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False Starts
Peter King
November 07, 2005
Houston beat Cleveland in a matchup of fledgling franchises, neither of which is headed for the playoffs anytime soon
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November 07, 2005

False Starts

Houston beat Cleveland in a matchup of fledgling franchises, neither of which is headed for the playoffs anytime soon

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One of the benefits of owning a new NFL franchise in a football-hungry metropolis is that a former president might want to sit in your suite at home games. Hosting George H.W. Bush at Houston's Reliant Stadium has been one of the few things Texans owner Bob McNair has enjoyed this season. "He's been very encouraging," McNair said on Sunday. "He tells me, 'Keep your head up. We'll be O.K.'"

For one Sunday, at least, the Texans were. But a 19-16 win over Cleveland, a battle between the league's two most recent additions, will hardly make the Texans brass think its problems are over. If anything, the ragged game illustrated how far the seven-year-old Browns (2-5) and four-year-old Texans (1-6) are from playoff contention. Though brought in by wealthy owners ( Cleveland by the late Al Lerner) who built two of the NFL's finest stadiums and provided blank-check budgets, these teams just can't get on a winning track.

Combined they're 49-109 lifetime and have played one postseason game, the Browns' wild-card loss to the Steelers in January 2003. Compare that to the record of Carolina and Jacksonville, expansion teams who entered the league together in 1995. Over their first four seasons the Panthers and Jaguars were a combined 65-63 and made it to their respective conference championship games in their second seasons. How did they do it?

Mostly by making the right personnel moves. Before Jacksonville had played a down, the club traded for its quarterback of the future, Mark Brunell, and drafted a franchise left tackle, Tony Boselli. Houston, in contrast, has made some costly draft mistakes. In 2004 the team traded second-, third- and fourth-round picks for the Titans' first-round selection, which the Texans used on linebacker Jason Babin of Western Michigan. Last spring Houston dealt second- and third-round choices to the Raiders for fourth-year cornerback-return man Phillip Buchanon. In September, Babin and Buchanon were demoted to second-string.

Carolina, in its first two years, picked the free-agent market clean of quality defensive players such as linebackers Kevin Greene and Lamar Lathon and cornerback Eric Davis, plus a great veteran leader, linebacker Sam Mills. But that source of talent is drying up. Only two of the 89 non-special teamers from last season's Pro Bowl tested the market (wideout Muhsin Muhammad, 32, who went from Carolina to Chicago, and guard Marco Rivera, 33, who left Green Bay for Dallas). Teams have gotten smart and are re-signing players before they entertain other offers.

McNair says he'll reserve judgment on the status of coach Dom Capers and general manager Charley Casserly until after the season. But if the debacle continues-Houston plays at Jacksonville and Indianapolis over the next two weeks-it's likely the coaching staff will be dismissed. Casserly may get the chance to hire one more coach.

McNair did say after Sunday's game that the Texans will exercise an $8 million option and renew David Carr's contract for the next three seasons "unless his performance deteriorates significantly the rest of the year." Assuming Carr is re-signed, Houston could use its high first-round choice to trade down for extra picks and fill multiple holes, or the team could keep the high pick and take a heralded left tackle such as Virginia's D'Brickashaw Ferguson to fill one void.

Whatever the Texans do, their owner can expect many more get-'em-next-time pats on the back in his suite. And with a titanic team like the Colts in the AFC South, the climb to division-championship contender figures to be a long one.

WELLINGTON MARA

Tiki's Tribute: 206 Yards

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