On the one hand, he had the greatest rookie year in team history, was the first real defensive lunatic for the franchise, and did a ton of great work with numerous charities. On the other hand, there's a good chance he was great as a rookie because he was fueled by steroids, was suspended twice for PED use, was oft-injured, and blocked more people on Twitter than he tackled on the football field.
The knee injuries, though, especially the first one in 2012, were the undeniable forks in the road in what my SportsRadio 610 colleague Paul Gallant called the great "what if" with Cushing. In fact, Pauly G thinks Cushing is the primary example of a "what if" in Texans history. If not for those knee injuries, then how good could he have been?
That's one man's opinion, but there are certainly numerous other "what if's" we can cite that fall into different buckets. Let's take a trip down Memory Lane and relive some of those unfortunate forks in the road that is Texans history, and start with a couple of injuries...
10. What if Mario Williams doesn't tear a pectoral muscle in 2011?
Texan fans, we forget that the best defense in the history of this franchise, the first Wade Phillips-coached unit in 2011, had the services of the No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 draft for just five games. Mario Williams had five sacks in those five games, so the whole shift to outside linebacker in a 3-4 was working for him when he went down with his season ending injury. That was a defense that, aside from Mario, featured Peak Brian Cushing, Peak Johnathan Joseph, Peak Danieal Manning, Emerging Connor Barwin, Solid DeMeco Ryans, Rookie J.J. Watt, Antonio Smith, Glover Quin... I mean, wow. The Texans lost Williams and still had one of the best defenses in the league, which undoubtedly was the rationale for letting him walk after the season. So if Williams plays the whole 2011 season and gets, say, 12 or 13 sacks, and the Texans make their playoff run, do they proactively come at Mario with an offer in line with what Buffalo did when they made him the highest paid defensive player in football? If so, what does a front seven with Williams, Barwin, Watt, Smith, and Cushing look like in 2012 (with Brooks Reed and rookie Whitney Mercilus as backups)? As mercurial as Williams could be at times, that's still a scary front seven, especially considering Watt became a phenom that year, winning his first Defensive Player of the Year award.
9. What if the Texans draft Aaron Rodgers in 2005?
In 2005, the Texans selected Florida State defensive lineman Travis Johnson, and the funniest thing about this particular "what if" is that Johnson himself jokes all the time, to this day, that the Texans should have taken Rodgers instead. Unfortunately, this is where the Texans' exceedingly patient ways first bit the fans in the ass. An improvement to 7-9 in 2004, even one fueled by defense not offense, was enough to delude the brass into thinking that they could still ride with David Carr at QB. Aaron Rodgers was there for the taking (for a couple dozen teams, actually), and while it's reasonable to think he benefitted from being in Green Bay and waiting a few seasons, his talent undeniably would have put the Texans on a faster track to success.
8. What if the Texans draft Vince Young in 2006?
So we know how 2005 ended up sans Rodgers — 2-14, Texans picking first in the draft. So if you didn't need a quarterback after 2004, then certainly you needed one after 2005, right? Well, apparently not. We all know how it went, Mario Williams was the pick. Let's say the Texans took Vince Young. You'd have to commit to him being the guy eventually, but still bring in a veteran like Sage Rosenfels, and then you go ahead insert VY when you feel it's time. The drumbeat would be loud from the get go. The way Young's career ended somewhat obscures how capable he looked early on in his career. If he had the same start to his career in Houston that he had in Tennessee, it would have made the Watson-mania from 2017 look like a grade school birthday party. The biggest question would center around how Young would have handled stardom in his hometown, as he's always seemed like someone who would be better off with distance from his inner circle than proximity to them.
7. What if the Texans draft
My contention is that, when we go back and evaluate Texans history, the most catastrophic draft choice is Su'a-Filo with the 33rd pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, at least until Deshaun Watson erases the angst over the Texans' entire team history with his first of seven Super Bowl wins. In retrospect, there is SO much wrong with the selection of Su'a-Filo. Sure, you can talk about the quarterbacks available at or around that pick (Bridgewater, Garoppolo, even Derek Carr), but for a 2-14 team to be taking a guard with what is basically a first round pick (first pick of the second round), the ONLY way that's justifiable is if he turns out to be Alan Faneca. Su'a-Filo turned out to barely be Alan Hale. (That's the Skipper from Gilligan's Island, for those of you under the age of 45.)
6. What if Jacoby Jones fields that punt early in the playoff game versus the Ravens in January 2012?
Setting the scene, this was the AFC Divisional Round, the Texans were playing with T.J. Yates at quarterback against an elite defense on the road. The start of the game could not have worked out better — the Texans put a field goal on the board to go up 3-0 and then forced a three and out on defense and a Ravens punt. Then this happened....
