Three straight last-minute losses have the 1--12 Texans on the winning track in the Reggie Bush sweepstakes
As if this hasn't been a nightmare season already for the Texans, who invent new and more excruciating ways to lose each week, now their honor is being questioned. After Houston lost its third straight game in bizarre fashion--as time ran out kicker Kris Brown shanked a 31-yard field goal that would have sent Sunday's game into overtime--reporters asked players and team officials whether the Texans, who at an NFL-worst 1--12 are in line for the first pick in the 2006 draft, were losing on purpose.
"That's an absurd question," Houston general manager Charley Casserly said on Monday, his voice rising. "We're trying to win. Our coaches are trying to win, our players are trying to win. This is absolutely not a case of a team trying to lose to get the first pick in the draft, and it's absurd to suggest we might be doing that."
With three games left the Texans hold a one-game edge on the 49ers (2--11) for the right to make the first pick in the April draft. The teams meet on New Year's Day in San Francisco to close the season, and first prize for the loser of that game might be Heisman Trophy--winning running back Reggie Bush, who has a year of college eligibility remaining at USC but is widely expected to turn pro. Casserly--if he's still with the Texans come April, which is no sure thing--and Niners coach Mike Nolan, who's in charge of his team's draft, would listen to trade offers for the pick, but both clubs could use an offensive threat of Bush's caliber.
In the meantime Houston has to concentrate on ending its free fall. On Nov. 27 the Texans blew a 24--3 lead as a rookie quarterback from Harvard, Ryan Fitzpatrick, rallied the Rams to a 33--27 win. The following week Houston had a 15--13 lead at Baltimore with 50 seconds to play, then allowed the offensively inept Ravens to drive 60 yards in 40 seconds and kick the winning field goal. Then the errant boot by Brown, who in four years had missed only four field goals between 30 and 39 yards long, saddled them with a 13--10 defeat.
It's expected that Dom Capers, 17--44 as expansion Houston's only coach, will be fired. If Casserly keeps his job and the Texans keep losing, look for the Houston G.M. to create a market for the top pick (which might also be spent on USC quarterback Matt Leinart or possibly Texas QB Vince Young, another highly coveted prospect who has a year of eligibility left but may enter the draft). As G.M. of the Redskins in 1999, Casserly engineered the megadeal in which Washington traded the No. 5 pick to the Saints, who desperately wanted to move up and take Heisman-winning running back Ricky Williams, for a package of eight draft choices that included two first-rounders. In truth the Texans need several quality players, rather than one big star, to become a winner.
Nolan is in a similar spot in San Francisco. "I'd rather have the multiple picks," he said. But don't expect him to play the jayvee down the stretch--though some might say he already is--just to get a better shot at Bush. "If someone in our organization ever said to me, 'I want you to lose so we can get some guy at the top of the draft,' I'd say, 'You hired the wrong coach,'" Nolan said. "If I thought there was a 100 percent guarantee that a prospect would give you 10 or 15 years of greatness, real difference-making, then maybe I'd think about it. But there are no guarantees in our game."
Without question Bush, who averaged 8.9 yards a carry and had 36 plays of 20 yards or more from scrimmage this season, will be the highest-rated player on most NFL draft boards in April. "The re-creation of Marshall Faulk," Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis called Bush in October. Great speed, great quickness, good hands, great open-field instincts. Scouts wonder if his 200-pound frame can stand up to the rigors of 350 touches in an NFL season, but that's the only question they have.
NEW SACK STAR
Reborn in Tennessee
With three games to play, the league leader in sacks is Derrick Burgess of the Raiders with 13, followed by Osi Umenyiora of the Giants and Kyle Vanden Bosch of the Titans with 12 1/2 each. Why the new names atop the leader board?
Burgess had 8 1/2 sacks combined in four seasons as an occasional starter at defensive end with the Eagles, but he showed enough promise for Oakland to sign him to a rich free-agent contract; and Umenyiora is the young end the Giants refused to give San Diego in the Eli Manning trade last year. Those two were expected to emerge as quality pass rushers.
