IN A STATE WHERE THE LOCAL FOOTBALL TEAMS' FORTUNES CAN HAVE A PROFOUND effect on the quality of life, it's fitting that Houston was reborn as a Lone Star utopia during the Texans' 2-0 start last season. Since its inception in 2002, the team had never known such success—nor believed it could inspire as much optimism inside and outside the locker room. To hear Pro Bowl linebacker DeMeco Ryans tell it, the water was wetter, the food tastier and the excitement as palpable as the thick Gulf Coast air. "It was a whole different buzz," he says. "You couldn't walk past a TV without seeing somebody talking about us. People thought we were going to the playoffs."
Losses in eight of their remaining 14 games dashed those dreams. Still, the Texans wrapped the season with a franchise-best eight wins, and that alone is stoking hopes for a first-ever postseason berth in '08. Among the factors that inhibited a breakthrough last year was a minus-13 turnover ratio, the second-worst in the NFL. "We didn't protect the ball or take it away," coach Gary Kubiak says.
Injuries were another issue, and the losses of quarterback Matt Schaub (left shoulder, concussion), receiver Andre Johnson (sprained left knee) and running back Ahman Green (left knee) for a combined 22 games were devastating. The troika's only time on the field together was during that season-opening streak. "It just seemed like everything was going well, then, all of a sudden, injuries started," Johnson says. "It was like we had a curse."
Filling the void proved tough. The ground game weathered the loss of Green—backups Ron Dayne and Darius Walker teamed up for 1,037 yards and seven rushing touchdowns—but the passing game languished without Johnson. In games with him Schaub had a 100.8 quarterback rating. Without his go-to guy Schaub's efficiency sank to 77.0. Johnson missed minicamps this spring to rehab from off-season arthroscopic surgery, but he is expected to be 100% for the season.
Green returns as the top rusher in Houston's running back committee. He'll rotate with West Virginia rookie Steve Slaton and free-agent pick-up Chris Brown. All three should find plenty of cutback lanes along a beefy but nimble offensive line.
On defense the Texans took their licks again (24th overall last year), but they appear poised to break out. Ryans, who overcame his own injury onslaught to pace all Houston tacklers with 128, figures to be even better at full strength and with another year's experience in coordinator Richard Smith's attack-minded system. End Mario Williams continues a huge leap forward, racking up 11 of his 14� sacks in the Texans' final seven games, and tackle Amobi Okoye, a 20-year-old rookie last season, is emerging as a dominant force.
The addition of free-agent rush specialist Rosevelt Colvin, formerly of New England, will help mask deficiencies in the secondary. Ace cornerback Dunta Robinson isn't expected back from knee and hamstring injuries until Week 8, leaving second-year corner Fred Bennett or newcomer Jacques Reeves (late of Dallas) to fill his spot. Rookies Antwaun Molden and Dominique Barber provide added secondary depth.
Still, the Texans will have their work cut out for them against the league's eighth-toughest schedule. Of their first five games, four are against playoff teams, three of which—Tennessee, Jacksonville and Indianapolis—are AFC South foes. A win against one would give Houston a head start on improving upon last year's 1-5 division record. "If we do everything we did last year—but just do better with turnovers—it'll be a great 2008," guard Chester Pitts says. And if those efforts net that elusive postseason berth, life in Houston figures to be downright superlative.