HOUSTON -- Do we really have the heart for this again?
Twenty years ago this week, Houstonians witnessed what’s arguably the ugliest event in the history of this city’s sports franchises.
On the infamous afternoon of January 3, 1993, the Houston Oilers somehow blew a 35-3 lead over the Buffalo Bills in a playoff game that remains the most spectacular collapse in NFL history.
Today, once again, Houston sports fans find themselves wallowing in disillusionment and disappointment, worrying that yet another hometown team will prove itself just good enough to break our hearts. Flip around the dial and listen to any of the city’s umpteen sports radio stations and you’ll hear the sort of remarks that echoed over Matt Thomas’ show on KBME.
"Just like the Oilers, they have all that hype and they choke at the end," groused a fan who claimed he expected all along that the Houston Texans would collapse at the end of the season.
Just when we dared to dream we had a team that would finally deliver us to the promised land of the Super Bowl, the Texans lost their last two games of the regular season, blowing their chance for home field advantage through the playoffs. Now, if they’re lucky, they’ll face the prospect of fighting for the championship on the frozen fields of distant stadiums where Houston’s past dreams of gridiron glory have gone to die.
On an east Houston street where homeowners have decorated their yards and utility poles like a long pep rally for the Texans, even staunch fans wearing jerseys wonder what’s happened to their team.
"They were looking beautiful at the beginning," said Tony Rodriguez, standing in front of a Texans logo mounted on his fence. "And then, it seems like it happens to us every year. Close to the end, I don’t know what happens."
Cynical fans complaining on sports talk shows talk about a "Houston curse." But Houston Chronicle columnist Dale Robertson, the city’s most experienced sports writer, points out that Houston teams also have a history of bouncing back from losing streaks. In 1995, the Houston Rockets looked ugly but rebounded from a 3-1 series deficit against the Phoenix Suns by winning three straight games on their way to the city’s second NBA championship. In 1980, the Houston Astros blew a three game lead in a series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, then ended up winning a sudden death tie-breaker to advance into the playoffs.
Nonetheless, the 1993 humiliation in Buffalo exemplifies a recurring phenomenon in Houston football history.
"’It pretty well summed up the history of at least professional football in Houston," Robertson said.
The following season, the Oilers went into the playoffs riding an 11 game winning streak. Then the Kansas City Chiefs led by Joe Montana brought an abrupt end to another dream season.
"Warren Moon’s teams went to the playoffs for seven years—seven consecutive years—and never got out of the division round. And then here come the Texans. The Texans came back and it took them nine seasons to get into the post-season. So this is what we’re dealing with," Robertson said.
What fans are dealing with now is a three-game losing streak that the team must break in Cincinnati on Saturday. If they don’t, another dream season that might have taken the city to the Super Bowl will come to an abrupt end.
"It’s tough to see a team win twelve games and then come out and play like they lost eight in a row," said Oscar Cantu, a fan rummaging through Texans gear hanging on racks at an Academy store.
The angst is almost palpable, especially on sports talk shows where many of the callers already sound like they’ve already given up.
"They’re a cranky bunch," Thomas says of his audience. "They’re very upset at how this team has performed in the last third or fourth of this season."
Thomas worries about what will happen if the Texans lose this Saturday. For months, he predicts, people will chew over the awful taste of defeat.
"Andre Johnson is still there, Arian Foster is still there, J.J. Watt is still there," Thomas said. " The question mark’s going to be: Can this quarterback who’s playing in his first playoff game lead this team to victory? Can some of those defensive players build off of what J.J. Watt has done? And can Reliant Stadium be that place that makes it impossible to win?"
The bigger question: Will Clutch City once again become Choke City... or Champ City?
"If they can come out and play like they were for those twelve wins, we’re going to be just fine," Cantu said. "But they’ve got to wake up and start playing."