houston Chronicle:
Along toward the end of the year, we faced some tough teams and some challenges, and we didn’t handle it that well. We didn’t accomplish our goals — me in particular.
If anyone needs to be reminded, the three touchdowns Schaub threw over the last six games is proof positive of the “me in particular” part of his remarks. Responding to those who were certain some injury was the cause of his decline, he said:
It’s a long season. It’s a marathon, and you’re going to deal with some things. But I was fine.
This claim is less than reassuring and leaves the public wanting some explanation of what led to the dissolution of such a promising season.
But Schaub was resolute in his unwillingness to expose any definitive failing on his part. He handled the questioning with the skill of a politician, answering the inquiries without revealing anything meaningful.
Whatever direction his football career may take him from this point forward, he has a future in the diplomatic corps when he decides to retire.
Does the PUP List Contain Some Real Dogs?
There is the official PUP (Physically Unable to Perform) list that is updated by the management of the Houston Texans. It has but three members as of publication: Arian Foster, DeVier Posey and Ed Reed.
Then there is that unofficial list of players who are quickly gaining reputations as injury-prone, unprepared underachievers, or ones who are too protective of their image.
Third-round draft choice right tackle Brennan Williams started off training camp on the official list. He has come off of it since that time, but he has been unable to log much practice time due to a balky knee. According to Deepi Sidhu of the team's official website, the knee had to be drained after practice on July 30.
The other third-round pick, Sam Montgomery, went on the NFI roll before the start of camp. He limped off the field on the first day of practice, and ended up with his foot in a boot two days later on July 28.
The presence of Ed Reed on the official list made him off-limits to the press, at least in his mind, according to John McClain of the Houston Chronicle. This reluctance to interact with the media could heighten the suspicion regarding his hip injury and exactly when he became aware of it.
Posey gets a pass because he is rehabbing a torn Achilles, and Foster and his strained calf will be treated with the delicacy a player of his talent and work ethic deserves.
Those on the unofficial list may be considered guilty until proven innocent in defiance of American legal precedent. No one said that life in the NFL was fair.
Will the New Safeties Make Things Better or Not?
The Sphinx of the Houston Texans, better known as Ed Reed, finally deemed that Wednesday was the right time to talk with the pundits that cover the team. He decided not to adopt the style of "The Matt Schaub School of Public Speaking" and was remarkably candid about the condition of his repaired hip, per Tania Ganguli of the Houston Chronicle:
I’ve got to get this scar tissue down and get this tightness and soreness, that I feel consistently, out of there. Once I get that out, I can kind of push it more.
When can he be expected to play some football? On that subject, he was noncommittal, per Kristie Rieken of the Associated Press:
I can tell you that it is close, but I can't say that it is the first game because I don't know.
John Harris of The Sideline View was more decisive in his assessment of Reed’s readiness for Week 1:
I've watched S Ed Reed work out on a side field, rehabbing from his hip injury and I'm not buying the fact that he'll be ready in week one…He winced when doing defensive back pedal and turn drills and didn't look comfortable doing anything other than running straight ahead.
On the plus side, the reviews on rookie safety D.J. Swearinger (above) are quite bullish. Former Texan Seth Payne thinks he looks good playing in the box:
DJ Swearinger looking comfortable playing dime linebacker. Works through traffic very well versus run.
— Seth Payne (@PayneNFL) July 28, 2013
In an interview with Nate Griffin and Patrick Creighton on Sports Radio 610 on Houston, John McClain of the Houston Chronicle feels that Swearinger is the real deal:
He’s got the confidence and the personality. He’s a fast learner of the playbook, and Johnathan Joseph saw him in the film room two hours early. He stood out all through OTAs, got the first turnover in the first practice and he’s always around the ball…He’s been by far the best rookie on this team.
Since Swearinger will be playing the up safety, Danieal Manning and Shiloh Keo will be playing deep until Reed makes his Texans’ debut. It would be most appropriate for that debut to be in Week 3, when the opponent will be the Baltimore Ravens.
Right Tackle Is Still a Mess
The man Gary Kubiak wants to start at right tackle is no longer MIA as of July 29, and he is finally getting some snaps in, per team's official website:
Well, [Derek] Newton is almost a full-time participant right now (and) did some really good stuff today.
Patrick Starr from the State of the Texans website saw Newton in action that same day and was encouraged by his performance:
Derek Newton is moving well and moved the pile in 9 on 7 run drill. Him and Brooks can move the line of scrimmage. #Texans
— PDS (@PatDStat) July 29, 2013
This progress is quite the turnaround from how Kubiak judged the situation on the first day of camp, per the team's media transcript:
If we started today, Ryan (Harris) would start at right tackle because Newton is not totally back and Williams is not totally back.
