February 7, 2001
by Ric Sweeney
There’s been a lot happening lately, and it seems every time I’m ready to put pen to paper… or, finger to keyboard, something else gets in the way.
I wanted to write about Dom Caper’s hiring, then the Super Bowl grabbed my attention. OK, no problem, I thought, I’ll just turn my attention to the Raven’s victory and write about how it might impact the Texans’ building plans… but that proved impossible as well because I couldn’t shake the image of Britney Spear’s redefining the position of tight end during the Super Bowl’s halftime show and so I just got all kinds of sidetracked. (And for the record: it was either going to be an obvious tight end joke or something incorporating the phrase, “long snapper” — I decided to take the high road. By the way, am I only the guy out there who buys Britney’s CDs expressly for the purpose of staring at her pictures on the CD’s insert? Was that out loud?)
So, with apologies to Larry King, I thought I’d break out the machine gun, and try to shoot down some of these long-standing topics, beginning with the Super Bowl.
The Texans are still over a year away from lacing up and hitting the field, and anyone hoping to find personnel-building strategies from this year’s crop of NFL successes that Charley Casserly and company might be able to pilfer would have better luck finding a worthy recipient of a Bill Clinton pardon. Football in the 21st century is a crapshoot. It began with the high-powered Rams and their MVP quarterback winning the Big Game, and has given way to Trent Dilfer and the Ravens’ high-powered defense. Could there be a greater dichotomy?
Meaning there’s no longer just one road to NFL prosperity. Teams with great defenses (Tampa Bay and Tennessee) were in the playoffs this year slightly longer than teams with great offenses (Denver and St. Louis); franchise quarterbacks like Brett Favre, Drew Bledsoe and Mark Brunell watched from their living rooms as no-names Aaron Brooks, Jay Fiedler and Shaun King started playoff games; so-called top coaches like George Seifert and Mike Holgrem had their perennial playoff spots filled by the likes of Jim Haslet and Andy Reid, and so on.
With no sure thing when it comes to brewing a winning formula, it might make the building of our Texans seem all the more daunting, except that the aforementioned diversity is actually a good thing. Not only is there no one combination to unlocking NFL success, there’s yet to be a team capable of bottling their magic formula, making for a poor-gets-rich-quickly league that changes at the top about as often as the couples change partners on Temptation Island.
In fact, it’s not that inconceivable that Houston could not only be a respectable team, but a playoff team in as little as four years. Don’t believe me? Consider this year’s crop of playoff teams. In 1996, the group as a whole went a combined 89-103, with only Denver (13-3), Indianapolis (9-7), Minnesota (9-7) and Philadelphia (10-6) posting better-than .500 records. In fact, the Giants and Ravens won a combined 10 games that year. Meanwhile, Denver was the lone 1996 division winner to make this year’s postseason. Dallas, Carolina, Green Bay, New England and Pittsburgh, on top of the football world just four, short years ago, went 35-45 in 2000.
And remember — the Texans were granted an unprecedented three-year head start in building their franchise. Most teams move year-to-year, with no time for forward thinking. You scout, you draft, you play a season, you sign free agents, you scout, you draft, you play a season… When Paul Tagliabue strides to the podium in April 2002, the Texans’ scout team will have had two full college seasons worth of information on that first pick. They will have seen him grow, mature, improve… in other words, they’ll have a pretty good idea how legit the kid is, a virtual guarantee he’ll be anything but a stiff. And that advantage spreads across any and all personnel moves made, quite likely, the first two years of operation.
I’m not suggesting the Texans should win from the get-go, and I still believe Jacksonville and Carolina were the exceptions, not the rule, to expansion start-ups. But I wouldn’t necessarily buy into this notion that this is an expansion team, and therefore must suck for a mandatory period of time. The rules of the game have changed. No, scratch that: they’ve been completely trashed and thrown away, and it should be to the Texans’ benefit.
Which brings us to the man selected to lead Houston into phase two of its football history, Dom Capers. I’ve taken my time mulling over his hire, hoping my initial reaction would give way to more grounded introspection. And it has, to a certain degree. Originally, the announcement had a hand-me-down feel to it, as if we were merely recycling a tired retread who had failed elsewhere. Perhaps, I was even having trouble grasping the thought that after years of wide-open offenses, this new, identity-less team that I’m supposed to unconditionally embrace will look unlike any Houston football team in a long while. Defense, defense, defense… and if they have a spare moment or two, offense. But then quickly back to defense. Hard to get excited about a recycled coach preaching conservative, ball-control football, no? Where’s June Jones when you need him?
