* EDITOR'S NOTE:**Texans fan Alan J. Burge continues to write his "Voice of the Fan" column for HoustonTexans.com. His latest installment is below. Alan's views do not necessarily reflect the views of the organization.
*As the new and hopefully improved Texans gathered at Reliant Park on Tuesday morning, the first thing that hit me was how much the NFL has changed over the years.
Long gone are the days when players dispersed in January, never to be seen again until two weeks before preseason when veterans and rookies alike would fill up their Novas and Gremlins with 89-cent gas, throw a case of beer and a few cartons of cigarettes in the trunk and drive out to some dusty college town for a couple weeks of training camp – which consisted of as much partying as it did practice – or so the legend goes.
Fast forward to the present and we have the Super Bowl being played in February, the free agency period starting in March, the draft in April, something called OTA's (On-field Team Activities) in May, mini-camps in June, training camp in July, and before you know it, August and a new preseason is upon us.
Yes indeed, the NFL has changed. It's now a multi-billion dollar industry with players earning upwards of $25 million guaranteed, and because of those high stakes, NFL football is now a virtual year-round sport.
That's great news for football die-hards like us, because if you're like me, you would rather watch Jameel Cook or Quadtrine Hill catch flare passes from Sage Rosenfels than watch a minute of the Mavs – Spurs series or pay a minute of attention to the circus that is Barry Bonds.
The second thing that hit me was that I was there, standing between the two practice fields beside Reliant Stadium, living every fan's dream and soaking it all in. Don't worry, the pinch marks should go away in a few days.
How I got there isn't important. What I saw is. And today I feel obligated to pass on what I saw to my brethren (that's you Texans fans) in a way that you won't see on Channel 2 or read in the Chronicle.
Here it goes.
First things first: Mario Williams is one big dude. Yeah, and the sky is blue. Big deal, I know.
No. I'm telling you. Williams is one big and athletic dude. I'm talking about making an impression on me like the first time I stood 10 feet from Lincoln Kennedy at the Astrodome back in the early '90s when he played for Jerry Glanville's Atlanta Falcons.
"Wow" was a fairly common response from those seeing Mario up-close and personal for the first time.
Speaking of Jerry Glanville, anyone remember our new defensive coordinator Richard Smith when he was here with the Oilers? I do. He was the guy who had his special teams players dress up in military helmets and fatigues before each home game, walking up and down the field welcoming the opponent to "The House of Pain."
Well, Richard is back and it doesn't take long to notice. Gone is the gimmickry (hopefully), but not the fire, passion and vocal cords. I thought I was watching an early August training camp session at times with the intensity shown by the defense. It's going to be fun this year watching Smith and his defensive backs coach, Jon Hoke, try to out yell each other. Neither are shy about mincing words, I'm here to tell ya.
Here's another insider bit. Remember Sylvester Stallone's gravel-voiced trainer and coach Mickey (Burgess Merideth) in the movie Rocky? Texans fans, allow me to introduce you to defensive line coach Bob Karmelowicz.
No kidding. As I watched defensive line drills back in the corner field about mid-way through the practice, I had "Gonna Fly Now" ripping through my head. I was waiting for Sly to run out in his red, white and blue shorts and scale the "hill" at the back of the practice facility for effect. No, wait - that's not possible since the hill is gone.
I'm just having a little fun and no disrespect, coach Bob. I'm guessing you've heard it a million times before and you are obviously going to be a fan and player favorite.
Maybe it's time to look at my notes since I haven't even touched on any of that yet.
-About five minutes after arriving, I was almost splattered by Eric Moulds as he caught a sideline pass at full speed and carried it out of bounds right past me. At first I thought, dang, Marcellus Rivers must have been on a heck of an off-season strength-training program. Then I realized – good God – that's Moulds. I can't wait to see him and Andre on the field at the same time. It will be a beautiful thing – given protection.
-Regarding newly acquired Mike Flanagan, he and Robaire Smith got into a nasty little scrap after a play. Coach Kubiak obviously didn't appreciate it based on his post-practice comments. I'm willing to bet he secretly likes the intensity, but he had to make a point to "stay in control" early on.
-I was impressed and somewhat surprised with the intensity of the practice. The players wore helmets and shoulder pads and were really getting after each other.
-Believe it - there was a Bennie Joppru sighting. Yes, I had to check my roster sheet but #83, the former 2003 second-round draft pick, was out there catching balls during full-team drills.
-Get used to seeing tight ends and fullbacks catching a lot of balls. Jeb Putzier made his presence known on Tuesday as did Cook and Hill. Quarterback David Carr's head will have to be on a swivel this year – not just to avoid the pass rush – but to progress through multiple targets.
-Domanick Davis is still nursing an injured knee and won't see any real action until later this summer.
-Kailee Wong was jogging and later came back out with his knee wrapped. He still has some rehab to complete.
-For those of you into the "Super Mario" thing, big #90 has a softball sized superman tattoo on his upper right arm.
-I wandered over to the area where the offensive linemen were working with Mike Sherman and watched as the coach put the guys through their paces. It's easy to see that Sherman will be a major asset to this coaching staff. He's personable, constantly teaching, but at the same time isn't afraid to tear someone's head off. I was very intrigued by drills where he had Chester Pitts and Charles Spencer firing off in unison and carrying their blocks strongly through the second level of defenders.
-Antowain Smith got a lot of reps and is wearing the #32 worn by Jonathan Wells the last four years.
-Yeah … holy confusion, Batman. I was handed a roster today with 96 names on it. I did a quick count and I saw only 39 names (plus or minus) of players who finished the season with the Texans last year. In other words, I would suggest everyone get a roster and become familiar with the new names.
-I've been thinking for a while that this could end up being the best Texans draft ever, and seeing the guys on the field made me even more excited about this draft class. I spent a lot of time watching Mario, DeMeco Ryans, Eric Winston, and Spencer, and I am very impressed with what I saw. These are some big, fast and athletic guys who can really get after it.
It was an exciting morning at the training facility but it also seemed a bit odd since almost everything is new. Was this my team? Who are these guys? There are new faces everywhere and a new scheme for the players to learn. It's a period of adjustment for the players and a period of hope through a new beginning for the fans.
Is it August yet?