Thursday, September 28, 2006

Our annual Houston hit-and-run!

And yet they still leave a bad taste in your mouth

In the hair-raising underground classic You Are Going to Prison, Jim Hogshire discusses the grim reality of life as a prison "punk":
"Once this transformation (to punk) has taken place, there is no turning back. Even a man who fought with all his might and even suffered serious injury ... is still suspect. ... He has lost at least some, if not all, of his manhood, he's slid to the bottom of the heap and will stay there. The possibility of coming back is almost nonexistent -- although it is possible.

"It would require a concerted and sustained fight with the whole fuckin' population, and the guards, to overcome. Physically overcoming it is the only way. This means a man may have to fight day after day for months or years, and probably have to kill someone or be killed himself. ...

"As awful as life is for the punk, some guys choose to accept it as a way of surviving -- literally surviving, continuing to live -- until their sentence is finished. ... It is an awful choice. But it's the only choice some guys get. And the choice is final."
All you have to do is replace the word "punk" with "member of the Houston Texans" in the above passage, and you get a sense of how far the NFL's newest franchise has managed to slide into the sewer in its five short years of existence. The Texans came into the league in 2002 with big talk and big expectations. Today they're a travesty, an abomination, a joke. They're worse than detestable -- punchless and pointless. It's tempting to also call the team worthless except that owner Bob McNair paid the league a record $700 million franchise fee for the right to be punked by his fellow owners and mocked by everyone else.

But that's getting ahead of ourselves.

I spent last Sunday afternoon the way I spend every Sunday afternoon from September to January: on the couch with the Sunday Ticket in full effect. As a cosmopolitan Washington "man about town," it's important for me to be up to speed on the performance of the local club, so I flipped over to the Redskins game several times over the course of the day. Washington was playing Houston, giving me my first extended look at the 2006 Texans.

What a disgrace.

In every aspect of the game, the Texans are just awful. Their offense is toothless, their defense is useless, their special teams are irrelevant. After losing to the Redskins on Sunday by the deceptively close score of 31-15, cornerback Dunta Robinson assessed the team's direction. "That's disgusting," Robinson said. "What else can go wrong? If we don't play better, we're going to be the laughingstock of the NFL again." Going to be a laughingstock? That's what passes for optimism in the Houston locker room. Shit, in Houston these days, that's close to boasting.

The problem is not simply that the Texans are awful. Every year has its bad teams, and every team has its bad years. And the problem is not that the Texans have been bad for an extended time. That happens in sports. No, the problem is that the Texans are awful in so many ways. Losers on the field, stooges and stumblebums in the front office, suckers and marks in the stands. Asinine from top to bottom. They are the worst kind of losers.

Some losers are lovable. The expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers of 1976-77 lost their first 26 games, 11 of them by shutout. Their play was as ugly as their Creamsicle orange uniforms. And yet, in their seamless ineptitude, they were endearing, almost cuddly. Even their coach seemed to be in on the joke. The 1-15 New Orleans Ain'ts of 1980 famously inspired their fans to come to the games with paper bags on their heads -- but at least they came to the games.

Some losers are pitiable -- so pathetic that you can't help but feel sorry for them. You might even choose to root for them in a patronizing sort of way. The 2004 San Francisco 49ers (2-14) fall into this category, as do the Detroit Lions of the Matt Millen era (21-61). The 2001 Carolina Panthers (1-15) count, too. Pitiable teams like these are often full of nice guys for whom all the hard work in the world just isn't going to make much of a difference. Other times they're full of lollygaggers, head cases and jakes who get exactly what they deserve. (In the case of the Lions, all of the above, and more!)

Some losers are chronic charity cases. They spend year after year in the cellar without getting so much as a sniff of playoff contention ... but they never get much out of the high draft position that comes with their wretchedness, either. The Bengals spent 15 years as just such a team. The Cardinals have fit this bill for 30 of the last 31 years.

And some losers are just contemptible. Like the prison punk, they are helpless at the bottom of the heap. The strong prey upon them, abuse them, break them -- and despise them for their own weakness. This is where you find the Houston Texans.

Type of NFL loserBaseball equivalent
Lovable Chicago Cubs
Pitiable Kansas City Royals
Chronic Milwaukee Brewers
ContemptibleTampa Bay Devil Rays

The history of the Texans is in many ways a sweeping epic of the execrable, a story of shame and degradation that traces back to the team's genesis in the franchise free agency period of the mid-1990s. The Houston Texans, simply put, were born of civic gutlessness and community hypocrisy. And, boy, does it show.

