Carr progressing along learning curve

HOUSTON -- From just around the 50-yard line, David Carr dropped back during a Friday morning seven-on-seven passing drill against the visiting Miami Dolphins defense, his long hair dangling like mop strands from beneath his helmet.

Not far away, Rodger Carr stood on the sideline, his hair down to his shoulders, and closely examined the footwork mechanics and passing motion of his son, the Houston Texans third-year starting quarterback.

They have become, rather incongruously, this city's Mane Men, son and father having extended their already close bond by sharing a promise to stay out of the barber's chair until the Texans notch two straight victories. That might not seem like much -- after all, Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick has vowed to grow out his hair until the Falcons win a Super Bowl, which might someday net him a record for Afro-diameter -- except for one rather significant detail.

Entering the franchise's third season, the Texans haven't won consecutive games since, well, forever.

That should change in 2004, given that Houston has assembled a roster that is clearly the best in the brief history of the franchise, and since the Texans seem poised now to be more viably competitive. So there is a certain irony to the fact that, at a time when things are less hairy for the Texans overall, their most recognizable player has gone hirsute.

Truth be told, David Carr has actually fudged a bit during his haircut hiatus, succumbing to the occasional trim, the latest less than two months ago. But as much as wife Melody has come to favor his long locks over the familiar buzz-cut with which Carr entered the league, the Texans quarterback wouldn't mind rendering his shaggy existence obsolete. And given the disdain with which his mom regards his father's outrageous outgrowth, Carr might need to string together a winning streak just to save his parents' marriage.

"In some ways, I've kind of gotten used to it," said Carr of his undone 'do between Friday practices. "But, yeah, there are a whole lot of reasons that I'll be glad when it's over."

There are a whole lot of reasons, as well, to project that the Carr Men should experience a long-anticipated moment of heady relief soon enough.

For openers, Carr is now surrounded by dramatically upgraded weaponry, through the efforts of general manager Charley Casserly. He's provided better playmakers, highlighted by a pair of second-year veterans, wide receiver Andre Johnson and tailback Domanick Davis. The top three wideouts, with Jabar Gaffney and Corey Bradford joining Johnson, are top-shelf. And while Carr still spent too much time over the weekend harassed in the pocket, and too often was forced to throw either off his back foot or on the run, a maligned offensive line that surrendered 112 sacks the last two seasons should be better.

And then, of course, there is Carr himself, a quarterback who offensive coordinator Chris Palmer insisted continues to progress along the team's well-plotted learning curve. There were times during the past two seasons, for sure, when that learning curve more closely resembled a Formula 1 road race, but neither Carr nor the coaching staff ever lost sight of the finish line.

The result is that, entering his third season, Carr appears more prepared than ever to successfully navigate the figurative hairpin turns that confront every young quarterback.

"We're fortunate that, in a league where everyone expects instant results, management here, the coaches, everybody, has stayed the course in terms of David's development," said Palmer. "And it's going to pay off. As a rookie, I'd say he knew 70 percent of what he needed to know, and 30 percent was just guesswork. Last year, I'd guess the split was more like 80-20. And now, the stuff he needs to get better at is probably down to just 10 percent, maybe less than that. That's the way the natural progression is supposed to go at that position. Given everything with which he's had to contend, David has really done an excellent job of moving forward at a good pace."

Fact is, maintaining such a steady pace is historically more difficult for the quarterback of an expansion team because there is little or no infrastructure in place when he arrives. In the case of Carr -- the initial overall selection in the 2002 draft and the first-ever choice in Texans history -- assuming the thankless role of franchise cornerstone carried with it some pretty rocky times.

As a rookie, and with supposed personal protector/left tackle Tony Boselli sidelined by the shoulder problems that eventually ended his career prematurely, Carr was sacked an NFL-record 76 times. He fumbled an incredible 25 times, threw six more interceptions than touchdown passes, but didn't miss a single snap.

Last season, despite the emergence of Davis and Johnson as two of the NFL's premier offensive rookies, Carr for the second straight season failed to record double digits in touchdown passes, and ankle and shoulder injuries cost him five starts and four contests altogether. While he was sacked just 15 times in 12 appearances, Carr probably hurt just as much as he did in his rookie season.

You want to talk haircuts? Playing quarterback for the Texans over the last two years was like settling into the barber chair in the Broadway musical "Sweeney Todd." That Carr was able to keep his head, both literally and figuratively, was seen by teammates as a testimony to his toughness. Well, that and the fact that he was able to rally the Texans to a Nov. 30 victory over Atlanta, playing in a relief role and unable to muster any velocity because of a deep shoulder bruise.

"Nobody can ever doubt his [toughness]," said center Steve McKinney. "I mean, the guy has huge [guts], you know?"

Carr, 25, also has huge talent and the rest of the league should become more aware of that in 2004. In two seasons, he has completed 400 of 739 passes for 4,605 yards, thrown 18 touchdown passes and 28 interceptions, registered a passer efficiency rating of 65.5. Such modest numbers, given the circumstances with which Carr was forced to deal, were not as anemic as they appear.

Of course, Carr expects more from himself, and from his teammates in 2004.

Part of the reason is that Carr has become more comfortable reading defenses, but also in reading the individual physical nuances of his receivers, an important progression. Plus, as is the dichotomous case for all successful quarterbacks, the frenetic NFL game now has slowed down for him to the point where he senses events before they occur. And, finally, the Texans simply aren't seen as an expansion team anymore, by themselves or by other franchises leaguewide.

"I hate to say it," allowed Carr, "but you can fall into this trap where you kind of mentally lower your own expectations. It gets convenient during the bad times to think, like, 'Well, we're only an expansion team anyway,' you know? But we're way beyond that now. We expect a lot of ourselves. This team is so much better than anything else we've had here that we expect to win now."

And Carr and his long-tressed father expect, too, to share a moment of shear delight early in the season.

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.