One year ago this weekend, the 11-1 Houston Texans donned custom-made letterman jackets for their trip to New England for "Monday Night Football." The attire was a show of solidarity and swagger – the Texans were bona fide Super Bowl contenders and they felt bonded and unbreakable. Even a cornerback picked up off the waiver wire that week got a jacket.
"Anything that represents the camaraderie of this team, guys are excited about," said linebacker Connor Barwin at the time, "and that's exactly what the jacket does."
Almost exactly a year later, the jackets represent something else entirely. Texans owner Bob McNair sat in front of the Texans' logo on Friday and announced the firing of head coach Gary Kubiak. McNair called the team's performance "unacceptable," and it's just as hard to argue that statement as it was to argue against the Texans' dominance a year ago. The team is 2-11 and has only four wins since the players boarded the plane for New England last December.
This is one of the mightiest collapses in recent NFL history, and the letterman jackets – despite their noble intentions – stand as a symbol of how fragile even the most-imposing teams can be.
It wasn't just the 27-20 loss on Thursday night to the undermanned Jacksonville Jaguars that was unacceptable to McNair. It was the way they lost. The Texans seemed unprepared and uninterested, dotting the field with mistakes and silly penalties. They played like, well, a high school team that just got off a yellow bus.
"We've got a lot better talent than Jacksonville," McNair said Friday, "and to have them beat us twice, that's to their credit. They played harder. They played smarter. That's not acceptable to us."
How good were the 11-1 Texans? They beat the eventual Super Bowl champion Ravens, 43-13. And the 2-11 Texans lost twice to a team with its most talented player on a year-long suspension (Justin Blackmon) and a backup quarterback (Chad Henne).
So many bad things have happened to the Texans between then and now, it's hard to keep track. The most upsetting moment came when Kubiak collapsed on the sideline and had to be rushed to a Houston hospital during a Sunday night game. But the slide began well before then. Quarterback Matt Schaub seemed to freeze up mentally early in the season, throwing pick-six after pick-six. (Houston's turnover differential is 31st in the league at minus-14.) Kubiak went with local favorite Case Keenum over T.J. Yates, but his inexperience showed soon after his talent did. He's done decently – well enough that McNair wants to see if he's capable of being the team's starter – but the headlines have been dominated by cringe-worthy quotes from disaffected players. The best player in franchise history, Andre Johnson, put it bluntly when he said, "we suck."
The defense has been just as bad, if not worse. The 11-1 Texans held opponents to 10 points or fewer five times. The 2-11 Texans have kept opponents to 10 points or fewer zero times, and have held opponents to 20 points or fewer only twice. There have been injuries, most notably to Brian Cushing and Danieal Manning, but it's hard to fathom how a team with J.J. Watt can be so easy to score on. Ed Reed, the Hall of Famer brought in to replace safety Glover Quin, was cut after complaining to reporters about the coaching.
The biggest mystery about this spiral is the breakdown within games. The Texans have been abysmal in the second half since the New England trip. This season, they have 950 rushing yards in the first half and 496 in the second half. Yes, that's in large part because they've been behind, but passer rating has dropped from 86.7 in the first half to 69.3 in the second. The Texans have only five passing touchdowns in the second half this season. Keenum has at times looked like a veteran early in games, only to look like a rookie at the end. It was Antonio "Ninja Assassin" Smith who said it all last week, when he suggested (in jest, he would later say) that the Patriots knew what the Texans were planning. Kubiak was supposed to be the offensive mastermind to match Wade Phillips' defense. Instead the Texans are so maddening to their fans that Keenum had to go to a silent count in his own home stadium to overcome the din of the boos. It's that bad.
Can it be that good again? Maybe. The talent is still there, the AFC South is still mediocre, and a No. 1 overall pick could land the quarterback the Texans need. Any reversion to the mean in terms of injuries and turnovers would surely lead to more wins.
For this lost season, though, the letter jackets are a reminder to the franchise that no season is safe from corrosion. Fortunately, a call placed to the company that made the jackets, Bull Shirts of Houston, reveals that business is actually a little better this year than last. The jackets are not available, as they were made for that one occasion, and it's safe to say nobody in town will want to buy another edition anytime soon.