Saturday, December 10, 2005

We have a Houston problem

This space left blank for your own smartass Enron comments

Every NFL season, in about Week 6, one club is crowned "The Year's Surprise Team." Traditionally, that designation goes to a club that has crawled out of the toilet to win four of its first six games after having finished 5-11 or 6-10 the previous season. If this were Week 6, we would be tickling ourselves with a discussion of who is "The Year's Surprise Team," and we would be concluding that it's the Washington Redskins. The team that's selected as "The Year's Surprise" in Week 6 usually stumbles through the rest of the schedule (Redskins: Check!) and finishes somewhere between 7-9 and 9-7.

This isn't Week 6, however; it's Week 14, and the bar is set much higher. When we get into December, to qualify as "The Year's Surprise Team," a club must have defied all expectations. It can't just exceed the projections; it has to blow them away. Observers must look at the team, shake their heads and say: I never saw that coming. That's why the Bengals and Bears don't qualify. Perhaps most people didn't expect them to be this good, but their success wasn't entirely unforeseeable, either.

So who's really "The Year's Surprise Team"? First, let's remember that most surprises -- and the biggest surprises -- aren't pleasant. Don't believe me? OK, remember how your computer crashed and you lost all that work? Or how that SUV rear-ended your car? Surprise!

This season's surprise club defied all expectations not by being better than anyone imagined but by being far, far worse. It isn't the Packers, the Eagles or even the Jets. The injuries that cracked those teams were unexpected, but the effects were all too predictable. The Vikings started awful but bumbled their way back into contention. One team, however, stands below all others. A team that fully expected this to be the year it all came together. A team that stormed into the season prepared to kick in the door to the NFL elite's clubhouse. A team that planned to charge through the league like the head of cattle depicted in the bloodless corporate logo on its letterhead and also its helmets. A team that ... Guess I gave it away there, didn't I?

"The Year's Surprise Team" for 2005 is the Houston Texans.

The NFL's newest team, the Texans had steadily improved in their first three years in the league, going from 4-12 in 2002, their inaugural season, to 5-11 in 2003 and 7-9 last year. With their young playmakers coming of age and their defense set to jell, the Texans had Houston abuzz as the season began. Though making the playoffs in the stacked AFC would be a challenge, this team would at least be fully in the hunt. After three years as a loser, an also-ran, this franchise would be a winner, a contender, a factor.

And they are a factor, of sorts, because the road to the No. 1 pick in next year's draft now goes through Houston, proud home of the 1-11 Texans. The Texans have fielded what is unquestionably the worst team in the National Football League this year -- and that's saying something, considering how well the 49ers, Saints, Ravens and Jets have been "playing."

What went wrong in Houston? Oh, there are plenty of places you could look for answers to that question: the locker room, the owner's suite, even the league offices. But all you'd find there are scapegoats. Do you want the truth, or do you want a fall guy? At Down and Distance, we'll take the truth probably six or seven times out of ten. We're really less a football blog than a peer-reviewed journal, except without the peers or the reviewing. And as football scholars, we look for answers not in men but in history. Because if there's one thing that's immune from manipulation, misinterpretation, "spin" or out-and-out lies, it's history.

The story of the Texans begins in 1997, when Houston found itself without professional football for the first time since the Houston Oilers became a charter member of the American Football League in 1960. The Oilers, whose very name evoked Houston as the place where a hardworking man could get just about anything oiled, had moved to Tennessee after years of stadium-related antagonism between the city and franchise owner Bud Adams. Having defiantly told Adams that he'd get a new stadium costing hundreds of millions of dollars only over their cold, dead bodies, the city's movers and shakers began laying plans to secure another NFL franchise and to build a new stadium costing hundreds of millions of dollars.

Once the Oilers left, the NFL was so eager to see pro football return to Houston that in March 1999 its expansion committee voted overwhelmingly to award the league's 32nd franchise to Los Angeles. The deal was contingent on approval of a stadium plan, so the NFL might as well have awarded the franchise to the moon. Seven months later, with no deal in Southern California, the NFL was back in H-Town.

