Life moves pretty quickly in the NFL. If you don't stop and smell the roses sometimes, you might miss it. In a league where every snap has the potential to create a career-ending injury, we need to constantly be smelling the roses before they wither away.
Such is the case with Houston Texans linebacker Brian Cushing, who has missed the last two games with complications from last year's season-ending surgery on a torn LCL, ACL and broken leg. Cushing was last seen chasing after Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell on Monday Night Football, where Cushing was moving like he'd had kettlebells tied to his legs.
To say it's been a lost season for Cushing would be fair. Houston had tried to ease him back slowly, but even after taking as many precautions as possible, it's clear that the Texans do not have the same Cushing they once had. This has only accentuated a weak middle linebacker corps that was always built to congeal around Cushing and has left the Texans exposed against good rushing attacks and underneath crossing routes.
|Brian Cushing's Snap Counts By Game, 2014|
|1 v. WAS||42/65|
|2 @ OAK||36/62|
|3 @ NYG||57/71|
|4 v. BUF||45/70|
|5 @ DAL||51/76|
|6 v. IND||84/90|
|7 @ PIT||51/65|
|8 @ TEN||0/61|
|9 v. PHI||0/83|
|Source: Football Outsiders|
This wasn't how it was supposed to be when the Texans drafted Cushing out of USC in 2009.
The rookie linebacker immediately won Defensive Rookie of the Year and went to the Pro Bowl. His national profile plummeted after he was suspended for performance-enhancing drugs and offered one of the lamest excuses of all time. But even despite that, it was hard to argue Cushing wasn't one of the five best two-way linebackers in the league from 2009 to 2011.
Cushing could do it all in his prime. While he wasn't going to lock down Rob Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham, he was the only linebacker the Texans trusted in Wade Phillips' dime package. Cushing was a monster downhill-gap shooter, often creating tackles for loss.
And, perhaps most importantly in this day and age, Cushing had the talent to rush the passer. Per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Cushing generated 23 hurries as an inside linebacker in 2011, the most at the position. He finished in the top five in hurries at outside linebacker in 2010 and 2009.
And, though it would pain steroid witch hunters to admit this, Cushing did it all as a very charismatic figure. Of course, there's the time when he famously started bleeding after a non-helmeted headbutt against the Cleveland Browns:
But even beyond that, he became a very popular player in the Houston area because of his blue-collar work ethic and his pure physicality. There was always an undertone that the Gary Kubiak Texans were "too soft" to win a title, and Cushing gave the fans who complained about this a player to latch on to and dream on.
And...well, here we are.
Brian Cushing is now meeting the area of the game where the phrase "football is a business" is oft-repeated. Cushing has missed games in each of the last three seasons, and this is from a player who often played hurt in his earlier years.
Cushing was concussed against the Seattle Seahawks in 2013, tore his ACL against the New York Jets on a low block from Jets guard Matt Slauson in 2012 and broke his leg, among other ligaments, when Kansas City Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles got his knee in 2013.
Prior to Week 9's game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Cushing's media session (as relayed by CBS Radio Houston) stated that the Texans needed to "figure out a...formula" to get him back on the field.
But, you know, I want to play, and the coaches want me to play. That’s understood, so like I said, we’ll go from here and figure it out… I love playing. I want to be out there, but at the same time, I want to play at my best level, and do the best I can to have a good rest of the year…We gotta figure out a specific technique and formula, for that to happen.
Cushing hasn't looked right on the field this year, and given how far away from surgery he is, I think there's legitimate reason to worry that he won't ever be right.
The biggest problem this causes for the Texans is that they may not be able to quit on Cushing in 2015. General manager Rick Smith gambled on Cushing's talent just before the 2013 season by signing him to a five-year extension that is quickly looking like an albatross.
NFL contracts are kind of like social norms: They're supposed to mean something, but they don't always wind up doing so. That said, my read on Cushing's contract is that the Texans are heavily incentivized to keep him on the roster in 2015.
|Remaining Years of Brian Cushing's Contract|
|Year||Projected Cap Number||Dead Money||Cap Savings if Released|
|2014||$5.34 million||$18.3 million||-$13.0 million|
|2015||$8.04 million||$13.5 million||-$5.5 million|
|2016||$9.04 million||$6.7 million||$2.2 million|
|2017||$9.54 million||$3.9 million||$5.5 million|
|2018||$9.7 million||$1.2 million||$8.5 million|
|2019||$9.5 million||$0||$9.5 million|
|Source: Over The Cap|
The year for the Texans to take a $5.5 million cap hit was 2014, when they were starting Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback and the odds of contention were much smaller. If Houston begins to roll out a new plan in 2015, Cushing's cap hit could be intimidating as they try to restructure their roster.
They may need his cooperation in a "mutually beneficial" restructure that is more aimed toward Cushing's current value. (It should be noted, though, that he may not earn all of his roster bonus this season, which could help.)
More than any other sports league, what is guaranteed one day in the NFL may mean nothing the next. Unfortunately for the Texans, injuries appear to have robbed them of any hope that their formerly dominant linebacker will come back to form.
It will be interesting to see how Smith and head coach Bill O'Brien approach him with regard to next year's roster. Eternal optimism and belief tend to rule the day with Texans brass, but this may be one situation they just can't ignore.
Rivers McCown is the AFC South lead writer for Bleacher Report and the co-host of the Three-Cone Drill podcast. His work has also appeared on Football Outsiders and ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter at @riversmccown.