The Plot Thickens

July 31, 2003
The Plot Thickens As The Depth Thins
by Keith Weiland

Only seven practices into the 2003 training camp, but it feels like seventy. With a scrimmage against the Dallas Cowboys looming on Friday, the Texan players are busy keeping their attentions focused on two things: staying healthy and securing a roster spot.

As for the latter, nearly every position has something up for grabs, and the Texans are going to need to make some much tougher cuts this year than they did last year. And as for the former, the nicks and bruises are already piling up as more and more players are sitting out of practices. No bigger wakeup call is needed than to know that little-seen center Mike Newell has been getting significant work with the first team offensive line. You know, Mike Newell, the undrafted free agent who bounced around NFL Europe and the Rams’ practice squad until he landed on Houston’s PUP list last year…? No? Not ringing any bells?

Oh, well then… you need to catch up on the diary.

July 30, 2003

6:40 – Kickers Kris Brown and rookie free agent Todd Sievers tee it up. They start at the 40-yard line to get warm, then move back to the 30. With a little breeze at his back, Brown boots his kicks high and deep. Out of three consecutive kicks, two go to the back of the endzone and one is five yards deep. Sievers also takes advantage of the light wind, kicking to the goalline a few times and once to the middle of the endzone on a line drive. Avion Black, Darrick Vaughn, and J.J. Moses are back shagging kicks, and Tony Hollings joins them. Hollings lets one hit his chest and a second one falls through his hands.

6:49 – Tight end Rashod Kent, still in shorts and no pads, is working from a three-point stance with a coach. Running back and kick returner Dominick Davis is standing on the sideline with a big cast on this hand. The loss of Davis really makes the roster shuffling interesting since he’ll be out for the rest of camp.

6:51 – Horn blows. Special teams work on kickoffs. The front fives work on one half of the field while the back six are practicing the returns, first up the middle, then to the right and left. Running back Jonathan Wells muffs a kickoff in the left corner. Wide receiver Atnaf Harris back there too, and he catches one in his face mask but holds on. Black, Moses, and Vaughn look the most comfortable fielding kicks. When the ball is airborne, the returner is heard yelling, “Me! Me! Me! Me! Me!”

7:02 – I notice a few more of the walking wounded, including cornerback Aaron Glenn, whose hamstrung leg is heavily bandaged, linemen Zach Wiegert (turf toe), Steve McKinney (groin), and Todd Washington (ankle sprain). Some others are sitting out too, including defensive end Keith Wright and linebackers Jamie Sharper (knee) and Erik Flowers. Wiegert and McKinney are in uniform pants instead of shorts, but no pads. Cornerback Kenny Wright (groin) is also limited in today’s practice. Wide receiver Corey Bradford is in pads, but doesn’t play much because of a hamstring problem. Rookie Andre Johnson takes his place most of the night on the first team.

7:03 – Time for some light running and stretching. Head Coach Dom Capers and Offensive Coordinator Chris Palmer chat.

7:12 – Players split up by position groups. Hollings, who suffered a minor setback Tuesday in his recovery from knee injury, is back running though all of the regular drills. The wideouts practice working off press coverage to get open on 10-yard patterns in the endzone. John Minardi runs off the field at one point and into the indoor practice field entry. He returns a couple minutes later, and I can’t help but wonder if the Texans are still looking for a urine evacuation specialist.

The receivers practice running several patterns in the endzone, including a few posts, then a few flags. Derick Armstrong and Lavell Boyd, longshots to make even the practice squad, drop some catchable footballs, as does Minardi. David Carr throws behind Johnson, but Johnson does a nice job adjusting to the throw to make the catch. Dave Ragone is way off target on most of his throws. Jabar Gaffney continues to make catches in practice. He uses his hands, but they are suspiciously close to his body.

