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One of the things that I think about a lot when it comes to individual football players is the idea of them versus the actuality of them. I say this as someone who is fairly idealistic in my own mind: I think of players in their roles based on what I’ve seen of their talent, and I project them forward. Sometimes that works out, sometimes it doesn’t. I still think Keke Coutee has the ability to be a good slot receiver; history has told us that this is not likely to be the case. Players that perform as little as he has in his first three seasons in the NFL are generally mistrusted by their teams for a reason. Does that mean Coutee’s career is over? No. Does it mean he has no chance? No. But does it mean we need to apply a healthy dose of skepticism to the idea that this is going to work out? Or, at the very least, that this is going to work out here? I think so.
Skepticism, of course, is the exact opposite of what a lot of you are here for. You want to hear about reasons to be optimistic for Jon Greenard or John Reid. You want to believe that the front office is on the right track. You want to be fans, and fans want positives even in tough times. A lot of times I feel like the role of my posts are just to throw a bucket of cold water on your fandom, in a weird confluence of events that starts with me trying to achieve the truth of the matter and you looking for knowledge. We both want the same things to happen — nobody here wants Jacob Martin to waste away for 20 snaps a game — but our roles wind up being oppositional because truth isn’t always what fans want to hear.
This is our only view of Gareon Conley on the football field for the Houston Texans in 2020. It’s small, edited clips of a scrimmage that the team released. They have every reason to make themselves look good. Conley is hobbling badly:
He hasn’t played a single down this year. Coaches have either deferred to trainers or been dismissive of reporters asking about him all season. He’s not healthy, he has “nerve pain” per Patrick Storm, and Romeo Crennel doesn’t know when or if he’s going to practice to even work towards coming back. It’s Week 11. There’s not much season left.
There are a lot of success stories of guys missing an entire season and coming back. But there are even more examples of guys missing a season, never coming back, and being swiftly forgotten. We don’t talk about those stories because they’re not fun to reminisce on. The downside to chasing an NFL dream for many, many players is that it leaves their bodies ruined in one way or another. Their physical capital gets spent. I’m not saying that Conley is done in the NFL, and I’m not saying that Conley can never recover from this injury to be a real NFL player again. I’m saying that you need to have skepticism about it because not every player that undergoes what he has this year comes back.
The truth of Gareon Conley trade is that I believed the flashes were worth buying in on because he was the kind of guy who could benefit from a change of scenery and because he had the kind of body that Texans corners generally don’t have. But in studying him for that post, it was also very obvious why the Raiders gave up on him — he made some mental mistakes, he made some physical mistakes,
What he did with the Texans in 2019 was — and I use this term kindly because obviously the results were good — a master class in flukery. He broke up 11 passes on 38 targets per Sports Info Solutions. To put that in perspective, he broke up 13 passes in 14 starts with the Raiders in 2018. To put that into even deeper perspective, Tre’Davious White broke up 10 passes in his entire 2019 season. Conley’s work with the Texans was one of two instances in the entire 2019 season where someone with less than 50 targets broke up 11 or more balls — it was him and Jamel Dean.
Now, that’s not to say that Conley didn’t earn that number or something — he is a man-cover corner and one of the best parts of his skill set is breaking up contested balls. But because the results were so wildly one-sided and so wildly out-of-character for how he had played for the rest of his career, it’s hard to look at what happened in those six starts as statistically meaningful.
I think a careful viewing of his targets shows more plays like these — ends up with his back turned, gets beat off the line, doesn’t show the early-down wins you’d want — than ones where he plays something flawlessly. I think the process of those plays matters as much as the results. I was never one to take those results and jump to the conclusion that Conley is Actually Bad — that’s a Matt Weston island — but I don’t think they showed me enough to believe he should be a long-term fixture either.
Now you have reached the end of the rookie contract. His fifth-year option wasn’t picked up. You — for now — have a system that preaches versatility, and a player that says this about his versatility:
You have a player who likely will miss the entire season. And then you have the fact that this will be a player who will not be My Guy for anybody new brought into the building. Coaches and general managers around the NFL subscribe very carefully to the My Guy philosophy — for an example, see the complete lack of consequences for anything that DeAndre Carter has ever done wrong up until yesterday — and when a new coach or general manager takes over a roster that’s not theirs, they tend to make some swift breaks with the new guys they don’t care for.
I understand the current Texans front office wants Conley back — I don’t think that matters. Or, I should say, if it does matter, this team is in a lot more trouble than they should be. Because nobody who was involved in creating this trash fire of a season should be given any say in anything going forward.
I think a small, incentive-based, one-year deal for Conley is fine. It’s a gamble on whatever happened in 2019 being a long-term improvement rather than a fluke, but I don’t have a problem with it. The problem is that at this point in his career, you can no longer have the expectations that he came into the season with. He’s missed major portions of two of his four seasons in the NFL. You can’t pencil Conley in as a starter and expect things to go right — that’s a big mistake the 2020 Texans made. It shouldn’t be a mistake the 2021 Texans make too.
The idea of this Conley who was going to rescue the Texans from their corner depth? It’s gone. The Conley that exists is a prove-it upside man corner who you can’t count on to play games, and we have no idea what the next defensive coordinator’s scheme is going to emphasize. Judging by how much NFL front offices value players who can stay healthy and the general tenor of NFL free agency not having a lot of cash flow this year, I would be surprised if he was in demand anywhere, let alone in Houston.
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