Should the Texans Hold ‘Em?

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January 11, 2006
Should the Texans Hold ‘Em?

by Bob Hulsey

This is a lean year at the top of the NFL draft. The Houston Texans will lavish untold millions on either an incomplete running back or an incomplete quarterback, further slowing what they really ought to do, which is to trade down and rebuild their porous offensive line.

But the Texans can’t do that. Not now. Not with two of the most lauded college talents seen in many a year there for the choosing, both with gaping holes in their game but so talented in other ways that it’s easy to overlook their liabilities.

First, let’s start by reminding everyone that two of Houston’s positions of least need are running back and quarterback. Domanick Davis has consistently produced 1,000-yard efforts despite nagging injuries and a questionable line. He’s also adept at catching passes and moving the chains. Unwisely, Texan management jumped the gun and signed Davis to a large contract extension, in part to compensate for his performance far beyond what was expected of a fourth-round draft choice. They could have waited until now, at his first exposure to free agency, to decide whether to sign him to more seasons, especially after spending another high draft choice last year on Vernand Morency as his backup.

The opinion on David Carr is more varied. Stats, other than the enormous amount of sacks he has suffered, don’t really tell the story. He has a great arm, good wheels and, until this season, the patience of Job. He has accepted team leadership and, at times, blame for the performance of the offense. Two offensive coordinators and one head coach have been fired principally because they could not get the Carr-led offense to perform to its potential. Still, the Texans are expected to pick up a three-year option to pay Carr more money rather than let him walk in free agency. In reserve is the talented but untested lefthander, Dave Ragone.

By finishing 2005 with the worst record in the NFL, the Texans own the right to select the best eligible college player. The 2006 draft has two of the most intriguing players seen in a long time: USC Trojan running back Reggie Bush and Texas quarterback Vincent Young. Both players, in my mind, are extremely high-risk/high-reward.

Bush’s calling card is his rare speed and quickness. In the Rose Bowl, he displayed a dimension of flight as well, taking a handoff to his right and leaping the final five yards for the touchdown. He has a lengthy highlight reel of waterbug moves that have left a wake of helpless defenders grasping for air.

NFL defenders, however, will neutralize some of that speed. Bush has not had to pick up the tough yards at USC, either. The Trojans used LenDale White for that. On two of the team’s three critical fourth downs in the Rose Bowl, Bush wasn’t even on the field. He shows a willingness to pass block but with a smaller frame than Davis, he will have the same trouble Davis has when it comes to slowing an NFL pass rusher.

Further, running backs have the shortest shelf life of any NFL position. A few good shots to the knee could turn Bush’s speed and quickness from extraordinary to simply ordinary. As one Cowboy fan put it, "The only reason we took Emmitt Smith is because the Jets had already taken Blair Thomas." A player who lives and dies on the speed game becomes worthless once that speed is gone. Bush could take it to the house on any of his projected 15-20 touches, but I’d prefer the Texans add a Larry Johnson or Shaun Alexander-type who can take it to the defense 30 times a game until the defense has nothing left in the fourth quarter.

Some point to Bush’s ability to return kicks as another positive, however the Texans already have a Pro Bowler returning kicks (Jerome Mathis), and anyone who thinks Houston should expose their newest gazillionaire to the perils of returning kicks should be exiled to Buffalo.

Others say Reggie should be used more like a motion receiver. They point to the success Marshall Faulk had as a runner/receiver in St. Louis. That is probably the smartest use for him, but it means designing the offense with a lot of spread formations and leaving the quarterback exposed to blitzes, a problem the Rams have had ever since they went to their "fast break" offense. If the Texans draft Reggie Bush, they will be forced to open up the offense or waste his talents. It will mean a type of game planning that former head coach Dom Capers wouldn’t even recognize, much less implement.

Yet if Bush is faster than a speeding bullet and able to leap tall safeties in a single bound, Vincent Young was the one at the Rose Bowl who wore the cape and had the red S on his chest.

Young presents the same half-empty/half-full dilemma as Bush. No quarterback has ever had the running capability of Young, a 6’5” monster who sheds tacklers no matter how large and can outrun almost all of them. He has the size, speed, and athletic ability of Terrell Owens and can pass, too.

