The Texans finally went 8-8 in 2007 and were in the black for the first time two years later. But after the startling 2010 collapse, when Houston went into the bye week at 4-2 and finished 6-10, the front office realized that reconstruction was unavoidable.
“We sat down and we took a hard look,” said Smith. “In some respects we had been on schedule, then we took a step backward and we took a critical look at why we did that. We saw that in a lot of ways we were still on schedule, but we had to fix a major problem and that was on the defensive side.”
The Texans had harvested a terrific draft class in 2009 with linebackers Brian Cushing and Connor Barwin, cornerback Brice McCain, and safety Glover Quin, all of whom went on to start, and added cornerback Kareem Jackson and linebacker Darryl Sharpton the next year. What they needed was teaching and development. So they brought in Wade Phillips, who’d been dismissed as head coach by the Cowboys, but who’d revived defensive units in Denver, Buffalo, Atlanta, and San Diego.
“One of the first things we did, Wade, Gary and I sat down and we turned the tape on and Wade began to describe the kind of players that he was looking for,” said Smith, who’d been a defensive assistant in Denver and earned two Super Bowl rings. “One of Wade’s biggest attributes is that he identifies what a player can do effectively and he will put that player in a position to be successful based on what he can do.”
In one season the Houston defense went from 30th in the league to second. Last year, the Texans drafted J.J. Watt, the titanic defensive end from Wisconsin who has a chance to be the league’s Most Valuable Player this year and spent more draft picks on cornerbacks Brandon Harris and Roc Carmichael, linebacker Brooks Reed, and safety Shiloh Keo.
On offense a solid line anchored by Duane Brown, Wade Smith, and Chris Myers serves and protects an imposing troika of Schaub, Johnson, and Arian Foster, a durable thumper back out of Tennessee whom nobody else would take a chance on but who has posted three 1,000-yard seasons.
“I don’t know that anybody thought that he would turn into the player that he’s become,” mused Smith, “but it’s certainly nice when it happens that way.”
So the victories have followed, a franchise-record 11 and six in a row since the October home loss to Green Bay. That would have been a wildcatter’s fantasy a decade ago, when six Ws were more than a season’s worth.
“Guys ask me about how things used to be around here,” said Johnson, the only Texan who predates 2006. “I give them some of those stories and they laugh and shake their head. I just tell them, enjoy this part of it because the times that I went through, that’s something that you don’t want to experience.”
John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.