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.
8. Seattle Seahawks — They basically benefit from a horrible division.
9. Philadelphia Eagles — The only opponent that can beat the Iggles is Fate. If they are mostly injury-free, expect a division title in a tough race.
10. Houston Texans — Houston had their best record last year and seemed to improve. Plus they have a Monday Night game against the Jaguars and they are undefeated in MNF history.
11. New Orleans Saints — Well, someone has to win the NFC South, but they did improve their linebacking corps with Vilma and hopefully they've tweaked their offense, which was exposed a bit last season.
12. Jacksonville Jaguars — Put this team in the NFC South, 13-3, division title, no question, but they've been in the shadow of the Colts for quite some time, which makes it a much more difficult playoff race for them.
13. Minnesota Vikings — Can you name the Vikings' Quarterback? Adrian Peterson better make up for that.
14. Arizona Cardinals — This is the year. Can you feel it? I can. I'm serious. Guys! This is it, this is the year, I know it!
15. Green Bay Packers — It must be pretty depressing as a Green Bay fan to realize you have 20 more years before another QB legend comes in for you to worship. Although I seriously like their running game, which could help get them the division in a weak race.
16. Tennessee Titans — As long as Vince Young doesn't have his pass attempts reach double digits, the Titans could win at least seven games.
17. Buffalo Bills — In a Sports Illustrated poll taken two years ago of more than 350 current NFL players, they asked the question, "Which coach has the best offensive mind, and which coach has the best defensive mind?" Dick Jauron was one of two coaches who got absolutely no votes. That probably hurt his feelings. Along with last year's Monday night game against the Cowboys and an 8-8 finish, it was a pretty frustrating year. But if the Super Bowl hangover curse does happen to the Pats, expect the Bills to step up and take the division.
18. New York Jets — As long as Brett Favre just has some fun out there, the Jets might — Never mind, all that matters is that Favre has some fun and plays the game as it's meant to be played. Hopefully Madden or Kornheiser will elaborate on this.
19. Tampa Bay Buccaneers — This is the down year in their recent up and down seasons.
20. Washington Redskins — Jason Campbell could play every game, go undefeated and still not make the Super Bowl. He is from Auburn, after all.
21. Denver Broncos — They will pick up a guy off the street, and he will run for 1,000 yards.
22. Chicago Bears — The only return Hester won't make is to the Super Bowl, or the playoffs, or maybe even the top half of the division until they get a decent QB.
23. Baltimore Ravens — If the coach's last name weren't Harbaugh, I'd say 2-14 season.
24. Oakland Raiders — Just be slightly less than mediocre, baby. Who knows, with a great running game, they might surprise some people.
25. Kansas City Chiefs — Maybe they should bottle up some tears from Dick Vermeil and save them for this season, 'cause they obviously worked while he was coaching.
26. Cincinnati Bengals — A QB's greatest asset is his sense of smell, and Palmer's broken nose is a huge blow to Cincy. That and an extremely weak defense.
27. Carolina Panthers — Jake Delhomme can finally join other NFL greats who had Tommy John surgery, like Rob Johnson...and Craig Erickson...
28. Detroit Lions — Good News — Matt Millen is still there. Bad News — He still doesn't realize that he's actually running an NFL team.
29. St. Louis Rams — "Greatest Show on Turf"? More like Greatest...Low...on...shut up.
30. Miami Dolphins — They will lose games and Bill Parcells will be angry.
31. San Francisco 49ers — Mike Martz + Famed NFL Europe MVP J.T. O'Sullivan = a 3-13 record, or Super Bowl triumph like the '99 Rams. Maybe that's been Martz's coaching strategy all along, to intentionally be bad, in order to win. Hmmm...
32. Atlanta Falcons — The past three years, the team that finished last in the NFC South won it the next year. But then again, the past three years the Falcons have sucked, so who knows what to believe?
It's in the Stars
Okay, that seems like a reasonable-enough prediction for the upcoming NFL season. But when it comes to real predicting, the only place to look is to the stars.
As in astrology. As in we don't believe a word of it, but there are people who do. Sure, maybe only 2 percent of the people who do would recognize a 3-4 defense, but the inability to read defenses hasn't kept Vince Young from making millions.
We turned to noted Houston astrologer Figgy Jones. We chose not to ask her to recognize a 3-4 defense, but instead we gave her the birth dates, birthplaces and some relevant facts for key Texans and let her read the stars.
In reply, we got a lot of mumbo jumbo. But it's scientific mumbo jumbo, according to Jones.
Here's her take:
Because wide receiver Andre Johnson was born so close in time to quarterback Matt Schaub — only 16 days apart — it's like double the blessing, double the headaches. You may scoff at the notion that either played for the team in a previous life, but both share the same Destiny Point, which has two parts to it: 1) Where you've come from, and 2) Where you're going. Theirs are exact, which is an example of how our souls travel in packs.
(Our comment: Seeing as how the Texans are five years old, we in fact will scoff at the notion that Schaub and Johnson played for them in a previous life. But that's just us.)
(Jones rebuts: You think the Texans don't have a past life, too? Because their track record so far just screams a team working off a karmic debt.)
The Texans, as an entity born in October 1999, tend to put both Schaub and Johnson on a pedestal. That's in terms of where they are going and where they "came from." We don't mean Pittsburgh and Miami, respectively; we mean their past lives. Both have to live up to their destiny to be the star, to shine.
