GARY KUBIAK gets up in Houston every day knowing that Peyton Manning is a world-beater in Indianapolis, Jeff Fisher is loaded with talent in Tennessee and there is no such thing as a soft team in Jacksonville. This may sound like a heavy burden for Kubiak, but the fourth-year coach has learned to embrace his membership in the AFC South. "I tell our guys all the time, we're not going to wait for these great teams to come back to us," he says. "We've got to get them."
The Texans are finally in a position to do just that. Houston has been languishing in the middle of the pack for the last three years (six wins 2006, eight in both 2007 and '08), but now its key starters are entering their primes. Defensive end Mario Williams, middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans and tight end Owen Daniels—all of whom have been to a Pro Bowl—are heading into their fourth seasons; quarterback Matt Schaub is starting his sixth; and his primary receivers, Andre Johnson and Kevin Walter, are going into their seventh. "We're ready to take that next step," says Schaub. "A lot of guys are in their third and fourth years in [Kubiak's] system. It's time to make that jump."
Schaub, 28, who came from Atlanta in 2007, appears primed to join the quarterback elite. Despite missing five games last season (four to an left MCL injury on a low hit by Jared Allen that earned the Vikings defender a hefty fine) he still threw for 3,043 yards and completed 66.1% of his passes. The Texans had no trouble moving up and down the field; punching the ball into the end zone was the issue. The offense was third in the NFL in yards per game (382.1) but only 17th in points (22.9). Houston was also 29th in the league in turnover margin, with a -10. "We could have put ourselves in better situations if we'd taken care of the football and were better in the red zone, not settling for [field goals]," Schaub says. "If we'd done those things, maybe we would have won more games."
The talent is there. The 6'3", 223-pound Johnson led the league in catches but still flies mostly under the radar. He says he's never felt better entering a season, after giving his body more rest than usual in the spring. During the year he faces the opponent's best corner every Sunday, not to mention extra coverage from safeties trying to keep him from beating them over the top. But for all his gifts—and those of his team—he has grown weary of the annual discussions about the Texans' impending breakthrough to the postseason. "Last year we talked about it so much," says Johnson, "it took the focus off of what we needed to do."
Kubiak, who joined the Texans in 2006, feels a particular kinship with the draft class from that year, which brought Houston's key defensive players: Williams, taken first, and Ryans, picked 33rd. Few people now question drafting Williams ahead of Reggie Bush and Vince Young: After getting just 4½ sacks during his rookie season, he has 26 over the last two years. As for Ryans, his ability to deliver hard hits and run sideline to sideline is surpassed only by his desire to take charge. "I don't want to come off the field at any cost," he says. "This is my defense—no ifs, ands or buts about it. Our performance reflects my leadership."
Ryans and the Texans know that performance, not potential, will determine their fate in 2009. Every victory is precious, especially in a division that normally produces two teams with double-digit wins. One of them is the club with the horseshoe on its helmets. "As long as number 18 is on their side," Schaub says, referring to Manning, "the Colts are going to be a team to be reckoned with."
They might be saying the same one day about Schaub and his number 8. But first he must show he can regularly take the Texans to the end zone—and the playoffs.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
WITH 2008 STATISTICS
COACH: GARY KUBIAK
22--26 in NFL, fourth season with Texans
Slaton's backup is former 1,000-yard RB Chris Brown, who missed all of last year with a back injury (462 yards, 5 TDs in 2007).
Brian CUSHING (R)
Three free-agent signees—DT Shaun Cody (37 tackles for Detroit), LB Cato June (67 tackles for Tampa Bay) and DB Deltha O'Neal (3 INTs for New England)—add depth.
(R) Rookie: College statistics
TTD: Total touchdowns
Get the latest and best Texans stories, statistics and fan blogs from across the Web, handpicked by the editors of SI.
2008 RECORD 8--8
NFL RANK (Rush > Pass > Total)
OFFENSE 13 > 4 > 3
DEFENSE 23 > 17 > 22
13 N.Y. JETS
20 at Tennessee
11 at Arizona
18 at Cincinnati
25 SAN FRANCISCO
1 at Buffalo
8 at Indianapolis
23 TENNESSEE (M)
6 at Jacksonville
20 at St. Louis
27 at Miami
3 NEW ENGLAND
NFL Rank: 15
Opponents' 2008 winning percentage: .506
Games against playoff teams: 6
Hurricane Ike forced the Texans to open with three road games in 2008, and they never recovered from an 0--4 start. The '09 schedule makes up for that, putting Houston at Reliant Stadium for three of its first four games. A shaky run defense will be tested early by the Jets, Titans and Raiders, but the pressure comes off against a handful of mediocre passing teams.
Steve Slaton, Running back
AS A ROOKIE last season Slaton rushed for 1,282 yards (more than any other first-year player), averaged 4.8 yards a carry (the same as Adrian Peterson) and ran for nine touchdowns (tied for 13th in the league). But when the ballots for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year were counted, Slaton was shut out. The panel of 50 sportswriters and broadcasters who cover the league cast 44 votes for Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, three for Titans running back Chris Johnson, two for Broncos tackle Ryan Clady and one for Bears running back Matt Forte.
Slaton doesn't need the snub to make him a better back this season—his varied gifts as a runner are sufficient. His speed (4.44 in the 40) combined with toughness between the tackles makes him an ideal threat carrying the ball as well as an excellent decoy to set up the play-action. If Slaton had a weakness carrying the ball in 2008, it was inside the red zone, where he sometimes showed impatience by not following his blockers.
To better handle the rigors of pass protection and blitz pickup, the third-round pick out of West Virginia reported to training camp a muscular 215 pounds (up from 203 as a rookie). If he still has his burst, the Texans' offense, which ranked third in the league in '08, will be even more dangerous in '09. And then Slaton might be on the minds of voters for NFL MVP.
RONALD MARTINEZ/GETTY IMAGES
FADE PATTERN Schaub was prolific but had his troubles inside the red zone.
AARON JOSEFCZYK/ICON SMI