The 2022 Texans Preseason Survey — Results

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

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When I posted a survey of Texans fans last week, I must admit, I did not have high expectations. I asked a lot of questions, and my general belief in the attention span of other people is low. 600+ responses later, I’m blown away by how much attention this got. Specific thanks to Steph Stradley, Sean Pendergast, Seth Payne, and Landry Locker for promoting the survey, and particularly to the latter three for making it a part of their radio shows last week. And, of course, thank you if you spent your hard-earned time filling out a 20-question survey. I know it’s not an easy ask. I have left the survey open for more answers if you want to get in, but a week is a long enough sample to me. I’ll close it for good when the Texans officially open camp.

I will post the poll answers and give you a synopsis of what I believe these answers really mean/how I’d answer them. Some of the answers were surprisingly realistic to me! Some of them were … optimistic. Some questions will have a different number of responses than others, because I did not require you to answer every question to submit the survey. But every question got at least 600 responses.

Davis Mills franchise quarterback questions

So the majority of you believe that Davis Mills will finish among the 20 best quarterbacks in the NFL in 2022. The majority of you believe that he needs to be a top-15 quarterback to not be replaced. My read of these results is probably a little counterintuitive, but it’s based on watching fans be fans for years: If there’s any question that Mills could still be a franchise guy or not, I think there will be support for him here. And let me be clear from a franchise-building standpoint: That can be a little dangerous. The ability to talk yourself into a quarterback who isn’t good enough to be a star is not a danger for every NFL team. But this particular Texans team, which hyperfocuses on character and off-field traits? I have some concerns. I’m not saying this like Mills doesn’t deserve a chance — he’s earned it — I just think there’s an assumption of rationality that if he doesn’t show that he’s the guy that Houston will draft a quarterback. I agree this will happen if Mills gets hurt or bombs out, but if he’s the 18th-best quarterback in the NFL next year? I wouldn’t at all be surprised to see him starting in 2023.

Get well, John

This question was hijacked by John Metchie’s leukemia diagnosis over the weekend. All my best to him as he fights this disease. I truly hope he recovers and makes it back to the Texans — I would be lying if I said I thought the Texans should count on that at this point.

Nico is seen as the obvious answer here. In studying them last year, I actually kind of like Brevin Jordan’s odds to make a run for this. I don’t think Nico played particularly well as a rookie. But he will have his chance to take a second-year leap, and with Metchie’s injury, I certainly can say I expect a lot of targets. Where else is the ball going to go? The only thing that could hold him back is if Pep Hamilton decided to have him split snaps with Chris Conley or someone of that ilk.

The win total

Part of me is comforted by the answers to this question. One of the big problems of fly-by-night internet commentary is you start lumping in most optimistic or most pessimistic people you know with the most optimistic or pessimistic takes you see. I wouldn’t be stunned if the Texans won six or seven games. I certainly wouldn’t predict it to happen, but it’s a far cry from the rando YouTube comments about going to the playoffs or shocking the world. Most of you aren’t on that path, and I’m happy to see that.

If I had to pick something now, I’d put the Texans down for four wins. I reserve the right to change my mind between now and then if preseason ball strikes me one way or the other. I think the Jaguars are going to have almost as much of a say in this as the Texans do — Houston’s other two wins last year were them finding the only run defense in the NFL they could bull over and a game which they turned over the Titans six times. If the Jaguars become competent rather than another disaster, I think that hurts the outlook quite a bit.

Talking rookies

Some of this to me is just about availability — we didn’t get many coach quotes on Stingley and Green as they worked back from offseason surgeries/injuries. Meanwhile, Pitre suited up every day in OTAs and has a good chance to work as the starting safety replacing Justin Reid.

But I’m still surprised by Stingley’s performance in this poll. Is it because we have great expectations already, and him being solid is a disappointment? Is it because we’re worried about his last few seasons? This is a poll question that doesn’t really provide a great insight on the deeper meaning of Stingley’s placement.

The McNairs have a problem

That’s over 76% of Texans fans giving the McNairs a four or worse on the confidence scale. I’m sure some of this is about certain highly public gaffes — using a slur to refer to COVID-19 at the charity golf classic, the fact that Cal McNair has a real problem talking about things in public without putting his foot in his mouth — and I’m sure some of it has to do with the records. But more than that, it just kind of feels like there’s a level of trust that the organization wants from its fans that has been unearned? The Texans tried to pivot the McNairs heavily into the philanthropist way last season. It doesn’t look like it much took.

I expected the placement of Bill O’Brien in this poll to be what it was — what I did not expect was that McNair would receive more than double the blame of Your Favorite VP Of Football Operations. I know that one hired the other, and I know that McNair is ultimately accountable for him. But, you know, one of them is actually signing checks, and the other one is the one who actually made several mistakes with O’Brien and in an interim basis without him, right?

Nick Caserio continues to be the overwhelming champion of faith among the fanbase

I think I’d be at about a 6 myself — not entirely convinced that Caserio can’t build a winner, but utterly tired of the culture rosters and the self-inflicted cap space wounds. What it comes down to is that we don’t have any evidence that he’s whiffed on a major decision yet, and I think he is getting extra credit from fans for a) not being Bill O’Brien to the point anything competent looks good and b) trading Deshaun Watson before things got worse. I tend to think B was mostly luck rather than skill. Almost all of his real moves in 2020 blew up in his face — Shaq Lawson, Marcus Cannon — and at the end of the day, I don’t really care if Kamu Grugier-Hill is better than advertised if he doesn’t deliver real value to the roster. We shall see how that unfolds in year two.

I’ll say this: I’m very curious if the Texans don’t get productive seasons from their rookies this year how that will change. If Mills stagnates, Nico doesn’t take a step forward, you get starts but not actual game-changing plays — how much credit will he get simply for filling the holes with NFL-caliber young players?

Give me the over on Texans fans here. This is a guy who spent late-round picks on Anthony Miller and Ryan Finley. I would be way more comfortable holding a ticket for 3-4 than I would 1-2.

So this question has two purposes. One is as a broad check on approval of the roster from an emotional level. Does it breathe, act, look like a real NFL roster? Another is about the value of the players on the roster. I think most respondents took this emotionally. Logically, if you’re telling me I have my pick of the quarterback prospects in the draft, plus the 20-30 guys you can get from a real football factory, and as a bonus I get to tank and get more good picks … well, I’m going to take that. I’d rather have Bryce Young and Will Anderson’s futures than anybody on the Texans. Let alone anybody else who might pop up from Bama and be a real NFL star in 3-4 years.

But I understand why the results were what they were.

I shouted these two questions out early in the poll, which I fear swung it a bit, but there’s really a sizeable portion of the fanbase that doesn’t want to re-sign Tunsil as compared to Howard. I think that’s wild on the results of how the two have played here, but when you bring more context into it — missed games for Tunsil, how much Tunsil would cost, etc. — I kind of understand the swing.

Tunsil’s contract is one of the biggest questions this team has going forward. He’s simultaneously the only player on the roster that made ESPN’s top 10 at each position and also the only player on the roster that has never felt like a pure extension of the culture the Texans are trying to instill. Personally, I’d hate to lose him, but I would understand if the Texans decided to trade him at the deadline.

Similar faith in Pep Hamilton and Lovie Smith

Pep trends slightly ahead of Lovie Smith, but both guys are viewed fairly highly as we enter the season. Lovie has more middle-of-the-road believers than Pep. While I appreciate that Lovie has a consistent voice and actually speaks to the fans — something nobody else in the organization does — I do have my doubts that he’s actually a good NFL head coach in 2022. Good defense is timeless, and I’m not here to shit on the Cover-2 — I do think the Texans don’t change it up enough to be a top defense, and I’m especially worried about that early in the season. My belief is that the defense changed last season to fit the run, and not for any other reason.

Pep, well, we’ll see. I covered Pep when I had the AFC South for Bleacher Report during the Andrew Luck era. I’m excited about play-action passes not being terrible, and kind of like Caserio I think he benefits from the “at least it’s not this guy” bounce with Tim Kelly. But I don’t think he has the talent to really make this “feed your playmakers” approach work and I’m worried that, again, this will be a run-heavy offense that can’t run.

This is a level of confidence I’m surprised about — I don’t believe Lovie is any kind of sure thing to survive this season. That’s not a Josh McCown Waiting Game opinion, but an opinion based on how quickly Houston was willing to wash their hands of David Culley. If they think they can do better, why would they keep Lovie? I think there’s some fire under his butt for 2022, let alone 2023.

If there’s one thing that the Texans have done since Easterby came on board in 2019, it’s a lot of turnover. They got to the process of hiring Lovie almost out of nowhere. I would not presume anybody on this staff is safe without a step forward.

Actual on-field players: The Tunsil Question and the leaps forward

I know it’s a good poll question when I see a vote split like this — Brandin Cooks narrowly beating out Laremy Tunsil by two votes. I would actually put my vote for this on our fourth-place finisher, Jon Greenard. He had eight sacks in 12 starts last year, and when you listen to him talk, I think he’s the kind of guy who breathes ball.

I think he knows exactly what he has to do to get sacks, works hard on the little things, and can be this team’s Whitney Mercilus of the future. Maybe Whitney Mercilus-plus if everything breaks right. He’s also only 25, and his second contract probably won’t be out-of-the-park wild. If I had to stake my chip on one guy to still be a valuable NFL player that wasn’t drafted in 2022, it’s Greenard. The injuries at the end of the season just memory-holed him to an extent.

I’ve 100% got my eye on what Garret Wallow does in preseason after he drew effusive Nick Caserio praise — the interesting thing about that is that they have stuffed the linebacker position with solid veterans. Does Wallow’s step forward mean he actually plays real snaps and relegates somebody to the bench? For the record, Charlie Heck got two votes.

I would put my chip on Brevin Jordan. I think he’s got a cleaner path to production without improvement than Nico Collins does. I think Davis Mills already took a step forward at the end of last year, which colors my perception of him enough to where I wouldn’t consider a full season of what he did in the last month a real step forward. But that’s kind of beyond the bounds of what this question asked, so it’s hard to see if that’s me projecting why he’s winning or why he’s actually winning.

I’m not surprised Marlon Mack won this poll because of perceived need and his standing as a skill position player — more people have heard of him than the other guys in this poll. I would personally put my chip on Okoronkwo. He’s got some nice pressure numbers in small samples, and I think he’s the easiest projection on the defensive line to get pass-rush snaps. “Impact” is an interesting word, in the sense that I could see Jerry Hughes providing a lot of impact as a mentor even if I don’t necessarily believe he’ll play 600 snaps and get eight sacks.

Touches meaning receptions + rushes — which I think is something that may have slipped by some of the responders — I think Burkhead is being majorly undervalued by this poll. I understand why nobody wants it to be Burkhead, but the truth is that the Rexaissance was the most consistent back the Texans had last season, to the point that they re-signed him before free agency.

I think Dameon Pierce will eventually have a chance to make a real move on the job, but it probably comes too late for him to factor in this poll. If Mack splits the run-down carries with Burkhead it’s an easy win for Rex. I think he has to downright dominate carries to win.

This is my favorite poll result because it tells me how rational you all are. The vast majority of us feel like anything more than 20th place is a dream — I think that’s a good way to consider things.

I hold out hope for Kenyon Green to make a major impact down the line, but the last time the Texans had a lineman ball out right away as a rookie was … Brandon Brooks? Earlier than that? Duane Brown struggled. Tytus Howard took his lumps. George Warhop’s young guys in Jacksonville did no better. He’s the impact blocker to dream on, but I would be surprised if he was instantly good. And A.J. Cann doesn’t move the needle for me either. And Laremy’s run blocking is … up-and-down, to be polite. Justin Britt wasn’t good last year and there’s not a lot of reason for me to believe he will be this year. Pierce is the only guy in the backfield I have any faith to be a major tackle-breaker and he’s a rookie. So … yeah, I don’t expect a lot out of this unit in 2022 again.

I love the split on this question so much. I can understand why Grugier-Hill is winning, as I think he got more of the spotlight than anyone else last season. Let me offer Christian Kirksey to you as my choice. 1) They re-signed him before free agency started, on March 11th. 2) Nick Caserio was effusive in his praise for him playing with a club. 3) Kirksey seems to be regarded as a culture leader. 4) Kirksey also seems tight with Lovie, which gives him more room to stay in my book.

