After he was torched for a long touchdown by wideout Andre Johnson early in training camp, rookie cornerback Dunta Robinson had to suffer through a tongue-lashing from secondary coach Jon Hoke. Veteran corner Aaron Glenn couldn't have been happier as he watched Robinson slouch back to the defensive huddle. "Right then Dunta [pronounced DON-tay] showed me all I needed to see," Glenn recalls. "He's got the character and the mental strength to learn from his mistakes. He'll make his share, so you hope he's mature enough to deal with the criticism. Well, it turns out he's a perfectionist. He's the kind of player we need if we're going to stop thinking of ourselves as an expansion team."
Mention the E word in conversation with any coach, player, p.r. staffer or night janitor associated with the third-year franchise, and a rebuke--"That's not O.K. anymore"--is swift and unyielding. After going 4--12 and then 5--11 in their first two seasons, the Texans are determined to measure success in actual, rather than moral, victories.
While last year's record was a slight improvement on the inaugural season, there was a lot of heartbreak from so many near misses. Five losses were by a touchdown or less, with four of those defeats coming on the opponents' final drive. Indeed, Houston's season was the flip side of the NFC champion Panthers'--winners of four overtime games--a fact not lost on Texans coach Dom Capers, who also was the Carolina franchise's first coach (1995 through '98). "If Carolina doesn't win those games, they probably don't make the playoffs," Capers says. "There's such a fine line between winning and losing in this game. Now we have to make that final push."
Houston couldn't do it last year largely because of a defense that had the dubious distinction of ranking 31st in the league in passing, rushing and total defense. As a result, the unit has new faces at five positions, including a pair of rookie first-round draft choices: Robinson, the 10th pick out of South Carolina, and outside linebacker Jason Babin, No. 27, from Western Michigan. Robinson is a fleet (4.3 in the 40), aggressive cover man who despite his lack of size (5'10", 174 pounds) was known as a bruising tackler in college. "He wants to do more than just get by," says Hoke. "He won't let something go until he's perfected it. In college he got by on pure athleticism; here he's had to focus on little things in his technique. But with his work ethic, that's not a problem."
The arrival of Robinson allowed the Texans to move rangy, athletic Marcus Coleman from cornerback to free safety, shoring up what has been a glaring weakness. An improved secondary will give the front seven the opportunity to attack the quarterback more than they did last season, when Houston had a meager 19 sacks (second-fewest in the NFL). The 6'2", 260-pound Babin, who had 30 sacks in his final two college seasons combined, has impressed the staff with his quickness and instincts. (Capers likens him to a young Kevin Greene.) The line should also be much improved with the return of left end Gary Walker and nosetackle Seth Payne--who together missed 26 games in '03 because of injuries--and the addition of free-agent Robaire Smith, a tackle for four years with the Titans who will move to right end in Houston's 3-4 alignment.
Offensively, there's good news for a unit that ranked--what else?--31st in the league last year: For the first time there won't be a rookie in the starting lineup. Though he missed five starts with a strained throwing shoulder, quarterback David Carr finished 2003 with 2,013 passing yards and nine touchdown tosses. More important, he developed a rapport with Johnson, and that tandem was clicking again from the start of camp, with Johnson showing that he has improved in running his routes. "Finally," says Capers, "our offense will be expected to win some games for us."
Winning enough games to be a contender for the playoffs in the stacked AFC South is unlikely. But after a season of falling short so many times, expect the Texans to at least win their share of close games. Then they can shed that dreaded E word once and for all. --J.E.
> A lightly regarded fourth-round draft pick who was thought to be little more than a third-down back, DOMANICK DAVIS started 10 games last season and rushed for 1,031 yards. The 5'9", 216pound Davis is a bruising runner between the tackles, and he should only improve behind a mammoth line. In fact, Davis has predicted a 2,000-yard season in 2004.
ENEMY LINES An opposing scout's view
By signing veteran defenders in the off-season, they bought time for David Carr to develop. You get the sense there's a plan in place. Carr is a big, strong kid, bright and gifted, but I'm not sure he's got the gut feel you need to be great. He's rote, too mechanical.... Domanick Davis is O.K., but how many of his yards last year came because teams just weren't going to let Houston beat them deep? ... Andre Johnson is the real deal. He's physical and can run like hell, and I think his concentration lapses will be few and far between.... The offensive line is huge and should be solid. I like the move of Chester Pitts from tackle to guard.... They're spending a lot of money on the defensive line, but the line in their 3--4 just doesn't make that many big plays.... Their rush should be improved with Jason Babin, but I wonder how effective he'll be in space and in coverage. I know a lot of teams saw him only as a defensive end coming out--and an undersized one at that.... I like their secondary. Moving Marcus Coleman from cornerback to safety will be a bit of an experiment, but his athleticism and smarts will help him a lot.
"Carr is gifted, but I'm not sure he has the gut feel you need to be great. He's rote, too mechanical."
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP with 2003 statistics
2003 RECORD: 5-11
NFL RANK (rush/pass/total):
COACH: Dom Capers; third season with Houston (39-57 in NFL)
12SAN DIEGO19at Detroit 26at Kansas City
17 at Tennessee
24 Open date
7 at Denver
14 at Indianapolis
21 GREEN BAY
5 at N.Y. Jets
19 at Chicago
26 at Jacksonville
NFL rank: T-7 Opponents' 2003 winning percentage: .512Games against playoff teams: 7
RONALD MARTINEZ/GETTY IMAGES
Robinson (23) is one of two rookies who should help shore up a defense that ranked 31st in the league.
COURTESY OF NFL