After months—no, scratch that, an eternity—of waiting, football is back. The Houston Texans open up the season September 9th on Monday Night Football; they are matched up against the San Diego Chargers.
Last season, the Texans appeared to be by far one of the best teams in the league for a very long time. An incredible stretch of football led them to an 11-1 record, and it seemed like nothing would prevent the Texans from reaching the Super Bowl.
Then everything went wrong.
The New England Patriots embarrassed the Texans on national television in Week 12, beginning the Texans' miserable late-season collapse. The Texans dropped two of the remaining four games, and the Super Bowl that once was so very tangible became a fleeting mirage.
This season, the Texans will be presented with a second chance. They improved during the offseason; they are now even more equipped to make a Super Bowl run.
Many burning questions face this group of championship-hungry teammates as they prepare for the most important season in franchise history.
Read on and find out just what those questions are.
By far the most polarizing player on the Texans' roster, Matt Schaub's every move is scrutinized.
All of this is for good reason. The quarterback, in most scenarios, is the most important player on the team, and his play is almost always directly correlated with the success of the team.
Throughout his career with the Texans, Schaub has proven to be both a hero and a demon. In 2009, when Schaub led the league in passing yards, he was hailed as the Texans' savior—the elite quarterback who would lead the Texans to their first Super Bowl.
But last season, during the Texans' collapse, Schaub was despised by many. His poor play—which was very much the offensive line's fault—caused the Texans to stumble into the playoffs.
This season will prove to be a make it or break it one for the Texans' controversial quarterback. He will either rise to the occasion and lead the Texans to greatness, or his inconsistent play will become the ire of all Texans fans.
Of course it's always a team effort—especially on a run-heavy team like the Texans—but Schaub will be held responsible for the Texans' 2013 season, whether it's one that ends in success or failure.
After carrying the ball 351 times last season, Foster's body—many claim—is prone to a major breakdown. These radical claims were given even more fuel after Foster sustained two injuries that sidelined him for nearly all of training camp and the entire preseason.
Foster is central to the Texans' offensive identity and any serious injuries to him would be absolutely devastating, so it is understandable that so many are worried about his health.
However, is Foster really doomed to split carries or spend the majority of his season nursing injuries, as so many are frantically claiming? Absolutely not.
Foster's injuries are being overhyped. Injuries occur all of the time in the NFL. Foster is fortunate that his were not serious and that he will be healthy for the regular season.
It is certainly possible that Foster might get injured during the season, but the same applies to every other player in the NFL.
In Wade Phillips' defensive scheme, it is imperative that pass-rushing pressure comes from the outside. This causes the pocket to collapse on the quarterback, leaving the trapped signal-caller with no means of escape.
In 2011, whether it was Mario Williams, Connor Barwin or Brooks Reed, outside pressure was generated on a consistent basis. The Texans defense became one of the best in the league; they absolutely terrorized opposing quarterbacks.
However, there was nearly no outside pressure to be seen last season. In fact, nearly all of the quarterback pressure came from the inside, most notably from J.J. Watt.
While inside pressure is an asset, it doesn't doom opposing quarterbacks. When quarterbacks feel pressure from the inside, they can easily escape the pocket and make plays on their feet. In the age of Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers and Cam Newton, quarterbacks on the run are extremely dangerous.
The Texans' outside linebackers must step up this season. If not, the Texans defense could struggle with a season filled with mobile quarterbacks.
Last season, much of the blame for the Texans' late-season collapse was heaped upon Matt Schaub, and some of that was certainly fair.
But the main cause for the miserable end to the Texans' season was the terrible play of the Texans' offensive linemen. They were unable to open up holes for Arian Foster, slowing the running game down to a harsh halt. Additionally, they were unable to prevent pass-rushers from easily reaching Matt Schaub.
The offensive line is key to the success of the Texans' zone-blocking scheme. When it fails, the results are ugly.
The Texans cannot afford for their line, especially the right side of it, to struggle this season. Brandon Brooks and Derek Newton, both of whom are very inexperienced, have high expectations to cease the line's many struggles.
If they don't, the offense's production could once again become very disappointing.
Common knowledge says to never place high expectations on rookie wide receivers. Young receivers often need an adjustment period to catch up to the speed of the NFL, and this period could take anywhere from one to three seasons.
But don't tell Texans fans about this general rule for rookie wideouts.
Ever since the Texans selected DeAndre Hopkins with their first-round draft pick, the hype machine has been in full effect. Fans are expecting Hopkins to become the savior of the Texans offense. They believe he will play so well that defenses will be forced to abandon their double teams of Andre Johnson, making the Texans offense nearly unstoppable.
