Another dazzling debut

SOMEWHERE OVER THE GULF OF MEXICO-- The Texans haven't had a festive plane ride home in awhile. You have to go back to the trek home from Pittsburgh last December, following the Houston's surreal win over the Steelers.

But there are smiles and chatter throughout the charter as we streak through the skies – and with good reason. The Texans are 1-0 after one week of the 2003 regular season. They were 1-0 last year as well. But the degree of difficulty between the two starts isn't even close.

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Kris Brown celebrates his winning field goal.

What the Texans did to kick off their expansion season was remarkable. No expansion team had emerged victorious in its regular season debut since the 1961 Vikings, but Houston managed to knock off Dallas 19-10 before a raucous crowd at Reliant Stadium.

It provided great theater because of the moment, the venue, the audience and the opponent. Let's face it, the people of Houston liked nothing more than sticking it to the folks in Big D in the former city's return to the NFL. Somebody even wrote a book about it.

But let's also face this – the 2002 Cowboys were not a terribly good outfit. Dallas would eventually stagger to a 5-11 finish and fire its head coach. You could argue that the Texans, in their first season, had as many quality players as the Cowboys did on their roster.

Fast forward to this afternoon. There was considerably less fanfare to the Texans' second Act I. No prime time slot on national television, no intrastate rivalry and no welcoming crowd, either. The Texans were facing an opponent in the Dolphins that had won 11 consecutive season openers. They were facing a defense with six Pro Bowlers and an offense that featured the league's leading rusher (Ricky Williams) from a season ago. And they were facing the Dolphins in their yard, in their heat and in their humidity.

No wonder Houston was a two-touchdown underdog. One prominent ESPN analyst even said on the air this morning that Williams against the Texans' defense was his fantasy pick of the week. Some defensive starters were watching – and seething.

Houston's 21-20 win over the Dolphins was no fluke. Yes, it took a 35-yard field goal by Kris Brown in the waning seconds to put the Texans over the top. But if that's all you see on the television highlights, you missed a remarkable performance by the Texans in all three phases of football.

On offense, the Texans set a team record with 369 total yards. Quarterback David Carr compiled a 94.3 passer rating, completing 17 of 31 passes for 266 yards and one crucial touchdown. It came in the third quarter with the Texans trailing by eight points. Carr hit wide receiver Corey Bradford in stride and the former track star did the rest, sprinting 78 yards for a touchdown. It was the longest touchdown toss in club annals.

Carr also hooked up with his newest weapon, rookie wideout Andre Johnson, six times. Johnson showed how dangerous he can be in space with both his size and speed. Fellow wide receiver Jabar Gaffney also showed his strong preseason was no fluke, hauling in three passes for 70 yards. The Texans made one of the league's best secondaries sweat all afternoon.

Houston also gobbled up 127 yards on the ground, helping the Texans win the time of possession battle, especially in the fourth quarter. Running back Stacey Mack didn't paint a Picasso, but he's not paid to. Mack is paid to grind out carries and yards and he finished with 89 yards on 27 carries. Rookie Domanick Davis also provided a nice change of pace, averaging six yards on his six carries.

But perhaps the biggest offensive story of the day was the performance of the Texans' much-maligned offensive line. Houston didn't allow one sack and helped the Texans keep the ball for more than 33 minutes. Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor had 18 ½ sacks last season but didn't touch Carr. Head coach Dom Capers has always stressed that the offensive line, more than any other unit, relies on continuity. The Texans didn't have that last year, but their five linemen appear to be gelling this season.

Carr also helped his cause by getting rid of the ball quicker. An incompletion can be much more palatable (and much less painful) than a sack.

On defense, the Texans (without defensive end Gary Walker) held Williams to 69 yards on 17 carries, plus a costly fumble. Williams could never seem to get a rhythm in the backfield, though he did provide Miami a spark with his receiving. The Texans allowed Dolphins quarterback Jay Fiedler to complete two big passes for touchdowns, but cornerback Marcus Coleman also picked him off twice. Houston blitzed effectively and kept Miami in check on third downs (38 percent).

Brown nailed five of seven field goal attempts, the last one becoming his third game-winner as a Texan. And whereas the Dolphins showed some jitters on punts and snaps, the Texans were flawless. Chad Stanley averaged a 42.0 net, nearly six yards better than his counterpart, Mark Royals. And we bet you didn't notice long snapper Bryan Pittman. That's good because long snapper are only noticed when they screw up. Pittman made sure his NFL debut was a smooth one.

Many times last season, the Texans were in games in the second half, only to see them slip away because the other team made plays. Today, it was the Texans making the plays, whether it was Bradford's catch, Carr's third-down throw, Coleman's pick or Brown's clutch kick. This team is maturing before our eyes. Capers will be the first to tell you his team is far from a polished outfit. But wins like this – complete team wins -- can only accelerate the growth.

         But, hey, if it's history you want, last
         season's opener wasn't the only time the Texans made a little.
         Houston is now the first expansion team to win its first *two *regular
         season openers. Pity the team that launches the Texans' schedule
         in 2004. There's some serious karma afoot here. Here's hoping
         that, this time around, the Texans can extend it into the season's
         second week.
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