Fullback Vonta Leach's motto for the 2009 season nicely summarized the constant refrain coming from Texans players Thursday at Reliant Stadium, one day before the start of 2009 Training Camp:
"Playoffs or bust."
After back-to-back 8-8 seasons, quarterback Matt Schaub is one of many players along with Leach who hope to take the Texans to the postseason for the first time in team history.
"I don't think (expectations) are higher any other place than with us in the locker room," Schaub said. "Obviously, our goal is to become a playoff team."
Nearly a year ago today, the Texans reported to training camp under similar circumstances — fresh off an 8-8 season with a playoff appearance in their sights. But the effects of Hurricane Ike, which inflicted damage to Reliant Stadium's roof, delayed the team's home opener until Week 5. The Texans dropped three consecutive road games, then fell to Indianapolis in their first home contest to start the season in an 0-4 hole.
Although the team was able to finish 8-4 over the final 12 games and finish at .500, the absolute necessity of getting off to a good start in 2009 isn't lost on Schaub. The Texans will open the season with a home game against the Jets and a road matchup against Tennessee, followed by two more home dates against Jacksonville and Oakland.
"This year, having three of our first four at home, the schedule sets up better for us than going on the road for the first four weeks," Schaub said. "So having a good start and playing consistently throughout the year is going to be key for us."
Also key to a strong opening to 2009 is for the Texans to come out of training camp relatively injury-free. Head coach Gary Kubiak, by virtue of his own experience as a former NFL quarterback, has a keen sense of how to run a training camp without pushing his players too hard too early.
"He's a players' coach," Schaub said. "He takes cares of us, and he has a good feel for the team, when he needs to let off the reigns a little or when he needs to pull them in tight."
Another hot topic at training camp will be the stability at running back. Steve Slaton proved to be one of the league's top young runners in his 2008 rookie season with a franchise-record 1,282 rushing yards. He returns in 2009 as a full-fledged weapon in the high-octane Texans' offense, alongside Pro Bowl wide receiver Andre Johnson and tight end Owen Daniels.
"It's humbling," Slaton said. "To be with those guys who have been doing this for years and this just being my first year going on my second, being able to be mentioned with them definitely gives me a lot to work for."
Although Slaton's position at starting running back is solid as a rock, the competition for backup minutes behind him will be one of the bigger storylines of camp. He proved to be durable and resilient in year one, but Slaton's 5-9, 215-pound frame will mean that finding a durable, bruising secondary back to ease his burden will be a key goal coming out of this year's camp.
Along with veteran running back Chris Brown, a pair of undrafted free agents, Jeremiah Johnson and Arian Foster, will get a serious look in training camp. Although Johnson was prevented from participating in much of the team's offseason program due to his academic schedule at Oregon, Foster already has attracted Slaton's attention so far this summer.
"Arian, he looks the part, and he's out there working," Slaton said. "He's definitely hungry. If he's here, hopefully he can help this team get better."
With the training camp rituals of drills, workouts and two-a-day practices bound to help sort out this and many other key questions surrounding the 2009 Texans, Slaton and his teammates are more than ready to kick things off Friday morning.
"I don't think any football player looks forward to two-a-days, but once we get this over with, the season starts up," he said. "So I'm looking forward to getting it started.
Notes: When asked about the reinstatement of his former teammate Michael Vick, Schaub was hopeful that the former Atlanta Falcon would soon get an opportunity to play elsewhere in the NFL. "I hope so," Schaub said of his hopes that an NFL team would sign Vick. "I think they will, and I think they should. Whoever that might be, they're going to get a heck of an athlete and a guy who can help their football team."