It's always an adventure when it comes to being a sports fan in Houston. Fortunes change quickly and the sensitive sports psyche of the city is so damn fragile, our confidence having been shattered so often in the past. Even when we want to swagger into a new year or a new season, it feels uncomfortable, like an ill-fitting Halloween costume that we didn't really want to wear in the first place.
The Texans are going into the playoffs this weekend, but their road went from first round bye and home field advantage thereafter to a wild card home game followed by a probable run through New England and Denver. And people wonder why Houston fans are so cynical.
The good news is that there is always the promise of another year, another season. There's always room for hope, unless you like the Astros. In that case, even I can't help you. Here's a look ahead to 2013 sports in Houston for the Texans and Rockets. Look for the Astros, Dynamo and local colleges on Thursday.
The Texans' future starts essentially now with their first playoff game this Saturday. Yes, Saturday. After losing three of their four final games, the Texans limp into the playoffs as the third seed and will face the Bengals, followed by likely road trips to New England and Denver. A win over Minnesota would almost certainly have meant a first round bye followed by a home game against the New England/Denver winner, then perhaps Baltimore at home on the way to a Super Bowl. Sigh.
The Texans should be able to beat the Bengals at home like they did last year with T.J. Yates as their QB. But winning in the tough climates of both New England and Denver -- assuming Denver isn't knocked off -- seems like a reach for a team that has slumped through the last 7 or 8 games. Still, they will have a bunch of guys going to the Pro Bowl, so that's...eh...something?
If they don't make the Super Bowl, expect the team to head into the offseason looking for a new special teams coach. Joe Marciano has been with the team since the beginning, but with shaky kicking and one of the league's worst coverage teams -- even with beast all pro Bryan Braman -- his days are numbered.
They are going to have to decide what to do with fan favorite Connor Barwin, who underperformed this season, a contract year for him. His value has certainly decreased, but the team is likely to try and keep him, if not at the high price he would have demanded last year. Other key free agents include versatile James Casey, DT Shaun Cody and, perhaps most importantly, Glover Quinn.
In the free agent market and the draft, expect the team to address the right side of the offensive line, after foolishly assuming they could live without their starters there from last year. The run game bogged down and pass protection was spotty, particularly late in the year. They will also need depth in the secondary and in the linebacking core, and it could be argued that the time for drafting a potential replacement for Matt Schaub is on the horizon, but don't expect that this year.
They may not enter the 2013-14 season as the favorite to win the division, either. Despite the loss of Brian Cushing, the team remained remarkably healthy this year, but that doesn't figure to continue. They also got one of the all-time great seasons ever from JJ Watt, which likely won't happen again. And the Colts, with Andrew Luck, are going to be the media darlings from day one.
It will be a long offseason if the Texans don't play in New Orleans on the last day of the season. And don't expect it to get any easier next year.
Our own Ben Dubose, who covers every Texans game for Hair Balls, had this to say:
"In the offseason, Connor Barwin and Bradie James will walk and the Texans will focus resources on the offensive line and linebacker positions. Expect one mid-level free agent signing and at least one of the team's first two draft picks to go to those positions. No huge names, though, with the team still capped out and drafting in the 20s. Brian Cushing will return at full strength, however, bringing an enormous boost to the defense.
Even with the stunning late-season collapse, Schaub and head coach Gary Kubiak will each remain in place for financial reasons, with owner Bob McNair citing back-to-back division championships as proof the franchise is on the right track. In reality, while neither is terrible, they each have clear deficiencies. The success of the Texans will come down to whether the team's other components -- notably, the running game and defense -- can play at an elite level and offset the coach/QB limitations."
For the last few years, with Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming both breaking down and moving on, hardcore fans have been clamoring for the Rockets to enter a long overdue rebuilding. But team owner Les Alexander has appeared to have different ideas. Much like former Astros owner Drayton McLane stubbornly continued to decimate the team's farm system to load the major league club's roster with well-known veterans, Alexander held strong to the idea that all the team needed was to migrate from signature star to signature star.
Then, fate intervened. The NBA nixed the Pau Gasol trade last year and the team was unable to land Dwight Howard, either through trade or free agency. Both moves would have certainly made the team better in the short term, but Gasol is on the wrong side of 30 with a long, cap-heavy contract, and Howard seemed to have no inclination to sign with the Rockets after his remaining contract ends next season.
With that and a middling roster filled with good but not great players, the changes came fast and furious. In fact, only two players remain on the roster from last season and only one current Rocket is over the age of 24. With a young team, anchored by James Harden, the long-term future of the franchise is looking up.
The immediate future is a little rocky, however. This is a fun team to watch. They lead the league in scoring and have become about as efficient on the offensive end of the floor as they can be. But like many young teams and players, they struggle to keep the intensity at both ends of the floor and their transition defense is some of the worst in the NBA.
They are very good against mediocre talent and the Eastern Conference -- an astounding 12-2 against teams from the east. But, their own division and conference are loaded with talent and they struggle mightily against the best teams on this side of the Mississippi.
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Their goals for 2013 will be quite different from 2012, but it's hard to imagine them not making a run at the playoffs. My guess is they'll fall well short and the sooner that happens, the better chance some of the young talent like Terrence Jones and Dontas Montejunas can get time outside the D-League. The team will also have to address the lingering issues with Royce White, who, by the day, seems less and less likely to play for the Rockets and perhaps anyone in the NBA.
Barring a trade at the trading deadline, expect it to be a busy but perhaps slightly different offseason. With the team set with some of its core, a final piece of the puzzle will no doubt be on GM Daryl Morey's agenda, perhaps a power forward in the vein of Kevin Love or LaMarcus Aldridge. They will also no doubt try to move up in the draft yet again, particularly with this year expected to have far less depth than 2012.
Entering the 2013-14 season, I would have to guess they'll be in significantly better shape, with a good full year of experience for the young guys and an offseason of preparation. If the team falters next season, the next changes to come might be in the front office or with the coaching staff.
The biggest question is whether or not the Rockets broadcast affiliate, CSN Houston, will be able to work out deals with other cable providers. My guess is that will happen as the Astros season approaches and fans of two teams begin to exert their pressure on all parties involved.