HOUSTON -- Why, I don't have a Texan bone among the 206 in my body, but I sure did catch some Texans fever on Sunday.
It started on the metro to Reliant Stadium, in the chirpy chatter of fans with the hope in their faces threatening to blot out the long, long, interminable suffering that dates all the way back to 2002. (Many of them weathered the 2-14 in 2005!) It continued through the parking lot, where the grills hissed and the music blared everything from David Guetta to Alan Jackson crooning "It Must Be Love." (Yes, it must be.)
It spiked inside the stadium among 71,581 cheering a team that isn't good. (It's damn good.) And after a third rout in four games (38-14 over the Titans) in a league crazy with balance, the fever failed to ebb all the way through the locker room, where hearing the players might make you envy their collaborative life experience and wish you could join this team. (That's if you didn't have to take the hits to your 206 bones.)
As September left us, and the classically even-keeled head coach Gary Kubiak called it "a really good month," and Houston had its first-ever 4-0 NFL team, and this noiseless franchise kept threatening to shout, well, this Texans fever has a chance at contagion.
That's slightly odd, because there might be a prerequisite for catching Texans fever. You might have to be from this part of Texas (as apparently Texas has another NFL team), or you might have to really, really, really love football. Actual football. Cold, admirable, thoughtful football. Casual fans seeking glitter and flash might prove immune.
For one thing, what you see everywhere here is competence. There's competence in the zero turnovers in three of four games thus far. There's competence in quarterback Matt Schaub's game management, in the use of the receivers, from the very-veteran Andre Johnson to the bulls-in-the-china-shop who caught touchdowns on Sunday, fullback James Casey and tight end Owen Daniels. As Johnson put it, "We have a lot of weapons, we're making great use of them."
And those safeties! What marvels, those safeties. Of course, many people don't watch football to evaluate safety play, and many other people don't want to hang out with people who do watch football to evaluate safety play. But wait: Just watch those safeties. "I'd say the two safeties (Danieal Manning and Glover Quin) are playing better than any safeties in the league right now," cornerback Johnathan Joseph said.
Further, highlight editors have paid special attention to the second-year defensive end J.J. Watt, such that teammates like nose tackle Shaun Cody are beginning to express mock resentment of the attention. But if you love football and notice carefully, they say, Watt's big plays often occur at a telltale moment in an opposing drive. In the third quarter on Sunday, Titans right tackle David Stewart finally decided it might work best if he just ripped off Watt's helmet.
This gave referee Carl Cheffers the chance to call, "Personal foul, grabbing the helmet opening," and gave 71,581 the chance to say they had heard a call of "personal foul, grabbing the helmet opening."
(Officials, by the way, were Cheffers, Undrey Wash, Kent Payne, Tom Symonette, Jimmy Buchanan, Laird Hayes, Todd Prukop, Tom Sifferman and Roger Ruth. Hi, guys! Still love you!)
It gets worse, though, the fever, for Texan after Texan seems to have come upon a wise comprehension for such young people. The locker room does carry an overriding sense that such seasons are rare and elusive in life, that it's best to not screw them up when they alight, and that refraining from screwing them up entails refusing to let down each other.
Joseph: "It's a great feeling to be on a team with guys who want to be here, want to excel, want to be great." Johnson, way on the other side of the room: "We're not going to let an opportunity pass us by, and I think that's the biggest thing. We have great teammates and everybody's just on the same page, everybody's thinking the same thing, everybody's feeling the same way." Casey: "We feel like we've got a really special group of guys that really care about football, really care about each other. … You don't want to let anybody on the team down. It's rare that you get a group of guys like this that want to be great.”
Linebacker Brooks Reed, middle of the room: "It's kind of like a puzzle, man, everybody kind of fits in perfectly." Does linebacker Brian Cushing agree with Johnson, that it feels like college? "I do." Daniels, a seven-season Texan: "Our talent's all across the board. That doesn't mean anything unless you work, hold each other accountable and stay focused."
And: "I just think the confidence level is so much higher than it's ever been."
And: "We're hard on each other."
And on whether this all feels rare: "Absolutely, man."
Back down the hall in the interview room, Kubiak had waxed on about the practice on Friday, how the practice on Friday was the best of the season, the best of all the practices in the special, inner practice ranking of the wonk head coach.
Some listeners might have snored and some might have swooned. But if you love football, there's quite a feeling around the Texans. And I do love football, especially the fevers.