When you rattle off the list of prominent Houston Texans over the last five years or so — J.J. Watt, Andre Johnson, Arian Foster, Duane Brown, to name a few — people have no problem putting Brian Cushing's name in there with those multi-time Pro Bowlers. Maybe it's the perception created by a monster contract extension, or maybe the seasons where he's been on the field fully healthy are enough of a glimpse to blot out the bad times, but purely empirically, including Cushing with those names is a tad askew.
To be clear, most of my head scratching over this is not Cushing's fault. Sure, it's on Cushing that he missed the first four games of 2010 due to a PED suspension. He was never the same that season after the suspension, and this was a huge blow, given that Cushing was coming off his only Pro Bowl season as a rookie in 2009.
It's not Cushing's fault, however, that Matt Slauson of the Jets blocked him in his left knee (on a play that drew a $10,000 fine and is now illegal, in part because of the Cushing injury), tearing Cushing's ACL in the fifth game of the 2012 season, and it's not Cushing's fault that Jamaal Charles blocked that same knee in the seventh game of 2013, tearing more ligaments and breaking some bones.
Both plays ended seasons for Cushing, and functionally the cumulative effect of both injuries may as well have ended his 2014 season as well, if you were hoping for a 2014 return to his 2009 and 2011 form. All the evidence we needed to see about where Cushing was physically lasts season we saw on the Monday night game in Pittsburgh, when running back Le'Veon Bell got loose from the backfield on a third down and took a short pass route 43 yards for a first down, a game changing play in a season altering three minute sequence in that game.
Cushing looked like he was stuck in mud on that Bell catch and run. Probably felt like it, too, since he would wind up with zero solo tackles in that game and would sit out the following week with knee pain. Things didn't really get better as the season wore on for Cushing either, at least not physically. This was all compounded with having to be the brains of Romeo Crennel's defense, an incredibly complex scheme that requires great attention to detail.
Because he was still rehabbing the 2013 knee injury, Cushing was forced to learn Crennel's defense in training camp from the sidelines, watching in warmups while his teammates got the first person point of view on how Crennel's system works. The lack of mental reps showed early in the season, as Cushing's confusion was apparent in some games, with teammates at times having to motion him to get into position. That's not a good look for the guy who is supposed to be the one getting everybody else in place.
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So now comes 2015, and all reports are that Cushing is back to his 2011 physical form, which is great news. It's great news that I will believe when I see. The best spell of defense this team has played in the last five years was the entire 2011 season and the first part of 2012. The demise of the Texans' defense back in 2012 actually began long before the 1-3 slide to close out the regular season. It began the night Cushing was carried off the field in northern New Jersey.
And maybe that's why Brian Cushing is so highly thought of by fans and those covering the team — the halcyon days of Wade Phillips' defense lasted so long as Brian Cushing was on the field. If the 2015 Texans have the 2011 Cushing to go with Watt, Vince Wilfork (who will make Cushing's job significantly easier), a recovered Clowney, and an improving Whitney Mercilus, look the hell out.
On the other hand, if the 2015 Cushing is like the 2014 Cushing, then there may not be a 2016 Cushing.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast.