Eric Hartz: There's little doubt that this is the best Houston Texans team we've seen since they came into the league in 2006. How has coach Gary Kubiak turned around the team in this, his second year, and what still needs to be done for them to take the next step?
Ed Thompson: Kubiak supposedly has the final say on player moves, including who is selected in the NFL Draft., and he's really done a commendable job bringing talented players at key positions during his short tenure. As each year passes, expect this team to get better as he gets more of his players in place.
Kubiak has a really sharp offensive mind, but has also surrounded himself with some talented coaches on the defensive side of the ball as well. I've had the opportunity to ask him some questions during a press conference at the NFL Combine, and I can tell you that he has a logical, calm demeanor that is undoubtedly serving the Texans well and has gained the respect of his players. I really believe that this team is just a few players away from being a serious playoff contender.
They need to find a stronger complement to superstar wide receiver Andre Davis, are still lacking "the man" at running back, and need to shore up their run defense a bit as they're allowing 4.43 yards per carry this season, fourth-worst in the NFL.
Hartz: The Texans were universally derided for choosing Mario Williams over Vince Young and Reggie Bush in the 2006 NFL Draft. But Young has been inconsistent this season and Bush has struggled in both 2006 and 2007, while Williams leads the NFL in sacks. Has he done enough to silence the critics, and how do you see history judging the Texans' choice down the road?
Thompson:I think Williams has made huge strides towards quieting the naysayers, partially on the strength of his own performance, and partially due to lackluster sophomore campaigns by Bush and Young.
Bush, the man that most people expected to be the Texans' top pick, hasn't proven yet that he's anything special. His 3.70 yards per carry trails Texans running back Ron Dayne's 3.92 mark. And can you imagine Bush holding up for a full season if he had to be the franchise back rather than a tandem partner like he's enjoyed in New Orleans?
Young has been inconsistent as a passer and is still a huge question mark regarding whether he'll ever take his team beyond perennial wildcard contender status. Williams is the only one of the three showing real progress, so history shouldn't be too unforgiving if this early trend continues for the trio.
Hartz: Sage Rosenfels has been around the league for a while and got quite some attention under Steve Spurrier in Washington, yet he seems to be a relative unknown to casual NFL fans. What is his background, his strengths, and why does he seem to get a chance to play wherever he goes?
Thomas B. Shea, Getty Images
Thompson: I think most fans this year were stunned to learn that Rosenfels has been in the league since 2001. He's languished in relative obscurity after being picked in the fourth-round of the NFL Draft that year by the Redskins. To put that in historical context for Colts fans, Rosenfels was picked nine slots above Indy's starting right offensive tackle, Ryan Diem.
A little more than a year later, in August of 2002, he was traded to Miami for a seventh-round pick. In 2006, he signed as an undrafted free agent with Houston. Prior to this season, he's never appeared in more than four games. But he's thriving in Gary Kubiak's offense, completing 69.2 percent of his passes in four game appearances in 2006 and 65.1 percent in seven games (including three starts) this year.
He can be streaky at times, and while he's not much of a threat as a runner, he's a good overall athlete with decent arm strength.
Hartz: Everyone knows about Andre Johnson, but what about the Texans' other young wide receivers, Kevin Walter and Jacoby Jones? What are their strengths and how do they fit into Houston's long-term plans?
Thompson:Prior to this year, Walter had just two NFL starts despite close to 60 game appearances during his first four years in the league with the Bengals and the Texans. Sixty-one of his 108 career receptions have been made this year for a 12.0 yards per catch average.
The 6-foot-3, 214-pound Walters has good hands and is willing to battle for the football or take a lick in a tight spot to make the catch. Jones, a rookie out of Lane College, is the speedster who is also a dangerous punt return specialist. Colts fans will likely remember him for his 74-yard return in his first outing against the Colts that ended abruptly after he was shoved out of bounds by punter Hunter Smith and landed badly on his shoulder, suffering a separation. He missed the next two games.
Jones times his leaps well and has long arms that are an asset, but he's still adjusting to working against pro-caliber pass defenders, as evidenced by his 14 catches for 135 yards this season. He's got a lot of upside, but at this point is most dangerous as a return specialist.
Hartz: The Texans look like they could be a contender in 2008, and they get a chance to make a statement in 2007 by finishing the season against Indianapolis and Jacksonville. Wins in those two games would officially put them on everyone's radar. Do the Texans see these final games as a springboard into next season?
Thompson: Absolutely. They started off well this season and had high hopes. Key injuries and some inconsistent play put them in the hole, but with a strong finish on the heels of their current two-game winning streak, they can rekindle that hope and build upon it for the 2008 campaign.
In Gary Kubiak's rookie year as a head coach in this league, the Texans posted six wins, and they have seven with two games left. If they finish with nine wins, including a pair against the current top dogs in the division, Houston will be a hot topic during the offseason.