Losing At All Costs

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July 22, 2002
Losing At All Costs
By Ric Sweeney

Now that training camp is officially here, expect to read the following stock stories on the Texans, all courtesy of the How to Cover NFL Training Camp 101 manual that’s apparently passed out to every NFL beat writer in America. (By the way, these will read funnier, term used loosely, if you use a cheesy, game-show host voice… trust me): He’s the high-priced rookie enduring the NFL’s hard knocks, including, get this, carrying the vets’ luggage!! It’s David Carr! He’s their quirkiest player and he’s making all his teammates howl with laughter! Meet Seth Payne! He’s the been-around-the-block veteran hoping to revive his career and teach the young guys a thing or two; he’s James Allen! He’s the once-promising prospect who hopes to finally find it in Houston, ladies and gentlemen: Jerry DeLoach! He’s the highly touted rookie several teams passed on who now has something to prove, say hello to Jabar Gaffney! He’s a stern taskmaster and a stickler for small details, welcome to Camp Capers! And last, but not least, the “(Pick a Number) Keys to this Year’s Training Camp,” which is where I come in.

Of course, this isn’t such an easy assignment when discussing an expansion team because when you get right down to it, everything’s key. Everything. Dom Capers needs to implement his defense; Chris Palmer needs to implement his offense; guys have to learn those schemes while trying to develop chemistry with teammates whose names they’re still learning; rookies have to do all that in addition to adjusting to life in the NFL; the waterboys have to get their timing right… dogs and cats, living together, mass hysteria!

With that in mind, I could probably list 358 different keys and still not scratch the surface, but that would take a lot of time, and… well, I’m kind of lazy, so I thought it might be easier to just pick the biggest key and focus on it. To my way of thinking, if the Texans can accomplish this one thing between now and September 8, we should all be in store for a terrific season. So, without further ado, I humbly present The Texans’ Number One Key to Training Camp: Lose.

And I mean, lose often. The best thing that could possibly happen to the Texans is an 0-5 preseason with a significant injury or two. And no, I’m not all shaken and bewildered by Billy Bob and Angelina’s divorce; I’m quite even-keeled actually, and very serious. (Although, I can’t help but think that this divorce is, at long last, my big chance, ya know? I mean, is it really that inconceivable that a big star like Billy Bob Thornton would go for little ol’ me? Did I say Billy Bob? I totally meant the other one, what’s her name… Gotta go).

Here’s the thing – fans, God bless ’em, are always optimists. Always. No fan wants to believe their team is gonna suck. Every summer around this time, fans start to get giddy and all psyched up; they get that look, you know that look — it’s the same one Kyle Turley gets whenever GNC gets in a new shipment of supplements.

They start to elbow one another and talk about it being “our year;” they spend all day at Barnes and Noble reading all the football magazines so that don’t have to pay for ’em; they purchase the NFL Direct TV Ticket despite perpetual unemployment; they ask their wives about their objections to possibly making some extra cash, you know, “the hard way” in an effort to scrounge up enough money for season tickets. In baseball, it’s called the Rite of Spring. Football, of course, is played and viewed by real men, so we don’t have fancy-pantsy labels for everything, but, you get my drift.

All good, except… I get the feeling expectations for this team might be too high. I’ve read or heard fans talk about this Texan team being the best expansion team ever; about them possibly making a run at .500, or even (gasp!) the playoffs… but what happens when the team rolls out to a 1-7 start (which is kinda, highly likely)? Will Houston’s increasingly fickle fan base start to waver? Will we start to miss the Oilers? Or, worse, be reminded of them?

You see, I have this theory — no idea if it’s tangible, or even viable, but here goes: when the Oilers left town in 1996, they took more than helmets and shoulder pads to Tennessee; they also took a piece of the Houston sports’ fan’s soul. Things just haven’t been the same since.

I used to think that, as a sports town, the Bayou City never got its proper due. After all, Houston was the city that turned out 70,000 strong to welcome back a team that had just lost a chance to play in the Super Bowl; Houston was the city that nearly blew the roof off it’s own stadium during two National League Championship Series; Houston was the city that had not one, but two downtown championship parades in which everyone was so happy and euphoric that they all forgot the main purpose of such events was to riot, beat the hell out of the person standing next to you and cause mass destruction.

Back to my theory — the second of those parades occurred in 1995, and it was around that time the Oilers began dealing exclusively with Tennessee. And before the year was done, they would indeed have a deal in place to move their franchise. I contend the Rockets’ second championship parade was the apex of Houston’s fandom, and that it’s been in steady decline ever since.

