The sanitization of Jack Easterby and the necessary atonement

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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Over the last three Saturdays, the Houston Chronicle and ESPN’s Houston branch have released two gigantic stories about Jack Easterby. They framed what he has done as “unconventional” and chronicled his rise to his standing today, and they are attempts to rehabilitate his standing after the role he has played in the Bill O’Brien tenure. You can tell that the Texans and those outlets know that he is unpopular and that these stories would receive backlash from fans because they ran on Saturdays, a day where absolutely nobody pays attention to the news.

While I am not accusing either ESPN or the Chronicle of this, because I don’t know for a fact, often stories like this come about as favors. Major media wants scoops and so they are beholden to power when power has a message that needs to come out. That’s kind of how the sausage gets made at times — reporters know more than you think they know and a lot of us have things we could say but won’t. I know where a few bones are buried. Other reporters who actually make it a point to traffic in this stuff know where bodies are. These are both massive articles full of quotes from people who favor and praise Easterby, though only one of them, Ryan Succop, both has a role in the NFL and is willing to voice belief that Easterby will be a great leader of a franchise. He is but a replacement-level kicker.

To use a term more popular in politics writing, these articles are sanitization. They are scrubbing and polishing around the rough bits of Easterby’s legacy to prepare the public for the fact that he’s going to be involved in this franchise for a long time — that move has been confirmed by McNair and announced while announcing that he’s not going to be general manager. In this case, the main issues are a) his standing in the organization as things fell apart to create this season and b) the fact that nothing in his history would ever suggest he’s more than a motivational speaker masquerading as a leader.

The language tells a story the Texans don’t want told

Both the ESPN piece and Houston Chronicle piece have sections buried that speak to the fact that Easterby has major flaws in his resume. Take this section from the ESPN article:

Jamey Rootes has tried to paint the devastatingly unpopular and idiotic DeAndre Hopkins trade as something that is in the past because O’Brien had personnel control. Yet, in a “consensus” situation, which is something that O’Brien spoke to many times over this last offseason and that McNair himself calls Easterby in the ESPN article, it is clear that the “consensus” agreed that trading Hopkins was a smart move. McNair isn’t going to fire himself, and has blamed the monetary situation for the trade, but it’s very clear by even a rudimentary analysis of the cap that the Texans could have kept Hopkins on a huge deal. Even before Hopkins out-and-out Tweeted that he would have taken a band-aid deal from “Kyle.”

OK. So, that’s one thing. The other thing is omission. Imagine you are building an article meant to praise Jack Easterby. Imagine you have access to every person in the entirety of football to talk to. You can talk to his previous employers. You can talk to his current employers. You can talk to analysts. You can talk to NFL Network people. You can talk to other teams. The two reporters who wrote these articles used quotes from press conferences where current Texans and Texans coaches talked briefly about Easterby, but didn’t endorse him moving up the totem pole. Outside of Succop, not a single NFL person is willing to put their name on an endorsement of Easterby leading anything. If they did, they’d be in the articles.

So instead we have people in South Carolina. Dawn Staley. People from past jobs that had nothing to do with the NFL. Buzz Williams. A murderer’s row of praise from sources who really don’t matter. When the Texans are good and this stuff matters, I try to bring praise from opponents and football people into the timeline. But I wouldn’t take, say, Stephen A. Smith’s opinion about Deshaun Watson and broadcast it. That’s nothing against Smith — he’s a great entertainer and that’s his job — but he’s no football guy. He’s there to make you laugh and capture your emotions. Amplifying his opinion is like running a story about a gas station clerk who has a vendetta against pens being on cords at the bank. There’s nothing of substance here. Just people who know Easterby personally and believe he’s a good person.

