Carolina no expansion model

Updated: October 28, 2003, 5:48 PM ET
ESPN

HOUSTON -- It's perfectly natural to compare coach Dom Capers' second-year expansion team to the one he had in 1996.

It's also perfectly wrong.

Capers' 2003 Texans are 2-5 after a 30-21 loss at Indianapolis on Sunday. It's the same record they had after their first seven games last season.

His '96 Carolina Panthers, conversely, were the stuff of expansion legend. After setting a record with a 7-9 expansion mark, a veteran defense led the Panthers to a 12-4 record and a trip to the NFC championship game the following season.

It could be said that Capers' Panthers set the standard for teams breaking into the NFL. That, too, would be wrong.

The same veterans who propelled Carolina to its fast start quickly aged into ineffectiveness, and the NFC runners-up of 1996 reverted to 7-9 the next year and 4-12 after that. Capers went from genius to scapegoat and was out the door.

The time to compare the Texans and the Panthers isn't the first two years. It's the third, fourth, fifth years and beyond.

Only now has Carolina managed to clean the salary cap slate, build through the draft and add a few important pieces through free agency -- especially running back Stephen Davis, who leads the NFC in rushing.

Unlike the Panthers of old, the Texans are trudging through their second season without a player over 31 years old. Barring salary cap hang-ups or free agency defections, the key offensive components could be in place for years.

The defense is a bit older and has not been helped by the first two drafts. Rookie Antwan Peek, a promising reserve outside linebacker, is the only regular contributor out of college the past two years.

That promises to change next season, as Houston will probably use its first choice on a defensive stud or trade it for multiple players. It plays right into the Texans' hands that next April's draft again looks to be top-heavy with receivers, their deepest position.

Still, the Texans are more than one draft away from filling all their holes.

This offseason becomes the first in which general manager Charley Casserly must decide whether enough pieces are in place to pursue free agents for a postseason drive in 2004.

First, Casserly will have other issues to address, such as restructuring the contracts of defensive end Gary Walker, inside linebacker Jamie Sharper and possibly cornerback Marcus Coleman. All three carry weighty cap liabilities for 2004.

If the Texans have to release one or more of that group, they'll have even more defensive holes to fill, never mind the Olive Oyl-thin depth at every defensive position. One draft and one round of free agency shopping can do only so much.

Owner Bob McNair has been steadfast in his assertion that building the Texans into a contender could take four years.

Hopefully he and other Houstonians will remember that if the franchise continues to struggle this season and next with its eye on building a consistent winner afterward.

Just ask Carolina fans which road they would have preferred.

It's been a long time since 1996.

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