After five yearsat an aggregate 32 games below .500 and nary a winning season, the Texanssevered ties with face-of-the-franchise quarterback David Carr, who in thespring of 2002 was the first player drafted in the team's history. It was adecision that even Carr agreed with. "It's been a relief to put the wholeexperience behind me," says Carr, who took his staggering 249 career sacksto Carolina as a free agent to work as Jake Delhomme's backup. The savior'srole now falls to Matt Schaub, Michael Vick's erstwhile backup, acquired in aMarch trade with Atlanta. He can be expected to hand off 20 times a game toAhman Green, 30, signed as a free agent after seven seasons with thePackers.
Defensive endMario Williams is no longer the reigning No. 1 overall draft pick--with all thepressure that designation carries--and no longer suffering from the plantarfasciitis in his right foot that nagged him as a rookie. The Texans will keephim lodged at right defensive end rather than move him up and down the line asthey did last year. "There was a lot to learn," says Williams. "I'mlooking forward to staying in one place." Behind him the Texans willsimplify the defense, with a lot of Cover Two nickel, to avoid getting caughtin too many situational substitutions.
The Texans claimto be aiming for their first playoff appearance. "It's time we made thenext step," says owner Bob McNair. In reality the next step would be simplycontending for a playoff spot into December, rewarding their fans withmeaningful games in the last quarter of the season.
Schaub'sperformance will go a long way in determining whether that happens. The Texanshave entrusted their future--and $7 million in guaranteed money--to aquarterback who has started two games in his three-year career while waitingfor his chance in Atlanta.
There's plenty ofbuzz about Schaub's potential. "I talked to guys I know in Atlanta,"says wide receiver Keenan McCardell, whom the Texans signed on the eve oftraining camp for his 16th NFL season. "They told me he's a player. He'sgot the arm. He's got the game."
Schaub willbenefit from running a West¬†Coast-style offense that's similar to what helearned in college (Virginia) and with the Falcons. After the trade he moved toHouston with his fiancée and began throwing with Texans veterans like AndreJohnson, who caught 103 passes last year but had grown weary of Carr'sindecisiveness. "Matt gets rid of the ball," says Johnson. "Hetakes his drop and lets it go. Period. You come out of your break, and it'sthere."
Says Schaub,"Look, I'm still young. This is my fourth year, and I've only started twogames. I can learn from guys here. And I'm anxious to step in there andlead." It will help to find a solid second receiver behind Johnson.
The Texans aregambling that Green has some tread left on his tires after nine seasons, 1,871carries and 8,491 yards. He's a tireless worker who practices Pilates and yogato sustain his flexibility and explosiveness. "People who know me--theyknow what I've got left," says Green. Behind him the well-traveled 1999Heisman Trophy winner, Ron Dayne, will try to duplicate his performance of ayear ago, when he rushed for 612 yards in only six starts, arguably the bestseason of his disappointing career.
The defense istalented, though still very young. Williams is expected to improve, and he'llbe joined on the line by precocious 6' 2", 302-pound rookie Amobi Okoye,whose entire career has been conducted on fast-forward. He began playing as ahigh school sophomore (after emigrating from Nigeria to Huntsville, Ala., atage 12), played college football at Louisville at age 16 and was drafted at 19."He's athletic, just like everybody said he was," says Williams."I'm looking forward to playing next to him." Okoye's NFL debut comesone year after middle linebacker and tackling machine DeMeco Ryans was namedthe league's defensive rookie of the year.
The Texans couldhave as many as seven starters on defense who have been in the league threeyears or less. Ryans and cornerback Dunta Robinson are All-Pros-in-waiting.After a horrid start a year ago, in which they gave up nearly 500 yards pergame in the first three weeks of the season, the Texans were a top 10 defensefrom October through December.
Coach Gary Kubiakpromises to eliminate many of the mistakes he made last year, his first as ahead man after 12 years as an offensive assistant. "I spread myself toothin, worrying about every little thing in the organization," he says.Offensive coordinator (and former Packers head coach) Mike Sherman will callthe plays, but they will all run through Kubiak's headset.
In the end Schauband Green are gambles with a big upside. The defense could be very good.December games should matter in Houston.
COACH GARY KUBIAK(6-10 in NFL), second season with Texans
AHMAN GREEN"NEW ACQUISITION"
MATT SCHAUB"NEW ACQUISITION"
HT 6' 5"
HT 6' 4"
HT 6' 5"
HT 6' 3"
HT 6' 7"
SACKS 3 1/2
AMOBI OKOYE (R)"NEW ACQUISITION"
SACKS 4 1/2
(R) Rookie(college statistics)
> 2006 RECORD6-10 NFL RANK (Rush/Pass/Total): OFFENSE 21/27/28 DEFENSE 20/22/24
9 KANSAS CITY
16 at Carolina
30 at Atlanta
14 at Jacksonville
28 at San Diego
4 at Oakland
18 NEW ORLEANS
25 at Cleveland
2 at Tennessee
9 TAMPA BAY
13 DENVER (T)
23 at Indianapolis
NFL rank T14
Opponents' 2006 winning percentage .504
Games against playoff teams 5
Instant access to the latest and best Texans stories,stats and blogs from across the Web, handpicked by SI's editors.
THE KING 500
Ryans is 6' 1" and appears shorter. He weighs 239and appears lighter. Yet he led the NFL as a rookie in '06 with 125 solotackles and plays the demanding middle position in the Cover Two with uncommonspeed and anticipation, stuffing the run and covering slot receivers. "Lowman wins in football collisions," says Ryans, a second-rounder out ofAlabama. "I learned that when I was 12. I stay low, all the time."
AN OPPOSING TEAM'S SCOUT SIZES UP THE TEXANS
> This franchise continues to get better. . . . Idon't know for certain about Matt Schaub, but he's got to be an upgrade fromDavid Carr. I'm not a Carr fan at all. And Gary Kubiak is a veryquarterback-friendly coach, which has got to help Schaub. . . . Ahman Greenmight have one more year in him, but I think that's about it. . . . Theimportant thing is that they've continued to build up the defense with youngplayers. DeMeco Ryans and Dunta Robinson are two guys you can build around fora long time. . . . Mario Williams will never look like a Number 1 overallplayer, but he's got a chance to be a productive, Kevin Carter-type defensivelineman. . . . They're doing it the right way down there.
NICK DOAN/ICON SMI
Green, a tireless worker, is out to prove there's plenty left in histank.