Broncos & Tim Tebow 24, Texans 23: If You're Disappointed, You're Not Thinking Big Picture
Yet the franchise has never been this close to finally breaking through.
In seven days, the nightmare that is 2010 comes to an end. The historic defensive futility, coupled with a Jekyll and Hyde offense that plays just one half per game and has a penchant for late-game miscues - it all mercifully draws to a conclusion.
On the surface, there is no hope. There's no 8-8 or 9-7 finish from which to garner that Gary Kubiak's Texans are on the "right track". There isn't a miraculous late-season turnaround to make fans wonder.
In the NFL, teams are what their record says they are. For once, the Texans are unmistakably bad.
It could be exactly what they need to become good.
Owner Bob McNair is an optimist at heart. He believes in continuity and in the character of his staff. He wants a reason to hope, and usually finds one, even if misguided.
Tim Tebow: Don't let him beat you deep
This year, there is none. Not even a shred of one. A team led on offense by the reigning Pro Bowl MVP, Pro Bowl leaders at running back, fullback and wide receiver, and on defense by a former No. 1 pick and Rookie of the Year - is on the verge of finishing 5-11.
The group that started 4-2 is on the verge of losing nine of its last 10 games. The defense is one game from becoming the first unit in NFL history to allow at least 24 points in 15 of 16 outings.
McNair isn't perfect, but he's a savvy businessman. He pulled the plug on Dom Capers following the 2-14 disaster in 2005, and from a talent standpoint, the 2010 Texans are underachieving far more than even their 2005 version.
On Sunday, Kubiak and his hand-picked defensive coordinator Frank Bush reached a new level of ineptitude. Sure, it was the sixth or seventh game in which the Texans, who once led 17-0, snatched defeat from the jaws of seemingly-certain victory.
What made Sunday different was the opponent.
In meltdowns against Jacksonville, San Diego, New York and Baltimore, the Texans were at least facing playoff-contending teams. The Broncos are arguably the worst team in the NFL. Led by much-maligned rookie Tim Tebow in only his second start, Denver had just three wins all season and was two weeks removed from being dominated by lowly Arizona.
Enter Kubiak and Bush.
On the stat sheet, Tebow carved up the Texans as if he were John Elway in his prime, tossing for over 300 yards, throwing for a touchdown and rushing for the game winner.
What made matters worse, though, was in how he collected those yards.
The rap on Tebow is that he doesn't have an NFL-caliber arm or release. Sure, he can run. Yes, he's a leader. He can go through his progressions.
But can he make the downfield throws against complex coverages and NFL-caliber athletes (well, for the Texans, perhaps NCAA-caliber is more accurate) in the secondary?
For the most part, the Texans didn't even make him try.
Leading 23-10 in the fourth quarter and with Tebow facing a 3rd-and-11, the Texans allowed a simple screen to Correll Buckhalter to end up in the end zone. It was one of many times on Sunday in which the Texans acted as though they had never seen or heard of a screen pass - all against a team desperately and knowingly seeking to limit downfield throws!
Moments later, the Broncos eventual game-winning drive should have been stopped before a single first down. But on 3rd-and-11 (again), the Texans left Buckhalter completely uncovered out of the backfield.
Several plays later, Tebow marched in for the winning touchdown from the six-yard line, without a single Texan attempting to spy or contain on the outside.
In short, against a quarterback known for runs, short passes and an extremely questionable downfield arm, the Texans chose to protect the deep ball, effectively daring him to play around the line of scrimmage.
Yet again, the culprit in defeat for the Texans wasn't so much talent as it was common sense and leadership.
McNair may be conservative, but he'd have to be a buffoon of epic proportions to stay the course.
In seven days, the carnage ends and disaster becomes opportunity. The Texans have enough talent, even now, to win games, and observers around the league know it.
It's why the likes of Bill Cowher have been linked to Houston, and Jon Gruden could be as well. There is a historic crop of available big-name, proven coaches, all primarily seeking a quarterback they can build around and an owner that will stay out of their business while spending enough to contend.
Of the potential coaching vacancies, Houston with quarterback Matt Schaub is at the top of the list in all categories. And with a loss to Jacksonville, it should offer a top 5 draft pick to boot.
The final record will ultimately be irrelevant, other than for draft positioning. Ask division winners Kansas City, St. Louis and Chicago how much their failures in 2009 meant for 2010.
So while the casual fan might bemoan another heartbreak, the reality is that the Texans could be closer than ever to the success Houston fans crave.
Only seven days remain to find out.