ON PAPER the Texans would seem to have the makings of a Super Bowl contender. Prolific passer Matt Schaub and gifted wide receiver Andre Johnson trigger one of the NFL's most explosive offenses. A trio of first-round draft picks—end Mario Williams (first overall in 2006), tackle Amobi Okoye (10th, '07) and linebacker Brian Cushing (15th, '09)—propel a defense on the rise. Electric returner Jacoby Jones and a stout punt coverage unit anchor one of the league's steadier special teams units.
But the surplus of talent belies the lack of a killer instinct. Mental mistakes proved to be Houston's undoing on more than a few occasions last season in which the team lost six games by eight points or fewer. (What's worse, the Texans were either tied or had the lead in the second half in all but one of those losses.) The depth of the team's errors was on full display in a key Week 12 home matchup against Indianapolis. After jumping out to a 17--0 lead, Houston got burned for a pick-six and fumbled in the last nine minutes of the game on the way to a 35--27 loss.
The defeat was just one of five in the AFC South that kept the Texans from claiming the first postseason berth in franchise history. (They did finish above .500 for the first time, at 9--7.) "It's hard to get to the playoffs when you're 1--5 in your own division," says Pro Bowl tight end Owen Daniels, who is slowly returning to the offense after suffering a season-ending right ACL tear in Week 8.
It's even harder to win games with a running back who fumbles as consistently as Steve Slaton. While not yet on the level of former Houston quarterback David Carr (who fumbled a franchise-record 21 times in 2002), Slaton's seven cough-ups in '09 were still the most by a nonquarterback in team history.
The main culprit for Slaton's poor ballhandling was a pinched nerve in his neck that worsened with the punishment he absorbed in practices and games. "Week in and week out I would just get weaker in my right arm," says Slaton, adding that the pain grew so severe that he could barely turn a doorknob or pick up his kids. "It just reached a point where I wasn't strong enough to hold anything."
The Texans shut him down with five games to go, and in January he underwent cervical fusion surgery, a procedure that relieved pressure on the nerve. In the interim, he watched his grip on the starting job slip. Leading the race to replace him is 6'1", 229-pound Arian Foster, a physical second-year back out of Tennessee whose hunger to succeed befits his status as an undrafted free agent. Last season Foster went from toiling on the practice squad to playing special teams to rushing for a game-high 119 yards and two touchdowns in a season-ending win over New England.
"One of the things that's stuck with me is when Coach [Gary] Kubiak said, 'It doesn't matter if you're Brian [Cushing] or a guy that's undrafted—if you can play in this league, we'll find a way to get you on the field,'" recalls Foster. "That stuck with me. Ever since that day I felt like I belonged."
Foster figures to be deeply involved in the Texans' offense this fall after the loss of rookie Ben Tate, who suffered season-ending ankle and fibula injuries in the Texans' preseason opener. (Tate, a second-round selection out of Auburn, was vying with Foster and Slaton for carries.)
And the offense will have to be even better than it was in 2009 to make up for the loss of Cushing, the Defensive Rookie of the Year who was suspended for the first four games of the season after testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance. His explanations for the positive test ranged from overtraining to the presence of a tumor.
Without Cushing, the Texans would seem to have lost the one thing that they didn't have in abundant supply—toughness. But safety Bernard Pollard has a warning for opponents expecting a drop-off in intensity in Cushing's absence. "We're letting receivers know that if you come across the middle, you're gonna get hit," says Pollard, who won't shy from testing the rules to make his point. "You know what? I'll be the first one to take the fine. I'll write it off. We have to establish that fear."