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Canny Texans quietly build their super roster around character

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With a playoff victory under their belt, J.J. Watt and the young Texans are hungry for more. (US Presswire)  
With a playoff victory under their belt, J.J. Watt and the young Texans are hungry for more. (US Presswire)  

HOUSTON -- When the Houston Texans assemble all of their college scouts for the first time each December, beginning their first organization-wide foray into heavy draft preparation, chatter in the meeting rooms doesn't start with 40 times or highlight-reel plays.

Instead, general manager Rick Smith is often probing more about the intellect and character of key prospects, listening to his staff dissect key prospects on that regard.

They want tremendous athletes, same as everyone else, but won't overreach for it. They are going to prize decision-making ability on and off the field, and players their beloved owner, Bob McNair, can be proud of. It's an ethos that has served as the backbone of the expansion team's sometimes-agonizing ascent to the NFL elite. It's about identifying good people, giving people space to be themselves, and being imminently willing to reward your own as you develop a young core.

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Now, few teams in the NFL have the kind of difference makers the Texans have assembled across all position groups, with expectations soaring as the preseason transitions into the regular season.

"We put a big emphasis and a big focus on character and mental [aptitude]," Smith said. "When we start setting our preliminary draft board in December, that is the first thing I'm listening to ... character and mental. We put a high premium on it, and I think it helps us.

"Guys that have discipline and make good decisions are typically going to have discipline and make good decisions on the field, too. In the fourth quarter, and the pressure is on need, and we need a big play, the guys that take care of business on and off the field tend to be same guys who have success."

The formula is nearing its culmination. The largely homegrown roster is robust, and the city of Houston has a legitimate Super Bowl fever, the likes of which hasn't been seen since the heyday of "Luv Ya Blue" and the old Oilers of Bum Phillips, father of Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.

"It's really starting to come together for us now, and it's been fun to watch, and to be a part of it," said quarterback Matt Schaub, who was acquired from Atlanta in 2007.  "To see the city just really grab hold and just hang on everything we're doing here, and be excited about, it's great. Now the next step for us is a championship, and anything less in our opinion is a disappointment."

This brand of roster building also tends to keep the Texans off the national radar, and the police blotter. In an offseason where players were being arrested regularly, Houston did not apply. There was no drama to speak of at their camp. No controversy. Nary a position battle (Derek Newton, a 2011 seventh-round pick out of Arkansas State, won the gig as the new starting right tackle), even, with the lineup essentially returning.

Where other AFC powers like the Steelers had the Mike Wallace holdout and the Patriots were waiting for Brian Waters to report and the Ravens lost Terrell Suggs to injury and had an AWOL left tackle (Bryant McKinnie) when camp began and the cross-state rival Cowboys are implementing round-the-clock babysitting for Dez Bryant, it's typical ho-hum for the Texans, the one legitimate Super Bowl threat you probably hear the least about.

That's all perfectly fine with them.

They had another superior offseason, securing Arian Foster's services when they could have forced him to play out a low restricted-free-agent tag and getting another key cog locked up long term in tackle Duane Brown. They excel at keeping their own.

The draft should prove immediately fruitful (led by top pick Whitney Mercilus) and so many of their best young players -- like Foster, Connor Barwin, J.J. Watt, Johnathan Joseph, Brooks Reed and Brian Cushing -- are just entering their primes.

Some might dwell on two big-name departures -- pass rusher Mario Williams and right tackle Eric Winston -- but this team was better than ever with Williams out all season, and is loaded at his spot. Winston's play waned some last season, scouts said, and there was only so much cap space to go around and were some health concerns with him, as well.

So, the closest thing to any suspense here is which star will get a new fat contract next? Barwin, would be the answer, by the way, with both sides working hard to get something in place before the regular season begins (like many strong clubs, the Texans won't do that sort of business in-season).

"If it gets done in the next week, that would be great," Barwin said, "and if it doesn't, then it doesn't." There is a very good chance it does.