The Houston Oilers had been a charter member of the American Football League in 1960 and had been playing in the once-state-of-the-art Astrodome since 1965. A lot of time passed, however, and Oilers owner Bud Adams eventually declared that the Eighth Wonder of the World had become a hellhole and that if he didn't get a new football-only stadium he would move the team to Tennessee and take up banjo and force people to watch Kerry Collins try to throw the ball from his side of over-the-hill. In an admirable but ultimately hollow assertion of principle, Houston told Adams to say hello to everyone in Nashville. Thus were born the Tennessee Oilers.

Houstonians patted themselves on the back awhile and crowed about drawing the line at building a new football stadium when the city had so many other pressing needs. Then they set about building a new $350 million football stadium despite the city's so many other pressing needs. And what a beauty it is, too. People love to make fun of the "cookie-cutter" multipurpose stadiums of the 1970s. But hasn't the league just traded one set of characterless clones for another? Are airtight, charmless, gold-plated turds like Reliant Stadium, the Edward Jones Dome and Ford Field really an improvement? Well, they have something like twice as many bathrooms, and seafood salad at the concession stands, plus baby-changing stations, so ... yeah, perhaps so.

Houston isn't the first city that refused to build a stadium, then lost its football team, then turned around and built a new stadium after all to attract a new team. Baltimore did it, as did St, Louis. Those cities, however, at least waited a few years to towel themselves off, whereas Houston pretty much started pouring concrete as soon as Adams got the vans loaded up.

(In case you're wondering: The situation in Cleveland was considerably different. Starting in the 1970s, Browns owner Art Modell argued that if the city would essentially give him control of Cleveland Stadium, he would use the revenue to improve the facility and would never ask for a new one. The city went ahead and handed over the keys. Modell's subsequent mismanagement of the stadium landed him so deep in debt that even a new stadium wouldn't have gotten him out of the hole. Baltimore essentially promised to make that debt go away. That's why he moved the team. The fitting postscript to the tale was that even the Baltimore bailout couldn't save Modell from his own incompetence, and he wound up having to sell the Ravens anyway. Modell is rightly despised in Cleveland as a thief and a whore. He's also a hypocrite, having been the loudest, most public and most dogged critic of Al Davis' attempts to move the Raiders.)

St. Louis and Baltimore also built their new stadiums to lure existing franchises to town. Both cities had been forced to bend over for the league during the expansion-application process in the 1990s, only to see teams awarded to the booming North/South Carolina market and to ... the fifth-largest metro area in Florida (which is really working out well). They learned from that experience that expansion is a screw job, so they went out and stole teams from other cities just as theirs had been stolen in the 1980s. And it paid off: The St. Louis Rams and Baltimore Ravens both won the Super Bowl within five years of relocating. And the Rams did it by beating Bud Adams' Tennessee Titans.

Houston went the other route and applied for an expansion team. At the time, the league had 31 teams, and everyone knew that the next new franchise would be the last added for some time. The NFL made it clear that it really, really, really wanted that franchise to be in Los Angeles, but the people of L.A. showed little interest in laying out the necessary billion dollars for a brand new facility when the area already had at least three stadiums that could do the job (though they're tragically short of baby-changing stations). In October 1999, the league awarded the team to Houston and owner Bob McNair. Cost: $700 million, significantly higher than the $530 million charged to the owners of the reborn Browns franchise right around the same time. The NFL had, of course, promised the city of Cleveland after Art Modell skipped town that it would receive a new franchise, so that limited the pool of bidders. In the case of Houston, however, the league used the phony competition with Los Angeles to goose the price and get the city nice and lubed up.

Once the franchise was awarded, McNair and company set about acquiring the accoutrements of an NFL club: nickname, colors, logo, uniforms and all that. Oh yeah, and players. Predictably, it didn't get anything right:

Nickname: Texas pro sports franchises have nicknames that speak to aspects of the state's identity. The Texas Rangers, Dallas Cowboys, San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks all evoke the Old West. The Houston Astros and Houston Rockets are fitting names in the home of Mission Control (though the Rockets originated in San Diego). And the Oilers referenced the state's signature industry, petroleum. So in the spirit of Davy Crockett and Sam Houston, the new franchise held focus groups to come up with a name, and the team put forth five possibilities: Stallions (Old West), Bobcats (owner's name; see Charlotte's new NBA team), Apollos (space program), Wildcatters (oil industry) and Texans (inoffensive, marketing-driven cop-out). Saddled with a name devoid of any imagery, imagination or daring, is it any wonder that the players sleepwalk through their games?

Colors: Red, white and blue are the kick-assingest colors in world history. But there's a huge difference between this version of the color scheme, with its vibrant red and deep blue, and this one, which looks like it accidentally went into the wash with a brand new black sweatshirt. Drab and uninspired, these are the colors of a gas station attendant. And, you know, "Pump Jockeys" wouldn't have been a half-bad name for the team. At least it's oil-related.

