HOUSTON — Christmas came early for the 2011 Houston Texans the moment Wade Phillips was hired as the defensive coordinator.
It was like a scene from the old movies, the hero riding in on his white horse to save the day.
In this case the son of legendary Bum Phillips instantly brought a new attitude to the entire team. Wade brought a presence, a feeling throughout the entire franchise that was evidenced the first day of practice in 2011.
In the process he saved the job of Gary Kubiak and several assistant coaches.
Going from the worst defense in the NFL to the second best in one season has made the Texans one of the favorites for Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans. They earned that respect with by overcoming injuries to key players enough to go 10-6, win the first playoff game in franchise history and come oh-so-close to reaching the AFC Championship game.
Here’s a few of the twist on turns on the 2011 road to leaving a sordid past in the rear-view mirror.
First round pick J.J. Watt was sensational, starting at defensive end since opening day. The Wisconsin rookie demanded double teams as the season progressed and has several Pro Bowl appearances in his future. His game-changing interception-return TD in the playoff win over Cincinnati will long life in Texans’ lore.
Along with Antonio Smith and Shawn Cody, Watt helped the Texans finally develop a pass rush. Even without former No. 1 draft pick Mario Williams, who signed a lucrative free-agent deal with Buffalo after spending much of last season on IR, the feeling is “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet” where the pass rush is concerned.
Also missing is linebacker DeMeco Ryans whose trade to the Eagles was no surprise because he didn’t really fit in Phillips’ defense. Former Cowboy Bradie James will play next to the leader of the defense, Brian Cushing. The former USC All American first round pick was outstanding in the new system, leading the team in tackles while providing an emotional presence desperately needed.
Connor Barwin returned from missing 2010 and fit into the 3-4 system like peanut butter to jelly with 11 1/2 sacks. Rookie Brooks Reed was superb with 6 1/2 sacks, as they confused quarterbacks throughout the season, defeating blockers and creating havoc.
Even with the need to get a playmaker opposite Andre Johnson, General Manager Rick Smith drafted Illinois sack specialist Whitney Mercilus in the first round. He will be an outside linebacker adding more speed, while giving Reed and Barwin a breather.
Last season’s free agent surprise, colorful linebacker Bryan Bramon gained 15 pounds and will fit into the rotation on passing downs. Busted for making meth in junior college, the kid woke up and dedicated himself to football. It was a far cry from earning extra money as a bouncer in a club and working as a male model.
In what was an injury-plagued season, Phillips himself got a huge scare in December, undergoing extensive surgery on his gall bladder, leaving him with a long and nasty scar. Rather than taking it easy, he missed only two games, returning to coach from the press box rather than where he prefers — on the field.
How happy is the former Port Neches-Groves star? So much so that he and his wife Laurie are building a new home in Houston. He feels this is the best job he’s ever had, even though he is not a head coach.
Strategies, systems and rules have changed since Wade entered the NFL in the mid-seventies but not his approach. His philosophy is simple; teach technique, simplicity, be aggressive with a unit led by linebackers who swarm to the ball like bees to honey.
This SOB (Son of Bum) is the best I have ever witnessed in breaking down film to find the matchup weaknesses of the opponent’s offensive line.
Idiot callers in Houston wore out talk show hosts with their love affair for free agent prized cornerback Nmamdi Asumgoi. Rather than getting caught up in the hype and overpaying, GM Rick Smith wisely signed Jonathan Joseph and former Bear Danieal Manning.
All Joseph did shut down the opponents’ best receiver each week on his way to the Pro Bowl. Manning missed a month with a broken league, returned and teamed up with Glover Quinn to give quarterbacks grief with their solid play in the middle.
Kareem Jackson, a bust as a first round pick, became a project for secondary coach Vance Joseph. Jackson learned proper technique, quit making dumb mistakes and became a solid tackler. He will never be a shutdown corner due to his lack of speed, but can be more than serviceable.
Second year corner Brandon Harris has shown marked improvement after a disappointing rookie season while former Cowboy Alan Ball will replace inconstant Jason Allen at corner.
