Expanding My Fandom

February 19, 2002
Expanding My Fandom
By Ric Sweeney

If you’re searching for the biggest positive to come from Monday’s expansion draft, it’s this: thank God we’re not Buccaneer fans! Word has it Jerrah Jones is on his way to Tampa right now to officially hand over his title of NFL’s Most Ruinous Owner to the Glazers. “Draft picks? We doan need no stinkin’ draft picks.” I’m betting Al Davis, at least once during his negotiations with the Bucs Sunday night that landed them Jon Gruden, cupped his hand over the phone receiver and had this exchange with all his buddies in the room: “Now they want to give us two number one picks –BWHAHAHAHA! Shhh… You’ll blow it…”

Anyway, I made the trek to Houston for the expansion draft, and here are some random thoughts on the proceedings:

Should I even bother? How’s this for an ominous start to the weekend: as I’m pulling onto the North Dallas Tollway, just minutes after leaving my domicile, Whitesnake’s “Slow and Easy” comes on the radio. Whitesnake?! Did I accidentally take the off-ramp to 1987? Talk about discouraging.

Here’s the eerie coup de grace: when I finally got into range of Houston radio, the Mix station was playing… Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again.” I’m not kidding. Of course, anytime you randomly hear multiple songs from obscure, no longer relevant, if even working, bands, your first thought is always, “One of the band members must have died.” So, I spent the remainder of my drive into Houston praying Tawny Kitean was OK.

By the way, speaking of Houston radio, is KLOL now, officially, the only station in the free world still playing The Cult? Enjoy Cowboy broadcasts this year you dirty, non-redeeming sellouts. Oh, yeah, the expansion draft…

I’m Still Standing So I get to the GRB (aka the George R. Brown Convention Center – apparently, people in Houston don’t call it the “GRB,” why, I have no idea) around 9 am and spend the next 4 hours in line. Seriously. I stood in line to get into the GRB; once inside, I stood in line to get food; and then, I stood in line to get into the assembly hall where the draft was being held. Absolutely excruciating.

Honestly, was there another expansion draft held before the Texans’ and the ushers had to spend the morning cleaning up after it or something? Because I can’t think of one legitimate reason why we had to wait so long to be seated. Four hours after I arrived, I was in my seat. Four hours. Thankfully, I was running late Monday morning, so Keith had to wait even longer, while saving my spot. Wait, did I say “Thankfully” — I meant “Unfortunately.”

First Impressions The setup, once inside the assembly hall, was first-class, and it’s not just because it had chairs. It looked just like the college draft setup the NFL uses in New York, only the stage and all the peripherals were plastered with Texan paraphernalia. To be honest, it was actually kind of surreal. I’m not sure I’m articulate enough to put my finger on it, but I guess the notion of being a Texan fan, something I think I just took for granted, is still growing on me. I don’t unequivocally love these guys just yet.

As for the players, Tony Boselli and Ryan Young were predictably large; but the player who won the most “Man, he’s huge” exclamations from me was Marcus Coleman. I’m horrible at estimating these things, but the guy looked like a solid 6’3″ — very thick. On the other end of the spectrum was Jermaine Lewis. He received a few of my patented, “Hey, would you mind standing up so I can get a picture” jokes — those never fail to entertain a crowd.

And without question, the “Just a tad too excited to be here” winner was Seth Payne. I’m still a bit lost as to why he was flown in for the ceremony; he’s far from a household name and if Dom Capers does indeed run a 3-4, then isn’t he essentially just a backup behind Gary Walker? Either way, none of that seemed to deter Payne, who hopped on the stage with guns blazing: big smile, lots of fists pumps… When he said meeting ZZ Top was one of his greatest thrills in life… it somehow didn’t play lame. I think he’s now my favorite Texan.

