How much did Texans really miss Cushing?

How much did Texans really miss Cushing?
January 22, 2013, 12:00 pm
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As the 49ers and Ravens prepare for Super Bowl XLVII, the Texans are preparing for the Pro Bowl and are already thinking to next season.

In all, nine Texans are headed for Hawaii for the exhibition all-star game. But one of their best players won’t be there.

In fact, he wasn’t there for most of the season.

Brian Cushing, the team’s defensive leader, tore his ACL on Oct. 8 in New York against the Jets. It was just the fifth game of the season.

Back then in early October, the Texans were rolling (they were 5-0 after beating the Jets) and Cushing was once again the team’s leader. It was the first time in franchise history the Texans started 5-0. J.J. Watt was just starting to have the monster season he eventually did but the Texans were counting on Cushing. After all, he’s the leader of the defense.

The season changed drastically when Jets’ guard Matt Slauson hit Cushing with a chop block on a run early in the second quarter. Just like that, the season might have been steered off course. OK, sure, the Texans were fine. They won 12 games in the regular season and won the second playoff game in franchise history.

But coming into this year, Cushing was their best defensive player. Through the first four weeks of the season, he led the Texans in tackles. So it’s fair to wonder, just how good would the Texans have been if Cushing was never hurt?

“Of course. You’re missing a defensive captain,” Watt said when asked if missing Cushing impacted the defense. “You’re missing a guy who’s one heck of a football player. You wish you had him out there. But injuries will never ever be an excuse.”

Watt, in just his second year in the league, had what was perhaps the best season a defensive lineman has ever had in the NFL; Wade Phillips said as much. But what Watt also provided for the Texans team was a leader. The 23-year-old became a voice in the locker room and on the field but he wasn’t Brian Cushing.

Make no mistake, Cushing tried to make the best of it. He became the team’s biggest cheerleader. He tried to coach up his replacements as much as possible. But all the meetings and pom poms couldn’t make up for not being on the field. Not for Cushing. Not for the Texans.

“I know it’s difficult,” head coach Gary Kubiak said the Monday after the Texans were knocked out of the playoffs. “I watched (Cushing) stand there as we were warming up for the game. The hard thing in this business is you only get so many opportunities. And for him not to be there with us over the course of the last two weeks, first off hurts our team.

“He’s a great player and I know that as a player you can’t take those opportunities for granted. I know it’s been difficult on him just like it was for Matt (Schaub) last year. But Cush will be back. He’ll be back better than ever and we’ll be a better team because he’s back.”

And that’s the good news. Cushing says he’s way ahead of schedule. It’s certainly welcomed news for a team that finished the season with Barrett Ruud as a starter inside. Ruud wasn’t even on the team to begin the season.

According to ProFootballFocus, a website that grades players on a play-by-play basis, Cushing had a 1.8 rating this season in the first five games. His replacements? Tim Dobbins, on the season, had a negative-1.5, Darryl Sharpton had a negative-6.4 and Barrett Ruud had a negative-6.2.

Cushing’s rating was 3.4 in Week 5 before getting injured. It was his best game of the season. In 2011, when Cushing was named the team's MVP, he had a season rating of 18.0, the third-best in the NFL.

So just how important is it for the Texans to get Cushing back?

“It’s gonna mean a lot,” safety Glover Quin said. “Brian’s an integral part of this defense. He’s an impact player. He’s a big part of what we do. You can’t replace a guy like Brian Cushing. To have him back and have him with another chip on his shoulder, it’s gonna be big for us.”