This was all, originally, supposed to be his.
After a surprising 9-7 season in 2009, where the Texans fell flat in the playoff chase in part because Steve Slaton and Chris Brown could not make forward progress with a football, Houston entered the 2010 offseason with a glaring hole at running back. Rick Smith targeted Ben Tate to fix that hole, trading down and then up to snag him just before the Cleveland Browns could in the second round of the 2010 draft. As it happens, running backs tend to get injured, and Tate's happened at the worst possible time: in his first preseason game, he broke his ankle and was lost for the season.
Then Arian Foster happened.
Tate went from being the savior of the franchise's running game to an extraneous bit part with every decisive Foster cutback during the 2010 season. If Tate came back, he'd have to deal with Derrick Ward, and who knew if Tate would have the same explosion after the injury? Well, it turned out he did. Tate had a terrific season in 2011 -- both in relief of Foster and carrying the load early while Foster was dealing with a hamstring injury.
The NFL has gravitated more and more towards a committee back approach in the last couple of years, but one of the primary reasons that committees evolved was because certain players had one extra skill that was more effective at a certain time. Tate might be one of the fifteen most talented backs in the NFL, but he is in the awkward situation of being on the same team as one of the five best backs. One that, in the Texans' scheme, does just about everything better than he does. Foster is a plant-and-cut runner, and while he breaks plenty of tackles, he mostly does it with finesse and agility. He's a gazelle. Tate is a train, a punishing downhill runner who breaks tackles by plowing through defenders. Don't get me wrong: Tate is plenty agile, and is a capable receiver; he's just not on Foster's level.
So, what's the problem? Well, there isn't one if you're a Texans fan right now. With a huge financial committment to Foster and Tate covering him if something goes awry, Houston has depth enough to not worry about their running game this season.
However, the long-term interests of Tate and the Texans are very divergent. That is the rub. Tate is going to want more and more carries to showcase himself and his talent, and as long as Foster is healthy, Houston isn't going to be the place to get them. The financial commitment to Foster means he will get the lion's share of the carries, and likely means he will be a featured back. A guy who gets 400 touches a season doesn't leave much for the rest of the backs.
With Houston's recent commitment to Duane Brown, and new contracts potentially upcoming for Matt Schaub, Connor Barwin, and Brian Cushing, Tate's rookie contract isn't likely to be torn up in the next couple of seasons. There are very few teams that carry a pair of running backs with big contracts in today's NFL; Carolina is the only one that immediately comes to mind. In the next two seasons, Tate will go from reliable backup plan to luxury object for the Texans. And, to be perfectly honest, it's not hard to find a quality backup running back. Foster's rise from undrafted free agent to superstar should have left all Texans fans with knowledge of the fungibility of the running back position.
Despite that, the Texans opted not to trade Tate this offseason. There were rumors that he was available, and that a few teams offered a second-round pick. (There was also that awesomely awkward and debunked rumor that the Browns were offering a first-rounder for him.) The problem Houston will run into now is that next offseason, with just one year left on his rookie contract, Tate won't be as valuable to a potential new team. Said team would almost assuredly have to give him a contract extension, and that would lower Tate's value on the trade market.
I'm not going to sit here and act like an insider on the situation. I'm sure Tate is going to say all the right things, but he has to know that his ultimate destiny is probably not here. Things will likely work themselves out one way or another for him, but his value to the Texans was never going to get higher than it was this offseason, so I found it strange that they didn't shop him a little more. Maybe the plan is to see if Tate will take a decent-sized salary, or maybe the Texans aren't as sold on Foster as the financial commitment might lead you to believe.
Normally when a new young running back posts a season like Tate did last year, it's a sign that he needs a bigger role. He has belatedly become the answer Houston was looking for in 2010.
The only problem is that they don't seem to have a question anymore.