Future or Present Tense

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May 13, 2002
Future or Present Tense

by Bob Hulsey

Now that the Houston Texans roster is nearing completion, it’s time to reflect on something that puzzles me in terms of their choices for talent acquisition. Obviously, they need to build with an eye for the future and yet put a team on the field for the 2002 season that won’t remind Houston fans of the 1972-1973 Oilers, who finished 1-13. But the decisions based on "now or tomorrow" seem somewhat inconsistent.

GM Charley Casserly played the expansion draft brilliantly. No doubt several of the top talents taken in February were there precisely because he negotiated them to be available. It led to a few quid pro quos. Young right tackle Ryan Young, for example, was there because we agreed to take older, more expensive CBs Aaron Glenn and Marcus Coleman, although they may not be in Houston four years from now.

Casserly took some guys who figure to be pushing or past age 30 when the 2005 season rolls around, the year the Texans should no longer be thought of as an expansion team in the free agency era. By choosing the quality over quantity argument, he moved up the timetable somewhat on when Houston fans should be expecting competitiveness. One could have expected more moves to make the Texans viable fresh out of the gate. Instead the strategy reverted to building the team with an eye to ’05, sacrificing most of the quick fixes that could have helped the team sooner rather than later.

Short of luring Barry Sanders and John Elway out of retirement, it’s likely the Texans are in for at least two seasons of double-digit losses. 2002 and 2003 will be about improving and solidifying, not about winning. By 2004, there should be some signs that the Texans are able to stay on the field with anyone. The year afterwards, we ought to have meaningful December games for the first time.

If one wants to view it that way, it makes some of Casserly’s off-season decisions easier to understand. Passing on free agents like LB Jeremiah Trotter, DT LaRoi Glover, RB Warrick Dunn, LB James Farrior, DT Grady Jackson and DE Joe Johnson has something to do with projecting whether they’ll be worth the money in 2005, not in 2002. And though they’re better situated regarding the salary cap than most teams, don’t expect the Texans to make a run at players like WRs Antonio Freeman, Keenan McCardell or Derrick Alexander in June either.

This idea gives logic to the selection of OL Chester Pitts in the second round of the college draft. I think Casserly has the raw rookie pegged as the next Larry Allen, someone who can be a dominating guard and can also fill in as a tackle a few years later. Don’t expect dividends on this investment for at least two years. But if you’re thinking 2005, it makes more sense. Although it violates my own principle of using early-round picks on unpolished prospects, if Casserly is sure of what he sees in Pitts, the choice doesn’t seem like such a stretch. Even if Pitts lives down to his name, it won’t be seen as a black eye on Casserly’s drafting prowess since he also tabbed WR Jabar Gaffney in the same round and could likely point to him as a steal.

But if Casserly is gearing toward the fourth year, how do you explain some of his other personnel decisions? Taking Lewis in the expansion draft was probably a condition for exposing LB Jamie Sharper but he is an unquestioned luxury for the Texans now. At best, he would succeed as a third receiver and, even then, that’s if he shows better hands than he did in Baltimore. His true talent is in returning kicks and he’s one of the NFL’s best. But does a team expected to face losing seasons the next two years need to shell out $4 million for a glorified kick returner, no matter how gifted?

I kept hoping Lewis would be used as bait for draft choices or a rising young star but it seems Lewis is actually going to be suiting up in Steel Blue and Battle Red this year. As if to remind Casserly that he should have been packaged for picks, Jermaine pulled a hamstring in one of those gifted legs in next mini-camp. Lewis needs to be on a team with a "win now" attitude while he still has the jets. Otherwise, he’s like a hood ornament on a Yugo. The Texans would have been smarter to bring in Billy "White Shoes" Johnson or Mel "Oops" Gray if they just wanted a showstopping return man around.

The other truly questionable move is the signing of PK Kris Brown. Similar arguments can be made to the ones about Lewis but Brown was not acquired as a means to get someone else. They actually surrendered a draft choice to get him and paid him far more than last season’s performance would warrant. Even if Brown were the next Jason Elam, what good will that do us during the first few seasons when there’s always about 36 good placekickers trying to win 32 NFL jobs? A cheaper roster-cut guy would have likely been adequate until the rest of the team was ready to win big games. Brad Daluiso could do for now.

In fact, the Texans might be better off in the long run to have a less adequate kicker the first year. Whatever wins they get will likely be close ones (by, say, a last-minute field goal or a sudden-strike kick return) and the worse their winning percentage looks, the better their supplemental draft choices will be in 2003. Kris Brown may wind up costing us more draft choices than just the seventh-rounder Casserly has already spent. Let’s hope Heinz Field wasn’t the problem after all.

Casserly is hoping to find magic out of a lot of guys who aren’t accustomed to playing in their projected roles. Gary Walker will need to learn defensive end. Jamie Sharper will need to learn inside linebacker. Kailee Wong will need to learn outside linebacker. Steve McKinney will need to learn the center position. Jacoby Shepard will need to learn about showing up for practice. It’s unrealistic to think that all these experiments are going to work out. Throw in the fact that David Carr and Jabar Gaffney are likely to start early in the inaugural season and you’ve got a club that has a whole lot of question marks with no certainty of bearing fruit.

Kinda makes you wonder why so much coin is being spent for a kick returner and a placekicker, doesn’t it? Particularly when their short-term success could actually hurt later on.

Whatever mark the 2002 Texans leave on the city, it’s clear Casserly has a plan for building a football team from scratch. I just wish I could figure out what that plan is.

Bob Hulsey has a journalism degree from the University of Texas at Austin. He has worked in print and radio covering sports throughout Texas since 1976. He presently works for a telecommunications company in Austin.

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