Half Empty or Half Full?

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November 5, 2003
Half Empty or Half Full?

by Bob Hulsey

It’s a wacky world, this National Football League, isn’t it? Who would have guessed that Bill Parcells would have the Cowboys playing 6-2 football after the near-meltdown they were in last August? Who would guess that the league’s only undefeated team would be led by the colorless Trent Green? And who would have believed in August that the Texans would reach the season’s halfway point with a better record than the Raiders, the Steelers, the Chargers and the Jets?

I wonder if Charley Casserly would like to have that second rounder from Oakland back that he used on Tony Hollings last summer? It might wind up being a higher bounty than what he might get in trade for Drew Henson.

It’s way too early to label Hollings a bust but if the Oakland pick winds up being, say, the 40th selection in the NFL draft, it might count someday as a rare Casserly misstep. On the field, there’s less intrigue.

1-1/2 seasons into Houston’s NFL Expansion Experiment easily separates the optimists from the pessimists. Certainly, the wins and losses (7-17 to date) are a disappointment from what some people expected in this age of salary caps, free agency and general parity, but the Texans have put in a strong foundation that needs only to find depth and health to be a legitimate title contender for years to come.

The Texans are a team whose weaknesses clearly stand out even to the casual football fan. Last year, the Texans couldn’t block. This year, they can’t pressure the quarterback, leading to coverage breakdowns and big plays. In both cases, injuries were a big factor, highlighting the need for better depth. This is an area-by-area breakdown of where the team stands halfway through Year Two:

David Carr is as good as advertised and will probably be a Pro Bowler by 2006 if he stays healthy and continues to progress. I particularly love his intangibles. He’s a leader with guts and shoulders responsibility well. There’s no question who has command of the offensive huddle. Tony Banks is an adequate reserve with the ability to come through once or twice a year, as he did Sunday in the upset over Carolina. He may wind up moving elsewhere, though, if third rounder Dave Ragone is groomed as Carr’s understudy. It’s not sure if Ragone’s eventual role will be as insurance or trade bait. I’d still prefer not to see a lefthander as the primary backup to the right-handed Carr. I think it disrupts too much from the flow of the offense.

Running Back
In recent weeks, rookie Domanick Davis burst from the pack to be the feature back in the Houston offense. Originally tabbed as a change of pace back, he is filling a larger role – much like Priest Holmes or Marshall Faulk does – being a weapon both in running and passing situations. Tony Hollings still has a chance to explode onto the scene, and his fresh legs will be welcome as durability may still be a factor with Davis. Domanick was not a workhorse at LSU, and it’s unclear if his body can take the pounding of a full NFL season. Stacey Mack missed his chance to be the feature back in Houston but is still useful in short yardage and ball control situations. Unless he’s willing to adapt to the role, his stay in Houston won’t last beyond December. Jonathan Wells is not likely to be a Texan next year. Fullback Moran Norris has been outstanding in the past two games and either he or the injured Jarrod Baxter look to have a continued spot as a lead blocker and occasional pass receiver.

Wide Receiver
This is probably the deepest position on the team in terms of NFL-caliber talent. Andre Johnson has shown little trouble adapting to the pros, unlike some rookies who come out as underclassmen. Corey Bradford has big play ability and should get more favorable coverage while defensive coordinators key on Johnson. Houston just needs to find more ways to exploit their speed in single coverage. Jabar Gaffney is also a fine talent although he may never get the recognition that the other two will receive. Even fourth receiver Derick Armstrong has shown some skills and is good insurance. At this point, the weakness seems to be in finding better ways to get these receivers the ball. The receiving corps could use a dependable "hands" option but lacks little else.

Tight Ends
This is a very mixed bag. Billy Miller is a great receiver but not much of a blocker. Jabari Holloway is a better blocker but lacks Miller’s speed and hands. Rashod Kent is the raw project with a great upside and Bennie Joppru is the unknown who may or may not become our tight end of the future. Eventually, the Texans will need to pare this down to a twosome or threesome. For this year, Joppru’s injury has made this decision for them. The fact that the Texans have brought in rookie Seth Wand in some tight end formations shows how little trust the coaches have in their overall blocking skills.

Offensive Line
The focus of most of the ribbing in 2002 (who can ever forget ESPN’s pre-draft commercial with Carr behind an invisible wall of pass protection?), the line is much improved in 2003 but still has a lot of room to grow. No longer waiting for Tony Boselli’s return, the Texans have moved on with second-year player Chester Pitts as the left tackle. Steve McKinney at center and Zach Wiegert at right guard also appear to be fixtures for the near future. Left guard is the black hole with Milford Brown, Todd Washington and Fred Weary all trying to make a go of the position with varying degrees of success. The Texans hope Brown, who has been held back by injuries, eventually takes charge there. Right tackle is the other problem area where Greg Randall has been overwhelmed at times and Wand looks as raw as sushi. The line still needs to improve and also must stop the frequent false starts that have plagued them. At least we haven’t seen the snap exchange problems we saw often last year. The line’s improvement is one major factor both in Carr’s development as a passer and the emergence of Davis as a runner.

