Beyond The Boxscore
Texans need more than a sign change: Houston must learn the lessons of DonovanMcNabb & Tony Romo
The clock on the locker-room wall read 3:49 in red numbers when the sign for the San Diego Chargers started coming down. By 3:51, a two-man Houston Texans' operations ladder crew had replaced the Chargers sign with one for the Jacksonville Jaguars — the Texans' next opponent.
The Jaguars helmet logo stood bold against the board. The type simply read 11-14-10 (the date of the game) and "One Focus."
If only getting over a crushing loss in the NFL was as easy as changing the sign. For even as the Texans' support staff did its focus flip, Andre Johnson, prepared to deal with the messy details of a 29-23 comebacks-failed L to the San Diego Chargers. Being the greatest Texan ever doesn't make you immune from the pain. In fact, it only magnifies it.
Johnson's been around long enough to know just how quickly everything can flip right on top of you in the NFL — and crush your dreams.
One moment, you're 4-2, one of the hot stories in the league, both feel good and actually good, on the type of roll that you start to believe can only end in a Super Bowl. Then, seemingly in a flash, you're 4-4 — just one of 17 teams in the NFL that sit at .500 or worse. Nothing special, nothing to see.
The ESPNs and national pre-game shows will be moving on from Reliant Stadium, looking elsewhere for their breakout, crossover stories. No wonder why the Texans locker room was mostly marked by silence in the aftermath of Sunday. By quiet, calm ... disbelief. This isn't a team that's angry as much as one that's stunned.
Even after Philip Rivers stopped throwing touchdown passes over the Texans' heads — doing exactly what he told everyone he'd do to Houston all week — Johnson and company still remained convinced they'd pull off the win. That's what they do, they kept telling themselves as the offense took the field with not one, but two chances, down 29-23.
No matter the flaws, they find a way to get that W. Just ask Washington. Or Kansas City. Or Oakland.
"There was never any doubt in the huddle," James Casey, the second-year tight end from Rice, said. "We all were sure we were going to win that game. We kept telling each other, we'd done it before. We'll do it again."
Only, the coach called for a surprise sneak from quarterback Matt Schaub on fourth-and-one to end one drive and the ball bounced out of Johnson's sure hands and off his knee to kill the last drive. And they didn't. Do it.
Your identity only last as long as your last win in the NFL. Just ask Donovan McNabb, out-of-shape benchwarmer. Or Tony Romo, Jon Kitna's "guru."
Two chances in the last five minutes for the Texans offense to yank away another opponent's win. But there's no stolen W next to Houston's name. The Texans aren't the cardiac comeback comers anymore. So where does that leave them?
Not anywhere they expected to be.
"You are your record," Casey said. "We're 4-4. We're a mediocre team. The fans and the media should be on us. We're not very good right now."
In fact, Houston holds the same record as the Jacksonville Jaguars, its next opponent, a team that was given only a slightly better chance of finding a way to get into the NFL playoffs than Sam Houston State going into this season. If that doesn't chill everyone involved with the Texans, nothing will.
Everyone deals with the flip over in their own way.
Kevin Walter wordlessly flips a backpack over his shoulder and disappears from the locker room, as noticed as he was during the game (zero catches). Casey agrees to a Sunday night TV appearance with little negotiation required (how producers must wish that more NFL players were kept football humble by Rice). Arian Foster, the tailback who keeps raising his own profile with every dominant game (and this one was 197 total yards of difference making), insists on making sure that his pink sweater covers his purple shirt with the spotted tie knotted just right before talking, drawing at least four comments of "GQ splendor" or "GQ style" from guys who think forced chit chat will result in a better interview.
Foster lets loose a "I tend not to second guess play calls, I don't get paid to call plays" when asked about Kubiak going with Schaub on the surprise sneak rather than his 6-foot-1, 227-pound self. The same self stuffed on an earlier fourth-and-one.
The Texans tailback also gets the gold star for breaking out the favorites of favorites, "We're still in control of our own destiny." Has anyone who's ever said that ever really believed it?
The Texans do usually get better as the season goes on under Kubiak. Believe it or not, the defense actually improved for the second straight game, almost played well enough to win, forcing two turnovers. The idea of the Texans drafting a cornerback who can't cover anyone in the first round being Kubiak's fault is one of those great NFL mysteries.
Speaking of Kareem Jackson. He may be the most standup overmatched man in professional sports history, something even Johnson noticed between trying to blame himself for the loss.
"It just shows you how he feels about the game," Johnson said of Jackson faulting himself (let's face it, rightly) for three passes going over his head that all resulted in huge plays. "I know what type of person Kareem is."
An overmatched standup player is still an overmatched player, though. Yet, even Jackson never doubted the Texans would win.
"More than two minutes left, Matt Schaub with the football," Jackson said. "I felt certain we'd pull it out. But then that ball got away from Andre ..."
And now, suddenly, the doubts are rushing in. Identities change so quick in the NFL. This is a league where freak plays have shattered team's entire seasons. Sure, the Texans could go on a run, but with trips to Rex Ryan's New York and Philadelphia, a home matchup with Baltimore and two games against Randy Moss and the Titans, it'd be easier to run a different direction.
"Ask me after we do it," tight end Joel Dreessen said when asked how the Texans can go on a spree of Ws. Dreessen grinned, pleased with his sound bite.
Change the sign. If only it were so easy.