Step 1: Teach slowly.
First-year Houston head coach Gary Kubiak doesn't really explain it this way, but if you listen to him closely enough, it's apparent. He has a three-step plan to improve quarterback David Carr, the former No. 1 overall pick … and the current No. 1 enigma for the Texans.
This offseason, the Texans gave Carr a bonus of $8 million to keep him under contract for another three years. All told, Carr is going to make $25.5 million during that time, a steep price for a guy who had thrown 48 touchdowns and 53 interceptions in four years. Houston still sees talent in Carr, but getting it out of him has yet to be done.
Kubiak's plan starts simply enough. Teaching is done slowly. Old habits, developed in the four years of chaotic mess Carr has lived through, must be broken.
"We're talking about doing things step by step, right down to how he takes his steps," said Kubiak, who played quarterback for the Broncos for nine years. "Sometimes you have to rebuild somebody's confidence from the ground up just by taking them through the simple stuff."
It sounds easy. The reality is that it's a mountainous project for Kubiak, who finally got his shot at the head job after spending the past 11 years as the offensive coordinator in Denver.
But what Kubiak inherited in Carr may be a shell of the strong-armed, tough kid who the Texans studied for more than a year before drafting him in 2002. At the time that the Texans took Carr, he seemed a no-brainer to them compared to fellow first-rounder Joey Harrington.
Now, after Carr has been sacked 208 times in four years, some scouts and personnel people wonder.
"Watch Carr's eyes when he plays," one scout said. "He doesn't look downfield, ready to attack the defense. He looks more like a guy waiting to get attacked. His eyes are looking around at the linemen all the time. It's like he's freaked out about where the pressure is going to come from.
"And talk about happy feet … really, it's not the kid's fault. When you can't pass block effectively, it kills your quarterback in every way. Harrington has gone through the same thing. I'm not saying Harrington is as good as Carr, because he's not. But neither one of them has been able to do anything because they're either on their back or so scared about the play falling apart that they dump passes all day."
Carr is a perfect example of the check-down syndrome. Last season, he was sacked 68 times. Fortunately, he kept his interceptions down to only 11 and had his completion rate at 60.5. But those numbers are padded by the high number of short passes Carr threw.
Proof is that Carr averaged only 5.9 yards per pass attempt, way down from the 7.6 he averaged in 2004. Throw in the 423 yards that Carr gave up on the sacks and the reality is that he averaged only 4.2 yards per time he dropped back.
That's the same average Houston posted by simply running the football.
So this offseason, Kubiak emphasized basics. It was rudimentary stuff from footwork to learning the playbook to where Carr was looking during plays. Through the first few weeks of preseason preparation, Kubiak kept it all on a pretty simple path.
That was until …
Step 2: At the proper time, throw a lot out there and see what sticks.
In the preseason game against Denver, Kubiak tossed the kitchen sink at his young quarterback. Some people thought it was because he wanted to do a little showing off for old boss Mike Shanahan.
"I believe in doing that kind of thing a lot, to see what people have been able to absorb so far and see what they're best at," said Kubiak, who watched the very same thing during his rookie season in 1983.
That's when Kubiak played with fellow rookie John Elway, another No. 1 overall pick. Then-Denver coach Dan Reeves, who recommended Kubiak for the Texans job, started Elway in the first two games of the season. It wasn't pretty and it included a trip to Baltimore in the second week, where Elway was booed mercilessly for not wanting to play there for then-owner Robert Irsay.
"It was rough. First game out and we don't get a first down for the entire first half," Kubiak remembers of the opener. "Then we go to Baltimore and John has to hear all that stuff … by the third game, Steve DeBerg takes over and they're going back and forth all season.
"But the point was to see what John could handle and work on those things as we went through the season. It's the only way you're going to find out how much your players can handle."
What Kubiak got from Carr in Denver was mixed signals. He finished 15 of 22 for a paltry 128 yards and was sacked twice. Worse, he threw an interception into double coverage when he had no pressure coming at him. It was one of those plays where a coach sometimes doesn't know where to begin or end in the correction process.
Then again, Kubiak hopes to eventually make Carr's job easier by …
Step 3: Get better players around the quarterback.
This is the one where Kubiak faces some monster second-guessing. With the No. 1 overall pick, the Texans faced a quandary this year. They had a choice between dynamic running back Reggie Bush and defensive end Mario Williams.
Even though many people thought Bush was the perfect player to put next to Carr, the Texans bucked conventional thinking and took Williams. Bush is the kind of player who can turn one of those short passes Carr has been know to throw into a 40-yard gain.
"We did very careful study and analysis and came to the conclusion that Mario was going to help our defense a lot more over the short and long term," Kubiak said. That said, the Texans were in negotiations with Bush and agent Joel Segal until two days before the draft. When the sides couldn't agree on the guaranteed money in the contract, the Texans went to Williams.
The problem is that the weapons around Carr are thin, particularly now that multi-purpose running back Domanick Davis is out for the season because of a knee injury. The wide receivers are good with Andre Johnson and Eric Moulds, and tight end Jeb Putzier has good hands to go with his extensive knowledge of the offense after playing for Kubiak in Denver.
But the running game is a major question with the combination of Wali Lundy and Vernand Morency. They have strength, but little speed. Still, Kubiak knows from his experience with Elway and running back Terrell Davis, a dynamic runner can change everything.
"It's really a matter of improving the people around the quarterback to make his job easier," Kubiak said.
The whole thing does sound easy.
What remains to be seen is what the reality will be.
- Gary Kubiak
- the Texans