Robert Mays wrote a great Ringer piece recently on the Texans and the ownership that Bill O’Brien has in this Texans team and how it is built. A lot of it centered around the idea that Bill O’Brien is in charge now, and the report that the Texans wouldn’t chase a general manager might mean he’s in charge for the foreseeable future.
But a line that I keep hearing appeared in that story, and I want to talk a little bit about that line:
Double-digit wins and a playoff victory would qualify as a successful season for nearly every franchise in the league, but at this stage, the Texans have grander ambitions. … The Texans are built to win right now, and to a degree, they have.
I’ve been listening to a lot of Texans defenders this season — something that happens when you write critically about a team and something I welcome — and I hear a lot of similar defenses of the Laremy Tunsil trade whenever that bear is poked. The rationale is essentially “They went up and got their guy now, and he’ll be a Texan for a long time.” Now, I’ve got nothing bad to say about Tunsil’s post-snap play even if I think the Texans got raked over the coals in trade value to avoid a bad season in 2019. But a key, recurring issue of O’Brien’s early GM tenure that I’m willing to give Tunsil trade defenders is that the players they have targeted have the potential to be long-term fixtures.
- Bradley Roby, 27 years old, first-round pick. Signed a one-year prove-it deal as a free agent.
- Laremy Tunsil, 25 years old, first-round pick. Traded multiple first-round picks for, and Tunsil is under contract through 2020.
- Duke Johnson, 26 years old, third-round pick. Traded a third-round pick for. Johnson is under contract through 2021.
- Gareon Conley, 24 years old, first-round pick. Traded a third-round pick for. Conley is under contract through 2020.
- Vernon Hargreaves, 24 years old, first-round pick. Waiver claim despite warning of 2020 fifth-year option becoming guaranteed. Is under contract for 2020 and can likely be negotiated off his number.
- Jacob Martin, 24 years old, sixth-round pick. Throw-in with the Clowney trade. Under contract through 2021.
(When you listen to O’Brien’s press conferences, you can’t help but notice how much he talks about a player’s initial draft status. He brags about Carlos Hyde’s play in college. He talks up every starting quarterback — Tannehill, Winston, etc — as if their first-round pedigree is still important to who they are today.)
The Texans have a lot of flexibility with the non-Tunsil players — technically they have flexibility there too, but if they let him walk O’Brien will be figuratively dead — they have time to figure them out. They also have a boatload of cash to spend. Houston enters the 2020 offseason with $74 million in cap space, and that number gets even bigger when you realize players like Zach Fulton ($7 million), Senio Kelemete ($4.5 million) and Hargreaves are easy cuts if need be. Make some difficult cuts on top of that, and you’re looking at $100 million in cap space before you start re-negotiating with the obvious long-termers.
This is a distinction that I think many people — even me, probably — lost in the Tunsil trade. It’s a trade that was aimed to make the roster better this year, and it was wildly aggressive, but it’s also not exactly something that won’t continue to help the Texans in future years. At least until they pay Tunsil $75 million guaranteed and he shows up to camp weighing 350. (i’m just kidding. I think.)
What does a win-now team actually do?
A win-now team would have taken Houston’s offseason cap space and actually spent. A win-now team would have signed Trent Brown (or Nate Solder in 2018). A win-now team wouldn’t have traded Jadeveon Clowney. A win-now team doesn’t pretend that Earl Thomas isn’t available because he’s old. A win-now team probably even claims Terrell Suggs on waivers this week. Sometimes, win-now moves work. Sometimes, they don’t. They are risks you take because you’re trying to win.
The key to a win-now team is mentality. When Bill O’Brien talks, you never really hear a lot of talk about Super Bowls. In-season, he barely wants to even discuss the idea of upcoming games, let alone have his team lose focus on what’s at stake this week. When O’Brien does sit downs during the offseason, as in say this one, he focuses on the division intensely. “You have to win the division,” O’Brien says in that clip. They’ve won it in three of his six seasons. They may make it four in short order. And if you are privy to the bevy of Texans PR stuff, you know that when O’Brien talks before division games, he’s happy to bring up how much more important those games are to him.
How many players over 30 years old do you think the Texans have employed this year? OK, OK, Jon Weeks is old. How many offensive and defensive starters do you think were over 30? The answer was four: J.J. Watt, Johnathan Joseph, Darren Fells, and (if you count him) Chris Clark. Joseph, Fells, and Clark are all free agents in a few weeks. J.J. Watt is a superstar and will obviously be retained.
The Texans had the youngest snap-weighted offense in the NFL in 2018, and in 2019, they added two new rookie offensive linemen, Tunsil, and Duke Johnson. The defense was older, but it was heavily weighted by Joseph, Kareem Jackson, and Shareece Wright. Two of those three didn’t come back. Neither did Tyrann Mathieu (26). A win-now team isn’t going to let rookies figure it out on the field. You can be safe with your contracts, or you can be safe with the quality of players you put on the field. The Texans have usually sided with the former.