Schaub is entering the final year of his deal, and while sources said it is highly unlikely at this point something gets done before the season, both sides feel good about being able to hash it out in the postseason. (Waiting to see what kind of money goes to guys like Joe Flacco makes sense all around.)

Trust me, there is no trepidation about losing the quarterback; The Texans are married to him, and another long-term deal here awaits. It's just a matter of when. With the Texans nearly knocking off the Ravens in Baltimore to go the AFC Championship Game last year, with T.J. Yates under center, there is every belief Schaub could take this group much further not just in 2012, but well beyond, given the astute way the roster has been constructed.

Any worries about Schaub struggling to regain his form after missing the final six games with a foot injury were subdued within the first few weeks of camp.

"There was some rust early on in camp," Schaub said. "I'd be lying if I said there wasn't; I think everyone would agree to that. Three or four days there, I was missing some things, not as precise, but that quickly ran its course. It really is like slipping a glove back on."

The Texans are unquestionably one of the most balanced teams in the NFL, in every fashion. The head coach, Gary Kubiak, is an offensive whiz, and the defensive coordinator, Phillips, is as good calling plays on that side of the ball on Sundays as there is. They can run it down your throat or beat you quickly with Andre Johnson. They can pulverize your quarterback, and also showed an ability to ratchet down against the run in 2011.

We can nitpick about secondary receivers and depth corners, maybe the return game, but this team has already showed it is deep enough to overcome catastrophic injuries.

"There's a balance of personalities, a balance to the roster," Barwin said. "There's definitely a balance that Rick and Kubes have kind of created. We try not to be one-dimensional. That goes to Rick and how they've drafted guys and the team they've put together."

No longer can the Texans be labeled "soft" after all they overcame in 2011, including losing Phillips for a key period due to health issues. They have persevered through all of the times their coach and GM have been on the "hot seat." They have dispelled that "soft" notion both physically and mentally, and, at the time they lost Schaub (and then his backup, Matt Leinart), they have become the team many AFC coaches least hoped to face in the playoffs.

"Last year's experience was part of that maturation process," Smith said. "I see that. I feel that. I see that on the practice field -- there is a degree of confidence and an air our football team has now, and we should. We've got good players and we've got good coaches and we have a chance to be good, and they know that. But we also know the only way we're going to do it is if we go out and work."

Foster said: "We have a certain bravado about us now. It's not like, 'Maybe we can get this today.' It's like, every game we play now we expect to win. We feel like if we step on the field, we're going to win."

The Texans' affinity for smart guys -- something shared by none other than the New England Patriots -- has not only fortified their mentality, but has resulted in a tight chemistry and winning makeup, with just enough of a splash of characters. Foster is very cerebral, philosophical, yet still playful, seeing the game and handling his contract situation in a refined manner that's not always the norm. Barwin is verbose and bright as well, is a natural in front of the cameras, and is becoming a cowboy cult hero in the Jared Allen vein, complete with gaudy sack totals and jorts, no less.

"The organization from the top down prides itself on being first class," Foster said. "We bring in good people and Kubes is real good with letting you be yourself. You're a grown man, you can walk this life the way you want to walk it, but you have a job. If it gets in the way of your job, you have to check yourself, but as long as you're doing your job, he doesn't care."

Barwin concurs.

"There are definitely characters here, but there's no bad characters," he said. "I would say there's interesting characters here. It's a good group. No bad apples. A lot of different apples, I guess, but we all get along and it works. We've got a bunch of different personalities that play off each other and it kind of jells."

It's an eclectic mix, and quite possibly a championship mix. Playing in the AFC South, surrounded by rebuilding clubs all going with neophyte quarterbacks, doesn't hurt either. It's enough to get this city thinking about February parades, and enough to get me thinking that wouldn't be much of a surprise at this point.

"Yeah, Super Bowl or bust, that's kind of what it's like around here now," Barwin said. "But that's fine. That's better than fine, that's good. That's what you want."


Before joining CBS Sports, Jason La Canfora was the Washington Redskins beat writer for The Washington Post for six years and served as NFL Network's insider. The Baltimore native can be seen every Sunday during the season on The NFL Today.
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