Ultimately this is probably gonna be a question that comes down to stuff that’s not fun to talk about: injuries, declines in performance that are too big to not notice, and so on.

The final three things looming over the franchise

That this split is as close as it is really tells me a lot about how much faith the Texans have from portions of their fanbase. McCown actually had never been asked about this on the record anywhere that I could see before Kalyn Kahler had him join Defector’s new QB2 podcast:

The most telling words McCown spoke during that interview were how he answered a question about his credentials as someone who has never been an NFL coach before: “to a degree it’s more answering questions when you go through an interview process than it is necessarily, you know, pitching someone.” He gave a large account of how backup quarterbacking is essentially partially coaching, and fair enough, but the onus falls on the Texans, not Josh McCown. They don’t have to view him as a serious coaching candidate, and they can choose to not interview him. They did neither of those things before the whole scenario backspun. I don’t necessarily believe that McCown would be a bad offensive coordinator, by the way. We have no idea and no real data how it would go. But it would look bad, and the Texans seem to have realized that at the last minute.

I don’t really understand where this is coming from. It’s interesting to me. I know that John McClain mentioned this at one time. I also know that the Texans have spent a lot of the offseason downplaying Easterby’s involvement in anything. Those are both, to some extent, things that the Texans benefit from putting out there. He’s not a particularly well-trusted executive at this point and the idea that he has any say at all in any aspect of football operations is wildly unpopular.

But at the end of the day, he hired the general manager. I think by virtue of how different the first coaching search was from the second coaching search, you can read between the lines and say that he was the main reason David Culley was hired. He’s the one who has Cal’s sway. He walks on the sideline like he owns it every Sunday and in every practice. And he has per Sports Illustrated a six-year contract that reportedly pays him between $5 million and $6 million per season. What’s his motivation to leave? That fans don’t like him and are mean to him on Twitter? (Even after he tried to shield himself from that by putting his kids in his profile picture!) They have no power in his life. He’s never been held accountable in a real way and gets to do whatever he wants for a lot of money. That’s not a combo that screams “I’ve gotta get outta here.”

Innit.


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An ask: Fill out a 2022 Texans Fan Survey!

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

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You might think summers come easy to football writers — I actually got that from someone I was surprised to hear it from yesterday — but the reality is that from about the start of the draft to the beginning of July I am constantly writing things to preview the season for different publications. I’m in both Athlon’s Fantasy Football and regular NFL magazines, I have five chapters again in Football Outsiders Almanac 2022 (Cleveland, Dallas, Pittsburgh, Washington, Top Prospects), and have continued to schlep away at NBC Sports Edge on the blurb desk and on some of our various fantasy previews.

That leads me to a couple things: One is that I’m tired. By the time I finish the yearly 7,500-word FOA top prospects chapter I’ve probably put in about 70k words between all these little articles, snippets, sidebars, and so on. Another is that when I’m not specifically assigned to focus on the Texans in the offseason, I kind of don’t! I went back and caught up on what I missed to the extent that I could — watching old interviews, reading everybody’s stuff — but that’s not quite the same as living it live. I waive keeping up with it because my sanity can only takes so much, and as a result I’m generally quieter as a social media “presence” from May-July than I am at any other time.

But after a couple of offseasons where I was writing the Texans chapter in FOA and thus had them glued into my head anyway, I’ve come out of this year a little slow. So I want to see what they’ve been able to do to you in a period of — best I can tell from the outside — unbridled optimism. (And I hope you do put your name on that if you are optimistic!)

I’ve created a 25-question survey (click to link out to it) about the Texans as we head into 2022. Some of the questions are pretty simple: How confident are you in Nick Caserio on a scale of 1-10? Some of them are a little more complex. I’d like to see what everybody’s feelings are. I would also like to write about the results, something that I will do if 100 or more people actually answer the survey. I have nominally titled this a Texans fan survey, but if you are devoted enough to answer 25 questions about the Houston Texans, bless you, I’m counting you.

To get that result, I’m sorry, my calculations tell me I’m going to have to be a little annoying about it. So you might see this two or three times a day for the next week. And hey, here’s that link to the form yet again: https://forms.gle/3BDQKTDGs4iQQrgt8

Thank you for helping me create some dead zone content.


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The state of Nick Caserio’s rebuild

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

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Outside of their role in the leftover Deshaun Watson lawsuits, the Texans have settled into a pretty comfortable news cycle that looks something like this:

1) An optimistic point is presented. (John Metchie’s looking good! The run game will be better!, Davis Mills could be really good!, Etc.)
2) Nobody challenges it.
3) There’s no on-field results to challenge it with yet.
4) The point lodges into the discourse and is another brick that some other optimistic point or idea will be built upon (John Metchie’s looking good! -> He’ll play and find his way to 700 yards!)
5) Repeat 1-4.

None of this discourse actually matters, much as it didn’t in any of the past two offseasons, but I largely use these couple of months to let optimism carry people where they want to be. I’ve long ago learned the lesson that anyone who wants to be optimistic about their favorite team can’t be stopped. Go on. Enjoy a little Jalen Pitre hybrid slot-corner dream as a treat, you’ve earned it with all the depressing stuff over the past couple years.

I mostly disagree with Nick Caserio’s culture signings (See: CultureBall). I feel those signings a) come at the expense of opportunities for younger players and b) seem to serve as an excuse to put a premium on young players who have those cultural touchstone tendencies, because the roster is already full of Our Guys even if Our Guys are 30. But outside of that, I don’t have a major complaint with how he’s handled the few big decisions he’s been given every year. I liked drafting Davis Mills at the time. While I wish he would have gotten more for Deshaun Watson at the time, his hands were largely tied by a no-trade clause he did not give out, and the potential of a season-long Watson suspension is going to help him make up some of the value I was concerned about. I don’t understand drafting Derek Stingley in the context of what Lovie Smith’s defense has traditionally been, but I think he has the kind of upside that makes him worthy of a No. 3 overall pick — especially in a tough class for top-of-the-line talent. I get signing Brandin Cooks to an extension even if he may not be a part of the next great (or maybe even good) Texans team.

Help him for the next 10 yrs?

The biggest compliment I can give Caserio is that he hasn’t really done anything I’d consider a fireable offense. I’m not a fan of the culture emphasis, but if the plug is pulled on that in 2023, it may have cost them a couple of solid-value younger player discoveries at most. He’s made a lot of tiny bets, and the benefit of that is when you’re wrong, it doesn’t actually matter. It won’t matter if Justin Britt is bad again, because if he is and they think they can do better, he won’t be here. His two-year contract is a one-year deal with an 80% cap savings number in 2023. The only players on the roster that would not save money in a 2023 release are Cooks and guys on rookie contracts. It creates feel-bad scenarios, I would argue, because if the Britts and Eric Murrays play poorly, there’s really no point in them playing at all. And to a man, almost none of the re-signers (I will exempt Maliek Collins) actually played building-block-level football last year. But they’ll be Guys To Be Remembered in three years, and if you want to know more about how you’ll feel about them, ask yourselves how much you’ve thought about David Culley in the last six months.

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But I do feel like Caserio has been given a lot of praise locally. He’s actually in a position where he was almost guaranteed to do so. Consider the optics:

1) Nobody wants to talk about Jack Easterby, now renowned for (the kindest possible interpretation) knowing about Deshaun Watson’s access to the Houstonian. Nothing anybody can say about Easterby still being here looks good, so the fans who do talk about him default to pretending he is unimportant, and the team is loudly telling anyone who asks privately about how uninvolved he now is in football when he is (checks notes) the vice president of football operations. I’ll believe that when he’s not on the sideline.
2) Bill O’Brien was one of the worst general managers of our lifetimes.
3) The quarterback quit on the team.
4) The team outside of the quarterback was a smoking crater when Caserio was appointed.
5) The amount of public faith in ownership feels staggeringly low.

You would have to try hard to invent a scenario where Caserio would not be praised locally. The bar for anyone taking over this team was on the floor. Any kind of change would be a positive.

What I want to point out is an Athletic Podcast from about a month ago that I listened to during busy book season entitled How to rebuild a NFL franchise. The concept of this podcast was that Robert Mays, Nate Tice, and Mike Sando took turns revealing lessons of successful rebuilds of the past decade or so. (Or so because the Seahawks get discussed alongside the Rams, Chiefs, Bills, 49ers, and so on.)

Here’s the full list of major lessons they discussed (they had a few others of interest such as securing left tackle early, adding pass rushers as finishing pieces, continuity with offensive staff, being willing to spend cash compared to just cap, you can’t have shitty ownership):

1) For the most part they hired the head coach first and made him the focus, and then found a GM who fit well with him.
2) You have to nail the quarterback — you either have to be in position to take one early, or be in position to grab one and build up the team around them. (Position meaning assets.)
3) None of these teams were absolute crap early, they were competitive early.
4) You need the right quarterback right away — someone who is going to keep you competitive, and someone who when everyone else walks into the huddle, they know this “isn’t a fucking joke.”
5) Less fear-based cultures … “Andy Reid’s a serious guy … but I think you kind of like him too, and trust in the idea that he has your best interests at heart.” “How many of those guys go in and want to be little Bill [Belichick]s?”
6) Don’t be afraid of the mid-tier free agents and find free agents that can be culture-setters for you — and weren’t just one-year wonders for those teams, but became pillars. (Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer, Robert Woods)
7) Those picks have to become something at some point. (Dolphins mentioned as going 0-for-3 on first-round picks in Tua year, if you stand pat with three first-round picks and you blow all three, welp! Raiders also mentioned with Jacobs/Ferrell/etc.)
8) Able to make really targeted personnel moves for high-profile veterans when they wanted/needed them. (Mentioned Stefon Diggs, Percy Harvin, Cliff Avril, Frank Clark, Tyrann Mathieu)

Alright, so some of these it’s just too soon to tell about. I’d mark off 8 for there — I have no idea if the Texans will get high-profile, they’re too far away in their own heads. I’d mark off 7 because we just don’t know how the picks will go yet, and mark off 4 because we don’t know the ultimate outcome of Davis Mills yet. Let’s throw those off the board for the moment as neither wins nor losses.

But I think it’s pretty clear that 1 is not happening. I think it’s pretty clear that 3 is not happening. I would certainly say based on the enormous cleansing and public character assassination of the 2020 roster that 5 is not happening. I think they’ve done a good job about the assets for 2, though I worry about how they’ve used assets in the past couple of drafts. 6 … I think they’d say that six is happening, and I think some fans would say that six is happening, but I think the intent of the point in their eyes is to find guys who will be long-term starters for you over the years. I don’t see those guys, I don’t think Christian Kirksey will be a good football player in three years. So by those guideposts, the Texans are batting .333 on the ones they can actually control. (As long as you assume that Mills is going to be reasonably successful, which I’d say is more likely than not even if he’s not a franchise quarterback.)

Is that good enough? The Athletic finished that week with a podcast about their top 10 GMs to “build a roster from scratch.” Not mentioned at all: Nick Caserio. Brad Holmes was mentioned in Detroit, so it wasn’t just about current results. No Caserio.

Now, is The Athletic Football podcast the only place on the planet you can get smart football news? No! But I think they do a pretty good job covering the bases and talking to the right people. I also think a lot of the national analysts who are more prone to waving their hands away and saying “this is going fine” don’t have a lot of interest in digging into the Texans. Mostly because, well, they’re not really going to matter in their current incarnation until 2023 at the earliest. Why waste the time and resources to learn more about them when a lot could change by then? It’s a lot easier to say “hey, they finally have a couple first-round picks on the roster, Nick Caserio is building something but he needs more time.” That was likely going to be the case even if Caserio was doing all the small shit I would rather see from someone in his position: the calculated youth free-agent risks, less talk about culture and more about creating value, more trade downs than trade ups, the ability to retain good free agents that were already here, and so on. But stripped of all that, what we have here is a very simple tale: Caserio’s culture better produce results with the drafted players, or there’s little point to the rest of this.

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Where I’m at with the state of the Texans rebuild in 2022 is: I don’t think Caserio has bungled anything major so far, but I’m also not ready to buy in on the plan. To me the state of the roster called for value appreciation rather than trading up and being emboldened to love your veterans. That was true when Caserio took over, and it’s still true now as Houston sits here for a second straight season of not being favored to win a single game.

