Curran: The Texans' biggest hurdle? Believing they can win

Curran: The Texans' biggest hurdle? Believing they can win

It’s said that confidence flows from demonstrated ability.

In order to truly feel confident that you can accomplish something, you need to have carried out a mission before. Or perhaps even been dangerously close to carrying it out.

Getting his team to believe it can beat the Patriots -- despite all evidence to the contrary -- is going to be the biggest hurdle for Bill O’Brien to clear this week.

The Texans opened as 16-point underdogs. They lost 27-0 to the Patriots in Week 3 with Jacoby Brissett at quarterback. Now Tom Brady’s back. And the Patriots defense is better than it was then (although that was the one game before he was traded where Jamie Collins played like Jamie Collins could play). Houston stumbled around all season, winding up in the playoffs with their 9-7 record thanks in large part to the festival of mediocrity that is the AFC South. In September, Brock Osweiler had at least an air of competency. Now, benched, belittled and plugged back into the starting lineup, he’s had precious few, “Yeah, I can DO this!” moments.

They advanced through the Wild Card round with relative ease but they know as well as we all do that the triumph over Oakland comes with the caveat that they were facing a quarterback making his first NFL start.

Connor Cook performed as one would expect:18 for 45 for 161 yards and three picks to go with his lone touchdown. The Raiders were 2 for 16 on third down and punted 10 times on their 15 possessions.

Aside from the September loss to the Patriots, Houston lost at home to the Pats 27-6 last December at home and 34-31 in December of 2013, also in Houston.

The games that caused the franchise mental scars that are still visible came in 2012.

The 11-1 Texans got off the bus for a Monday Night Football matchup with the Patriots wearing letterman jackets. They got stuffed in a locker, 42-14.

After that, the Texans lost two of their final three games to close the regular season then had to come to Gillette again for a divisional playoff game. They fell behind 38-13 early in the fourth and lost 41-28.

Asked about the jackets in September, J.J. Watt said he had no idea where his was anymore. “Those were some bad memories. I hope (the jacket is gone). I don’t want to bring that back up at all. Those were some bad days.”

O’Brien, speaking Sunday before he knew his opponent, is smart to send the message to his team that it should look no further than the end of their shoes as they walk toward the weekend.
  
“I think the big key for us is to just take care of our own business in here during the week," he said. "Let’s work to put together a good game plan. Let’s teach the game plan. Let’s have good practices and then let’s go to wherever we got to go and let’s see what happens.”

Texans owner Bob McNair attempted to say it could have been different in September when asked about the earlier meeting with the Patriots. 
 
"When we went up their earlier, we shot ourselves in the foot," he explained. "We had two fumbles in the first quarter and gave up the ball on the 20-yard line. Doesn’t matter who you play, you can’t win playing that.”

Nope. And sometimes, there’s no explaining it. A team just has a collective bad day.

Other times, the collective bad day can be a matter of performance conforming to the anticipated result. One bad thing happens and the, “Here we go again…” starts to creep in.

There’s no stat for that. But there’s no anyone denying a team’s collective mental state will ebb and flow during a game and that the ebbs will be deeper if you’ve got past experience that flows don’t usually come against a particular opponent.

O’Brien will have his work cut out for himself this week simply in convincing his team to not flinch, never mind walking in and taking the game from the Patriots.

Brady shows competitive attitude in Wednesday's joint practice

Brady shows competitive attitude in Wednesday's joint practice

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, West Virginia – Tom Brady’s legendary competitive streak was on display late in Wednesday’s joint practice with the Texans. Executing an end of the half drill, Brady hurried his team to the line of scrimmage and got the defense he wanted. Perhaps over-amped, he misfired on a mid-range out pattern near the Patriots sideline, throwing the ball just past the extended hands of Rob Gronkowski. Immediately, Brady’s hands went to his helmet, his shoulders slumped. 

“I mean we've got to make that play,” said Brady after the session. “It’s got to be a better throw. We've just got to come up with it. Sometimes you get the exact look you want versus a certain play and it’s not a productive play. Those are the ones that you kick yourself on. Then there’s some plays where they’ve got the right defense called versus what you have called and sometimes an incompletion – that’s what it is. Plays where it really should be a completion and a big gain, those are the ones you’ve got to come up with."

That Brady reacted like he did, on a mid-August day some three weeks from the season opener is just another reason why he is who is he. It also punctuated by far and away the most intense pair of days this training camp has seen, and the emotional Brady didn’t hold back, emoting at nearly every turn, directing those feelings to everyone: teammates, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, Texan defenders and even members of the Houston coaching staff. 

“Yeah, I'm always pretty frustrated throughout the day in practices,” he said. “You’re just trying to create some urgency. I ask guys to dig a little deeper. It goes like that. Sometimes things don’t go great in the first quarter of games, sometimes they don’t go great in the first half, sometimes they don’t go great for the first three quarters, but you’ve got to keep grinding. You’ve got to keep digging deeper. A lot of times football is a lot about momentum. Things don’t go well early and then you find a little rhythm, start making some plays, scoring some points and then you can rattle off 28 points. That’s football.”

