Cal McNair, Bill O’Brien, and Jack Easterby came together Friday afternoon, being fed questions by Marc Vandermeer, to put together a brief conference call for season ticket holders. It matched a lot of what you would expect a news conference to look like from a defensive, overwhelmed organization that refuses to believe the outside world has any basis in reality. DeAndre Hopkins was mentioned by name less than five times, most of which came after Bill O’Brien rambled for about three minutes in a row. He was mentioned by Cal McNair or to Cal McNair exactly zero times.
This, in and of itself, isn’t all that newsworthy. It’s a reliving of a catharsis that should have happened a lot earlier. It’s fun to be mad at Bill O’Brien, it’s fun to note that Jack Easterby mentioned “virtual memes,” which I can only assume means he knows about “stonks.” It’s fun to hear that Cal McNair does not, by his own admission, have the IT savvy to launch a Skype or Zoom call. It doesn’t really change anything, but these are all fun notes of an internal dismantling that sure seems to be the blind leading the blind.
But the part that stuck out the most to me was Bill O’Brien’s spiel about how the team wanted to re-sign D.J. Reader, but that they simply couldn’t afford it. And that it was going to happen “every single year.”
He parlayed that into blaming DeAndre Hopkins for wanting a raise with three years left on his deal. Which, let’s be fair together, is a crock of an excuse to me. DeAndre Hopkins has zero leverage to not report to camp under the new CBA. He has every reason to be upset that he’s being underpaid in the current market. The fact that he wants a new deal may make Bill O’Brien’s fee fees get in a tangle, but it wasn’t like there was a lot that Hopkins could do about it before he was shipped off to Arizona for the dream that 2016 David Johnson is alive and beans.
But let’s talk about the glaring issue in the room here: Over the past two offseasons — the two in which O’Brien has had control with Brian Gaine as a buffer for about three months — the Texans have lost Jadeveon Clowney, DeAndre Hopkins, D.J. Reader, and Tyrann Mathieu to the fact that they all wanted more money than the Texans were willing to spend. All of them are, let’s be generous to the Texans, top 20 players at their respective positions. I’d argue higher, but I don’t need another conversation with the Jadeveon Clowney Sack Totaller who doesn’t understand why teams would want to have their doctors check out a guy’s microfracture repair before giving him money.
This is going to happen every year. What does that really mean?
Who have the Texans kept and gone after when it comes time to pay players?
Since Bill O’Brien took over the Texans, they have completed exactly one big free-agency deal: Signing Brock Osweiler. Even that contract was a little overblown: Osweiler had only a $12 million cap figure in 2016, and only left about $9 million more on the cap as part of what was reported as $37 million in guarantees. That cap figure in 2016 was 20th among quarterbacks. It felt like a bigger bust than it was because anything with quarterbacks is high-profile.
When the Texans re-signed J.J. Watt to a $100 million-dollar deal in 2014, they were negotiating with a lot of leverage. Watt got plenty of guaranteed money, but he never had the top hit of any 3-4 end. He has honestly always been a bit underpaid relative to production. Did you know, that in 2017, he made less than Muhammad Wilkerson? It’s true. If we compare Watt to actual edge rushers, the contract looks even worse. 2016 was the one year where Watt’s cap hit was actually top-5 at his position. By 2017, he was behind players like Clay Matthews, Olivier Vernon, Justin Houston, and Von Miller. In 2020, the contract is extremely generous compared to the top of the market.
When the Texans re-signed DeAndre Hopkins to a five-year, $81 million deal off of his fifth-year option, Hopkins had the No. 1 cap hit among NFL wideouts for a season. Since then, it has declined to the point where, in 2020, he won’t even be in the top 10.
Other than those two players, the Texans have been extremely reticent to sign players to top-of-the-market contracts. They’re willing to talk up Nick Martin, Kareem Jackson (while still young), Benardrick McKinney and Whitney Mercilus, and put them at or near the top 10 at their positions. They’re willing to give solid deals to role players like Angelo Blackson. But they’re very reluctant to set a market for a star player. Obviously, Laremy Tunsil and Deshaun Watson will be giant exceptions to this — they are noted in almost every presser O’Brien gives, and the Texans have almost no choice but to sign Tunsil after trading two years of first-round picks for him.