But when you look at that Athletic list, Caserio really needs 7 to come true. He can’t have singles, he needs doubles at the very least after trading up for Christian Harris, Nico Collins, and John Metchie. He needs these guys to be producers instead of proficient vets. This team simply can’t afford for them to fail, because if they fail, the fallback plan is for the same culture vets to try to teach a new generation. Yeah, they’ll have more high picks. That’s nice. The Jaguars have had plenty of high picks too. That doesn’t guarantee you the right to go anywhere. And the fact that personality and player makeup weigh so heavily in the evaluation process for this crew vis a vis getting elite talent at positions of value is something that will concern me until the day they have some established NFL elite talent again.

The Texans aren’t adrift as they were last year. Their games matter more than they did towards the tail end of 2020 and for all of 2021. David Johnson still hasn’t been brought back. There are reasons for optimism. But the standard can no longer be “we’ve put some young guys on the field next to the vets and they’ve held their own.” The entirety of this season is about guys like Mills, Nico Collins, and Brevin Jordan becoming productive NFL players rather than guys who got on the field. It’s on Stingley, Metchie, Kenyon Green, Jalen Pitre, and Christian Harris being good enough to be productive right away with higher draft value. That’s exciting in the sense that it’s way more promising than what 2021 was about, but the goalposts have to come with us. It isn’t enough to just see young players on the field — they’ve got to be good.

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From Caserio with Love: A Texans Draft Review

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

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Nick Caserio’s Texans took an important step towards healing the wounds that this fanbase has suffered over the weekend. They don’t have anything that is guaranteed to mean anything tomorrow, but they have planted some seeds that could one day be the sort of future star players that an NFL roster needs to be competitive. I think it’s important to point that out. I also think it’s a fanbase reaction that was almost guaranteed to happen unless the Texans selected Malik Willis or someone totally off the map at No. 3. They stayed logical enough to a board of value to not get that sort of implication.

My reaction to this draft comes from two places: understanding and disagreeing.

I understand that Caserio places a mega-premium on the makeup and personality traits he believes are the differences between success and failure. I understand that he fills the roster with other guys that have these traits in an attempt to further create that mindset. And I understand the intersection of those two things create a place where he trades up, as he’s demonstrated often in the last two drafts, because the value he places on culture guys outweighs the value of spending roster spots on young players who won’t be. I have already seen the inklings of “this draft should prove he cares about talent first,” but I don’t think I agree with that interpretation of what happened here. Caserio isn’t even trying to hide how important player makeup is to him. It comes up in literally every public conversation he has.

I can’t square this draft plan itself with any logical and rational standing of the state of the roster. The team’s not good. They have enough good players that I can’t rule out them being good in, say, 2024, as well as competitive in 2023. They aren’t one John Metchie or Christian Harris hitting away from being good. We live in an NFL where teams like the Ravens purposefully went out of their way to stockpile third- and fourth-round picks, and where even the Rams have a plan where the volume of cracks at hitting a successful pick they have explicitly matters. It’s a volume industry, and Caserio is — what were his words again?

There’s a certain football fan that this talk is — let’s be honest — very charming to. It’s certainly a stark contrast to Bill O’Brien’s whiny nihilism where he’d allude vaguely about things that needed to be corrected, then never do anything about them. There’s nothing sexy about saying “We don’t know if we’re going to hit on these draft picks, that’s why we make a lot of them.” It’s smart, of course. Exactly what this roster needs if we’re being honest with ourselves. I would have taken the Ravens draft over the Texans draft even though the Texans started with two picks before Baltimore picked for this reason. But this has long ago stopped being about constructing the best long-term roster that can be created.

I have to be careful when I type this next part because there’s a segment of the fanbase that is on High Easterby Alert and needs to believe in Very Clear Terms that He Is Not Involved. Even though he’s on the sideline on gameday and obviously in the draft room and also is Literally Director of Culture for a team that can’t stop talking about its culture. I don’t think Easterby’s running the draft, I don’t think he’s making personnel decisions.

I do think it’s impossible to escape the fact that from the moment he’s arrived, everything the Texans have done as an organization has been about a) ignoring what everyone else is doing and b) betting as big as you possibly can on what you believe in. And it’s impossible to ignore that he is the reason Caserio was hired. Maybe Caserio would have done the same thing in any GM role he had — he certainly has plenty of pre-Texans background that suggests he’d value his prospect interviews anyway — but for an ostensibly rebuilding team to take so many “we know better than you” stances is revealing to me. “Noise outside the building” is practically an allegation for this organization. And if you fail? Well, there’s plenty of Twitter account quotes for how noble that is.

I think a lot of fans take my stance on how culture is important to this team as a personal attack on the organization. I will say this: I’m happy to stop talking about culture when the Texans are. Win some damn games and we can praise the culture all day. I’d love nothing more than to document the story of how these tough and smart players they targeted cornered a market nobody knew about. That’s just … not the story we have yet.

Caserio has put himself in a position where he needs to hit every single one of his picks in the first four rounds. And I really mean hits, not the kind of hits I think some fans are counting where last year’s mid-round picks got to play on a roster that largely lacked talent and that was a “victory” even though no unit on the team actually empirically played well. What Caserio is trying to do here is, to use his parlance, launch a dinger from an 0-2 count, down three runs in the third inning.

I’m not going to tell you he can’t park one over the fence with this draft. The players he got have talent. But when you concentrate all of it into so few players, some of whom have legitimate injury questions, you certainly open the door to going down swinging.

***

Thoughts about the picks

I wrote a piece early Friday morning on the Derek Stingley and Kenyon Green picks. With a little extra time to reflect, I think I’m pretty happy with the points I brought up there. I like the upside of the Stingley pick and the fact that this draft class as a whole is pretty weak makes me more comfortable with the gamble on him. I understand the draftnik criticism that it’s not the ideal pick at No. 3 overall, but really there was no market for trading up this year and the class dictated that the pick would “feel” bad compared to a normal year.

I’m even more upset about the Green trade back than I was at the moment, because so much of the capital was spent in trade ups. I think Green’s a legitimate guard prospect, and someone who has a chance to start early if the coaching staff can correct him. But I’m sorry, you can’t make me feel happier to have him than I would with Jordan Davis or Kyle Hamilton. It’s just not going to happen.

On to the Day 2 picks! I did a few mock draft simulators along the way where I connected Jalen Pitre to the Texans in the early second round. Unlike the Green pick, this is one where my thinking became more optimistic with time. I really wanted the Texans to land Breece Hall and most smoke tended to lean that way until the Jets traded right in front of them and snagged him. With some time to reflect on it and the shock of the moment wearing off, I’m happy with the Pitre pick. I think he can bump out and cover inside on passing downs, has enough tackling to play run fits out of two high, and my only real concern on him is the size. 5-foot-11, 198 pounds isn’t “small,” but we haven’t seen it with real NFL punishment. But if someone was stupid enough to make me a GM, size obsessions by scouts might be the No. 1 thing I tried to exploit.

Caserio Press Availability 4/29 on John Metchie III

Where the draft jumps off the rails to me is trading up for John Metchie III at 44. They gave the Browns 68, 108, and 124. Those picks became: Martin Emerson, Perrion Winfrey, and Cade York. Forget the kicker, I’d take the first two picks over Metchie, who is coming off an ACL tear. He broadcast to reporters in his initial Zoom availability that he’s on track to be ready for the season, but Caserio would not commit to a timetable about him coming back when asked. Metchie also required two surgeries at the end of the 2020 season, which is concern at his size.

Metchie did no testing, but at 187 pounds he’s in the bottom 20 percentile of all NFL wideouts, his arm length and wingspan are similarly in the bottom 20 percentile. Guys like that have to absolutely fly — except Metchie had, per Dane Brugler’s draft guide, zero receptions of 50+ yards after September 2020. I don’t mean to diminish the good things that he does do — the route-running and the after catch yardage — but I’m having a hard time understanding the scenario in which a player with this many flags is worth a high second-round pick, let alone a trade up. By the time he’s ready to play this season, he may be so far behind that the team can’t really do much with him. Guys that show little promise in the first season typically have an uphill battle in their second year.

In many ways, I find Metchie to be the biggest test of the Caserio system so far. The Athletic’s consensus big board had him 62nd, and I can’t find anyone in the inner circle of people I trust to do this stuff who will tell me there’s not backup risk. And you’re not taking this chance in a package of an outside receiver, either. There seems to be a lot of risk he’ll wind up as a slot-only player. And what did Caserio say above? “I would say we like probably as much as any football player in the draft.” Read that. He loves him! That’s quite high praise! Maybe it works out, but it’s not where I’d want my chips to be. I’d have been much happier with Skyy Moore or David Ojabo — who I think has a legitimate chance to be a beast edge rusher and thus is worth the wait — at this pick.

Caserio Press Availability 4/29 on Christian Harris

I’m of two minds on the Christian Harris move up. The price wasn’t anywhere near as bad as the Metchie trade, costing the Texans just 162 to move up from 80 to 75. (I tend to value the first three rounds pretty highly, and see a fourth as a place where you have a chance at a player. Fifth or on you’re really banking on deep stuff going right.) But this was the one early pick the Texans had that didn’t really seem to target a position of need — they drafted Garret Wallow in 2021 and also have committed mid-level dollars on their dream team of culture leaders at middle linebacker.

What Caserio’s breakdown won’t tell you is that Harris needs to take a step forward in coverage. Lance Zierlein wrote: “Harris’ lack of desired recognition will result in missteps and mistakes that could prove much more costly on the NFL level. However, he could thrive as a chase-and-hit, weakside linebacker, where he can play faster. He can handle some coverage chores but it’s not his strong suit.” His PFF grade declined in every season and he allowed a “111.0 passer rating in coverage” per them, with a comp of … Christian Kirksey. Hey, sounds familiar.

So does he start as a rookie? Probably not on passing downs with that read out, right? But that’s what they praised him for. I’m curious how they’ll square that. I think it will probably be 2023 before he gets a real trial inside. The Texans better be able to teach him some coverage, or it’ll be Zach Cunningham’s worst years all over again.

My favorite pick of the draft was Dameon Pierce, who reminds me a lot of Duke Johnson in that he can contribute in the passing game and never met a hole he couldn’t hit fast. Pierce did his interview with the media shirtless and was by far the most gregarious of the guys the Texans drafted. He makes it to the fourth round because there’s simply not a lot of tread on his tires — why didn’t he start at Florida? Why was he used so little? (Wow, this Duke Johnson comparison keeps growing!) I think his breakaway speed is lacking, but he’s got enough juice in the open field to make defenders miss. That was something that was painfully lacking for the Texans last year, as they finished third-to-last in the NFL in RB broken tackles.

Despite my personal enjoyment of the player, I do worry a little bit about his first-year role. Caserio concluded his roundup about the pick with: “We have a lot of good backs in this building, and I would say he is a part of that group, but I wouldn’t say he is any better than the guys that we have in the building.” I don’t agree, but the Texans do not care about my opinion. I think pass protection has the potential to be a major bugaboo for him. As much as I’d just point to David Johnson’s pass protection from last season as a reason that doesn’t matter, traditionally the Patriots acolytes tend to value it. I understand why a fantasy guy would want to look at this backfield and put major bets on Pierce, but I have my doubts he escapes from the quagmire early without some rough play or injuries by those ahead of him.

I think the Thomas Booker pick at 150 is being a little overlooked. He drew a lot of pre-draft interest from teams. He talks the talk, as you can see in the video above. Caserio mentioned that he’d probably be playing one-technique or three-technique for the Texans. Kind of eye-catching to me when you consider that Ross Blacklock is headed into year three and that’s supposed to be his spot — is he on the outs? I could see Booker growing into a rotational lineman with some pass-rushing prowess. Those guys tend to be reliable NFL players for quite a bit if they hit.

I’m a little surprised it took so long for the Texans to draft a tight end considering the state of the roster at the position. Brevin Jordan showed some promise as a receiver in his rookie season, and Pharaoh Brown is probably better than he showed in 2021. But for how important two tight-end sets are reputed to be for Pep Hamilton, it sure feels like he doesn’t have a second guy who can be counted on to be versatile. Heck, I’m not sure you can count on Jordan to be versatile yet after just one season. Teagan Quitoriano has one of the best names I’ve ever heard, ruined only by the fact that it is pronounced “tee-gan.” I don’t have major hopes for any fifth-round picks, but this was a big stretch compared to some of the other available prospects. Quitoriano had a 6th-7th grade from Zierlein, and was a priority free agent in Brugler’s draft guide. He also is almost solely a blocking prospect. This is a pick where I get why you’d want the player at the end of the day, but the aspirational value of selecting them in the fifth-round feels off. There’s not enough ceiling here to me.

