Coming in to the 2004 season, the Texans found themselves in an interesting position. The “new franchise” smell had worn off and for the fans of the team, there was a growing set of expectations. The rest of the league noted that while the team wasn’t Tampa Bay 1976-1977 horrible, they were also not 1996 Carolina Panthers successful either. The team did improve by one win from 2002 to 2003, and there were expectations for modest improvement for 2004. The team cut its sacks allowed from 76 to 15 and the squad saw offensive improvements to go with a solid but unspectacular defense. Could Year 3 be the year the Texans took a major leap from bad to decent?
As the season played out, the Texans actually found themselves in ascension. They held a 4-3 record at one point and came into the last game of the season with a chance to secure the franchise’s first non-losing season. They proceeded to lose that game to the Cleveland Browns, but sporting a 7-9 record, the team gave the appearance of perhaps having a chance to move to bigger and better things.
Getting to that 7-9 record saw the team go through a series of ups and downs across both units, and it was not always consistent when the offense and defense would be engaged as the same time. Both David Carr and Domanick Davis (Williams) logged career bests in passing and rushing yards, and now-veteran Andre Johnson notched the first of many Pro Bowl bids. However, Houston’s defense would show some disturbing lapses, as Aaron Glenn and Gary Walker started to age out of their playing careers.
In the 2004 season, the lowest seed in the NFL Playoffs held a 10-6 record, so it was not very likely that the Texans could make the postseason in year three. The AFC South was still the domain of the Indianapolis
Peyton Mannings Colts, but the Texans no longer held exclusive rights to the basement of the division. The Titans, having moved on from the last of the dominant ‘99-’00 teams, quickly took the Texans’ place in the cellar. The Texans held third with a two-game lead and were only two games back of second place Jacksonville. Still, there were a couple of games, where if a play or two went right, the Texans might have broken through to claim the franchise’s first winning record.
San Diego: L 20-27
The Texans set history as the first team to win its first two season openers. Playing against a San Diego Chargers team that finished the previous 4-12 to open the year might have given the team optimism that they could notch their third straight season opening win. However, San Diego completely revamped their front office and coaching staff, and Houston would be the first team to see the Chargers as helmed by Marty Schottenheimer. The starter for the Chargers that day: Drew Brees. The star of the game for the Chargers was the latest running back to profit from “Martyball”: LaDainian Tomlinson, who logged 121 yards on 26 carries and a TD.
It would not exactly be a great game for Houston. The Texans and Chargers produced comparable yardage numbers, but Houston lost the all-important turnover battle 4-0, as the Chargers’ defense snagged two interceptions and two fumble recoveries. San Diego scored 14 points off of two turnovers, and the last turnover, a San Diego fumble recovery of a Davis/Williams run with 3:57 left in the 4th quarter with the Texans at the Chargers’ 14, ended the Texans’ chances for tying the game.
When looking at counterfactuals for NFL games, turnovers are a ready-made turning point. Take away the last fumble, and perhaps the Texans tie the game, force overtime, and log their third straight opening day win. Eliminate one of the two turnovers that the Chargers scored after a Texans’ turnover and the Texans score on one of those, and perhaps it is not a 27-20 loss, but maybe a 20-17 win. So many possibilities, and perhaps a reflection of a team that still didn’t know how to win a game they should.
Minnesota: L 34-28 (OT)
This was a type of game that is both painful and exciting for a young team trying to learn to win. The Texans fell behind 21-0, only to rally to tie the game at the 1:53 mark in the 4th quarter at 28. David Carr had a strong performance (372 yards/3 TD/0 INTs) and Andre Johnson turned in one of best games as a Texan (12 receptions/172 yards/2 TDs). It was quite the achievement to force the game into overtime, and the Texans, riding their first-ever winning streak, had to feel confident that they could have pulled off the comeback at home to move to 3-2.
Unfortunately, Carr was not the best quarterback on the field that day. Daunte Culpepper played one of his better late-Vikings career games, throwing for 396 yards and 5 touchdowns, the last a 50-yard dagger to Marcus Robinson to clinch the game in OT. This game did not reflect well on Houston’s defense, as they not only allowed Culpepper to obliterate them through the air, but also allowed a depleted Vikings’ rushing attack to add 122 yards on the ground.
Still, the Texans, especially Carr and Johnson, showed enough on offense to overcome any defensive shortcomings to win in overtime. All the Texans needed to do was move within FG range; the franchise’s largest comeback would be locked in at 21 and a young team would have that all-important momentum. Alas, they did not, and an opportunity was lost.
Green Bay: L 16-13
Of the games mentioned here, perhaps this one was the most painful. The Texans managed to jump out to a 13-3 lead, which they held to start the fourth quarter. Green Bay was down to one running back for the game, and for three quarters, the Green Bay offense could not get going. However, the fourth quarter saw Green Bay go with a unique strategy: letting quarterback Brett Favre throw the ball. He managed to do just that, finishing the game with 373 yards and one critical fourth quarter touchdown to Donald Driver. While the Texans intercepted Favre twice, they could not muster any effective offense in the second half, and the defense failed in the final drive as Favre moved Green Bay into FG range and Ryan Longwell crushed the hopes of a full house at then-Reliant Stadium with a walk-off 46 yard field goal.
How many what-ifs haunt this game? Carr was efficient in the 1st half, going 8-15 for 115 yards and 1 TD. However, he could only muster a stat-line of 5-11 for 49 yards in the second half. The rushing game was playing down to its seasonal level, with Davis/Williams only logging 61 yards on 21 carries. The defense held for most of the game, but with no help on offense in the second half, the weakened unit cracked in the 4th, and the team saw a great chance for a statement win in primetime fade into the night.
While it is of low probability that the Texans sweep those three games, even a swap in one might see the team break through for some significant progress. Going 8-8 in the third season, while not as spectacular as Carolina’s or Jacksonville’s run to the conference championship games years before, would be nothing to discount, especially given the limitations of the team’s offensive line (the sack numbers spiked from 15 to 49) and the emerging defensive limitations.
The Texans were in a position to win all three of the games mentioned here. A common denominator of these three games is that all of them were at home. One might think that a team should be able to win their home games. Especially against San Diego and Green Bay, as the Texans held the lead at one point during the game. They did manage to win a one-score game against Kansas City, but they could not manage a win in any of the other three games.
How might have the history of the team changed if the team managed to avoid a non-losing season? 8-8 or even 9-7 would not have changed all that much. A winning record in year three would increase optimism about the team and certainly solidified the love affair between Houston and its new NFL franchise.
If the Texans really wanted to alter the history of the franchise, they would have needed to sweep those three games. A 10-6 Texans squad that made the playoffs in the third year of existence? That would have been something to talk about. Outside of that, the team still maintained a narrative of improvement, but 2005 would be the year of reckoning, as the team would either break through to be a contender or it would fade into oblivion again.