- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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After he was torched for a long touchdown by wideout Andre Johnson early in training camp, rookie cornerback Dunta Robinson had to suffer through a tongue-lashing from secondary coach Jon Hoke. Veteran corner Aaron Glenn couldn't have been happier as he watched Robinson slouch back to the defensive huddle. "Right then Dunta [pronounced DON-tay] showed me all I needed to see," Glenn recalls. "He's got the character and the mental strength to learn from his mistakes. He'll make his share, so you hope he's mature enough to deal with the criticism. Well, it turns out he's a perfectionist. He's the kind of player we need if we're going to stop thinking of ourselves as an expansion team."
Mention the E word in conversation with any coach, player, p.r. staffer or night janitor associated with the third-year franchise, and a rebuke--"That's not O.K. anymore"--is swift and unyielding. After going 4--12 and then 5--11 in their first two seasons, the Texans are determined to measure success in actual, rather than moral, victories.
While last year's record was a slight improvement on the inaugural season, there was a lot of heartbreak from so many near misses. Five losses were by a touchdown or less, with four of those defeats coming on the opponents' final drive. Indeed, Houston's season was the flip side of the NFC champion Panthers'--winners of four overtime games--a fact not lost on Texans coach Dom Capers, who also was the Carolina franchise's first coach (1995 through '98). "If Carolina doesn't win those games, they probably don't make the playoffs," Capers says. "There's such a fine line between winning and losing in this game. Now we have to make that final push."
Houston couldn't do it last year largely because of a defense that had the dubious distinction of ranking 31st in the league in passing, rushing and total defense. As a result, the unit has new faces at five positions, including a pair of rookie first-round draft choices: Robinson, the 10th pick out of South Carolina, and outside linebacker Jason Babin, No. 27, from Western Michigan. Robinson is a fleet (4.3 in the 40), aggressive cover man who despite his lack of size (5'10", 174 pounds) was known as a bruising tackler in college. "He wants to do more than just get by," says Hoke. "He won't let something go until he's perfected it. In college he got by on pure athleticism; here he's had to focus on little things in his technique. But with his work ethic, that's not a problem."
The arrival of Robinson allowed the Texans to move rangy, athletic Marcus Coleman from cornerback to free safety, shoring up what has been a glaring weakness. An improved secondary will give the front seven the opportunity to attack the quarterback more than they did last season, when Houston had a meager 19 sacks (second-fewest in the NFL). The 6'2", 260-pound Babin, who had 30 sacks in his final two college seasons combined, has impressed the staff with his quickness and instincts. (Capers likens him to a young Kevin Greene.) The line should also be much improved with the return of left end Gary Walker and nosetackle Seth Payne--who together missed 26 games in '03 because of injuries--and the addition of free-agent Robaire Smith, a tackle for four years with the Titans who will move to right end in Houston's 3-4 alignment.
Offensively, there's good news for a unit that ranked--what else?--31st in the league last year: For the first time there won't be a rookie in the starting lineup. Though he missed five starts with a strained throwing shoulder, quarterback David Carr finished 2003 with 2,013 passing yards and nine touchdown tosses. More important, he developed a rapport with Johnson, and that tandem was clicking again from the start of camp, with Johnson showing that he has improved in running his routes. "Finally," says Capers, "our offense will be expected to win some games for us."
Winning enough games to be a contender for the playoffs in the stacked AFC South is unlikely. But after a season of falling short so many times, expect the Texans to at least win their share of close games. Then they can shed that dreaded E word once and for all. --J.E.
> A lightly regarded fourth-round draft pick who was thought to be little more than a third-down back, DOMANICK DAVIS started 10 games last season and rushed for 1,031 yards. The 5'9", 216pound Davis is a bruising runner between the tackles, and he should only improve behind a mammoth line. In fact, Davis has predicted a 2,000-yard season in 2004.