A trip to Oregon formed winning bonds

Eight teammates sat in silence and watched the river fall. They had found refuge in the greens and blues of the Oregon Gorge: the four Texan quarterbacks, the four receivers. Brandin Cooks had led them here, to his college haven, where their thoughts could dissolve in water, washing away a year of dirt and mud, baptizing them as new brothers.

Five minutes passed. Then five more. And five more. Finally, they got up. Sunset was approaching. They walked the path, breaths reaching deeper into the lungs bolstered by two-hour morning workouts, serene smiles spreading where laughter had erupted on bad golf swings, dead bars caught by hooks and suspected card cheaters during their four-day jaunt in mid-July.

These are the resets the team needs, Chris Moore thought as they headed back to Houston. Not just physical ones. Sure, he’d learned on a local high school field how Cooks honed his routes through meticulous repetition, how Davis Mills could then spin the football to Moore by mere wait within reach of a thumb. That’s part of why Cooks extended invites during OTAs, sharing his work routine like his former Saints quarterback Drew Brees once did.

But they had dug deep enough to slip their fingers under the mental fingers as well. Maybe the thoughts are denser when you lose enough. Moore, Mills and Cooks would know. Tight end Brevin Jordan and backup quarterback Jeff Driskel could have shared their own memories of a year in Houston’s rigorous rebuilding while at Lake Oswego south of Portland with newly signed callers Kyle Allen, Kevin Hogan and receiver Connor Wedington.

They could have stretched them before morning practices. Steamed in the sauna, afterwards. Soon they could have formed the words that sometimes only need to be spoken and, by releasing them, fashioned the invisible barrier that must be broken down in order to move forward.

“I feel like it’s just a change of mindset,” Moore said this week. “We don’t want to be the same team we were last year. I know (Cooks), and I know myself, and I know Davis. We hate to lose. People think we’re just okay to lose. We hate it. It really sucks to do that. So we never want to crave it again.

Set the tone

If there’s anything the Texans want to prove in 2022, it’s at the very least that they can become a competent football team again. Hardly anyone outside of the franchise facilities expects them to post a winning record. Bettors are hovering over Houston’s projected win total at four, the same as a year ago. But it’s not that the Texans and their revised roster have lost so many times in 2021 that it’s how embarrassingly beaten they’ve been.

The Texans’ season total scoring margin (-172) was the lowest in the team’s 20-year history. They were shut out twice and defeated by at least three touchdowns in five games while rows of empty seats inside NRG Stadium were sold on resale markets for tens of dollars.

Lovie Smith didn’t ignore these things while addressing the players as a newly promoted head coach. He started the team’s offseason schedule by showing them footage of their bludgeoning in Buffalo last year. The rain, the shave, the rappel: Bills 40, Texans 0.

Smith’s message was clear: Remember that feeling? We control whether we feel that again.

“It just set the tone for the whole offseason, for the whole training camp, for the whole season,” said linebacker Christian Kirksey, who re-signed to a two-year contract after playing on a contract. one year. “He let us know he’s serious and it’s time and it’s for real. We’re going to go as far as we want.”

The core of GM Nick Caserio’s build is forming. Veterans like Cooks, who signed a two-year, $39.7 million contract extension in April, are stepping into leadership roles while elite additions like No. 3 overall pick Derek Stingley Jr. join the list. And Smith’s coaching style, crafted by two previous NFL head coaching stints, invests trust in his players with a light-hearted approach that reminds them that they are responsible for their own futures.

“The little rules that you usually have for young teams, he doesn’t put them there,” Cooks said. “He’s going to expect every man to be an adult from the start, whether you’re a rookie or not, and that he understands that we need everyone on deck. And the fact that he said that way, we respect him because he gives us a chance to show him that we can make the right decisions on and off the pitch.

When the Texans had 95 percent attendance at voluntary offseason practices, Smith didn’t report players who weren’t there. He had spoken with the absent players and made sure they would be there for the mandatory practices. Houston’s 100% minicamp attendance included star left tackle Laremy Tunsil, who last season remained on injured reserve eight games beyond scheduled recovery for a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his left thumb, which let former coach David Culley call it a “day-a-day”.

“Lovie preaches this all the time: follow his instructions while he leads,” Tunsil said this week. “We will follow him. An over 90 (percentage) for off-season attendance is pretty special. I was there too.”

learn from each other

When authority abandons its borders, responsible people can sometimes establish their identity in a vacuum.

There is a clear identity that emerges from the Lake Oswego crew. Their personalities leak, especially with Mills. One day he showed up to training camp with a bob that put him somewhere between Gilligan’s Island and Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. Then, when the Texans debuted their red alternate helmets, Mills attached a reflective scarlet visor to his face mask. On Monday, Mills showed up with a mustache.

“I’m like, ‘Who is this guy?'” Cooks said. “But hey, he got a little swag going for him. So don’t let it fool you.

Maybe it was the lakeside Airbnb he shared with the Texans quarterbacks in Oregon. Maybe it was playing Driskel and Moore in a golf course while paired with Cooks, who had never played on a real course before – (“Hey, wait now!” Cooks said, “ We didn’t play everything Davis balls, now! ”) – and settle it with a tie. Maybe it was watching Brevin Jordan, a fifth-round Miami fisher who regularly fished, battled bass and bluegill until he died one — (“He was hurt,” said Moore, “I’m not going to lie. Brev was a softie about that fish”) — and compassion revealed.

Maybe it’s the hours Mills spent teaching his teammates “Spicy Uno,” a spin on the classic card game in which the rules keep being added – (“I’m not gonna lie,” a said Moore, “Davis might cheat a little” ) — which force frustrated novices to draw more cards.

Maybe (and maybe it is the maybe) it was just Mills’ chance to reveal who he’s always been. Ask Wedington, who lodged with Mills at Stanford, and here is the Davis he “always knew.” He’s the quarterback blending his persona into an on-field persona who needs to help lift a locker room out of recent misery.

“He’s himself,” Cooks said. “That’s the whole story. He is himself and plays freely. And whenever you can do that, the better you will be and the better you will play.

And how much better will these Texans play? The training camp does not reveal much. Mills is cleaner, more poised, more precise than a year ago. But every touchdown pass is a given score; every defensive interception, a pitch gone bad. The vagueness in the various positional battles further highlights the threat of a lingering talent shortage.

The most apparent shift in the team is its palpable shift in energy. Smith said he knows “few people” beyond the team facilities are “jumping on our bandwagon right now.” There can be freedom in accepting external expectations, as long as it does not prevent internal progress. It is sincerity. Because there is a difference between losing and being a loser. And in the midst of a massive rebuild that began last season, that’s perhaps one of the most important things to stand out.

“It’s just the bitter taste in your mouth to lose consistently, but not to lose in a way where it’s close,” Cooks said. “A lot is happening. You don’t want to feel that feeling anymore. I really feel like we have a great group of guys in this locker room, and Nick and Coach Lovie get it: it’s literally a joy to come to work, and that’s the start. When you have that foundation established, that aspect with a large group of men, that’s who you want to go to war with.

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