Harris started out as the leader at the position, but not just because he was the lone man standing. He was the better player last season and may still be, even if Newton makes a full recovery from his patellar tendon surgery.
The Texans have yet to update the depth charts on their website, but ESPN.com currently has Harris slotted as the third-string right tackle. The gimpy draftee Brennan Williams was ranked by ESPN as the second-string right tackle, another example of how the Disney Sports Channel is often unaware of the actual events on the ground.
It does reflect how unsettled the entire position battle really is, though. John Harris of The Sideline View summed things up quite succinctly when he said that the "tackle position is sort of a disaster right now for the Texans."
The abysmal pass blocking on the right side is one of the reasons Matt Schaub was ready to curl up in the fetal position by the end of 2012, and the decision to start Newton ahead of Harris this season just to prove a point could create the same outcome.
Can Ben Tate Play His Way out of the Doghouse?
Those who think that Ben Tate was going to directly benefit from the calf injury that Arian Foster suffered in OTAs are mistaken.
Foster was already going to be handled during training camp and the preseason with the same type of care that is provided to a Fabergé egg—not because of any fragility, but because of his value. He is the centerpiece of the zone-stretch running system that drives the Houston offense.
Tate was destined to get plenty of work in practice and exhibition games, and 2013 could be the Texans’ last chance to get some value in return for the reserve running back.
What happens if Tate has the kind of season this season that he had in 2011, when he rushed for 942 yards? He will be an unrestricted free agent in 2014, and Houston would not be able to afford the money needed to retain his services. Contract extensions for Brian Cushing and J.J. Watt are just around the corner, too, and they are a higher priority.
The zone stretch is the same system that turned Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson and Reuben Droughns into 1,000-yard backs for the Denver Broncos. And don’t forget the remarkable season that Steve Slaton had for the Texans in 2008, when he gained over 1,600 yards from scrimmage.
It would be foolish to think that a Super Bowl contender such as the Texans would be planning to trade a first-rate backup like Tate. But if the right deal came along before the opening of the regular season—one that would include a serviceable running back in addition to a decent draft pick—why not take it?
The team's other backup running back, Justin Forsett, looked pretty good running behind the Texans line in 2012, averaging nearly five yards per carry. (This average includes a subtraction of that 81-yard gift from the officials in the Detroit Lions game on Thanksgiving.)
In conclusion, Tate may not only get out of the doghouse, but there is an outside chance that he could get run out of town.
Is Too Much Being Made of Brian Cushing’s Return?
There is a medical condition known as Cushing's syndrome, caused by abnormal levels of the hormone cortisol. For followers of the Houston Texans, their version of Cushing’s syndrome is marked by abnormal levels of enthusiasm caused by the return of their favorite inside linebacker.
Those who exhibit the latter are convinced that his absence from the lineup is the primary reason for the collapse of the Texans’ defense last season. His loss did significantly impact the defense, just not to the extent that everyone believes.
Obviously, Cushing is an outstanding player at his position. Khaled Elsayed of Pro Football Focus rated his work in 2011 as one of the top 20 seasons for an inside linebacker in the five years that the site has been ranking players using their proprietary formulas.
When he is on his game, Cushing has as good of a combination of overall skills as any inside linebacker in the league. His ability to rush the passer is a cut above that of NaVorro Bowman and Derrick Johnson, and it is in the ballpark of All-World linebacker Patrick Willis.
But he is one player among 11, and the breakdown of the Texans defense last season resulted from a combination of factors. The biggest overall problem for the unit was pass defense, an area where an inside linebacker is not a big contributor. So it was the lack of a varied pass rush, poor safety play and a pair of injuries to Johnathan Joseph that actually spelled doom for the Bulls on Parade.
The majority of their sacks (27.5 out of 44) came from just two players: J.J. Watt and Antonio Smith. The Texans were already ranked 19th in opponents yards per pass completion after Week 5 last year, the game where Cushing went down. By season’s end, they ranked 25th, having been shredded by great quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady along with mediocre ones such as Chad Henne and Matthew Stafford.
The loss of Cushing was reflected in the run defense, particularly late in the season. Houston gave up over 100 yards rushing in four of the last six games, all of them defeats. By that point, the team was relying on Barrett Ruud and Bradie James, who were both past their prime, to fill the gap left by their defensive captain.
The return of a Pro Bowl quality talent like Cushing would bolster any team. For the Houston Texans, his leadership is just as critical as his spine-rattling tackles. A full 16-game season like the one he had in 2011 will be essential for this team to finally break through to the AFC Championship Game.