New Team New Dream
Houston Texans set to kick off inaugural NFL season
by Kenny Hand
In Houston’s first dance with professional football, K.S. (Bud) Adams ponied up $25,000 for the rights to buy one of eight teams in the new American Football League. It has cost Bob McNair $699,975,000 more for the right to cut in and join the exclusive NFL fraternity of the new century. That’s a bit more than a cost of living increase in 42 years.
Adams’ first two entries in 1960 and 1961 won league championships and would have made it a three-peat in 1962 if not for a team named, interestingly enough, the Texans. The Dallas Texans, owned by Lamar Hunt, beat Adams’ Oilers 20-17 in two overtimes. McNair’s $700 million Houston Texans won’t win the next two Super Bowls, or he’ll be recognized as the smartest and luckiest man who ever lived.
McNair’s team, however, may reverse the path that Adams took. Other than Bum Phillips’ brief but glorious “Luv Ya Blue” era that included two American Football Conference championship games in the late 70s and Jerry Glanville’s helmet-rattling but eventually disappointing 1987-89 playoff run, the Oilers after the 1970 AFL-NFL merger were known mostly for losing an unprecedented 32-point post-season lead in Buffalo and for leaving town. McNair’s Texans should start slowly by the 1960-61 Oiler comparison, due to the difference in the modern-day NFL and parity. But the Texans should be far from a first-year expansion joke and should enjoy remarkable staying power.
“I see no reason why they can’t be real competitive right off the bat,” Phillips said during an early May trip to Houston. “They’ve got a great owner, a great front office, some good players, and they’re building things the right way. I’m already a big Texans fan.”
McNair already has a leg up on Adams in the category of perception. McNair has persistance, power, persuasiveness and no paucity of pennies. Adams was called “Bottom Line Bud” for the notion that he hoarded every nickel. He also changed coaches sometimes on a whim – Pop Ivy or Sammy Baugh one day, someone named Bones Taylor the next. Ed Hughes. Bill Peterson, master of the malaprop. Chuck Studley. Hugh Campbell. What a revolving door of coaches in the powder blue house of errors. Adams sounds and even looks a little like Edgar Buchanan, the former actor. In 37 years in Houston, the Oilers won only 46 percent of their games (251-291-6), yet Adams fired 1960 AFL Coach of the Year Lou Rymkus (11-7-1) after the franchise’s first 19 games. Edgar Buchanan probably wouldn’t have gone through as many coaches.
McNair, a South Carolina native in love with horse racing, doesn’t yet have a nickname. But it’s not “Cheapskate.” The feeling to date, real or imagined, is that if it’s relative to critical business, McNair might send a limousine just so you can join him for brunch.
In the Oilers’ first year, they played at a dreary, downtrodden Jeppesen Stadium near the University of Houston campus. You wouldn’t recognize it now, revamped and renamed Robertson Stadium, sculpted especially for the Houston Cougars. Back then, though, even with Adams agreeing to finance the Jeppesen expansion to 36,000 seats, it was cramped, uncomfortable and smelly. The prices were right, though. You could buy a season ticket package for $31.50. That’s 31 dollars and 50 cents. For all the home games, no PSL (personal seat license) was required.
And the Oilers in the early years had some rather unique training camp follies. The first-year sites, plural, were Buff Stadium – the minor league baseball park – and a hard vacant lot by the UH campus. There was no air conditioning, cockroaches galore and, of course, mosquitos larger than Lufkin.
The next year, they moved to Hawaii. Talk about landscape swings. But in 1962, they were back here, training at Ellington Air Force Base outside Houston, on a shrapnel field. The following year, they moved to Colorado Springs, which sounded like a neat idea, but Colorado was going through its worst drought in 36 years. No fresh water meant the practice field was irrigated with sewer water. Scratches became infected. Nice camp.
On to 2002. The Texans’ $9 million, 17-acre training facility off Kirby is state-of-the-art, the envy of the 31 other lodge brothers. The field house is fit for River Oaks. It’s a 4,500-square-foot gem that includes a small locker room, training room, emergency medical area, four offices and one conference room, just in case Texans executives want to convene and gloat over these advantages to the previous owner’s digs. Oh, and there are three outdoor fields and an air-supported indoor field, believed to be the largest of its kind in North America, plus a 4,000-square-foot maintenance facility. None of the aforementioned practice fields, to our knowledge, is irrigated with sewer water.
The larger locker room, weight room and rehab facilities are across Kirby at the 69,500-seat Reliant Stadium, site of the 2004 Super Bowl. Reliant is, in fact, the only retractable-roof yard in the NFL. “Spectacular,” said NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue upon inspecting it this spring, when NFL owners and general managers gathered in Houston. “I saw the concept and heard the plan when they were just a gleam in Bob’s eye, and I knew this place was going to be something special. I’m so impressed.”
