By David Fleming
Page 2

On a recent visit to Reliant Stadium, home of the suddenly respectable Houston Texans, I had barely even said hello to veteran tight end Mark Bruener when tears began streaming down the big guy's rectangle face. Hmm. What gives, I wondered.

Had Bruener, like myself, seen the massive display in the opulent marble and glass lobby of the stadium commemorating Alabama's 2003 farewell tour and laughed himself goofy, as I had done moments earlier? Had he watched as workers hauled out the 130 (I counted) empty (I checked) kegs of beer from the previous game and cried in quiet reflection, as I had, at such a magnificently depressing sight? Had he been scared silly, like I had, by the quilters who had overtaken Houston with their annual convention?

Or had he, perhaps, taken a moment to reflect upon how Houston had finally begun to shed its expansion tag and earn the respect of the NFL?

"Dang contacts," he said with a shrug. "I just got a new pair and, man, shoot, they're really irritating my eyes."

At some point this season, though, there will be real tears shed by grown men in Houston. I promise. At 5-6, unless they get transferred out of the freakishly competitive AFC, the Texans aren't going to the playoffs. But in my petty world they'll get to do the next best thing: wreck it for somebody else. Or at least help determine who goes and where they get seeded. In just their third year the Texans, along with the Bengals, Bills, Chiefs and Panthers, are one of those dangerously resilient teams no one wants to be playing in the final month of the season.

(Think: Cardinals-Vikes in the 2003 regular season finale in a classic tilt that kept Minnie out of the playoffs.)

Ya know, just when the Eagles start clinching division titles before Thanksgiving, it's teams like the Texans who promise to make the final month of the season wilder than a bunch of quilters at an Alabama concert with 130 empty kegs of beer.

First up for the Texas spoilers: The New York Jets who will likely be flying standby for the playoffs if they fall into the same trap as the Titans did last week. On Sunday, Tennessee had Houston down 21-10 at the half when QB David Carr shrugged his shoulders and told his team to stay loose because, heck, "things can't get any worse." Carr took his own advice and in the third quarter went 9-for-9 for 83 yards, two TDs and a near-perfect 144.7 passer rating as the Texans discarded the Titans like one of those ... yuuurp ... empty kegs.

David Carr
It's hard trying to find something to dislike about David Carr.

On Sunday they did what no one has ever been able to accomplish: they made a warrior like Steve McNair, perhaps the toughest player in the league -- player I said, not quarterback -- think about hanging 'em up. While on the other sidelines Carr, who is impossible to dislike, by the way, officially turned a corner as a passer -- and a leader. Domanick Davis rushed for 129 yards. And in the tense second half, the Texans D shutout the Titans and forced them into three turnovers.

But becoming a spoiler -- NFL parity's Frankenstein monster, if you will, or as I like to call 'em, Parity Poopers -- is more about 'tude than stats.

A few weeks ago I spent an entire day with the Texans while reporting the cover story on NFL game planning in this week's Magazine. The day started at a pre-dawn meeting with Chris Palmer who was sitting in the cave-dark coaches meeting room on the second floor of Reliant Stadium watching film, the walls around him covered completely in ink-stained football hieroglyphics. Behind him was a bookshelf full of game plan books thicker than the yellow pages. Palmer had a remote control in one hand and a bottle of Windex near the other. Old habit. "When I worked for Bill Parcells," said the former Browns head coach, "he was notorious for coming in on a Wednesday morning, looking at all the stuff we had put together and yelling something like, 'It's too much, TAKE IT ALL DOWN!'"

Even this early in the morning with his gray hair and glasses Palmer seemed more like a professor than an offensive coordinator. Which fits perfectly with the vibe going on in Houston these days. Professors. Empty kegs. Thick notebooks. The smell of eggs and bacon emanating from the cafeteria. The metallic clank of barbells echoing down the hallway. Players casually strolling to meetings in small packs, their flip-flops snapping against the concrete, book bags slung over their shoulders.

A bunch of young kids who don't know any better, ready to shock the world.

Parity Poopers.

The only thing missing was Tom Wolfe creeping around the dorms.

Later I bumped into head coach Dom Capers who still keeps a home close to where I live in North Carolina. We talked about real estate for a moment. Talked about how the injuries the Texans suffered last season (17 players were on IR) forced them to use so many young, untested guys that it actually gave them one of the most precious commodities in the salary cap era of the game: depth.

