The Drive

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September 30, 2003
The Drive

by Bob Hulsey

So maybe it wasn’t 98 yards in 10-degree wind chill on the road with a Super Bowl berth on the line and dog biscuits flying all around. For the young Houston Texans offense, though, learning through the "Terrible Twos," this was plenty big.

The final drive that beat Jacksonville was only 41 yards with over two minutes to go in the game and was aided by three defensive penalties, but the nerve it summoned and the outcome it provided may mean quite a bit to a team still trying to establish their credibility to their 31 brethren. This game left an imprint.

The Texans had just seen a successful drive blow up in their faces. Trailing 20-17 with under five minutes left, David Carr and the offense had moved to the cusp of the red zone. After a string of successful passes to rookie Andre Johnson, the call came down to surprise the Jaguars with – a pass to Andre Johnson. The surprise wasn’t in who was supposed to catch it. It was in who was throwing it.

Carr handed off to halfback Stacey Mack, who was playing against the team he had spent his NFL life with prior to this season. It was obvious Mack wanted to show his ex-mates that he was ready to be the prime time back that he couldn’t be in Jacksonville as long as Fred Taylor was healthy. Mack’s "statement game" had started out well when he scored the game’s first touchdown but had since been scuttled by two fumbles and a mid-game benching in favor of rookie Domanick Davis. Now, his day was about to get worse.

Mack started out on a sweep to the right but stayed behind the line of scrimmage. Two Jaguar defensive backs didn’t bite and watched Johnson drift downfield. When Mack floated his pass, they were ready and one stepped in front of Johnson and intercepted it before the groaning throng at Reliant Stadium. It’s part of Mack’s job on the play to make the fake look authentic and throw only if the defense was sucked into the fake. He didn’t, and it threatened to cost Houston the game.

The Jaguars were quarterbacked by Byron Leftwich, a cannon-armed rookie top draft choice who many Texan fans could sympathize with having watched Carr go through the NFL’s version of hazing the year before. Leftwich had made some mistakes but had played well for his first start and now needed just a few first downs to put his first NFL win in the books.

But the Texans forced Leftwich into a rookie mistake. Dropping back to pass, Leftwich saw lineman Jerry DeLoach racing toward him. He sidestepped and pushed off DeLoach but it ruined the timing of the play. Forced to ad lib, Leftwich found some daylight to run. From around the other end of the play and behind, safety Eric Brown reached around Leftwich and punched the ball free from his hand. It bounced off of lineman Corey Sears to the turf where much-maligned safety Matt Stevens fell on it.

The Texans had a second chance and 2:42 to rescue victory from defeat. At the Jacksonville 41-yard-line, the Texans only needed ten yards to be in range for a game-tying field goal. They had two timeouts left.

Houston started with two runs by Davis. This was surprising. The urgency of the clock would have dictated some passes. But, having been burned by the high-risk play, it seemed almost predictable that the Texans would turn conservative. Most probably thought Head Coach Dom Capers was going to settle for three points and overtime. The runs worked for a first down. The second play took the clock down past the 2:00 warning.

This is where The Drive gets interesting:

1st and 10, Jacksonville 31, 1:58 remaining Another handoff to Davis who ran off the left side for two yards. But now Carr was waving for the offense to come back to the line and run another play.

2nd and 8, Jacksonville 29, 1:30 remaining Carr floats back and quickly checks down to Davis who has drifted a couple of yards downfield. Davis makes the catch at the 25-yard-line, shakes a tackler and darts inside the Jacksonville 15 – another first down. For a rookie who missed a good chunk of training camp, Capers is sticking his neck out with a runner who hasn’t seen that much NFL action. Meanwhile, the veteran Mack simmers on the bench, unable to atone for his mistakes. Carr motions to the sideline trying to get the next play as the game clock ticked away.

1st and 10, Jacksonville 15, 1:00 remaining A handoff to Davis, this time to the right side which works for four yards. The offensive line, which had a good day holding off the Jacksonville pass rush, now found the ability to open holes against a defense that was primarily concerned with keeping Houston out of the end zone. First downs were not a big priority. Carr calls a timeout, Houston’s second, and heads to the sideline for a quick strategy session.

2nd and 6, Jacksonville 11, :53 remaining Carr lines up in a virtually empty backfield. The only back is Davis who is split wide of the offensive tackle. Carr drops back as Davis moves down to the nine-yard line and pivots. Carr’s throw is right there and Davis squirms upfield until he’s brought down four yards from paydirt. It’s the sixth straight touch for the fourth-round draft choice. Davis slaps hands with tackle Chester Pitts as he jogs back into the backfield. No time for a huddle though. Carr will call this one from the line.

1st and Goal, Jacksonville 4, :29 remaining After a short drop, Carr lifts a pass to the right edge of the end zone where Corey Bradford is locked up with Jacksonville’s best cornerback, Fernando Bryant. Bradford gets separation and gets both hands on the football, only to see it fall between them as he lands on the grass. Carr throws his hands over his head but they retreat to his helmet as he sees the pass fall incomplete. The game clock stops but the play clock resets before beginning its relentless countdown.

2nd and Goal, Jacksonville 4, :25 remaining The play clock almost runs out before Carr can snap the ball. A five-yard penalty here would really hurt but you also don’t want to run a bad play or lose your last time out. Defensive lineman John Henderson pushes forward just before the ball is snapped. Whether Carr meant to call a quarterback draw or if it was just a busted play is unknown, but he starts towards the goal line only to be slammed to turf by defensive lineman Marcus Stroud who quickly begins trash-talking the young Texans signal-caller. Carr quickly gets up and calls time out but he doesn’t need to. The clock is stopped as Henderson is called for "offisdes". The ball is marked at the two-yard line. The time out is spared. Carr motions to the sidelines that he can’t hear the radio in his helmet that delivers plays for him. Capers quickly yells instructions and Carr returns to the field to line his teammates up.