Once you get a franchise in place, the first thing you have to do is come up with a nickname. It's simple, right? Just call yourself the Gorillas or Juggernauts or something and start printing up T-shirts? Not so fast, pardner! Franchise owner Bob McNair was determined to come up with the rootin'est, tootin'est, focus-group'inest nickname this side of the Pecos. According to the team's official website, the name "Texans" was chosen following ...
" ... several months of research conducted jointly by Houston NFL 2002 and National Football League Properties. That research included multiple focus group studies performed in both English and Spanish in not only Houston, but also in numerous surrounding markets such as San Antonio, Austin, Galveston and Beaumont."
It took several months of research. In two languages. In several cities. To come up with "Texans." For a team in Texas. Actually, this process initially produced five possible nicknames for the team:
  • Apollos, after the moon-landing program directed from Houston.
  • Stallions, which was the name of the fictional franchise in The Last Boy Scout, though the team in the movie was in Los Angeles. (Ha!)
  • Wildcatters, which has nothing to do with wild cats but rather refers to oil exploration, a historic, signature industry for Houston.
  • Bobcats, which has nothing to do with oil exploration, a historic, signature industry in Houston, but rather refers to wild cats.
  • Texans, which refers to people from Texas.
The names were eventually "narrowed down," and after nearly a year of study on the matter, the club was finally christened the "Texans" in September 2000. It took so long because with a cutting-edge name like Texans, you can't just do this willy-nilly.

The name "Texans" brought with it a considerable amount of football history, almost none of it good. In the preceding half-century, no fewer than three professional teams in three leagues had gone by the name Texans.

The first of these was the original Dallas Texans, an NFL franchise that existed for one dismal season, 1952. Playing home games in a virtually empty Cotton Bowl, these Texans went 1-11 (hey!) and were outscored 427-182. The 1952 Texans hold the proud distinction of being the last NFL team to go out of business. The league transferred the franchise rights to a group in Baltimore, which established the Colts.

The second set of Texans also played in Dallas, from 1960 to 1962. Like the Oilers, they were an original AFL franchise, and like the Oilers, they would leave Texas and enjoy their greatest success elsewhere. Though these Texans had settled in Dallas before the Cowboys, they were eventually run out of town by their NFL rival and settled in Kansas City.

The third Texans franchise was the 1974 Houston Texans of the World Football League. The what? The WFL was a get-rich-quick scheme disguised to look like a football league when viewed from the street. The attendance figures were padded, the players' paychecks bounced, the uniforms were hideous and the team names (Philadelphia Bell, Southern California Sun) were ridiculous. Franchises switched cities without notice and sometimes disappeared altogether. The Texans began the WFL's inaugural 1974 season in Houston, then fled to Louisiana in the middle of the schedule. They re-emerged as the Shreveport Steamer. Not Steamers. Steamer. The franchise, like the WFL itself, died in the middle of the 1975 season, impaled on a Dicker Rod.

Despite this half-century of bad hoodoo, the team went ahead and chose "Texans." In doing so, they were testing that old football adage: Don't expect sharp, inspired play from a team with a dumb, uninspired name.

The club then set about assembling personnel. First on board was head coach Dom Capers, who took the Carolina Panthers to the NFC Championship Game in just their second season -- but who had more recently been fired for taking the Panthers from there to 4-12 in just two more years. Capers hired as his offensive coordinator Chris Palmer, who had just been fired as head coach of the Cleveland Browns after compiling a 5-27 record over two seasons, during which his offense was last in the league in both yardage and points.

Next came players. In the expansion draft, the Texans resisted the temptation to snap up one of the B-list skill players available and instead used their first pick on Jacksonville Pro Bowl tackle Tony Boselli. Then, in the 2002 regular draft, they chose Fresno State quarterback David Carr. It was an inspired pair of choices: the young, talented quarterback and the veteran lineman who could offer him the protection he would need to grow into the job.

Unfortunately for Houston -- but mostly for Carr -- Boselli came with a full set of the kind of pre-existing conditions your insurance might not cover. He moved swiftly to injured reserve and never played a down for the Texans. Carr's fate would rest with a relatively inexperienced line, and with offensive coordinator Palmer, who had presided over the slow-motion destruction of former No. 1 pick Tim Couch. In such able hands, Carr was sacked 140 times over the next three years. And that's just counting the times the other team got to him while he still had the ball.

The Texans won their inaugural game 19-10 over the Dallas Cowboys on the way to a 4-12 record. In 2003, they added impact players such as wideout Andre Johnson and rookie-of-the-year tailback Domanick Davis, and they improved to 5-11. In 2004, the Texans won consecutive games for the first time and recorded their first shutout, 21-0 over the Jaguars. Their 7-9 finish led all manner of prognosticators, fans and good ol' boys to declare that 2005 would be the Texans' year ...

And now, sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground.

Boselli is gone, obviously. Palmer has been fired. Capers will be fired. Some people are starting, unfairly, to whisper "bust" around Carr. The league still wants a team in Los Angeles, and the Texans are playing worse than they did in their expansion year -- and quite possibly worse than any expansion team since the legendary 0-14 Buccaneers of 1976.

What'll it take for the Texans to become "The Year's Surprise Team" for 2006? They don't have to do anything. Because if next year's club resembles anything like this year's disaster, I'll be surprised. No, I'll be shocked. And Houston fans -- on the hook for $300 million worth of stadium for 75 cents worth of team -- will be appalled.

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