Think about it, Houston always has been, and always will be, a football-first town. Even with football gone, the Rockets and Astros never received the coverage nor have they ever galvanized the city in quite the same way the Oilers did. Well, the Rockets did, but they won two championships. If the Oilers had ever won the Super Bowl… well, I’m not sure what would’ve happened, but I don’t think then-mayor Bob Lanier proclaiming the day after the championship “City-Wide Orgy Day” would’ve been too far off the mark.

Alas, that never happened. Instead, the NFL began a smear campaign against the city and its fans, a misdirected, but, sadly, ultimately successful crusade that allowed Bud Adams to emerge as the victim, which led to his moving out of town. Soon, every sports outlet worth its salt was painting Houston as apathetic, and I think the locals started to buy into it.

And apparently still do. It pains me to say this, but Houston’s no longer a respectable sports town, though, in its defense, few cities are. The blue-collar fan base that formed the foundation of all those late 70’s/early 80’s crowds soon gave way to the Enron suits and fence-sitters. You were just as likely to bump into someone wearing a McGwire jersey as you were a Bagwell jersey when visiting (This Space for Sale) Field, and more and more, people went to games not to watch sports, but to talk on their cell phones and make business deals.

And even though the Texans’ arrival seems to be lifting the malaise that has plagued Houston sports fans since 1995, I still sense fans in the area have forever changed. And for the worse. They’re Janet Jackson (Ms. Jackson, if you’re nasty) circa 1985, asking, “What have you done for me lately?”

The Rockets are only seven years removed from their two-year run atop the NBA (not too great a distance when you consider we hadn’t won anything prior to that since 1961), and yet it seems fans had about as much interest in the Pre-Yao Ming Rockets as Sammy Sosa does in taking a random steroid test. Meanwhile, the Astros seem trapped in a perpetual lose-lose situation. Apparently fans of the team with all of two playoff appearances between 1962 and 1996 have begun to take the postseason for granted. Last year’s home playoff games with the Braves didn’t sell out and fans actually had the audacity to boo Craig Biggio, who has twice eschewed bigger offers elsewhere to stay in Houston. During the season’s stretch run, they actually cheered for Barry Bonds to break a home run record, despite the Astros needing the win.

There’s also the Texans’ naming debacle, a period I’m still dumbfounded by. Amazingly, a fan base that had just spent four years without an NFL franchise was making a big to do about what the new franchise was going to be called. Tensions mounted, sides were chosen, and things went way beyond ugly. We actually had some promise to never cheer for the team if they were named such-and-such. The day after Bob McNair made the Texans official, the Chronicle dedicated an entire page to people bitching about it. How could we already be taking our second chance for granted? It was sickening; it was embarrassing — I felt sorry for Bob McNair and his entire organization.

Which brings us to right now; six weeks away from the Texans’ season opener, and it seems like fans are ready to embrace this team, and I’m anxious to see if the city can get some of its swagger back. But at the same time… seeing how much the landscape has changed, I’m also fearful. If this had been 10, 15 years ago, I might have allowed myself to get swept up in all the hoopla.

But I can’t, not anymore.

This is a team dotted with question marks – it’ll be an entertaining expansion team, sure, but I can’t see how it’s going to win more than five games; six if they’re absolutely blessed with unprecedented, Bill Gates’ son kind of luck.

And when that happens, when this new breed of fan who’s getting a little too worked up, realizes the team is not going to live up to their inflated expectations… does Houston have any perspective left? Do fans who only go to Rocket games when Jordan is in town or who expect nothing short of World Series trips every year from the Astros, have it in them to remain realistic about their outlook for the Texans? The past six years since the Oilers departed make me think this could be a long year if we allow our expectations to exceed reality.

And that would be a shame, because as far as I’m concerned, the 2002 Texans are already a success beyond my wildest dreams because they’re playing football games in Houston once again. Anything beyond that is either inconsequential or the cherry on top. I hate to be the realist, the devil’s advocate, the guy who urinates in the punch bowl, Bill O’Reilly… but I hope Houston isn’t setting itself up for disappointment; I hope this thing doesn’t turn ugly in the blink of an eye.

The Texans have been riding such a positive wave thus far that I think they could use some bumps; and preferably before the regular season starts. Not that I want the team to fail; I just don’t want fans taking this second chance for granted.

Which is why, when I read the stock training camp stories this summer (and I will, by the way) and watch the otherwise meaningless preseason games, I’ll be happy, but also hoping for pulled groins here and for the Texans to be on the wrong side of some ass-kickings there.

To me, that’s the summer’s biggest key for the Texans. That, and the rookies learning their alma mater’s fight song so they can sing them in the player’s cafeteria!!

Chicks dig Ric Sweeney because he rarely wears underwear and when he does, it’s usually something unusual. David Carr David Carr Return to Houston Pro Football If you have a question, comment or suggestion, contact Ric Catch up on past installments of Quick Slant