Southern Comfort

May 23, 2001
Southern Comfort
By Ric Sweeney

Poor, Bob McNair. He drops the equivalent of the GNP of Zimbabwe into the NFL’s lap and they reward him by grouping his expansion Texans with Indianapolis, Jacksonville and Tennessee, who, together, combined to go 70-26 the past two years against decidedly non-expansion teams. But other than that, how was the play, Mr. Lincoln?

Far be it for me to try and sugarcoat a .730 winning percentage, but, believe it or not, I do see a silver lining in all this. In fact, careful examination (something I have no time for) yields a rather surprising conclusion: landing in the AFC South, which became official yesterday, has to rank as the Texans’ first official victory. And no, Robert Downey, Jr. isn’t ghostwriting my column. Allow me to explain.

First, let’s take a look at the alternative. I know a lot of you, McNair included (not that he’s among the you reading this piece) were hoping that Houston’s second NFL franchise would have the opportunity to pick up where its first one left off — sharing a division with Cincinnati, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. And there’s certainly some merit to that thought. After all, these are not your father’s Bengals, Browns or Steelers, and if McNair wanted to see a more immediate return on his $700 million investment, well, you’d be hard-pressed to find three more tempting foes.

Cincinnati, once a prominent thorn in the Oilers’ side, now gets beat more often than the Washington Generals. They’re 45-115 since 1991 and have easily outdistanced all comers to claim the title of “Worse Franchise on the Planet.” Seriously, for awhile there, it looked like the Texans might finish the 90’s with more victories than the Bengals. Meanwhile, in Cleveland, new coach Butch Davis needs only one hand to count the total number of victories in team history, which is convenient because it leaves the other hand free to drive the knife deeper into the Miami Hurricanes’ back. And last, but by no means least, we have Pittsburgh, where their lot of unemployable fans have this to look forward to again next year: “Starting at quarterback for your Pittsburgh Steelers, Kordell Stewart!” (crickets chirping) If I were a Steeler fan, having my doctor tell me I had an inoperable brain tumor as the nurse ran her fingernails down a chalkboard while the stereo blasted Cher’s “Believe” would be a more inviting auditory experience.

But don’t allow yourselves to be seduced by the sweet siren song of the AFC North – it’s a dangerous place for a team like the Texans.

That’s because the NFL in the 21st century is all about playing Robin Hood to its poor and undernourished teams. They dump high draft picks into the laps of its losers and then punish the successful teams by making them adhere to a ridiculously unnecessary salary cap, which, in a league that shares revenues equally, makes about as much sense as Al Gore attending a Wu Tang Clan concert. In today’s NFL, this season’s cellar-dwellers are next year’s champions. And if you don’t believe me, look no further than the 2000 playoffs.  

I presented this information in a previous column, but it bears repeating: in 1996, the Giants and Ravens won a combined 10 games. Last year, of course, they won 24, not to mention conference championships. In fact, the combined record of all 12 2000 playoff teams was just 89-103 in 1996, and only one team (Denver) was fortunate enough to win a division title in both 1996 and 2000. The other five division winners from five years ago went 35-45 this past season.

It’s hard, of course, to argue the Bengals will ever get better, and the Steelers have become the very definition of average, but looking at the flip side of this equation gives insight into why the AFC South should prove so advantageous to our neophyte Texans.

Since the NFL has mandated that whatever goes up must come crashing down, where, exactly, can Indianapolis, Jacksonville and Tennessee (they of the combined 70-26 record) go? In fact, one could argue that the inevitable fall is already in progress for two-thirds of our new division. Due to cap constraints, Jacksonville has had to waive good-bye to so many players the past two years that their locker room should be the setting for the Tribal Council Meeting on the next Survivor. And the Titans, who released (among others) Al Del Greco and Marcus Robertson recently, have now joined the Jags above the salary cap’s ceiling. In fact, Tennessee was so far over last year, they actually held a BYOP (Bring Your Own Player) day at Aldelphia.  

Thus, by the time the cap has begun squeezing the life out of Indianapolis in a few short years, the Texans, flush with multiple top picks (thanks to the beatings the Colts, Jags and Titans will throw down on them while still respectable franchises — see how that works?), should be ready to assume king of the hill status with no fear of competition from their divisional brethren.

Plus, there’s the added bonus that inherently comes with playing the best of the best, something the young Texans will no doubt benefit from immensely in their formative years. And hey, let’s also not forget — Dom Capers coached for Jacksonville and against Tennessee as recently as last year. Not so much is going to change in the next year that that won’t still be a tremendous advantage.

So when you think about it, the South really is the ideal situation. Why champion joining a division where two of its three teams have a three-year head start on rebuilding, anyway? Up North, Houston would find themselves in a perpetual game of catch-up, always two steps behind Cincinnati and Cleveland.

Granted, no one will ever confuse the Bengals with the Romans when it comes to building, but that’s the inherent danger in joining their division: the NFL has proven it will do all it can to stack the deck in the loser’s favor.

Come to think of it, as I see it anyway, that’s kind of what the league did by putting Houston in the AFC South.

“Ric Sweeney” would like to remind everyone he’s currently appearing each Monday night on Ally McBeal. In addition, “Ric’s” previous work, such as his Oscar-nominated performance in Chaplain and his critically-acclaimed turn in Less Than Zero, is available at your local Blockbuster.