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Texans working toward fewer injuries in '08


Two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Andre Johnson is one of a long list of Texans players looking to put injuries behind them in 2008.

The Texans head toward the 2008 season with ambitions of making the playoffs for the first time ever. Head coach Gary Kubiak can only hope that, for the first time since he's joined the organization, his team can stay reasonably healthy for an entire season.

Kubiak never will use injuries as an excuse for on-field performance. In fact, despite having a league-high 17 players on injured reserve in 2006 and 17 more in 2007, Kubiak and general manager Rick Smith have led the Texans to steady improvement. In 2006, Houston went from a two-win team with the No. 1 overall draft pick to a six-win team that beat the eventual Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts late in the season. In 2007, that six-win team turned into the most successful club in Texans history.

Observers in the media marveled that the Texans, playing in the arduous AFC South, were able to pick up eight wins without the full services of their best offensive player (Andre Johnson), emotional leader on defense (Dunta Robinson), highly-touted starting quarterback (Matt Schaub), four-time Pro Bowl running back (Ahman Green) and two of their top-performing offensive linemen (Fred Weary and Steve McKinney).

{QUOTE}Last year's Texans had unprecedented depth and talent which, mixed with a dash of strong team chemistry and a good measure of heart, allowed them to finish at .500. This offseason, the team added more talent with the likes of Rosevelt Colvin, Jacques Reeves, Chris Brown, Chris Myers and a promising draft class. The Texans' roster will be harder to make in 2008 than it has been ever before.

A change in philosophy
That's good for obvious reasons – it means the Texans are better and have more depth to deal with inevitable injuries. That overall team improvement also may be pivotal in slowing the rate that injuries have been piling up since 2006, because it will allow Kubiak to lighten the amount of contact in practice.

"I think a lot of our injuries came in the past from just how much we're pushing each other, if that makes sense," Kubiak said. "We weren't a very good football team when we got started (in 2006). We had to really grind and push each other and battle on a daily basis to try to take some steps forward. I think we've done that. We're a more athletic football team now. Our roster is better. I think we practice better. We stay off the ground. We protect each other better.

"Just doing it over and over and over again, we've learned how to protect each other a little bit better on the football field than we have in the past. When you do get the football team to where you feel like you're better and more competitive, maybe you do some things differently as far as contact in practice. I just think we're improving doing those types of things, just like anything else."

Under Kubiak, the Texans also have improved their offseason work ethic. Attendance at voluntary offseason workouts is nearly perfect.

"It's the head coach that drives the willingness, and coach Kubiak is as supportive as any coach I've been around," said Texans strength and conditioning coach Dan Riley, a 27th-year NFL coach with three Super Bowl rings from his tenure with the Washington Redskins. "He strongly believes that players should be here in the offseason."

Two-fold benefit
For a team looking to reduce its number of injuries, offseason workouts can be critical.

"Some injuries, you're in the wrong place at the wrong time," Riley said. "You get a 300-pound man that runs into your knee, something's going to give. There are some injuries I believe that can be prevented, and our (strength and conditioning) system is designed to do that."

The Texans' 10,000 square-foot weight room features seven machines designed specifically for neck exercises. During offseason workouts, Riley and his staff place a heavy emphasis on preventing neck burners and other injuries in one of the most high-risk areas of the body. He said he also constantly looks for new ways to tweak his program to protect other high-impact areas, such as the shoulders.

Offseason workouts also benefit players by providing a forum for constant interaction with teammates as they share laughs between sets in the weight room, sessions of HALO in the players' lounge and bites of lunch in the team cafeteria.

"If you wait until September to build chemistry, it's too late," Riley said. "I call it 'spontaneous interaction.' There are players during the season that would be in their own position meetings – they break the meeting, they go to practice, they go back to the meeting, they go home – that have very little opportunities to talk with some players, (especially) the defensive players to talk to the offensive players.

"(The offseason) is a great time for that spontaneous interaction where they develop an understanding of who a guy is and learn more about his family. You may see a guy with his children that you normally wouldn't."

Players to watch
A survey of the Texans looking to put injuries behind them this offseason reads like a list of the team's best players. Ryans played through a knee injury at the end of last season, but still managed to start for the AFC in the Pro Bowl. Johnson had arthroscopic surgery to fix the lingering pain in his left knee and should be 100 percent by training camp. The Texans were 6-3 with him in the lineup last season as he led the NFL in receiving yards per game (94.7). Schaub (left shoulder) looked as good as ever during OTAs this May, as did a spry-looking Green, who dealt with discomfort in his knee last season.

Robinson and lineman Charles Spencer are hard at work on the recovery trail with their respective knee injuries. Weary (broken leg) is battling furiously to make it back by training camp and push starting right guard Mike Brisiel for his spot. Defensive end Anthony Weaver has participated fully this offseason after two offseason surgeries prevented him from doing much of anything last year. He said during OTAs that he feels like he could be in store for a big season.

Safety Glenn Earl and running back Chris Taylor, two players Kubiak tabbed as breakout candidates heading into 2007, are at 100 percent after suffering season-ending offseason injuries last year. Wideout Jacoby Jones, slowed by a shoulder injury in Week 3 of his rookie season, showed flashes during OTAs of a return to his 2007 preseason form, when he tied for the NFL lead with four touchdowns. An injury precluded safety Brandon Harrison from playing at all during his rookie season, but he's fully healthy heading into training camp.

Of those players, only Green and Weaver have played more than five seasons in the league. Likewise, rising stars Mario Williams, Amobi Okoye and Owen Daniels have played a combined five seasons in the NFL.

"This team has a lot of second-, third-, fourth- and fifth-year football players that are battling for jobs, and a lot of teams in this league have (a mix of) a lot of veterans and very young guys," Kubiak said. "We're all about the same age. It's unusual. So our competition is very good."

The locker room camaraderie at Reliant Stadium rivals that competition.

"We have an extremely hard-working group of players," Riley said. "It's a great group of guys. It's the best group of guys I've been around in 27 years in the NFL. They get along. They care about each other. Our standards are demanding, but I think they're reasonable and we have a large number of guys that are willing to work exceptionally hard."

If that hard work translates into less injuries, it will only help the Texans as they continue to push toward a winning record and a postseason berth.

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