Expansion teams, by design, are flawed. Unless they’re the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights, they flop into existence with massive deficiencies. These teams are often mixes of potential-filled rookies, last-gasp veterans, and a wide array of the odds and ends for which other franchises had no room.
And that nearly got David Carr killed in 2002.
Carr was the crown jewel of the NFL’s return to Houston at the turn of the millennium, a prototype pro passer who was the first overall pick in the 2002 draft. The Fresno State product was pegged as the Texans’ offensive cornerstone as the team was willed out of the ether and into existence that year.
But while head coach Dom Capers had his franchise quarterback, he didn’t have anyone who could reliably keep him upright. This was a problem. Carr was an athletic specimen — he ran a 4.67-second 40 at the NFL Combine — but he wasn’t much of a scrambler. He came into the league having averaged a robust 0.5 yards per carry in college, and his rocket arm was best utilized in a clean pocket. As a rookie, his pockets were roughly as clean as the dialogue in a David Mamet play.
Carr, starting behind an offensive line that featured two rookies — including one at left tackle — a left guard who would never start another game after 2002, a right tackle whose career was over by the end of 2003, and the actually useful center Steve McKinney. The Texans had hoped to utilize All-Pro left tackle Tony Boselli after selecting him with the first pick of their expansion draft, but a shoulder injury prevented him from ever getting the chance to keep Carr from a Groundhog Day-style montage of sacks. Houston’s pocket shrank from the outside in with the frustrating consistency of a trash compactor.
How bad was it?
So, there’s good news and bad news about Houston’s debut.
The good news is the Texans won the first game they ever played, and they beat an Emmitt Smith-led Dallas Cowboys team to do so. The bad news is Carr got just six dropbacks into his professional career before fumbling and getting starched behind the line of scrimmage. Since he dropped the ball in a botched handoff, his first official sack wouldn’t come until four plays later when Michael Myers introduced him to the turf.
Then the Cowboys did it five more times. Six, if we’re counting a roughing the passer call on Peppi Zellner. Seven, if we’re counting the time a double-team from Ebenezer Ekuban and Demetric Evans got to him but had the play negated by an illegal contact penalty. And approximately 20 if we’re counting the times Carr got the ball off a split-second before getting his chest compressed like a crash test dummy.
Any pass downfield was a dare lobbed at defensive coordinators. The Chargers, Houston’s Week 2 opponent, realized this and spent their week of pregame practices devising ways to punish Carr like a Grand Theft Auto NPC. San Diego buried the rookie passer under an onslaught of blitzes in what would become the worst game of his 11-year career.
The second game in Texans’ history was a low-grade snuff film. The Chargers harangued Carr with blitzes and found ways to sack him with three-man rushes. They sacked him nine times on an afternoon when he’d complete just six of his 25 pass attempts. His net yardage on the afternoon, thanks to 27 rushing yards, was 56.
His next week was slightly less stressful, though no more successful. The Colts sacked him only four times in a 23-3 defeat. Then the deluge resumed. Seven sacks against the Eagles. Five against the Bills. Eight against the Browns. Through six games, the Texans were 1-5. Carr was averaging 167 passing yards per game and 34 yards lost via sacks. His 39 sacks absorbed would have ranked sixth in the NFL for the entire 2017 regular season.
But then things got better. Carr had been on pace to get sacked 104 times on the season, but a slowly stabilizing offensive line and a scheme built around mitigating that weakness helped reduce the damage and chop that figure down to 76. Over the final 10 games of the season, Carr was only sacked 5-plus times twice. (That’s still awful; lumbering statue Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t been sacked more than four times since 2014.)
Was anyone else even close to Carr’s record?
Randall Cunningham had his spot atop the single-season leaderboard stolen by Carr, but no other quarterback in league history has ever broken into the 70s when it comes to times sacked. Cunningham’s reign at the top of the list after the 1986 season deserves special mention, however. The former MVP’s scrambling style left him vulnerable in the pocket (and left broken runs to be counted as sacks), leading to 72 sacks in a season when he started only five games and threw just 209 passes. For comparison, Carr’s 76 sacks came while throwing 444 passes.
Cunningham would lead the league in sacks taken four more times in his career, but that was always more a function of his dual-threat style than any real deficiencies up front. Carr, on the other hand, was a more traditional drop-back passer who would more often than not get slaughtered as a function of awful blocking. Things would get better for Carr in the years that followed, but not by much. He’d lead the league in sacks taken in two of the next three seasons, clocking the league’s third-highest sack total ever after getting planted 68 times in 2005.
Despite that, he’d wind up playing a full 16-game schedule in four of his first five seasons in the league. Not good seasons, mind you — his Houston tenure ended with 59 touchdown passes and 65 interceptions in 76 games — but consistent ones, at least. Carr never got the chance to reach his full potential thanks to a cheesecloth offensive line. That kept the Texans in full expansion team mode for the first five years of their existence.
Turns out that’s about how long it takes to build a useful offensive line from scratch.