Bob’s Big Blunder

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Decemeber 27, 2007
Bob’s Big Blunder

by Bob Hulsey

Bob McNair’s biggest mistake in running the 32nd NFL franchise came early. No, it had nothing to do with his choice of general manager, nor that GM’s choice of a head coach or first pick in the expansion draft or first pick in the college draft. Neither was it the choice of team colors nor the choice of a team nickname guaranteed to depress merchandizing in the other 49 states.

(As an aside, there are anectodal stories of people in blue states who literally despise Texans and blame us for the George W. Bush presidency. Surely, red, white, and blue uniforms that say "Texans" must be as popular in those areas as if the team had been named the "Al Qaedas".)

No, the mistake I refer to is when McNair insisted to the other NFL owners that his new franchise was going to play in the American Football Conference. McNair had just ponied up $700 million to join the league and, in what I hear tell was one of those "I’m paying for this microphone" moments, demanded that his new club be placed in the AFC.

The problem for league poobahs was that the AFC already had 16 members and the NFC just 15. Realignment was already a certainty but the league now needed somebody who would agree to jump conferences.

The last time the NFL had to talk a team into this, it wasn’t pretty. It was 1970 and the merger of the NFL with the rival American Football League was about to be realized. Only the 10-team AFL needed to be balanced with the 16-team NFL. Three teams had to be talked into joining the AFL in the new American Football Conference and nobody from the stodgy NFL wanted to go. The Baltimore Colts were undergoing an ownership change at the time so the league forced the Colts to switch as a condition for approving the sale of the team. Commissioner Pete Rozelle then leaned hard on two old friends, Pittsburgh owner Art Rooney and Cleveland owner Art Modell, to switch for the good of the league. After much arm-twisting, they relented. That, friends, is how the Colts, Steelers and Browns came to be AFC members.

Commissioner Paul Tagliabue only needed to come up with one team willing to switch conferences in 2002 and that team turned out to be the Seattle Seahawks. It was a stroke of genius for them. A proud but struggling franchise in the old AFC West, the Seahawks have dominated the NFC West for most of the time since their switch as the Rams, Cardinals and 49ers have floundered. That, but for the stubborness of Bob McNair, could have been us.

I can understand what McNair was thinking. He wanted Houston fans to experience again the heated rivalries the Houston Oilers shared with the Steelers, Browns and Bengals in the old AFC Central that held together from 1970-1996. There was also potential for a built-in rivalry with the Oilers themselves that had fled Houston for Nashville and become the Tennessee Titans.

An AFC franchise also meant that the Texans would be seen in more television markets since they would not be squeezed by the Dallas Cowboys and the New Orleans Saints for regional air time on Sundays.

Certainly, it would have been exciting for the Texans to be in the same division as the Cowboys where they could battle twice a year. Unfortunately, the Cowboys got married to the East Coast axis of the Giants, Eagles and Redskins and would not give that up, even for their new neighbors. A division tie-in with the Gulf Coast neighbor Saints might have been more viable but who would they have booted out of a new NFC South with Carolina, Atlanta and Tampa Bay to make room for Houston? Unfortunately, they wouldn’t.

So, if McNair had not demanded to go to the AFC, the most likely division they would have landed in was the one that needed them – the NFC West. After all, the franchise was supposed to be Los Angeles’ in the first place and the rivalries with San Francisco and St. Louis (the ex-Angeleno Rams) would have been a natural fit for a Southern California team. As appealing as that might have been to a Los Angeles team, it held no such attraction to a Houston-based team.

Had McNair let that happen, though, the fate of the entire franchise might have been different. From 2002-present, the AFC has been the dominant conference and the NFC West the league’s weakest link. San Francisco has been 35-60 (.368 winning pct.) since the Texans’ inaugural, the Arizona Cardinals are 32-63 (.337) and the Rams a more respectable 44-51 (.463). The Texans, by the way, are a mere 31-64 (.326). Against the AFC, they are a woeful 22-49 (.310).

Against the NFC, the Texans are just 9-15 all-time (.375) but remember that Houston has lost three of those games in overtime (Minnesota in 2004, St. Louis and San Francisco in 2005), the last two in games many thought the Texans were tanking so they could draft Reggie Bush the following spring. Had Houston won those three overtime games, they would be at .500 all-time against the weaker NFC at 12-12.

Instead, McNair was led into a trap where the Texans are now stuck in the same division with Indianapolis, Jacksonville and Tennessee. The AFC South has averaged two winning franchises a season since 2002, thanks in part to the pummeling the Texans have taken during their first six years in existence.

Overall, the AFC has had more winning teams in five of the six years than the NFC has (in 2003, they tied). Two teams have had winning seasons every year during that stretch – New England and Indianapolis. Denver has fielded a winning team each year until this one. The only NFC team so consistently good is the Seattle Seahawks, thanks in part to playing in the NFC West. They’ve been a winner five of the six years. The rest of the NFC has been bad as often as they’ve been good. The NFC’s Super Bowl representatives have generally fallen off a cliff the following season – this year’s Bears a classic example.

Even as the Texans fight for their first .500 season this Sunday, they are still looking up from the bottom of the division standings as the Colts, Jaguars and Titans all have winning campaigns. The small-market division is also the league’s toughest.

I realize that, had the Texans been in the NFC, they still would have faced expansion-team growing pains. But I also think they would have found success sooner and they might not have needed to be torn down and rebuilt so quickly. They might not have turned into a national punchline for which they are only now regaining some self-esteem. Face it, winning in the NFC West would have been a lot easier for the Texans than in the AFC South – sort of like if Baylor were playing in the Sun Belt Conference instead of the Big XII. We might have had our first winning season by now, even possibly our first playoff appearance.

Of course, it’s too late to undo history and there’s no turning back now. Perhaps cutting our teeth and taking our licks in a tough division and a tougher conference will make us a better team down the road than if we had been given an easier path. But I can’t help but wonder what the Texans might have become by now in the Nferior Football Conference instead of one dominated by teams like the Colts and Patriots.

At least I wouldn’t be having nightmares about Peyton Manning twice a year.

Bob Hulsey wants it on the record that he has never written a column while doing steroids, human growth hormones or any performance enhancing drug. Except antihistimines.

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