7:27 – Time for some 11-on-11 work. Running plays are the focus here. On defense, Jason Lamar starts in place of Sharper. On offense, the line has been reshuffled to account for the lack of centers. They line up with Chester Pitts and Greg Randall at the tackles, Milford Brown and Fred Weary at the guards, and Mike Newell at center. Pitts does well locking up linebacker Charlie Clemons, then pancakes defensive end Shawn Worthen.

The second team offensive line has Seth Wand at left tackle, Ryan Schau at left guard (with his bandaged dislocated finger unable to snap a football), newcomer Matt Anderson at center, Jimmy Herndon at right guard, and David Pruce at right tackle. The right side of the line is huge but very, very slow.

Lamar jams a finger going after Hollings, who is making yet another outside run. He gets attention from a trainer, and is replaced by Troy Evans. Stacey Mack runs through the power right side of the line for a big gain. The left side then makes way for a big run by Hollings.

7:38 – The first teams get their work in against scout teams. Lamar is back in for the defense, so his finger must be okay. McKinney and Wiegert walk through the plays with the offense at center and right tackle, respectively. That Wiegert is at tackle is good news for Weary. Randall has looked decent in Wiegert’s absence, but Weary is getting his shot with the first team again. Capers chats with Schau behind the play, and it seems Schau’s injury has become a good excuse to demote him to second team.

The offense is working through some 3- and 4-wide receiver formations. On one 4-wide formation, the offense lines up with trips left. In the 3-wide formation, Gaffney lines up in the slot, and tight end Billy Miller runs a pass pattern. The offense runs Hollings on a sweep. Carr works out of the shotgun and also practices some play action.

7:50 – Kickoffs, this time with all 22 players on the field. Vaughn returns a kick first, fumbling the ball, but picking it up to scamper up the left sideline for a big gain. It would end up being the best return of the bunch. Black makes a decent return to the 21, then Harris runs up the middle for 30 yards. Moses makes a good return, but Johnson is a total freak and runs him down from behind.

8:03 – The down markers are out as the first team offense lines up against the second team defense, though first-teamers Clemons and Foreman work with this group. The offensive line is again Pitts-Brown-Newell-Weary-Randall. I have yet to see Brown work at center.

Strong safety Ramon Walker hits running back James Allen in the backfield on a blitz. Allen, for some reason, is still getting first reps, though obviously Mack is the main man back there. On the next play, Pitts picks up Clemons on a blitz, but Carr misses on a pass to Johnson, something that rarely happens this evening. Walker nails Black to break up a completion, but he’s slow to get up. Once Walker does, he needs help off the field with what looks like some kind of ankle injury. Mack then covers the ball well in traffic, makes a hard cut, and is gone up the left side. Pitts and Brown work well together reading and shifting assignments to fend off a corner blitz from Marcus Coleman. Carr then nails Johnson on what is a simulated 8-yard third down pass for a first.

The first team defense and second team offense come in next with Tony Banks at quarterback. He is protected up front by a line made up of Wand-Schau-Anderson-Herndon-Pruce. Rolling right, Banks finds Miller’s soft hands. The line completely falls apart, first up the middle on Jay Foreman’s blitz, then on a toss right where the D bottles up Hollings three yards deep in the backfield. Quinn comes in for Banks and bounces a pass Harris. Safety Eric Brown drops the hammer on fullback Jarrod Baxter to break up another pass. Wand holds up Foreman when he blitzes outside, then does well in containing Clemons. When he’s not lost out there, Wand looks like a capable tackle.

8:15 – The linemen walk down to the goalline to make room for the others to do some 7-on-7 work at midfield. Walker is back for the defense, so whatever he injured a few minutes ago must be fine now. Carr hooks up with Johnson. He later tries to find the diminutive Moses but puts the ball outside of his outstretched arms. Dawson then makes a good grab. Carr connects with Johnson again, and it’s easy to see a rhythm forming between the two.

