Hope for the Houston Texans?

Gary Kubiak and team search for their first winning season

The Houston Texans are about to embark on their seventh NFL season. In only one of the previous six seasons did they finish anywhere but last in their division.

That was in 2004, when they finished next-to-last.

So, just two years removed from a disastrous 2-14 year, why is there optimism about the Texans in 2008?

It's not like QB Matt Schaub lit the town on fire last year. It's not like the team doesn't face a killer schedule in the first five weeks of the season. It's not like they've been impressive in the preseason.

So why the optimism?

It's all Houston sports fans have left to hang onto. The Astros are a disaster, the Rockets won't matter until March and college football has never been a big deal here.

So, barring an utter catastrophe (As in the headline "Carr Returns to Texans"), hope is the only thing we have.

How can you spot a (male) Texans fan these days?

1. He's mumbling about the defensive line. The Texans seemingly have spent every draft choice of the past three years on defensive linemen, to not much avail.

2. He's mumbling about the offensive line. The Texans have brought in a new OL coach, to not much avail.

3. His knees are dirty from spending all his nights praying Andre Johnson doesn't get hurt again. Or that various Texans don't get picked up for weed, or Tasered at a traffic stop. Or do any more crummy commercials.

4. He's carrying a large sign that says "Not Sold Yet on Schaub." (Or maybe it says "Need Money for Food," we couldn't tell; we breezed through that intersection pretty fast.)

5. He's already programmed the local sports-talk stations into his cell so he can call for Gary Kubiak's job when the team starts out 1-4.

This season will be something of a crossroads for the Texans. They've had their baby-step, easy-to-forgive mistakes; they've had their complete meltdown that resulted in the firing of the coach; they've had two seasons of slight improvement under the current coach.

It's logical to think they're about to make the next step, and finally get into the playoffs after last year's 8-8 season, but "logical" and "Texans" became deeply disparate terms during the reign of GM Charlie Casserly.

So what's going to happen this year?

We have gathered an extremely impressive roundtable of experts, two-fifths of whom actually get paid to follow the team closely.

Most of them see the same thing: improvement, but don't go out and start saving for playoff tickets just yet.

On the other hand, isn't it about time for the Texans to surprise us? (In a good way, we mean.)

So let's put away the dourness and get in the spirit of change we can believe in and hop on the Hope Express. After all, there might — possibly — be a December game that actually means something this year!

The Youth Vote

The first expert in our Texans Roundtable is...my kid.

What could a 16-year-old know about football, you ask? Simple: He's a teenager. He knows everything.

Mercifully free of references to music and viral videos I've never heard of, here are his 2008 NFL Power Rankings, a top-to-bottom list of the best and worst of pro football this year:

1. New England Patriots — Hate it or love it, the underdog's on top. Maybe not the underdog. Maybe about nine months ago, they were the most overrated dog since ESPN's lovefest with USC in 2005, but they were 39 seconds away from an undefeated season last year, and not much has changed to make it seem like they won't at least win their weak division, regardless of the Super Bowl hangover curse.

2. Indianapolis Colts — The Colts have been amazingly consistent, using Peyton Manning's long-winded audibles to ride to the top of the division for the past five years. Again, winning 11 regular season games is easy; it's that first division playoff game at home that reminds some veterans of Nam. If they do get to the Super Bowl, maybe Manning can finally get some endorsements, do some commercials, get his face out there.

3. San Diego Chargers — They played with a lot of heart in January, but you don't win games with heart, you win them by scoring more points than your opponent. With a weak division, they'll definitely win it; it's just a matter of re-creating what happened in their last playoff run.

4. Dallas Cowboys — They can tear it up in the regular season, but until Tony Romo wins a playoff game, I will still call him "Romo the Homo (Sapien)." 'Cause he's just a man. A man among men.

5. Pittsburgh Steelers — Big Ben really has to step up with an MVP-caliber performance. I mean they could win ten games easy, but they need soul.

6. Cleveland Browns — Most people think Cleveland is a strong sleeper team; I'm going to go one step further and say with their great defense (Shaun Rogers, Willie McGinest), they are AFC ­championship-bound. (Don't screw me on this, Derek Anderson.)

7. New York Giants — The defending champs have to be ranked high, but the Giants' Super Bowl win was a lot like Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. Amazing, yes. But like Heath, the Giants probably won't be doing much now, thanks to a weakened D-Line and the presence of Tom Coughlin.

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