Logo: This thing is supposed to be a ... a codpiece, right? No, a breastplate. A lobster claw? Some newly discovered species of pubic lice? What? A cow's head? Really? What's with the Paul Stanley makeup?

Uniforms: The name offers no inspiration, the colors are lifeless, the logo is dumb. Put them all together, and you get a uniform that looks like something you'd see on a fake team in a shitty football movie. To top it all off, the Texans wear white jerseys at home. Because if you're going to surrender without a fight, you'd better dress the part.

Mascot: For the fuzzy face of a $700 million franchise, Toro looks terribly cheap. Secondhand, even. "Run you stupid f------ blue bull! Run!"

And then there are the players. The most amazing thing when you analyze the Houston franchise is that for all the putrescence that defines this team and clings to it in a foul green cloud, the Texans players are just not that bad. No, none of these guys is headed to the Hall of Fame, but they aren't supreme stumblebums, either. There is talent, but it cannot and will not shine. There is potential, but it cannot and will not develop.

The one thing that great teams have in common is that they are all greater than the sum of their parts. The recent history of the New England Patriots provides a perfect example. Bill Belichick took a few high draft picks, some low picks, a mess of undrafted free agents and assorted cast-offs and spare parts from other teams and assembled a legitimate dynasty out of them. The Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s won four Super Bowls with a cocktail of bonus babies, tough little bastards and tough little bonus bastards (plus an honest-to-God war hero, a soldier, and I don't mean that in the Kellen Winslow sense).

Most NFL teams, of course, add up to exactly the sum of their parts. No rounding necessary. The Minnesota Vikings spring to mind. Since Bud Grant retired (the first time), the Vikings have never been any better or any worse than their record indicated. Remember when they went 15-1 in 1998? They were really, really good -- but not perfect. The 3-13 Les Steckel Experience of 1984? Every bid as bad as the record.

And the truly bad teams, the bottom-feeders, the scummiest of the scummy, the Texans and their ilk, fall far short of the sum of their parts. People asked last year: How can the Oakland Raiders be so bad when they have so much talent? Because that's what it means to be bad: Talent becomes irrelevant. So it is with the Texans. Is David Carr the worst quarterback in NFL history? Oh, no, not by a long shot. He's not the worst quarterback in the league this year, or the worst starting quarterback in the league this year. (Though I wonder who that could be?) How about No. 1 overall draft pick Mario Williams? The guy was a wrecking crew at North Carolina State, but now he just looks sad and lost. Of course he does! He's wearing a Texans uniform. Marco Polo would get lost in a Texans uniform. Should the Texans have picked Reggie Bush in the draft -- especially now that Domanick Davis is out for the year? Does it matter? In a Texans uniform, everyone's on injured reserve; they just don't know it yet. Remember, the first player the team ever picked -- offensive lineman Tony Boselli, in the 2002 expansion draft -- retired without playing a down in "red," white and "blue." Wideout and kick returner Jermaine Lewis was taken in the same draft and promptly fell off the face of the Earth.

(OK, to be fair, there's one Texans move I applaud wholeheartedly: With its 17th pick in the expansion draft, Houston plucked quarterback Danny Wuerffel off the Bears roster despite having no plans, or desire, to play him. The Texans figured that foolish new Washington Redkins coach Steve Spurrier was going to want Wuerffel's familiar face around and would be willing to trade something -- anything! -- to get him. This proved to be the case. Houston didn't get anything of note out of the trade, but it was still a pretty crafty move. Texans fans are still waiting for the next one.)

The guys the Texans sign as free agents or trade for often have done well in other towns on other teams, and then they come to Houston and ... disappear. Phillip Buchanon's career got off to a promising start in Oakland, then: Poof! Traded to Houston. Ron Dayne had finally worked his way up to something in Denver, then: Bang! Suddenly he's in Houston. Seth Payne. N.D. Kalu. Eric Moulds. Jeb Putzier. Dexter McCleon. These are guys we've heard of. Pro Bowlers, some of them. Guys who played in Super Bowls. Stars, some of them. They're living in Houston now, all of them. Getting paid to play a game they love, sure, and you have to admire them for that. They work out diligently, they go to the gym and lift weights and grunt. They do that everybody-bouncy-bouncy thing before games to get psyched up. They try hard and love their mommas.

And they lose. Over and over. Week in and week out. Not because they are bad men but because they are a bad team. Because the Texans are a bad franchise. Because the Texans are a bad idea.

The Houston players and the Houston fans must tell themselves this: It will get better. One day it will get better. It must get better. It cannot get worse.

Please, dear God, don't let it get worse.

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