I know. Depth. A nice foundation. Something to build on. Young talent. An emerging QB. A collegial feel. A good coach. An even better GM. Parity Poopers. I know. I know. That's not as sexy as playoff talk this time of year but trust me Houston, it could be worse. "No one will respect us until we get into the playoffs," Carr insists.

I disagree. No one will respect you until you start becoming a factor in the playoffs. And that's definitely in reach. Shoot, you're already the best team in Texas. Joey Harrington is wearing Honolulu Blue instead of Battle Red. No one wants to play you guys right now. That beats the heck out of being the Browns, Saints, 'Skins, Niners or Seahawks -- everyone wants a shot at those guys.

So you could do worse than being a Parity Pooper.

(Well, yeah, for starters you could be the guy who came up with a lame name like Parity Pooper.)

I asked Capers if he was still the most meticulous coach in the NFL and in his hands I saw the intricate practice script the team would use that afternoon with every play, every second, every formation planned out in excruciating detail. On a nearby closed circuit TV monitor I then noticed the Texans weekly schedule which included -- I swear -- a "break" Wednesday morning from 9:30 a.m. to 9:35 a.m.

"Uh, nevermind," I said.

From there I continued on to the locker room where I had my conversations with Bruener and other players constantly interrupted by a film crew straight out of the movie "Saved!" that kept shouting things like, "OH YEAH, we're talking to J.J. Moses and let me tell you something folks he is an absolute WILDMAN FOR JESUS!!!!!"

(I wasn't sure what that meant but I had a feeling it included either quilting or Alabama -- or both.)

By lunchtime there was almost as much fervor in the team cafeteria where the processional line was all the way out in the hallway.

What gives? I asked.

"It's taco day," said a Texans employee.

"Dude, am I back in high school or what?" I said. "They're that good? Really?"

But before the guy had a chance to answer the door swung open to reveal billionaire owner Bob McNair mowing down an over-stuffed steak fajita like a famished Tony Hawk. I noticed they also had chocolate milk in there. And an ice cream sundae bar. Which meant at that point I'd have chop-blocked 300-pound defensive end Gary Walker had he attempted to cut in front of me.

As Parity Poopers, Walker and the Texans can feast all they want on the unsuspecting teams out there thinking they're about to waltz right into the playoffs. Teams like the Colts, and their musical-chairs offensive line, who come to town Dec. 12.

As for me?

Who knows when I might get another shot at free tacos.

FLEM GEMS -- NFL WEEK 13
WHYLO
Left overs, yum.

Or, as I like to call my emails after each TOY Awards column: The turkeys talk back!

Brian starts us off with, "I would say give up on your writing career but your last article on Turkeys of the Year makes it seem you already have."

Matt asks, "Shouldn't the correct acronym be TsoY? Those of us who eat tofurkeys would prefer it."

Regarding the Patriots tree-lover, Adam writes, "I believe the word you're looking for is 'dendrophile.'"

That was a classic. But as far as funny, original or just plain mean emails, well, that about does it.

The rest of the batch is from Paul McCartney sycophants who are just so goshdarn mad over his TOY nomination that, I don't know, they might start a good old fashion electronic donnybrook, unless there's a Star Wars special on TV. Seriously folks, just because someone was in the Beatles doesn't absolve him from his crimes against music as a solo artist. In fact, to true music fans it makes his work over the last 25 years even more egregious. But, hey, if you think Sir Paul is lame beyond compare, check out his fans:

Colby: "Did I just see that you ripped Paul McCartney? Awful."

Bob: "Your dis of Paul McCartney was completely out of line. After the hyper-sexually charged shows of the last couple of Super Bowls, having a legend who can still rock get up and crank out some great tunes will be quite refreshing."

Mark: "You gave Paul McCartney a TOY because you don't like his music? Or was it perhaps McCartney's "rocking the millions etc." comment that wins him the award. I agree that McCartney hardly rocks the house anymore, but he still does have to promote himself, doesn't he? If you want to hand out a TOY over this, that's fine. But give it to the guy who booked the act, not the guy who's just doing his job."

Adam: "Are you insulting Paul McCartney and his ability to rock?! I wasn't sure, maybe I'm missing something. But if you are, maybe you're the one missing something ... Perhaps you should add yourself to the turkeys of the year column, because even though it's not stuffing, you're definitely full of something."

