January 5, 2005
Who Are These Guys?
by Bob Hulsey
This column was originally intended to extol the virtues of the Houston Texans reaching an 8-8 mark in just their third year, but the season finale against the Browns not only put a damper on hopes of achieving full NFL parity, it raised some disturbing questions that need to be addressed.
Don’t look now, but the Houston Texans have made great strides in just three years of NFL existence. Yes, our sense of progress has been jaded somewhat by what Jacksonville and Carolina did in the mid-90s (the latter even coming under head coach Dom Capers), but the ascent has been steady nonetheless. Houston should take another jump forward in 2005. Cleveland made it to the playoffs in their fourth year, but then quickly slid back into the muck. Houston believes their foundation is firmer than the one built on Lake Erie.
Start, of course, with the fact that GM Charley Casserly came up aces early in all three years of the draft. In quarterback David Carr, receiver Andre Johnson and corner Dunta Robinson, Casserly got just what he said he wanted from the draft – playmakers. He found guys who can change the course of a game. Johnson is on his way to his first Pro Bowl, Robinson should have gone to Hawaii, and Carr isn’t that far away from getting there in a conference where guys like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady already play.
Ironically, Casserly took first a QB some (including Ron Jaworski) thought was the second best at his position in the 2002 draft. Then he took the second-best WR in the 2003 draft. Then he took the second-best CB in the 2004 draft. Would any of you like to trade them for the guys thought to be better on Draft Day? So Charley’s success may come in choosing the second best guy at his position in 2005 when we draft 13th.
The Fab Five of the 2002 Expansion Draft (defenders Aaron Glenn, Marcus Coleman, Gary Walker, Seth Payne and Jamie Sharper) have kept the defense on an even keel while they witnessed an infusion of new blood at some key positions this year. Free agents have been mostly role players. Guys like Corey Bradford, Kailee Wong, Zach Weigert and Steve McKinney have been solid but generally unspectacular. They’ve stabilized positions during the transition but they aren’t answers to getting to the next level – merely guys to fill gaps while the kids grow up.
If anything has held the Texans back, it might be the scant contributions from other first-day selections like Charles Hill, Fred Weary, Bennie Joppru, Tony Hollings, and Dave Ragone. Chester Pitts and Jabar Gaffney appear to be solid players, and the jury is still out on Jason Babin, Antwaan Peek and Seth Wand as to whether they will justify their draft positions. I think all three will get better.
The Texans have also pulled some second-day rabbits out of their hat like running back Domanick Davis, who has now had two 1,000-yard rushing seasons, and defensive backs Glenn Earl and Demarcus Faggins who have found a home in the Houston secondary.
2004 was a bumpier ride than most expected, starting slowly then running off four wins in five games followed by a November skid against three eventual playoff teams before claiming three of six down the home stretch. The usually docile NFC North won three of four games (one in overtime and another at the final gun) from us or we could have been in the thick of the playoffs this year.
Next season, we can lick our chops at the lackluster NFC West (Arizona, San Francisco, St. Louis and Seattle). On paper, that looks like at least three in the W column, but that’s what we thought for this year too. The AFC North, six divisional games, Buffalo and Kansas City are the rest of our schedule. Reaching .500 or beyond is not out of the question so long as the Texans can overcome some annoying habits.
There are other reasons to be excited. In 2004, Houston posted a 4-2 record in the AFC South, sweeping both Tennessee and Jacksonville. Figuring out how to beat Indianapolis still eludes them, but the Colts had to fight to the end on their last two trips to Reliant Stadium. Houston also posted a 6-6 record in a very strong conference.
The Texans proved they could win games in December, on the road and in the cold. Carr demonstrated he could manage a game under harsh winter conditions, and the defense showed they could overcome the elements to shut down an opponent cold.
Beyond that, Houston saw their first shutout, their first two-game winning streak (thrice) and outperformed their cross-state rivals from Dallas for the first time over the course of an entire season (not to mention blanking them to open the pre-season).
But with all the good signs, one nagging problem the team can’t get a handle on is who they are – other than a young expansion team, a label they should soon be shedding like a snake peels off its skin.
Think of any successful NFL franchise and you will find an identity – something they have confidence in that will be successful most of the time. With some teams, it’s a stout defense. With others, it’s a running game. For some, it’s a passing attack. A few are famous for their exotic blitzes or multiple-receiver sets or just being a dirty, nasty team. The best teams are good at more than one thing but there is one thing that becomes the hallmark of their personality and, in which, they will rely upon when the going gets tough.
The Texans have yet to establish an identity and I think it is time they did. Dom Capers made his name as a defensive guru who uses a 3-4 defense and a conservative limit-mistakes offense. He’d be happy as a pig in slop to run the ball 45 times a game and leave the field with a 10-7 victory.
But the team he has built doesn’t do smashmouth. And they aren’t particularly good at controlling the line of scrimmage on either side of the ball. Their front seven scares no one. Their most effective pass rusher is a rookie cornerback. Their best running back is a bulked-up third-down back. And when losers like the Bears and the Browns can make your offensive line look like a scout team for the JV, there’s a major problem matching philosophy with reality.
When Houston’s offense bogs down, their offensive philosophy seems to be curling into a fetal position or letting Carr run for his life in hopes of completing a pass. When their defense bogs down, they become more passive rather than being more aggressive.
Out of the 16 wins they have posted in their lifetime, how many of them did you walk away from thinking "that was ugly, but at least it was a win"? Maybe that’s because this squad still isn’t sure what they can depend on.
Either Capers needs to make the team fit his philosophy or he should let his personnel dictate what the philosophy should be. Right now, our passing game is our most effective weapon so perhaps we should stop trying to first establish the run. Right now, the 3-4 defense doesn’t seem to be working well so perhaps we should try more four-linemen sets. The alternative is to bring in players that fit the system better than the ones who are here now.
Of course, another alternative would be to bring in a coaching staff whose philosophies take better advantage of who we have on our roster. Until the Texans figure out their identity, I’m not sure if they can advance much further than wild card entrants.
Bob Hulsey suggests what the Texans don’t need is a team shrink to help them get in touch with their inner child. Or a crate full of ritalin.
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