T-minus one year -- and counting -- for expansion Texans
Updated: Wednesday September 26, 2001 7:39 AM
By Don Banks, Sports Illustrated
They've got a mascot signed up and in uniform. And some cheerleaders. The scouting staff is in place, as is the strength coach, trainer, equipment manager, video director, and capologist. Heck, they've even got an aircraft mechanic on the payroll to make sure all the touch downs go as planned.
But there's no middle linebacker. Or quarterback. Or kicker. Not even a lousy long-snapper. In fact, no one on hand even resembles a player.
Welcome to the expansion Houston Texans football team, at T-minus one year.
"The joke around here is that this is just fantasy football," says Charley Casserly, the tireless executive vice president and general manager of the Texans, who begin regular-season play one year from now. "There are no games, and we understand that. But that's a pretty good job, now isn't it? I've been here two years and we haven't lost a game or a player."
Because you can't lose what you never had. Playing talent may be an NFL team's first priority, but in a curious twist of logic, it's the last piece of the puzzle to be slid into place. Before anything can be built on the field, years of work must first be done off it. From the ground up. Whether the project is assembling a stadium, a team complex, a season-ticket base or a roster.
So, while the NFL prepares to kick off its 82nd season this weekend, the fledgling Texans organization will readying for its third and final one as a team without a team. Next year at this time, Houston's luxurious new Reliant Stadium will be filled and overflowing with fans, and there will be names and faces in those still unfamiliar red, white and blue Texans uniforms. After a five-year hiatus, the NFL will be back in town.
"With teams getting ready to play, it hits me as I go around to these camps and preseason games," says Texans head coach Dom Capers, who was hired in January. "We don't have a single player under contract. Not one. And we've got to align and play next year in probably what's going to be the toughest division in football [the new AFC South, with Indianapolis, Jacksonville and Tennessee].
"That's not a real comforting thought when you got to bed at night."
Casserly: 'It's getting closer to real'
Sleep probably feels like an afterthought to Casserly and Capers about now. Both men just rapped up a hectic opening six weeks to this final dry run season, and won't be slowing down any time soon. Capers, or his offensive coordinator Chris Palmer, visited eight different NFL training camps on the good graces of his fellow head coaches, and scouted four preseason games.
San Diego, Tampa Bay, Chicago, Cincinnati, Detroit, Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia graciously had Capers and/or Palmer in for the day. Jacksonville, whom both Capers and Palmer worked for in recent years, declined the gesture.
A former head coach of expansion Carolina, Capers took copious notes on the camp habits and practices of other teams, borrowing a little of this and a little of that for his own team's efforts next July. During the regular season, most weekends will find Capers and Palmer hitting the road to scout a college game on Saturday and an NFL game on Sunday.
"Every step gets you a little bit closer to playing the games," says Capers. "It was very valuable to travel around and see various training camps. Very seldom do you ever have a chance as a coach to see somebody else work. You just don't do that in the NFL."
Casserly meanwhile has a hand in dozens of start-up projects within the organization, from keeping tabs on the construction of the team's new facility, which will be across the street from the stadium, to the refurbishing of the Astrodome's locker rooms in time for temporary use in next spring's off-season workouts, and the formal unveiling of the team's uniforms in a downtown ceremony on Sept. 12.
In between, Casserly scouted three preseason games himself, conducted several mock expansion drafts, and oversaw a 12-man scouting staff that watched every team in the league play at least once while attending roughly 30 of the NFL's 63 preseason games.
From his office at 2636 West South Loop, Casserly can see Reliant Stadium rising in the distance, about a mile away. He knows he has no players yet, but it still feels like football season.
"Maybe I'm living in a dream world, but I know we're working every day, talking to teams, scouting teams," says Casserly. "In reality, hey, we're not a football team until we have players and play games. But when you're doing your work every day, you don't know that.
"It's getting closer to real. Because now as we sit through the preseason cuts, we're pulling off the names of guys that we're interested in trying out and setting up tryouts later this fall."
