This wasn't the way Brian Cushing envisioned it.
The Texans' defensive captain and team MVP in 2011, Cushing entered the 2012 season as the leader of a defense that ranked second in the NFL last season. He finished it watching the final 11 regular-season games and both playoff games, including Sunday's season-ending loss at New England, from the sideline thanks to a torn ACL in his left knee.
"It's a helpless feeling not being able to help or contribute," Cushing said after the game, having finished changing from the Texans hoodie and sweatpants he wore during the game into a suit and tie. "It's a feeling I've never felt before. I've never missed a season, and I've never missed more than a game. Having to sit out a whole year and knowing Week 5 my season was done, it was a very different feeling."
The Texans' defense had a very different feeling without Cushing in the lineup. They finished the year ranked seventh in the NFL in yards allowed and tied for ninth in points. They got solid play from veteran inside linebackers Bradie James, who started 15 games this season and led the team with 11 tackles on Sunday, and Barrett Ruud, who had five tackles Sunday while starting next to James. Tim Dobbins and Darryl Sharpton both excelled before joining Cushing on injured reserve just before the start of the playoffs.
But there's no doubt the Texans missed Cushing, the fiery leader of their defense, a sideline-to-sideline playmaker who led the team in tackles in two of his first three seasons and who defensive coordinator Wade Phillips described as a "holy terror" on multiple occasions in 2011.
"I just tried to be as active as I can and tried to interact and tried to help," Cushing said of the role he was relegated to on Sunday. "If I could've been out there, I felt l could've helped a lot.
"I knew last year I gave everything I had. I knew I performed, I played hard. This year, there's gonna be a lot of wonder in the offseason as to what could have happened if I did play."
A low block from New York Jets guard Matt Slauson ended Cushing's season in Week 5. At the time of his injury, he led the NFL's third-ranked defense with 29 tackles. He had surgery a few weeks later with Dr. James Andrews in Pensacola, Fla., and has been rehabbing at Reliant Stadium ever since.
Cushing, who'll be 26 next season, went to just about every game and practice after his injury. He said Sunday that he was proud of his teammates for what they accomplished this season, and he doesn't think anyone in the Texans' locker room was happy with getting to the playoffs.
"I think this team is hungry, and obviously we want more," Cushing said. "So that'll be our goal for next year.
"It's tough coming up here and losing against this team. Obviously, we would've liked things to be a little different, but they weren't. I think what kind of team we are will be determined in how we respond to this.
"I'm excited for what our opportunities are. This team, back-to-back years has lost in the second round of the playoffs. Obviously, next year, we're going to want to go further. We're going to want to go to the Super Bowl. Who knows what happens in the offseason with contracts and whatnot, and every team is different. But we're excited. I know I'm definitely excited just to get back."
He'll be back in 2013.