Postcard from camp: Texans
A healthy Owen Daniels could be catalyst to Texans first playoff appearance
New offensive coordinator Rick Dennison has history of success with Gary Kubiak
Wide receiver David Anderson is making people take notice on, off the field
SI.com has dispatched writers to report on the 32 NFL training camps across the country. Here's what Andrew Lawrence had to say about the Texans camp in Houston. For an archive of all camp postcards, click here.
Let's start with the obvious: it's hot. In July the Weather Channel ranked the 10 hottest training camp sites, and the Texans -- who work out at their Reliant Park campus in Houston -- top the list. In fact oppressive heat is such a fact of August life in Space City that "only five August days typically don't peak into the 90s," the Weather Channel notes. Though I unfortunately was not there on one of them, I did get some relief from the heat in the team's climate-controlled practice bubble, and outside in a drizzly morning session Thursday.
1. Mario Williams is on the field, Texans fans, so feel free to exhale. There had been some concern that the Pro Bowl defensive end would miss significant time after suffering a hip injury during the Texans' third practice. The team shut him down for a week, and on Monday he consulted with a Philadelphia-based sports hernia specialist for a second opinion. When he arrived at the same conclusion as team doctors -- that the injury didn't need surgery, just more treatment -- Williams returned to practice Monday afternoon and participated in light drills. He's been in the mix ever since, but he isn't expected to play in Houston's preseason opener at Arizona on Saturday.
2. Owen Daniels is not back on the field -- but he's close. "I'll be back at practice in the next couple of weeks, before the end of the preseason," said the fifth-year tight end, who suffered a season-ending ACL injury in a Week 8 win at Buffalo. Prior to that, the '08 Pro Bowler had been on pace for a return trip to the all-star showcase. His 590 receiving yards were third behind the Chargers' Antonio Gates and the Colts' Dallas Clark among tight ends, while his five touchdowns were only two fewer than position leader Vernon Davis of San Francisco.
Daniels said it hurt him to have to sit out during such a pivotal season for the Texans -- who finished above .500 for the first time in franchise history last year and might well have crashed the playoff party had he not come up lame. He almost certainly would've provided the Texans an edge in division play. Without Daniels in the lineup, the Texans went 0-4 in the AFC South. He's looking forward to his first opportunity to help them improve on that mark. That comes in Week 1, when Houston plays host to Indianapolis. "I'm glad the NFL set it up that way," Daniels said. "We always play 'em tough."
3. The interior offensive line is not as bad as it seems. Yes, the Texans lost left guard Chester Pitts to a career-ending knee injury in Week 2 and right guard Mike Brisiel is just 10 months removed from breaking his foot. But tackle Eric Winston says the line has benefitted from the experience that backups like Kasey Studdard and Wade Smith gained in their absence, and also from the addition of 6-foot-3, 300-pound Shelley Smith, a Colorado State product that the Texans scored in the sixth round. "You don't often make it all 16 games with the same five guys," noted Winston, though the Texans would accomplish exactly that feat in '08. "You're gonna have to rely on that depth in some of those weeks. I'm hopeful that if that situation comes up again, we're gonna have plenty of guys to put in there."
Sometimes, when a team brings in a new offensive coordinator from outside it can portend trouble for the head coach. (Lovie Smith, anyone?) But that's not the case with the Texans, who added longtime Broncos assistant Rick Dennison to their staff in January. For starters, Texans coach Gary Kubiak is already in trouble. Had it not been for a four-game win streak to close the season, he might well be have joined the ranks of this country's 15 million unemployed. ("We saved a lot of jobs by winning those last four," Daniels said.) Though Kubiak was signed to three-year extension as reward for guiding the Texans to their first winning season in their eight years of existence, that hardly qualifies as job security in today's NFL.
That said, Kubiak couldn't have picked a better insurance policy than Dennison. The two men thrived as offensive assistants in Denver under Mike Shanahan from 2001-05. Dennison coached the line while Kubiak coordinated the attack, and their collaboration produced a potent offense. In that span, the Broncos finished among the top five rushing teams in four of those five years (the worst finish was 10th, in '01) and surrendered a grand total of 15 sacks (the fourth-fewest during that time). By way of comparison, the Texans, the league's top offense in '09, gave up 25 sacks all of last year and bettered only San Diego and Indianapolis in rushing yards. One would expect that Dennison, along with Texans line coach John Benton -- a capable teacher of the zone-blocking scheme that Kubiak and Dennison favor -- will improve an attack that excelled under the direction of Kyle Shanahan, who vacated the Texans' coordinator job at season's end to join his old man in D.C.
The Texans take a sink-or-swim approach to developing their defensive rookies, and their tack with cornerback Kareem Jackson, a first-rounder out of Alabama, has been no different. Jackson had been running with the first team in practice and taking his lumps against All-Pro Andre Johnson, against whom he had been intentionally matched up in drills. But on Wednesday he was excused from practice due to the death of his grandmother. (He will miss the first preseason game to attend her funeral.) When he returns to camp on Monday, he'll be expected to lock down the No. 1 corner spot and help vault Houston into the playoffs. But the folks at Football Outsiders think the Texans might be asking too much of their top pick. Since 2000, they point out, 15 first-round cornerbacks have started 10 or more games in their rookie seasons; only four of them made the playoffs, partly because corners take so long to develop.
How 'bout the one below I shot of Dave Anderson? The fifth-year receiver has a well-earned reputation as the Texans' resident funnyman. Though he gets easy laughs with the impressions he did in this clip -- of ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski and boxer Ricky Hatton -- his funniest bit remains the string dance he busted out after scoring his second career touchdown, against the Bengals in 2008. While sportscasters had no idea what to make of it, Late Night with Conan O'Brien enthusiasts immediately recognized it as an imitation of the jig that the gangling host has made his trademark. (The following week, O'Brien recognized Anderson's tribute.)
Anderson has only reached the end zone once since then, but it's not for lack of opportunity -- or him making the most of them. Last year he snagged career highs in receptions (38), yards (370) and finished third in the league in reception percentage among receivers. The second-place finisher, teammate Kevin Walter, pipped him by one percentage point. "The only reason he did is because the last pass they threw me I got knocked out in the end zone against New England, I tell him," cracked Anderson, who's hoping that another big year -- by him and the Texans -- could help him realize his dream of landing onset with Coco. "Maybe now that he's on TBS he'll give me some [more] love."
1. When I visited Jaguars camp, when Maurice Jones-Drew wasn't touting himself as a top fantasy pick, he was hyping Texans second-year rusher Arian Foster as a sleeper. "A great player," were his exact words, and they humbled Foster when he heard them. "That's a great back right there," gushed Foster, whose strong showing in relief of an injured Steve Slaton has now forced the Texans to take a committee approach to running the ball. "The fact that he recognizes my game and feels I can be an impact player feels good."
2. Given what a hit this Onion article lampooning our very own Peter King has been in the blogosphere and around the office, I would've been remiss if I didn't get a take from Slaton -- since, after all, he is fake quoted in the story. And to hilarious effect. "It's creative," he chuckled, "but Peter does seem to be everywhere."
3. While 5-foot-5 LSU rookie returner Trindon Holliday cuts the smallest figure on the Texans roster, it could be that 6-foot-2 wideout Jacoby Jones has the smallest hands. Check out this Twitpic of an 8-year-old fan trying on Jones' gloves. It's a pretty snug fit.