A Fan’s Appreciation of the Offseason Priorities

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January 4, 2005
A Fan’s Appreciation of the Offseason Priorities

by Keith Weiland

The final home game of the season was once again deemed Fan Appreciation Day. A good thing, too. Being a fan of an expansion team is hard work sometimes, especially on days like the Texans had against the Browns. Since we can’t hold out for a better signing bonus or a contract extension, this will have to do.

Care to know the Texans’ record on Fan Appreciation Days? How does 0-3 sound? Perhaps if the Texans really cared to show some appreciation for their fans, they might want to consider winning one of these games in the near future. Here’s hoping the one next year has playoff implications.

While a victory to close out the 2004 season on a three-game winning streak would have been nice, ending it with a performance that spotlights the team’s greatest deficiencies might actually be better in the long run. And truth be told, the extra four slots the Texans moved up in April’s draft order isn’t a bad consolation prize, either. Not that the Browns exposed some great mysteries as to why this team lost nine times this season, but plenty of spotty pass protection, questionable offensive philosophy, and a lukewarm pass rush ought to be the three biggest areas of focus this offseason.

Head coach Dom Capers approved a massive overhaul to his offensive line prior to the 2004 season, so some of the unit’s problems were to be expected, especially early in the season, and it is fair to say that consistency is the best possible solution to what ails this unit. This season alone, the Texans sported two new starting tackles and shifted one starter to a new position at guard. On top of that, the team hired a new position coach and implemented an entirely new blocking system.

But as Nero fiddled with offensive line, David Carr burned. For the second time in his brief three-year career, he has absorbed the most sacks in a single season. Can someone please install some airbags on his shoulder pads? Carr has become the tragic hero for the Texans, as out-of-town media pass him by like rubberneckers inching through a highway pileup.

I was critical of the decision to start Seth Wand last summer, not because I doubted Wand’s ability to be a starter in the NFL, but because the Texans were rushing him a year early into the job and asking him to learn it on the fly. The intent may have been so that Wand would be NFL-quality ready for a playoff push in 2005, but at the expense of the additional pounding that Carr has absorbed has been an error in judgment. Another season like this one, and Carr might need a liquid diet.

Wand was serviceable enough through most of the season to lead me to believe that he will be an adequate left tackle for the coming years, but Wand, who may be better suited as a right tackle, was also deficient enough against the better pass rushers to make me want the team to consider looking elsewhere for help. Sadly though, his position isn’t even the most glaring need on the line, and there are only two other ways to find help. Neither is a slam dunk.

If the Texans look to the draft to fix their problems on the line, Carr will likely need to stomach one more season of running for his life. And that’s the upside. If that drafted lineman doesn’t pan out, then it’s back to square one.

The other direction the Texans could look is to free agency, but they’ve already been down this road three times. Each of the last three offseasons has seen the Texans make one big signing on the line: center Steve McKinney in 2002, right guard Zach Wiegert in 2003, and right tackle Todd Wade in 2004. Since they comprise 60% of the starting unit, perhaps it is safe to assume that 60% of the line’s problems are theirs, too.

And since those three signees account for significant real estate on the team’s salary cap, replacing one of them before their contract runs out will be costly, too. Think of it another way though: Not replacing at least one of them though could be even more costly to Carr and his career longevity.

Charley Casserly, the team’s general manager that signed each of those linemen, has let it be known already that we shouldn’t expect another big free agent signing this offseason on the line. That’s a shame because if he wanted to spend the cap dollars, there are possibly a couple big names to be had this year, including star left tackles Walter Jones of the Seahawks and Orlando Pace of the Rams. While both may be unrestricted free agents come March, both could also be franchised by their respective teams, though they might be available trade if they were tagged.

Enough about the line. How about the offensive philosophy? Through his gameplan, Capers has made it obvious how he wants to run his offense, regardless of his personnel. He wants to pound the ball and control the clock. He wants an opposing defense to think his offense is capable of a big downfield pass play, but he prefers his quarterback to take the safe underneath stuff instead.

It is a sound philosophy with the right personnel mix, one that could carry (and has often carried) a team deep into the playoffs. What Capers doesn’t realize is that his offense’s best strengths are to use the pass to set up the run. He has a vibrant, young set of receivers, including underused Pro Bowler Andre Johnson, and he has a shifty back in Domanick Davis that might not strike fear in a defense but can break a couple tackles when he is healthy.

But ask why the Texans offense doesn’t play more to its strengths, and the answer often seems to boil down to that it is too complicated to explain. How insulting is that? Football has some complex schemes and an even more complex language to disguise it from opponents, but rocket science it is not. What does appear to be too complicated for the Texans coaching staff is learning to gameplan with the strengths of the weapons they have instead of forcing something they don’t.

While the offense continued to struggle to find an identity in 2004, the Texans defense might have found one. Infused with youth, particularly with first rounders Dunta Robinson and Jason Babin, the defense went a league-best 13 quarters without allowing a touchdown across the final four games of the season. The defense gives up some yardage at times, but they have begun to accumulate some playmakers to create the almighty turnovers.

This unit still has one glaring problem to resolve this spring. Absent a consistent pass rush, the Texans defense has allowed mediocre quarterbacks too much time to make sound decisions and look good against them. And against the Browns minus Antwan Peek, the team’s most effective pass rusher, the defense let Kelly Holcombe complete 75% of his passes while sacking him just one time.

The Texans lack an every down fearsome pass rusher that can rack up double-digit sacks. Well, at least I think they do. Maybe the team already has such a player in Peek, Babin, or someone else. If that’s the case, then the defensive line isn’t doing enough to let one of these guys loose in the offensive backfield.

Regardless of where the problem lies though, finding someone new to wreak havoc on this front seven is another priority. However they do it, getting more quarterback pressure is the key. It affects a quarterback’s decision-making and alters an opponent’s gameplan like nothing else.

Don’t believe me? Just ask Carr what’s done to him.

Keith Weiland appreciates the twins.

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