One of the benefits of owning a new NFL franchise in a football-hungry metropolis is that a former president might want to sit in your suite at home games. Hosting George H.W. Bush at Houston's Reliant Stadium has been one of the few things Texans owner Bob McNair has enjoyed this season. "He's been very encouraging," McNair said on Sunday. "He tells me, 'Keep your head up. We'll be O.K.'"
For one Sunday, at least, the Texans were. But a 19-16 win over Cleveland, a battle between the league's two most recent additions, will hardly make the Texans brass think its problems are over. If anything, the ragged game illustrated how far the seven-year-old Browns (2-5) and four-year-old Texans (1-6) are from playoff contention. Though brought in by wealthy owners (Cleveland by the late Al Lerner) who built two of the NFL's finest stadiums and provided blank-check budgets, these teams just can't get on a winning track.
Combined they're 49-109 lifetime and have played one postseason game, the Browns' wild-card loss to the Steelers in January 2003. Compare that to the record of Carolina and Jacksonville, expansion teams who entered the league together in 1995. Over their first four seasons the Panthers and Jaguars were a combined 65-63 and made it to their respective conference championship games in their second seasons. How did they do it?
Mostly by making the right personnel moves. Before Jacksonville had played a down, the club traded for its quarterback of the future, Mark Brunell, and drafted a franchise left tackle, Tony Boselli. Houston, in contrast, has made some costly draft mistakes. In 2004 the team traded second-, third- and fourth-round picks for the Titans' first-round selection, which the Texans used on linebacker Jason Babin of Western Michigan. Last spring Houston dealt second- and third-round choices to the Raiders for fourth-year cornerback-return man Phillip Buchanon. In September, Babin and Buchanon were demoted to second-string.
Carolina, in its first two years, picked the free-agent market clean of quality defensive players such as linebackers Kevin Greene and Lamar Lathon and cornerback Eric Davis, plus a great veteran leader, linebacker Sam Mills. But that source of talent is drying up. Only two of the 89 non-special teamers from last season's Pro Bowl tested the market (wideout Muhsin Muhammad, 32, who went from Carolina to Chicago, and guard Marco Rivera, 33, who left Green Bay for Dallas). Teams have gotten smart and are re-signing players before they entertain other offers.
McNair says he'll reserve judgment on the status of coach Dom Capers and general manager Charley Casserly until after the season. But if the debacle continues-Houston plays at Jacksonville and Indianapolis over the next two weeks-it's likely the coaching staff will be dismissed. Casserly may get the chance to hire one more coach.
McNair did say after Sunday's game that the Texans will exercise an $8 million option and renew David Carr's contract for the next three seasons "unless his performance deteriorates significantly the rest of the year." Assuming Carr is re-signed, Houston could use its high first-round choice to trade down for extra picks and fill multiple holes, or the team could keep the high pick and take a heralded left tackle such as Virginia's D'Brickashaw Ferguson to fill one void.
Whatever the Texans do, their owner can expect many more get-'em-next-time pats on the back in his suite. And with a titanic team like the Colts in the AFC South, the climb to division-championship contender figures to be a long one.
Tiki's Tribute: 206 Yards
When Tiki Barber visited the home of Wellington Mara in Rye, N.Y., to say goodbye to the Giants' patriarch the day before he died last week, one of the owner's grandchildren told Barber that Mara was disappointed Tiki hadn't gotten the carries at the end of New York's game at Dallas eight days earlier, an eventual overtime loss. One of Mara's favorite players, the Giants running back was summoned to the residence, where he clasped the sleeping man's hands and said a prayer. "It touched me in a way I can't articulate," says Barber. "I was blessed to be able to say goodbye and thank him for my career."
"If my father said it once, he said it a hundred times: 'Run the ball, run the ball, run the ball,'" said John Mara, the eldest of Wellington's 11 children, after the Giants honored the owner's memory with a win he would have loved, a 36-0 blowout of the rival Redskins. New York rushed for 262 yards, including a career-best 206 (second most in Giants history) by the inspired Barber. New York (5-2) took undisputed possession of first place in the NFC East, a division with four teams over .500.
On Sunday night Barber tried to explain what it was like to have the biggest game of his career after such an emotional week. "My prevailing thought all day was, How can I make him proud of me?" Barber said. "My mom leaves me a message before every game. She always says, 'Play proud.' With so much emphasis this week on upholding the legacy of Mr. Mara, making him proud was my extra motivation this week."
