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Texans have climbed to the top of NFL

HOUSTON — Bob McNair wanted a hockey team, but the NHL, which preferred deserts to derricks, said no. So he ponied up $700 million for an NFL expansion franchise in 1999 and got Lamar Hunt’s permission to use the name of the Dallas AFL team that had moved to Kansas City in 1963.

It’s been a decade since the Texans first donned their deep steel blue, battle red, and liberty white, but at the moment they’re at the top of the league, their return ticket to the playoffs already secured.

“They expected to get in this position,” said coach Gary Kubiak, whose 11-1 squad takes on the Patriots Monday night at Gillette Stadium in the season’s biggest wrangle. “They’re playing in big game after big game. That’s why you do it.”

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Whether the Texans can clinch the top seed and home advantage throughout the playoffs is less important to them than the fact that they’ve qualified for the postseason twice in a row. That may be taken for granted in Foxborough, but it’s a major milestone for a franchise that didn’t have a winning season until 2009.

“You could just see things come together, especially after last season when everything went through our fingers,” said receiver Andre Johnson, whose tenure with the club goes back to 2003. “We found out a lot about our team and the players we had around here. I think that’s what made every player so excited about this upcoming season. We knew we had a good football team and we knew if we went out and played the way we were capable of playing we could be successful.”

The trick is to find a way to get to January perennially, as the Patriots have done. You can’t win it if you’re not in it.

“I think everybody would like to do what they’ve done over a long period of time,” observed Kubiak.

The key is maintaining stability and continuity. When Bob Kraft bought the Patriots in 1994 the franchise had had three owners, four coaches, and five quarterbacks in six years. Once the revolving door stopped with the arrival of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, the winning started.

The Texans went seven years without a winning season before going 9-7 in 2009, and didn’t make the playoffs until 2011, but they’ve laid a foundation through shrewd drafting and smart trades and free agent signings and have established an identity.

“We play till the whistle, we play hard, we play aggressively, we play fast,” said general manager Rick Smith, who came here from Denver with Kubiak six years ago.

In the franchise’s early days, the Texans were content to make opponents play for 60 minutes. But after the grim 2-14 campaign in 2005, their fans were running out of patience. The breaking point came after Houston, which had won the “Bush Bowl” by losing to the 49ers and earning the top overall pick, passed on both Southern Cal running back Reggie Bush and Texas quarterback Vince Young, the hometown hero who’d led the Longhorns to the national title over USC. When the Texans chose defensive end Mario Williams instead, the fans at the stadium selection party booed.

The citizenry, spoiled by three dozen years of the Oilers and seven straight playoff appearances had forgotten (or never knew) about the lengthy trial-and-error process of building a competitive franchise. The owner, who’d made his money in energy, favored patience and prudence. “It begins and ends with Bob McNair,” said Smith, who was brought in when Charley Casserly decamped shortly after the 2006 draft. “The continuity piece is significant.”

The philosophy was to take the long view, drafting elite players who could be career starters and augmenting them with proven veterans from other teams and undrafted free agents who fit the Texans’ profile.

“We’re comprised of tough, smart, disciplined players who are passionate about football and enjoy playing with each other and for each other,” said Smith, who’d been the professional player evaluator with the Broncos. “Gary and the coaching staff have done a nice job of employing schemes and systems that are successful in this league. What we’ve had to do on the personnel side is to make sure that there’s some synergy between what they’re looking for and the players that we’re looking for and selecting. I think we’ve got a good mix there.”

The first major move they made, and arguably the riskiest, was jettisoning David Carr, the franchise’s first draft pick, and bringing in Matt Schaub, who’d started only two games in three seasons with the Falcons.

“One of the most important things that we were looking for at the time was leadership,” said Smith. “There was a limited amount of data in terms of actual film evaluation because he had not played a great deal, but as we did our research, you go back and you rely on your college evaluations and what you saw from the preseason and the limited opportunities that he had. The thing that kept coming back to us over and over again was how this guy connected with his teammates, how much of a leader he was.”

The Texans finally went 8-8 in 2007 and were in the black for the first time two years later. But after the startling 2010 collapse, when Houston went into the bye week at 4-2 and finished 6-10, the front office realized that reconstruction was unavoidable.

“We sat down and we took a hard look,” said Smith. “In some respects we had been on schedule, then we took a step backward and we took a critical look at why we did that. We saw that in a lot of ways we were still on schedule, but we had to fix a major problem and that was on the defensive side.”

The Texans had harvested a terrific draft class in 2009 with linebackers Brian Cushing and Connor Barwin, cornerback Brice McCain, and safety Glover Quin, all of whom went on to start, and added cornerback Kareem Jackson and linebacker Darryl Sharpton the next year. What they needed was teaching and development. So they brought in Wade Phillips, who’d been dismissed as head coach by the Cowboys, but who’d revived defensive units in Denver, Buffalo, Atlanta, and San Diego.

“One of the first things we did, Wade, Gary and I sat down and we turned the tape on and Wade began to describe the kind of players that he was looking for,” said Smith, who’d been a defensive assistant in Denver and earned two Super Bowl rings. “One of Wade’s biggest attributes is that he identifies what a player can do effectively and he will put that player in a position to be successful based on what he can do.”

In one season the Houston defense went from 30th in the league to second. Last year, the Texans drafted J.J. Watt, the titanic defensive end from Wisconsin who has a chance to be the league’s Most Valuable Player this year and spent more draft picks on cornerbacks Brandon Harris and Roc Carmichael, linebacker Brooks Reed, and safety Shiloh Keo.

On offense a solid line anchored by Duane Brown, Wade Smith, and Chris Myers serves and protects an imposing troika of Schaub, Johnson, and Arian Foster, a durable thumper back out of Tennessee whom nobody else would take a chance on but who has posted three 1,000-yard seasons.

“I don’t know that anybody thought that he would turn into the player that he’s become,” mused Smith, “but it’s certainly nice when it happens that way.”

So the victories have followed, a franchise-record 11 and six in a row since the October home loss to Green Bay. That would have been a wildcatter’s fantasy a decade ago, when six Ws were more than a season’s worth.

“Guys ask me about how things used to be around here,” said Johnson, the only Texan who predates 2006. “I give them some of those stories and they laugh and shake their head. I just tell them, enjoy this part of it because the times that I went through, that’s something that you don’t want to experience.”

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