Finally, Austin Deculus — sixth-round LSU tackle — looks like a reasonable pick. 46 college starts, it’s the sixth round, he could be a depth piece, he could move inside.

Thoughts about Nick Caserio’s drafting strategy after two drafts

Eventually we’ll get to the point where we can zero in on some Texans benchmarks as far as speed/frame/arm length and so on. But for now, I just want to start off with what pops out to me about the two drafts in the Caserio Era.

1 — Nick Caserio loving SEC players was the talking point of this draft, but the real talking point needs to be Power Five conferences.

Caserio has taken 14 players so far. Not a single one of them has been from a non-Power Five conference. The SEC has six, the Pac-12 has four, the Big 12 two, the Big 10 and ACC each have one. If you listen to him talk about the high level of play that Stingley went up against every day when he was playing against Ja’Marr Chase in practice, it immediately became extremely clear that he values playing and winning reps against the bluebloods of college football.

2 — Nick Caserio loves trading up

In addition to what we already went over above, Caserio gave up two fours and a five for the third-round pick that would become Nico Collins in 2021. They also traded picks 203 and 212 for 174, then 174 and 233 for 170, which became Garret Wallow in 2021. He talks over and over again at these press conferences about pockets of players and making sure you don’t miss out on a window. And then he does everything he can to not miss out on a window.

3 — Nick Caserio loves players with a long history of being good

Your high school recruiting record matters to Nick Caserio. Kenyon Green was a five-star recruit. Not only that: How quickly you get on the field in college matters to Nick Caserio. Green started as a freshman. You may have heard something about Derek Stingley’s first year in Baton Rouge. Jalen Pitre started eight games as a freshman in 2017. Christian Harris started as a freshman and was 79th on the ESPN 300. While Metchie didn’t start as a freshman, he was a) behind a stacked Alabama class that included Jerry Jeudy, DeVonta Smith, and Jaylen Waddle and b) still active for every game before starting as a sophomore.

Nico Collins? 150th on the ESPN top 300. Started as a sophomore, was active as a freshman. Even Teagan Quitoriano managed to play as a freshman (a bit) and a sophomore (heavily) — it’s a big factor for Nick’s comfortability with a prospect in my opinion. Austin Deculus was the first player in LSU history to play 60 games.

4 — In 2022, the Texans brought in every prospect they selected in the top three rounds in on a private visit.

I find this revealing, particularly when paired with some of the statements Caserio has made about pre-draft visits:

Now, of course, we don’t keep track of every visit every team ever has, but I find it instructive that not many teams operate like this. The Cowboys are the team who had the most reported top 30 draft visits that I could find. They wound up drafting Sam Williams and DaRon Bland, but had no contact with Tyler Smith or Jalen Tolbert there.

Again, when I harped on this people took it as if I was pointing out that they were foolish or that there was something wrong with this — I don’t really know what to make of it as compared to the rest of the NFL, and some of these visits aren’t well-reported anyway. But I’m not very surprised that Caserio and the gang who value personality traits would want to test these guys face-to-face in the facility before they drafted them.

5 — In my eyes, Nick Caserio is targeting his weakest roster positions in the draft

It wasn’t broadly surprising that the first four picks went cornerback, interior lineman, safety, and wide receiver. The Texans were awful at corner all last season, a fact that Lovie Smith admitted out loud.

They can’t bring themselves to say that Justin Britt isn’t good, so the other interior line positions must be bad if they can’t run the ball. They’re relying on retread wideouts. They lost Justin Reid in free agency. Had the Jets not snapped ahead of them for Breece Hall, they likely would have picked him. Instead they picked Pierce. The Texans had plenty of spots of weakness (or at least that they’re old at if you’re valuing the culture vets), but you didn’t see them go after a quarterback when the board went that way. They didn’t draft a tackle early. They didn’t draft an interior defensive lineman early.

When you have this much leeway to play around in what I think we can all admit is a rebuild, it says a lot to me that they’re still going after positions where they are the weakest first.

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Overall, I feel like this is a respectable draft. The process behind the trades are what rankles me the most — I think Green and Metchie in particular have a lot to live up to based on the What Ifs you could play. But that doesn’t mean they’re bad players or incapable of developing into more than the tiny snapshot we have in front of us. Or that my lack of relative interest in them in prospects compared to who could have been taken is some damning statement on their futures. There’s almost as much ballgame left as there can be.

There are just swings here that I would’ve passed on.

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The Texans finally draft a Johnathan Joseph replacement

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

***

I don’t really do draft preview posts at this point, which is a shame for #thebrand and #engagement because you guys love to talk about the draft. I will be upfront: I don’t have a whole lot of confidence in my ability to pick these guys out to be winners. I don’t watch college games live very often, and while I watch enough video of these players to call it a passing interest, I’m not going to grind down to the bone to figure out if I think this mid-round tight end is a third-rounder or a fourth-rounder. Jordan Pun is your guy for that.

Frankly, when I do that stuff more competitively, what I realize is that we’re blessed publicly with maybe about 25-30% of the total picture. Medicals, interviews, tracking data (Caserio referenced this recently in an interview) — it’s just wildly easy to have a take based on some combine numbers and some highlight clips. But it’s classic Dunning-Kruger effect. And if I don’t have all that much conviction about something, what I tend to do is quiet down and do a lot of listening to the people I actually respect about the process. (Matt Waldman, Dane Brugler, Lance Zierlein, Josh Norris, Nate Tice, etc. etc. etc.)

I think this is a drop in the bucket of a Texans rebuild. But at least there’s water in the bucket. I don’t agree with both picks in so much as I, with my limited information, might have done something else. But where I’m at is: I’ll try to understand where they’re coming from, and I’ll be upfront with you and tell you that nobody really knows how these guys are going to turn out. I try to keep a very probability-focused mindset on the draft.

***

1 / 3: Derek Stingley Jr., LSU, CB

Name the last great Texans cornerback season. The answer is probably Kareem Jackson in 2018, and I would argue that he was really still a safety playing cornerback even then. The Texans haven’t had a true No. 1 cornerback since Johnathan Joseph aged out of it. Bradley Roby was a stable CB1, but I don’t think anyone would argue that his play here was top-notch. It’s been a hole for a long time. Even people who literally work for the Texans would say this:

The major reasons to draft Stingley over Sauce Gardner are that a) Stingley has more play against better competition and b) Stingley’s 2019 season was the highest high for any cornerback in the class. Nick Caserio cited seeing him play against Ja’Marr Chase and players of that ilk when asked about Stingley at his post-round-1 presser:

Stingley, of course, played just three games last year for LSU as he fought a Lisfranc injury. That was a major reason why he kind of rode the downslope for most of the draft process after being bandied about as a potential top-five guy for most of the college football regular season. It turns out that this didn’t matter to the Texans. I watched his post-selection conference call with local media and you’re not going to get a lot of words out of him. I found that kind of interesting because Dane Brugler’s draft guide listed one of his weaknesses for Stingley (in some eyes around the league, of course) as “scouts say he doesn’t have an Alpha personality.”

If it were up to me, I would have taken Kayvon Thibodeaux with this pick. I think he’s the most talented player in this draft. But knowing how the Texans operate, and knowing the questions about Thibodeaux’s commitment to football, I really didn’t come into this with any expectations about Thibodeaux ever donning deep steel blue. I was expecting this to come down to either Stingley, Sauce Gardner, or Ikem Ekwonu. I think of those three players, the Texans probably made the right pick. I can see the arguments for either of the other two players. I think Stingley is the swing-for-the-fences pick of the two cornerbacks and, while I understand Ekwonu’s appeal, I was a little lost on the value proposition of a guy who might start at guard at third overall.

It’s hard to say how quickly the rookies will get run on a team that is ostensibly full of veterans that deserve a chance, but Stingley will be in competition with Desmond King, Tavierre Thomas, and Steven Nelson. One thing I am earnestly curious about is how quickly he’ll get a chance to play. Rookie cornerbacks only rarely look great right away.

1 /15 Kenyon Green, Texas A&M, G

Caserio’s post-draft presser gave us the nugget that he could have traded down again with this pick, as he initially did from 13 to 15 for picks 124, 162, and 166. He ultimately deemed the idea “too cute” and instead settled on something that has very obviously been a point of contention within the building due to the back-to-back 32nd place finishes in run DVOA: people who can move people.

Green tended to be regarded from what I read as the more raw of the two big guard prospects in this draft between himself and Zion Johnson, who went to the Chargers two picks later. Brandon Thorn, who I would trust on offensive line play more than most, appeared on a few podcasts (I’ll dig these later, sorry, I do like to sleep) and the basic gist of what I got from him is he thought Round 1 was rich for Green, but that he could understand what the scouts were seeing.

Green’s major dings are about technique, not the body that made him a high-level high school recruit. Brugler’s draft guide cites him as a “penalty magnet.” I’m a little worried about giving George Warhop this high of a pick to build with because it’s not like his recent track record with young linemen is great. Jawaan Taylor and Cam Robinson barely developed at all. His Bucs days with Lovie had Ali Marpet, but also Donovan Smith.

In short, I’m not a huge fan of this pick because I a) understand the burden it’s going to put on one guard to turn a run game around and b) I just think there were better values up and down the board. I would have picked Zion of the two guards, I just think he seems more likely to be a steady contributor. But more to the point — and I have to note that depending on which draft models you believe in, the Texans did well on this trade — I simply would have stayed put and drafted Kyle Hamilton or Jordan Davis at 13 if these were my options. Frankly, I would have been happy with Hamilton at 3, so to have that scenario just fall into Houston’s lap and watch it slide away was a little disappointing.

I’m less in love with that return than Seth is simply because the top three rounds are the draft bread-and-butter to me and the Texans received no picks that happen in those rounds. The real question here is what happens with the picks. It gives Caserio ample ammo to move around and target other fallers that he likes, which in theory can be a very good thing. He could also simply take many shots, which could also be a good thing. My read of Caserio is that there will be some trade-ups over the next two days to target players, as he did with Nico Collins in 2021, that he values higher than consensus. Given the volume of culture veterans already on the roster, I would be surprised if Houston made all the picks they have left.

It was also of note that Caserio quickly dialed in on Green as an inside guy. He again parroted the idea that the best five linemen will play. I think at this point I’d expect Laremy Tunsil at left tackle, Tytus Howard at left guard, Justin Britt at center, Green at right guard, and Charlie Heck at right tackle. Based on how things have played out publicly, that seems like the five they believe in most at the positions they believe they’ll tolerate best.

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Day 2 and a few random thoughts

37th overall has fallen in a manner that invites some intrigue. Malik Willis is still on the board, as are Breece Hall, Logan Hall, Nakobe Dean, David Ojabo, Arnold Ebiketie, Jaquan Brisker, Christian Watson, Skyy Moore, and Jalen Pitre. Both of the Halls have come in for top-30 visits with the Texans — as both Green and Stingley did. Caserio noted that there was some consideration about trading back up into Round 1:

I do wonder who they might be targeting here if they were considering moving up. I think you can argue any of the above players — plus a few more — would be good fits for the Texans. I personally would favor Dean and the Halls as my favorite picks left for them at 37.

-Wanted to point this out because it came up again as I was reading things and I realized that Jair brought this up earlier:

Green? You guessed it, a top-15 overall recruit. Caserio really seems to value the idea that someone who shows great talent at a young age counts for something over the long term.

Nakobe Dean was the 19th overall recruit in the 2019 class…

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The Texans backed up their words and paid Brandin Cooks like a core player

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

***

After an offseason of mostly dull signings, the Texans did exactly what you could have predicted they’d do by their words: They re-signed Brandin Cooks to a two-year extension that is commensurate value for his performance.

We don’t quite have full details of the deal, but at the very least, this will likely tie Cooks to the Texans for the next two seasons. It’s possible that the third year is also onerous enough to latch Cooks on to the roster because that’s a large amount of guarantees, but we’d need the full contract structure to know for sure. (And there’s also the question of if the deal is guaranteed for injury or fully guaranteed … agents tend to promote whatever part of it looks best. We’ll see where this comes in.)