Jerry Jones, the Cowboys owner, said he wished he could haul the Texans’ stadium back to Irving, where the hole in the Texas Stadium roof is archaic and looks dumber by the decade. Adams, too, has been bowled over by Reliant’s world-class looks. His Tennessee Titans play in Houston this season as part of the new AFC South, and, since he still makes Houston his home, Adams won’t have to travel far for that trip. Also, he bought 12 season tickets (plus PSLs) to the Texans games, 20-yard line, eight rows up.
Unlike Adams, McNair seems to exhibit more stability and pure common sense. Everything he’s done has a long-range plan attached. He chose, for instance, one of football’s top general managers, Charley Casserly, who picked a defensive-minded coach in Dom Capers, a believer in the 3-4 defense and ball-possession offense.
Adams kick-started the Oilers with George Blanda, a quarterback-place kicker in his early 30s who’d been dumped on in Chicago by Bears owner-coach George Halas. McNair, conversely, is counting sooner rather than later on rookie gunslinger David Carr, who led the nation in passing yards (4,839) and touchdowns (46) last season and completed almost 63 percent of his career passes at Fresno State. Blanda grew to dislike the way Adams conducted business with the Oilers. Carr already has to love McNair for making him the No. 1 pick in the draft and signing him for a small fortune.
The Oilers’ first-ever college choice in 1960 was Billy Cannon, everybody’s All-American running back from LSU. In fact, with the Los Angeles Rams in the NFL thinking they had him under contract, Adams flat stole Billy away from a familiar name, then-Rams GM Pete Rozelle, who would eventually become NFL commish. Adams’ lawyer signed Cannon under the goal posts in New Orleans at the Sugar Bowl. It was a great lick for the Oilers and put them and the AFL on the map.
Carr won’t be handing off to a Heisman Trophy winner like Cannon – veteran James Allen is the best-known Carr teammate in the backfield coming from the expansion draft. But Carr has a cannon for an arm and could have a Cannon-like impact on the fans, who’ll surely agree to a two- or three-year honeymoon with the Texans. Casserly loaded up with an experienced offensive line in the expansion pool and came out with the likes of Tony Boselli; Steve McKinney, the former Texas Aggie; and Ryan Young, an ex-New York Jet. The college draft yielded the likes of Florida wideout Jabar Gaffney to pair with Carr.
The Texans put an emphasis on special teams and the kick return speed that Jermaine Lewis, formerly of the Super Bowl champ Baltimore Ravens, represents. They’re hoping Kris Brown’s field goal accuracy is better than it was last year in Pittsburgh, but they like his leg. They don’t have a true pass-rushing stud, but the tackles and ends are interchangeable in the 3-4 scheme. They’re not loaded with greatness at safety, but expansion additions Aaron Glenn and Marcus Coleman should be quite steady at cornerback. Jamie Sharper and Kailee Wong are talented veteran linebackers.
The point at which Carr is declared the starter is a key issue. You don’t want to get him killed, particularly if left tackle Boselli – who is trying to recover from shoulder surgery – is reinjured or doesn’t come around fully and Carr’s blind side is exposed. McNair’s quandary is this: He paid David Carr a ton of money to be the franchise quarterback, $46 million over seven years plus another possible $14 million in incentives, so Carr must produce results. But when? If Carr gets whacked around physically and affected mentally because he’s thrown to the wolves prematurely, that’s not being shrewd with your investment. Veteran Kent Graham is around to take the early bullets, if necessary.
But these are good problems to have: debates on personnel, when to leave the roof open or closed, what type of mustard you like on your dogs, how much parking costs, when Carr should start. The old Jeppesen season ticket package of $31.50 might barely cover food and drink for a family of four at a Texans game. But one thing hasn’t changed. On Dec. 29, Adams’ Titans visit, so he will have to worry about another team named the Texans beating his transplanted Oilers again.
Even if McNair’s Texans lose that one, I’ll call the season 5-11, allowing for the predictable assortment of embryonic downers: injuries, inconsistencies and interceptions. Defensive end Gary Walker, a former Oiler, for instance, had to have groin and hernia surgery in late May. But there always will be a pleasant surprise or two to offset the injuries. The nucleus of players is exceptional for a first-year club, uniforms look manly and there’s a roof over your head in case of an advancing monsoon.
The blocks of granite – McNair, Casserly and Capers – are in place for a marvelous future.
The NFL has returned. Houston, you have a team, not a problem.