Dave: "Dude, you suck. Seriously. The comparison of one of the greatest musical figures of all time, not to mention an historical icon, to Weird Al was completely over the top. I'm sure you were hoping for an Ashlee Simpson performance. Too bad the league went with taste over trash."

Don: "Although I agree with most of your TOY awards, you should probably change the name of your column to the PhlegmPhile. (Flem note: wow, never heard that one before.) Paul McCartney is still a musical genius, albeit a strange, overly-rich, vegan one."

Justin: "I find it ridiculous how you criticize Sir Paul McCartney in your latest article. What this man has done for music in his life is more than enough to not have to take criticism like that from a guy who writes columns about sports, but even music. Every single fan of music and expert alike would disagree and be appalled with your comments."

Tim: "I'm just bewildered that anyone could take three straight shots at Paul McCartney. If that's elevator music, I guess I belong in an elevator, too -- though I still listen to Nirvana. However, if your cracks are colored by his post-Beatles stuff -- such as that "Freedom" song, possibly the worst song ever written -- I can almost see where you're coming from."

James: "I'm just going to go ahead and assume you've never actually heard any of Paul McCartney's music. While I will admit he's old, so are the Rolling Stones and they are still selling out stadiums. All I'm saying is, give McCartney a chance buddy."

Peter: "For the love of Elvis and all things holy in rock... How dare you insinuate that a man who's written (and co-written) more classic tunes than every other band in the history of pop music combined is now, in his old age, good for nothing more than elevator music? I mean, are you seriously implying that you'd rather watch some slutty 16-year-old harlot sashay across a flimsy tempo-stage in a leather bodice worn to create cleavage where there should be none, lip-synching to the same old pap radio-listeners and MTV aficionados have been subjected rather than have your soul soothed by a man who has spent his life forging a body of work that defies criticism (whatever you may think of Linda on the tambourine)? Gimme a break."

Dan: "Dear Dave the real #1 turkey, perhaps you're mistaking Paul McCartney for someone else. How else to explain your slam of one of the greatest song writers and live acts you will ever see. I'm sure you would prefer some overrated critics darling band like Nirvana (oops, singer committed suicide) U2 or the late great washed up REM."

Indeed I do Dan. Indeed I do. I mean, who would you rather listen to, a band like U2 that has seven songs in Rolling Stone's top 500, Nirvana that landed four, including one in the top 10, REM that garnered two or a square like Sir Paul who squeaked one in waaaaaaay down at No. 337?

If you want an example of musicians who actually kept their dignity and managed to get better with age, check out U2's latest release: "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb." It's an album that proves the artistic adage that less is more; full of tunes that are so purely crafted and precisely performed that even in the stripped-down economic production of HTDAAB the meaning and artistry seem to resonate even more. (What a week I'm having: a U2 album, a deep-fried turkey for Thanksgiving and my beloved Li'l RedHawks from Miami of Ohio on the brink of YET ANOTHER MAC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME, which I plan to discuss with fellow Miami big shot alum Ben Roethlisberger while I'm in Pittsburgh this week.)

Finally, I wanted to thank everyone for their nice emails from two weeks ago, regarding the Jamie Henderson magazine piece and follow-up FlemFile. Everyone except Evan, that is. He writes, "What's wrong with you? You said that Herm gets it. That we are just blinded by fantasy stats and TD dances, well yeah we are! Why don't you get. No one wants to read this mush. Maybe if you got it you wouldn't be hiding on Page 2. If you got it, you'd be on page 1. Now why don't you just go listen to the Donnas!"

As I'm sure most of you have already surmised, this is, perhaps, the most transparent attempt yet (and trust me I get several weekly) by a reader to get himself named WHYLO of the Week. So to Evan I'd just like to say, uh, nice try buddy, but ... NO WHYLO FOR YOU!

Instead, check out this gem from Gus, who might just be the earliest nominee for the 2005 TOY Awards. He writes, "SORRY TO SAY, THE REASON DENNY GREEN BENCHED MCCOWN FOR KING, AND PASSED ON ROETHLISBERGER IS THE MAN LIKES BLACK QB'S."

Not even gonna address this one. Don't have to.

Gus?

Who Helped You Log On?

THIS COLUMN WRITTEN WHILE LISTENING TO: U2's fifth masterpiece.

David Fleming is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine. His book, "Noah's Rainbow," a father's emotional journey from the death of his son to the birth of his daughter, will be published in 2005 by Baywood. Contact him at Dave.Fleming@espn3.com.




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