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Andre Johnson (80) emerged as the best receiver in the NFL in 2008, and the Texans return the league's third-best offense virtually intact this year. (Photo:
Texas Sports: NFL
Texans find themselves in an 
unusual spot: the favorites
By Dave Mundy

If you’re seeing some folks around Houston with a little extra swagger to their step, a little more excitement to their voice when they start talking about football, or maybe even one of those red-and-blue hats with horns sticking out of it – be understanding.

It’s been a loooong time since Houstonians have had much to cheer about come football season.

For the fans of the Texans, the future is now.

As the National Football League opens its 2009 season this month, the Texans find themselves in an unusual position. For the first time in their short history, the Texans are the favorite to win their division.

The Texans admit it’s nice to be highly regarded—but they’re taking a cautious approach to it all, if you don’t mind.

“As a player, you enjoy when people say positive things about you or your organization,” defensive tackle Frank Okam said when told many pundits are comparing the Texans with last year’s Arizona Cardinals. “I hope we can finish with a better record than Arizona did last year. But it's really about getting to the playoffs, getting to the Super Bowl and winning the thing.”

Head coach Gary Kubiak says his crew will enter camp a better team, but he’s still not satisfied.

“We’re a better team,” he said at the conclusion of the three-day mini-camp June 17. “We’re more competitive than we were last year and that’s important because when you’re competitive your team gets better. 

“I told the guys this morning, I talked to them for 20 minutes and I said, ‘You know we can talk about playoffs; we can talk about this, we can talk about that. The bottom line, we’ve got to talk about improvement.  Because if we improve, we improve on what we’ve been doing, then we should be in line to reach our goals.’  So the focus needs to stay on us.” 

The Texan offense was prolific last season, and enters the 2009 campaign little changed—read that as “more experienced.” It’s on defense where the team took its biggest strides in the off-season, with Frank Bush replacing Richard Smith as the defensive coordinator and off-season moves and draft picks bolstering the front seven immensely.

The biggest question mark for the Texans will be in the defensive backfield, where veterans like Demarcus Fagins and Glenn Earl have moved on to other teams and All-Pro Dunta Robinson may sit out for weeks in a contract dispute. 

Can the addition of veteran safety Nick Ferguson, draft picks Glover Quin and Brice McCain, and second-year strong safety Dominique Barber solidify around Robinson and third-year man Fred Bennett?
Ferguson said it’s not necessarily the secondary personnel who will make the big difference.

“Well, the reason I think is going to be better is for three things,” he said during the organized team activities in early June. “Frank Bush is our defensive coordinator. We have David Gibbs as our coach. And the acquisitions we made in the off-season.”

Just about everyone who has seen top draft choice Brian Cushing and second-round pick Connor Barwin has been impressed, and the acquisitions of DE Antonio Smith, LB Cato June and Okam are making the front seven anchored by DE Mario Williams and MLB Demeco Ryans look pretty stout.

Bush’s style calls for a more aggressive front seven, allowing the DBs to make plays rather than sit back in zone coverage.  Barber thinks just the change of style will answer questions about the secondary.

“I think people are going to see a completely new defense this year with us wreaking havoc and causing turnovers and getting the offense the ball back,” he told the team website. “Coach Bush is bringing back the old days of flying around back there and making plays. You have to track and trust the guys next to you and know that he knows his assignment and what he has to do.”

Barber said it’s a gambling style of defense, but one that focuses on multiple defenders flying to the ball.
“We are going to make mistakes, but it’s about continuing to go out make another play and backing each other up,” he said. “If someone misses a tackle, there should be 10 other guys right there and have that person’s back.”

Gibbs, whose Kansas City Chiefs DBs were among the league leaders in pass defense 2006 and 2007, is enthusiastic about his group.

“I like my group,” Gibbs said after one OTA workout. “I think they’re a bunch of guys who have been beaten up, who’ve probably not played as well as they should. 

“It’s nobody’s fault, whether it’s coaching or players. Their job is to play good on Sundays and my job is to make them play good on Sundays, and if they’re not playing good, then obviously, it goes back to the coach.” 

Offensively, the Texans will field a group that only improved after putting up the league’s third-best offensive numbers a year ago.

Quarterback Matt Schaub is healthy again, but the Texans aren’t taking any chances after the departure of popular backup QB Sage Rosenfels. The team signed former Lions starter Dan Orlovsky this spring, and added Rex Grossman, who took the Bears to the Super Bowl a couple of years back, just before mini-camp.

“Right now, I have three guys that have taken a lot of snaps in this league,” Kubiak told the team’s media circular. “As a coach, that makes you very comfortable. We just need to get (Grossman) to a point where he is legitimately competitive with those guys mentally as well as physically, and we’ll do that.

“It’s like I told Rex. I have carried two; I’ve been a product of a two-quarterback system,” Kubiak added. “After what I have been through the last two years, that might be the way that I would lean today. I am going to keep them because they can all play. I am not going to keep them just to have three quarterbacks.”

There’s no question who Schaub and whoever his backups will be get to throw to: Andre Johnson is the best wide receiver in football, and posted 115 receptions last year. On the other side of the line, Kevin Walter finished with 60 receptions, while TE Owen Daniels joined Johnson at the Pro Bowl.

The Texans have depth: Andre Davis and Jacoby Jones are legitimate burners, while David Anderson, like Walter, is a sure-hands guy. Behind Daniels, the Texans drafted James Casey and Anthony Hill, and they also carry veteran Joel Dreesen to camp.

Running back Steve Slaton was a huge bonus for Houston in 2008, gaining more than 1,200 rushing yards and catching 50 passes to lead all rookie RBs. There’s some competition for the backup spot, while fullback Vonta Leach has become a fixture.

The offensive line – maligned for the Texans’ first few seasons as the group that couldn’t protect the indecisive David Carr – has begun to mature into a solid bunch. The key there this season will be the development of second-year left tackle Duane Brown.

It’s a year that begins with a lot of optimism in Houston – but the Texans aren’t starting any end-zone dances just yet.

“I like what I see so far,” General Manager Rick Smith told TexansTV’s Brooek Bentley. “It’s obviously very early and you have limited exposure so far, but I like the athleticism; I like the competitiveness of the group.

“At this point, I feel pretty good about our team. We are always aware of players who are available and if we feel like there are players out there who can upgrade us, then we certainly are tweaking that roster and turning it over. I feel good about the group we have going to training camp.”

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