Dancing With the Starlings

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July 31, 2005
Dancing With the Starlings

by Keith Weiland

In his weekly radio interview last Friday, Texans general manager Charley Casserly noted that the number one storyline he’ll be watching during this year’s training camp will be the position battles.

Well, stop the presses.

(Wait… Doesn’t that statement have just about zero relevance in an online format? How about "euthanize the upload"? Hmm… needs work. Seems I’m not quite in midseason form yet, so time to run some forties… forty words per minute that is.)

Position battles should be what training camp is all about, and the Texans have a few good ones brewing this time around, their fourth turn on the training camp dance floor. The most dazzling competition on display Saturday night came from the wide receivers.

Everyone knows Pro Bowler Andre Johnson is first on the team’s dance card. The next safest in line is Jabar Gaffney, who wore a stunning red cover jersey during practice Saturday (overheard before practice from Melissa Rivers: "Jabar! Who are you wearing tonight?" Gaffney’s response: "Riddell! And a little Ben Gay!").

After Johnson and Gaffney though, it’s on like Donkey Kong.

The Texans brought back Corey Bradford for a one-year deal, and Derick Armstrong has another season left on his contract. They seem like logical fits to round out the top four on the depth chart, but the two most exciting guys fighting for more playing time this fall are Kendrick Starling and Jerome Mathis.

Both Starling and Mathis were sensational on Saturday night. Neither is the complete receiver, but both are electric in their own right. Mathis made the play of the evening when he outran cornerback Lewis Sanders fifty yards downfield, adjusting to an underthrown ball from quarterback Tony Banks, then ripping it out of the hands of Sanders for a training camp version of a touchdown. Simply breathtaking.

Not to be outdone, Starling later broke free to be on the receiving end of another deep pass and blazed a clear path to a fake six points. Reminiscent of J.J. Moses the last two years, Starling then played it up to the fans to feel the love in the room. Who says training camp doesn’t count?

Robaire Barely There Much has already been made about how svelte the defensive linemen look this year, as several of them shed considerable baby fat during the offseason.

(Unconfirmed rumor of the night: The leftover fat was NOT re-congealed last month to form the latest adopted newborn of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. Those sick rumor-mongerering bastards. Shameful. That fat was actually seen on Richmond on Monday, strung out but earning rent money cleaning windshields. Bouce back, baby fat, bounce back.)

Defensive end Robaire Smith is now under 310 pounds, and the results were noticeable on Saturday. Not only is he leaner, but Smith was much quicker than he ever looked in 2004. In one-on-one drills, Smith routinely abused left guard Chester Pitts.

While Smith posted a career high in tackles last season, he was a non-factor as a disruptive force through most of it. If Day One of Camp Capers 2005 is any indication, that could change in a big way this fall.

Center Stage In those same one-on-one drills noted above, Smtih was not alone in laying waste to his teammates on the offensive line. Center Steve McKinney got an earful from coach Joe Pendry on a few occasions for allowing his man to bully him back into a hat representing the quarterback. (Eye witnesses have claimed to The Advance Scout that dimunitive gunslinger B.J. Symons was NOT underneath the hat, so no quarterbacks were harmed in the making of this offensive line. Whew!)

Backup defensive tackle Jerry Deloach pressured McKinney on a couple of those drills. When even reserve Jason Davis gets deep enough on McKinney, it prompts and outburst from Pendry demanding his veteran to repeat the drill.

Other centers on the roster also struggled Saturday. Earlier in the evening, it was Davis again getting the better of a center, this time Todd Washington in a 9-on-7 scrimmage. Washington threw his hands up in disgust following the subpar play. He did, however, find a way to hold his ground on the next snap.

While better days are certain to come, rookie Drew Hodgdon looked a bit like a player making his way through his first NFL training camp on Saturday. Strong, yet inconsistent, Hodgdon was brilliant maneuevering to second-level blocks at one point, only to be outsmarted by a veteran’s hand technique at a later point.

The Blitz Gaffney, who is recovering from a late shoulder surgery, participated in all activities but kept the red jersey on to remind defenders not to touch him. I’d say there is little to worry about when it comes to him being able to pick up any new wrinkles in the Texans’ revised passing attack. He’s very much involved out there… Mathis joined Phillip Buchanon and Reggie Swinton in shagging punts, but don’t pencil him in just yet as the guy to handle the job in addition to his kick return duties. Mathis was unconventional in fielding the footed booms from Chad Stanley, and while the style may be fine for kickoffs, it won’t work in heavy punt coverage traffic. Capers has indicated that Buchanon is the leading candidate to return punts this season… Offensive lineman Milford Brown, who has mostly seen time at guard (and has been allegedly capable of handling duties at center), found himself backing up Todd Wade at right tackle most of the night. Brown appeared capable as a run blocker, but he was slow to move his feet as a pass blocker. Still, the versatility he might offer could help him avoid the turk on cutdown day next month… Right guard Zach Wiegert was maybe the best looking offensive lineman out there on Saturday. Here’s hoping he finds a way to stay healthy… Dave Ragone has switched jersey numbers from 4 to 15, the latter being the number he wore overseas for the Berlin Thunder. Maybe it will bring him some luck, as he earned the NFL Europe League’s Most Valuable Player award donning those digits.

Keith Weiland is as stunned as you. Reality ballroom dancing is a hit show for ABC television? Well, he did say Satan dropped him an email asking for a recommendation on a set of snow tires.

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