Not just that… but as much as I distanced myself from the naming process… sheesh! Is McNair capable of, or willing to make a decision that doesn’t already have a history to it? Casserly was fired as the Redskins’ director of player personnel, the Texans was a twice-used nickname, Capers was fired by an expansion team after only four years… I always thought the team’s battle cry, “A new beginning,” was meant to signify a fresh start in the annals of Houston pro football history. But apparently, it’s a reference to the team’s philosophy when it comes to making decisions. Failed once? Come to Houston, we’re offering a new beginning!
Or maybe I’m just still reeling from having told you, first, that Marty Schottenheimer was the ideal choice to coach the Texans; and then that you should dismiss Butch Davis’ denials of interest in the Texans’ head coaching job because it was probably already a done deal. I mean, between my coaching-search follies and Dave’s playoff predictions, this site is starting to stockpile more misses than your typical XFL quarterback.
But those were initial thoughts. Granted time to chew it over, the only difference between Capers and a shot of the new blood (Marvin Lewis, for example) is that Capers has more experience. Few bring to the table what he does — a track record of impenetrable defenses, a stint as an expansion head coach, and, perhaps most importantly (and generally overlooked), two years of coaching for and against AFC Central teams. No idea how realignment’s going to eventually shake out (more on that in a bit), but the general consensus is that Houston will either jump back to the original AFC Central (with Cincinnati, Cleveland and Pittsburgh) or join a carpetbagger’s paradise comprised of Indianapolis, Jacksonville and Tennessee. Of those possibilities, Capers has coached for two of the teams, and coached against them all (save Indianapolis) on a regular basis the past two years.
I guess the best way to sum up my feelings on Capers is that I think the pick is both safe and sound. You can’t challenge it from a football standpoint, because the guy obviously knows what he’s doing. He may not be fresh meat, but he has a pocketful of successful stops across the football landscape.
And one final thing on Capers before moving on: I’m glad McNair reversed field on his previously-announced decision to wait until next year to hire a coach. I never quite understood, financial considerations aside, McNair’s thought process. By bringing in Capers now, instead of later, McNair can shift a lot of Casserly’s rotary club luncheon and book-of-the-month club appearances he seems to be making daily to the nothing-yet-to-do Capers, allowing Casserly and his scouts time to get down to business and concentrate solely on football. The first draft is only a year away.
Finally, a decision on realignment is somewhat near, and my feeling on it doesn’t differ much from my feeling on the team’s name — just put us in a damn division, and let’s play some football! Having said that, one thing bothers me; two actually.
The first is this belief that we can manufacture rivalries, most notably by geographically aligning the divisions. Sorry, but it’s not possible. Rivalries are born out of hatred for other teams, an emotional response that has nothing to do with whether or not the team’s within driving distance of Houston. Jealously, not geography, is the root of most great rivalries. The teams I hated as an Oiler fan were the ones who had what I wanted — success. Did any of us hate the New Orleans Saints during the 1980’s? Of course not. But I bet you couldn’t stand the two-time AFC Champion Cincinnati Bengals, could you? And when the Bengals fell on hard times in the 90’s, did you still hate them? Or did you move on to hating the Bills and the Broncos, because those were the latest teams to keep the Oilers down?
Which brings me to my second point: this idea we can pick up where the Oilers left off and act as if nothing’s happened, most notably by reuniting us with the original AFC Central, is simply ludicrous. I realize this site celebrates the Oilers’ past, and I certainly cherish my memories. But once the Texans start, I’m going 100-and-10% Texan. I want all Oiler thoughts vanquished, not only for the good of our new franchise (it shouldn’t have to play under such a black cloud), but because the Oilers will, officially, no longer be a void in my life.
I don’t care what division the Texans are in, I just know I don’t want the decision to be based on some false hope that the choice can do something about relighting my football fire. It can’t — it’s already raging!
Ric Sweeney would like to offer his condolences to Aerosmith fans everywhere. It’s one thing to allow Britney Spears to bastardized your song — she’s hot. But N’Sync? May the ‘Smith rest in peace.