By Jim McCurdy
HOUSTON—Crunch time becomes question time. Questions that beg for answers.
Entering the final preseason game Friday, the Houston Texans have decisions to make. Lots of them.
Who will emerge on the defensive line? Does this team know the right defensive four front combination?
Who stands out the most to claim the fifth receiver spot?
Is keeping four tight ends an option? Will one of those tight ends be placed on the practice squad?
What should this team do with its secondary?
Which free safety has proven worthy of a roster spot? Is the offensive line with two injuries to starters re-solidified enough for the Jets when the season kicks off next Sunday?
Is rookie linebacker Brian Cushing going to play in the final preseason game? Would he be better served being saved for Week One?
Is there enough evidence to make the final selections on the linebacking core, the strength of this defense?
Has a rookie free agent running back proven himself enough to earn a spot in the NFL?
When will franchise cornerback Dunta Robinson end his holdout? Is he ready to play Week One if he does report beforehand? Is he a starter right away after electing not to participate with the team during the preseason?
"There's more questions this year than any year I've been here probably," Texans fourth-year coach Gary Kubiak said.
With one game remaining in the practice season—a game which several key players won't play for precautionary measures due to injuries—the final auditions begin for the right to earn a roster spot, a paycheck, and the prestige of playing a sport on a professional level.
Those are the simplicities of these waning days of the preseason. The questions are the complexities.
Dating back to the offseason, the secondary was of primordial concern. The Texans believed they addressed it a bit, drafting two rookie cornerbacks, Brice McCain and Glover Quin, who've been major contributors to this point.
Second-year corner Antwaun Molden's return from the Physically Unable to Perform list midway through the preseason augmented the spot even more. Yet Robinson's discontent in becoming the organization's first player to be tagged with the franchise label and his subsequent holdout have clouded that position a little more.
"The bottom line is if he walks in, we got to see where he's at physically," Kubiak said a day before the team was scheduled to leave for Tampa Bay for the preseason finale. "There's so many questions to get answered and then for me to try to guess, you know, it would be a big guess. I don't want to do that. Let him get here."
Robinson has been working out hard in Florida from what Kubiak understands. His sixth-year cover man is known for his cage-rattling hits that rise the decibel levels inside Reliant Stadium and infuse energy into the team. But as of Wednesday, he was still a no-show.
"I've wanted him back all the way to March," Kubiak said. "He's an important part of this team, and we'd sure love to have him in here."
Cushing has had injuries in the past. He is also a beast, zealous in chasing down the ball and becoming more of a studious player in picking star DeMeco Ryans' brain throughout the preseason.
Kubiak and his staff have wavered, considering all the options of whether playing their first round pick in the final preseason game would be wise or if saving him for the season opener Sept. 13 would be a smarter decision. And if they waited would he be game-ready when it counts?
"I have no doubt that he will be there on opening day," Kubiak said a day after the Monday Night Game loss to the Vikings in which Cushing remained a spectator. "I think he is still a question mark for this game.
"To think that a guy like that could start on opening day and play 70 plays is pretty far-fetched, but I think this kid is capable of going in there and helping us be successful that day. So we've just got to go about it the right way."
In the grand scheme of things, following the right path for the Texans would be a course that leads them beyond the regular season finale Jan. 3 when they host the Patriots. But it is still the first week of September, and to get there several issues need to be addressed and then carried out successfully.
One that Kubiak, a former quarterback who is meticulous about the passing game, continues to preach is the ability to run the ball.
"That's the cornerstone of our offense," he said.
Problem is, the running game hasn't yielded the gleaming results the former signal caller and Texans running backs coach Chick Harris would like at this point. For certain, the team's 3.1 yards per carry average this preseason isn't something that makes the offensive line proud either.
That's a unit, mind you, slowed during the preseason due to injuries to center Chris Myers and guard Chester Pitts, who has never missed a game since being drafted in the second round by the Texans in 2002—the year of the franchise's inception.
The running game has yielded decreasingly less production in each of the first three preseason games.
Steve Slaton, a second-year back who took the league by surprise when he rushed for a franchise-record 1,282 yards to lead all rookies last season, has 64 yards on 22 carries in the preseason. He was nicked up in Monday night's game when he carried 12 times for 27 yards and a touchdown, and isn't expected to play Friday.
"He's improved as a pass protector, so that was important going into training camp," Kubiak said.
"Obviously, we have not run the ball well. I think he takes on a portion of that. Our guys up front and him, they’re all in that together. He's had a good training camp. He's ready to go play this year. Would I have liked for him to come out of this preseason averaging five yards per carry? Yeah I wish he would. But that's not the case. Let's see if we can go correct it and get it better."
Getting better is what the preseason is designed for. Maybe this year, honing his game never meant more for backup quarterback Rex Grossman, a former starter with the Chicago Bears looking for a place to play after last season who jumped at the opportunity with the Texans when Kubiak called in the offseason.
Grossman, who has not played since being used sparingly against the Chiefs when he injured his hamstring, will get a lengthy audition against the Bucs Kubiak tells us.
"It's a very important game for me," Grossman said. "I'm really looking forward to getting out there playing because A, it's fun, you get out there to play football, that's what we do, and B, it's very important for me. I know that. I'm taking it very seriously.
"I worked hard to get to this point. I know I need to play in this game and show what I can do out there. You know, I circled this game as a game I needed to get back for. I feel like I’m ready to go.
"There’s 18 days that I wasn't practicing, ya know? So I missed some stuff, but I tried to get as many mental reps as possible. I feel pretty good. A lot of the same concepts we're going to be running, I ran in Chicago. I faced this defensive coordinator in Green Bay before, so I'm not going in there totally new to the situation. So we'll see what happens. I'm excited about it.
"If I was a rookie, this would be pretty tough. But I've got some talented wide receivers in the second group going with me and a good offensive line. I feel comfortable about the game plan. I'm confident going in there that we can makes some plays and win the game."
If you're a Texans fan, salute those sentiments. While this game is all about last-minute evaluations to determine a roster, a win would be nice answer for this club.