2nd and Goal, Jacksonville 2, :20 remaining Carr fakes to Davis then tries the same corner of the end zone as he did with Bradford only, this time, it’s rookie Andre Johnson going for the ball. Johnson bumps with Bryant as the two compete for the pass. It sails over both of them as a yellow penalty flag flies into the end zone. "Defensive pass interference" is the call on Bryant. That puts the ball at the one and gives the Texans a first down but each play bleeds more time off the game clock. Bryant jaws with both Johnson and Carr as they get set for the next play. The crowd is reaching a frenzy and Carr, along with his lineman, flap their arms like condors trying to quiet the crowd.

1st and Goal, Jacksonville 1, :16 remaining The Texans try a different look. All three tight ends and fullback Moran Norris enter the game and line up in the "I" formation. Jacksonville bunches in to defend their turf. Carr hands off to Davis running right behind Norris into the line but the Jaguars get the surge they needed and Davis is stopped two feet short of the goal line. Seeing that no officials are signalling a touchdown, Carr races up to an official and calls time out which is ignored for several seconds as they untangle the pile. When the clock finally stops, seven seconds are left as Carr fumes that he should be given more time. The officials reset the game clock to nine seconds as Carr calms down and runs to the sideline.

The Texans are so close to a touchdown now, they can kiss it. But they’ve lost the safety net of a final timeout and the ability to stop the clock for a tying field goal try. If another running play comes up short, the quarterback is sacked or a Texan is injured, the game will end and the Texans will lose a heartbreaker. Capers decides he has time for one final pass to the end zone.

2nd and Goal, Jacksonville 1, :09 remaining Houston returns to their three-receiver set with Davis the lone running back. Carr takes the snap and tries the right corner of the end zone again. Johnson and Bryant are locked up and the pass bounces off Johnson’s fingertips and out of play. Carr lobbies for another pass interference call but it’s denied. The play develops so quickly that Carr has no time to notice receiver Jabar Gaffney completely uncovered in another part of the end zone.

To most everyone, the Texans are down to their last play. Calmer heads would have opted to go the safe route and kick the field goal at this point and take their chances in overtime. Capers ponders though how tough a day it has been for his defenders. No less than five of them have had to come off the field for injuries during the game. An already thin defensive line had been hammered by various ailments. Capers knows that, even in overtime, he may get no better chance to win than now at the Jaguars’ doorstep. He looks in even more need of an antacid on the sidelines than he usually does. The offense is pleading for another play and it doesn’t take long for Capers to give in to them.

3rd and Goal, Jacksonville 1, :06 remaining The sideline debate takes long enough that Carr must hustle his team up to the line before the play clock runs out. The Jaguars blitz this time. One blitzer is picked up by Davis but the other crashes into Carr just after he gets away the pass. Instead of the right corner, Carr tries Gaffney at the end line. Gaffney dives but doesn’t come up with the ball. Another flag flies. Defensive back Rasheen Mathis is called for pass interference against Gaffney. The ball is spotted another half-foot closer to the goal line but it doesn’t really matter.

Two seconds remain. Houston isn’t dead yet but they are still three points short and with only one chance left to do anything about it. They’ve had six opportunities to score since they got inside the Jacksonville five-yard line and have failed to punch it home.

If he doesn’t try a field goal and loses the game, Capers knows he’ll be crucified, particularly by the Houston media. They’ll be two weeks before the Texans take the field again, plenty of time for the pall of such a grand failure to sink into the psyche of his young team.

This may be looked back someday as the moment that determined a franchise’s fate. To fail here would make the Texans a laughingstock. Their destiny might be that of the expansion Saints or the expansion Buccaneers, suffering through decades of ineptitude while fans wore paper sacks over their heads. The worst years of the old Houston Oilers would surely be relived. A reputation might have been forged.

But the players were screaming at the coaches, demanding one more chance to score six. It looked like a scene from a schlock Hollywood movie where the whole team comes to the sideline to rally around the hero’s inspiring words before winning the game on some bizarre unbelievable play.

If they can’t punch it in from that close, thought Capers, they don’t deserve to win the game. The conservative coach, so recently burned by a halfback pass gone awry, chose to put it all on the line. The fans screamed. The offensive unit took the field and Carr stooped over his center, Steve McKinney. It was Destiny’s appointment.

1st and Goal, Jacksonville 1, :02 remaining In one motion, Carr grabbed the snap from McKinney and leaped high and forward, thrusting the ball out with his two arms extended – reaching for the goal line. McKinney, along with guards Todd Washington and Zach Weigert, pushed Henderson and Stroud backward enough for Carr to clearly get the ball out across the line before the Jaguars secondary met the quarterback in mid-air and slapped the ball from his hands.

Carr, himself, never got across the goal line. That didn’t matter. In any other part of the field, the Jaguars would have had a fumble. But that didn’t matter either. Breaking the plane of the goal line was all that mattered and the Texans immediately knew that they had won the game. Carr ripped off his helmet and celebrated with 70,000 of his closest friends.

An obligatory official’s review and an anti-climactic extra point were needed before the game was officially over but they did nothing to change the outcome. The Texans had come away with their second last-minute win of the season.

It was one small leap for Carr; one giant step in the development of a franchise. Houston, no problem!

Bob Hulsey wishes the Astros played with half the urgency the Texans showed on Sunday.

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