When the devil farts, a weasel comes out.
Blissfully, this particular weasel was absent from the opening episode of 2015’s Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Houston Texans. It’s a show that every football diehard looks forward to because they almost always do a great job of giving you the feeling that you’re really behind the curtain. It’s also the unofficial start of the football season, a moment which is not the “Hall of Fame Game” where backup players blow saltwater taffy kisses at each other in front of seventeen live fans.
So. The Texans.
Let’s get right down to it. Because even when the name of a team is obscure and/or outdated, like, say, the ‘Steelers’ or the ‘Packers’, most fans have a visceral understanding of what that team name means. People outside of Baltimore generally understand the Steelers to be a tough, blue collar team with a workmanlike attitude. They have a reputation for great defense, though that’s slipped lately. They have a legacy of power running games, though they’re more of a pass-first offense these days. The Packers have a history of outstanding quarterback play. In fact,with the exception of a few injury plagued games, the Packers have had either Aaaron Rodgers or Brett Favre under center for every game since 1992. That’s unbelieveable. Add to that a dominating legacy of promotion from within, coaching and team first/no distractions philosophy and you have one of the outstanding reputations in the NFL.
But, again, what the hell is a Texan?
In the real world, this name has very different connotations. Inside the Lone Star state it’s a point of pride and a badge of honor. It means a certain connection to a certain cherished identity. The luck of having been born in the greatest state in the union. It’s the unofficial home state of the cowboy, even though there are still cowboys in other places like Montana and Wyoming. It’s the unofficial home of gun culture. Of a certain kill or be killed no bullshit mentality and an insular, my-tribe mentality not seen since the isolationist period of China. It’s a badge of honor. Don’t mess with Texas.
Outside of Texas, being a ‘Texan’ can be a punchline. Culture-free yokels who teach science out of the Bible and view life from the tattered, kool-ade stained sofa of ignorance. What state in their right mind would elect Dubya and Rick Perry? The same state that elected Ann Richards.
For every punchline Texas offers the world, it rebounds with a defense of exactly the opposite. Texas is unique and notable and has almost always been part of the national conversation in one way or another. Sometimes, when you’re in the spotlight for a long time, people want to believe the worst, whether the facts bear that out or not. Who knows why? Sometimes it’s fun to poke a bear. And sometimes, the bear pokes back.
The truth is that Texas is huge and there’s room for just about everything you can imagine inside its borders. Texas is a wonder, and a titan in the world of American politics and cultural identity. You could be the most pretentious left-wing pinko ever and if I drop you in the center of Houston you’ll scoff yourself to death.
But if I helo-lift you out of there and deposit you in Austin during the South by Southwest festival your jaw will drop. Culture! Music! Art! Film! Television! Performance art! Street performers! You’ll be up to your neck in Crusty Jugglers!
In short, Texas has just about everything. It’s a complicated and interesting moniker to be labeled a Texan.
But what does that mean in the world of football? Basically, the biggest shoulder shrug in the league. A team Colts fans have long adored for being divisional chum. A team that has no real identity, despite having the best defensive player on the modern era as its centerpiece. A team that boasts an all-time record of 96-126. Guh. And two, count ‘em two, playoff wins, in 2011 and 2012, both in the wildcard round and both against the equally tough-to-get-behind Cincinnati Bengals. In fact, the Texans were so psyched about the playoffs in 2012, that they all ordered letterman jackets, the kind high school kids get. Then they got absolutely curb-stomped in the divisional round.
The lasting impression the Texans have left is one of a second rate franchise. No real notable wins. No real heroes, except possibly for Andre Johnson…
…who was so in love with Houston that he jumped over to their blood rival the first chance he got.
If you’re not a Texans fan that photo probably won’t bother you, but to a Texans fan, that photo causes actual, physical pain. What does that one move even say? How could your one hero join the enemy? The Texans have one real enemy and that’s the Indianapolis Colts and Andre Johnson will be wearing their colors this year. How is that not the most insulting thing ever? How is that not a reflection on the franchise? Who the hell are the Texans, anyway, where this shit happens? Let’s just go over some stats…uhhhh…let’s see….their all time passing leader is Matt Schaub. Yawn break!
And let’s see, their all time leading rusher is Arian Foster, who is likely out for the season after pulling his groin off the bone in practice.
I’ll take ‘Evil GIF’ for 100, please, Alex.
