Smart, Tough, Dependable: Football character and the Houston Texans

On Friday I stumbled upon this segment that the Texans produced on their own from the scouting combine, one where they let out a story about Tytus Howard:

I enjoyed the color, but what stood out to me more than the color was the idea that the Texans were won over in the interview. Similar anecdotes that made Deshaun Watson look good in his pre-draft visit with Bill O’Brien have percolated. If you think this is not a big deal, remember that the Texans don’t exactly let a lot out of their building on purpose.

The Texans have never been an organization that dabbled much in adding players with long rap sheets, with Bob McNair mostly keeping the organization’s image squeaky clean. There have been a few players to test that line — I think Brian Cushing’s constant suspensions were rough from an outside perspective — but for the most part the Texans have always focused on getting quality people who also happened to be star players.

This post isn’t to make fun of the Howard anecdote or necessarily make fun of this stance, but to point out that it is embedded in the organization’s culture. When we talk about which players the Texans pick to believe in, it’s hard to escape the idea that their view of a player’s football character matters deeply.

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Now that general manager Bill O’Brien and head coach Bill O’Brien have solidified the power of former pastor Jack Easterby as the second-in-command, I think it’s fair to say that the Texans have developed evaluation knockout factors as far as a player’s character. There’s not really a reason from a talent perspective that Jadeveon Clowney shouldn’t have been signed to a long-term extension — people will argue with me that he didn’t get enough sacks (he did), or that he was hurt too often (he wasn’t), but on raw talent he was one of the most important players on the 2018 team. Perhaps more important than J.J. Watt.

I can’t speak to exactly where the O’Brien-Clowney relationship started spinning off its axis. I know that the microfracture surgery and slow start didn’t help. It’s been explained to me in so many words by multiple people that Clowney and D.J. Swearinger did not leave the best first impression as far as on-field motivation. But when we come back to the terms that O’Brien used to describe the situation as they tried to move on from Clowney, the “best interests of the organization,”

I think what crystallized is that Clowney didn’t fit the style of player O’Brien wanted, and I believe that O’Brien thought that Clowney could never hit his true potential as a player because he wouldn’t completely buy in to the system around him. Clowney was his own guy.

When it comes time for the Texans to make a commitment of major salary, many reporters close to the Texans have already speculated that D.J. Reader won’t be the player that gets paid. This is despite the fact that he is “smart, tough, and dependable.”

Whitney Mercilus got $28.5 million guaranteed before this offseason despite being a) 30 years old, b) not having an excellent season as Clowney’s replacement, and c) the pass rush almost completely drying up without Watt playing. It is true that, in a vacuum, you’d rather pay a pass rusher than a non-pass rusher. But Reader had shown flashes of causing the havoc that led to a lot of Mercilus’ early sacks. Where some have speculated that Reader may have done himself in here was after the loss to the Broncos, where he dropped this line:

Now, I went and conducted a wildly unscientific poll of Texans fans and got these results as far as who they’d have rather given $28.5 million guaranteed to:

It’s hard to get 1,000 people to agree on 85% of anything, let alone on the internet. I admit my audience may be more likely to have been exposed to pro-Reader content, but, still, on paper it seems like this should not have been that big of a gap. Yet, the Texans seem prepared to let Reader walk.

To be clear, this is not one of those posts where we shit all over a player who got paid a lot of money. I’m very happy Whitney Mercilus got paid, and he’s a good player and a good steward of the organization. But I don’t think there’s a way to really square his value versus Reader or Clowney in any real empirical conversation and come out with the idea that he’s the most valuable of the three. Counting the impact plays Clowney makes, he’s undoubtedly the worst run defender of the three players. Counting the pressures that Reader brought last year, I think he’s only narrowly the second-best pass rusher. And if you account for positional differences, I can see an argument for Reader over Mercilus in that area as well.

I think the difference lies in Mercilus’ buy-in. Mercilus played out of position for the entirety of 2018 and barely complained about it publicly despite being ill-cast as an underneath zone defender. He’s got high football character. He gives the media the coaching talking points. The Texans clearly valued his football character to a high degree. Mercilus is a trooper.

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I’m not here to tell you that the Texans are making mistakes. Partially because I already told you I thought they were making a mistake letting Clowney go and you’re all sick of hearing that. Partially because I don’t think the Texans are in any real danger of violating the salary cap any time soon and good for Mercilus for getting his.

But I do think the fact that the Texans wound up in the spot that they did has some interesting branch-off points. Sarah Barshop listed Will Fuller as someone who could potentially be released. Fuller is smart, tough, and supremely talented. He’s just not dependable. What do we know about how O’Brien and Easterby view him as a person? Do they think he’s a hard worker? Do they think DeAndre Hopkins is a hard worker because he (reportedly) doesn’t go hard in practices? Is Keke Coutee’s benching a matter of how he’s actually played on the field, or a matter of how the small collective circle of O’Brien, O’Brien, and Easterby feel about his character?

The Chiefs just won the Super Bowl with Frank Clark as their primary edge rusher. Clark has a domestic violence conviction. Clark runs his mouth a lot, up to and including about how he knew where Deshaun Watson wanted to step up to:

O’Brien wouldn’t want that kind of information being public.

This defense continues to bleed talent, and Watt and Mercilus are going to only be another year older in 2020. The only starters under 25 last season that we know are returning are Gareon Conley and Justin Reid. If Reader is gone, the Texans pretty much only have a second-year jump from Lonnie Johnson as a true youthful shot-in-the-arm improvement. Jacob Martin and Charles Omenihu could continue to grow, but they may not be full-timers without an injury. What Anthony Weaver can provide is a great unknown. Non first-round picks are risky as hell and may not add a lot to the proceedings early.

Limiting free agency and trade discussions with the idea that you have to have someone with high football character in these circumstances is kind of a tough sale to me. I think the issue is that attrition and talent will continue to decline, and you need more of it rather than less of it to make this defense work. I would say that where the Texans are operating from is that they need someone to check all four boxes: smart, tough, dependable, good in O’Brien’s personality pecking order. Given Nick Martin’s extension before he even really played a good season, I think proving the talent on the field matters less than you might think.

Honestly, I don’t care about the approach as long as it works. It’s a lot more fun to root for a Deshaun Watson that is grateful, has good relationships with his fellow quarterbacks, and is a great leader then it would be if he had Jay Cutler’s personality. Likewise, I don’t care if the Texans are determined only to chase free agents that won’t make $10 million a season and will be great clubhouse guys as long as they also are great as football.

But as the defense looks to revolve around tough, smart, and dependable … it does kind of feel awkward that the Texans can look at Reader and say he isn’t enough, but feel that Mercilus is when he’s clearly a less valuable player from a football asset standpoint. I would urge Texans fans thinking that multiple quick fixes are going to be operated on this roster to remember how much football character matters to them, particularly in light of how a player like Aaron Colvin was quickly doghoused, as well as how Seantrel Henderson wound up on the street after starting in Week 1.

Easterby retweeted the Howard story as tweeted by the actual Houston Texans Twitter account rather than my own cribbed tape. Easterby’s account is all about the general life coach ethos of consistent buy-in, determination through adversity, and the sprinklings of God’s glory that usually come with those things in athletic circles. The second-most important person in the Texans organization is effectively akin to a life guru. Now with most life gurus, if you tune them out you’re probably minimizing a sunk cost and you’ll soon be off their e-mail list. If you do that as a Texans player, you’re putting yourself in position to get released.

If you’re looking for the Texans to commit big money to someone this offseason — and I do believe they’ll wind up with somebody — I think it’s important you understand that character matters as much as anything.

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