A dead trade deadline has sent the Texans on The Hero’s Journey

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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I think about this section of video a lot. It’s the very end of Cal McNair’s conversation for change with Romeo Crennel:

“It’s been a pleasure having you here six years, and hopefully, six more years.” This is just a throwaway line at the end of a long interview that’s not about football, but it’s also an operating philosophy for the McNair family.

One thing that’s been on my mind lately is a re-imagining of the phrase “What would you do if you had enough money that you didn’t have to do anything?” But it’s one that speaks a little closer to your principles, and that question is: If you knew you were going to fail, what would you do? How would you want to go down failing?

The answer, plainly conveyed here through conversation, is that Cal McNair is going down with his crew. He did it with Bill O’Brien, he’s doing it with Jack Easterby, and he’s doing it with the exact same great people who have been demolished in a majority of their losses this season.

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The Houston Texans did not do their due diligence at the trade deadline, in my opinion, because they were not interested in the outside view of their team. Now, that doesn’t mean that they necessarily got hosed or that there were grand opportunities missed — I didn’t hear of any trade offers that made me slam my hand on the desk over them not being taken — but I do think it speaks a lot to the character of the organization.

The Texans are setting themselves up to complete The Hero’s Journey for the second half of their season. What I mean by that is they have nine games against mostly less competitive teams than they faced earlier in the season, minus maybe the Colts. Coming out of the break they play “Jake Luton” and the Jaguars. The Browns have a killer rushing attack but Baker Mayfield can be exploited. The Patriots are in shambles. The Lions have been trash for Matt Patricia’s entire tenure.

Your standard-issue multi-level marketing motivational speaker thrives on just this kind of false hope, and the Texans have just that kind of guy!

My read of the situation at NRG is as follows: There’s no reason for anybody to want to trade anybody away because that would be admitting that there’s a problem with how things have been run. If the way things have been run are a problem, that’s bad news for the guy who got here right about the time everything started to turn to shit: Jack Easterby.

It is much easier, much more media-friendly, much more good for the status quo to motivational speaker this up and pretend that the Texans are on a Hero’s Journey. The journey begins with a major setback, which we won’t even talk about because that might remind you of who created the setback, and it ends with the Texans doing a better job in the second half. “These Texans are building on something,” that’s the story they want to tell about themselves. That’s the story that they’ve decided must be true to keep operating. So, that’s the way they will present life for the next nine weeks. They may or may not get rudely slapped in the face about it — I think that mostly depends on how much conviction they have in David Johnson and how badly their run defense plays — but either way the bar is so low that it doesn’t matter. They can go 3-6 or 4-5 in the next nine games and it is The Hero’s Journey. A team on the rise. They just couldn’t turn it around quickly enough. So on.

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As you may have guessed, I have some issues with the idea that the status quo is working. Those issues are: Reality.

The Texans are 1-6, their defense is a disaster that could use some fresh blood. David Johnson has been miserable in an offense that pushes him to win one-on-one against linebackers up the middle. Their salary cap situation against a $176 million cap is bad — they’re over by $7.4 million before they do anything about Will Fuller — and, more importantly, a lot of their money is tied into older players where there is little rational belief that they will get better than they are at this very moment.

It’s a situation that calls less for a motivational speaker and more for a football guy who can evaluate talent and make some key decisions. Unfortunately, the Texans decided that they didn’t need that guy after Easterby came aboard, for reasons that have never made any rational sense and never will.

Even if you disagree with my stance that the Texans should trade Randall Cobb or Brandin Cooks, you have to agree that they don’t need four receivers as good as Fuller, Cobb, Cooks, and Kenny Stills. They barely use Stills and are essentially wasting one of the prime years of his career as injury insurance.

I’m not writing this as if the Texans have to trade J.J. Watt; I’m not saying that competing next year is a fool’s errand. I’m writing this with an eye only towards next season. And not sorting out the receiver issues and getting playing time for Isaiah Coulter and maybe Keke Coutee as well is a missed opportunity in that context, because Stills isn’t re-signing here to be a No. 4.

The reason I want to trade Whitney Mercilus is two-fold: one is that trading him decreases his cap hits in a way that actually saves the Texans money. Getting rid of that cap hit is a no-brainer; Mercilus wasn’t even worth the contract he signed to anybody but O’Brien and Easterby. That was before he decided to play edge defense with two anvils tied to his legs. He also happens to be blocking young players like Jacob Martin from time that we could use to see if they are, you know, good. Actually, let’s talk about that too:

Against that, the Texans have Romeo Crennel saying that rookies need to earn their time, because rookies make mistakes, even though he admits that rookies learn faster in game situations:

So the young players on this roster that have faced “This Isn’t A Rookie Year” messaging from the very get-go are basically in a no-win situation. They can’t improve because they can’t play, and they can’t play because playing them would be admitting that the team cares about something beyond short-term results. The team would rather go 4-5 with Whitney Mercilus than 3-6 with Jacob Martin or 2-7 with Jon Greenard — and this is assuming a level of play I don’t think Mercilus actually has but I’m presenting as fact as I believe the team sees it — because that helps tell The Hero’s Journey a little louder.

What it has lead to is a constipated roster with a number of players who — good guys or not, good histories or not — just don’t deserve to be playing right now if they aren’t pluses. That includes Mercilus, Brennan Scarlett, Brandon Dunn, Vernon Hargreaves, and a few others. Empirically they haven’t been up to snuff thought seven games. That the Texans refuse to give others a real chance in the face of this and try to find some longer-term positives is an example of the messaging mattering more than the results.

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Ultimately everybody here takes their cues from leadership. Easterby tweets a lot about being a leader, but he isn’t one. Leaders speak in public and with forthrightness. Easterby has hid under a pile of boxes since O’Brien was fired.

McNair is guiding this ship, and what was decided long before he ever came to power is his vision of how power goes. He was built up by his father, a notoriously patient man. He was built to be a consensus seeker, which means he wants to hear from everybody. Including, for some reason, an impromptu panel of people:

But more than anything, my read of McNair is that he is a family man. That he doesn’t want to rock the boat. That he doesn’t like change. That he wants to believe in the people around him. He isn’t skeptical unless he has to be.

That’s why Easterby is the exact wrong kind of person to be in power next to him. From the get-go, Easterby’s motivations have been about him and his belief in whatever he has decided is right, not the team. But he’s personable to the type of person who wants a consensus; he’s enthusiastic, he tells a good yarn, and he appears to have be a hit with the McNairs through their shared beliefs.

Neither of them want this story to end in a way where family and organizational faith has failed the Texans, they just want the last eight weeks to have been a banana peel that the whole organization clumsily slipped on. Whoops, accidentally gave up 800 yards to the Titans! But everything is fine now, we swear.

They are willing to fail by closing ranks on a flawed roster they constructed. I think we can mostly say that the failure has already happened; it’s November and I don’t even want to do a game preview anymore. But no matter what happens, as long as the leaders of the organization want to pretend this was an aberration instead of an earned result, the processes that created the result will continue in earnest.

In that way, the trade deadline was just another stamp of tacit approval.

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