Belief can be the big difference on an NFL Sunday.
Heading into this season, I was with a lot of people who asked the Houston Texans why we should believe things would be different in 2010 after 9-7, 8-8 and 8-8 seasons.
Two games in, the answer is that they believe, so we might want to start believing.
It’s only 2-0, but it’s an awfully meaningful 2-0 because it comes after beating the king of the mountain and staging a fantastic comeback on the road.
It prompted me to seek out three guys who’ve played on teams that went from average and not in the playoffs one season to a Super Bowl appearance in the next: Texans defensive lineman Antonio Smith was on the 2008 NFC champion Cardinals, cornerback Samari Rolle was on the 1999 AFC champion Titans and receiver Qadry Ismail was on the 2000 Super Bowl champion Ravens.
Here’s a glimpse of the thinking of those three based on their experiences.
Ismail was the leading receiver on a defensive team that bullied its way to the title.
He said he sees similarities between his Ravens and these Texans -- though Houston’s chance to dominate comes from its offense. Houston can benefit from opponents not really believing the franchise has changed course from three years of being average.
“Other teams, still on the back of their minds, are saying ‘It’s only the Houston Texans,’” Ismail said. “And when you have that you really just can hit people in the mouth every week. Even in 2000 it was, ‘It’s only the Ravens, even though they won that game, they’re not going to beat us.’ And you look back and it’s, ‘Wow, they beat us.’ I think it’s that kind of mentality...”
“You still have people who will still go to sleep on them. And that can be a tactical advantage because it will make them hungry. It won’t make them complacent, because they’ll realize they haven’t arrived yet. Then you look at it and all those teams will wind up thinking, ‘Man, how did we get beat by them?’ I think that will work in the Texans’ favor.”
In 1999, Rolle’s late end-zone interception in Week 3 in rainy Jacksonville might have been the play that was the Titans’ catapult. He sees Houston’s win over Indy in a similar light.
“The main thing Houston did is they beat the bully in the division, and I think once you can do that, everything else you expect to win after that,” Rolle said. “I remember we used to have problems with Jacksonville. You go into the game hoping you can beat them, hoping you can get a play or two that will give you a chance to win.
“But once you beat them, after that you expect to win every game. You go in expecting to win as opposed to ‘Maybe we might win…’ They’ve got a good playbook, they’ve got the best receiver in football, they spent their first-round pick on a young defensive player [corner Kareem Jackson]. So it’s set up good for them.”
Smith signed a free-agent deal with Houston after his Super Bowl with the Cardinals in large part because he saw similar potential in the Texans.
It didn’t come together that way in his first season.
“But I still feel that exact same way, and that’s probably the reason I am here, because this feels exactly like it felt when we started to make that run in Arizona,” he said. “The knowledge I have from that, I try to share it to help out my teammates so they can see what’s to come, what to expect, what kind of obstacles we can expect.
“From being a .500 team to having the mindset of a winning team, I think it’s all about the mindset. And it’s changing. Anything can happen, but the mindset is changing and once that happens, you can do anything once you believe.”
While it’s hard for the Texans not to be excited, maintaining perspective is very important. There is a balance between believing things are different and continuing to do the work that is making it so.
“We were 2-0 [in 2007] and ended up losing five games in a row,” Andre Johnson said. “So us being 2-0 really doesn’t matter.”
A good splash of cold water on the team’s face from its best player.
Two other things we’ve got to be thinking about as the Texans prepare for the Cowboys:
1) Breakout teams overcome distractions, and left tackle Duane Brown provided a big one this week when he was suspended for four games for a violation of the league’s policy against performance enhancers.
In steps Rashad Butler, a player the team likes -- as long as he keeps his weight under control. He has long arms, and says his feet are probably his best attribute.
Dallas outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware won’t exactly let Butler ease into the starting role.
“He’s a great player, he’s a Pro Bowl caliber player,” Butler said. “What makes him so special is he has speed and power. He does a really good job in using both. I think a lot of guys go wrong against him because they’re not sharp on their technique. All I’m trying to do is worry about me first and foremost getting my technique right. Then I look at the film like I always do and study him and everybody else I’ll be facing...”
“I’m not nervous about whom I’m going up against,” Butler said. “I’m just nervous because everybody’s counting on me and I don’t want to let anybody down, especially myself. That’s pretty much where the nervousness is coming from. It’s just the fact that I don’t want to let myself or my teammates down.”
Smith has faced Butler plenty in camp and practices, and said it’s a business-as-usual, next-man-up situation.
“I expect us to take it on and keep trucking,” Smith said. “You can’t just fold up tent just because of an incident. You have to keep fighting to be a dominant team we plan to be, to perfect some of our imperfections so we can be a dominant team in this league.
“If Rashad puts his heart into it and really works hard at getting the job done, I think he can be just as good as D-Brown. You have to step up as a man and fill in. You’re not just holding space, you’re trying to be an elite player in this league. Nobody wants to be mediocre. This is his opportunity to hold it down.”
2) The battle for Texas is overblown by fans and media.
This is not Giants-Jets or Oakland-San Francisco. No one is ever looking for a three-way series between the Buccaneers, Jaguars and Dolphins to see who’s supreme in Florida, are they?
I understand the power and pull of the Cowboys and I know the expansion Texans would relish a win over America's Team. But it’s not really about the state of professional football in the state and I bet not one fan changes sides due to the result.
“To us it would mean it’s another win in the win column,” Smith said. “There are a lot of things out there about it being the battle for Texans and things like that. But our goal and our main focus is bigger and we’ve got to treat this like a step in it and not get too carried away with the media and the pats on the back and the ‘you can become the kings of Texas.’"
Said linebacker DeMeco Ryans: “I’m not getting all pumped up just because it’s the Cowboys and this and that. It’s about the Texans; it’s not about the Cowboys. A lot of people try to make a big deal about the Cowboys coming in here and this and that. Well, what about us? What about our team? What about the Texans? I’m not worried about the Cowboys.”