The sign on the road Steve Slaton is traveling is a common one in the NFL for a guy coming off a poor season:
In a 15-minute chat with him this morning, I sensed he’s got a handle on that, and is fine with it. He’s ready to prove himself again, plug into the Texans' offense in whatever way he’s asked to and wipe the tarnish off his name that came with a shaky sophomore season.
Something his coach, Gary Kubiak, told him after an outstanding 1,282-yard rookie season in 2008 proved prophetic.
“You come out of a rookie year where you gain 1,100-1,200 yards you think, ‘Damn, this is a pretty easy deal,'" Kubiak said. “I teased with him before the season and said 'The next 1,200 you gain will probably be the toughest of your career. It’s not that easy.’”
Slaton’s still got 763 yards to go to get there after a poor 2009, when he gained only 3.3 yards per carry and fumbled seven times before a neck injury ended his season after 11 games.
By the time he went on injured reserve, he said he had a numb right arm from the top of his shoulder to his thumb, all day every day for two months. A pinched nerve led to a C-5 cervical fusion in mid-January.
He felt the difference as soon as he woke up and doctors told him it went as smoothly as possible and rate his recovery, tabbed to take four to six months, as very good. He said he will be ready for training camp, holding the ball high and tight.
He’s been rehabbing since surgery and can now run and lift weights as long as he limits the stress on his neck.
“Everybody wants to come in their second year and never have that slump, and not have an excuse for something you think you can help,” he said. “It was uncharacteristic of myself to fumble that much. I won’t say it was the only thing, but I think it was a big part.”
A revamped run game is the team’s offensive objective this offseason. The Texans were a bad rushing team no matter who carried the ball, Kubiak emphasized. That was on the running backs, the line, the scheme and the coaches.
“We regressed in there, not by lack of effort, just by young players having to play,” Kubiak said.
If the price falls on a veteran free agent such as Chester Taylor or Thomas Jones, maybe one of them could be getting carries. If they don’t see a value there, the Texans will attack the spot in the draft.
“That has been a young man’s position in this business for a while,” Kubiak said.
So the expectation is that Slaton is the team’s quick back and the Texans will attempt to bring in a bigger guy who can be effective in short yardage and goal-line situations.
“I’m not the biggest guy, I’m not the smallest guy,” said Slaton, who was listed as 5-foot-9, 215 at season’s end. “This league spits out running backs, they don’t last too long. So to have somebody to help in certain situations is good. I want to be the guy when the game is on the line, you give me the ball.
“… As a running back, you’re always stingy but you’ve got to be smart. If it helps the team, if I can’t get it done and somebody else can get it done, then I’ll gladly let that person come in and handle that job. But my thing is I want to be that go-to guy, I’ve always been that, that’s what I pride myself on.”
While he’s encouraged by his recovery, ESPN’s resident physical therapist Stephania Bell put up a caution flag. (See sidebar.)
“He will need to work diligently to strengthen the stabilizing muscles around his neck (very deep muscles) as well as all the muscles in the upper back that help support the neck,” she said of going forward with the neck issue. “While he can very well be cleared to return -- and he can indeed go on to have success and not have another major incident -- there is inherently more risk, simply because of what he has been through.”
Kubiak doesn’t sound like he wants to distribute carries by preset formula, just the flexibility to use two different quality options in situations in which they excel. Offensive line/run game guru Alex Gibbs is no longer on the coaching staff, but Kubiak said the team has invested a lot of time in his zone blocking scheme and will stick with it, adding a few things.
One-cut-and-go backs are usually the guys who fit it well, though Kubiak said he’d be fine with two cuts.
Slaton is good with 20 carries in a game, Kubiak said, and actually runs better in the second half than he does at the start.
“But I think like anybody else in this league if you put the whole load on him, you can wear him down pretty damn quick, so we need a complement to him,” he said. “… Obviously there is a place in this league for that guy, there is no doubt. He can make big plays. And then there is a place for a guy who can take a little bit more of a pounding and be a short-yardage and red zone guy. I think there is a place for those two guys in the league.
“The bottom line is we’ve just got to get another good player to go with him.”