On the heels of a disastrous 2017 season, the Houston Texans are at a crossroads in more ways than one. The team is reportedly negotiating a contract extension with coach Bill O’Brien, despite a 4–12 season and a 31–33 career record. Brian Gaine, the former vice president of player personnel for the Buffalo Bills, appears poised to fill the general manager vacancy. And several key players lost to injury in 2017 are looking to make comebacks, including Deshaun Watson, who may turn out to be the franchise quarterback Houstonians have been waiting for. There is a palpable sense in the air that something great could be just on the horizon. Or as the Houston Chronicle described it, “some weird, unexplainable feeling that next season truly could be special for a team that has, thus far, always disappointed us in the end.”
And disappointed us it as. No amount of optimism about the future can fully erase the team’s legacy of mediocrity and lukewarm fandom. The Texans rank thirty out of thirty-two NFL teams for lifetime win-loss record with 110 wins to 146 loses (.430). In a recent CBSsports.com ranking of NFL teams by fan base, the Texans placed behind all but six teams, two of which are the recently-relocated LA Rams and LA Chargers. Sure, the franchise has only been around for sixteen seasons, but it has hardly captured the spirit and imagination of the Bayou City in that time. By way of contrast, a similar ranking of NBA team fan bases placed the even younger Oklahoma City Thunder ahead of all but six teams. (To make matters even worse, Dallas teams topped both fan base rankings).
But a certain freedom comes with sinking as low as the Texans have sunk. When you have nothing to lose, you are free to throw the rule book out the window, take a risk, try something bold. If the Texans really want to capitalize on that “weird, unexplainable feeling that next season truly could be special,” they need to do something drastic to show fans that 2018 will be the dawn of a new era in Houston football. And nothing would signify a fresh start better than a return of the Houston Oilers.
Twenty years have passed since Bud Adams and the Oilers limped out of Houston without much fanfare. At the time, the “Luv Ya Blue” days of yore were a distant memory, and few tears were shed for the team that had been in Houston since 1960. Yet distance, and time, makes the heart grow fonder. While Houstonians may never forgive Bud Adams for his transgressions, they reminisce fondly about the team itself, proving that a part of the team’s spirit never left. According to David Hunt, the president of a vintage sports memorabilia auction company, when he comes to Houston, “amongst Cowboys, Texans, Titans even, Houston Oilers stuff has outsold it three-to-one.” Clearly, the history and identity of the Oilers is woven into the fabric of the city in a way that will long outlive the circumstances leading up to their departure. Can anyone say that about the Texans? If they were replaced by another team tomorrow, would Houston even care?
Nostalgia aside, the Texans don’t hold a candle to the Oilers from a pure branding perspective. There is arguably no name more befitting the Energy Capital of the World than the Oilers, and there is no city with a stronger claim to that name than Houston. It is a match made in heaven, one that Houstonians can take great pride in. The same goes for the logo, a simple and symmetrical oil derrick, which is as iconic as they come. And the combination of Columbia Blue, Scarlet Red, and White is both classic and distinct.
The Texans, on the other hand, is one of the most generic and unoriginal team names in the NFL, breaking all three of the world-famous Team Name Rules. They could just as easily be the [literally any city, town, or region in Texas] Texans. The color scheme of Steel Blue, Battle Red, and Liberty White is just fine (though virtually identical to the Patriots), but since when does Houston settle for “just fine”? The logo is simply confounding. Why a bull? Do bulls feature prominently in Houston’s history? Is it meant to be emblematic of Texas generally like the longhorn? Is it a nod to the Houston Rodeo? No . . . the thinking behind the logo at the time was that it “provides motion and energy to reflect the fans’ sense of Houston’s past and future.” Oy. (At the risk of digressing, note that a train would be even more representative of “motion and energy,” and unlike the bull, actually has a strong historical association with Houston.)
But what would it take to actually reclaim the Houston Oilers brand? Mostly, the political will of three people: Bob McNair, who, as the owner of the Texans, would need to lead the charge, understanding how the change could energize the franchise, bring in new fans, and symbolize a turning point; Amy Adams Strunk, the majority owner of the Tennessee Titans, which would have to forfeit or sell back the Houston Oilers’ history that went with the team to Nashville; and Roger Goodell, who would presumably have to oversee the undoing of the NFL’s retiring of the Oilers name after they rebranded as the Titans. Of the three, McNair is probably the linchpin. Why should the Adams family care about keeping the Oilers history in Tennessee when Titans fans feel no connection to it? What does Roger Goodell have to lose from reviving an old name that could potentially bring new fans and more revenue to a league in decline? McNair likely has no desire to scrap the Texans’ brand, but given their current state, it would be a bold and visionary move on his part, one that has the potential to generate excitement about his team in a way that nothing else would.
Some fans will say let sleeping dogs lie. The Oilers are a part of Houston’s past, and that is where they should stay. The Texans are a different team with a different identity and blah blah blah blah blah. But picture this: August 2018, first preseason game at NRG Stadium. A crisp, freshly painted oil derrick logo in the middle of the field. The end zones read OILERS in deep Scarlet Red. Deshaun Watson, JJ Watt, and the rest of the Houston Oilers run out on the field, sporting their Columbia Blue home jerseys. Win or lose, there would be no doubt that a new day has dawned for the beleaguered franchise, and Houstonian hearts would beat a little faster.