Vanden Bosch is the most surprising name on this list. In four injury-plagued years with the Cardinals, the 6'4", 275-pound defensive end had four sacks total, and there was scant interest in him when he hit the free-agent market after last season. He wound up signing a one-year contract with Tennessee for the minimum salary. What a deal for the Titans.
If penalties hadn't cost him two sacks of Peyton Manning in Week 13, Vanden Bosch would be the league leader. So what happened? After major surgery on both knees--the right in October 2001, the left in August '03--this is the first time he's been at 100% in four years. "It got to the point in Arizona where I was just trying to [last through] the season," says Vanden Bosch, who sacked Texans quarterback David Carr twice in a 13--10 win over Houston on Sunday. "Now my knees feel great, and I can play the way I should be playing. I never thought I'd have this kind of season. I'm seeing respect from offenses that I never thought I'd see."
Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz says Vanden Bosch has been the perfect leader for Tennessee's young defense, and it would be a big loss if the Titans don't re-sign him.
Why do the Eagles look up to free safety Brian Dawkins? After Philadelphia lost 26--23 in overtime to the Giants, and reporters in the Philly locker room started praising the beat-up players for their strength of character, Dawkins (right) said, "The effort was good, blah, blah, blah. Moral victories, that's not our mentality. It's about wins and losses." ... League officials may be playing down the lockout-preparation presentation made to G.M.'s and capologists at the annual late-season seminar last week in Dallas, but some who were in the room are describing the grim reality facing the NFL if owners and players can't agree on a new collective bargaining agreement soon. Besides an inflamed relationship between negotiators for the two sides, there is the possibility of no salary cap in 2007. "Light a candle for us," one team official says. "We're very far apart." NFL Players Association head Gene Upshaw told SI the players won't allow negotiations to drag very far into '06 because of their eagerness to strike gold--or so they think--in a year without a salary cap.
It's a sign of the times that (from left) Tony Dungy, Lovie Smith and Marvin Lewis might dominate balloting next month for Coach of the Year. Less than six years ago, when two of 31 head jobs were filled by African-Americans, Jesse Jackson was decrying the lack of racial equity in the NFL coaching ranks. Now six of the 32 teams have black head coaches. Last week I polled 20 writers and commentators who cover the league--most of them will also vote for Coach of the Year in Associated Press balloting on Jan. 2--asking them to name their top three picks. Here are the results, based on my scoring system of three points for a first-place vote, two for a second, one for a third. Only Dungy, Smith and Lewis got first-place votes.
TD / Int. Diff
Peyton Manning, Colts
Tom Brady, Patriots
Jake Plummer, Broncos
Drew Brees, Chargers
Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers
1 - The Falcons' schedule down the stretch will kill their postseason hopes. Their next two games are on the road against strong playoff contenders--Chicago and Tampa Bay--and both games come at the end of short work weeks; Atlanta plays next Sunday after a Monday-nighter, then on a Saturday.
2 - If coach Mike Mularkey is going to save his job in Buffalo, he'd better start communicating with his players better.
3 - The venom directed at Lions president Matt Millen reminds me of similar demonstrations directed at the Giants in 1978 that led to New York's hiring of G.M. George Young, who turned the franchise around. We'll see if Detroit owner Bill Ford remains resolute in his support of Millen if the fans' anger scars the Lions' final home game, against the Bengals on Sunday at Ford Field.
> Peter King's Monday Morning Quarterback, every week at SI.com/football.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (BUSH)
ONE OR MORE? Bush is the plum of the draft, but Houston might be tempted to trade down and load up on picks.
ERIC MENCHER/PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER/KRT/ABACAUSA.COM
DEHOOG/TDP (VANDEN BOSCH)
SECOND LEGS On rehabbed knees, Vanden Bosch ranks second in the league in sacks.
BOB ROSATO (DUNGY); DAVID E. KLUTHO (SMITH); SEAN BRADY/WIREIMAGE.COM (LEWIS)