This Jones gaffe fueled a momentum spree that turned a 3-0 Texans lead into a 17-3 deficit by the end of that first quarter. The main issue here is that the only way the Texans were going to win that game was to have Yates as uninvolved as possible. An early 17-3 deficit made the Texans more pass-heavy than they'd have liked, and Yates wound up throwing three soul crushing interceptions. If Jones just stays away from that football early in the game, the butterfly effect may have sent the Texans to their first AFC title game. We will never know. (NOTE: Things, ironically, actually worked out phenomenally for Jones after this game, as he was cut by the Texans, signed by the Ravens, wound up being a playoff HERO in the 2012 season for a Super Bowl winner, and ended up on Dancing With The Stars. Jones' Cinderella run timed out in the fall of 2013 when a stripper splattered his face with a champagne bottle.)
5. What if the Texans wear normal jackets to the New England game in 2012, not high school letter jackets?
They probably still lose the game, but the Texans would not have been nearly the punchline they became in the process. Never forget.... no, SERIOUSLY, never forget....
4. What if the Texans keep Glover Quin and ignore Ed Reed in 2013?
This is one that's been debated heavily for the last five years, especially given how things progressed for each guy. Quin has become one of the best safeties in the game in Detroit, while Reed was out of football by the end of 2013. So it's indisputable what the correct decision was, in hindsight. However, it's interesting to think about the effect on the 2013 season, which was a season held together by the thinnest of threads, as it turned out (and as we will discuss in the next bullet point). Yes, the Texans went 2-14, but they were competitive early in the year, and the detrimental locker room effect of Ed Reed's attitude cannot be understated. In talking to friends around the team that season, Reed's insertion into the mix was oil and water, while Quin was the definition of dependable. To me, 2013's disaster was about a lot of little things (and Matt Schaub losing all semblance of football sense), and having Quin over Reed would have helped incrementally, for sure. Bigger picture, having Quin from 2014 through 2017 would have been a huge boon to this defense in the early O'Brien years.
3. What if Matt Schaub just takes a sack instead of throwing a pick six versus Seattle in 2013?
Again, let's set up the situation — Week 4, Texans are 2-1 on the season, and leading the Seahawks 20-13 late in the game at home. They have the ball with a little under three minutes to go, 3rd and 4 at the Seattle 40 yard line, and then this happens....
For the record, that was the third pick six for Schaub on the season (in four games), and needless to say, the Seahawks went on to win in overtime. So what if Schaub does the NEXT worst thing on that play, and takes a sack? At the very least, the Seahawks burn a timeout, the Texans punt, and the Seahawks probably have to go the length of the field to tie the game. The Texans' win probability under that scenario is likely in the 80 percent range, at least, and if they do win, they're 3-1 heading to San Francisco the following week. Sure, the Texans would get hit with injuries (Foster, Cushing) in the coming weeks, and Ed Reed would still be a useless turd, but do we really think this goes off the rails the way 2013 did if they win this game? I say "no". I think it's reasonable to think they'd go 9-7 in 2013, and then that opens up a whole can of worms — does Kubiak get fired? Probably not. Clowney isn't a Texan, because they'd be drafting around 20th in 2014. Schaub probably keeps his job for another year, and who knows, maybe 2-14 comes in 2014 a year later, and Jameis Winston becomes a Texan! (Oh, by the way, the Seahawks went on to win the Super Bowl in that 2013 season.)
2. What if Deshaun Watson stays healthy in 2017?
First, I'll take the opportunity to say this every chance I get — I can't wait to watch Deshaun Watson in 2018. However, I am still bitter we were deprived of a full 2017 on a fluky knee injury that may have started in the Seahawks game (those damn Seahawks again) and finished tearing in practice the following week. So the Texans were 3-4 when Watson went down. If you're asking me which of the nine games on the remaining schedule he may have been able to win for them, I would say both Indianapolis games, home against Arizona (which they won with Savage at QB), at Baltimore, at Tennessee, and home against San Francisco. (They'd have still lost to the Rams, Steelers, and Jags.) That's potentially 9-7 with two head to head wins over the Titans, who made the playoffs at 9-7 and beat the Chiefs. We may have been deprived of a Watson-Brady rematch in New England in the divisional round, and that's a shame.
1. What if the Texans handle their QB business completely differently following the 2011 season?
There are a few things going on in this final bullet point. First, there was the availability of Peyton Manning, whom the Colts had cut loose after determining that it was time to move on to Andrew Luck in the 2012 draft. Manning reportedly (and those reports have become even stronger through the years) wanted to be a Texan, joining a ready made Super Bowl contender. The Texans said "Nah, we are good with Shaubbie." Manning goes on to two Super Bowls in Denver, winning one, and retiring a hero in two cities. The Texans were picking first in the draft two seasons later. Mistake number one. Then there was the double down on Matt Schaub right at the start of the 2012 season, signing him to a four year, $62 million contract extension with a year still left on his deal. Again, two seasons later, Schaub was traded by the Texans to the Raiders for a sixth round draft choice (which I think became Alfred Blue, the Matt Schaub of running backs), and until Watson, this triggered a three season cluster-freak at quarterback for the Texans.
About the only good thing to come out of the whole Schaub mess in 2013 was his introductory press conference in Oakland in 2014, a lesson in supreme delusion....
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.