Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
The F word.
It’s not a curse, but in football circles few people regard "finesse" as complimentary.
“To me, finesse, you’re pulling flags off waistlines, that’s finesse,” said Titans coach Jeff Fisher, pointing to flag football at recess or in an after-work beer league. “This is a contact sport. There is really no such thing. I’ve never classified an opponent or a player as finesse.”
No so for Bart Scott. After New York’s 24-7 opening day handling of the Texans at Reliant Stadium, the Jets linebacker said, “What we want to do is get hands on them and be physical. That's how you beat a finesse team.”
Yeah, that’s an insult.
As the Texans brace for a trip to Tennessee, they are eager to re-establish that they are capable and eager to play physical football, and not in need of a special categorization that -- fairly or not, accurately or not -- translates to as many people as “soft.”
In Houston, many had hoped a Dec. 14, 2008 game was a pivotal moment for the Texans, who stood up to the brawny Titans and beat them 13-12.
But last Sunday’s handling by the Jets was reminiscent not of the win over Tennessee but of last year’s opening loss at Pittsburgh, a power team that had an easy time gaining control and coasting.
And so instead of answering new sets of questions, the Texans find themselves facing another round of the some old ones.
“It’s entirely our fault, but it’s hard to be tough and hard to be physical when you’re pass blocking a lot and trying to come back,” right tackle Eric Winston said. “Is that our fault? Absolutely it’s our fault. But does one game define who we are or what we are? No. It was the same kind of thing last year.”
“I’m not worried about that. I know who these guys are. If people want to say that we’re not tough, that’s fine. Let them think that and then come play us.”
Look at the Texans' young core of talent, the players who prompted many to pick them again as a breakout team that will emerge as a postseason presence, and there is a good deal of toughness: Receiver Andre Johnson is a beautiful combination of fast and physical. And although running back Steve Slaton is more elusive than powerful, he’s able to gain a tough yard. Defensive end Mario Williams and middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans don’t back down from anyone.
The questions spring to a large degree from young defensive tackle Amobi Okoye, who’s yet to establish himself as a consistent force, and even more from quarterback Matt Schaub, who can light some defenses up but appears skittish against others.
Until Schaub shows he’s undaunted by a big early rush for a long stretch, that reputation is likely to be thoroughly covered in the defensive meeting rooms of the team he’s about to face.
He’s got the unwavering support of coaches and teammates, who aren’t particularly concerned with outside opinions.
“I think anytime you get your butt kicked, there will be all kinds of questions,” coach Gary Kubiak said talking generally, not specifically about Schaub. “I think any question that’s asked is fair. It’s part of the National Football League …
“Obviously, we got off to a very poor start last weekend and got it handed to us pretty good. Now we got to try to go play better in one of the tougher places we play in this league. We’ve got one hell of a challenge and we’ll see how we answer.”
Teams with less-than-mammoth offensive lines that are especially reliant on their skill players can get tagged with the finesse label.
Winston points to the quick, zone-blocking line he’s a part of where the tallest lineman is 6-foot-5 and the heaviest is 321 pounds; he knows it’s not trying to measure up to a power group like the one in Dallas, where the tackles are 6-foot-7, 338 and 6-foot-8, 318.
On the other side of the ball, Ryans said the Texans simply have to dictate things to the Titans starting at kickoff Sunday.
“This game here is straight punch them in the mouth. It’s a heavyweight fight,” he said. “We are going to have to step up and be physical. If not, the same thing is going to happen to us that happened last week. … I don’t think we’re a finesse team at all. We pride ourselves on being physical. But we sure didn’t showcase that on Sunday.”
If the Texans are who they think they are -- to paraphrase Denny Green -- and wind up where they think they are capable of going, they could wind up OK with whatever tags people decide to apply.
Colts guard Ryan Lilja is hardly part of the biggest or most physical line in the league. He doesn’t love the F word. He also has a Super Bowl ring he can wear and look at to distract himself when he doesn’t like what he’s hearing.
“We’ve been coined that for years and we don’t like it,” Lilja said. “But some of our better plays are plays where we use our athleticism as opposed to lining up and trying to blow [defenders] off the ball. It’s not something I think we’re proud of, but we’ve been successful with the schemes that we’ve had obviously throughout the years.”
“It’s not something you want to hear. But when it comes to us, we’ll take what we can get. If we make yards with finesse run plays, we’ll take them. A yard is a yard is a yard. But we try to be able to do both, you know? We like to try to be aggressive with some of our schemes. But some of our plays, obviously they run outside and we try to outleverage them.”