In other words, the compliments mean nothing. They have no say on how Easterby has done his job. What we have is that since joining the Texans in 2019, they fired the general manager, traded Jadeveon Clowney and DeAndre Hopkins for peanuts, and completed a franchise-crippling trade for Laremy Tunsil. Maybe those trades happen with Easterby not in the building. Maybe they don’t. But my view from the outside is that Easterby helped encourage O’Brien’s base instincts with his motivational garbage and O’Brien acted more like himself than someone who had to please someone else. You just didn’t see this level of poor management until O’Brien and Easterby were joined. At least until O’Brien wound up with a knife in his back.

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So that brings us to another question, and a question I bring up in the interests of keeping things positive since it’s clear the Texans are going to just push through with what they want to happen and the wishful belief that Easterby will be competent: What can the Texans and Jack Easterby actually do to make peace with the fanbase knowing that sanitization won’t work?

Here’s my list:

1) Easterby actually needs to be accountable to the fanbase.

That means that, yes, he can’t hide under a pile of coats during the trade deadline and act like he did nothing. He needs to talk. He needs to be involved in press conferences. If he’s this major part of the organization to the point of him driving away potential general managers and head coaches because of his influence, then he needs to be accountable. He needs to speak.

Jack Easterby has not appeared in a press conference since Deshaun Watson’s extension, and he has not actually had one on his own since July 30th, which was basically all about COVID-19 protocols. He’s simultaneously the director of so much and yet the guy who is never accountable. Cal McNair has spoken multiple times during this trashfire of a season. The only thing Easterby did was appear on a religion podcast. Let’s hear from the guy that is so worth all this hub-bub that he’s reportedly worth ruling out head coach and GM candidates for! My guess it that the Texans won’t do this because he’s not that special, but I’m willing to hear it out.

2) Easterby needs to apologize for his role in the DeAndre Hopkins trade

Yup. He does.

The Texans have up until now resisted the idea that they messed this up. They did. There will be no going forward until they reckon with it — everything up until that moment is just reactive posing.

Easterby may not have been the one that pushed the trigger. He may not have been the one that decided to send Hopkins to Arizona. But he was involved with the idea that it needed to happen, and he needs to stand at the podium and apologize to the fans for it. He needs to stand up there and tell us, with hindsight, why he messed up. What he mistook for signs of a downward trend and what that was. What he will be doing to rectify it. He needs to do all that without blaming Bill O’Brien for it, because if this is a consensus build, and he’s the consensus builder, his part clearly mattered plenty.

3) We need the actual plan, in his words, of how he’s going to change this franchise for the better

It’s very easy to say things like “he’s a great leader, he’s a great person” and leave it at that. But plans require actions. To this date, there have been zero actions taken. Clearly, the plan is to leave the football plans in the hands of the new general manager and head coach.

But if Easterby is going to have an active role in picking that person, we need to know what he’s looking for in the first place. He needs to be on the record. He needs to share this grand and unifying vision that Cal McNair has fallen for. And he needs to do it in a way that puts the organization in a better light than it’s been in for a long time.

My read of all that has transpired so far is that Easterby doesn’t actually want to be accountable, he just wants to be in charge, unchecked. That’s not a front office position, that’s a state of mind. One that hasn’t been earned no matter what Dawn Staley and Ryan Succop say.

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Ultimately I don’t expect any of those three things to happen. But even if they don’t, the Texans have a credibility problem with their fanbase that goes beyond firing a head coach, because a head coach that did what Bill O’Brien did doesn’t nascently come to fruition of its own volition. It is something that is fed and created via the All That Matters Is How Hard I Work And The Lord Will Figure The Rest Out culture that Easterby is trying to protect. What they’ve done so far about that is nothing, and they appear to be all out of ideas.

It’s not really Cal McNair’s place to tell us that things are going to be different when people who created the situation are still in the building. He can say it, and he can feel it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s more than wishful thinking. Given that he’s the only person who is willing to stand up and publicly say something about this culture, it’s hard to believe it’s valuable to anybody but him.

Sadly, he is the only person Easterby has to fool.

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