4th and a mile with Paul Muth

Here's what to expect at a socially distanced Texans game

Things look just a bit different from a typical Texans game. Photo by Paul Muth

The Houston Texans play host to the New England Patriots this Sunday in a battle to decide...nothing.

The Patriots are bad. The Texans are bad. The only thing this game offers in utility is something to nap through while nursing a Saturday night hangover.

If ever there was a season to avoid watching or going to a Texans game, this would be it.

Also 2013.

Also 2005.

The only reason this season could be worse is that it is being played in the middle of a pandemic. To be fair though, their on field performance warrants even less fan attendance than the current 13,000 allowed.

In spite of their current Masterclass season of ineptitude, curiosity got the better of me a few weeks back. I had to see what a socially distanced NFL game felt like. So I grabbed a ticket to the Jacksonville game and did just that.

It already felt weird before my buddy and I had even made it to the stadium. We knew something was off when we were able to pull up and park without wading through the infamous soul-crushing Texans traffic. Be it known that my super secret off property parking spot was utilized in conjunction with a quick METRORail ride up to NRG Park. There was absolutely no justification to spend money on gameday parking passes considering that tailgating was forbidden.

With tailgating out the window and stadium beer prices still ridiculous we were forced to watch an 0-4 Texans team face the Jaguars sober. Coincidentally this was also the first in-person Texans game ever that I had actually watched sober. I didn't know that was allowed.

Security checkpoint? Walk right through. Ticket scan? Breeze on by, buddy. Food and beer? Come and get it. It had shades of 2007-2016 Astros-level entrance efficiency, mainly because no one was going to those games either. You can skip and twirl with your arms outstretched throughout the concourse all the way to your seat with nary a chance to bump into other fans.

Once we were inside, though, the mask went on and stayed on. They're serious about it, too. So much so that they've deployed roving bands of mask police in red polos to patrol the concourse. Armed with a sign that says "Please wear your face mask. Thank you!" These sentinels have been deployed to root out problem makers and ruthlessly point at their sign until compliance is achieved.

We reached our section and headed down to our own personal row behind the goal post. That's right. When we purchased the seats, they were being sold in groups of four. Since we were the only two that purchased any, the other two were discarded. When we arrived I had expected to have at least two empty seats near us to stretch out as a result. Wrong.

Every seat not sold is strapped shut with steel strapping typically reserved for bailing machines. They were definitely not playing around with enforcing the distancing.

At the bottom of each row you'll find another mask monitor, back turned to the field. They will harass your section the entire game to make sure everyone complies by passive-aggressively pointing at the person and then pointing at their "Please wear a face mask. Thank you!" sign. It's merciless.

Once we settled in, I had the pleasure of listening to the man with the toughest job of all: the PA announcer trying to hype up an empty stadium.

It's "Texans tradition" during the player entrances that the PA announcer says the player's first name, and the normally packed crowd yells out the player's last name. This crowd certainly did not pull their weight.


Crowd: [incoherent mumbling]

I'm not going to bother talking about the game because it was terrible. But the game experience itself? It was weird. The timeout productions were all on the video board, the cheerleaders were sequestered into different corners of the stands on makeshift stages. Toro the mascot donned a mask. Even with the manufactured crowd noise on loop, it was uncomfortably quiet.

Then came the bombshell.


"This should be great," I thought to myself.

The video board then switched to a graphic of a decibel meter, while the cameraman struggled to find a rowdy crowd big enough to zoom in on. The decibel meter read 105 dB.

I pulled up the decibel meter app on my phone to compare (don't ask why I have a decibel meter on my phone), and my heart sank.

70 dB. We were being deceived. The app equates the decibel level to similar noise levels, with 70 dB equating to "busy traffic." In lieu of "Go Texans!" or "Let's go!" during key situations, we resorted to just yelling "BUSY TRAFFIC" for the remainder of the contest. Our trust had been broken.

Final verdict?

Watching sports in person truly lacks a critical dimension without a crowd. It was uncomfortable and eerie, and the Texans just aren't good enough to merit a trip to Kirby Drive, even if you don't have to worry about lines or crowds. I did the work so you don't have to. If you simply must watch the Texans, stay home, and stay comfy.