These expectations are certainly lofty for such a young and inexperienced receiver.
The question is—can Hopkins achieve the impossible? And while it seems unlikely, it is certainly possible.
Unlike most rookie receivers, Hopkins possesses an NFL-ready skill set. His route-running ability is fantastic, and he can catch nearly everything thrown his way.
Hopkins will be one of the most exciting players to watch on the Texans' roster this season. He has the potential to revolutionize the offense.
Bullock was drafted in the fifth round of last year's NFL draft, and he was immediately expected to become the Texans' franchise kicker. But the coaching staff had other plans, and they decided to stash Bullock on the IR for all of last season.
This year, however, Bullock will be the starter. His talent in undeniable. He has an extremely powerful leg, and his accuracy is very impressive.
Bullock, though, is still very young and very unproven. No one knows if he will be able to produce consistently during the season.
It will certainly be one of the most interesting storylines to follow throughout the year.
In 2011, Johnathan Joseph was one of the most dominant cornerbacks in the league; he locked up opposing receivers with ease.
Last season, however, Joseph struggled heavily. He played with injuries throughout the entire season—including two sports hernias—and he never quite appeared to look like himself.
In fact, he was often outplayed by his counterpart Kareem Jackson, who was the bane of the Texans defense for the first two seasons of his career.
This season, Joseph will be given a chance to start anew. Fully healthy now, there should be no reason why he shouldn't be able to return to his 2011 form—or at least get close to it.
Ed Reed is one of the best safeties of all time. A hard-hitter and a dangerous ball hawk, Reed was universally feared by all offensive players for the majority of his career.
Reed, though, is aging and is nowhere near his once-elite form.
He is still a dominant ball hawk, and he can read quarterbacks' eyes perfectly. His anticipation is incredible, and he can always make a play on the ball once it's in the air.
Reed's tackling ability has taken a major hit in recent seasons. As his athleticism has declined, so too has his physicality when it comes to tackling.
Last season, he botched a number of tackles, allowing the ball-carriers to break the second-most number of tackles against him.
The upcoming season will present a difficult question for the Texans defense. Will Reed's ball-hawking ability outweigh the negatives of his waning athleticism?
Or will Reed's inability to consistently finish his tackles present a major problem for the defense?
Only time will tell.
Brian Cushing is a stud. He's a ferocious hitter, effective in coverage and very adept at rushing the quarterback. He can diagnose plays with ease, and he consistently plugs up running holes.
Behind Cushing, however, the Texans' depth at inside linebacker is almost frightening.
Joe Mays, Darryl Sharpton and Tim Dobbins round out the rest of the Texans' inside linebacker core. All three are effective downhill hitters, skilled at stopping the running game.
In coverage, though, Mays, Sharpton and Dobbins are extremely unreliable. They are unable to keep up with running backs, and they struggle to blanket tight ends who are capable route-runners.
This can often lead to disaster for the Texans defense; it did often last season.
The Texans need those three inside linebackers to step up and play at a much higher level next season. The return of a healthy Cushing to the playing field will help mask some of their deficiencies, but their tendency to give up big plays in passing situations could irreparably hurt the defense.
Earl Mitchell, a longtime backup to Shaun Cody, will finally be given his opportunity to start this season, as the Texans never bothered to re-sign Cody.
For the majority of his career with the Texans, Mitchell never really impressed. He was an average backup who never did anything exceptionally right or wrong.
But once Mitchell learned he was likely going to be named the Texans' starting nose tackle, he dedicated himself to an offseason of rigorous training.
The results are obvious. Mitchell has been dominant at points during the preseason, absolutely destroying his competition.
The most exciting part of Mitchell's breakout came when the Texans played the Minnesota Vikings to open up the preseason.
The Vikings boast one of the best centers in the league—John Sullivan. Mitchell, though, made mincemeat of the first-Team All-Pro center. Playing only 10 snaps, Mitchell somehow managed to record one sack and three tackles-for-loss.
If Mitchell can maintain this unbelievable level of play during the regular season, the Texans' defensive line will produce an incredible amount of pressure on the quarterback. Between J.J. Watt, Antonio Smith and Mitchell, the defensive line could become absolutely unstoppable.
This would open up huge pass-rushing gaps for Brooks Reed and Whitney Mercilus to easily run through.
The emergence of Mitchell could create the best Texans defense in franchise history.