The eyes of Texans owner Bob McNair were upon him, and at that tenuous, franchise-defining moment, Rick Smith was probably grateful that looks couldn't kill.
Up in the visiting owners' box at Paul Brown Stadium last Sunday afternoon, Houston's sixth-year general manager had attempted to break the tension as the final moments of the Texans' pivotal game against the Bengals played out. With 12 seconds left on the scoreboard and a timeout called, McNair's team was staring at a first-and-goal, 6 yards away from a touchdown that could end a decade's worth of frustration – and the owner and his wife, Janice, were too nervous to speak.
Smith, sitting a row in front of the McNairs, looked back and exclaimed, "You guys have to admit, this is fun!"
At that point, Smith got a double dose of Stare McNair. Nobody in the box so much as managed a smile.
"Nope," Smith recalled Sunday night. "Of course they didn't! [Bob McNair] was cool. I was really talking to Janice, trying to give her some comfort. They have put so much into this and deserve to win."
People are supposed to say nice things about their bosses, but in this particular case, Smith spoke the truth. When unheralded rookie T.J. Yates threw a touchdown pass to Kevin Walter with two seconds remaining and Neil Rackers converted the extra point for a 20-19 victory, the McNairs' heartfelt hugfest resonated with numerous people throughout the NFL.
A few minutes later, the Titans' dramatic comeback effort against the Saints fell short, setting off an even wilder celebration in the visitors' locker room in Cincinnati: Houston (10-3) had clinched its first AFC South title and postseason appearance, validating the efforts of an owner who has consistently done things the right way.
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Since entering the league in 2002, McNair has aggressively worked to build a consistent winner without being overbearing or meddlesome. He has run a first-class operation, supported his employees and spent large amounts of cash for the cause. At the league level, he is regarded as an unselfish problem-solver who cares about the NFL as an entity as well as what's best for the Texans.
Though he didn't get the on-field success he sought, McNair refrained from taking shortcuts or deviating from the plan. Most recently, he resisted outside pressure to part ways with Smith and coach Gary Kubiak after a disappointing 2010 campaign, in what proved to be one of the best non-moves of the offseason.
[ Playoff picture: Current AFC/NFC playoff seeds ]
I'm not sure whether the Texans will earn home-field advantage throughout the playoffs or a first-round bye, but the mere fact that they'll host at least one playoff game at Reliant Stadium is a glorious moment for the organization and its fan base. And though Houston has been ravaged by injuries to key players and is down to its third-string quarterback, there could be some gravy in the works, too. The Texans are much better than people realize, with a deceptively good defense, a punishing running attack and perhaps football's best offensive line.
Smith has been telling me how good his team is for about a month now, and as Sunday's heart-stopping comeback played out, he reminded his bosses to take pleasure in the solid state of the franchise.
"I was just telling them to enjoy what was happening," Smith recalls, "because it is special."
And though I am fond of saying that I have 32 babies and love them equally, I was especially proud of the Texans on Sunday and have no qualms about putting them in the upper quadrant of this week's query-filled trip down the NFL pecking order:
Greg Jennings was carted off during Sunday's win.
Tim Tebow's Broncos have won six straight games.
12. Dallas Cowboys: Should Miles Austin emulate fired coaches Tony Sparano and Mike Singletary – and improve his prospects of catching game-clinching passes – by wearing shades during indoor and night games?
[ Fantasy advice: RB Felix Jones atoning for his sins ]
Andy Dalton has been sacked four times and thrown just 2 TD passes the past 2 weeks.
18. Arizona Cardinals: How ridiculously good is Larry Fitzgerald, and has anyone in NFL history (R.C. Owens? Lance Alworth?) ever been better at going up and getting the ball while maintaining body control?
20. San Diego Chargers: Could the Chargers save the jobs of A.J. Smith and Norv Turner by winning out – and, if so, how many San Diego fans will be rooting for them to lose out?
[ Video: Is Norv Turner next on firing line? ]
Steve Smith's Panthers were up 23-7 before falling to the Falcons.
26. Kansas City Chiefs: Which general manager was more jubilant during Sunday's blowout defeat to the Jets – Mike Tannenbaum or Scott Pioli?
[ Related: Todd Haley's firing reflects poorly on GM ]
28. Jacksonville Jaguars: When they put up 41 points in the final three quarters against the Bucs last Sunday, did they use up their allotment for the rest of the season?
29. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Does Raheem Morris realize that his bosses' last names begin with a 'G' or is he saying he only cares about criticism from people like profootballtalk.com's Gregg Rosenthal and former California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman?
Joe Webb scored a TD and threw one in relief Sunday.
31. St. Louis Rams: Given that the Rams' offense, as St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz put it so adroitly, has gone from the Greatest Show on Turf to the Great Depression, how can Josh McDaniels be mentioned with a straight face as a Chiefs head coaching candidate?
32. Indianapolis Colts: After team president Bill Polian declared that the team "was getting ready to draft" Yates before the Texans picked him last April, did former Indy coach Jim Mora bust out his classic "coulda, woulda, shoulda" speech?
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