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Red Zone Play: Battling Attrition

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This week, Mike Bullock opines that the Texans should take a lesson from Barry Sanders.

Chicago Bears v Houston Texans
A team’s fire can’t be captured in Xs and Os.
Photo by Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images

A lot of fans remember Barry Sanders as one of the greatest running backs of all time. His dynamic style, ability to make something out of nothing, and huge running gains are legendary in NFL lore. The fact that he retired just shy of breaking Walter Payton’s record did nothing to diminish his big-play reputation. Sanders could take it to the house like no other.

In fact, the only other running back in NFL history to truly resemble Sanders, although he was nowhere near the once-in-a-lifetime talent that Barry was/is, was Napoleon Kaufman. Nip (a nickname of Kaufman’s), was also known for his game-breaking runs that seemingly took nothing and turned it into a big, big something.

One stat these two amazing tailbacks had in common when they both left the game was most yards lost.

Yes, you read that right. Most yards lost.

Barry Sanders retired with 1,114 negative yards in plays where he failed to make it back to the line of scrimmage. Kaufman holds an equally stunning ratio of big plays to lost yards.

While both of these great players had electrifying highlight reels each and every season, they were masters of taking two steps backwards.

You were wondering how this tied back to the Texans, weren’t you?

In our metaphorical red zone, the Texans have taken a step back. In fact, they’ve been penalized on top of that and pushed back to the point where it seems like they may not even punch this one in for six.

One thing winning teams do when they get into the red zone is find a way to score. They exert their undeniable will on the opponent and take what they want.

Reports out of Minnesota from Traveling Texans fans say the team showed anything but that sort of will last Sunday. A team that knows they’re going to take what’s theirs doesn’t come out listless. A team that’s on hand to take care of business – business like a 60-minute gridiron war – can’t be described as lifeless.

It’s easy to look at the number of key injuries this team has sustained so far this year and get down. That’s the thing about losing - it comes easy; really, really easy. Its seductive tone lures men to their deaths each and every day all over the world, not just in pro sports. It sings a siren song that has littered history with the corpses of losers.

As the roster endures the attrition of injuries, and the depth charts gets thinner and thinner, the real battle is going on in the hearts and minds of the players and staff. It takes fire to sharpen steel, and fire seems to be in short supply these days in the halls of Texans HQ.

On paper, there’s not much statistical difference between teams that win and teams that almost win. The true difference isn’t measurable in yards and downs and points – it comes from the heart.

They say admitting the problem is the first step to recovery. Well, the Texans' players and coaches need to look themselves in the mirror and admit there’s a problem. Then they need to look deeper into their own eyes and vow to overcome it. Swear to themselves that they’re going to rise up and win. Make a promise to one another to stoke the fires of victory.

Some will embrace this; others will continue to let attrition win the battle. But the leaders on this team, the men who think of themselves as the true leaders of the Houston Texans, better get this right – and right now. Otherwise, this trip to the red zone is going to result in nothing more than another year of their lives wasted, another year full of regrets. Another marker they look back on when they’re old and gray and wonder why they let their fire burn out.

When Barry Sanders had a play where he lost big yards, he didn’t walk off to the bench listless and lifeless to hang his head in defeat. He rose up, refused to take the loss as the final answer, went back onto the field, and did what only he could do.

That is why Barry Sanders is in the NFL Hall of Fame. Not his seemingly super-human talent. Not his highly refined skill-set. And certainly not the fact that he played on the Detroit Lions.

It was the fire inside him and the utter refusal to accept losing the battle of wills with attrition.

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