One doesn’t have to look too far back to find the Pats reeling off 28 off unanswered points. Super Bowl 51 ring a bell? In order to even get to that game, Brady and the Pats had to overcome the Texans in the Divisional Round of the playoffs, a closer than it appeared 18-point victory that saw Houston’s defense do something that few ever manage: they picked off Brady twice and held him to under 50% passing. Though Brady says last season is over and dead, that memory lingers.

“I think what you realize with this team is they're not going to make it easy on you,” he noted. “There is no easy play, there is no easy throw, there is no easy run. They’ve got good players, they’ve got a good scheme, so it’s really challenging and has forced us to raise our game.”

And if the Pats didn’t grasp that concept on their own this week, Brady made sure he brought it to their attention early and often.

La Russa, Crean appear as Belichick's guests at Patriots camp

belichick_smile_ota.jpg

La Russa, Crean appear as Belichick's guests at Patriots camp

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, West Virginia – About 5 minutes prior to his media availability at the Greenbriar in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, Bill Belichick emerged from the gleaming white sports complex with his right-hand man Berj Najarian in tow.

Nothing unusual there. But what happened next was. The appearance of legendary manager Tony La Russa and former Indiana basketball coach Tom Crean.

MORE:

They followed Belichick to his press conference and quickly became the topic of conversation when I asked the Patriots head coach if he was picking their brains prior to the practice. Belichick lit up.

“Yeah, we brought in a couple of big righties from the bullpen that can really throw hard and close it,” he said with a smile and laugh.

Belichick would expand on his relationship with both men. He met La Russa through author/writer Buzz Bissinger, who just so happened to go to high school with Belichick. Thus began a beautiful friendship.

“I’ll never forget the time he let me get in the dugout with him for an exhibition game,” Belichick recalled. “Baseball -- it seems like just throw it and hit it but there's a lot more to it than that. I saw just how much there is on every single pitch and the focus, concentration, all of that. . .  Different sports but Tony is very progressive. He had a great career as a manager, won a couple thousand games. I can't imagine what that's like but it must be pretty good. We've talked a lot about coaching teams, coaching players, dealing with different situations. He's been in a lot of big games, a lot of championships, World Series, things like that, different organizations. He's helped me a lot and given me a lot of insight."

La Russa doesn’t see it that way, noting there was a big difference in the way the two interacted.

"All I know is that when we're together, I'm asking the questions, he's talking and I'm taking notes,” said the former Cardinals skipper. “He's not taking my notes.”

La Russa, who’s now an advisor with the Arizona Diamondbacks, marvels at Belichick’s consistency in building his team year in and year out.

“I believe his ability and his staff's ability, and his team's ability to start at zero every year -- refuse to think about last year -- is an important part of why they are so consistent,” he admired. “It's true in our sport, too, like what Bobby Cox did in Atlanta. It's easy to celebrate the next year. The ability to turn the clock to zero is really impressive and very hard."

As for Crean, letting him attend practice is a great show of trust by Belichick. Crean is, after all, married to a Harbaugh. Yes, as in John and Jim. In fact, Crean was due in Baltimore’s training camp in the coming days.

"I've had an opportunity to spend a lot of time with Tom, watched him at Indiana,” said Belichick. “Again, different sport but I learned a lot from his organization. We speak pretty frequently. Different motivations, teachings, [but] coaching is coaching, even though the sport is different. Players are players, and there are different things you can do to help them. He is a very progressive guy."

Crean’s personality is contagious. He could sell you the car you already own, and had a few reporters ready to ditch our current careers and go back to whatever college he ends up at next. He’s clearly thought a lot about what makes Belichick special, and wasn’t afraid to share his thoughts on the subject.

"Everything matters every day,” said Crean. “As simple as that sounds, it's very complex and hard because there are so many things that can distract that, can interrupt that, can get in the way of it. When I think of fundamentals, and preaching the fundamentals and details on a day-to-day basis -- and then watching it come out in his team -- that's one place you're going to look. He leaves nothing to chance. It would be hard to imagine something missing his radar or the people that are around him. . . He's been very, very good to me, very helpful. I think that's one of the reasons he's such a great leader, great developer of teams, programs, players. He's always inquisitive -- he's helpful. You can get an idea of how great he is with his team because of the way he helps his friends."

When asked if he ever taught Belichick anything - as the Pats coach said - Crean laughed and quickly dismissed the notion. Regardless, it’s clear that Belichick has never been shy about expanding his horizons - sports, business leaders, ex-players, current ones - all in the name of improving as a coach and - as important - improving his team. There’s no disputing it’s worked. Look at all those rings.