If there is one thing Houston Texans fans understand, it is disappointment. They are well aware that despite preseason rumblings and positive vibes, the Texans, more often than not, will disappoint and fail to reach their potential.
The past three years have all been "the year" for the Texans. And all three years have ended with heads down and mouths open.
But this year really feels different. Maybe I'm being optimistic, or maybe I'm just blind, but I really see a difference in this team.
For the first time the culture is changing down at Reliant. Complacent, entitled attitudes are evolving into hard-working aggressive ones born from the womb of heart break. The guys who have been around a while seem to realize, finally, that names on paper don't win games. Having all the Pro Bowlers in the world doesn't mean a thing if you don't put the work in.
Andre Johnson has always had this attitude. He has been arguably the hardest working player in the NFL since his arrival in 2003, and he continues to pride himself on just that. Guys like Mario Williams and Jacoby Jones are different. It's not clear if they go all-in every play. At times it seems as if they don't want to play, don't want to try.
This year is the year to prove themselves. Prove the critics wrong. Not just personally, but as a team, as a city, as a culture. The team is ready for battle. They are ready to play in-your-face, gridiron football.
Their time is now.
Let's take a look at eight bold predictions for this season.
Andre Johnson is a man among men. He has consistently been the most dominating and troublesome wide receiver in the NFL for the past five seasons. He has it all: the size, the speed, the hands, the hard-working attitude and a sense that nothing is ever enough.
'Dre dictates this offense. Not Arian Foster, not Matt Schaub. Heck, not even Gary Kubiak. This offense runs through Johnson. He attracts double teams almost every play. Few guys dare to man up on him and even fewer guys can.
Last season could have been historic if not for a (much more serious than reported) sprained ankle. Johnson missed three games and played unhealthy through the remainder. If not for this burden, 'Dre would likely have become the first player in NFL history to have 1,500 receiving yards in three consecutive seasons.
Despite the bum ankle, Johnson had 86 receptions for 1,216 yards and eight touchdowns in 13 games. I would be speculating, but I really believe he was at about 70 percent health after the injury.
This season Johnson is healthy and he looked ready against the New Orleans Saints on Saturday. He had four catches for 100 yards.
I predict Johnson will reach more than one pinnacle this season, and have one of the best years for the position in NFL history.
He will have his first 10+ touchdown season, gather 1,600 yards for the first time in his career and only the fourth time in NFL history, and catch 100+ balls for the fourth time.
Johnson's projected 2011 stats: 116 catches, 1,675 yards, 12 TD
Matt Schaub led NFL quarterbacks with 9,140 yards over the past two seasons. He had his best season in 2009 -- 4,770 yards and 29 TD -- despite not having Owen Daniels, a top target, for half the season.
Daniels returned last season but missed five games due to more injury woes. Of those 9,140 yards, Daniels is responsible for just 960 of them. Having Daniels back healthy is huge for Schaub and the Texans.
Schaub will also have Jacoby Jones, Kevin Walter, Joel Dreesen, Arian Foster, Dorin Dickerson, Derrick Ward, James Casey, Garrett Graham, Steve Slaton and Ben Tate to throw the ball to. The Texans may not have a flashy No. 2 wide receiver, but they certainly don't lack hands to catch the ball.
The Texans are also rich in undrafted rookie free-agent talent. Lestar Jean, an undrafted rookie out of Florida Atlantic and Terrence Toliver, undrafted out of LSU could be great additions to the Texans receiving corps.
Schaub, if healthy, could be on his way to an MVP-caliber season. I predict the following:
390 completions, 4,800 yards, 31 TD and 12 INT for a QB rating of around 100.
And if you play fantasy football, this is your man.
Arian Foster has quickly become one of the most coveted players in the league. Undrafted out of Tennessee, Foster worked his way onto the Texans roster and won the starting job last season. Plenty of experts saw his talent, but few expected him to have the season he had.
Foster ran for 1,616 yards and 16 TD while catching 66 balls for 604 yards and two TD. A really remarkable season for anybody, not to mention an undrafted 23 year old.
He led the NFL in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns and yards from scrimmage.
Numbers are great and they are often telling. Some people use these numbers or stats to analyze players. I love the stats too, especially Foster's. But they don't tell the full story.
There are no numbers to explain the elegance Foster runs with. There are no numbers to explain his vision and ability to subtly avoid tacklers. Or his ability to instantly transform himself into a fantastic receiver. He runs with charisma and beauty (excuse my gushy-ness). He gives me goosebumps, and I don't think I'm alone. This young man is no one-year-wonder. He is no fluke.
Arian Foster is the best running back in the NFL. Adrian Peterson is the most tenacious, and the most consistent over the past few seasons. But ignore the stats. Ignore the name. Just watch them both run. Foster is the best.
I predict Arian Foster will be the first running back MVP since LaDainian Tomlinson in 2006. I think he will blow people away with his skills, and if you can't watch him every week, the numbers will give some insight as well.
Predicted stats: 300 carries, 1,550 yards and 17 TD rushing. 78 receptions for 720 yards and six TD receiving.
Derrick Ward was a great second-string running back for the Texans last season. He carried the ball 50 times for 315 yards (6.3 yards per carry) and four touchdowns. He will likely provide similar numbers for Gary Kubiak's offense this season.
Then there is Ben Tate. Tate, the second-round pick out of Auburn, missed all of last season to a leg injury sustained in the preseason. He is a beast at 5'11, 219 lbs and 4.4 speed.
Obviously if Ward has around 300-350 yards, Tate will have to give the Texans around 500 for my prediction to ring true. I think he will.