The Texans’ biggest question mark is replacing the departed right side of the offensive line. Can Antoine Caldwell, who takes over at guard for Mike Brisel, finally stay healthy? Meanwhile, the star of the future at that position is rookie Brandon Brooks, who is greener than grass thus far.
With Eric Winston now in Kansas City, the battle between veteran Rashad Butler and powerful second- year tackle Derek Newton will continue.
Because of all the injuries, the Texans’ mantra last season was Next Man Up. Every time a starter went down a reserve stepped in with confidence. But relying on a third string rookie quarterback named T.J. Yates, who spent the season with the clipboard and baseball cap, was bizarre to say the least.
Matt Schaub was lost in week 10 with a Lisfranc injury to his foot. Former Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart started the next game in Jacksonville but suffered a broken collarbone in the second quarter setting the stage for the rookie. The Texans went 3-3 as the kid completed 61 percent of his passes.
After leading the Texans to their first ever playoff win, beating Cincinnati, Cinderella turned into a pumpkin with a four interception game on the road in Baltimore.
Schaub looked completely healthy in pre-season, showing no effects of the injury. He is not a swashbuckling charismatic type of a quarterback, lacking the arm strength to go deep. Fans criticize him even after wins. But his intelligence, leadership, ability to run Kubiak’s complicated offense and accuracy are good enough to lead the Texans deep into the playoffs. Few signal callers do a better job fooling defenses with his play action fakes. Yates has replaced the departed Leinart as the backup, with former UH record setting free agent Case Keenum going to the practice squad.
There are two keys to the Texans going deep in the playoffs. The first is keeping Schaub erect for an entire season, followed by a healthy season for receiver Andre Johnson. Once the top receiver in the NFL, the 31-year old has been troubled by knee and hamstring problems. He missed nine games last year, giving Jacoby Jones a golden opportunity to start.
The Texans front office, however, grew weary of waiting for the mercurial speedster grown up cut him during the off season. Draft day saw the Texans take former Ohio State wide receiver Devier Posey and Michigan State’s Keyshawn Martin. Both should see considerable action this fall.
Last year’s free agent surprise, Lestar Jean, a 6-3 target with soft hands, will work into the rotation giving Schaub another weapon. He is the heir to the much maligned Kevin Walter job as the blocking receiver, one of the keys to the offensive scheme.
Tight end Owen Daniels is the starter but do not discount versatile James Casey. The former Rice star has the best hands on the team.
Star running back Arian Foster, who was rewarded by owner Bob McNair with a long term multi-million dollar deal, remains the focal point of the Texans’ offense. A year after winning the NFL rushing title, he came back with 1,217 rushing yards and also contributed 617 receiving yards, while reaching the end zone 12 times.
Foster’s running style is combination of Marcus Allen and Eric Dickerson. He’s freakish with his size, speed, strength and ability to run more naturally to his left, even though he is right handed. The manner in which he explodes when trapped along the sideline reminds me of a taller Joe Washington. Foster’s quickness to the hole and fierce downhill rushing style, paired with backup Ben Tate’s skills, gives the Texans a solid 1-2 tandem.
After missing his rookie season with ankle problems Foster’s backup, Tate, gained nearly 1,000 yards. Defense learned they couldn’t relax when he was giving Foster a breather.
The biggest surprise in camp has been Trindon Holiday, the pint-sized sprinter drafted in the sixth round three years ago, returning a kickoff and punt return for touchdowns. His fearless north-south style has made folks forget about Jones . Veteran free agent Donnie Jones will be the punter.
In an unusual draft move, the Texans took Texas A&M’s Randy Bullock in the belief he would be their field goal kicker for many years to come. Bullock, however, wound up on injured reserve. Vetran Shane Graham, who was brought in as competition for Bullock, had a strong pre-season and now has the job.
The Texans, meanwhile, have become the hunted instead of the hunter, facing Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler. Matthew Stafford and Adrian Peterson as part of their non-conference schedule. They could just as easily be 8-8 as the 12-4 expected by myopic Texan fans who have the foolish Super Bowl or Bust mentality. My prediction is 10-6, including a loss to the Colts and sensational rookie QB Andrew Luck in late December.
The playoff fun should begin in January, with a defense led by the top coordinator in football.
Barry Warner is a former NFL scout and long-time sports talk show host in Houston.