The Texans' first taste of real football will come some time in October, when they're allowed to begin trying out players. Houston can sign its first 10 players in December, just before the close of the regular season. Not to say that the area is hungry for the return of pro football, but without anything else to fixate on, the media hype may surpass anything since NASA introduced the original seven Mercury astronauts.
Then the really big dates on the Texans' countdown calendar will start falling one by one.
In January, once both the college and NFL regular seasons are over, Capers will go on a two-week hiring blitz, filling out his staff beyond himself and Palmer. Then comes the Feb. 18 expansion draft, the scouting combine 10 days later, the commencement of free agency and off-season workouts in early March, and the NFL draft in mid-April.
By then, Texans owner Bob McNair will have more than the 64 folks who are currently on the team's payroll, 27 of whom are involved in football operations. By Casserly's count, those 27 employees have 28 Super Bowl trips to their credit, knowing full well that it might be a while before they add to that number.
"This year is bringing back memories of coaching in the USFL,'' says Capers. "I left Ohio State in 1983, right after the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 2. Two weeks later, I was in training camp with the Philadelphia Stars. We played all spring, had the championship game in the summer, and then had the fall off. We scouted college games on Saturdays and NFL games on Sundays. That's the last time I 'missed' a football season."
Capers, Palmer on expansion: Been there, done that
Casserly tapped Capers and Palmer in part because of the pair's experience in the expansion process. If there's a more expansion-ready coaching duo in the NFL, it hasn't surfaced. Capers was Carolina's first head coach and served four years (1995-98) in that role. Palmer just came from the expansion Cleveland Browns, where he served as their first head coach the past two years.
On top of that, both men served two-year stints on the staff of Tom Coughlin in Jacksonville, the NFL's other recent expansion entry. Palmer was the Jaguars offensive coordinator in 1997-98, before taking the Browns job. Capers rebounded from his Carolina firing in Jacksonville, serving as defensive coordinator in 1999-2000.
Capers at times reminds folks that nobody hands you a textbook and tells you how to go about starting up a football team. But if there was such a tome, Capers and Palmer probably would have been contributing authors.
"Before I took this job I talked to Carolina, Jacksonville and Cleveland extensively to find out what they went through, what they learned and what they would do over again,'' says Casserly. "The only difference now is, I don't pick up the phone, I just walk down the hall to do that research. Having them both here has been invaluable."
Without the pressure of game plans to assemble every Tuesday, there will be less structure in Capers' and Palmer's work weeks this season. Capers plans to devote the first three days every week to just football matters, be it the development of the Texans' offensive and defensive schemes or the identification of tendencies in likely 2002 opponents.
Every day, another step. Another entry crossed off an imposing to-do list.
"Right now we're getting our computer system all set up so we can take certain teams and plug all their information into a computer and study what they're doing this year," says Capers. "That could have an influence on how we develop our schemes on both sides of the ball.
"But we have to be tremendously flexible in those systems, because we don't know have any idea what our quarterback is going to be like or what our defensive strength or weakness will be. But we know we're going to have some real deficiencies in personnel that first year."
Two weeks ago, at the New Orleans-Denver preseason game, Texans associate director of pro scouting Miller McCalmon scoured the field during pre-game warm-ups, searching for the handful of players who might find their way to Houston next year.
In a press box filled with scouts, he's the only one who works for a team that has to upgrade at every position.
"We're looking hard at the down linemen, the rookies, the first-year guys," says McCalmon, who came with Casserly from Washington. "If somebody catches our eye, we'll try and keep track of him throughout the season.
"We've got names up on the board. We're looking at everybody right now because you never know when somebody's going to become available. When you start from scratch, those two cutdown days are very important to us. We're looking at people that may be on our first team."
In Houston, first-team status will carry a little extra meaning in 2002. The Texans' first team will be just that. But for now, the countdown continues. With an entire roster of players to be named later.