As for the impact the 19 guys will have on the team, here’s my brief rundown:

Tony Boselli: If healthy, a certifiable no brainer. Should also prove to be a wonderful mentor for Robert Hicks, one of the first ten signees who actually has some talent. Wouldn’t it be nice if Hicks could be groomed to eventually replace Boselli? Just thinking out loud…

Ryan Young: I’ll admit having never heard of the guy prior to the start of this entire expansion process, but if he’s as good as they say is, he might have been a bigger no brainer than Boselli. By the way, random aside: I wonder if, after watching Boselli and Young cross the stage, David Carr watched the rest of the draft pantless? (No idea what that means…)

Aaron Glenn: I have a feeling taking Glenn allowed us to draft Young, so it’s hard to be too down on the pick; especially when Glenn showed such obvious enthusiasm for being in Houston. And if the team can lower his cap figure and extend his deal… gravy.

Gary Walker: Walker looked like the guy at the end of Beetlejuice whose head is really tiny… I mean, Gary’s body is just enormous, and it was draped in this huge white suite, and poking out of the top of it was his little, tiny head… sorry, I found it funny. And for the record, I’m laughing with Gary Walker, not at him. Anyway, interestingly, Capers indicated Walker could possibly play end, which would help explain the team’s fascination with my main man, Seth Payne. And that also means the team filled 2/3 of their defensive line.

Jamie Sharper: If there was a buzz among the crowd, it was during Sharper’s introduction. Pound for pound, he may have been the best player selected yesterday, and the fans seemed to sense that. And with a 2002 salary of just under $3M, Sharper was the preeminent poster child for no brainers.

Jermaine Lewis: Ehhh…. He scores points if he was part of some “OK, we’ll eat Lewis’ salary if you throw us a Sharper bone” backroom deal, but I just can’t shake from my collective conscience the memories of Gerald McNeill and Mel Gray failing as Oilers. Granted, I appreciate the Texans recognizing the importance of special teams, but Lewis was just one part of a much larger whole in Baltimore… and I think risking $4+M that he can translate that success to a different scheme is a tad optimistic. And there’s no way this guy will make a dent at receiver. To quote Jack Palance, “I crap biggern’ you.”

Marcus Coleman: Risky. The guy’s huge, the type of physical specimen teams are looking for on the corner. But he’s also one of those guys who’s on the expansion list for reasons beyond just his salary, and that’s troubling. He reportedly carries one of those, “Got big money and then kind of regressed” tags. Not helping his case, when he was asked about returning to work in Texas, Coleman hailed it’s lack of a state income tax. Yikes. Upside? He’s played with Aaron Glenn the past few years, so Houston’s cornerback play should be solid from day one.

Seth Payne: Like I said, I loved the guy’s enthusiasm, but I’m having trouble figuring out where he fits into Houston’s plans. When scouting reports are using phrases like “unspectacular” or “good, but not great…” there’s reason to scratch your head, especially at nearly $3M a season.

Matt Campbell: Just a great pickup. Sure, I wish he was 2-3 years younger, but he plays inside, doesn’t cost a lot and is versatile enough to move around the line, which is a gigantic cherry on top.

Picks 10-16, 18-19: Matt Stephens and Jeremy McKinney are likely penciled in as starters right now and Charlie Rodgers would seem to be a cheaper, younger version of Jermaine Lewis, (So, again, why Lewis?) As for the rest of the guys, I’ll be honest, I’ve never heard of them, so I won’t bore you by regurgitating ESPN‘s takes. But I will say this: initially, it didn’t appear as if the Texans were going to worry about drafting any depth, so I was pleasantly surprised to see them select some guys who don’t figure to make much of an impact, but who nonetheless will be important cogs on the roster.

In today’s NFL, you win with depth, period. If you don’t believe me, the last three Super Bowl champions won with backup quarterbacks, so there. When teams start to suck because of the salary cap, it’s not the loss of frontline talent that hurts them, but the lack of depth behind it. So it was good to see the Texans address that with some of their later picks.

