Wednesday, November 5, 2003

Playoffs can follow expansion quickly


But whatever new teams' building methods, consistency can be elusive

By Kevin Kelly
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Count Kevin Hardy among the fortunate. Where Hall of Famers Steve Largent and Lee Roy Selmon endured their share of losing after the expansion Seahawks and Buccaneers acquired them in 1976, Hardy came to the NFL and nearly wound up in the Super Bowl as a rookie on a second-year team.

The Jaguars were coming off a 4-12 inaugural season when they chose the linebacker in the first round of the 1996 draft.

"When you have an expansion team, people don't expect you to do well off the bat," said Hardy, who spent six seasons with Jacksonville and now plays for the Bengals.

An integral part of Jacksonville's defense in 1996, Hardy became linked to an improbable expansion tale that would seem nearly impossible for the Houston Texans to duplicate this year.

The Bengals play host to the second-year Texans (3-5) on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.

Houston has the same record (7-17) as the Jaguars did after their first 24 games in the NFL.

That 1996 season saw Jacksonville and Carolina, which also entered the league in 1995, reach the AFC and NFC championship games. Both lost, but expectations changed and so would fortunes.

"You set a bar for yourself," Hardy said, "and anything less is a disappointment."

Jacksonville made the playoffs the next three seasons before having three straight losing seasons.

Carolina lost 21 games during the 1997 and 1998 seasons and just now is getting back on track.

"We lost a lot of games, and there was a lot of turmoil," said Bengals backup quarterback Shane Matthews, who spent the 1997-98 seasons with the Panthers.

Carolina was coached by Dom Capers its first four seasons. Fired after the 1998 season, he is now coach of the Texans.

"He's one of the most organized and detail-oriented coaches that I've ever been around," Matthews said. "He's very structured."

The Texans' approach differs from some of the club's expansion predecessors. Rather than load up on free agents, which ultimately led to salary cap problems in Jacksonville and Carolina, Houston has focused on player development.

The Browns, who re-entered the league in 1999 and made the playoffs last season, have taken a similar route.

"They put some guys together on defense. They grabbed younger players on offense," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said of the Texans.

Of the Texans' starters on offense and defense, three were free agents signed this season.

"You've got to take your time," Texans general manager Charley Casserly told the Charlotte Observer last week, "because you've got to build with young enough players that they're around in three or four years when you have the chance to be good."

NFL expansion teams since 1976

(Years 1 and 2 records in parentheses)

CLASS OF 1976

• Tampa Bay (0-14, 2-12)

First winning season: 10-6 in 1979

Losing seasons: 18

First playoff appearance: 1979

Total playoff appearances: 8

Championships: 1 (2002-03)

• Seattle (2-12, 5-9)

First winning season: 9-7 in 1978

Losing seasons: 13

First playoff appearance: 1983

Total playoff appearances: 5

Championships: 0

CLASS OF 1995

• Jacksonville (4-12, 9-7)

First winning season: 9-7 in 1996

Losing seasons: 3

First playoff appearance: 1996

Total playoff appearances: 4

Championships: 0

• Carolina (7-9, 12-4)

First winning season: 12-4 in 1996

Losing seasons: 6

First playoff appearance: 1996

Total playoff appearances: 1

Championships: 0

CLASS OF 1999

• Cleveland (2-14, 3-13)

Losing seasons: 3

First winning season: 9-7 in 2002

First playoff appearance: 2002

Total playoff appearances: 1

Championships: 0

CLASS OF 2002

• Houston (4-12, 3-5*)

First winning season: 0

First playoff appearance: 0

Total playoff appearances: 0

Championships: 0

* Entering Sunday's game against the Bengals.




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