2002 NFL training camp

John Clayton

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Monday, July 22
Updated: July 23, 10:44 AM ET
 
Texans built their team the right way

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

HOUSTON -- In April, Dom Capers staked his future on a Carr. After months of reflection, he decided to drive it.

David Carr will lead the expansion Houston Texans into their first season as quarterback, and why not? Having coached the most successful first-year expansion team in NFL history, Capers knows the odds. The only thing that expands for an expansion team is the loss column during that first season. Of the nine expansion predecessors, only Capers' Carolina Panthers, who were 7-9 in 1995, won more than four games. History projects a two- or three-win season no matter how well the foundation was built.

Make no mistake, the Texans are the best thought-out expansion team. Not a single rookie is projected into the starting defense, and, except for Carr, there doesn't have to be a rookie starter on offense, although six will likely see significant playing time.

Tony Boselli
It's unclear if Tony Boselli will be ready when the Texans begin the regular season.
Here's the beauty of the plan put together by general manager Charley Casserly and Capers: They came in under budget. Through smart manipulation of the expansion draft and recognizing that free agency was light on top starters, the Texans' payroll will come in around $83 million, roughly 17 percent over the league's $71.1 million salary cap. Had they followed past expansion spending, their payroll would be about $108 million.

The Browns went about 48 percent over the cap in 1999. The Jaguars and Panthers went about 40 percent over. The spending is natural because fans want production immediately, but unfortunately, NFL teams can't be winners in their first season. The starts of initial seasons are especially trying: In the nine previous expansion seasons, the best start was 1-4 by the 1961 Vikings. The earliest an expansion team ever got its second victory was Week 6. Money probably won't change that.

"We've spent the least cash ever spent on an expansion team," Casserly said. "We feel that we have pretty good depth for a first-year team."

Which is why it makes sense to start the Fresno State rookie. First of all, it's clear he's the best quarterback in training camp. Kent Graham was signed for his experience, but he's a little overweight and enters camp as the No. 3 quarterback. Mike Quinn is listed as Carr's backup.

"In Carolina, we took the approach at the beginning that we wanted to go with a veteran guy (Frank Reich), and try to bring the young guy (Kerry Collins) along," Capers said. "After a slow start where we lost the first three games and had a hard time moving the football, it was a real struggle. We had a bye week. We figured that the best thing for the team was to go with Kerry and maybe it will bring us a little spark."

Collins finished the season 7-6 as a starter, even though he lost his first two starts. The plan for now is to give Carr the edge, especially since he has earned it. Capers will let Carr start a scheduled scrimmage against the Cowboys, five exhibition games and handle the first snaps in 41 practices.

"We stated at the time of drafting him that we were going to give David every opportunity to win the job," Capers said. "We felt that we are going to base our decision on the starting quarterback on who we think gives us the best chance of winning."

So it's Carr's job to lose. He enters the NFL with a Brett Favre-type arm. Months of working with offensive coordinator Chris Palmer eliminated a tendency to let his right arm drop to a three-quarters, and sometimes almost sidearm, delivery during his final season at Fresno State. One tool that helped Carr in drills was having a six-foot ladder in front of him to remind him of his release point.

"Last year, we got into a little shotgun the second half of the season, and I got a little loose with it," Carr said of his release point. "I got a little bit of Dan Marino-esque."

Palmer corrects Carr like a golf pro aids a golfer, keeping the player honest with his mechanics. At Fresno State, Carr completed 64.8 percent of 477 passes, so his coaches there didn't correct anything. Nothing appeared to be broken.

Carr-ying the Load
David Carr is the fourth quarterback chosen No. 1 overall in the last five years, but don't expect big things from him. Only one quarterback chosen with the top pick since 1987 has a .500 record in his rookie season, and Michael Vick started only two games last year. Over those 15 years, the seven QBs taken with the top overall pick have a collective 16-55 record during their rookie seasons.
  W-L as starter
'02 D. Carr HOU ??
'01 M. Vick ATL 1-1
'99 T. Couch CLE 2-12
'98 P. Manning IND 3-13
'93 D. Bledsoe NE 5-7
'90 J. George IND 5-7
'89 T. Aikman DAL 0-11
'87 V. Testaverde TB 0-4

Carr faces two inevitabilities. Expansion quarterbacks rarely complete more than 50 percent of their passes, and those that do usually don't get more than 200 yards a game. Fran Tarkenton (Minnesota ), Mark Brunell (Jacksonville) and Tim Couch (Cleveland) were the only expansion starters to complete more than 51 percent of their attempts.

Still, Carr has the belief of his teammates that should easily outlast the expected opening losing streak. Part of the reason is the meticulous way Casserly and Capers put this team together. Carr is afforded one of the best offensive lines ever given an expansion-team quarterback. He was afforded a better receiving corps than, say, Couch in Cleveland. Carr throws to Jermaine Lewis, Corey Bradford and rookie Jabar Gaffney.

Gaffney worked with Carr at the pre-draft combine and almost got beheaded by a couple of his rockets.

"He's strong," Lewis said of Carr. "I didn't know much about him in college, but once I saw him throwing passes around here, he impressed me a lot. He can get some balls in places I haven't seen quarterbacks get the ball to."

Like Favre's Green Bay receivers, Lewis and the other Texan receivers occasionally use their bodies to aid in catches on the short passes. "You're not going to catch every pass with your hands," Lewis said.

Perhaps the best feel for this expansion team is how successful Casserly was in acquiring veteran starters from winning teams. Virtually every projected defensive starter was on a playoff team recently. Lewis, Bradford, right tackle Ryan Young, tight end Rod Rutledge and halfback James Allen started for playoff teams last year.

"That's very important because any time you see people that win, they have work ethic," Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gary Walker said. "They might not necessarily work as hard as anybody else, but it's something that they do differently than anybody else that separates them from the pack. Guys aren't late for meetings. Everyone is attentive. I've been in the locker room of a 14-2 team in Jacksonville. We didn't have as much talent on that team as we have on this team now."

Walker and left tackle Tony Boselli are two of the cornerstones, but they start camp on the physically-unable-to-perform list. Walker is recovering from May groin surgery to a tear that he claims was worse than the one suffered by former Jaguars teammate Fred Taylor. Walker hopes to practice by mid-August.

Boselli's status is less certain. Since November, he has had three shoulder surgeries, the last about a month ago. "Doctor says he will be playing," Casserly said. But no one knows when. It's probably more likely that Boselli won't start until October at the earliest. If that's the case, former Bears backup Jimmy Herndon or third-rounder Chester Pitts will fill in.

Capers is prepared if that happens. His strategy would be to put tight end Rutledge, a 275-pound blocker, next to the left tackle and run the ball more with Allen.

Despite the uncertainty of Boselli and Walker, Casserly and Capers are pinching themselves for how well this team came together. They have 97 players, but only four in their 30s. Carr, guard Fred Weary, left tackle Chester Pitts and fullback Jarrod Baxter might be the only rookie starters, but by next season two more could be starting on offense -- Gaffney at receiver and Jonathan Wells at running back. Pitts moved ahead of Herndon at Boselli's left-tackle spot.

As long as the Texans don't have a winning season, they will have 15 draft choices next year -- including two second-rounders, three thirds and two fourths -- to improve depth.

"We should be solid for next year, and depending on how our team plays will determine how active we will be in free agency," Casserly said. "If things go the way we should, we won't be real active."

The Texans have built this expansion team the right way.

John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.








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