Three straight last-minute losses have the 1--12 Texans on the winning track in the Reggie Bush sweepstakes
As if this hasn't been a nightmare season already for the Texans, who invent new and more excruciating ways to lose each week, now their honor is being questioned. After Houston lost its third straight game in bizarre fashion--as time ran out kicker Kris Brown shanked a 31-yard field goal that would have sent Sunday's game into overtime--reporters asked players and team officials whether the Texans, who at an NFL-worst 1--12 are in line for the first pick in the 2006 draft, were losing on purpose.
"That's an absurd question," Houston general manager Charley Casserly said on Monday, his voice rising. "We're trying to win. Our coaches are trying to win, our players are trying to win. This is absolutely not a case of a team trying to lose to get the first pick in the draft, and it's absurd to suggest we might be doing that."
With three games left the Texans hold a one-game edge on the 49ers (2--11) for the right to make the first pick in the April draft. The teams meet on New Year's Day in San Francisco to close the season, and first prize for the loser of that game might be Heisman Trophy--winning running back Reggie Bush, who has a year of college eligibility remaining at USC but is widely expected to turn pro. Casserly--if he's still with the Texans come April, which is no sure thing--and Niners coach Mike Nolan, who's in charge of his team's draft, would listen to trade offers for the pick, but both clubs could use an offensive threat of Bush's caliber.
In the meantime Houston has to concentrate on ending its free fall. On Nov. 27 the Texans blew a 24--3 lead as a rookie quarterback from Harvard, Ryan Fitzpatrick, rallied the Rams to a 33--27 win. The following week Houston had a 15--13 lead at Baltimore with 50 seconds to play, then allowed the offensively inept Ravens to drive 60 yards in 40 seconds and kick the winning field goal. Then the errant boot by Brown, who in four years had missed only four field goals between 30 and 39 yards long, saddled them with a 13--10 defeat.
It's expected that Dom Capers, 17--44 as expansion Houston's only coach, will be fired. If Casserly keeps his job and the Texans keep losing, look for the Houston G.M. to create a market for the top pick (which might also be spent on USC quarterback Matt Leinart or possibly Texas QB Vince Young, another highly coveted prospect who has a year of eligibility left but may enter the draft). As G.M. of the Redskins in 1999, Casserly engineered the megadeal in which Washington traded the No. 5 pick to the Saints, who desperately wanted to move up and take Heisman-winning running back Ricky Williams, for a package of eight draft choices that included two first-rounders. In truth the Texans need several quality players, rather than one big star, to become a winner.
Nolan is in a similar spot in San Francisco. "I'd rather have the multiple picks," he said. But don't expect him to play the jayvee down the stretch--though some might say he already is--just to get a better shot at Bush. "If someone in our organization ever said to me, 'I want you to lose so we can get some guy at the top of the draft,' I'd say, 'You hired the wrong coach,'" Nolan said. "If I thought there was a 100 percent guarantee that a prospect would give you 10 or 15 years of greatness, real difference-making, then maybe I'd think about it. But there are no guarantees in our game."
Without question Bush, who averaged 8.9 yards a carry and had 36 plays of 20 yards or more from scrimmage this season, will be the highest-rated player on most NFL draft boards in April. "The re-creation of Marshall Faulk," Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis called Bush in October. Great speed, great quickness, good hands, great open-field instincts. Scouts wonder if his 200-pound frame can stand up to the rigors of 350 touches in an NFL season, but that's the only question they have.
NEW SACK STAR
Reborn in Tennessee
With three games to play, the league leader in sacks is Derrick Burgess of the Raiders with 13, followed by Osi Umenyiora of the Giants and Kyle Vanden Bosch of the Titans with 12 1/2 each. Why the new names atop the leader board?