November 19, 2001
by Keith Weiland
As General Manager of the 32nd team in the NFL, Charley Casserly knows his team will immediately be measured against the league’s 31st team, the Cleveland Browns. Three months ago, it was apparent that the Browns were still struggling to establish themselves in the league, and the Texans set the bar accordingly with the fans and media.
Boy, how times have changed!
The Browns are proving to be a moving target for the Texans, making noise in the AFC Central Division halfway through their 2001 schedule. After beating the Baltimore Ravens this weekend for the second time this season, overcoming three interceptions by QB Tim Couch in the process, the Browns sit with a winning record at 5-4. They have a legitimate shot at making the playoffs in only their third year of existence.
Casserly and the Texans would have you believe that Houston’s road to respectability will be arduous, one that could take up to five years to progress. Today, NFL teams are proving otherwise.
This year’s pitiful teams will be next year’s playoff Cinderellas. The St. Louis Rams and Indianapolis Colts proved it in 1999 by playing games into late January. This season, even more teams, like the Chicago Bears, San Francisco 49ers, and Pittsburgh Steelers, are turning things around, heading for the playoffs. Sheesh, even the Bengals have a respectable record.
So how can the Texans beef?
As the 32nd team, the talent pool will be even more diluted than when the Browns stocked their team in 1999. With realignment next season, the full bounty of a last place schedule has been diminished. Fourteen of the sixteen teams scheduled for the Texans’ inaugural campaign have already been decided, regardless of record. Finally, other GM’s around the league have become more astute in locking up their good players before they reach free agency.
That leaves Bob McNair to beg Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and the other 31 owners for more leniency on the rules to initially stock his team. Though the final details have yet to be etched in stone, McNair has a better chance of finding coal in his Christmas stocking than getting the league to budge an inch on changing the plan the Browns used three years ago.
And worse yet for the Texans’ brass, the fan expectations are already mounting. Five-year plans are obsolete in this new century of the NFL. There is no reason why Houston fans should buy into the notion that this team cannot have at least a .500 record in 2004 and be a legitimate playoff contender by 2005.
Why are the Browns as good as they are already?
Well, they didn’t do it through the expansion draft, that’s for sure. Only two out of the thirty-seven expansion draft players remain on the Browns’ roster, and both (LB Tarek Saleh and CB Ray Jackson) are hanging on as backups. It’s not that the Browns did a bad job in the expansion draft, either. The cupboard was bare, and the Texans can expect the same next February. Looking back to the expansion drafts of the Jacksonville Jaguars and Carolina Panthers, only three players stand out – the Jags’ QB Steve Beuerlein and WR/KR Desmond Howard and the Panthers’ WR Mark Carrier – and two of them had their better days playing later on other teams.
The Browns’ expansion draft does give us a clue as to what type of player Casserly will select next year. Of the sixteen picks that made their initial roster, five were defensive backs. The Browns also kept three offensive linemen and three linebackers.
If the expansion draft rules remain the same for the Texans, they can expect to select a minimum of thirty players with salaries making up at least 38 percent of their 2002 cap figure. Considering the dredge that will be forced upon the Texans, it is scary to think that more than a third of their initial roster will be made up of these hooligans.
The real source of the Browns’ newfound success can be traced back to two things, beginning with smart college drafting in the early rounds. The Browns had the benefit of finding a talented quarterback worthy of their first selection in 1999, and they followed that pick with WR Kevin Johnson in the second round. Finally healthy, both are looking more and more like a Peyton Manning-Marvin Harrison connection every week. After the initial focus on their offense, their drafts the following two years bolstered their defense, as they selected DE Courtney Brown and DT Gerard Warren.
The second reason for their turnaround has been new Head Coach Butch Davis. After jilting the Texans, Davis has been a sparkplug for the Browns’ players. He has embedded a new attitude in Cleveland, and the Browns have responded by playing tougher on Sundays. Under Davis, the team, which is still mostly made up of players the casual fan has never heard of, has shed its castoff loser mentality and believes it can beat anyone, even the defending Super Bowl champs… twice.
The Texans hope their had coach, Dom Capers, provides similar leadership. And with a trip to Cleveland already on the 2002 schedule next season, Houston fans are anxious to make their evaluations.
Keith Weiland advises readers to NOT eat dog food as a show of undying support for one’s team… or as inspiration for an article. Butch Davis Home