In Houston these days billboards ask, WHOSE SIDE ARE YOU ON? It's a worthwhile question, considering the city's notorious legion of Cowboys loyalists. Good lord, the founder and president of the worldwide Dallas Cowboys Fan Club is a lifelong Houstonian, Bill (Cowboy) Lamza, who for years has happily tormented the locals on sports talk radio. "You can cut the jealousy with a knife in this town," says Lamza, 59. "Is it really a rivalry when you spank your four-year-old boy? I'm listed in the phone book, and I already get hundreds of calls a year from strangers whenever the Cowboys lose. If the Texans beat them, I'll have to go into the witness-protection program."
Earlier this month the Houston Chronicle, in the al-Jazeera role, published Lamza's "Five Reasons You Should Keep Rooting for the Dallas Cowboys Instead of the Texans." Reason No. 4: Texas Stadium has a hole in the roof so God can watch his favorite team play. Reliant Stadium has a retractable roof just in case the Texans are so bad they don't want God to see them.
In fact the Texans are already trying to lower their fans' expectations. General manager Charley Casserly guarantees that the team will not make the playoffs this season. Through free agency and the expansion draft, Houston picked up accomplished veterans at cornerback ( Aaron Glenn) and linebacker ( Jamie Sharper and Kailee Wong). Yet starting offensive tackles Tony Boselli and Ryan Young may miss the first quarter of the season while recovering from shoulder and groin surgeries, respectively. And for all his potential the 6'3", 230-pound Carr—who, by the way, grew up in Bakers-field, Calif., as a devout Cowboys fan and wears number 8 in honor of Dallas great Troy Aikman—is only a rookie. " Peyton Manning led the league in interceptions as a rookie, so we'll have to live through that," Casserly says. "We've got good experience on defense and speed at receiver, but we have no depth. The offensive line was good on paper, but that's not the line on the field."
The team's initial struggles won't lessen Houston's love affair with McNair, the genial billionaire who outbid favored Los Angeles for an expansion team. Since then, McNair's marketing department has waged a savvy campaign to woo fans. Whereas the Astrodome banned tailgating for nearly all of the Oilers' tenure, the Texans encourage the practice, sending season-ticket holders a quarterly called the Tailgate Times. What's more, McNair has bankrolled the finest facilities in the NFL. In a clear nod to Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, Reliant's amenities include a 10,000-square-foot weight room, an indoor pool, North America's largest indoor field and a 60-yard-long locker room with shoe dryers for each player.
Longtime Houston football watchers, however, offer a note of caution about the city's enthusiasm for McNair and his new team. "Bob's had the longest honeymoon since Jackie Gleason," says Chronicle writer John McClain, who began covering the Oilers in 1977. "The first day of training camp I counted 28 media members, which is more than I ever saw in the Oilers' heyday. People are fired up now, but we're a front-running city. If they don't show improvement, it's going to be like what happened to the Oilers."
The Cowboys, meanwhile, just want to be relevant again nationally. For the first time since 1990 Dallas will not appear on Monday Night Football this season. Although the Cowboys don't disclose season-ticket sales, a recent team brochure revealed that sideline and lower-level seats, unavailable in years past, "have found their way back into our 2002 season-ticket inventory" As the Cowboys have found their way into mediocrity, it's no mystery why Jones has embraced the Texans' rivalry or why Dallas agreed to let HBO's Hard Knocks cameras invade its training camp in San Antonio. (Priceless moment: Judy Trammell, the choreographer for the Cowboys' cheerleaders, telling one veteran, "You have gained weight in your face.")
While the Cowboys have built their ad campaign around 33-year-old Emmitt Smith's quest to break Walter Payton's NFL career rushing record of 16,726 yards-Smith needs only 540 more to do it-questions linger at quarterback, where second-year starter Quincy Carter is dueling Chad Hutchinson, a 25-year-old rookie from Stanford who pitched for four years in the St. Louis Cardinals' organization. "We need to see this year that we have a long-term quarterback," says Jones, amping up the pressure on Carter, who responded last Friday by completing 10 of 13 passes in a half of work during a 20-6 win over the Raiders.
The Cowboys' malaise notwithstanding, Texas Stadium has a 96-game sellout streak, and the Texans have a long way to go to capture the hearts and minds of the state's football electorate. Take San Antonio, which has steadfastly remained Cowboys Country despite being 80 miles closer to Houston than to Dallas. (Moving their training camp there from Wichita Fallas, Texas, hasn't hurt the Cowboys' support.) On the opening day of camp, 12,173 Cowboys supporters turned the Alamodome into a noise tunnel. "I've been watching the Cowboys for 30 years," says Joe Garcia, a 36-year-old San Antonio grocery manager who was wearing a Roger Staubach jersey last week. " Dallas is established already, but you never know. Winning brings a lot of fans."
Even if Cowboys-Texans fails to mature into Cowboys-Redskins—or for that matter Texans-Titans, whose highly anticipated meetings take place on Nov. 10 in Nashville and on Dec. 29 at Reliant, the season finale—nobody denies that Sept. 8 will be a historic day in Houston. "You know, we could lose every other game this season," says Lockridge. "But if we just beat Dallas, I'll be the happiest man on the face of the earth."
Speaking of festive occasions, Lockridge and his wife, Annette, already have the names picked out should they ever have another baby. If it's a boy, he'll be David—as in Carr. And if it's a girl?