So who the hell are these guys? It’s like they don’t matter. Which is why it was unbelievably refreshing to see Texans head coach Bill O’Brien call it like it is in the very opening moments of Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Houston Texans. Here’s the very opening speech he gives to his staff:
“Let’s be honest with each other. This place has no respect in the league. Just so you guys are all aware of that. This organization is 96-126. Thirty games below .500. Turn your TV on. Nobody talks about the Houston Texans, because no one thinks we’re gonna win. And the disrespect that they show our quarterbacks? I’m tired of that, too. Because both those kids can play. They just need a chance and one of them is gonna get it. Alright? Enough is enough.”
Ah! Straight talk! I love it. I mean, the last part about the quarterbacks was a bit of a pipe dream, but he’s the head coach. He’s just Karl Roving it. If you say something with enough forcefulness and pretend to believe it, people will start to believe! Until the games begin anyway.
Because, as much as I like Bill O’Brien, and as badly as I feel for him for probably being shot in the chin with an air rifle when he was a kid, you can’t get very far without a decent quarterback. And he’s choosing between Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett. Here’s Hoyer:
And here’s Mallett:
Honestly, I like both of these guys. They’re both basically career backups, but they’re mid-level players. Hoyer has shown actual flashes of being something better than that, and has a quick release. He just has kind of a gimpy arm and there’s something about his super-understated personality that doesn’t inspire confidence. Mallett has an absolute howitzer for an arm but questionable decision making and possibly an absence of touch.
Here’s Coach O’Brien watching film of one of the dumbest interception throws by Mallett. Throwing late across the field. It’s like page one of the quarterback handbook, but somehow Mallett hasn’t learned that yet.
“What a stupid throw!” O’Brien says.
And here’s Mallett reacting to the same footage. D’oh!
I’m not sure Mallett has the ingredients to succeed at the NFL level, but I’ve been wrong before. For me this is basically already Brian Hoyer’s team.
That being said, if anyone can wring a game-manager level performance from either of these guys it’s Bill O’Brien. He’s in his second year at the Texans, fresh off of turning around the disgraced Penn State football program.
With their best offensive player on the Colts roster and their second best offensive player on a gurney somewhere, they’ll turn to dynamo receiver DeAndre Hopkins to carry the load. And he’s legitimately awesome.
They’ll also hope that their first round draft pick from last season will finally be healthy enough to contribute.
Jadaveon Clowney was the concensus best player in college football for two or three years and the Texans selected him first overall in the 2014 draft. If you believe his press, and I tend to lean that way, he’s a once in a generation talent- a physical oddity that shouldn’t exist. Big men can’t be that fast, right? Right?
To date, he hasn’t helped the Texans at all. You see what he’s doing in that photo above? Sitting there and smiling? That’s all he did last year. What would the Texans be like with a once-in-a-generation defensive talent like that on the roster? Can you imagine? Fortunately, we already know.
J. J. Watt is the most dominant, fearsome player in the NFL. He has to be accounted for on every single play. He routinely embarrasses double-teams. He catches touchdowns on offense. He stays late after practice. He flips 1000lb tires over 65 times in a day.
And he takes an hour out of his day to make sure every kid gets an autograph, going so far as to apologize to a little girl who hugs him for being sweaty. That’s there girl there in the photo with the mustache.
He’s as affable off the field as he is calamitous on it.
So how will the Texans defensive line look with two once-in-a-lifetime talents exploding from both sides? Bill O’Brien made his bones on the offensive side of the ball, and yet he picked a defensive player with his first pick as an NFL head coach, and he has to be itching to get a return on that investment. If Clowney is even remotely in the ballpark of where he’s supposed to be, and there’s anything left in the tank of the newly signed prop Vince Wilfork, the Texans defense should be a force to be reckoned with.
If the defense is tight, Bill O’Brien won’t need his quarterbacks to command thirty points a game. Truly, the only real hope the Texans have of stopping Colts quarterback and true once-in-a-lifetime talent Andrew Luck is to keep him on his back.
Year after year, Hard Knocks on HBO has delivered great images from the portion of the world of football that few fans get to see. It shows us the living, breathing human quotient behind some of the less storied NFL franchises. It’s a show that appeals to football fans and non-fans alike, and it’s a show that, at least so far, has accurately predicted an NFL team that most certainly will not win a championship.
How the Texans season plays out will go a long way toward defining what the Bill O’Brien era will look like, and ultimately how the rest of us assign meaning to one of the most hard-to-define team names in the league.