WHEN THE Texans finally made it to the mountaintop, Matt Schaub was cruelly forced to view it all from off to the side. The team's starting quarterback since coming to Houston from Atlanta in 2007, Schaub had a big hand in the Texans' reaching the playoffs for the first time since they joined the NFL in '02, but he was robbed of the chance to play in the postseason because of a season-ending Lisfranc fracture to his right foot, suffered in Week 10 at Tampa Bay. At that point the Texans were 7--3 and in first place by a comfortable 2½ games in an AFC South that was depleted by Peyton Manning's absence in Indianapolis. Houston wrapped up the division at 10--6 and won a playoff game, defeating the Bengals at home with the surprisingly poised fifth-round rookie quarterback T.J. Yates, who took over in Week 12 after second-stringer Matt Leinart went down with a broken collarbone.
For the 31-year-old Schaub, the memories are bittersweet. "What made it tough for me is that it wasn't as I had always imagined," he says of the Texans' postseason run. "The satisfaction when we made the playoffs went hand in hand with frustration and disappointment at my not being out there. I know I set us up as the quarterback of the team to get to that point after five years of work, but it was one of the most difficult things I've ever had to deal with personally."
Now the story in Houston in 2012 will center on the Texans' attempt to stay on top in the South and Schaub's attempt to stay healthy—and remain in the team's long-term plans. He is in the final year of his contract, and though Houston didn't rule out an extension before the beginning of the season, it's more likely Schaub will be playing this fall to set up the rest of his career, be it in Houston or elsewhere. That's how quickly fortunes can change in the NFL: Schaub breaks a bone one year, and faces a make-or-break season the next.
"It is an important year, and he understands that," general manager Rick Smith said while watching the fully recovered Schaub go through his paces early in camp. "He's the unquestioned leader of our team, but coming off the injury last year he knows he's got to be out there on the field for us, playing at a high level. But it's absolutely a marriage I want to continue. I don't have to wait for anything to say that."
Still, the Texans seem more than willing to make sure Schaub stays clear of the injuries that have periodically plagued him in Houston—he has played all 16 games in just two of his five seasons there—before they lock him up with the long-term deal he openly covets. Yates's emergence is the insurance policy that could give the Texans the luxury to see what 2012 brings.
Houston's team leaders find it difficult to contemplate a post-Schaub era. "I can't imagine him not being our quarterback," says 10th-year receiver Andre Johnson. "But I think what he does this year determines his future. He's played so well for us but had some bad luck with injuries. I'm hoping he makes it through this season healthy. People know what kind of quarterback he can be, but it's a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league."
With Manning finally out of the division for good, the AFC South is ripe to be ruled by the talented Texans for the foreseeable future. Even without Mario Williams or DeMeco Ryans (both of whom left, Williams as a free agent and Ryans in a trade), Houston's defense has impressive young talent to fill out coordinator Wade Phillips's 3--4 formation. On offense Johnson, a two-time All-Pro, and running back Arian Foster, who led the league in rushing two years ago and was second in rushing yards per game (94.2) last season, are two of the NFL's proven playmakers. Schaub knows Houston's Super Bowl window of opportunity is finally open, and he has no illusions that he'll find a better situation anywhere else in the NFL.
"I know what I have to do this year," Schaub said. "If we handle our business, that [contract] stuff will take care of itself. But it's very important to me to be here as a Houston Texan the rest of my career."
And to be firmly in the middle of any celebrations to come.
WITH 2011 STATS
OFFENSE 2011 RANK: 13
(N) New acquisition
(R) Rookie—College stats
TTD Total touchdowns
SACKS Sacks allowed
HOLD Holding penalties
FALSE False starts
2011 Record: 10--6
16 at Jacksonville
23 at Denver
8 at New York Jets (Mon)
14 Green Bay
11 at Chicago
22 at Detroit (Thu)
2 at Tennessee
10 at New England (Mon)
30 at Indianapolis
In a league dominated by the passing game, the Texans couldn't believe their good fortune when they found college football's top pass rusher of 2011 waiting for them in the 26th spot of the draft's first round. Houston brass never got caught up in the debate about whether Mercilus was a one-year wonder, with his nation-leading 16 sacks and nine forced fumbles as a junior at Illinois last season. The Texans just wondered how he ever got to them. "I earmarked him very early in the process as the guy I wanted," general manager Rick Smith says, still sounding a little giddy about landing the 6'4", 257-pound Mercilus. "I've been impressed since he's been here. He's got a chance to be something special."
Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips won't overload his prize rookie. He just wants Mercilus to bring the heat as a passing-down edge rusher and help offset the loss of Mario Williams. The Texans say Mercilus has been everything they thought he'd be, and they praise his ability to get off blocks and pursue the ballcarrier. "He's got that burst; plus he's smart," Phillips says. "He has a lot of pride, wants to win and wants to do well right away."
Combined quarterback sacks, hits and hurries by Brian Cushing in 2011, the most of any inside linebacker in the league.
Passes batted down at the line of scrimmage by Texans defenders, more than any other team in the NFL.
Percentage of pass plays on which aggressive defensive coordinator Wade Phillips blitzed, more than all but the Saints.
STACY REVERE/GETTY IMAGES (JOHNSON)
Johnson's All-Pro seasons came with Schaub throwing him the ball; they'd both like the pairing to last.
DAVID SCEARCE/ICON SMI (MERCILUS)