Back in the Pack

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November 16, 2004
Back in the Pack

by Bob Hulsey

It doesn’t take an accountant to figure out where the line is drawn between the "haves" and "have nots" in the AFC these days. Each division has two teams at 6-3 or better. That makes eight teams chasing six playoff spots going into the final seven weeks of the season.

The Houston Texans, at 4-5, are tied with the Bengals for the ninth-best record and thus two games behind in their quest for a playoff berth. As any Astros fan will remind you, being two games out with seven games to play is not insurmountable. But there are cracks forming on the Texans that must be fixed fast if they are to still be a contender this year or even break the .500 mark.

I’m not bothered that we lost on the road to Denver and Indianapolis in back-to-back weeks. Before the season, one could have reasonably expected this. But the way they lost without putting up so much as a spirited fight has to be disheartening and perhaps launched the first true salvoes of genuine discontent among Texan faithful. Even in their 2002 campaign, the Texans were not often blown out as thoroughly as they were in the thin air of Denver and on the concrete turf of Indiana.

Quarterback David Carr has become particularly vulnerable to pass rushes that seemed much more tame against other opponents. The ground game, anchored at times by Domanick Davis and Jonathan Wells, has pretty much ground to a halt. The defense seems beaten too often. It’s no shame to be picked apart by Jake Plummer and Peyton Manning but a better performance was expected.

Before the season, I pinpointed three new players that would need to step up for the Texans to be improved. While left tackle Seth Wand isn’t technically a rookie, he might as well be for as little as he played last year. I was rather skeptical when the season began that he could protect Carr’s backside, but the first seven games lowered my guard. At a position like that, the less you notice them, the better they are doing and Wand had blended into the line quite well.

But the two blowout losses, particularly against the Colts, were a huge blowback for Wand. He was barely a speed bump for edge rusher Dwight Freeney. Marcus Spears, filling in for right tackle Todd Wade, was no better on the other side and it made for a very long afternoon for Carr. It may be time to move Chester Pitts back to his old tackle spot if defenses continue to tee off on Wand and Spears.

The other two new players were first-round choices, linebacker Jason Babin and cornerback Dunta Robinson. Babin has been almost non-existent both as a pass rusher and a pass defender. He seems to do well on sweeps in his direction but that’s about it. I’ll grant that switching positions is not easy and I’m not ready to give up on him yet but he has certainly not lived up to his first-round billing so far. His development is going to be important if the Texans expect to find a pass rush during the second half of the season.

Robinson, too, has had a baptism by fire and has generally held his own. He makes mistakes and is certainly the target of opponent’s gameplans so his problems have been the most obvious. But Dunta has hung in there and comes back on the next series, demonstrating both the mentality and the talent that should allow him to eventually become a top-flight corner. Whenever the Texans can work out their problems at strong safety, I expect Robinson will benefit from that too. Eventually, Robinson will not be somebody quarterbacks will pick on. That, though, takes time.

These three are not the reason the Texans have a losing record. There is plenty of blame to go around, particularly when a team lays two eggs in a row. From the coaches on down, a little soul-searching is likely going on. Dom Capers has never struck me as someone who gets used to mediocrity. You can bet he will get tough with those who have made sloppy plays or had mental breakdowns.

I’m not inclined to pour gasoline on the Texans. The four wins were all solid ones against competitive teams. The comeback against Minnesota also showed a tenacity to overcome an early deficit. San Diego, as the rest of the league is finding out, is vastly improved this year from what they were expected to be when the season began.

The Texans are healthier going into the home stretch than most other teams and might be able to steal a win or two against ailing teams looking past us. Houston has not suffered any catastrophic injuries yet. 8-8 is still not an unrealistic goal for this team, even if the playoffs are looking less likely. But, to get there, Dom Capers is going to need to fix some holes on the offensive line, find a pass rush, and retool the running game in order to get the blitzers off Carr’s back. Some better play calling wouldn’t hurt either.

This past Sunday was the first time I thought seriously about how we are going to fix holes in the offseason. Our offensive line killed us in 2002. The defensive line killed us in 2003. There are no excuses this year. No position has been ruined by injury. But the status quo hasn’t worked quite as well as hoped. We may see the Texans, for the first time, part ways with players who were considered cornerstones of the team. It should be an interesting winter.

Bob Hulsey hopes this is not the winter of our discontent.

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