Win-now teams that come into free agency with cap space are interested in Thomas. They’re willing to overpay Mathieu. Bringing in a whole new receiving corps and offensive line like Buffalo successfully did. Bringing in two new edge rushers like Green Bay did. Making more reasonable splash trades like Cleveland did before Freddie Kitchens turned their season into a Wile E Coyote movie. They’re treating the NFL offseason as a real opportunity to attack. The Texans did that this season after O’Brien had to look at his roster with fresh eyes and cleaned house — in a way that will deprive them of a lot of draft picks later on — but they haven’t attacked free agency since…
All setup, no payoff
The Texans didn’t make a huge cash outlay in 2019’s free agency — Tashaun Gipson got $9.5 million guaranteed. They were the buy-low team on Tyrann Mathieu rather than the team that paid him big. They spent a modest amount on Aaron Colvin ($18 million guaranteed) and Fulton ($13 million guaranteed) in 2018. They signed practically nobody in 2017. Jeff Allen received $12 million guaranteed in 2016, Lamar Miller received $14 million guaranteed, and Osweiler — the great white whale — received $37 million guaranteed. The 2015 offseason under O’Brien brought in Rahim Moore, Vince Wilfork, and Brian Hoyer — though they also spent heavily to keep Kareem Jackson and Derek Newton. Jackson got $20 million guaranteed, and Newton got $10 million guaranteed.
The Texans have not been heavy spenders. They re-signed DeAndre Hopkins in 2017. They re-signed J.J. Watt in 2014. Nick Martin in 2019. Benardrick McKinney in 2018. When they find someone they like under O’Brien, they’re happy to commit to them early. But outside of that, they have been remarkably thrifty.
A lot of the fans I talk to are conditioning themselves to look at the available draft picks the Texans have, look at the salary cap space they have in 2020, and project the Texans to go hog-wild in free agency.
I think history as a guide would tell us to not believe in that. You’ll see a new deal for Tunsil. You might see a new deal for Watson if the Texans think it’s advantageous to do that now rather than wait a year. But if you expect the O’Brien Texans to do more than splash around in the middle market, I would dial back those expectations a little bit. It would be wildly out of character for how this franchise has operated under the McNairs. The only free agent deals the Texans have ever really struck at the top of the market are Osweiler and Johnathan Joseph.
Narrative fandom and storytelling
We are trained by movies and fiction writing to expect a certain resolution to things in a neat and normal order. The hero saves something from the villain. The villain strikes back. Things go back-and-forth, and finally order is restored. We talk about sports teams in those same terms even though sports teams aren’t a narrative arc. A fall-apart moment is only a fall-apart moment if the people in power believe it is. Bill O’Brien has defied the easy narrative for years, and the Texans retained him after a 4-12 season because of what he was able to show with Watson in a small sample size.
What if the 2020s Houston Texans are nothing more than the 2010s Green Bay Packers, waiting for Watson to become Aaron Rodgers? What if their ambition, every year, is simply to win the AFC South and see what happens?
When Cal McNair fired Brian Gaine, he noted that it was in the best interest of their organization in their “quest to build a championship team for the city of Houston.” I found that wording revealing, because someone must have told him in that moment that what Gaine had put out there in the middle of the summer wasn’t going to cut it.
Everything about this franchise that fans are upset about — how slow they are to make progress, how they aren’t taking the next step to a first-round bye, how sick they are of hearing O’Brien make excuses, how annoying it was to ship out Jadeveon Clowney for nothing — can be explained away very simply if you stop believing in the narrative arc that a team has to take a next step.
I’m not saying this story ends that way for sure. Watson gives them a chance in any playoff game they play in. But a key characteristic of win-now teams are that they have grand ambitions. Sometimes those ambitions are hilarious in retrospect — hello to the Dream Team Eagles — but they are always set in motion with defining actions that go beyond “wanting to retain this tackle’s rights in 2020” or “we like the flexibility that this corner gives us going forward.”
As Houston heads into what is likely another playoff season with Deshaun Watson, waiting for the Texans to do more than struggle against the current to stay a playoff team, I think that’s an important question to ask. Do the Texans actually have championship ambitions, or do they simply want to remain the team that could get there if everything breaks right?
Because when I hear the only football man this organization puts forward talk, I don’t hear a win-now mentality, I don’t hear the vision of future titles when he answers for his trades so much as I hear the idea of sustainability.
But for the most part, what I hear is a man who is focused on Tampa Bay (or Tennessee, or Atlanta) intently, and that’s about it.
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