Let's put our cards right out on the table — 2016 has been one huge, abysmal, depressing bucket of death. Everywhere, celebrities, PROMINENT ones, DYING. In sports, we had Muhammed Ali, Gordie Howe and Pat Summitt — arguably, the three best human beings at their chosen vocations — all die within what felt like five minutes of each other.
The music gods did a fine job of spreading their pall of the Grim Reaper over the entire calendar year, though, with Glenn Frey and Prince early in the year, and then running up the score with George Michael this week. (WHAM!)
Even Star Wars fans can't fully enjoy the release of Rogue One (the best movie in the saga since Empire Strikes Back) this holiday season because Carrie Fisher died yesterday! (Insert joke about "millions of voices crying out in terror" or her "making the most of her life after dodging the destruction of Alderaan.")
I know I am missing dozens of names that many of you probably wanted mentioned here, and that's precisely my point — there was so much celebrity death in the world in 2016 that I know I missed a few biggies. So along those lines, it's probably appropriate that when we go back and look at the top sports stories in Houston in 2016, even though the teams and programs were all on fairly solid footing, the stories were largely of black clouds and bad feelings. Most of them, at least.
So without further ado, here are one man's choices for the biggest sports stories in Houston in 2016...
10. DeAndre Hopkins holds out...for one day
Within the last couple of years, several prominent NFL wide receivers have gotten PAID, a handful of them to the tune of $14 million to $15 million per year. With two years left on his contract (including his team option for 2017), Texans WR DeAndre Hopkins wanted a piece of the action. So he decided to do what we've seen no Texans player do since Andre Johnson stayed away from OTAs for like three days back in 2009-ish — he held out at the beginning of training camp. Only problem was Hopkins was even more skittish than Andre with time on his hands. He ended his holdout after one day, making us all wonder why he'd even done it in the first place.
2017 IMPACT: With his stats back down to levels we haven't seen since his rookie year, Hopkins is entering a precarious offseason to get a long-term deal done, unless the team and the player have a handshake agreement that it will happen. Hopkins's numbers are down, in part because Brock Osweiler is his quarterback, but Hopkins has also been inconsistent. His contract status will be one of the three biggest stories this offseason for the Texans.
9. University of Houston beats Oklahoma in the Advocare Texas Kickoff
The University of Houston's football program was dealing with drama all season long on three fronts — on the field seeking a berth in the College Football Playoff, off the field seeking entry into the Big XII, and off the field trying to keep head coach Tom Herman in the fold. This convincing 33-23 win over the Oklahoma Sooners in the season opener, in the moment, felt like a massive step toward accomplishing all three.
2017 IMPACT: As it turned out, the Cougars would have one of the oddest regular seasons in recent memory, finishing 9-3 and becoming the only team in the country with two wins over Top 5 teams, but also finishing fourth in their DIVISION within the AAC. It turns out the Oklahoma win was just a fun day at the stadium, with zero impact on a playoff run. (More on the Big XII and Herman in a minute...)
8. The rise of Clowney
Through his first two seasons in the NFL, Jadeveon Clowney sustained a litany of injuries and had multiple surgeries, with the low point being his season-ending microfracture operation on a knee in his rookie year. In 2016, his fortunes swung completely around, as the third-year defensive end made his first Pro Bowl and, with J.J. Watt sidelined, was the Texans' best player by the end of the season.
2017 IMPACT: Clowney is likely going to get paid, if not this offseason, then certainly after the 2017 season. Meanwhile, the city of Houston will have an offseason dreaming about Clowney and Watt together in the same front seven next year.
7. Jose Altuve's MVP caliber season
The shortest professional athlete in Houston might have been the city's best in 2016. Astros second baseman Jose Altuve, already considered one of the best contact hitters in baseball, took his game to the next level in 2016, winning his second batting title (.338) while hitting a career-high 24 home runs. He finished third in the American League MVP voting, and at age 26, is on a hit total pace ahead of a litany of Hall of Famers at the same age.