Cooks is the Texans player that everyone always calls underrated. But underrated is a buzz word used by people who don’t actually watch players and just see some line score stat compilations and don’t hear anyone else talking about the player. He’s in a perfect situation to be underrated. In his first year without The Quarterback Who Used To Play Here, Cooks morphed into a volume receiver. He finished sixth among qualified receivers in Targeted Air Yards at 36.7%. That was up almost 6 percent from 2020. He performed better with Davis Mills in the lineup and I don’t think that was a mistake — Mills started the year extremely focused on Cooks and often had problems getting to his second read. It also made some sense to focus on Cooks because, well, nobody else in the lineup was producing or winning often.

I think in an ideal world, Cooks would lose a little of his volume. His rate stats declined slightly under extra target duress this year — he gained just 3.8 yards after the catch, his lowest since 2017, and a career-low 50% of his catches went for first downs against a career average of 60.8%. That probably relies on the Texans getting more established weapons around him, something that they’re going to have to dream into existence via a Nico Collins breakout or a highly-drafted wideout.

I don’t have to admit it often over the past few years, but the Texans made a better evaluation of Cooks than I did when they traded for him. My major concern was about the concussions, and while I believe he has been evaluated once or twice for one in his Texans career, he’s been able to stay healthy for the most part. Now whether Cooks is more valuable than the player he was ultimately traded for, Van Jefferson on a rookie contract, is probably an open question depending on how you feel about tanking. Lance Zierlein pegged Cooks’ value at about a fourth-round pick now. That’s not what Texans fans want to hear, but it could also help explain why there was not a trade. Jeremy Fowler noted that teams were still worried about Cooks’ concussions in the past.

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Of course, if you actually listened to the way the Texans talked about Cooks, you’d realize that there was no way he was getting traded. It’s been a constant barrage of positivity about his leadership, to the point where Houston media began parroting what they’d heard and started asking other players about it often.

I will be honest, from the outside, I don’t get it. Cooks complained loudly about Mark Ingram getting traded, calling it “bullshit.” He pouted that he would retire if he was traded before the Nick Caserio hiring. He quipped “at least someone’s doing great things this year” about the Astros playoff run. I’m not saying he doesn’t work hard, and I’m not saying he doesn’t do other great things inside the building. But the leadership that we can see doesn’t quite mesh with what we hear about it.

Regardless of my own feelings about his leadership, it’s clear that everyone on the personnel side values who he is as a person. He was an Easterby guy in New England. He is, as far as I know, the only player on the team to directly be asked about Easterby and provide a fully positive response.

And thus, this extension felt like something that was always going to happen — it was just a matter of when.

***

Where I ultimately come down on the issue of keeping him versus trading him is that I don’t think it actually matters. I know that’s kind of odd to hear about the Texans actually taking a stand on someone, but it feels like they took a stand on him so long ago that this didn’t change much. Would I have traded Brandin Cooks for a second-round pick if I were general manager? Probably. But I don’t think the team is going anywhere, and I would just be trying to accumulate long-term value. If all they could get was a three or a four, well, it makes sense to keep him.

I don’t think it’s a bad contract — it’s a contract that has some shock value, even to me, but when you compare it to other extensions signed this offseason there’s some sense in it. The other part of it is that the Texans still have a ton of cap space in 2023 and 2024, no matter what. This doesn’t lock them out of doing anything. And anyone who has had to be the face of this miserable last two years deserves to be well-compensated for it.

I don’t think there’s a reason to believe that Cooks is going to fall apart in the near future. His speed looked normal last year. There’s nothing in watching his sample of passes that gives me cause for concern. It’s just that they need many, many more players as good or better than him to create any momentum as a franchise.

***

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Nick Caserio has created CultureBall

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

***

The bet that Nick Caserio has made this offseason is the same one he made last offseason. It’s not about tanking, because if they were tanking, they’d trade Brandin Cooks and Laremy Tunsil. They’d employ a full lineup of young guys and try to find some long-term value out of some of them rather than signing veterans. It’s not about full-on getting the best players, because, well, look at the roster. There are clearly enormous sacrifices made for talent in the name of culture. Some teams get Robert Woods and Amari Cooper for their late-round picks. The Texans get Blake Cashman and Ryan Finley. And they retained almost all of their myriad free agents, bringing back 18 of the 22 free agents they had that have signed so far. Even guys like Jeff Driskel.

The bet is something that I think you can best find in this answer from the We Traded Deshaun Watson presser:

Over and over again, the culture is enjoined as a reason for these particular players to be here. There’s an unstated belief that these players can somehow instill the values that the Texans want all their players to have into the next generation. Combine that with the front office self-selecting for their favorite personality traits in drafts, as noted below:

It feels like the Texans are trying to create the players that they cannot find — the mythical players who are both really good at football and also have their desired level of conviction, self-starterism, and teamwork values. When the rubber hits the road on those things, they pick the player with the characteristics they value over the talent.

It also feels like a very, very stupid way to run a football team to me. I’m not saying that you have to build a team 100% with talent over culture, there are plenty of players on the roster and selecting for chemistry over talent is a sensible tradeoff at times.

The problem is that the Texans are all-in on it. They’re doing CultureBall.

***

Having gone through two Nick Caserio offseasons — talking about the actual acquisitions, not the everlasting Watson drama that he couldn’t do much about — my major conclusion beyond the culture is that it’s fence-paintingly boring.  I don’t think that his signings are bad in a vacuum, I just think they’re all so low-risk as to be pointless, and there’s so many of them that the big picture largely becomes pointless.

Could Ogbonnia Okoronkwo become a good rotational edge rusher? Sure, I could buy that as a potential outcome. Does the contract he signed benefit the Texans if he does? Not really! It’s a one-year contract for a 27-year-old. He’ll have to be re-signed almost instantly to be a part of the next good Texans team. Could Dare Ogunbowale be a solid third-down back? Sure! Does the contract he signed benefit the Texans if he does? Not really! It’s a one-year contract for a 28-year-old (in May). These are the kinds of deals that make sense if you’re trying to create competition for a role on a contender. This team isn’t a contender. If I tried to analyze every Texans contract, 85% of them would end up in that same basic vein.

Caserio’s best signing from last year’s initial flurry, Tavierre Thomas, is also one of the few players that he actually gave a two-year deal to. (The only reason nobody praised it at the time is because Thomas had almost no NFL playing history on defense, he was primarily a special teamer.) This offseason he’s handed out more two-year deals, but instead of giving them to players who could be risers, it’s to 31-year-old Justin Britt, 30-year-old Christian Kirksey, and 28-year-old Desmond King. Caserio has approached roster building for this team like he’s an insurance adjuster. Even nominal splurges like Jacob Martin — one of the players they were rumored to want to keep — getting a three-year deal at $4M per season are too much to match. Caserio defended re-signing Britt and Kirksey like so:

Now, I don’t know what kind of metrics Caserio is relying on in saying these two were good last season, but the run offense was historically bad and performed slightly better without Britt. (The best game the run offense had all season, against the Chargers, actually had Jimmy Morrissey at center and Cole Toner at guard.) The defense suffered no drop-off without Kirksey and gave up plenty over the middle with him. I’m not saying these guys are “bad” players. They’re NFL pros, and obviously as you can glean from the clip, their locker room contributions are valued. Enough so that they don’t even get dinged for being hurt last season by the front office. But I can’t get behind them being two of the better players on the team last season from any space of objectivity.

Is Caserio right in a vacuum to not add risk to this team’s future cap space? I guess I could squint and believe that. But at a certain point, you have to believe in some football players to be good. Someone to be the core of what this team will be in 2024 besides rookie contract guys and Brandin Cooks. And he just doesn’t seem to do that. Brandin Cooks is here, and Laremy Tunsil is here, but neither of them are currently on contracts that go past 2023. (I’m sure they’ll work to extend Cooks if he wants to be here.)

The 2023 Texans, post-Watson trade, will have about $100 million in cap space available. Some of that will go to draft picks, sure. But that’s before they renegotiate with Laremy Tunsil, who has a $35 million cap hit in the last year of his contract. They are literally nothing but rookie contracts and Some Guys at that point. Before you get all excited about the free agents Caserio can sign, well, teams that go 4-13 three years in a row don’t really get the pick of the litter. Players like winning. Players like winning on their terms. Short of overpaying somebody who is actually in demand, something that would seem wildly against the Caserio Brand after these past two free agency periods, why would anyone come here? The Texans are going to need instantaneous dominance from both their 2021 classes and 2022 classes to get to a point where players want to come here in 2023. There’s a long recent history of teams like the Jaguars and Browns and 49ers in their Losing Eras getting stonewalled by free agents. To some extent, that may already be happening to the Texans, and they may be dealing with laughs from someone who might make sense on paper. Let’s imagine a New England roots free agent who has a real chance to be good in 2024. I’ll call him J. Jackson, no, too obvious, how about J.C. J.  

Now, would I like if they signed Jackson? Sure. Remember: Literally $100 million in cap space next year with easy avenues to more. They can backload the hell out of any deal they want right now, please do not tell me things like “Rivers they can’t because Deshaun was on the books still!” Bullshit. The goal is to build a good football team and every brick you put in the wall for 2024 — to use a McNairism — helps. That’s my point of view. 

But even if that’s not something you want to do, because Jackson could get hurt in 2023 or whatever, Caserio also isn’t using his wares all that creatively. He’s eaten cap space to make a trade, but outside of having to do so to deal with the Saints, he’s not really canvassing the league trying to help broker things. He’s trading for low-risk guys with his late-round picks. His biggest swings were for Marcus Cannon and Shaq Lawson and those were disastrous trades. You’re telling me the Texans can’t find an Osweiler contract to take on for a third-round pick? I don’t believe it. Caserio talks all the time about how thorough the operation is, but it’s thoroughness wasted in the guise of staring at mortality rates for football injuries or caring deeply about culture instead of getting players that are or could be good at football in 2024 signed up for it. Once you clear the culture veil, you have a free pass. He literally even re-signed his waiver claims this year. Royce Freeman! Early in free agency! 

***

OK you fucking smartass, who would you sign then? Fucking so smart, not an NFL GM, are you!

I get some variation of this sometimes. I hope I got the spirit of it right.

Lemme tell you some players I would have been targeting if I were the Texans, who have successfully turned second-year contract players like Kevin Walter into solid/average fixtures. I’m not trying to hit home runs here; I’m simply trying to nail down some young guys who I think could still be good in 2024. There’s a very clear type here in my eyes: Guys who could be 28 or younger in 2024.

*Tim Settle, who signed with the Bills, has a history of being good and is just 24. He got a two-year deal. Maybe you would have had to pay him a little higher than the Bills did to get him in the door, but this is the kind of guy who could both a) be swayed by a higher payday and b) could still be starting/in a big role in 2024.
*James Washington turns 26 in April and has spent his past three seasons anchored to Ben Roethlisberger’s inability to throw deep. Signed with Dallas.
*Ja’Whaun Bentley is coming off a nice season in New England and turns 26 in August. They brought him back.
*Former first-rounder Jabrill Peppers is coming off an ACL injury and is just 26.
*The Falcons just brought on Lorenzo Carter, another 26-year-old with some versatility. I can keep going.

I want guys who could be in their primes in 2024. Or I want to be paid to take on guys who can still play. What if the Texans had accepted Austin Hooper as part of the trade with the Browns for Deshaun Watson, and they got an extra pick out of the deal? When a team like the Saints plays salary cap hell on a fiddle, why aren’t the Texans there with a fifth-round pick seeing if there’s a deal to be made for someone talented that makes money on the roster? “Oh, well, they don’t have the cap space!” you might say. But, well, a) they did and b) every contract is made to be re-negotiated. The Texans chose to spend a lot of it bringing back older culture players, and a little of it on Maliek Collins. Now for all I know, the Texans were in on one or two of the guys I mentioned. I’m almost positive they have internal measurements to be met that might make Washington a bad fit in their eyes on body type. That’s part of why I’m not all that interested in TwitterDebating specific guys. Forget about the specific players; it clearly isn’t an ethos to chase guys in this vein. (They finally brought in Marlon Mack for a workout after I started crafting this post, he’s 26!)