Tate is an impressive athlete and has a chip on his shoulder. He is setting out to prove he can bounce back from injury and prove why he was drafted in the second round. He's off to a good start, rushing for 95 yards and a touchdown on just nine carries against the Saints this past Saturday.
I think Tate will take over as the second-string running back early in the season and get significant carries in comparison to Ward.
The Texans have a true three-headed monster brewing. One that will actually be a monster, unlike the Cowboys 2010 combination of Marion Barber, Felix Jones and Tashard Choice.
And don't forget about the potential for the Texans to have four running backs on this roster. Steve Slaton and Chris Ogbonnaya, the second-year rookie out of Texas, have had impressive camps.
The Texans have a huge surplus at the position. That's remarkable when you consider where they were at running back just two years ago.
Ward's projected 2011 stats: 50 carries for 320 yards and three TD rushing. Minimal stats receiving.
Tate's projected 2011 stats: 80 carries for 520 yards and seven TD rushing. 15 catches for 120 yards and two TD receiving.
With my Foster prediction, that puts the total carries by the top three RBs at 430. That's a lot, but it's still possible.
It's hard to imagine a historically poor defense bouncing back so quickly, but they have all the pieces to do it.
Last season was somewhat tainted by injuries, poor scheme and youngsters put into difficult roles. This season will be different, as DeMeco Ryans will be back leading the squad and their new 3-4 scheme.
Wade Phillips is the most highly regarded coach the Texans have ever had. He has an exceptional defensive mind, perhaps one of the greatest in the game's history. With his new scheme the Texans will pressure the quarterback, decreasing the burden for the secondary.
Everything starts up front on both sides of the ball. The offensive and defensive lines are key. With the 3-4 scheme, the linebackers become key as well. The Texans have a huge amount of depth on the front seven. They are thick at linebacker and defensive end. Perhaps they could use more help at defensive tackle, but certain adjustments will fix a less than worrying problem.
Phillips will use guys like JJ Watt, Antonio Smith and Earl Mitchell at different spots on the line. They will become hybrids who rush the quarterback as well as plug the hole and stop the run.
I believe the front seven will be so good that the secondary, which is still below average even with the great additions of Danieal Manning and Jonathan Joseph, feels less pressure. They will force turnovers and the offense will execute. That is what championship teams do.
I predict the Texans defense will finish top 10 in yards allowed, sacks, forced fumbles and points allowed. A historic turnaround to bolster Wade Phillips resume even further.
Mario Williams hasn't played with the consistency you would expect from a first overall draft pick. He has had some good seasons, but there have been question marks about his work ethic and attitude.
Some in the media have suggested Williams doesn't have his heart in the game. They say he doesn't care about winning or playing well, but rather maintaining the lifestyle of a affluent NFL star.
Well I disagree.
Mario Williams cares more than we know. He is a passionate player who wants to win and wants to be the best. He has played through a plethora of injuries the past few seasons. He doesn't intentionally take plays off. He is just ailing a lot of the time. Last season he dealt with a sports hernia, an injury that sidelines a lot of players.
I think Williams will thrive this season for two reasons. One, he is in a new position that allows him to constantly rush the quarterback. He will utilize his ridiculous size and pace to pressure the outside every play. He will strike fear in the opposition. Something he perhaps has yet to do. The second reason is his desire to prove the critics wrong.
Williams is well aware of the rumblings among the Houston media. He knows people doubt him, and that is an incentive to thrive.
After 14 and 12 sack seasons in 2007 and 2008 respectively, Williams has slumped the last two years. He had nine sacks in 2009 and 8.5 last season. Like I said above, he was dealing with injury.
I predict the following for Mario this year: 55 tackles (up from 28 last season), 16 sacks, and three forced fumbles. He will be a candidate for the NFL defensive player of the year award.
He will make the critics look foolish.
At 6'3", 263 lbs, Reed is absolutely massive. He is a beast and with his long hair, he looks an awful lot like Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Mathews.
Reed plays like Mathews as well. He is big, but speed is a huge part of his game. Reed can get around blockers and quickly reach the quarterback. He has been impressive so far this preseason, collecting four tackles, two sacks and two forced fumbles in limited time.
Connor Barwin, the current starter at strong side linebacker, is a fantastic player. But he is making the transition to linebacker from his usual role of 4-3 defensive end. He will have a great season and get plenty of playing time, I just believe Reed will become the starter.
Reed's stats will look something like the following:
13 games started, 75 tackles, six sacks and three forced fumbles, numbers that could have him considered as a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate.
If you want to be the best you have to beat the best. Luckily for the Texans, they have the best right in front of them.
Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts have dominated the division in recent years. They seem to run through the regular season with ease. This year will be different. The Colts will have a good season, but not the kind we are used to. Peyton Manning has a bum neck and it is unclear whether he will be ready for the season opener in Houston. The Colts could have an issue there. They are nothing without Manning.
The Titans and Jags have regressed.
The Titans have a new head coach and two new quarterbacks. They lost key players like Jason Babin on defense, and Chris Johnson is creating drama with his hold-out.
The Jags have a quarterback controversy. Will it be David Garrard or rookie Blaine Gabbert? They also lost a key offensive player in Mike Sims-Walker. Their defense is improving, but it isn't quite there. They will be mediocre at best.
The opportunity is there for the Texans. They couldn't have improved at a better time. The season is shaping up to be a great one.
I predict the standings to finish as follows:
Houston Texans: 10-6, 4-2 in division
Indianapolis Colts: 10-6, 3-3 in division
Jacksonville Jags: 8-8, 3-3 in division
Tennessee Titans: 6-10, 2-4 in division