Peter King's Monday Morning Quarterback, every week at SI.com/football.
Explaining why he traded backup quarterback Tim Rattay to the Buccaneers last month, 49ers coach Mike Nolan said, "We're carrying four quarterbacks, and I really like our fourth, Cody Pickett." Now we know why. A 2004 seventh-rounder out of Washington, Pickett (right) has mostly bided his time in San Francisco as a special teams kamikaze. In the fourth quarter on Sunday against Tampa Bay, he was pressed into QB duty after Ken Dorsey (who was playing in place of injured rookie Alex Smith) sprained his left ankle. Pickett drove the Niners to an insurance field goal in a 15-10 upset win.... A month ago NFLPA czar Gene Upshaw said he was optimistic a new collective bargaining agreement could be reached this season, but now "we're not any closer than we were in April," a frustrated Upshaw says. The players want at least 61% of all football revenue; the owners are offering around 57%. The current CBA runs out after the 2007 season.... Rams coach Mike Martz, out the rest of the season with a bacterial heart infection, wants to return to the sideline, but only as a head coach. That won't be in St. Louis. Too many bridges burned, on both sides.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame's preliminary list of 2006 nominees was announced last week, and it is perhaps the deepest class of the last 25 years. It certainly rivals the classes of 1993 (which included Dan Fouts, Chuck Noll, Walter Payton and Bill Walsh) and '85 (with such figures as Joe Namath, Pete Rozelle, O.J. Simpson and Roger Staubach). First-time nominees Reggie White (right), Troy Aikman and Thurman Thomas have the best shot to survive all the cuts-the list of 112 is pared to 25 by a vote of the Hall's 39 selectors, then to 15 before the final balloting, in Detroit on Feb. 4-with Warren Moon, Andre Reed, Dan Reeves and Ron Wolf also strong contenders. Add near-miss candidates from recent years Harry Carson, L.C. Greenwood, Michael Irvin, Art Modell and Art Monk, plus Senior Committee candidates John Madden and Rayfield Wright, and there's an excellent chance that the Hall, which admits three to six new members at a time, could have its largest class since 2001.
Last season the Colts tied for the AFC lead in sacks (45) and also allowed the fewest sacks (14). This season? Indianapolis is tops in both categories again, with 26 and five, respectively.
HEAD TO HEAD
Philadelphia at Washington
Well, they can't both lose. Each team is 4-3 and coming off a horrible showing. The Eagles surrendered 564 yards, the most they've allowed since 1966, in losing 49-21 at Denver. The Redskins were whitewashed by the inspired Giants at the Meadowlands, the first shutout loss of Joe Gibbs's 14 regular seasons. It's not surprising that rebuilding Washington has up-and-down days. But Philly, a four-time conference finalist, with all its offensive weapons back? Most inexplicable is how horrendous the Eagles have been at the start of games. Four times they've fallen behind by 10 or more points after one quarter, to Atlanta (14), Kansas City (10), Dallas (17) and Denver (14). The Broncos gained 200 yards to Philadelphia's four in the opening period on Sunday, as the Eagles were overrun by the blitz-happy Broncos. Expect Washington to use the same strategy this week. It could be a big night for rejuvenated Skins linebacker LaVar Arrington.
1 ¬†My over-under for NFL coaches getting replaced in the off-season: nine. But where will their successors come from? With hot prospects Kirk Ferentz (Iowa) and Charlie Weis (Notre Dame) likely to stay with their college teams, expect little-known coordinators such as Cam Cameron (offense, San Diego) and Jim Schwartz (defense, Tennessee) to get strong looks.
2 ¬†I now believe Steve McNair will beat Brett Favre to retirement. That's how beaten up McNair is.
3 ¬†The highest compliment I can pay a coach, regarding his character: Tony Dungy is the Wellington Mara of coaches.
DAVID E. KLUTHO (2)
Underwhelmed fans saw Domanick Davis (37) and the Texans bag win No. 1.
GREG TROTT/WIREIMAGE.COM (PICKETT)
HEINZ KLUETMEIER (BARBER)
¬†MAN ON A MISSION
With Mara in mind, Barber had the best rushing day of his career.
JEFFREY PHELPS/MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL/AP/WIDE WORLD PHOTOS