HOUSTON A lot happened to Dom Capers in the six years between his ambitious start with the expansion Carolina Panthers and the renewal of his head-coaching career with the expansion Houston Texans.
Capers led the Panthers within one win of the Super Bowl in 1996, was fired two years later, rebuilt his reputation as a defensive coordinator with Jacksonville and got another perhaps his final chance to be a head coach in Houston.
Capers is getting it right this time with a lot of help.
The Texans (4-3) have won four of their last five, climbing above .500 for the first time in franchise history this late in a season. After dominating Jacksonville on Sunday, Houston moved into a second-place tie in the AFC South to confirm its status as a playoff contender.
Starved for pro football after Bud Adams took the Oilers to Tennessee in 1996, Houston has fallen hard for Capers, owner Bob McNair and the team despite its early struggles.
McNair has quickly become one of the NFL's power brokers, creating a buzz in the city and throughout the league that is fitting for the founder of one of the world's largest privately owned energy companies.
He easily finessed the city into building the stadium magnificent 71,054-seat Reliant Stadium that Adams always wanted; convinced the NFL to bring the Super Bowl to Houston last January, and did such a good job hosting the game that the league intends to return; and, most importantly to fans, put the right people in charge of the football team.
Though the on-field product has been slow to come around, McNair remained steadfast in his demand for a roster full of guys who rarely show up on a police blotter and are charitable to the media, fans and community.
So far, McNair has made all the moves Carolina and plenty other expansion team owners should have made from the very start.
No one knows that better than Capers.
Dating back to the Dallas Cowboys in 1960, no modern expansion team in the NFL won more games in its first two seasons than the Panthers built by Capers, then-GM Bill Polian and owner Jerry Richardson.
Carolina achieved success so quickly by loading up on established veterans, a plan that set up the Panthers for a quick downfall. The Panthers went 12-4 in 1996, won a playoff game and seemed poise for another strong season with second-year quarterback and the franchise's first-ever draft pick Kerry Collins leading the way.
But Carolina got old too quickly, Collins struggled with an alcohol problem and the Panthers didn't have nearly enough young talent to remain a contender. Carolina's draft choices during that stretch read like a who's who of first-round busts: Tim Biakabutuka in '96, Rae Carruth in '97 and Jason Peter in '98.
''What ended up happening is that we had a lot of veteran players on our team that really gave us good production the first two years,'' Capers said. ''We weren't able to replace some of those veteran players, so it kind of worked against us. When the expectation level went up, we weren't quite as good and we started to descend.''
Did they ever.
The Panthers dropped to 4-12 in Capers' fourth season, his last in Charlotte. He spent the next two years as a defensive coordinator in Jacksonville, and wondered if he'd got another chance to lead a team.
The opportunity came in 2001 with the expansion Texans, a team that wouldn't even start playing for another year and a half.
Armed with a laundry list of failures in Carolina, Capers sought a more patient route in Houston. He found a perfect match with McNair and Charley Casserly.
''You have to build toward a window of opportunity,'' Capers said. ''You're going to go through growing pains. It's a process and everyone has to be on board. We wanted to build a foundation, a basis. It was a good fit.''
Together, they devised a plan that is a model for expansion teams, even those in other sports such as the NBA's Charlotte Bobcats.
Casserly and Capers placed a bigger emphasis on the draft than free agency and refused to select anyone older than 30 years old in the expansion draft.
They missed big on Jacksonville left tackle Tony Boselli, who never played a down for Houston and ultimately retired because of a nagging shoulder injury. But that draft also turned up current starters linebacker Jamie Sharper, defensive end Gary Walker, cornerback Aaron Glenn and safety Marcus Coleman.
They also gambled on Fresno State's David Carr with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2002 draft.
After surviving a brutal rookie season in which he was sacked a league-record 76 times, Carr has emerged as one of the league's top quarterbacks. Along with an improving offensive line, a top receiver in Andre Johnson and a talented back in Domanick Davis (a fourth-rounder in the 2003 draft), Houston has a young nucleus that could torment defenses for years.
''We've got some good young players that anyone in the league would like to have,'' said Capers, smiling. ''We've got more ascending players here than we had in Carolina.''
That's why Capers never panicked when the Texans lost their first two games, sending the local talk-radio shows and fans into a tizzy. Aided greatly by McNair and Casserly, Capers has a clear plan for the future. He realizes that to understand the plan, you have to look to the past.
For now, at least, Carolina has never seemed so far away.
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