Palmer Pilot

October 27, 2003
Palmer Pilot

by Ric Sweeney

Blame Domanick Davis.

Or the offensive line. Hells bells, you could even blame David Carr and that cannon hanging from his right shoulder, not to mention his troika of downfield threats. Truth is, you can pretty much blame any number of Texans for Sunday’s 30-21 loss to the Colts, except the likely, most obvious choice: Chris Palmer

There’s little doubt Palmer, the team’s offensive coordinator, will be under fire this week for employing what appeared to be a conservative, playing not to lose offensive approach that, on the surface, may have cost the Texans a chance to win a very winnable game in Indianapolis. In fact, that was the same charge being levied against him and his offense last week, too, after a last minute loss to the Jets. Frankly, at this point, the native are restless and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that quite a few are pining for the halcyon days of Buddy Ryan stalking the sidelines, looking for an offensive coordinator to punch.

But that’s the knee jerk reaction, and for the record, it’s a reaction I initially shared (as anyone who has read my rather bitter recap of the Colts game can attest). Which isn’t to say Palmer is blameless, because he’s not. Both the draw and screen pass are still inexplicably in his playbook despite 23 weeks of ineffectiveness, and I’m not sure he could ever defend his decision to run outside on third and short Sunday against one of the NFL’s fastest defensive lines.

But after a night of reflection and, as long as I’m being honest, lots and lots of alcohol consumption, I’m fairly certain the big issues people have had the past two weeks — not throwing deep, playing conservatively, running far more often than passing — have more to do with Davis and the offensive line than they do Palmer.

While Davis has certainly had two consecutive eye-popping performances, a lot of that, or a good portion of it, anyway (I don’t want it to appear as though I’m taking anything away from Double D), can be traced to a definitive lack of respect for Houston’s rushing attack. And after a year of James Allen, Jonathan Wells, Jimmy Herndon and Ryan Schau, can you blame the Jets or Colts? Unfortunately, with the team now 0-2 in games in which Davis cracks the century mark, it’s likely a trend that will continue until the Texans can shake what’s really holding them back: no not Palmer, but a lack of execution.

In the NFL, it’s all about picking your poison and Domanick Davis, bless his fantasy football season saving heart, isn’t going to single-handedly beat anybody in this league. What will? Look for a common thread among not just Houston’s six franchise wins but the additional games in which they’ve played well enough to win and you’ll find, with almost no exceptions, Carr hooking up deep with one of his receivers.

And around league circles, it’s no secret: the Texans live by the deep ball. When you can take it away from them, and force them to, for lack of a better word, “earn” their points with long, sustained drives, they’re an ordinary team prone to cataclysmic, back-breaking mistakes, which in turn, effectively eliminates Davis from the equation and forces Carr, et al, into long yardage situations. From there, the drops, the penalties, the turnovers… dogs and cats, living together — mass hysteria!

And that’s magnified when playing the Jets and Colts, two similar defenses each running a variation of the cover 2 scheme the Buccaneers rode to a title last year. There’s one way to beat that kind of a defense, and Houston followed the gameplan to a T. Run effectively and take what the defense gives you underneath; minimize your mistakes and you can beat that defense. Five of Tampa Bay’s six loses since 2002 have been to teams with 100-yard rushers, including two weeks ago when San Francisco rushed for 212 yards against them. And the game’s turning point? A six-yard dump underneath that Terrell Owens turned into a 75-yard score.

It works because a successful, chain-moving, point-scoring running game forces the cover 2 scheme to move one of its two safeties (who play deep to take away the long pass) into the box, which then opens things up downfield. But when playing a young team like the Texans, why would any team fall victim to that trap? They don’t, and Chris Palmer knows it. So he takes what he’s given and hopes the team doesn’t self-destruct, which, unfortunately, they inevitably do. And that, not Palmer, is the real culprit right now. Dom Capers put it best Sunday night, “I don’t think there was anything wrong with our effort today, but our execution wasn’t what it needed to be out there at times.”

Reading between the lines, the Texans aren’t yet good enough to absorb penalties once they cross midfield, as happened twice against Indy when Jabari Holloway was whistled for false starts, the first of which stalled a promising opening drive. In fact, including Holloway’s gaffes, the Texans punted four times inside Jet or Colt territory after someone jumped offsides, and overall, punted seven times in opponent territory the last two games.

And then, of course, on their side of the 50, Houston can’t — cannot — turn the ball over. Period. Which is exactly what they did Sunday as the first half wound down, gift-wrapping the go-ahead score for Indianapolis when Davis and Tony Banks botched a hand-off.

So Palmer’s much-maligned gameplan was actually on the money; the opponents simply didn’t cooperate, nor will they until Davis proves to be a legitimate threat and the offense can stop shooting itself in the foot. The good news is that Davis does look good — real good, in a “I’m not gay, but damn!” kind of way — and the penalties, while still a major problem, aren’t near as bad as they were a year ago. Teams will eventually have to bite on Davis, and when they do, things are going to open up for Carr and his trio of receivers downfield and then we’ll see what we have in Palmer.

Until then, be patient. Pam Anderson wasn’t built in a day and neither will the Texans. As much progress as they’ve made, as close as they are to being a consistently competitive team, there’s still a lot of work to do.

Ric Sweeney would like to include something clever in this space, but he’s too busy patting himself on the back for being the first to use Palmer Pilot as an article title. Bravo, indeed.