I admit that I’m not a professional general manager, and I have mostly stopped creating pieces in the vein of “the Texans should trade/sign for (THIS GUY)” because it has felt wildly pointless since 2019. I don’t know everything an NFL team knows. I also don’t think the Texans are operating in the same parameters I am because they don’t believe the same things about football that I do. But for all the Deep Process the Texans claim to have … it sure doesn’t amount to anything all that creative, and certainly not to anything with a real risk to it.

***

Let’s be blunt: For everything the Texans can claim they did well in 2021, all of it is fleeting. Their culture is so good and important that they fired the head coach and had to have a last-hour intervention stop them from hiring someone who’d literally never coached anywhere before in his life. They turned the ball over a lot more on defense. Cool, thankfully no team has ever regressed in turnover rate. They brought back several key veterans from a 23rd-ranked DVOA defense only now those players are older and Lonnie Johnson is projected to start at corner and Justin Reid is gone. The less said about the offense the better. None of this, broadly speaking, matters. While I’m not a tanking guy, the four wins don’t matter. Nobody cared, certainly not the fans who didn’t show up.

There are moments to be remembered (Tyrod’s first game, picking off Tannehill with no targets four times, some bad things I won’t rehash to save your memories) and that’s about it. The broader NFL will pretend this team doesn’t exist post-Deshaun outside of whoever they pick high in the draft. Do I think it’s good to have a good culture? Sure! Did it materially change anything for the Texans as far as better players on the roster? Nope. All the rookies played, and that was good. But despite flashes, nobody really established themselves as a core piece going forward just yet. 

They spent the entire year playing older veterans at several positions — why is Eric Murray still here? — and those players have largely either declined in value or held steady. A few guys got raises — Kamu Grugier-Hill got $750,000 more this offseason, for instance — but that’s mostly because of the cap increase. They all stayed in roughly the same dollar bracket. They signed almost no undrafted free agents, and with 69 players on the roster and a ton of draft picks, they’re likely looking at the same tiny class of UDFAs they did in 2021. Let me set aside the actual starters on this team for a second. Why would you rather employ Cedric Ogbuehi than an undrafted free agent if you already have a tackle surplus? It’s a complete disregard for any rational semblance of value.

Listen, I’m not going to tell you the Texans are the worst team that ever existed. They’ll probably win 2-6 games again. I’m not going to tell you Caserio’s a dumbass, in over his head, and so on. He believes in culture and he clearly is not a risk-taking GM in free agency, and I think there’s an argument in those things even if I don’t personally agree with it. But the team’s identity right now is “there will be a team here one day.” You can’t pop out literally one non-rookie on a below-market rate contract for one year and get anywhere when you are as behind as the Texans are.  

To a certain extent, from the moment Watson wanted out this was going to be about developing rookies. And fair enough, they do provide most of the value contracts on a roster and the 2021 draft was pre-compromised by the Tunsil trade. But other NFL teams also sign good players to play for them, and it’s important to put rookies and young players in spots where they could develop next to legitimate NFL talent. Caserio has shown no interest in using his cap space to supplement these guys. There’s no No. 2 receiver for Davis Mills if Nico Collins doesn’t step forward. There no interior OL fix. Just the same guys they had last year who weren’t providing a lot of tangible value.

It’s reclamation project after reclamation project, without a real reward for actually being right beyond “we sure have a great culture!” quotes and this vague promise that Cooks and Grugier-Hill’s approach to doing things The Texan Way will eventually rub off on Brevin Jordan. It’s actively paternalistic and, when you really drill down on it, a little insulting to those young players to assume they can’t find their way without a Culture Roster. (Jordan credited Dylan Thompson for helping him grow into his role late last season, and last I checked Thompson isn’t on the active roster.) Some football teams rely on the coaches and other employees to teach players how to grow up and do things their way, but I guess those teams don’t have a culture director who has never played football either.

Outside of spot-checking the young players, I can’t give you a single reason to watch this team next year. Just as I couldn’t in 2021. Whatever progress the front office thinks is happening, it’s mostly progress about seasons that don’t yet exist. When the Sixers coined Trust The Process, they continually wound up with high-value assets when they made controversial trades. When the Astros tanked openly in the early 2010s, outside of their bad contracts, they played almost exclusively young players. Even the A’s — famous champions of sports analytics with Moneyball — knew enough to find high-value free agents for cheap and continually get good value in trades for guys they couldn’t keep.

CultureBall? It’s staring at two four-win seasons in a row and about to bring in another season that almost certainly will be bad. It’s sent almost every talented player on the team packing. It’s been easily first-guessed since the 2019 offseason — and yes, this is a Jack Easterby dig. It’s been very clear that the culture shifted the moment he came aboard, ask That Person. There is almost no value being created on this roster besides the rookies.

It’s put them in a position where the Texans almost have to nail every first-round pick to be a real live NFL organization again. After years without a high pick thanks to horrific trades, the pressure and expectations on this team’s first-rounders are going to be enormous. And hey, maybe they will succeed. Maybe it will all work out. But the roster built around the draft picks seems like a huge heat check that is utterly pointless from the outside. The modern NFL is all about creating good young players, so if you torture your logic a little bit, you can squint and understand why the Texans are doing what they’re doing.

But it’s a big departure from what every other team in the NFL is doing. The Texans do not have a good track record on going out on a limb over the last four years if you haven’t noticed.

***

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Empty Cans

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

***

But something that was not meant to be is done
And this is the start of what was

Hard times started last year. They’re here to stay.

It’s very easy to write a history of how this happened and focus on Deshaun Watson’s sexual assault allegations. There will be many other people writing pieces centered on this. I’m gonna talk about the football here, not to dismiss the allegations or claim they were without merit. He is facing 22 civil lawsuits. I would be surprised if all of them were without merit.

The record shows that Watson wanted off of this team before lawsuit one was filed. While other franchises have managed to piss off their young franchise quarterbacks, none of them have ever managed to piss them off enough to effectively quit on the franchise. That’s what Texans leadership did. And they were more than happy to tell you about how Deshaun Watson was going to be a Houston Texan until those lawsuits dropped and it became unpopular to say his name. 

Since the end of the 2018 season, dovetailing with the death of Bob McNair and the hiring of Jack Easterby, the Texans have chased off their best players in droves with their decisions and behavior. They were so pissy about DeAndre Hopkins’ practice habits that he reckoned he could get a trade by asking for a raise and he was right. An incredulous J.J. Watt was left trying to call attention to what was wrong in pressers throughout the 2020 season, he left without even getting a final presser, then told Houston media before a 2021 game that he saw this massive turnover coming. Will Fuller. Jadeveon Clowney. DJ Reader. Tyrann Mathieu. Kareem Jackson. Justin Reid. Zach Cunningham. Bradley Roby. Not every one of these guys is a superstar, but they were all valued heavily by other NFL teams. They got good contracts in new locales, or in Cunningham’s case got his big contract claimed.

The only two players the Texans have brought in since that have anywhere near that cachet are Laremy Tunsil — who also appeared to quit on the team last season after getting hurt — and Brandin Cooks, who noted that the team’s Mark Ingram trade was “bullshit” last year and is the only person on the team who was Easterby pre-cleared. 

So much as I’d like to be bitter that Watson is leaving, because he quit on the team I’m a fan of, I can’t say his thought process is off. This surely on the face of things is not a place to win a championship. He leaves behind a complicated legacy with the Texans. I guess we’ll never know how things would have turned out without the lawsuits — would the Texans have eventually folded anyway, or would they have pressed things? — but even without that as fans we have to embrace the fact that he was becoming a quarterback savant in 2020 and made every single game watchable and enjoyable. And that’s gone. Never coming through that door again. And while it’s easy to hunt his character for what happened later, most of the 2020 vets agreed with his choices and backed him publicly. He was far from the only one the team — overtly or inadvertently — pushed away. 

The sexual harassment allegations give us reason to be angry at him, or hate him if you’re the kind of person who can feel that about someone you don’t really know. I don’t want to downplay them in any way. They are serious, he can be circumstantially guilty without literally being guilty. The whole process felt sickening and it’s made me eager to be done with the trade. I also think once we get some time and distance between the situation, it’ll become a little like what happened to Ben Roethlisberger. The majority of NFL Media will be happy to overlook what happened for the greater good of the league. There will be snarky Twitter comments about massage parlors until the end of time. We won’t ever forget that it happened because it was part of the story that sent him away, but the immediacy will fade for all but those who feel the strongest about what he did to those women. Most people watch football to be entertained and Watson has a lot of entertainment value left to give. Like Tyreek Hill before him, and several others before that. The NFL will dole out a random number generated punishment and be done with it. For the rest of us it will be a matter of our attention span, something that most of us don’t have much of. I think the women deserve to be heard in civil court. I hope that they remain a part of the discourse. But on a purely football level? I don’t think they’ll amount to much.

In making this trade, the Texans are admitting that they aren’t going to be an NFL team with real goals for a while. We mostly knew that from how last year shook out, when they spent the year watching veterans be babysat by David Culley while sending off or burying almost anyone who played for the 2020 Texans besides Cooks. But there was no last-minute reprieve. The team has only itself to blame for what it has become. The leadership that they’ve embraced — whether you want to blame Easterby or Cal McNair or Nick Caserio or all of the above — is reaping what it sowed on the field.

As usual, I want to point out that just because the truth is harsh does not mean it is hyperbolic. The players the Texans employed fought hard last year. They were never going to be a winless team. This year’s team won’t be that either. There are non-zero chances that 2021 rookies take real steps forward. There are non-zero chances that some of the 2022 rookies are instantly good. They are going to play their asses off, partially because that is part of the front office criteria for their selection. They’re just not a very talented football team as a whole. Chris Conley won’t suddenly become a superstar. Cedric Ogbuehi won’t develop into a real NFL tackle here. Jeff Driskel won’t be good at quarterback or tight end. They’re good men sent to win two or four or, if Davis Mills really develops, maybe six or seven games. They’re good men who will talk about how they just need to be a little more consistent to win next week, most every week. And time will march forward. And maybe one day there will be a good team here again. 

Or maybe the one thing that has held constantly true here since 2018 will continue, and turnover will spiral again and again and again. And everyone who can leave will, while Nick Caserio will replace them with his latest thrift store find. Even in unprecedented NFL circumstances like, say, losing a young franchise quarterback you’d just signed to a four-year extension. 

***

Here’s how I’ll frame this trade:

-I don’t blame Nick Caserio for the fact that it’s not fair value. It’s not his fault that Watson demanded a trade. It’s not his fault that Easterby, the negotiator of his contract, gave Watson a no-trade clause that he used to great effect. None of this is on Caserio’s hands. He was simply the guy tasked with carrying out what he could with a bad situation. It feels weird to type that about getting three first-round picks, but it’s true. Carolina would have offered more and almost nobody is disputing that.

-The Texans can still generate plenty of value from this trade, and the trade can deliver players who may one day want to play for the Houston Texans while being good. It’s not even impossible that it helps them find their next franchise quarterback. Just unlikely. 

Of all the trade destinations for Watson, Cleveland was the worst for the Texans. They’re the best team to make the rumored final four cut, for one thing. They were 8-9 despite a couple of massive COVID-19 replacement games and starting Baker Mayfield hurt all season. Their future first-round picks, in other words, are more than likely appearing in the 20s or 30s. Whereas with say, Atlanta, there was at least a possibility that things could tilt one way or another in 2023.

The fact that they couldn’t get a second-round pick is disappointing, and the fact that this is a deep class and that there are rumors that they won’t come out of it with a single Day 2 pick in 2022 are also disappointing. The 2022 Browns first hits at 13th overall, which isn’t bad. It opens up taking a quarterback at 3 if they really love one — I doubt they do. It really feels like the Texans should be hoping to stockpile these two future ones to move up for the quarterback of the future. As for 13th overall, I’d be looking at a wideout or corner if I were the Texans.

It isn’t everything most fans were hoping for when the grand jury refused to bring criminal charges against him. There were no defensive young stars. No second-round picks. No Day 2 picks in 2022. It’s also not nothing. It’s a big help for the future of the franchise for a guy who wasn’t going to play here anymore. If you want to be upset about what they got, you’ve got one place to direct your anger towards — 2020 Texans upper management.

***

Where I close on this is: We just watched the ending of one of the most incredible squanderings of talent in NFL history. A team that was leading the Chiefs 24-0 in the Divisional Round, 40 minutes from hosting the AFC Title Game, with one of the most valuable QB/WR combos in the NFL even after a year of horrific moves, was systematically destroyed. I understand that the fans want to be happy again, and I’m not providing anything here that I think is broadly mean-spirited. I’m just caught up in the spectacle. 

