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WP: Mark Maske: Texans on the Verge of Playoff Contention


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Texans on the Verge of Playoff Contention

By Mark Maske

Washington Post Staff Writer


After the Jacksonville Jaguars and Carolina Panthers entered the league as expansion franchises in the mid-1990s, they qualified for the playoffs in their second season. Both reached conference championship games in that '96 season, and the Jaguars returned to the AFC title game three years later.

After Cleveland was given the new Browns franchise that began play in 1999, the city and team endured two miserable seasons by the club before it became competitive in year three and reached the playoffs in its fourth season.

Around the League

The Post's Mark Maske takes a look at the offeasons of each of the NFL's 32 teams.

Today: Houston Texans

Next: Indianapolis Colts

So the time has arrived on the expansion-team progress chart for the Houston Texans, who are about to enter their fourth season. They've improved their victory total in each season and should have reached .500 last season. Now they're looking for their first winning season and their initial playoff appearance.

It has been a busy offseason for the Texans, who have overhauled their defense by releasing veterans Eric Brown, Jay Foreman, Jamie Sharper and Aaron Glenn. Brown had lost his starting job at safety last season to Glenn Earl. Linebackers Foreman and Sharper exited after Houston signed Morlon Greenwood, a free-agent linebacker formerly with the Miami Dolphins, to a five-year, $22.5 million contract that included a $7 million signing bonus. Glenn departed after the Texans traded second- and third-round selections in last month's draft to Oakland for cornerback Phillip Buchanon.

Some people around the league thought the Texans might have overpaid for Greenwood and Buchanon. Greenwood was a solid contributor in Miami but not necessarily a game-changing player, and Buchanon is a former first-round draft choice who never lived up to his considerable promise while with the Raiders. But the Texans wanted to get younger and better on defense. They've certainly managed to get younger, and now they'll find out if they got better as well.

Buchanon becomes the starter at the cornerback spot opposite second-year pro Dunta Robinson, a first-round draft pick last year. Greenwood takes over for Sharper, while Kailee Wong moves from outside to inside linebacker to replace Foreman and Antwan Peek becomes a starter at outside linebacker. The Texans re-signed nose tackle Seth Payne in unrestricted free agency, and used the 16th overall selection in last month's draft on Florida State defensive tackle Travis Johnson.

Houston tried but failed to make a major addition to its offense this offseason, attempting to lure perennial Pro Bowl left tackle Orlando Pace from the St. Louis Rams. The Texans knew all along that obtaining Pace was a long shot. They worked out the basics of a contract agreement with Pace, who was named St. Louis's franchise player in February, but couldn't agree with the Rams on compensation. In the end, the Texans' flirtation with Pace merely aided him in his dealings with the Rams, and Pace signed a seven-year, $52.8 million contract extension with St. Louis that included a $15 million signing bonus. Houston is left with Seth Wand as its starter at left tackle, but the Texans gave him some competition by signing Victor Riley, formerly New Orleans's starting right tackle, as a free agent.

Houston re-signed wide receiver Corey Bradford in free agency after he visited the Detroit Lions and New York Giants, and added free-agent wideout Reggie Swinton. The Texans added speed at receiver by using a fourth-round draft pick on Jerome Mathis, an all-America sprinter at Hampton University who potentially could be one of the NFL's most dangerous kick returners. Houston drafted a tailback in the third round, Oklahoma State's Vernand Morency, who perhaps could push starter Domanick Davis for playing time eventually.

The Texans' offensive success depends mostly upon the continued development of quarterback David Carr and wideouts Andre Johnson and Jabar Gaffney. Carr threw for 3,531 yards last season as a third-year pro, and had more touchdown passes than interceptions in a season for the first time in his NFL career. If he can take the next step and become a star, the Texans will be on their way. Johnson already is a Pro Bowl receiver but the Texans seem to believe he can be even better, and they'll need more production from Gaffney than the 41 catches he had last season.

Coach Dom Capers has taken the Texans from four wins as a start-up team in 2002 to five triumphs in 2003 to seven last season. They should have had a .500 season but closed with an inexplicable defeat at home to the dreadful Browns. A season with eight or nine victories is well within their reach, and they are on the verge of playoff contention. But it's difficult to envision them passing the Indianapolis Colts or the Jaguars in the AFC South, and nine wins probably wouldn't be enough to secure a playoff spot in the AFC next season. The Texans are progressing, for sure, but they have the misfortune of being in an unforgiving conference as they try to move up.

Around the League

The proposed trade of punter Todd Sauerbrun from Carolina to Denver has been held up because the Broncos have not agreed to a new contract with the three-time Pro Bowl selection. The Broncos could wait to see if the Panthers release Sauerbrun after June 1, but Denver perhaps would face competition to sign him if that occurs. The Panthers appear intent upon parting ways with Sauerbrun because of his off-the-field problems. He was arrested in December for driving while impaired and was one of three current or former Panthers players who reportedly had steroid prescriptions by a South Carolina doctor filled within two weeks of playing in the Super Bowl in February 2004. . . .

The Dallas Cowboys are opting to wait for a while and look at some of their younger players before deciding whether to add a veteran safety to replace the retired Darren Woodson as the starter alongside Roy Williams. Free agent Cory Hall visited the Cowboys last week but wasn't immediately signed. . . . Cincinnati re-signed free agent center Rich Braham to a two-year contract Friday.

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