If you're looking for more signs of the Texans' continuing shift from also-ran to legitimate Super Bowl contender, you needn't look any further than the "Transactions" portion of any NFL-related Web site the last two days.
Whereas in past seasons (hell, as recently as last summer), the Texans were definitive shoppers trying to plug holes in their top 11 on each side of the ball, this season they're trying their best to juggle the tricky balance of re-signing their own free agents, restructuring existing deals and deciding who won't be along for the ride in 2012.
That's where this story begins. That last part. Letting guys go.
It's what happens with good teams, and the Texans are now a good team.
In the last 24 hours, the Texans have released backup quarterback Matt Leinart, fullback Lawrence Vickers and, in the biggest surprise of the offseason so far, starting offensive tackle Eric Winston. From a salary cap standpoint, the moves left the Texans functional at best as they set out to accomplish their next orders of business, namely re-signing center Chris Myers, guard Mike Brisiel, tight end Joel Dreessen and perhaps taking a final stab at retaining outside linebacker Mario Williams.
From an emotional standpoint, the moves left the existing Houston Texan players scratching their heads, especially over the release of Winston, a solid right tackle who has been one of the faces and voices of the franchise over the last six years.
Fellow offensive tackle Duane Brown, whose pending free agency this time next year will be a HUGE story if the Texans don't lock him up before then, joined me on my morning show on 1560 The Game to discuss Winston's release. The emotion in his voice was palpable as he talked about the shock of hearing the news yesterday:
Huge shock, man. I didn't expect that at all. [Eric] texted all of us before he sent out his tweet to tell us it had happened. I thought it was a joke at first. It's tough, man, you know it's a business and the team did what they thought they had to do....the offensive line is a solid unit, like a fraternity, and when you lose a guy like that, it hurts, man.
Specifically, as a fellow tackle, the kinship between Winston and Brown was obvious in Brown's words:
[Eric has] taught me a lot throughout my career and he's been a good friend of mine, so it's gonna be tough. But he's a great player, a great person, and I know he'll land on his feet wherever he goes.
I highly recommend listening to the whole interview, because Brown goes on to talk about the chemistry along the offensive line and specifically the role Myers plays in getting the team in the right looks. He is essentially the "brains of the operation," and the Texans are drifting into dangerous territory having not locked up Myers yet and allowing the market to dictate his worth.
The release of Leinart is not unexpected and to a degree mirrors the release of Dan Orlovsky last season. In other words, there's no reason to pay a veteran quarterback $2 million to potentially be a third-stringer.
The release of Vickers was perhaps a mild surprise considering he's the only true fullback on the roster and he blocked pretty well throughout the season. But they picked him up off the street last August, and chances are they can find another Lawrence Vickers off the street when the time comes, if need be.
It's the Winston release that has everyone buzzing. The euphoria of last week's extension of Arian Foster's contract has been replaced by a nervous tension that three-fifths of the offensive line that paved the way for his two Pro Bowl seasons could be gone by week's end. Hell, they could be gone by nightfall. Who knows?
All I know is I went to sleep yesterday afternoon around 5 p.m., my first nap in about three years, and when I woke up, Eric Winston was no longer a Texan. Matt Leinart, too.
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I'll try to stay awake today, and if I do fall asleep, I promise to channel my newfound Jedi powers toward the release of Jacoby Jones.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. weekdays, and watch the simulcast on Comcast 129 from 6 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.