Capers v. Casserly: A story for the local sports media?

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Last Sunday, two players prized highly enough by Houston Texans general manager Charley Casserly that he spent extra draft picks to get them found themselves benched by head coach Dom Capers as a result of their poor play. John McClain noted this in his coverage on Monday:

The defense was so inept that two starters who cost the Texans a combined five draft choices to acquire — outside linebacker Jason Babin and cornerback Phillip Buchanon — were benched.

Michael Murphy wrote the following:

While the Steelers were rolling on the field, finishing with 388 yards of total offense and averaging 7.2 yards per play, heads were rolling on the Texans sideline. Babin and cornerback Phillip Buchanon both found themselves benched and replaced by Shantee Orr and Demarcus Faggins, respectively.

Babin was punished after jumping offside with the Steelers facing a third-and-10 from their 32 with six minutes to play in the third quarter. Babin’s boo-boo moved the ball up five yards, and Roethlisberger then hit Cedrick Wilson with a 40-yard pass to the Houston 23.

Three plays later the Steelers scored on Parker’s TD run for a 27-7 lead.

“Obviously it upset me, but it sent a strong message to everybody — if you make mistakes, especially at critical times, then something’s going to happen,” Babin said. “I can’t be upset. If I hadn’t made the mistake, I wouldn’t have gotten pulled. That’s the way it goes.”

Buchanon, who was yanked for simply playing poorly, shrugged off the benching and the loss.

That was it.

At the time, I wondered if the head coach wasn’t trying to send the general manager a message, but no Chronicle columnist really followed up on those observations.

The benching was largely obscured by the firing of offensive coordinator Chris Palmer on Monday, although Richard Justice touched on the benching:

Casserly has made other mistakes. Cornerback Phillip Buchanon, who was his No. 1 offseason acquisition, has been awful. He was benched during Sunday’s 27-7 loss.

Linebacker Jason Babin, who was recommended by defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, still doesn’t look like a player. He found himself on the bench with Buchanon.

On Tuesday the coaching staff announced that Babin and Buchanon were no longer starters. Several articles dealt with the benching one way or another. Not one raised the question whether the coach and general manager are at odds, or even contained a quote from the general manager. John McClain’s column included this from head coach Dom Capers:

To acquire an extra first-round pick in the 2004 draft to select Babin, the Texans traded three draft choices to the Titans. Babin started every game as a rookie, which is rare for a college player making the transition to a 3-4 outside linebacker.

In April, the Texans traded second- and third-round picks to Oakland for Buchanon, who had been the Raiders’ No. 1 pick in 2002.

I can’t be worried about that, because we’re trying to win games,” Capers said about demoting players who cost so much to acquire. “They didn’t play the way we expect or they expect, but Jason and Phillip will still contribute. This can change from week to week.”

That certainly seems like a shot across Charley Casserly’s bow from the coach. But it didn’t seem to interest the Chronicle‘s top NFL columnist.

Richard Justice got really close to stirring the pot a little with the following, although his assessment of the Texans’ talent overall in the linked column is almost absurdly enthusiastic:

Say this for Capers: He hasn’t once criticized the talent. Even when he was prodded to do so Tuesday, he refused to point a finger.

“The challenge is taking what you have and fitting it together and making it all work,” he said. “We have to decide what we can do and then do it efficiently.”

Capers is not going to criticize his boss directly. That’s normally what fans and the media do. However, Capers’ benching of his boss’s big acquisitions seems to be indirect criticism. As of Sunday, I’ve yet to see any Chronicle sports columnist follow up on that point.

In most NFL towns if the head coach had benched two players acquired by the general manager at relatively high cost (in draft picks), sports journalists would likely ask the general manager his opinion on the benching, commit that response to print, and try to figure out if the head coach and the head personnel man are still on the same page or at war with each other. Granted, that gets into sticky territory, as Charley Casserly is known for maintaining fabulous relations with the local media (who, interestingly, know exactly how many times Joe Pendry reached the playoffs as offensive coordinator for other teams, and have been mentioning it frequently), and they might not want to tread into that territory.

Now that the Rita excitement has died down, it’s really territory that good sports journalists ought to cover for fans.

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Kevin Whited is co-founder and publisher of blogHOUSTON. Follow him on twitter: @PubliusTX