- Michael Smith, NFL Senior Writer
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HOUSTON -- A few weeks ago, Texans quarterback David Carr filmed an HEB Grocery Stores commercial with Astros star pitchers Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte. This is relevant because a few months ago the Astros were 15 games below .500, and now they're in the National League Championship Series.
Clemens and Pettitte encouraged Carr, whose team had just lost its season opener at Buffalo, by reminding him that Houston's baseball team was 15-30 in May. They told their co-star and golfing partner, "Just remember you're a good football player and you'll make things happen."
A lot has happened since. Very little of it has been good for the Texans. After Houston fell to 0-3, Carr was still upbeat despite the fact that he's rarely upright. "With the experience we have," he said, "even though it hasn't been great so far, but with Joe [Pendry, offensive coordinator as of Week 3] coming in and putting in the stuff he has, it's the Astros waiting to happen. We have a nice little plan. We've won at least one game before this time in the last three years and we haven't been this optimistic."
If the Texans aren't running out of optimism by now, time, most certainly, is running out on them. We're beyond the 2005 season's quarter pole and the league's youngest franchise, in its fourth season, is headed in reverse.
It's as if the NFL's unofficial slogan, "On Any Given Sunday," doesn't apply here. Parity seems to have passed these Texans by.
Sunday, Houston suffered the ultimate indignity -- an ugly home loss to the hated (not to mention rebuilding) Tennessee Titans, who have the league's youngest roster.
"We can't get much lower than that," Carr said afterward.
At 0-4, the Texans are the league's lone winless team. Recent history tells us they aren't dead (just last year, Buffalo started 0-4, Carolina 1-7 and Green Bay 1-4 before making playoff pushes), although they're playing like a team without much of a pulse right now; cornerback Dunta Robinson even questioned the team's heart after its latest loss. And the road doesn't get any easier: In the next two weeks, the Texans visit Seattle and host currently unbeaten Indianapolis.
To say Houston has problems would be an understatement. The Texans cannot throw it, mainly because Carr keeps getting tossed to the turf. Houston averages just over 89 yards passing, a league worst, and has allowed 27 sacks, most in the league. Pro Bowl wide receiver Andre Johnson averages a fullback-like 7.6 yards on 10 receptions. Running back Domanick Davis is about the only thing the offense has going for it. It all adds up to a measly 11 points per game.
Defensively, Houston hasn't forced a turnover. Not one. That means no momentum swings their way. The Texans have four sacks. Cornerback Phillip Buchanon, for whom the Texans traded first- and third-round picks to Oakland, has been a disappointment and was benched at one point because (news flash) he wasn't tackling. Robinson hasn't played as well as he did as a rookie. Former first-rounder Jason Babin had a bum shoulder coming into the year and had to be benched.
Houston isn't particularly good in the return game, so the Texans' struggling offense is getting no help: Amazingly, none of Houston's 40 possessions have started in the opponent's territory, and only 11 have originated beyond its 30.
"We haven't given ourselves a chance," Capers said last week. Opponents, on the other hand, have started eight drives in Houston territory and scored on seven of them. The other was at the end of Sunday's game.
Houston won four games in its inaugural season, five in 2003 and seven last year. The natural progression, some assumed, was the postseason, but Texans officials thought that, realistically, they could be an 8-8 ball club. They never imagined such a nightmarish start.
It starts at the top, and positive vibrations continue to come from the coach's office, even amid speculation that Capers will not occupy the office for much longer.
"It's not like we don't know what it's going to take for us to get this thing flipped around," Caper said last week. "And I truly believe we will get it flipped around.
"My statement's been that I expect us to have our best team. And I still expect us to have our best team."
First and foremost, the Texans had better provide Carr with better protection. Carr was sacked a league-record 76 times as a rookie three years ago. He went down only 15 times his second season and 49 a year ago. The rate of collapsing pockets has come full circle. Shame. Houston was in the Orlando Pace sweepstakes this past offseason. Ask the Texans, and they say they never had a chance at acquiring the left tackle from the Rams. Ask Pace's people and they'll tell you Pace should be a Texan. Either way, Carr is on pace to be sacked a whopping 108 times.
Pendry, promoted from his offensive-line-coach position after former offensive coordinator Chris Palmer was fired, was supposed to fix the problem, but the sacks still haven't stopped. Still, players love that the offense has stopped reviewing film in small groups by position and now does so as a unit. (No wonder, then, why the offense couldn't get on the same page -- they were being coached in different rooms.) The Texans had plans to get Johnson the ball on crossing routes rather than the vertical ones Palmer preferred, but then Johnson suffered a calf injury after two plays Sunday.
Carr said the coaching change -- the roots of which lay in last year's season-ending loss to Cleveland and have grown through the preseason -- energized the team. "Joe doesn't care if he's your friend or not," Carr said. "His big deal is accountability. No matter who you are. Coaches take you where you can't take yourself. Where I was, you can only get on yourself so much."
Pendry emphasizes a quicker release by the quarterback, a concept Carr has embraced. "As bad as seven sacks were," he said after the Bengals loss, "it would have been 15 two weeks ago against the same defense. So if that's improvement "
Another way the Texans can improve their pass protection is using more six- and seven-man blocking schemes; the Titans were able to apply pressure with three- and four-man rushes. So expect schematic and perhaps personnel changes in the near future. "It doesn't matter whose fault it is," Pendry said. "In order for this franchise to go where it wants to go, the sacks, the quarterback hits, they have to be reduced."
"We can fix [the sacks]," Carr said back when the count was at 20. "The way he's coaching it now, we're going to fix them."
At the rate he's going down, Carr won't last much longer. He credits a rigorous strength and nutrition program for allowing him to withstand an almost unprecedented amount of punishment (167 sacks in 48 games). And while thus far he might look nothing like the quarterback who started to come into his own last year, the Houston QB says he has neither an overly quick trigger nor is he gun shy.
"I've been getting hit since I was in the fourth grade," he said. "You think it's bad now, our teams in high school, junior high, I got hit every play. I think it's more frustration not getting it done. I'm not really worried about it happening again, as much as trying to figure out how we can fix it so it doesn't happen again, if that makes any sense.
"I haven't lost an ounce of confidence since I got here. All the stuff that's gone on, trying to break my own record for sacks, that stuff doesn't bother me. God put me here for a reason. He didn't put me in Houston to go out for a couple of years and just get beat up. I know that something good is going to come out of it.
"We're going to get it turned around," Carr said. "People in this locker room still realize that we went 4-2 in our division last year. Don't give up on us just yet."
Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
What was supposed to be another year of improvement has been nothing but disappointment so far for the Texans.