Instead, most of us living outside the greater Houston area feel a kind of neutral respect for the team, despite their enviable narrative momentum: They’re plucky upstarts! Their quarterback lost part of his ear earlier this season after an illegal hit and is bizarrely thin! Somehow, still, the Texans do not have a great personality, despite the existence of J.J. Watt, and his ability to do this:
It’s partly the Cowboys’ fault. Sharing a state, even a big one, with a bunch of guys who cling to the nickname “America’s Team” means that the most obvious location-based role available—a spurs-wearing badass with baseless swagger—has already been snatched up. Which leaves them to play the underdog. It’s not a bad role, but it suits this 5-1 team badly. Underdogs do not start week six as one of two remaining undefeated teams in the NFL.
Or do they?
Both the easy divisional clinch in 2011 and their similarly impressive performance this year start to seem more dubious the closer you look at the teams they’ve played along the way. The AFC South hasn’t always been a weak division, but it certainly is now. The Texans’ three divisional rivals are all under .500 for the season (the Colts, at 2-3, are their closest competition). The division as a whole has one Super Bowl to its name. Two of the five teams the Texans beat in the opening weeks—the Dolphins and the Jaguars—had losing seasons last year; of the remaining three, only one did better than break even (the Titans, who finished 2011 at 9-7), and only one made the playoffs (the 8-8 Broncos, on a wing and Tim Tebow’s prayer).
After Sunday’s defeat at home to the Packers, the Texans, who are just a decade old and hadn’t had a winning season before 2011, are ripe for reevaluation. Did they suddenly get very good, or did everyone around them suddenly get very bad?
The answer is equivocal: It’s a little bit of both. It certainly helps the Texans’ chances that no quarterback in their own division is likely to throw for six touchdowns against them. But it’s also true that the Texans weren’t at full strength last Sunday; the usually dazzling cornerback Johnathan Joseph played through a groin injury, which perhaps explains how Jordy Nelson, who has had two under-30-yard games this season, beat him on three TDs. And Watt did manage to break through the creaky Green Bay offensive line for two sacks.
What seems definitely true is that the Texans are more Texan—which is to say American; Bob Ryan was more right than he imagined when he coined the Cowboys’ nickname—than you might at first assume. Their history is brief enough that their dominance is both confusing and worthy of grudging praise. They beat up on weaker opponents. They have no traditions, so they create inexplicable new ones: For his first playoff game, Foster shaved the team’s logo into his hair. In the pioneer tradition, they settled in a faraway land about which reports were decidedly mixed—Houston’s previous team, the Oilers, abandoned the city for Tennessee in part because of a lack of fan enthusiasm; during their last season, they played in front of crowds of less than 20,000, crowds so quiet it was possible to hear on-field conversations in the bleachers—and made it the place everyone wanted to be. Tickets were going for up to $1,350 on Stubhub before the game, and the announced attendance, 71,702, was a regular season record. And just maybe, like America, they’re secret underdogs: all superficial success hiding a rotten core.
The Texans—along with their fans—have also, of late, been doing some of the cocky posturing usually associated with that other Texas football team. In a live chat on SB Nation’s Battle Red Blog, one writer, disappointed with how the game was going, piped in to comment, “I forgot what if feels like to not immediately annihilate your opponent. I don’t like playing good teams.”
And on the field, Watt, who may indeed be permanently transforming the role of the defensive lineman but still needs to learn some manners, mimed tossing Aaron Rodgers’ championship belt aside after each of his sacks:
The fact that the Texans were down by at least a touchdown both times makes the whole business even more unattractive—though I do think Aaron Rodgers is due some karmic comeuppance for those awful State Farm “Discount Double Check” commercials.
America is OK with a certain amount of swagger, but only on a winner, as Rex Ryan for one well knows. If the Texans want to be America’s team, beloved by their country and not just a reflection of some of its primal impulses, they’re going to have to keep winning—hopefully by forcibly injecting some charisma into the pointy-headed Matt Schaub; even bland-as-dry-toast Alex Smith has a genuinely unhinged coach and years of failure to endear him to us. Because Watt’s finger-wag aside, statistics have proven that defenses don’t win Super Bowls.
I’m rooting for Connor Barwin to become a folk hero, though first he needs to learn to stop leaping onto his teammates’ backs in a futile attempt to block a field goal. That move, while an admirable display of American ingenuity—making showy, costly mistakes is another thing that the Texans have in common with this country—is also illegal.