HOUSTON - Brian Cushing wanted to make sure Houston Texans general manager Rick Smith was aware of the progress the linebacker was making during months of excruciating rehabilitation on his surgically repaired left knee.
He bombarded Smith's phone with pictures and videos, all of it a reminder of how far he'd come.
It paid off Wednesday when Smith and the Texans signed Cushing to a six-year, $55.6 million contract extension. The deal includes $21 million guaranteed.
"I wanted to just improve every single week," Cushing said. "Every time I set a new goal I would send it to him and just let him know I'm coming back."
Smith laughed as he recounted the near-constant updates and beamed as he announced the deal.
"It's a big day for the franchise," Smith said. "He can lead our defense and be a part of what we're doing for many, many years to come."
Cushing saw limited action in preseason while easing his way back after surgery to repair the torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, but the Texans expect him to start in the opener Monday at San Diego. The 26-year-old standout has been sidelined since the injury in Week 5 last season.
He had never had a major injury before and had a difficult time dealing with being away from his team for so long on top of the physical demands of rehabilitation. Coming through it, he said, made him a much stronger person.
"It was a very dark time," he said. "Any previous injury before that was maybe missing a game or two. And now having a season taken away from, watching the guys go out and practice every day and not being able to contribute was a helpless feeling. It was something that I just didn't want to feel anymore. It motivated me to get back and to just push every single day."
Cushing, the Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2009, has had more than 110 tackles in the two seasons when he played each game. The Texans are hoping he is as effective as he was before the injury, when he finished with 114 tackles and four sacks in 2011.
Smith raved about the versatility, playmaking ability and instincts of Cushing. But he thinks he can be even better.
"I do think that as good as he is there's a level for him to reach that he hasn't gotten to yet," Smith said. "I think he's motivated to reach that level and I'm excited to watch him do it."
Houston started 5-0 last season behind a defense that was dominant with both Cushing and eventual Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt leading the way. Though Houston finished 12-4 and won its second straight AFC South title, some thought the unit never played as well without Cushing, who also missed the first four games of 2010 for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing substances.
Cushing is close with Watt and can't wait to get back on the field with him. As tight as they are, he did admit that things get a bit competitive between them at times.
"We definitely have a little bit of a rivalry," Cushing said. "But at the same time we look at ourselves as a duo, a two-headed monster, two guys who are going to have to be dealt with for a long time and kind of feed off of each other."
Cushing was in the last year of the deal he signed as a rookie in 2009. The Texans were happy to get the contract done this week because they have a policy of not negotiating once the season begins, and the team is expected to contend for a Super Bowl a year after being eliminated in the divisional round of the playoffs for the second straight season.
Cushing has a lofty goal for what he hopes he can accomplish now that he knows he'll spend most of this decade in Houston.
"What I envision is being the clear-cut best middle linebacker in the NFL," he said. "I've never hid that. It's something that I want. I think that I can get there. I know that I can get there. Obviously it's going to require a lot of work and a couple more years of dominant play, but I feel like I have the tools to do that."
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