Looking Past the Wounds

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December 11, 2003
Looking Past the Wounds

by Bob Hulsey

"Not For Long". That’s what one Houston Oiler coach said the NFL stood for and the more things change, the more this witticism proves correct.

It’s certainly that way for the coaches. Bill Cowher, who is the same age as myself at 46, now has the longest tenure as the head coach of one club in the NFL. He’s had the job for 12 years. That’s certainly nowhere near the span that George Halas or Tom Landry could boast and my guess is that Cowher will probably be gone before much longer.

It’s certainly that way for the players. The rarity is the Jerry Rice, Darrell Green or Morten Andersen that hangs around for 20 years. The average NFL career is three years.

So as the Houston Texans wrap up Year Two, there has already been a fast progression. More changes are yet ahead. Just six players remain from the expansion draft and four of those are hobbled. Just seven players remain from the first college draft and only three have seen significant playing time. The Texans give hints of being ready to become a contender and yet there are places where major upgrades are still needed. "Turnover" may be a hated word for coaches but they are the norm for personnel.

The Texans burst out of the gate this year with a road win against a solid Miami team and also toppled a playoff-bound Carolina Panther squad. But the team will likely run its course in 2003, licking their wounds and wondering how things went wrong.

Injuries have played a major role. Of the team’s key defensive players, only one – linebacker Jamie Sharper – has started every game. Seth Payne went down in Week Two. Linemate Gary Walker has seen limited action. Pro Bowler Aaron Glenn has been hampered by groin pulls. Charlie Clemons, Matt Stevens and Ramon Walker have had their seasons end prematurely.

What they’ve left behind is a lineup very weak in the front wall and lacking impact players that create sacks, losses and turnovers. A bright spot or two has emerged like OLB Shantee Orr, who rose from the practice squad to become a key contributor. CB Marcus Coleman has had a very good season and OLB Kailee Wong has stepped up his game late in the season. But it’s not enough to compete with the big boys.

While most of Dom Capers’ men will be healed for next year, it’s obvious that depth is a big problem. The New England Patriots have absorbed as many injuries as the Texans, but they’ve won their division while the Texans will be lucky not to end the year with double-digit losses. The Pats even bade farewell to safeties Tebucky Jones and Lawyer Malloy before the season began. The Patriots’ formula of team defense with a minimum of star power has served them well. It’s one direction the Texans may choose to go, resisting big-money stars for an assortment of good interchangable parts. How the upcoming contract situation goes with Walker will give us a hint as to the direction management will take.

Houston needs help with their pass rush and there’s really only two ways to do it. One would be to replace Wong with a faster player who can compliment Orr or Antwan Peek on the other side. The other is to find a DE who can provide both the rush that Walker does and be able to tie up traffic on running plays, two if Walker isn’t re-signed. The answers might come from free agency or they might come from the draft but they are going to have to happen before Capers’ defense climbs to the next level.

Ideally, the Texans need to have four guys the opposing team must account for before every snap when it thinks about pass protection. The key is to give opponents so many folks they have to double-team that they can’t get to all of them. Once that happens, ballhawks like Glenn and Coleman can take more chances and force more turnovers. A rangy free safety would also help out here and someone like Miami Hurricane Sean Taylor would be a move in the right direction provided the pass rushing needs are filled.

As tempting as some other players will be on draft day, the Texans must use their first-rounder on either a speed rusher or a top secondary man. They might use both of their top picks to address these needs. Several exceptional corners will be available in the draft if Taylor is not around. If he falls into the second round, Texas’ Nathan Vasher is another good option. He has kick return skills, corner speed and free safety experience.

The offense has been hit with the injury bug too. After surviving a 76-sack debut, QB David Carr has been banged up the second half of this season. He sprained his ankle in Week 8 in Indianapolis and sprained his shoulder in Week 11 in Buffalo. He’s played just one full game (a loss in Cincinnati) in the last seven weeks. Tony Banks filled in admirably, directing two victories, before he was felled by a broken hand against Atlanta. This led to the debut of rookie third-rounder Dave Ragone against Jacksonville who had an NFL debut I think he’d rather forget.

Opening Day RB Stacey Mack is done for the year and his replacement, rookie Domanick Davis, has been playing hurt lately. Another rookie, Tony Hollings, found himself pressed into service the same week as Ragone. The results were a predictable low point for the team offensively.

One area that hasn’t had much trouble with injuries is the one that had major problems last year – the offensive line. Only LG Milford Brown has lost significant time due to injury although C Steve McKinney started the year nicked and it may have contributed to an underwhelming year. Brown’s replacement, free agent Todd Washington, is the line’s Jeckyl and Hyde. He can be a devastating run blocker, particularly on traps, but he’s almost no help in pass blocking. He’s been abused more than once this year by defensive tackles who aren’t supposed to be great pass rushers. The line is by no means settled going into next year but it has at least been stable. They’ve opened holes for Davis and held the sack totals way below their embarrassing record of last year.

The receiving corps has also stayed healthy but the lack of healthy quarterbacks has hurt them. While it has put something back into TE Billy Miller’s game, deep threats Andre Johnson and Corey Bradford have gone begging for balls. Sights like Johnson’s touchdown in Buffalo and Bradford’s catch-and-runs in Miami and Tennessee have been dwindling. They should only get better next season.

Here, too, a little depth couldn’t hurt but it isn’t a big priority. A very deep receiver group coming out of the draft will tempt GM Charley Casserly next April but the needs on defense may prevail.

So, as the Texans finish the year with back-to-back home games against division rivals Indianapolis and Tennessee, both likely to be playoff-bound, remember that the teams who are up this year are the ones with depth and good health. They won’t have them for long. Ask the Raiders and Buccaneers – two teams who never dreamed their Super Bowl encore seasons could be so disappointing.

For each club that falls from the summit, another rises to take their place and, next year or the one after, it could be the Houston Texans.

Bob Hulsey wants to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and hopes Santa will bring him a Bud Adams-free Super Bowl.

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