HOUSTON -- David Carr was the Houston Texans' first draft choice, the No. 1 overall pick in 2002. He's been the franchise player ever since. But only now is he truly becoming part of the team.
(Over dinner, Fresno State coach Pat Hill asked Carr what he believed to be the difference between college ball and the NFL. Carr said Hill was a lot tougher. And when the Texans drafted Michigan quarterback Drew Henson in the sixth round of the '03 draft with the intent to trade him, Capers, still concerned that the pick might offend Carr, called to reassure his QB that he was still the guy.)
So even though Carr and his wife socialized with teammates and their wives, he never could truly be one of the guys so long as the organization handled him differently.
"Guys are your friends, and you hang out, but I'm in this position and I walk into the room [at work] and it feels different," Carr recalls.
For the Texans and Carr in particular, there's definitely a different feeling around Reliant Stadium with former Broncos offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak now in charge. Carr says that in the past he could go through the motions in practice and his performance would not be picked apart, creating a sense of complacency. But now, he expects a list of critiques from Kubiak and offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Troy Calhoun, even after good workouts.
Carr, for really the first time as a pro, is being held accountable, and to the same standards as his teammates. Kubiak won't hesitate to criticize Carr in front of teammates, and often not in the most pleasant tone. The new sheriff in town isn't asking, he's demanding better from Carr.
"Gary's been on David more than anybody," owner Bob McNair says.
Often as important as the talent around a quarterback is a coach who stands behind him during practice and stays on him, pushing him toward his potential. Vince Lombardi did it for Bart Starr; Brett Favre had Mike Holmgren; John Elway had Mike Shanahan; Joe Montana had Bill Walsh. A little tough love just might produce a different David Carr in 2006. At the very least, it should make him a more effective leader and his teammates more willing followers. They see Kubiak getting on Carr and realize that everyone is indeed equal. Wide receiver Eric Moulds, acquired via trade from Buffalo in the offseason, says he's seen a difference in the way Carr takes charge of the huddle just since he arrived.
"Just these last couple of months," Carr says, "I've gotten called out six or seven times in team meetings. And when we get on the field we [the players] laugh about it. I'm one of those guys now. It's a lot more comfortable for me. It makes it easier to do my job."
Funny how sometimes pushing can feel better than patting.
Carr and the Texans did a lot of that in 2005, when the team regressed from 7-9 in its third season to a league-worst 2-14, resulting in the dismissal of virtually the entire coaching staff at season's end. Houston's offensive problems could be traced to the fact that, essentially, the Texans had three schemes last year: Palmer's, a combination of Palmer's and Joe Pendry's after Pendry was promoted from offensive line coach to replace the fired Palmer, and just Pendry's once he decided to scrap Palmer's philosophy and do his own thing.
The result was an offense that couldn't do much of anything -- tied for 26th in scoring, 30th in passing, 30th in total offense -- and a shell-shocked quarterback who came to expect to either be hit or sacked, and therefore fell into the habit of cutting short his read progressions.
Carr continued feeling the heat after the season, with the team under local pressure to dump him and select University of Texans quarterback and hometown hero Vince Young with the first overall pick. The Texans interviewed Kubiak during the playoffs and he showed them everything that was wrong with Carr and yet told them he was still the right quarterback for them. Kubiak continued evaluating Carr -- whom he had seen up close when the Broncos would scrimmage the Texans -- when he got the gig and saw the same thing: a tough (16 starts in three of four seasons) player with all the tools. Houston killed the Young buzz when it picked up Carr's $8 million option bonus, extending his contract through the 2008 season.
"That didn't take long at all," Kubiak says of his Carr diagnosis. "You say, 'This is what I want: a great kid who's athletic and can make every throw.' Well, there he is. He's standing right there. It's easy in the business to say I don't think this guy can do it, let's go get another one. We don't want to do things easy."
The next step, then, was to make life easier for Carr by accessorizing, if you will, the offense. Houston got Moulds from the Bills and signed Kevin Walter from Cincinnati to be the third wideout. Add Andre Johnson and Carr has a trio of receivers that goes 6-foot-2, 6-3 and 6-3, respectively. The tandem of Johnson and Moulds gives Carr, really, a No. 1 on each side. Kubiak brought Jeb Putzier with him from Denver to stretch the field from the tight end spot.
Perhaps most important, Kubiak brings with him the Broncos' successful zone-blocking scheme. So count on the Texans and their oft-maligned offensive line -- which is now coached by former Green Bay head coach Mike Sherman and features veteran center Mike Flanagan, another ex-Packer -- will run the ball. That much is a given. The plan is to have Carr pass 25 times a game; including the aforementioned 208 sacks, he's averaged close to 31 dropbacks a game in his career. And when he does throw, look for Carr to do quite a bit of running himself, though not the kind to which he is accustomed. Kubiak and Calhoun are going to help the 27-year-old Carr help in pass protection by having him put those wheels of his to use.
"I've gotten called out six or seven times in team meetings. And when we get on the field we [the players] laugh about it. I'm one of those guys now. It's a lot more comfortable for me. It makes it easier to do my job."
You'll see Carr on the move quite a bit in this scheme, which features bootlegs and rollouts aplenty. The idea is to make the quarterback less stationary and more of a moving target and playmaker. And whereas Carr was coached to think "one, two, three and throw it away if it's not there," Kubiak and Calhoun are encouraging Carr to tuck it and scramble more.
"One of the first things Gary said to me was, 'I want you to run more,' " Carr says. "I'd never heard that. Before it was, 'Run less.'"
The preference, though, is for Carr to deliver the ball to Johnson, Moulds and the gang and let them run with it. Another difference between Kubiak's offense and that of Palmer/Pendry is the latter duo tried to compensate for poor line play by max protecting, which only served to compound the problem by giving Carr fewer options. First, everyone here says the protection schemes are infinitely better than before. FYI: Jake Plummer has been sacked an average of 17 times a season with the Broncos. Secondly, Denver's offense likes to spread the field. They're now telling Carr, "Hey, you've got five places to go with the football -- get rid of it before the rush gets there." Kubiak made the determination that Carr was the guy to lead this team, and now he's backing it up by allowing Carr to make more decisions.
"I like that. I like it on my shoulders," says Carr, who immediately after the Texans hired Kubiak began studying film of Elway and Plummer.
There's something growing inside of Carr that wasn't there, especially last year. It's a little thing called confidence -- in both himself and what the Texans are doing. And Carr's confidence will only increase the more time he spends directing the scheme. Think of it in terms of the Texans hitting the "reset button" with Carr.
Plummer really hit his stride in the offense last year, his third with the Broncos. Texans fans have to remember to be patient with Carr. Steve Young had his best season with Kubiak as his position coach, Elway enjoyed his best years with his former backup as the Broncos' OC, and, of course, Kubiak made Pro Bowlers out of Plummer and Brian Griese. Odds are Carr will be next.
"Just walking out on the field, actually believing in the system, having coaches that believe in you It really feels like there's no way you're going to fail if you do it right," Carr says.
If not, he'll definitely hear about it. You might say it's refreshing.
Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Contact him here.