The leadership who oversaw this disaster have replaced that team with the promise of what may be a football team again some day. They did it move-by-move, in steps that were so easy to first-guess that even this schmuck with a shitty WordPress blog has documented them and ended up in the right an astonishingly high amount of the time. 

At best this team is a Thought Experiment brought to you by the people who traded all their players for draft picks in Madden, except without any of the certainty that playing a tangible game with resets and ratings could have provided. At worst it’s a parody of a classic Silicon Valley story where some dumbass got a bunch of investor money and power to Disrupt The System and eventually landed on “I know NFL players are generally sorted by how good they are, but I know better and keep practice data, and I’m out to re-sign the same guys I had that went 4-13 last year to prove it, except this time with MJ Stewart.” They’ve brought in enough Football People You’ve Heard Of to cover the stench up with Lovie anecdotes and quotes about Cooks’ leadership and underratedness. They produce half-heated optimistic slop as a major export almost out of obligation rather than any real belief this is going somewhere. 

Like most trades the Texans have made over the past three years, the old team for the new one isn’t fair. It’s not fair to the fans who wanted to root for good and exciting players, it’s not fair to the players that appeared to be building something. It’s not fair to the new players, who are forced into roles they can never fill. It’s not fair to the diehards who will cheer for this team no matter what because it leaves them isolated and singled out to be mocked. The only humans to benefit from what has happened here are an unaccountable couple of people who never answer for what they’ve done short of being invited on a Philadelphia high school duo’s podcast. So, I guess congrats to those people on the final achievement of a period in time that will go down in NFL history. And not in the way they intended.  

***

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The eye of the Deshaun Watson storm remains over the Texans

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

***

We’ve gone a while on this blog without having to talk about Deshaun Watson. I didn’t miss the subject matter, but it remains the most important thing about the Texans right now. Trading him remains their only way to accumulate real assets in a rebuild that forecasts to be a slog. He is the only part of the Texans franchise that matters to most NFL fans. Without the two sides being stuck with each other, the entire plane from a national perspective would just be “Brandin Cooks sure is underrated!” fantasy spins and “Davis Mills had better stats than some of his rookie counterparts, curious!” takes. The only Watson public comment we’ve had since March was:

Aaron Wilson dropped an enormous article on Pro Football Network about the situation this weekend, and it’s with this article that I’m beginning to crystallize the thought that had crossed my mind earlier this week: This might be a longer haul situation than anybody wants it to be.

The rhetoric both sides have used so far doesn’t paint a picture of a situation that’s getting solved any time soon

The tea leaves from Wilson’s enormous article are that the Dolphins are dead as a Deshaun Watson destination between Brian Flores being fired and Stephen Ross’ ownership suddenly becoming imperiled. The national media has tried to paint some dots about teams with quarterback situations that need fixing around Watson, but none of them have really stuck to this point. Watson’s own camp is talking about clearing Watson’s name first. It’s always been imperative that he solidify that ahead of a trade — the story that he would have been a Dolphin if all cases could have been settled at the deadline remains true in my eyes. But now that it has dragged on past a full NFL season, I think acquiring teams are getting more skeptical about the situation being settled in a timely fashion. Don’t look past this quote from the Wilson article:

Even if the civil cases get settled, there’s still plenty of other investigations ongoing. There’s a lot out here that could spook an acquiring team, from the potential discipline from the NFL to the potential of literally being charged with a crime. It doesn’t paint a pretty picture. So let’s go back to what the Texans have said when asked about it:

The openness that Lovie talked about the situation with is welcome, but being hopeful that the situation will get resolved points me more towards the idea that they don’t really know when they’re going to be able to trade him. The Texans would be stone-faced on discussing it if they already knew exactly where he’d get traded to, I’m sure. But other than wanting a resolution as soon as possible, it sure feels like it’s out of their hands. To me there’s no doubt that the Texans intend to trade him the first time they get an offer that measures up and that Watson is willing to accept. They want the cloud over the franchise to go away, and want it to be someone else’s problem. But they also can’t just release a player who has as much perceived value as Watson does. Lovie added to this in Football Morning in America with this quote, which to me feels like it’s about Watson rather than about one of the rookie quarterbacks:

Based on my limited sample of him as a head coach, Lovie’s an optimism salesman. He knows how much it would be worth to the fanbase to have a player like Watson in the fold. But I think he also has to throw this out there because, well, there’s a lot of uncertainty that remains.

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The stubbornness of Deshaun Watson has been at the center of this situation for a long time

I don’t mean that in a snarky way, either. I have been pretty soft on Watson on these pages. That comes from a few different places:

1) I don’t think Watson is altogether in the wrong that Cal McNair and Jack Easterby are running the team in a disastrous manner that would prevent him from winning.
2) While what he’s accused of is heinous, and it sure seems likely to have merit given 22 accusations, he remains accused rather than convicted.
3) At my heart I believe in redemption for everybody. There remains a lot of time for him to redeem himself. I understand this is not a particularly popular take in today’s climate, and especially so when his stubbornness is at least partially preventing the Texans from moving on. But time heals a lot. People don’t really talk about Michael Vick as a dog murderer these days. Ben Roethlisberger had a large share of people upset at him this past season — and fair enough, I’m one of them if only for the fawning sendoffs — but you have to note that he did reform who he was in a more positive way after his sexual assault allegations.

What I’ve been more willing to say is: Deshaun Watson quit on his team. Whether that matters to you or not is a personal opinion, but I can guarantee you other NFL teams believe it matters. And whenever Watson has been given an option to pursue what he wants, he has not compromised in any way.

It would have been possible to settle cases to make his move work initially, before trenches were dug in. But he hasn’t done this. In fact, recall that all but four of the cases could have been settled to make the move to the Dolphins work, right? But none of those cases were actually settled. It would have been, in some ways, a PR victory to have “only” four cases remaining. And he made no real movement towards settling the cases until a deal was in place. I don’t know who is talking to him, who is moving the levers here — I’m simply not that deeply embedded in the Watson camp — but it was extremely obvious from the start that a long-drawn out legal battle would be brutal for his career. But for him, as he says, it’s about clearing his name. I don’t know that his name will ever be cleared at this point without a full-flung trial that he wins, and such a trial is not going to get him on the field any sooner. The perception amongst the fans and media has already taken hold.

Source: Pro Football Talk

Watson has used his no-trade clause to drive the forces of his market. He reportedly denied to waive it for the Eagles. He did … whatever this was in legalese … to the Panthers. If he wanted a fresh start to his career, I think it’s possible that one could have materialized without the Dolphins had he been more open to it. Instead we heard things like the Panthers wanting to meet with Watson but being unable to do so. I think if Watson wanted to talk to the Panthers, he could have found a way to make that happen through a back channel. My belief is that the only team he could have been traded to from March to November was the Dolphins because that’s the only team he would accept.

Finally, with it becoming extremely likely that a trade wasn’t happening in August, Watson could have recanted and tried to play this season for the Texans. I don’t think a situation like that would have been “normal” or “healthy” for anybody. It would have forced the NFL to take a stance on him, and might have cost him money as compared to the extremely kind “you’re on the roster and we’re paying you but you’re obviously not playing wink wink nod” scenario the Texans came up with. But he could have continued to showcase his talents and kept himself in the minds of decision makers, and getting any kind of NFL clarity on his status probably would have helped him be moved this offseason. I guess you can say he’d be risking injury, but outside of literally the worst-case scenario, I don’t think any injury he suffered was likely to drive down his price much. I think he might have done more damage to his ultimate price sitting out than he would have getting hurt.

Watson has had many opportunities to “hedge,” so to speak, on the lawsuits, the Texans, and with his no-trade clause. There have been opportunities to settle for less. He hasn’t taken any of them that we know of. I’m not saying this to judge the decisions, but note that his stubbornness has not done anything to help the situation he wants resolved get a real resolution. I think if you truth serumed Watson’s camp, they’d tell you that they wish they could go back in time and settle the cases before this became Operation Shutdown. But now, they simply are where they are.

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So, what do the Texans do? Who actually wants Watson at this point?

I don’t know that there’s a lot the Texans can do besides lowering their asking price for Watson. There are three reasons for this:

1) We’ve seen no indications that Watson plans to waive the no-trade clause for just anybody at this point, meaning as good as a Panthers or Broncos fit looks on paper (I know that Jonathan Albright reports that the Broncos aren’t interested), we have no idea if they’ll actually be in the pool of available teams.
2) The scenario where Watson is on the roster this year, getting paid $35 million in guaranteed money, is much worse than it was in 2021. The Texans could try to get him commish-exempted this year, but that creates bad blood in a situation that has to this point been fairly congenial to this point.
3) If Watson really isn’t interested in providing teams while he’s working on the legal situation, the Texans can’t magically “make” a team appear that Watson will accept a trade to.

When I posed this as a poll question and even kept it at two first-round picks, it turns out a lot of you were not happy about that concept:

The flow of time has not been kind to the Texans, who already lost Nick Caserio’s first head coach — a guy who said that Deshaun Watson would be a Texan emphatically in his presser! — and desperately need some of what Watson can return to sell a rebuild. At the same time, we have this line from the Wilson piece:

Those are two nos, to go along with the Dolphins and Giants nos earlier in the piece, and two teams that Watson has so far refused to waive the no-trade clause for. Now, obviously, things can change in a hurry in the NFL. It only takes the whiff of someone potentially losing their job to fuel desperation. But it’s hard to see much of a market for Watson without everything settled, and it’s hard to see everything settled in a way that will make trading for Watson risk-free, be it criminally or from the NFL.

While obviously I’m hoping for a resolution that favors the Texans more than this, my instincts are just screaming at me right now that the three first-round picks offer from the Dolphins is going to be the best offer the Texans will see. And — to be clear — it is no fault of their own that they couldn’t take that offer given it was contingent on settlements. I don’t think Nick Caserio deserves blame for not being able to work with this situation. He would have looked like a witch if he got a Watson trade settled before allegations popped up, but I think that’s an unfair standard to hold him to.

I think lowering the price for Watson would be an admission that the Texans just need to be done with this whole situation. I think this team’s remaining fans would eventually come to grips with that after griping about the trade. This isn’t DeAndre Hopkins in 2020 or Matthew Stafford in 2021, where the entire NFL market should be open and interested at the very least — you need a team willing to deal with the baggage that Watson brings. It’s not an easy sell!

At this point I think the Panthers are the team that has the most known interest. They are the right combination of desperate and willing to deal. That comes with a few buts. One is that the longer the Watson courtroom battle carries on, the longer the Panthers have to shift eyes elsewhere. And then, as we saw with Flores and Ross in Miami, regimes can topple quickly. What if Matt Rhule doesn’t make it past Week 11 while Watson is suspended? Is that a situation Watson wants to potentially interject himself into? Would Philadelphia re-engage? Would Washington or Tampa engage? Would Watson be willing to join any of those places? I think the price could be a significant issue for some of these teams to meet.

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What happens if Watson is still here in August?

As I’ve said, things can change quickly. But I don’t think anything is currently pointing towards them changing quickly. We are blessed with a lot of law scholars in the Texansphere and one of the best is Mike Meltser, who covered Monday’s hearing:

A deeper thread of Mike’s coverage on the hearing can be found here. It is, broadly speaking, good news for the Watson camp that they expect to hear a decision from the Harris County District Attorney’s Office on the criminal aspect of this case by April 1st. (Well, it is good news if there are no criminal charges out of that, anyway.) They also pushed Watson’s deposition date to after April 1st. My opinion: Courtroom delays do not help the Texans or Watson, and yet the system around our legal system currently creates a lot of delays. For instance, some of the delay in this case is from Watson’s attorney, Rusty Hardin, not being available again until March 7th. It would not surprise me at all if portions of this continued to be delayed, including the criminal aspect, because that is the overarching theme of things right now.

The Texans are in the eye of the storm. They can implore Watson to consider playing, but it seems like they’ve decided that’s not in the best interests of the football team. (Or, more accurately, the football team’s image.) The new timeline of the course would seem to encourage settlement, but Watson hasn’t exactly seemed interested in settling unless it is a pre-requisite to him finding a new team.

