If you're looking for a measure of Brian Cushing's relevance as a football player right about now, merely compare the anticipation of his return from his two PED suspensions. Back in 2010, Cushing was forced to serve a four-game suspension to begin the season after flunking a PED test in the offseason. With Cushing's coming off a Pro Bowl rookie season in 2009, Texan fans were impatiently counting down his return.
In 2017, with Cushing having served a ten-game suspension that ended with the conclusion of the Texans' 23-16 loss to the Baltimore Ravens on Monday night, it took nearly the entirety of our three-hour postgame show for me or my co-host, former linebacker Ted Johnson (who actually played Cushing's position for ten years himself in the NFL), to even mention Cushing's name, and when we did it was in a completely casual "Wow, we haven't mentioned Brian Cushing's name yet" kind of way.
In short, in 2010, Cushing was a foundational piece of the Texans' present and future. In 2017, Cushing is a shell of what he once was as a player, and may have played his last game as a Texan. It remains to be seen. What we can state affirmatively is that Brian Cushing was back in NRG Stadium on Tuesday afternoon, eligible to return this Sunday against the Tennessee Titans.
Cushing's return raises a few questions. Let's examine them:
How does Bill O'Brien feel about having Cushing back?
Probably best just to transcribe what O'Brien had to say in response to the barrage of Cushing-related questions at his Tuesday press conference:
What are the plans for ILB Brian Cushing and what was your interaction like with him today?
“I just saw him. He’s been away from us for a while, obviously. First things first, just personally we got to get caught up, see where he’s at, see how he’s doing, and then kind of go from there. So, that’s really all I can tell you right now relative to Brian. I was glad to see him.”
How good is it to have him back?
“Yeah, good guy. Great guy. You guys know what I feel about Brian Cushing.”
What if he is in great shape?
“Well, I think being in football-playing shape and being in shape are two totally different things, really. There’s no assumptions being made here. I think the first thing we have to do is see how he’s doing. We have to sit down. We’re not in a rush to do anything. We have a lot of guys playing right now at a pretty high level on defense, so we’ll see how Brian’s doing and we’ll go from there.”
Do you feel like ILB Brian Cushing let the team down by missing so many games for what he did?
“Look, I think – I want to give you a good answer here. I don’t know the details of everything. I know that Brian feels – I’m sure he would stand up here and tell you that in some ways he feels bad that that happened, obviously. But the way that I feel about Brian Cushing, I’m not going to go down that road. I think that everybody makes mistakes and sometimes you pay for your mistakes in different ways. He’s meant a lot to me in my four years here. He’s a tough guy, been a captain for us. So, I’m just looking forward to sitting down with him and talking to him and kind of seeing where he’s at with everything.”
Safe to say, O'Brien is incredibly fond of Cushing personally, but these answers shed almost no light on where O'Brien (and, in turn, the organization) are on Cushing professionally.
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So has Brian Cushing played his last game as a Houston Texans?
My guess is that, if the Texans were going to outright cut Cushing, we would have heard about it today, mainly because, if their collective mind is made up, then there's no reason to keep the nine-year veteran around. Again, that's purely a guess. That said, I think it's entirely possible that Cushing doesn't see the field again this season, in part because the Texans, at 4-7, have kind of reached the stage where evaluating young players and getting them experience supersedes anything else. Inside linebacker rookies Zach Cunningham and Dylan Cole have been solid in Cushing's absence, and provide hope for the future at that spot.
So if he does play again in 2017, will this be Cushing's final season as a Texan?
I think this is an unequivocal "Yes." As much as O'Brien likes Cushing and as much as he likes to sell Cushing as a "heart and soul guy" on this defense, the fact of the matter is that Cushing has been overpaid for his production for a few seasons now. Cushing's cap hit in 2018 will be nearly $10 million, and the team can eliminate all but about $1 million of that cap hit by cutting him. Even if Cushing's 2017 urine had been pristine, he'd have been in jeopardy of being cut loose before the 2018 season.
What is Brian Cushing's legacy as Houston Texan?
This second suspension, unfortunately, will make Cushing's failed PED tests the first things any Texan fan thinks of when they think of Cushing. That said, once we get past that topic, what will Cushing's legacy AS A PLAYER be? I think, first and foremost, people will think more about what might have been with Cushing had he not suffered two catastrophic knee injuries that shortened two of his prime seasons in 2012 and 2013, and robbed him of the explosiveness we saw from 2009 through 2011. Cushing's rookie season in 2009, his only Pro Bowl season, was one of the ten best individual seasons in franchise history, but Cushing's career may not be good enough to make him a top ten all-time Texan. (For the record, I put Andre Johnson, J.J. Watt, Arian Foster, Duane Brown, DeMeco Ryans, Chris Myers, Matt Schaub, DeAndre Hopkins, and Johnathan Joseph ahead of Cushing, with Jadeveon Clowney about five games away from passing him, too.) Off the field, Cushing will always be remembered for his generosity with charities tied to our troops, and as one of the faces of of the franchise during its rise from afterthought to multi-time division winner.
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.