HOUSTON — Arian Foster rolls down the vast field-level corridor inside Reliant Stadium on the Segway he gave his linemen to reduce wear and tear on the folks who help keep his head attached to his shoulders. Given the mileage that the Texans’ all-purpose back is expected to cover on any given Sunday, any vehicle that keeps his feet off the ground is helpful.
Not to say that Foster carries the entire load for the Houston offense, but he has more on his shoulders than anyone else. “It starts with their running game, it starts with Foster,” said Patriots tackle Vince Wilfork, whose defensive colleagues know they have to stop him on Sunday afternoon to advance to the AFC Championship game. “The more touches that he gets, in the passing game or on the ground, the better that team is.”
The Patriots knew that in December when they held Foster to 46 yards on 15 carries en route to a 42-14 beatdown that brought the Texans to earth. That was then, says Foster, which is why he didn’t waste much time checking out the video evidence.
“I don’t know how much I’m going to look at that, honestly,” he said this week. “They’re a new team, we’re a new team. Any time you play a team twice in a season you’ve got different guys and different schemes. You have to attack it differently. It’s a different mentality, different things are at stake. So I’ll glance at it, but I’m not going to sit there and burn a candle watching that film.”
The regular season has nothing to do with the playoffs, which is when Foster turns into a yardage machine. He ran for 140 yards and a touchdown on 32 carries in last week’s 19-13 triumph over the Bengals, making him the first back in history to submit 100-yard efforts in his first three postseason games.
“Any time you reach any milestone and touch any part of history in this league it’s a big deal,” said Foster. “It means a lot, but it’s not just me. It’s this team, my offensive line, the receivers making key blocks, the tight ends, and the quarterback making plays and reading checks. It’s always a culmination of your team, so it’s a nice feeling.”
Foster, who is only in his fourth season, may or may not be Hall of Fame material (“I’m not done yet”) but he’s off to an impressive start. He already ranks fourth behind Jim Brown, Billy Sims, and Barry Sanders for scrimmage yards per game (118.7), chalking up 1,424 on the ground and 217 through the air this season with 17 touchdowns.
“[It’s] not only the yards that he gains but how the running game controls the game for them, how it sets up their play-action passes, how it puts them in third-and-short situations,” assessed Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who calls Foster a “very dangerous player.”
“There’s no question that he’s the key guy for Houston and their offense, but his production also complements the other players as well and the other parts of the game. We’re definitely going to have to do a good job on him.”
Nobody saw Foster as a mainspring when he went undrafted out of Tennessee after an undistinguished senior season. He’d been considered second-round material after rumbling for nearly 1,200 yards and a dozen touchdowns as a junior, but Volunteers coach Phillip Fulmer talked Foster into sticking around. But a new offensive coordinator put Foster in a scheme that reduced his numbers to 570 yards and only one touchdown as Tennessee finished 5-7 and Fulmer was dismissed.
After Foster missed the NFL combine with a pulled hamstring and had a so-so Pro Day, his stock tumbled. Though the Texans didn’t pick Foster, they liked what they saw enough to sign him to a free agent contract. “You’re looking at ability, you’re looking at size,” said coach Gary Kubiak. “I knew some guys that knew him. I knew he was very intelligent. You’re seeing things on film that he’s got a chance to play in our league.”
Still, Houston cut Foster in training camp before adding him to the practice squad. After they activated him in mid-November he promptly became the force the Texans hoped he could be. Foster got his first start against the Patriots in the season finale, when Houston still was in postseason contention. “It was like, he can play well, he’s going to start this game, we’ll see how he does,” recalled Foster. “I just remember thinking it was an honor to be a starting running back in the NFL, period, but to be a starting running back on an NFL team that still had playoff aspirations . . . ”
Foster ran roughshod over the Patriots, gaining 119 yards and scoring two touchdowns in Houston’s 34-27 victory. Though the Texans missed the playoffs on a three-way tiebreaker, they’d found their new factotum. He piled up more than 2,200 all-purpose yards in his second season and more than 1,800 last season, when Houston made the playoffs for the first time.
“He understands everything we put him in,” said offensive coordinator Rick Dennison. “That’s why he’s on the field all the time. We don’t take him out unless he’s tired, and sometimes that’s very reluctantly. We don’t like to have him out.”
Foster figures that being a three-down back is simply part of the job description.
“I try to be the most complete back I can because your value is higher, not just monetarily but your value as a football player is higher to your coaching staff and your team if you can do all things well,” he said.
For a ball-control offense that needs to move chains and burn clock, Foster is a priceless asset, well worth the reported five-year, $43.5 million deal he signed after last season.
“His ability with the ball in his hands, whether he’s running or catching it,” said quarterback Matt Schaub. “Very rarely does the first person tackle him, and that creates big plays for your offense. You can dump it down if something’s not there downfield and he can turn a 3-yard catch into a 12-15-yard gain. That’s a huge positive for us.”
Jerod Mayo, who played across the line from Foster in practice when they were at Tennessee, knew five years ago that he could do all that. “Obviously, now you guys get to see what he can do,” the Patriots linebacker said.
Nobody has to tell Mayo and his fellow defenders what Job 1 will be on Sunday. “He’s a special player,” said Wilfork, “and we understand that.”
Whenever Foster has run for 100 yards this season — as in eight times — the Texans have won. When he hasn’t — most notably in the December games at New England, against Minnesota (15 yards), and at Indianapolis (96) — Houston usually loses. That’s why outside observers, particularly one Globe columnist, have dismissed the Texans as one-trick ponies who’ll easily be lassoed this weekend.
Foster found Dan Shaughnessy’s comments amusing enough to use them as his Twitter avatar. “A couple of my followers sent me that link,” he said. “They kept sending me the same link so I decided to click on it and it was that article. I thought it was funny because the things he used to describe us, like the tomato cans, are in line or something like that, I thought it was kind of funny.”
Nobody will be laughing if Houston can turn the tables in Foxborough and advance to the conference championship game for the first time. Had the Texans taken care of business, they’d be playing here after a week’s rest. Instead, they had to sweat out a wild-card date with Cincinnati that wasn’t decided until Schaub stuffed the ball in Foster’s belly four times on the final drive before taking a knee.
Bob McNair, the franchise founder and owner, was so exuberant that he said he was tempted to come down and give Foster a kiss. “Don’t get me wrong, Bob’s a good guy,” replied Foster. “I don’t want a kiss from Bob, though. A nice little hug would do.”