Is Watson sitting out a second consecutive season going to help his value? I find that hard to believe. NFL teams have short memories and most of them, already, hate holding on to players they perceive to be injury risks. Uncertainty is hard to tolerate in this business. This is obviously an extremely special situation, but outside of Vick, how many guys have essentially quit football for multiple years and come back? And how many of those guys were worth first-round picks? Vick was released.

I continue to believe there is only a very tiny chance of Watson ever suiting up for the Texans again, because at this point I think both sides are firmly dug in. When you tie your timeline to our court system, you are anchored to uncertainty. The best-case scenario for Texans fans is probably something like: it is announced early that no criminal charges are coming, the Panthers are willing to meet the three first-round picks and change cost, Watson considers this enough to waive the NTC and settle the cases, and Carolina has to deal with the fallout of the NFL personal conduct policy. But just listing all of that out, it feels like a lot has to go right for that to happen. There are a lot of pitfalls here. I have internally begun setting the bar lower and hoping I am pleasantly surprised, which has been a good rule for Texans fandom so far. There are a lot of possible futures here and many of them are not quite this kind to the organization.

The end game feels so far away right now. We’re all just waiting for that moment the eye passes, and motion returns to the situation.

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Hiring Lovie Smith makes me feel like a lonely bird

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

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When I met my wife, she had two birds — budgies. They were named Wilbird and Orbird, and were brother and sister. They bonded very close, because my wife (back in the days before COVID existed) worked long hours at an office. Wilbird wanted to make eggs with Orbird, and Orbird would tend to fly away from him because she didn’t want that. Sometimes she even hung from can lights on the ceiling to get away from him. But despite that lack of understanding, they were very close and took care of each other.

After we moved, Orbird suddenly became ill, we suspect from chewing too much on the walls of our new house. She had cancer, which is somewhat common for budgies. It’s almost impossible to do anything about budgie cancer, as their bodies are too small. We drained her once, but she had no chance of fighting the thing off long-term. She died.

We expect a certain emotional state from people at times like these, and we turn our expectations on to our animals. And my wife was really upset at Wilbird, because he wasn’t emotional at all about his sister passing. In fact, what overtook him was … boredom.

And it makes sense, in a way, as a flock member with no flock, that your life just kind of feels pointless, right? Wilbird ate, and he drank. He flew around a few times. But he didn’t have a bond with either of us. He didn’t miss his sister emotionally, but he missed her presence. He missed being part of something bigger than him. And even though we weren’t sure if it would work, we wound up getting him two new bird friends. They don’t always get along, but they’re a flock and Wilbird is energetic and engaged in helping his new bird friends, even as he hits an older age for budgies. (He especially likes the yellow female bird.)

Where I’m at with my Texans fandom right now is kind of about where Wilbird was without his flock. I’m not emotionally upset at them, because I don’t know that anybody involved in this enterprise is a bad person and because there’s nothing I can do that changes the fact that they’re collectively not interested in seeing what they’re doing wrong. These are the facts of the situation: Unless they draft well and all their young players develop beyond their initial draft grades, they’re not going anywhere for years. The team is incapable of luring a new head coach with any options, and doubles down on that approach by making sure the front office has to have a heavy hand in every bit of the process. On a team that has completely crumbled as they have made decisions against the grain of the NFL, Bill O’Brien was the only one punished for those moves.

And I am alive, and I am moving around and eating, but I don’t really know what the point of any of this is. It’s just kind of here because it’s the only situation this current leadership can muster.

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There are two sections about hiring Houston’s abrupt Josh McCown circling that ended with Lovie Smith: the optics and what actually changes. Let’s start with the optics.

The weirdest thing about firing David Culley wasn’t that Culley was fired, because he was essentially hired to be fired. It was just how effusive the praise of Nick Caserio was when he was fired. Caserio’s post-firing presser went out of its way to say amazing things about Culley.

That doesn’t really read like Caserio wanted to let go of Culley. I know this organization is tainted with toxic positivity, but it would have been very easy to just say “philosophical differences” a bunch of times. He didn’t have to go in like he did about “the foundation” that Culley laid:

My takeaway from the Texans firing Culley was that they thought they were trying to get their coach of the future. Their version of, as Caserio alluded to in the presser, Mike Tomlin. When asked about retaining Smith, Caserio was completely non-committal.

Lovie Smith isn’t anybody’s coach of the future. He’s 63, and will turn 64 before next season. So, what happened?

I think some of the theories I’ve seen floated have overrated the effect that the Brian Flores lawsuit has had on the optics vis a vis not being able to hire Josh McCown. The Jaguars literally just hired Doug Pederson over Byron Leftwich to keep their terrible general manager employed. I also don’t think the NFL league office — the same place that called Flores’ allegations “without merit” and then spent most of last week producing memos that proved that there was some merit — is organized well enough to put down a McCown signing. I do think Caserio probably realized how bad it would look in a post-Flores lawsuit world to hire a guy with no coaching experience anywhere, but I don’t think there was guidance from above on that.

My reading of this is a little more simple: The Texans wanted Brian Flores to be their head coach. He was the first interview with the team, the day that they announced Culley’s firing. But the lawsuit makes him unemployable in the eyes of the NFL, which organized very effectively to collude against Colin Kaepernick as a free agent. The league refuses to have a head coach who is actively suing the league get a grand platform to continue to say what he thinks. That’s a future they weren’t going to allow happen. It sure feels like Flores felt the same way:

So who was left? I think you had McCown as Jack Easterby’s finalist, Jonathan Gannon as Caserio’s finalist, and a situation where the two couldn’t agree on a coach. That led them to the compromise candidate: a guy who they literally had last season.

Regardless of the vibes put out earlier by Caserio after he dispensed with Culley’s job, what we have here in Houston is a situation that still has no appeal to outsiders. Part of that is because the team is bad and just fired their head coach after one season. Part of that is because the roster is still barren of long-term talent after last year’s ingenious decision to prioritize older players on one-year contracts, one where essentially the only offensive or defensive starter they found for next year was Tavierre Thomas. They extended two players all season: Rex Burkhead and the kick returner. And, my belief is that part of it is also the fact that the head coach role in this scheme barely has any power.

Caserio’s on the headset. It’s not normal. I know that it’s something that the sect of you who are still hardcore fans don’t enjoy hearing about. I know that same sect of fans doesn’t understand why a big deal is made out of Easterby hanging on the sidelines. Well, the reason a big deal is made out of this team’s power structure is because this team just completed two head coach hiring cycles and barely got interviews with top head coaching candidates. It was a sideshow where people like McCown and Hines Ward were interviewed and taken seriously. They brought in Eric Bieniemy for one interview in 2021 and didn’t like that he wanted some actual agency. I wouldn’t have been a humongous fan of the Jonathan Gannon hire because I think this team really needs someone who will fight back with upper management and he was the “consensus builder,” but at least he had some experience and another team had interviewed him. They’ve been turned down by candidates like Matt Eberflus. Brandon Staley had no struggle in deciding between the Texans and Chargers.

The people who this team have hired have not been on the radar of any other team in the NFL. Nobody else was looking to give David Culley or Lovie Smith (or Josh McCown, for that matter!) a head coaching job. And it’s impossible to escape that this team’s organizational structure is helping to deliver these results. Whether you think that’s purely Easterby, Easterby and Cal McNair, or the whole trio. This can’t be the outcome of your coaching search if you’re a serious franchise, which means you can’t be a serious franchise with your current situation.

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Let’s lead off the actual changes with some praise for Lovie Smith: His defense truly did do what it promised and turned the ball over plenty last year, and they adjusted away from being a wildly outrageous Cover-2 team early in the season. I was worried after that Panthers game that they would be absolute toast all season, and they showed a bit better than that. It was still a turnover-heavy profile, but the defense improved from 30th in DVOA to 23rd in his first season as Texans defensive coordinator. It had, in my opinion, less talent than it did the year before when J.J. Watt was in uniform and they had the full buy-in of players like Bradley Roby and Zach Cunningham. He was also cited by numerous free agents who joined the defense — Christian Kirksey most loudly — as a reason to join the Texans.

But in a weird way, signing Smith to be your head coach turns into an endorsement of last year’s staff. The one where the guy who led the charge was fired. In fact, the darkest part of the Josh McCown-Lovie Smith “debate” is that they could have hired McCown and still had Smith. They didn’t have to fire Culley to retain Smith. And I think defensive coordinator is a better role for him than head coach at this point. If you think Culley was a conservative stick-in-the-mud as a play caller, Lovie is not going to appeal to that in any real way. Lovie finished 90th out of 131 coaches from 1983 on in aggressiveness index, which measures how often coaches go for fourth downs compared to their peers.

In his only professional stop since leaving the Bears, Lovie was a quick two-and-done in Tampa. They were a bad defense in both years, and only improved on offense in his second year by drafting Jameis Winston. The offense they asked Winston to run was based heavily on running the ball and shorter passes. He finished 20th in Football Outsiders’ ALEX ranking — something that measures the average distance to the sticks on third down. When Lovie was fired, and Dirk Koetter took over, that number immediately leaped to sixth, then third in 2017.

In other words, it sounds exactly like what the Texans ran last year. So much for “philosophical differences!” Ultimately if the final two choices were McCown or Lovie, what it really came down to is McCown or Pep Hamilton. I don’t think Hamilton is some sort of savant that will quickly work magic here or anything, because I covered those Andrew Luck Colts for Bleacher Report and wasn’t all that impressed by the offense. But I also don’t think the Texans had much in the way of better options that were interested in coming here. Heck, they were connected to Joe Brady heavily in the 2021 offseason and he’d rather be the Bills quarterbacks coach, apparently. I expect Hamilton will probably carry much of the actual play calling.

I don’t mean to insinuate any lack of respect for Smith here. He’s a huge part of football history, both in Texas and in America in general. He and London Fletcher are big reasons the Rams defense turned around in a major way. The Bears defense was absolutely stellar for the better part of a decade. He’s shat turds that have more schematic knowledge of the game than I have. There’s a reason he commands the respect of the players.

It’s just that, at this point in his career, set in to the ways that he is, I thought DC was a better role for him because it gave him more space to make adjustments. The last two stops as a head coach that he had were brutal.

Lovie got a ton of time to work at things in Illinois, too. That wasn’t a fluky pandemic thing. They never finished over .500 in a season in his five years there, peaking as a 6-7 bowl team in 2019. They immediately went 5-7 in Bret Bielema’s first year in 2021, beating all but one of Lovie’s win totals.

I don’t think you can see a 64-year-old as the next coach that’s going to lead the Texans to the playoffs. I don’t even necessarily see any reason why he’ll survive beyond this season other than pure optics. In many ways, it feels like an extension of the Culley era — partially because Lovie was a big part of the small measures of success in the Culley era. Lovie’s the coach with the better track record, yes, but a lot of it is ancient history in the grand scheme of the NFL at this point. I don’t care about Super Bowl appearances in 2006 when we’re in 2022. I’m not surprised that fans are rallying around him being a better candidate historically than Culley and talking themselves into it. But that’s mostly because at this point I fully believe that this team’s loudest fans — the ones who always complain about how the team is covered negatively — would take news of Nick Caserio eating a baby whole from the NRG rooftop and respond with “wow, he really did eat the whole thing tho, pretty good can’t lie” or “that’s a natural part of the process that has to happen, the baby had to go.” If the last two years haven’t broken your optimism, nothing will.

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In the end, where I’m at with this is that the Texans are stagnant and that it probably doesn’t have a lot of bearing on this team’s real future. The potential Deshaun Watson trade matters much more than the head coach in 2022 does. The draft picks that this team has this year are more important than anything the head coach in 2022 does. I don’t expect Lovie Smith to be here when this team is ready to compete.

But I think the backlash I’m seeing hits from a place of again seeing this front office just look comically out of their depth. They ran a head-coaching search with three finalists and didn’t pick any of them, and in which the only one who had real NFL experience was busy filing a lawsuit against the NFL. Caserio set expectations very high in the press conference in which he fired Culley.

Things were supposed to be different with Nick around. And instead of something new or inspiring, this head coaching search just reverted back to what it has been for the better part of the last four years: Same. Ol’. Texans.

12:50 P.M. 2/8 Edit: I changed two years (2020 to 2021) that I misremembered when I wrote this post, and I also added Rex Burkhead to the re-signed players list.

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