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James Harden returned to Houston on Wednesday night. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

"James Harden will always be a Houston Rocket" – Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta, Tuesday March 2, 2021.


Then that must have been some other bearded fellow notching a triple double and leading the Brooklyn Nets to a 132-114 drubbing of the Rockets at Toyota Center, Wednesday March 3, 2021.

What a difference a day doesn't make, as the Rockets fell to their 13th consecutive defeat.

The Rockets played a tribute video for Harden, marking his first visit to Houston since the Rockets traded him, practically at gunpoint, to Brooklyn. On the same day Fertitta bizarrely fantasized that Harden will always be a Rocket, the team owner also announced that the Rockets will retire Harden's No.13.

What is wrong with you, Tilman? You sound like a jilted shnook who goes on the Jerry Springer Show to beg his runaround ex-wife to come back. Harden dumped you, remember? He wanted out of Houston so badly that he turned down your contract offer that would have made him the highest-paid athlete in American sports history.

Don't you recall his farewell comments as a Rocket? The Rockets were "just not good enough. I mean it's just crazy. It's something that I don't think can be fixed."

That's burning down the house on your way out. Not exactly Lou Gehrig's farewell speech, "Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth," and praising his Yankee manager, teammates and owners.

Sure Harden was a video game scoring machine during his eight years in Houston. But he also chased away teammates. The Rockets never won a conference title with Harden. He stunk up the joint during some playoff games and disappeared in others. Overall, Harden was a spectacular player on a consistently good but never great team. That's his legacy in Houston.

I expected a tribute video for Harden and he probably deserved it. Why not? The Rockets did similar videos for role player Trevor Ariza and Russell Westbrook, who played all of 57 games during his one pandemic-shortened season in Houston and immediately demanded a trade.

A tribute video for Westbrook? What's next, a statue of Moochie Norris outside Toyota Center? Renaming Polk Street … Vassilis Spanoulis Way?

Retiring Harden's number 13 doesn't compare to similarly honored Rockets legends who played their hearts out, brought a title home or loved this team to their last playing breath, like Hakeem Olajuwon (34), Clyde Drexler (22), Calvin Murphy (23), Rudy T (45), Moses Malone (24) and Yao Ming (11).

James Harden crapped all over the Rockets on his way out the door. He was the ultimate prima donna during his time here, moody and mopey, demanding special travel arrangements, alienating teammates and taking playoff losses so hard he almost didn't make it to the strip clubs before closing time.

You know the saying, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. In Harden's case, he got going to Brooklyn. So much for the captain going down with the ship. Wednesday night, Rockets fans greeted Harden with some cheers, but more lusty boos on his return to Houston.

"I gave him a special introduction, like a home team introduction, but there were way more boos than I expected," said Toyota Center public address announcer Matt Thomas.

Harden finished with 29 points, 10 rebounds and 14 assists, a routine triple double for him of late. He controlled the Nets offense and dominated the game.

Of course it was a regular season game. It's what he does.

For those of you scoring at home: the NBA team with the most retired numbers is the Boston Celtics, with 22 jerseys "hanging in the rafters." That's the most of any team in any U.S. pro sport. The New York Yankees are next with 21 retired numbers. The Montreal Canadiens lead the NHL with 15 retired numbers. Not coincidentally, the Celts (17 – tied with Lakers), Yanks (27) and Habs (24) all lead their leagues with the most championships.

The NFL team with the most retired numbers is a strange one. It's the Chicago Bears with 14 jerseys that will never be worn again. The Bears have won nine titles, second to the Green Bay Packers with 13 championships.

Harden's jersey will not be the first "13" hoisted over an NBA court – far from it. Three teams, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Golden State have retired Wilt Chamberlain's No. 13. The Harlem Globetrotters also retired The Stilt's jersey, but I guess they don't count.

The Cavaliers retired Bobby Phills' No. 13 after his fatal car crash. Portland retired Dave Twardzik's jersey. Here's some synergy, the Suns retired Harden's current coach Steve Nash's No. 13. And the Spurs retired the No. 13 jersey of James Silas (no relation to Rockets coach Stephen Silas.

And as Charlie Pallilo – and only Charlie Pallilo – will tell you, the first retired number in North American pro sports history belonged to Ace Bailey of the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Leafs retired his number in 1934 after Bailey suffered a career-ending injury the year before.

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