Refs police pre-snap penalties for flag-prone Texans offense

Updated: July 31, 2003, 9:54 PM ET

HOUSTON -- At Texans training camp there are three different uniforms on the field. The offense wears white jerseys, the defense wears darker shirts and the referees wear familiar zebra-style stripes.

Officials at training camp?

For a team that was second in the NFL in offensive penalties last year with 136, you betcha.

"I'm already seeing the mistakes cut down," college official Joe Machol said as he and high school referee Brad Lewis finished monitoring drills. "Coach (Dom) Capers said he wanted to be one of the least-penalized teams in the league."

The entire offense, including six rookies, was forced to learn coordinator Chris Palmer's system on the fly a year ago in Houston's inaugural season. The result was 8{ penalties per game. Of the 32 NFL teams, only Minnesota was worse.

While coaches loathe seeing flags in any situation, the violations that irritated Palmer and Capers the most came before the snap, like illegal motion penalties or false starts. After the miscues continued at this spring's minicamp, the coaches instituted a "zero tolerance" policy and hired refs to help enforce it.

For his part, second-year guard Milford Brown knew exactly what to do when he flinched before the snap in a drill this week. He began taking his penalty lap around the practice field practically before the yellow flag hit the ground.

"You don't even need to wait for the flag," Brown said, owning up to his mistake. "As soon as you do it, you know it, and you just start running."

Having professional referees keep practices or training camps clean isn't unusual, although having them there from the first day is. The last thing the Texans' young offense needs is to give up five yards unnecessarily, Capers said.

"For us to become a better football team we have to be a smarter team," Capers said. "Before you run you've got to get off without any false starts. We have zero tolerance for pre-snap penalties. Those things are in our control.

"There's no question we can improve on those areas from year one to year two, and for us to be a better team we must improve on those areas."

Machol, a stay-at-home dad who polices real games in the fall, said he appreciates a little extra practice at his craft during the summer while allowing coaches to watch players' progress instead of look for penalties.

"The coaches can do their job, and it makes the team better," he said.

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@NOTES: The team is hosting crowds for night practices on Mondays and Wednesdays during training camp. Capers, straight-laced and traditional as he is, says the lights and the cheering break up the monotony for players. "Anytime you come out here at night, turn the lights on and see the fans, the tempo picks up," Capers said. ... Quarterback David Carr said Saturday night's scrimmage against the Cowboys at San Antonio could be seen as a barometer for progress only if the team's impact players are participating. "It depends on the guys we have on the field. We've got some guys who are banged up right now. It'll definitely wake us up, going in there against some new blood." ... The Texans came in out of the 93-degree heat to practice in their air-conditioned bubble facility for the first time Thursday. Capers said he thinks the team appreciated the change. "After eight practices in a row, it was time to come inside. That's the good thing about having training camp here. We can come in here and have a good practice when it's heating up outside." ... Rookie running back Tony Hollings, who is coming off major ACL surgery on his right knee and missed Wednesday practice because of swelling in the knee, was back Thursday.

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index