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HOUSTON (AP) — After spending his entire 12-year NFL career in Houston, there are few things that could surprise Andre Johnson anymore.
But things have changed so much under new coach Bill O'Brien that even the veteran receiver has been taken aback at times.
One example is seeing O'Brien in the locker room chatting and sharing a joke or two with his players.
"He just interacts more with the team," Johnson said. "Previous coaches didn't do stuff like that."
It's a one sign of a different culture within the Texans and part of the plan of the first-year NFL head coach to make this his team from top to bottom.
O'Brien came to Houston after two seasons at Penn State where he took over the unenviable job of replacing Joe Paterno in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal that rocked the university. He was an offensive assistant under Bill Belichick at New England from 2007-12, and the Penn State job was his first as a head coach.
Since taking over the Texans, whose shocking 2-14 collapse after two straight playoff trips led to Gary Kubiak's firing, O'Brien's overarching mantra has been that nothing is more important than the team.
There are reminders everywhere, starting in the locker room where each locker features a Texans logo with the words: 'Always put the team first,' inside. Running back Arian Foster caught some flak in training camp when he answered each of 11 questions in one interview with slight variations of: "I'm just trying to be the best teammate I can be."
But with O'Brien's Texans that response might be one of the best things one could say.
And if focusing solely on the team is what's expected, something completely off-limits is worrying about what happened in 2013. O'Brien won't entertain questions about what occurred before he arrived, and a favorite phrase of his is, "We don't talk about last year."
Everything he does seems to be an effort to make every person in the organization feel as if they're part of a family.
"We're all in it together," O'Brien said. "We're coaches and it is our job to teach these guys how we want them to play football in our systems and our vision. At the same time, we want input, especially from the guys that have played a lot of football."
Chris Myers, a 10-year veteran who has been Houston's center since 2008, noticed a change from the moment O'Brien arrived. He thinks shaking everything up helped create cohesiveness within the team.
"From square one everything's changed," Myers said. "There's different signs around; times are different. He kind of wanted to change everything so it was brand new for everyone, no matter if you were a rookie or if you were a vet for 10 years it was going to be new to every single person. So no one could just lean back and say: 'OK I'm used to that.'"
Middle linebacker Brian Cushing has enjoyed the positivity and enthusiasm O'Brien has brought to the team and loves that he treats everyone, from 2014 top overall pick Jadeveon Clowney to players on the practice squad, the same.
"He's got a lot of respect for everyone," Cushing said. "He's very conscious about every single guy, what they're doing, how they're feeling and will take care of their specific needs."
That doesn't mean that he's easy on anyone. When asked to describe the 44-year-old coach, player after player used one word: Demanding.
"Every day is a work day and nothing is taken for granted," cornerback Johnathan Joseph said. "Everyone is held to a certain high standard and everyone has the same responsibility as the next teammate."
But as much of a taskmaster as he can be, he is also very conscious and committed to his family and the concerns players have with their own families. When he was hired. he said that an attractive aspect of the job was Houston's world-class medical center. O'Brien's 11-year-old son Jack can't walk or talk because of a rare neurological disorder that also causes seizures.
Players have been wowed by his understanding of personal situations and said that it is a relief to know his door is always open to discuss any issues that they might have, even if it isn't about football.
"He's a very, very family oriented, family driven person," Myers said. "To be able to be demanding on the field and to do your best off the field, (with) him understanding certain situations with family, and that family comes first, I think gains a lot of respect with a lot of players."
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