When they go shopping in free agency, the Texans tend to come away with more players like Eric Murray, Aaron Colvin, Tashaun Gipson, and Zach Fulton. Their free agency plan is mix between high projections on players who haven’t reached that space yet and one-year contracts to players who have seen their market dwindle. It’s one that, as Bill O’Brien emphasizes capital T, capital E, capital A, capital M team, really means they’re trying to get the best value that they can. And what the Texans appear to have decided with a few notable exceptions is that the best value they can get is not in re-signing players looking to be at the top of the market. I don’t agree with the stance, but that is what the actions suggest.
Now, and I want to emphasize this again: This doesn’t mean there’s any real risk that the Texans will let Laremy Tunsil or Deshaun Watson go from what I’m hearing. But when a team tells you something like this that is backed by the actions, you’ve got to listen to them. They’re not going to set markets outside of special occasions.
Emotional loading and money
Now, I want you to notice that I’ve gotten this far without throwing a word down characterizing Houston’s spending. I think it’s very easy to get in an emotional spiral about the money, and it’s wildly easy to start throwing around terms like “cheap.”
But I do want to run a comparison by you, and I want you to think about it outside of the context of how you feel about the money:
Team B’s marquee free agent lost in 2019, by the way, is Nick Vigil. Yes, that’s the Cincinnati Bengals, a team that has been accused (and has a reputation of being over the years) of being quite frugal and losing a lot of their best players. Not true in a wall-to-wall sense since 2015 or so, though they did not keep Marvin Jones, Andrew Whitworth, Kevin Zeitler, or Mohamed Sanu.
The Texans are by far bolder than the Bengals — I don’t think this is a completely fair comparison for this reason. The Bengals would absolutely let a Hopkins scenario play out in the background and tune it out, just like they’ve done with A.J. Green. The Bengals would not have traded Jadeveon Clowney, but would have let him walk in free agency. Not to even get to things like the Laremy Tunsil trade, which probably has not ever crossed Mike Brown’s mind as a possibility.
But when it comes down to spending, the teams do wind up remarkably similar. You don’t see many top of the market deals, you see good players leave despite cap space to sign them into. I also think ownership on both of these teams has had a hard time adjusting to the exploding salary cap era. As former NFL exec Joe Banner told The Ringer in 2018, “It’s the biggest untold story in football,. With the excessive amount of available cap space, close to a billion dollars—some teams can’t mentally keep up with that.”
And that’s why, after the new CBA created more money for the Bengals to spend, it was disheartening to watch Reader leave for Cincinnati for what was, on paper, essentially the same deal that the Texans signed Mercilus to.
I don’t necessarily think the Texans have no money to spend, and I don’t necessarily think they are cheap. I think the Texans strongly believe that they’re better off not spending that money and using their resources to Smart, Tough, Dependable themselves up with people they know well. It’s seven-dimensional chess that starts with always committing a huge portion of cap space on running backs.
Much like running J.J. Watt and Vince Wilfork on to the goal line offense when you’re down multiple scores in a playoff game, the plan is too cute by half. The plan is that the best people (in the eyes of Easterby and O’Brien) that can be found are going to be the best players, and that knowing the players deeper than anyone else will mean you’re getting extra out of them, and that there is inherent value in that:
I don’t agree! I also think Deshaun Watson is likely to hide whatever warts are in the plan as long as he’s here! Like, there’s not really a reason for me to pick against the Texans making the playoffs as long as he’s here, especially now that there’s a third wild-card team slated to be added.
It all just adds to feel like a gigantic wasted opportunity. If the Texans had just paid the majority of their star players over the last four years, they’d have one of the most enviable roster cores in the NFL. Instead, they’ve got a core and coaching staff that Watson will have to carry to the playoffs every single season. This was a sustained choice by Bill O’Brien, who has consolidated his power greater than it’s ever been, and the entire fate of the franchise rides on it while the fanbase continues to want blood.
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