When the Houston Oilers left town, the football soul of the city of Houston was nearly destroyed. In Texas, football is king, above all other sports. In Houston, after a great run of seven straight playoff appearances, we were spoiled by our team's success. Their departure was heart-rending to someone like me, for whom American football was their sports passion.
Having moved to Houston from Ponce, Puerto Rico, I was just an 8 year old kid looking for something to latch onto in this strange country. Pro football was a spectacle, and even though it was nearly incomprehensible to me at that early age, I felt a connection to the violence, the speed, and the grace exhibited by these athletes.
Over the next 16 years, I became a Houston Oilers fanatic. When it was announced that they would be leaving for Tennessee, I feared Houston would end up like Los Angeles, a giant city with no pro football team. It was a long seven year wait, but the NFL informed the country that the 32nd franchise in the NFL would be granted to Bob McNair, and the city of Houston. It was a glorious day. It was also the first notice that we would have to endure years of futile effort and poor play.
The two NFL teams added before the Texans, the Caroline Panthers and the Jacksonville Jaguars, both had varying degrees of success early on, but they crashed and burned soon after. The Houston Texans were a bit different. We began our first season with a rookie quarterback who was more concerned with his hair than with his studies. The Texans lost ugly for years. It was so bad that at the stadium, the crowd would cheer heartily for first downs, not touchdowns, as that was the only thing the team seemed capable of.
It has been a full decade of Houston Texans football, and the team has finally made it into the post-season. It was not pretty this season. The team suffered through the loss of their starting and back-up quarterbacks (Matt Schaub, Matt Leinart), their starting running back (Arian Foster), their world-class wide receiver (Andre Johnson), and their 1st round draft pick linebacker (Mario Williams).
This seemed devastating at the time, but the team has managed to tough it out and win despite these heavy casualties. As a fan, this is a most exciting time.
No one expects the team to do anything special in the playoffs. We are likely to be seen as cannon-fodder for the more powerful and well-established teams. This is something that Houston fans are accustomed to. Even so, it feels great to have been rooting for this team, taking as much joy from the small victories as we can, and seeing the recent results. The greatest compliment an opposing team can say about one's team is that they are a "team no one wants to face in the playoffs." I think the Texans are one of those teams, and the city of Houston is riding a football wave that began with the University of Houston and hopefully will end with the Texans making a deep run into the playoffs. Dreams are coming true people!
It is a bit hard to believe we are bound for the NFL playoffs. I remember an evening after work about eleven years ago which found me in front of a large stage in downtown Houston. The new team owner and the President were unveiling the new teams name, logo, and uniforms. At the time the name seemed bland, vague, and non-threatening. Football is controlled violence and the names should suit the intended goal. The logo was fine but seemed like an obvious ploy to subliminally attract University of Texas alumni, with it being just the head of a long-horned cow. The team colors were even more of a disappointment. The whole red, white, and blue color scheme was already in use by many other teams in the league, and seemed like such a safe, middle-of-the-road decision. Boring.
The team in those first years did resemble my first impression of the colors, logo, and name. We were a boring team to watch. Painfully boring. Boring like the early 80's Seahawks, or the Buccaneers in the 70's. Each game was just a new example in ineptitude. Shitty teams would beat us by 30-40 points. It was all quite painful, but it was Pro Football, and the team could only improve, right? Ten years later, it seems that all our patience is being rewarded. We have a fabulous running game, a league-leading defensive unit, and a team that believes in itself, willing to step up and make plays when the starters get injured. We now have a Defensive Coordinator who is as good as they come, to match our offensive minded Head Coach. It is a great time to be a Houston Texans fanatic.
It is now January 2012, and the Texans' first playoff game is ever-nearer. The elation felt by me as I wrote the above material has degraded to a low murmur of fear. The past three games have shown the world a Texans team incapable of scoring touchdowns against three of the most inept teams in the NFL. Three losses in a row, two at home to deeply inferior teams, and a backwards slide into the first ever playoff game for this franchise. It makes me sick.
The whole city of Houston is still trying to pretend they have hopes for our playoff-bound team, but it is all a barely held-together ruse. We are all football people here in Texas and even the most disinterested Houstonian knows that our Texans team seems a fraud. We can pride ourselves on the league's second best rushing attack, and one of the league's top defenses, but how hollow does that feel after these last three weeks?
I do not know if it is our team, or our coach, but we lack the killer instinct. Our team's attitude implies a group of overachieving mediocre talent happy to luck into a year where everything comes together to essentially hand the Texans their first division title. Peyton Manning's injury single-handedly submarined the once-mighty Colts. The Titans barely finished above .500 with an over-the- hill QB and a brand new coaching staff just learning the ropes. The other division team, the Jaguars, could do nothing but rush the ball, and failed to win even a third of their games. This was the GOLDEN SEASON damn it!
The Texans should have gotten it into their heads that this was their season to shine. Even with all of our injuries, and there have been a ton of critical ones, our team at the 2/3 mark of the season looked lean and mean, saying all the right things, and manhandling opponents like the cream of the AFC South crop we truly seemed to be. Is it because, having achieved the first goal of reaching the playoffs, the team just lost it's fire? Great teams do not lose their fire. Great teams take pleasure and pride in defeating their opponents and showing football mastery while doing so. To come out as they have done for the past three weeks, and play as if they could just turn "it" off and on like some sort of motor was just pathetic. It disgusted me to see how insipid the passing attack was, how unimaginative the running game became, how tepid our defense proved to be.
A team does not have to win all their games by double digits, or even win all their games, to earn respect. However, a team has to come out competitive! Our Texans have not, and what makes them think that they will somehow be able to just "bring it" on Saturday against the Cincinnati Bengals, a team we barely managed to defeat when we were actually playing decent? Many pundits made a stink about how the Texans fans booed the team at the end of the first half against Carolina. They do not understand that the people of Houston are football people first and foremost, and that we respect a team that carries itself with the heart of a champion. A champion does not play it's first home game after clinching the playoffs and a division championship and go into the half losing 21-0. That is an insult to the fans. If the fans seemed ungrateful, it is not for lack of achievement, but for lack of effort, and the team needed to hear that. If the team was somehow upset over being booed, then they need to play better. It is as simple as that.
I can tell you for sure though that Reliant Stadium is going to be insane this Saturday, but if the team comes out limp and unsure, if they allow the opponents to put up 21 unanswered points, the hometown fans will boo heartily. Houstonians can smell a sports fraud a mile away.