- Jeffri Chadiha, ESPN Staff Writer
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There's a distinct difference in the way Houston Texans quarterback Matt Schaub carries himself these days. It's apparent when he confidently eyes his teammates in the huddle. It's obvious when he's interacting with defensive players, special teamers and anybody else who doesn't make his living solely on offense.
"You can see that Matt knows this is his team now," Texans offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said. "He's more upbeat. He doesn't go into the tank when things don't go right. And you can tell that he knows the players around him know that he can play. He doesn't walk around like he has to prove himself now."
That's a critical realization for Schaub, because this is the season he really needs to elevate himself and his team in the process. He has the ability to play at a Pro Bowl level, especially when you consider his impressive combination of size (6-foot-5, 239 pounds), smarts and accuracy. The issue, however, is whether Schaub now can take this team into the postseason for the first time. That's the best way he can showcase his growth on a team that has finished 8-8 in each of the past two seasons.
Even Schaub admits that part of his excitement for the coming season has to do with Shanahan's assessment; the sixth-year veteran has settled into his job as Houston's leader.
"I did feel like I had to do things above and beyond what I probably needed to do in the past," said Schaub, who threw for 3,043 yards and 15 touchdowns last season. "I put a little more pressure on myself than was necessary. Now I know I just have to go out and play."
The most important thing Schaub can do to help his cause is stay healthy. He missed five games in each of the past two seasons because of injury, and those problems partly explain why he has pressed at times. Schaub was supposed to be the answer to Houston's quarterback problems when the Texans acquired the former Atlanta Falcons backup in a trade in 2007. The Texans actually have been better with him out of the lineup -- they're 6-4 when he's sidelined and 10-12 with him starting -- but they'd surely prefer that he be available for a full season.
Schaub said he believes he can make that happen this season. For one thing, he has spent more time in the weight room this offseason. In 2008, Schaub couldn't start working out until May because of rehabilitation from shoulder surgery, but this year, he started hitting the weights in February. Schaub said he already feels an improvement in his strength and conditioning as a result of those extra sessions.
The Texans also think Schaub might be due for better luck this season, especially when considering a low hit by Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen sidelined Schaub with a knee injury for four games in 2008.
"Matt had a bunch of different injuries in his first year, but the hit from Jared Allen was a different deal," Shanahan said. "But Matt still played an entire quarter in that game with a banged-up knee until we eventually had to take him out. That was big for me to see. Matt showed everybody that he could take a beating and still keep competing."
The lone upside of that injury was that Schaub wasn't hurt severely enough to miss the rest of the season. He returned to lead Houston to three wins in its last four games, and that strong finish eased the disappointment of an 0-4 start. What has Schaub even more excited this year is the return of a supporting cast that is growing up around him. He's got a Pro Bowl wide receiver who led the NFL in receiving (Andre Johnson), an underrated tight end who caught 70 passes (Owen Daniels) and a second-year running back who gained 1,659 total yards as a rookie (Steve Slaton).
It's that kind of help that has made Schaub understand he doesn't need to force the issue.
"When I first got here, we had Andre and a lot of young talent with potential," Schaub said. "But we've also had some guys who have stepped up and played well when they've had opportunities. Guys like Owen and [wide receiver] Kevin Walter and Steve Slaton. It also helps to know that we have an offensive line coming back that was together for all of last year."
Although Schaub is optimistic, he does understand that immediate success won't just happen for the Texans. He needs to take better care of the football (he has thrown 24 touchdown passes and 19 interceptions while in Houston), and the Texans need to improve in their red zone efficiency (they scored touchdowns on only 45.9 percent of their opportunities inside the 20-yard line). It's impressive that the Texans finished third in the league in total offense in 2008. Now, as Shanahan said, it's about playing "winning offense."
That means the Texans have to put points on the board when things aren't going well. They have to get more comfortable with grinding out yards when the big plays aren't coming. They also need their quarterback to take the next step in his development process. They need him to become the kind of player who can help this team overcome its more notable deficiencies, especially on the defensive side of the ball.
Schaub is more than ready to face that challenge. "I definitely feel a greater comfort level and a confidence coming into this season," he said. "We have everybody back on offense, and there's a good feel with what we're doing. We're all ready to go."
The key question now is whether Schaub is ready to be the elite quarterback the Texans have been waiting to see.
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.