The problem is that his passes don’t leave his body the way any coach would suggest they should. ESPN’s Bill Simmons described his throwing motion as "flinging poop off your hand". But Young has worked to improve his accuracy to the point where he completes 70% of his passes. He makes deep throws as well, perhaps better than he does the short throws.

Vince is also going to find some of his speed and strength neutralized at the next level. A quarterback is ultimately judged on how well they pass. Young went from scattershot to highly accurate in just one season, but he has a slow release by NFL standards and the taller, quicker NFL linemen are going to swat down more of his passes than he saw in college. Still, Brett Favre has had a decent pro career with an unorthodox throwing style, and Carr, himself, is not a picture-perfect passer. Young may be able to overcome his awkward style, even in the NFL.

The Houston native may also be an injury risk. Somebody will need to teach Young when to slide and when to give up on a play so he can live for the next down. He’s going to take as much punishment as Carr does now, only more of it will be self-inflicted until he learns to protect himself.

But, unlike a speedy tailback, when a "running quarterback" loses his wheels, he still has function as a thrower. Young’s mentor, Steve McNair, is a perfect example of this. McNair became a better passer as his running skills diminished.

Last year, I was very negative about Young’s pro prospects. This year, I warmed to his potential, and during the Rose Bowl I realized how he can succeed as an NFL quarterback but it will need to be in unconventional approach.

The Texas coaches tried to change Vince into more of the prototype quarterback with poor results until midway in the 2004 campaign when they accepted Young’s plea to let Vince be Vince. They switched to a read option offense where Young always had the choice to tuck and run. He hasn’t lost a game since. To succeed with Young, any offensive coordinator will need to let Vince be Vince rather than attempting to change him into Donovan McNabb or Tom Brady.

Whatever team gets Young should sculpt a similar offense to what Texas uses, perhaps with some planned rollouts and some planned draws similar to the way Pittsburgh used Kordell Stewart during his brief successful tenure in the late nineties. Young’s exceptional running skill will buy some time for receivers to get open. Surely his opponents will use one defender as a spy (they may have to use two), and pass rushing ends will be told to contain rather than pinch, in hopes Vince won’t take off and run. That will also buy him time in the pocket.

While some coaches won’t bend their egos enough to let Vince be Vince, what I saw this year was a quarterback who grew as a reader of defenses. He takes seriously his role as manager of the offense. He’s not a slacker. He’s worked very hard to develop himself as a quarterback even as he has strived to maintain his individuality. He shows the aptitude to run a pro offense and dissect pro defenses. He’s not a glory hog and may have cost himself a Heisman by allowing teammates to pad their stats at his expense.

For his part, Reggie Bush has also shown a tremendous amount of poise and maturity for someone so young and skilled. He’s been a team player and not a woofer. He, too, is willing to let others share the spotlight and do whatever is best for the team. Either way, Houston is getting an outstanding person.

The difference may ultimately be that there will be enormous pressure placed on the Texans to choose the city’s favorite son, the man who ended a 35-year national title drought for the state university. If Bush is taken, he will be compared, unfairly, to whatever success Young may have elsewhere. Houston fans will not let Bush or the Texan ownership live that down unless Bush leads the Texans to a Super Bowl win.

The window of opportunity for both will be short. I don’t see either having a pro career longer than ten years, not unless Bush develops the bulk to be an every down runner or Young develops the throwing skills to be a drop back passer.

There doesn’t seem a likely chance that the Texans will resist both temptations and trade down to get help where it’s truly needed. In my opinion, 4/5ths of the offensive line is substandard and 10/11ths of the defense is, too. The tight end has not had a presence on this team since 2002. Drafting Bush or Young helps none of that. Personally, this club doesn’t have the luxury of choosing either one with as much else that is wrong with this team.

But even if they did as I wished and traded down, the best-rated offensive lineman is a fine pass-blocker but nothing special as a run blocker. And it could be argued that Chester Pitts at left tackle is the best performer our line has ever had.

So, there you have it. The Texans can choose half a franchise running back, half a franchise quarterback, or half a franchise left tackle. None of them are completely what I’d like in a prospect, and each are going to force their teams to adapt their game plans away from the traditional pro format in order to accommodate the talent of their newest millionaire.

On draft day, the Texans will be going "all in" on a huge gamble. The only question is which one? It will determine the direction this franchise goes for the rest of the decade.

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