2017 IMPACT: Altuve should be an Astro for a very long time, but with Scott Boras as his agent, it will be interesting to see how the team handles his contract. Altuve is on a ridiculously cheap deal that has three years and a total of $17 million remaining on it. The Astros SHOULD use this upcoming season to find some long-term common ground to get Altuve locked in and paid on a deal that works for both sides.
6. Big XII shuns the #HTownTakeover
After literally years of sprucing themselves up for the beauty contest, the University of Houston higher-ups were given the bad news this past fall — the Big XII would remain at ten schools. So after UH built a new stadium, spent more on a head football coach than any Group of Five school (and many Power Five schools), and won a ton of football games, it looks like it will be the AAC for Houston for the foreseeable future.
2017 IMPACT: While the Big XII will no longer be a distracting talking point for the UH football team, the dream of ending up there is also gone as part of the sales pitch to recruits.
5. Simone Biles's parade of gold
Early in 2016, J.J. Watt and Simone Biles were tweeting back and forth, each telling the other how awesome he/she is, as celebrity athletes will sometimes do. At one point, Watt conceded to Biles that she would be more famous than Watt come August. How right he was! Biles became the latest Olympian to become a global brand, bringing four gold medals and a bronze back home to Houston from Rio.
2017 IMPACT: Prepare for Biles overload — commercials, awards, red carpet events. All well deserved.
4. The rapid rebuild of the Houston Rockets
On the heels of a Western Conference Finals berth in 2014-2015, much was expected of the Houston Rockets in 2015-2016. In every way possible, they failed to come close to reaching those expectations, finishing 41-41, with a locker room in which the chemistry was broken in every conceivable way. However, after watching Dwight Howard leave in free agency, and after the team signed free agents Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, a rejuvenated James Harden has led the Rockets to a start that has Houston fans believing once again.
2017 IMPACT: The Rockets are one of six teams in the NBA right now that can conceivably say they have hope for a really deep postseason run, along with Golden State, San Antonio, the Clippers, Cleveland and Toronto.
3. The Tom Herman saga
When it fired Tony Levine after the 2014 season, the University of Houston needed someone who would not only win football games, but get people in the seats and build pride in the U of H brand. Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman was that guy. In going 22-4 over two seasons, Herman furthered his reputation as an offensive innovator and master salesman. Unfortunately, the speculation about where he would coach next would continually choke his team throughout his second season, until Herman finally pulled the trigger and accepted the University of Texas job in late November.
2017 IMPACT: Major Applewhite replaced Herman under a contract that will be significantly more difficult to break if Applewhite proves to be a good enough head coach for Power Five schools to take interest in.
2. J.J. Watt is mortal, has two back surgeries in two months
Through a range of seasons that peaked with multiple division titles and bottomed out at 2-14 in 2013, the one thing the Texans could always count on was number 99 lining up at defensive end. For 83 straight games, J.J. Watt answered the bell, even after back surgery in July of this year. However, it was in that last game, on a Thursday night against the New England Patriots, when Watt's back gave out again. After a second surgery, he was placed on injured reserve, finally allowing his body a true chance to heal.
2017 IMPACT: The Texans still managed to field one of the top defenses in the league in 2016, and with the continued growth of Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus, it's scary to think what the pass rush for this team will look like in 2017, assuming Watt returns at or near full health.
1. Brock Osweiler signs here...and fails
After two seasons and six different starting quarterbacks, everybody associated with the Houston Texans — fans, media, coaches, players, ownership — had seen enough. The team needed a franchise quarterback. With the cost to move up in the draft being prohibitive, in terms of the number of picks it would take to complete a trade, the Texans ponied up $37 million in guaranteed money for Denver Broncos backup QB Brock Osweiler. While the team has still managed to secure a second straight AFC South title, Osweiler individually has been the worst starting QB in the NFL — so bad that he's no longer the starter. For a franchise with some bad free agency signings, the Osweiler signing takes the cake.
2017 IMPACT: With a cap hit of $25 million if the Texans were to let him go, chances are Osweiler will be the highest-paid backup quarterback in the league next season, and will then be cut loose at the first possible opportunity after the 2017 season.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.
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