Both players share the same vulnerabilities, with a deep astrological wound regarding their physical robustness. Sudden change triggers hurt feelings for both of them, but Schaub will respond by arguing, or by storming off to be alone. Johnson, however, will mind-fuck his opponent to death.
It seems, by the way, that head coach Gary Kubiak values Johnson as a person or player a tiny bit more than he does Schaub.
(Our comment: Johnson's All-Pro appearances — two; Schaub's — zero.)
Linebacker DeMeco Ryans is a little new-moon baby, but I'm jus' sayin': No matter what the impact of the August 1 eclipse this year — when it hit his moon and sun — you don't want to mess with him. EVER. He could easily work Black Ops for the Cheney White House if he weren't so busy being Rookie of the Year and stuff.
I can totally see Kubiak as the genius puppetmaster and Ryans kickin' butt. Ryans can execute what Kubiak masterminds, and isn't that what the game's about?
(Our comment: We chose not to complicate things by mentioning Kubiak mostly just coaches the offense. So sue us.)
(Jones rebuts: So put Kubiak in charge of Ryans!!)
(We rebut: Brilliant! Except for the fact it makes no sense.)
Speaking of eclipses, our head coach got zapped by the lunar eclipse August 16, the day after his birthday. While Kubiak's got a great ability to weave lightning-bolt intuition into his thought processes and seamlessly make changes, that just got amped up tenfold, my friends. His way of processing intuitive thinking and his very destiny was spurred by that eclipse.
Mark my words: Kubiak's made incremental progress Texanswise so far, but he's not gonna take the snail's pace anymore.
I for one will start following the games!
(Our comment: So, ummmm, the Texans are going to be good? And if not, Matt Schaub will sulk? Sounds about right. And if we had to guess, we'd estimate the over/under on how long Jones will be "following the games" at: Halfway through the first quarter of the second game, just after she realizes she hadn't even noticed the season opener.)
(Jones rebuts: Well, I got interested in their souls for a bit. But now I'm looking at Russia 'n' stuff. And don't forget: Don't fuck with DeMeco.)
It Won't Totally Suck This Year
Our next expert is Lance Zierlein, fantasy-football expert and co-host of the morning-drive show on 1560 AM, The Game (a.k.a. "The Station Most Everyone Thought Would Be Defunct By Now").
Zierlein, ever the rabid optimist when he's not being a pessimist, gives his Top Five Reasons Why It Won't Totally Suck to Be a Texans Fan This Year:
1. You have a chance to make money during Texans games thanks to the "Guess when Ahman Green goes out with an injury" pool.
2. Perennially closed roof means that you are safe from those pesky 60-degree outdoor games in December.
3. Piped-in fan support through the speakers and empty seats — OUT. Actually cheering throughout the game and fans showing up only reasonably late — IN!
4. Texans kicker/punter combination (Kris Brown and Matt Turk) could kick the asses off of any kicker/punter combination in the AFC South, if it ever jumps off.
5. This is the year Vince Young and the Tennessee Titans get what is coming to them from Mario Williams and the Houston Texans.
On the One Hand...
Our final expert is Charlie Pallilo from 790 AM, The Sports Animal (Why don't they ever call these stations "The Sports Salon" or "The Tea Room"?).
He has three reasons to be optimistic about the Texans this year, and three reasons to maybe not be so optimistic about the Texans this year.
On the plus side:
1. Last year they were second-worst in the NFL in turnover ratio. Managed 8-8 despite that. Even a middle-of-the-pack finish in TOs this year would augur well.
2. Their best player (Andre Johnson) missed seven games last season and they still had their best offense to date (perhaps analogous to being the best Saudi Arabian snow skier to date, but take what you can get).
3. The Texans have never before had an assistant coach considered elite within the profession. Maybe offensive-line coach Alex Gibbs can make a notable difference.
And, on the not-so-plus side:
1. They will likely be underdogs in four of their first five games. If they are 1-4, they are out of the playoff picture before Halloween.
2. They finished last in their division last season, and unless Rosevelt Colvin delivers, they added zero substantial free agents.
3. Their running-back game stunk last season, and they go in this season with one of the weakest RB collections in the league.
A Summary...and a Prediction!
Our teenage expert calls them a Top Ten team; our astrological expert says Kubiak will be a freaking genius all year long; our radio guys are slightly on the fence.
What happened to those glorious days of old, when you could just confidently declare the Texans were going to suck each year and be proven correct? It was so much easier to look like a rocket scientist then.
You had Carr at qusarterback, you had Casserly at GM, you had Dom Capers as head coach, a man who thought going for an extra point after a (very rare) touchdown was "too much offense." It wasn't too difficult to predict gloom and doom and sound like you knew what you were talking about.
Now, there's all this stuff like expectations and possibly a winning season. It's enough to make your head spin.
Nevertheless, we will make the following predictions about 2008 in Houston:
1. Andre Johnson will get hurt. When he's not hurt, he will be terrific.
2. The offensive line will still fail at such basic tasks as, say, consistently blocking the opponent.
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3. The Texans will go...wait for it...9-7. Playoff fever will grip Houston in the final weeks of the season! And then quickly dissipate.
4. Next April, the Texans will use their first draft pick on a defensive lineman, for the 287th time.
6. The sun will rise in the east. Christmas will be on December 25. And Dallas Cowboy fans will remain obnoxious.