HOUSTON — Confusion spread through the locker room like a noxious gas. Someone had fallen on the way to the tunnel and didn’t get up. Was it a player? A coach? No one knew, but everyone speculated. Texans fullback Greg Jones wondered from the privacy of a bathroom stall what all the ruckus was about. Then defensive end Antonio Smith burst through the doors like Paul Revere with ominous Sunday night news:
“Kub’ down! Kub’ down!”
Several men rose to their feet intending leave the halftime meeting place and return to the field to see their coach, who had collapsed to the turf as he headed off the field. The trainers and staff barred the players from leaving the locker. Wait here, they said. He’ll be okay.
There was no way they could know that, of course. Head coach Gary Kubiak, 52, was strapped to a backboard and eventually wheeled off the field. The stadium went from elation one moment—when quarterback Case Keenum’s savvy hurry-up touchdown toss to Andre Johnson made the score 21-3 in the final minute of the half—to bewilderment the next, as Kubiak lay prone near the 25-yard line. (The team did not announce the cause of the collapse early Monday morning but said Kubiak had not suffered a heart attack. He remained in the hospital undergoing tests.) The halftime act was to be Young MC, 46, of “Bust a Move” fame. The rapper waited in the wings as more than a dozen people huddled around Kubiak and stadium workers gave up on their frenzied stage construction once the gravity of the situation became apparent.
Young MC was told his halftime show was postponed until after the game (should the Texans win), and the players were pacified when defensive coordinator Wade Phillips took the reins and addressed the group at the close of halftime. The score is 0-0, he said. Let’s go win one for Coach. The players emerged from the tunnel to a stunned crowd that had just seen the most visible authority figure in Houston strapped to a stretcher and rushed away.
“It was crazy,” said wide receiver Lestar Jean.
“Tough to handle,” said right tackle Derek Newton.
At that point one had to wonder, what else could happen to the 2013 Houston Texans? The starting quarterback had been benched, and the star linebacker ruled out for the season with a torn LCL and a broken leg. They’d kicked off a season with Super Bowl expectations by winning two and then losing five straight, the latest defeat coming in a nail-biter with the NFL’s last undefeated team. The failures of the season had burdened Kubiak; two players told me they hadn’t seen any sign of him leaving the facility in days. Now, in the eighth week of the season, a former undrafted rookie quarterback with one career start was putting on a first-half clinic with touchdown passes of 62, 41 and five yards against one of the top teams in the AFC.
Then came halftime.
After that, what did this strange season matter anymore?
“It was a reality check for all of us,” said linebacker Tavares Gooden. “One minute you’re out there cheering, having fun, kicking butt, and then the next minute your coach is down. It makes you appreciate life, puts things into context.”
The second half came, and slowly, deliberately, predictably, quarterback Andrew Luck and the Colts (6-2) won momentum as Kubiak underwent a battery of tests at a nearby hospital. Colts blitzes began hitting home, passing lanes opened, and the Texans took their foot off the gas—in scheme at least. With Kubiak calling the shots in the first half, Keenum tossed up six attempts of 15 yards or more downfield. With offensive coordinator Rick Dennison dialing up plays from the booth in the second half, Keenum attempted only two deep passes.
After Houston went for 208 yards in the first half, with Johnson catching his first touchdown passes of the season, the air went out of the offense, and by extension Reliant stadium. Luck began hurling deep balls to T.Y. Hilton, eventually setting up a game-winning fourth-quarter touchdown pass with four minutes remaining. Second-year Texans kicker Randy Bullock missed a 55-yarder to tie, and Houston lost 27-24 to drop to 2-6. And there was that empty feeling again; to have fought so hard, endure so much pain and have nothing to show for it.
Ben Tate knows it well: The fourth-year running back entered the game with four cracked ribs, taking the bulk of the carries for injured starter Arian Foster, and took a pain-killing shot that he says did nothing but “take the edge off the pain.” He left with 79 yards and not one iota of gratification.
What’s it feel like to play running back with cracked ribs?
“It effin’ hurts,” Tate said. “It’s painful. You’ve just got to dig down deep. There’s a couple times during the game where I’m thinking M-F this hurts.”
In an attempt to shake things up during the stretch of losses, Kubiak had asked his captains two weeks ago to come up with something, anything, to stir things up. Kubiak agreed to add loud music to the daily practice routine, to liven the mood and improve concentration.
Practices perked up; bitter Sundays beat on, and for a team that finished 12-4 last season and won the AFC South, doubt has replaced confidence. Said Jones in a near-empty postgame locker room on Sunday night: “Great teams make the plays that they need to win, and we ain’t a great team. That tells us what we are right now. That’s all.”
“It’s tough because we’ve put it all on the line,” Tate said. “I feel like the type of team that we have, we should be in a better position.”
No sooner had Tate maneuvered a thin sweater over his head and left the building than a football operations staffer replaced a large plastic poster above the locker room entrance reading ONE FOCUS: COLTS VS. TEXANS, NOV. 3, 2013 with one reading ONE FOCUS: TEXANS VS. CARDINALS, NOV. 10, 2013.
It was hard to imagine that next Sunday’s opponent would be foremost in Houston’s mind this week.