Building a winner: the expansion Texans don’t take the field until next season, but they already are making all the right moves
THE HOUSTON TEXANS HAVE yet to play their first game, but they already are scoring.
The Texans have sold 80% of the seats to their new 69,500-seat, retractable-roof stadium. Naming rights to the stadium complex were sold for a record $300 million over 30 years. They signed the league’s most lucrative radio deal, for $70 million over 10 years. And they have a four-year deal for a local television show.
“If we didn’t sell another ticket, we’d be in the top half of the league in revenue,” Steve Patterson, the Texans’ senior vice president and chief development officer, says.
The Texans have become a cash cow and a model. Now, if only they can carry that success onto the field when they begin play next season.
Businessman Bob McNair paid $700 million to return the NFL to Houston, a city that was abandoned by the Oilers following the 1996 season. Houston hasn’t had a winning NFL team since 1993.
McNair wants to change that as soon as possible. He has a three-year plan to make the Texans competitive. “By being competitive, I mean winning as many as we lose,” McNair says. “By the fifth year, I would hope that we would be in the playoffs. Initially, we’re not looking at the number of wins but how much we improve each game. If we can just do that, the wins will come.”
McNair promised to build it, and the NFL did indeed come. Los Angeles was expected to be awarded the NFL’s 32nd franchise, but McNair finally won confirmation on October 6, 1999. Since then, he has been building his franchise from scratch.
Job No. 1 for McNair was to surround himself with established football minds. Charley Casserly, who worked his way up the ladder to general manager for the last 10 of his 23 seasons with the Washington Redskins, is the Texans’ senior vice president and general manager. This is Casserly’s first experience with an expansion team, but since his main job description the past 18 months has been evaluating talent, he is in his element.
As a scout in Washington, Casserly unearthed players like offensive line-men Joe Jacoby and Jeff Bostic. He later was responsible for the drafting of returner Brian Mitchell in the fifth round in 1990 and Stephen Davis in the fourth round in 1996.
“Obviously, starting a team from scratch is not something I have done before, but everything that you do you’ve done before,” Casserly says. “It’s just that it’s the first time here.
“I think it’s the coordinating of everybody and the hiring on a mass level that’s really different. Plus, you also have to promote the team because we don’t have a history–we don’t have a tradition. We’re establishing our history and tradition right now, so there’s an amount of time involved that you wouldn’t ordinarily have.”
Houston’s choice for its head coach was Dom Capers, who had that same job on the Carolina Panthers when they entered the league as an expansion team in 1995. Capers, who was hired by the Panthers just six months before they began their first season, signed a six-year contract with the Texans on January 21, 2001. That gives him plenty of time to get ready.
“The thing that’s different is at Carolina I did not have the year prior to the first season,” says Capers, who was 30-34 in four seasons in Carolina but did lead the team to the NFC Championship Game in only its second season in 1996. “I went in, and everything happened so fast that sometimes I look back and wonder how we got everything done. We had the press conference and then went down to the Super Bowl, and two and a half weeks later we were having the expansion draft. Of course, you’re trying to put a coaching staff together and get ready for the expansion draft. There’s an awful lot of things going on.”
As evidenced by Carolina’s appearance in the NFC title game, Capers wasted no time building the Panthers into a winner. But the NFL has toughened the rules for expansion teams since then, making it more difficult to load up on players from the get-go.
Take the new Cleveland Browns, who entered the league as an expansion team in 1999. They won a total of just five games in their first two seasons. Interestingly, Capers’ offensive coordinator is Chris Palmer, who was head coach of the Browns in those initial two seasons. Says Capers, “We’ve got it fairly well covered between Chris and me.”
The Texans have studied the blueprints of the Panthers, Jacksonville Jaguars (who entered the league with Carolina in ’95), and Browns, and they have borrowed ideas from each of those teams.
“The thing Cleveland did is they started with youth and went through the growing pains their first two years, and I think that’s helped them in Year 3,” Casserly says. “Jacksonville stayed with youth. Carolina went for the veterans quickly and won quickly, but a lot of those guys hit the wall at the same time. The teams that were able to go with some younger players, I think they helped themselves there.”
All three of those expansion teams had one thing in common: They built around a young, franchise-type quarterback. The Jaguars traded third- and fifth-round picks for Mark Brunell, who spent his first two NFL seasons learning under Brett Favre on the Green Bay Packers. The Panthers used the No. 5 overall choice in 1995 on Kerry Collins, and the Browns picked Tim Couch with the first overall selection in 1999.
The Texans have the opening pick in the 2002 draft, and Fresno State quarterback David Carr already has been mentioned as a possibility. “You’d like to get started on training a young quarterback,” says Casserly. “But whether that’s realistic or not, you don’t know. Clearly, you are going to have to have somebody who has experience. We would like to have more than one young quarterback and more than one veteran quarterback We would like to be able to go to camp with four guys we feel good about. Now having said that, I think that’s the same challenge that every team in the league has. It’s not easy. But it’s certainly a position that’s a priority for us.”
Casserly estimates that the Texans’ opening-day roster for 2002 will feature an equal number of players from the collegiate draft, the expansion draft, free agency, and “street” free agency. The Texans were able to begin signing free agents on December 15, and those pick-ups are of the “street” variety.
Although the Texans’ roster is only in its infant stages of development, the staff has had plenty to do besides scouting.
“There’s always something new that needs to be done,” Capers says. “That’s one advantage of having gone through this process before. You realize all the things that you’re going to be confronted with. Everything we do, we’re started with a blank sheet.
“Sometimes I sit here and think about some of the mountains we have to climb. The cards are stacked. Is it a challenge? It’s certainly a challenge, but one we’re looking forward to.”
And one the Texans have met head-on so far.
Date franchise was awarded: October 6, 1999.
Approximate cost: $700 million.
Owner: Robert McNair.
Coach: Dom Capers.
General manager: Charley Casserly.
Stadium name: Reliant Stadium.
Stadium’s most unique feature: It will be the world’s first
retractable-roof football stadium.
Team colors: Battle red, deep steel blue, and liberty white.
Runners-up for name of franchise: Stallions, Apollos, Bobcats, and
Date of expansion draft: February 18, 2002.
Division Texans play in: AFC South (with Colts, Jaguars, and Titans).
Out-of-division opponents in 2002: Home games against the Ravens,
Bengals, Cowboys, Giants, and the 2001 season’s fourth-place team from
the AFC East; away games against the Browns, Steelers, Eagles,
Redskins, and the 2001 season’s fourth-place team from the AFC West.
COPYRIGHT 2002 Century Publishing
COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group