Danny Wuerffel: Unless Steve Spurrier is jonsing for Wuerffel; I don’t get this pick at all. Wuerffel’s no better, or no worse, than Mike Quinn, so why bother? When you’re an expansion team, you need to fill your roster with one of the following kinds of players: 1) guys who will make an immediate impact; 2) guys who are still young enough to possibly make an impact down the road, but who don’t cost much in the interim. Does Wuerffel fit either profile? You shouldn’t waste cap dollars on someone who’s ceiling is third-string; Wuerffel makes no sense.

But quibbles aside, hard to complain with Houston’s haul. They’re likely an upper-echelon bad team right now, and that’s before they’ve had a chance to add a single free agent or draft choice. Not bad for a first-year team.

Tempered expectations Having said that, let’s not get carried away. Because of the weak free agent crop, the Texans probably won’t get appreciably better between now and September, so yesterday’s expansion draft was likely the high watermark this year. And despite a successful afternoon, Houston still has plenty of weaknesses, namely, zero skill players of any note. (Ask Chris Palmer whether that’s important.)

I’ll stay on record with my 5-win prediction, which would still be light years beyond all of our expectations when this thing kicked off in 1999, but that’s as far as I’ll go. They’ll win five games and be competitive in their 11 loses; routes will be few and far between. By 2004, they should be making a legit run at the playoffs. But this notion they’ll push .500, maybe even make a run at the division in 2002… sorry, not going to happen.

Crowd Puffing Lastly, yesterday was obviously a big day for the Texans. As GM Charley Casserly pointed out when addressing the fans, every player and agent across the league was watching ESPN‘s broadcast, so it was imperative the city make a favorable impression so it’ll be easier to lure free agents our way in the future. I like that the team thinks that way; it’s very proactive.

But there was more to Casserly’s plea than just attracting future free agents. The nationally televised draft was a chance to, at long last, straighten out some long-standing misconceptions about the city and its fans. If you’ll recall, while networks like ESPN crawled into the collective ass of Clevelanders when that city lost the Browns in 1999, most turned their noses up at Houston when the Oilers left town. They railed us for not supporting a lame duck team in 1996 (when, in truth, we should have been lauded) and seemed to take perverse joy in reairing the ill-fated pep rally to save the Oilers that couldn’t even draw mosquitoes. One of the most passionate sports towns in America during its heyday was suddenly being cast as apathetic so Bud Adams could cash his Tennessee billions. So yesterday was about some long overdue damage control.

To that end , the very same ESPN that had helped build the case against Houston, waxed on and on about what a great football town Houston was. Gene Washington followed Casserly’s lead and encouraged us to be loud and rowdy. And each and every player made sure to comment on what great fans the Texans had…

And yet, there was a sanitized feel to the whole proceeding. The Bull Pen, where the team hoarded all the face painters and costume-wearers, had a feigned feel to it. They even had to ask some people from the back to help fill in the section. And between picks, the place was a morgue; granted, it was due in large part to the fact everyone was given earphones so they could listen to ESPN‘s broadcast, but still, I thought enthusiasm was tempered, to say the least. Sure, when the camera lights were on, fans cheered, but there was no palpable sense of buzz. And while outlets like HoustonTexans.com are reporting crowds in excess of 4,000, I honestly don’t think there were more than 1,500 people there. Tops.

My point? Maybe it was that the event was so anti-climatic, whatever; I sensed the crowd, like me, hasn’t given themselves over to the Texans just yet. There’s no question yesterday was a wonderful step in the right direction; there’s reason to be excited about the team’s prospects. But there’s also still a lot to do between now and September; so I hope the Texans sensed what I did and won’t be content to rest on Monday’s laurels.

Ric Sweeney estimates he has now made the Dallas-to-Houston trip 197 times in his 30 years, which is roughly 1600 hours he’s lost to such scenic ports as Ennis, Buffalo, Hunstville…