NEW YORK — From the first practice in training camp until the last game, Brian Cushing was a tackling machine for the Houston Texans.
That's exactly what the team sought when it chose the linebacker from Southern Cal 15th overall in the draft last April. What the Texans also got is The Associated Press 2009 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Cushing was a runaway winner in balloting by a nationwide panel of 50 sports writers and broadcasters who cover the league. Cushing received 39 votes Tuesday, easily beating Buffalo safety Jairus Byrd, who had six, and became the second Texans linebacker in four seasons to win the award. DeMeco Ryans took it in 2006.
"I'm just a much smarter football player," Cushing said. "I'm much more advanced than I was this time last year and it was just a good way to start out a career. I'm happy about how everything turned out this year. Of course the playoffs would have been nice, but now we know what we have to do for next season."
This season, Cushing had 133 tackles, 86 of them primary, according to the Texans, who went 9-7, their first winning record. Cushing's best game might have been his nine solo tackles, one sack and an interception in a victory over Miami on Dec. 27.
Or maybe it was his nine tackles, interception and two forced fumbles in a win over Cincinnati on Oct. 18.
Overall, he had five sacks, four interceptions and the two forced fumbles, numbers that normally belong to a seasoned veteran.
Which is exactly how the 22-year-old Cushing played.
"He brought another element to our football team: his love for the game, his passion, his play, playing beat up, all these things," coach Gary Kubiak said. "He played like a 10-year vet from the day he stepped on the field. Our players respect what he does with the game and how he goes about his business. We're very fortunate to have him and we're going to have him here for a long, long time. What a year. He was exceptional."
Nobody can understand or appreciate what Cushing accomplished better than Ryans, who made a similar impact in '06.
"Brian is a special player," Ryans said. "I saw when he first stepped on the field that he could be a special player for us. Just to watch him grow week in and week out, I'm just so proud of him. He's like my little brother out there. I'm always out there talking to him about how we can be great as a unit. I say it to him every week, 'Let's go out and be great and be the best linebackers in the league' and that's our motto and that's our goal."
They're closing in on it.
Green Bay linebacker Clay Matthews, who also went to Southern Cal and was a first-round draft pick, earned three votes. Washington linebacker Brian Orakpo got the other two.
"I'm really proud of that," Cushing said of the lopsided balloting. "The other guys without question had great rookie seasons as well, with Clay Matthews and Brian Orakpo and Jairus Byrd. It's tough that you can only give it to one rookie. I think that it was a great rookie class. ... Just to win it and to win like that was a huge honor."
Cushing saw his victory as a triumph for the Trojans.
"Actually, Clay congratulated me about three days ago and figured that was probably it," Cushing said. "It was a real good year, not just for myself, but for the other three guys, too. It just proves how well coached we were and coming out of that school we wanted the best for each other. I talk to Rey (Maualuga) and Kaluka (Maiava) and all those guys probably two to three times a week and just the progress we made, I feel that we did it as a group this year. I feel I represent them as well."
Cushing is the seventh straight linebacker voted top defensive rookie and the ninth in 10 years. Last year's winner was New England's Jerod Mayo.