At the same time, the linemen work hard against each other. Weary stays with defensive end Gary Walker, and takes care of Corey Sears. Randall locks up Jason Davis. Newell dribbles a snap then misses his block. Brown fends off Jerry DeLoach. Against Pitts, Worthen uses some good hands to make him give up too much ground. The second chance he gets, Pitts is steady and maintains the protection. Davis gets around Pruce. Pruce is a strong guy, but he has boulders for feet. Herndon handles Terrance Martin. Howard Green gets past Anderson. Wand then shows off more of his quick feet against Antwan Peek. Wand is suspect to biting on some veteran-quality moves, but his feet are helping him compensate.

Back to the offense, Carr keeps finding Johnson for more completions. Other than Johnson, Carr is consistently hooking up with Harris, who’s also become a reliable receiver for him. When Quinn comes in, he finds Bright on a deep fly route getting a little separation from DeMarcus Faggins and puts the ball into his hands, but Bright can’t hold on. Ragone then comes in and is misfiring all over the place, high to tight end Bennie Joppru, then high again to Hollings, though Hollings is able to bat it down with one hand into his other for the catch.

8:31 – The play clock is running, increasing the urgency of the tempo. Gary Walker breaks through a block and pulls up before sacking Carr. Continuing the action, Carr still hits Johnson for a 20-yard completion. With Weary pulling left, Mack is stopped on a short gain. Carr then tucks and runs on the next play. Pitts does a good job controlling Peek, but Walker, who’s now taking a breather, thinks Pitts did too good of a job and tells the nearby referee that Pitts is holding. No flag is thrown.

Carr throws another 15-yard completion to Johnson, who’s running a post. The second teams enter, and outside linebacker Patrick Chukwurah quickly gets into the backfield to stop Hollings. Headfirst, Wells powers up the gut for a decent 4-yard gain. Allen is then met in the backfield thanks to some weak blocking by Herndon and Pruce.

8:40 – Oooh… game clock now shows 1:20 left, and the play clock is ticking down from 40 seconds. Two-minute drill time, with the second team defense working against the first team offense. Starting at about their own 35, the offense works out of a 3-receiver and 1-tight end set with Carr in the shotgun. On first down, Carr hands off to Allen for a draw play that gets them five yards. Second and five with the clock ticking down to 1:02, Carr hits Dawson on a 5-yard out pattern for a first down that stops the clock.

New set of downs for the offense at their own 46-yard line and 0:55 remaining. Carr skips his pass on first down, incomplete to Gaffney. On second down and 10 with 0:49 left, Miller splits out to be a fourth wide receiver and catches a 7-yard out to stop the clock. Third and 3 with 0:39 to play, the defense blitzes hard. Carr unloads to Miller, but Ramon Walker is all over him to force the incompletion. Going for it on fourth down and 3 with 0:36, Carr has his pass batted down at the line of scrimmage. Somewhere, Ron Jaworski must be looking for his coach’s clicker, a microphone, and an ESPN camera.

8:45 – The second team offense runs the same drill against the first team defense. Not sure why, but the defense calls a timeout. I think they don’t have the right dime package players on the field. On first down, Kailee Wong plows right past Pruce before pulling up on Banks. Banks continues, but throws an interception to Eric Brown. So much for that two-minute drill.

8:46 – Cool down stretching.

8:48 – The team huddles around Capers.

8:50 – Position coaches have some final words with their units.

8:55 – Capers consults Charley Casserly and some scouts at midfield.

8:56 – Ragone and Quinn stick around to work on some sideline passes to Joppru.

Quinn seems destined for the practice squad, though Banks isn’t exactly impressing anyone out there, either. With rookie Ragone completely unimpressive thus far, this offense would be downright dreadful this season if Carr somehow didn’t take all the snaps again. The most encouraging takeaway from this evening’s practice was the obvious chemistry that Carr is developing with Johnson. Though it’s possible that Carr is forcing an on-field relationship in order to get comfortable with his new receiver, there’s no denying that it’s Johnson that Carr is looking for first when Johnson is on the field.