Beyond the Boxscore
Just because Johnathan Joseph is courageous, doesn't mean the Houston Texans are smart.
Joseph taped up his battered right ankle and dragged himself back onto the field Sunday in Miami — essentially dragged the Texans to a 2-0 start. It wasn't Willis Reed in the NBA Finals, but for a franchise that's never tasted the postseason, it's pretty heady stuff.
The Texans are 2-0, the only team without a loss in the AFC South, a division they absolutely have to win if they're serious about ending that playoff drought. Better yet, Houston's prize free agent of the offseason — the cornerback who caused Bob McNair to gulp and hand over $50 million — set the inspirational tone, and more importantly, the playing tone in the 23-13 win. Joseph wasn't just limping around out there as some symbol.
He was making plays. Big ones.
So what's the problem?
Start with the fact Joseph was limping around. The big knock against Joseph is that he's injury prone. That's just one of the reasons that Nnamdi Asomugha would have been a much better signing for the Texans than Joseph.
It's almost inexcusable that Gary Kubiak and the rest of the organization's leadership let Foster play even though he certainly wasn't close to 100 percent.
Joseph's missed 12 games in the last three seasons. Before that, he missed most of one season at the University of South Carolina with a broken foot. He spent much of his first training camp with the Texans battling minor injuries. And now, he's hurt again.
Joseph deserves mad praise for refusing to stay sidelined, for staying glued to his man on one good ankle, for showing just how much he cares about winning. But he can't escape the truth that he's also hurt. Again.
It's an ankle problem too, the kind of injury that can linger and nag and cause trouble all season.
Sound familiar? It should. Arian Foster — the NFL's reigning leading rusher — is clearly caught in one of those Groundhog Day, reliving the same thing over and over again, injury nightmares. Of course, none of this is a surprise to anyone who follows sports with even a passing interest. That's what hamstring injuries do. They come back, again and again and again, like a bad horror movie monster.
Especially if you rush back and push it too soon.
And that's clearly what Foster did by playing in Miami on Sunday. It's no surprise that Foster, who's running for the first mega contract of his career, couldn't wait to get back on the field. That's expected, even somewhat noble. It's almost inexcusable that Gary Kubiak and the rest of the organization's leadership let him play even though he certainly wasn't close to 100 percent.
What was their rush? This lack of long-range thinking is what still may doom the Texans yet.
Foster never looked like himself. He never seemed to be running sure. He never cut with authority. And when Foster officially "reaggravated" that left hamstring (can you "reaggravate" something that was never healed?) and the Texans could stop force feeding him the ball and give it to Ben Tate, it was almost a relief. For this one afternoon.
Long term, it could still be extremely damaging. And anyone who's advancing this ridiculous notion that Tate is a better player than Foster needs a concussion test. Tate is an exciting, impact player and he just might be enough for this packed Texans' offense, but Foster kicks the Texans into another gear.
The Joseph injury is the one that could kill Houston. If Joseph falls into a pattern of missing games, of not being there for any significant stretch of the season, the Texans could still be toast.
How quickly everyone forgets. Go back and watch some of the footage of Foster in 2010.
The needless rush back of Foster is no small issue. And it was so easy to call. I wrote on Saturday how if Foster came back, Tate would still end up being the featured back. And what happens? Foster struggles to 33 yards on 10 carries before ceding to a hamstring that's still hurting and Tate racks up 103 yards on 23 carries.
An NFL franchise shouldn't be this predictable. With Kubiak, there's never a doubt that the Texans are going to error on the side of recklessness when it comes to injuries though.
The Texans have already given the offensive wizard (and Kubiak is clearly that, Tate fitting in so quickly is a reflection on the coach too) a defensive guru. Can't Rick Smith hire Kubiak an Injury Control Coordinator too? Someone who whispers Don't play the superstar with the brittle hamstring into his ear.
The real problem
As infuriating and needlessly complicated as Foster's injury situation is now, it still doesn't figure to completely derail the Texans. It's looking more and more likely that Foster will be hindered all season by the hamstring he hurt when Kubiak gave him nine touches in the first quarter of a meaningless preseason game. But this Houston team is built to overcome that.
The Joseph injury is the one that could kill the Texans. If Joseph falls into a pattern of missing games, of not being there for any significant stretch of the season, the Texans could still be toast. The short term's not even the major issue. Sure, Drew Brees could throw for 530 yards in the Superdome this Sunday if Joseph's ankle doesn't let him go (and ankles are almost always more of a problem after the adrenalin of the initial gameday wears off and the swelling begins).
A short-term mini embarrassment for Wade Phillips' so-far-stellar D (20 total points allowed in two games) could be handled. Joseph missing multiple games . . . that's a disaster. The Texans don't have anyone to replace him.
Even on an ankle only a Weeble Wobble could appreciate, Joseph pulled off the type of play that no one else in Houston's defensive backfield can make. He rode a Dolphins receiver along the sidelines and out of bounds on a crucial third down play in the fourth quarter, effectively completely eliminating one of Miami quarterback Chad Henne's options.
"That tells you how important it is to him," Kubiak said of Joseph's gutsy one-good-ankle play in his postgame press conference. "He’s a heck of a player, and sometimes you’ve just got to fight through Sundays."
The Texans are showing plenty of fight. You just have to wonder if they'll have enough warriors still standing to get through the season.
A 2-0 record never looked so fragile.