Special Teams
You couldn’t ask for much more than what punter Chad Stanley and placekicker Kris Brown have provided. They’re both solid performers at positions that can either make or kill a team’s momentum. J.J. Moses appears to be the answer to the return game’s woes, although the little water bug would be better served if he didn’t try to run backwards in his attempts to avoid tacklers. A good return man knows when to gamble and when to just take what’s been given. Moses hasn’t learned this yet. The coverage teams hustled more last year than I’ve seen this year. Two good gunners and a dependable deep snapper appear to be the only question marks. Cutting down on penalties should be their next goal.

Defensive Line
Injuries to Seth Payne and Gary Walker have revealed how shallow the talent pool has been up front. Not that this was hidden evidence when the Texans dumped all but four returnees from last year’s down linemen before the season began. Jerry DeLoach is a passable, if unspectacular player, and Corey Sears has shown improvement at the end position. The rest of the linemen resemble a tryout camp of stopgap measures. I wouldn’t be disappointed to see this area addressed in the first round of the 2004 draft.

It hasn’t been easy for the Texans to find the right players for the 3-4 scheme at linebacker. ILBs Jamie Sharper and Jay Foreman do yeomen’s work, but I’ve noticed less blitz penetration and fewer tackles behind the line than they made last year. Sharper is still the best linebacker we have but he hasn’t played up to the level he did in 2002. Kailee Wong still appears miscast at one OLB spot, although he is playing better this year than last. Charlie Clemons has had a Jekyl-and-Hyde experience on the other side while rookie Antwan Peek has pressed him for playing time, particularly on passing downs. Peek is the only player in the defensive front that resembles a speed rusher, and he will need help from the other side if he is going to showcase his outstanding ability. This is a unit that will need some fresh blood by the time the Texans are playoff contenders.

This is another mixed bag. Aaron Glenn is a gutsy burglar who is among the NFL’s elite corners. Marcus Coleman is an average corner who makes some big plays but also makes some bad ones. Eric Brown is rounding into a solid strong safety although he needs to improve his tackling skills. Free safety is the team’s biggest need with neither returning Matt Stevens nor newcomer Marlon McCree showing yet that they are much help back there. Kenny Wright is a keeper as a nickel corner but this unit could definitely use an upgrade – as well as a pass rush to keep them from being so exposed. This is another area I hope is addressed early in the draft.

Dom Capers appears to have the right mix of patience and firmness to lead a young expansion squad. You can tell he hates mistakes. Sometimes that makes him too conservative, but he has also shown a gambler’s streak at critical times, no better illustrated than during the last-second victory over Jacksonville. Capers, with help from Defensive Coordinator Vic Fangio, controls the defense, but Offensive Coordinator Chris Palmer guides the offense. I’m just not sure Palmer’s the right coach for this team, but I’m sure he’s trying to stay both within the safety zone of his young players and Capers’ expectations to prevent the offense from losing games with turnovers. By 2004, we’ll know if Palmer really has the right stuff. Special Teams coach Joe Marciano deserves a bow for his squad’s strong performances in the franchise’s short history while his brother Tony Marciano deserves kudos for how quickly the offensive line has developed.

Front Office
While I’ve disagreed with some of Casserly’s personnel moves, particularly on draft day, he’s seems to have made more positive moves than negative ones and that’s to his credit. Unlike his coach, Casserly seems willing to gamble early and often, particularly when it comes to quarterbacks and offensive linemen. Some of those gambles have paid off handsomely. Others haven’t. Owner Bob McNair appears to be, from all appearances, an ideal owner – one who hasn’t meddled or tried to be smarter than the football people he’s hired. He’s done little if anything to upset the fans and – considering who else owns teams around the league – that’s a positive statement. Of course, most owners are going to look good at this stage. It’s still something of a honeymoon atmosphere with the Texans, who are winning just enough to keep the fans from getting cynical about losing.

Overall, the Texans appear to be on good footing. They seem to be one or two years away from plugging all the holes left to be filled, but, judging from the performances over the first 24 regular season games, there is enough talent on both sides of the ball to visualize this team blossoming in the near future.

Bob Hulsey thinks the "battle red" jerseys look fabulous with the blue helmets. He hopes the Texans won’t put those in mothballs.

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