The Houston Texans broke through the glass ceiling and reached the NFL playoffs for the first time in franchise history in 2011.
One of the primary reasons was a prolific offense aided by a solid offensive line. But that line has lost two starters this offseason.
Still, starting left guard Wade Smith(who is preparing to host his inaugural charity weekend) believes the unit will be able to play at a high level in 2012, even after losing right tackle Eric Winston and right guardMike Brisel.
“Those two guys are main cogs in what we did up front,” Smith told National Football Authority in a one-on-one interview. “They’re definitely going to be missed in the locker room and on the field.”
“But the guys that we have coming in, the guys who are slated to play for them, are guys who have started for us in the past. (Right tackle) Rashad Butler and (right guard)Antoine Caldwell both have started games for us and been out there in the heat of the battle. We trust both those guys.”
Smith, a nine-year veteran, understands why Brisel left for the Oakland Raiders via free agency and why Winston was released–even if the second move came out of the blue.
“Mike got a great opportunity in Oakland. You can’t fault him for that,” Smith said. “I’m kind of surprised at the situation with Eric. But at the same time, next year I’ve been in the league for my 10th year, and things happen like that all the time. After a while, you’re kind of numb to it, so you’re not surprised when people are let go for whatever reason.”
Now Smith, along with fellow returning starters Chris Myers and Duane Brown, must help Butler and Caldwell–or whoever ends up starting on the right side of the line–adjust quickly.
“It’s going to be incumbent on the returning starters to continue to improve on our games and improve on the season we had last year, and to have the same expectations for the guys that are coming in, Rashad and Antoine,” Smith said. “I am fully confident in their abilities to step in and contribute to what we’re doing up front.”
Offensive line isn’t the only place the Texans have had major changes. They also lost defensive end Mario Williams via free agency, and traded linebacker DeMeco Ryans. But Smith believes the team’s ability to overcome injuries during the 2011 season will help them deal with the offseason losses this year.
“We had a mantra last year: next man up,” Smith said. “If you look at our roster at the beginning of the season last year and our roster at the end of the season, there’s a lot of big names that weren’t out there playing. And yet we were successful. So I don’t see any reason why that has to change.
“There’s going to be guys that have been faithful to the organization for years now that won’t be there, but whoever is slated to be in their spot, we’re expecting them to come in and do the job. We’re expecting management will draft guys and will hit on guys like J.J. Watt and Brooks Reed and different players like that. They’ll keep the ball rolling. I don’t have any qualms saying that.”
Smith is thankful the Texans won’t have to find a replacement for running back Arian Foster, who signed a big contract to remain in Houston. Smith said Foster is the best running back that he has ever blocked for, and is a perfect fit for the Texans’ zone-blocking scheme because of his outstanding vision.
“In our system, you have to have vision,” Smith said. “You have to be able to see lanes that open up, cutback lanes. You have to be able to press the hole or stress the defense and be able to put your foot in the ground and get north and south quickly. He does that.
“Once we get him to the line, where he can get separation from other players is the fact that it’s rare that the first guy tackles him. He’s not a 4.2 guy, and he’s not a Barry Sanders as far as his moves, but he’s smooth and deceptive and fast. He makes a lot of people miss. He has a good stiff-arm, runs through tackles. He catches the ball rolling out of the backfield.
“But first and foremost is his vision, because in our scheme, if you can’t see it, if you can’t put your foot in the ground and get north and south, you won’t be successful.”
Smith has contributed to Foster’s success by starting all 32 regular-season games in his two years as a Texan after stops with the Kansas City Chiefs, New York Jets and Miami Dolphins. Now that he is nearly a decade into his career, he’s looking to leave a mark off the field as well as on it.
To do so, Smith’s foundation is hosting its inaugural Lake Highlands Legends Charity Weekend on April 26-28. This ambitious event includes a free football camp, free health screenings, a charity flag-football game, a charity bowling event, after parties and more.
“I wanted something that would leave a legacy behind that will affect generations of kids after me,” Smith said. “When I was coming up, there were people that were put in my life for whatever reason that helped me get to where I am today. So I want to be a catalyst to help kids that are coming up behind me.”
Smith said the funds raised during the weekend will support a broad list of initiatives, including diabetes screenings, nutrition programs, SAT prep courses, a scholarship fund and reading events. Fans in the Dallas area can go to the foundation website or follow the foundation on Twitter for information on how to participate.
“It’s going to be a big weekend, a big event,” Smith said. “It’s for charity, to help the kids.”
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By Robert Neely, Featured NFL Writer