THREE YEARS after arriving in Houston, David Carr has become the David Beckham of the Texas heartland. His passer rating, his family, his hair, his tendency to get sacked (a league-high 49 times last season)--it is all fodder for discussion. Last October, a month before he was named one of PEOPLE's Sexiest Men Alive, two Houston TV stations went live as his long, dark locks were chopped off. This summer, when he had his hair cut midway through training camp, it made the front page of the next day's Houston Chronicle sports section, leading to this insight from guard Zach Wiegert: "There's no denying David Carr's a good-looking man." Carr dutifully answered questions about his new 'do while coach Dom Capers just as dutifully deflected them. "His hair doesn't concern me much," Capers said, frowning. "I'm more concerned about how he throws the ball and manages the team."
As Capers should be. This is the season in which Carr, 26, must come of age as a quarterback--something more than a personality--or his Houston honeymoon may be over. Up until now he's been cut a certain amount of slack. As the first player drafted by the expansion franchise in 2002, Carr has had to deal with constant public attention in a football-starved city ("There are worse problems to have," he says) and a subpar team around him. He has responded admirably, saying all the right things and missing only four games in three years despite being sacked 140 times (including a league-record 76 in the team's first season).
But with Pro Bowl--caliber talent in running back Domanick Davis and wide receiver Andre Johnson in the huddle, and coming off a promising if ultimately disappointing 7--9 season, it's playoffs or bust. "I expect David to have his best year," says Capers. "He's got a much better feel in terms of game situations and managing the team because of the experience he's gained. The challenge is to maintain his consistency."
That's the word repeated over and over in the Texans' camp. They swept division rivals Jacksonville and Tennessee last season but couldn't figure out Indianapolis (though they weren't alone). More to the point, they lost to the Lions and, more embarrassingly, at home to the Browns in the last game with their first .500 season on the line. The potential is there: Carr, Davis and Johnson have drawn comparisons with another Texas trio, from the early '90s--the Cowboys' Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin. Johnson, at 6'3", 219 pounds, finished second in the Fastest Man competition on Pro Bowl weekend yet plays a physical game. Opponents often rolled coverage to his side of the field to try to stop him, but he still had 79 catches for 1,142 yards and six touchdowns. Davis was a workhorse, accounting for 34.6% of the team's total offense (1,188 rushing yards and 588 receiving), but at 5'9" there are questions about his durability.
The challenge this year is to not rely exclusively on this two-pronged attack. To that end Houston drafted wide receiver Jerome Mathis, a burner out of Hampton, and tailback Vernand Morency, an explosive one-cut runner out of Oklahoma State. To further mix things up, in camp offensive coordinator Chris Palmer was lining up Johnson in different spots and trying new ways to get him the ball, such as on end arounds.
The offensive line is still shaky after a proposed off-season trade with the Rams for Pro Bowl tackle Orlando Pace fell through, but Capers believes that with two starters in just their second seasons with the team, the unit is improving. The defense has been renovated but isn't substantially better than last season's, which ranked 23rd in total defense and was near the bottom of the league in touchdown passes allowed. So it's up to Carr, Davis and Johnson to carry Houston into wild-card contention. "We have enough talent to beat the teams we're supposed to beat," says Carr. He pauses to wave to a group of young fans on the sideline, then nods. "The fans should be upset if we don't perform well. We certainly will be." --C.B.
Last season cornerback Dunta Robinson led the Texans with six interceptions, added three sacks and made 88 tackles, finishing second in voting for Defensive Rookie of the Year (behind the Jets' Jonathan Vilma). He is fast enough to stick to a receiver in man coverage and has good recovery speed. Though he weighs only 174 pounds, he's a brutal hitter; coach Dom Capers has said he holds his breath whenever he sees Robinson taking on a fullback.
AN OPPOSING SCOUT'S VIEW
David Carr might end up as another Jim Plunkett: We won't know what kind of quarterback he really is until he's 30. He has the same problem Plunkett had--no protection. I don't know how management can look that kid in the eye. Ever since they drafted him, they've failed to put a decent line in front of him.... The basic problem with the line is no speed. Steve McKinney was O.K. as a guard in Indy, but he's too slow to play center. And who do they bring in at left tackle? Victor Riley, another big, slow guy.... There's only one big-time receiver, Andre Johnson. I think they're going to have a hard time scoring points.... Defensively, I like their front three, plus first-round draft pick Travis Johnson. They're big, strong 3-4 linemen, and I think they'll cover the loss of their inside linebackers by moving Kailee Wong and Morlon Greenwood inside.... Their big problem on defense will be in the secondary. Dunta Robinson is terrific, but he's only 174 pounds. They'd better hope he doesn't get hurt, because I don't see enough speed and coverage ability. They made a big trade for the Raiders' Phillip Buchanon, but do you really think Al Davis would let a former No. 1 draft choice go if he thought he could play?
"Do you really think Al Davis would let Phillip Buchanon go if he thought he could play?"
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP with 2004 statistics
XPs MADE 34
XPs ATT. 34
FG MADE 17
FG ATT. 24
VICTOR RILEY (NEW ACQUISITION )
MORLON GREENWOOD (NEW ACQUISITION )
POS. TACKLES INT.
CB 88 6
PHILLIP BUCHANON (NEW ACQUISITION )
2004 RECORD: 7-9
NFL RANK (rush/pass/total): OFFENSE 12/18/19 DEFENSE 13/24/23
COACH: Dom Capers; fourth season with Houston (46-66 in NFL)
11 at Buffalo 1
25 Open date
2 at Cincinnati
16 at Seattle
6 at Jacksonville
13 at Indianapolis
20 KANSAS CITY
27 ST. LOUIS
4 at Baltimore
11 at Tennessee
24 JACKSONVILLE (S)
1 at San Francisco
NFL rank: T13 Opponents' 2004 winning percentage: .504 Games against playoff teams: 5