Hiring David Culley is Jack Easterby’s crowning achievement in keeping himself empowered

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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The Houston Texans were the first team in the NFL to fire their head coach in the 2020 season. They now become the last team in the NFL to hire a head coach, and they’ve hired a head coach who has never been a head coach at any level, and who nobody else even bothered to interview. He is 65 years old — 66 before the season, which makes him the oldest first-time head coach in NFL history. The uh, the history of first-time head coaches that old is not great!

With some teams, we would be willing to give them the benefit of the doubt on a hire like this. The Houston Texans shouldn’t be one of those teams. Not only has the search been slow, it also alienated the franchise quarterback for no reason. They wound up trying to placate him through an interview of Eric Bieneimy — the hottest head coach candidate in the game who can’t be hired because he actually wants power — and immediately dropped him from consideration. They didn’t even wait for the Super Bowl to conclude to give him a second interview.

This process meandered in the only way that a process that ended with Jack Easterby firmly in control of the Texans could. He scrambled to protect his base with Nick Caserio when it appeared a search firm was going to recommend someone who’d get rid of him, then, as he did with Bill O’Brien, immediately began directing all blame for things right back to Caserio.

And, of course. Of course. The two rumored last candidates for the job, Leslie Frazier and Culley, were renowned men of faith who had no other suitors. Just as Caserio was given an exorbitant sum of money with the idea that the Panthers would be interested, but otherwise didn’t appear to have any suitors. Jack Easterby knows how to play front office politics, and Cal McNair doesn’t. Once they are indebted to you for making the drop, you are safe. Eric Bieniemy would have taken less than two months to can Easterby. Meanwhile, the story:

It isn’t hidden. It is overt. It is a part of this organization’s thinking. It is their type. It is what they care about. When they say “tough, smart, and dependable,” it is a stand-in for religious background.

This is yet another capitulation to Easterby, who now enters the actual offseason in total control of the organization. Two offseasons of his moves have left the cupboard entirely bare outside of Deshaun Watson, and if Watson wants to leave, there will be nothing here. I doubt J.J. Watt is going to want to stay here. I doubt Will Fuller is going to want to re-sign here if Watson isn’t going to be here. It pretty much all hinges on a random wide receivers coach who nobody had ever heard of until he took these interviews convincing Watson that he’s worth the drama this organization creates.

It is a bleak place to be. Congrats Coach Culley.

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This is where I would go in and tell you what we know about David Culley, but we don’t really know a goddamn thing. We know that his major influences are John Harbaugh and Andy Reid, Harbaugh of course was the Eagles special teams coach before he was hired. He’s been an NFL wide receivers coach for Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Kansas City, and Baltimore. With the Bills, he was their quarterback coach. Some careers that launched under him that are notable: Tyreek Hill, Jeremy Maclin, Hollywood Brown.

I imagine we will find out a lot more at the presser, the general gist of it is that Culley’s being pitched as the CEO of the operation, an inspirational leader who will, as Cal McNair put it, make people want to run through a brick wall. I could see him absorbing enough from Reid, Greg Roman, and Harbaugh to be a good head coach. I could also see him being a misguided attempt at installing somebody who never has demonstrated the skills he needs. Your guess is as good as mine. My forays into listening to Culley talk have mostly shown a man who talks an awful lot like Easterby — dodging questions to spout life advice — but without sitting in the literal interview room, I can’t tell you what all this is going to look like. I imagine Houston media is going to have a lot of questions for Mr. Culley and what he wants this to look like. He is essentially a blank slate for us to judge empirically, analytically, schematically, and so on.

It is very easy to see that he is respected as a person. A lot of the praise that came for Culley was about who he was as a person. It was a lot harder to find specific praise for him as a coach outside of this Ravens.com article.

Reid was quoted at the Pro Bowl in 2017 as saying about Culley’s move back to the Bills as QB coach “He played quarterback so he always wanted to get back to doing that. He was always involved in our pass game all the time. He’d set it up with me and present it to the players. He’s done installs. He’s done everything. I looked at him like another coordinator.”

The things that we can learn from the staff that immediately began leaking are a little more granular. We know who Tim Kelly is: He is a stab to keep Deshaun Watson happy as the returning offensive coordinator. He coordinated the worst running attack in the NFL last year, and while I think he does deserve some credit for listening to Watson and opening up the offense away from what O’Brien put together last year, I don’t think a lot of the success that happened last season was about easy yardage. Obviously, because I’d rather have Watson on the franchise than not, I hope it works out! But if there’s no Watson, well, I have a lot of concerns about the ability of this team to generate easy offense. Kelly’s still young, but I think of last year more as a moderate step than as a stepping stone to greatness.

Then there’s (gulp)

Listen, Lovie Smith is a great man who had a great peak in the NFL, but that time passed hard after his tenure in Chicago. The 2014 Tampa Bay Bucs finished 19th in defensive DVOA, at 2.0% — 24th as a pass defense. The 2015 Bucs basically repeated that — 19th in defensive DVOA at 3.3%, 24th as a pass defense. Illinois’ defense was concerning. They finished 89th in defensive S&P+ in 2017, and mostly just continued to bend and break. They actually got worse in 2018, finishing 115th in defensive S&P+, and allowing 63 points to Penn State, Maryland, and Iowa.

I am willing to be wrong on this — maybe he learned a lot in his time off! — but old coaches generally don’t change. There’s certainly nothing we saw changing as his NFL and college defenses backslid into oblivion. Tampa 2 was the trademark defense of every team in the NFL for a little bit, but those days are done. And to try to ask this front four to give him the pressure to make it work? Whew. That’s got potential disaster written all over it to me. You probably need two free agents to even get the pass rush to passable if Watt leaves.

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As with everything that’s happened this offseason, it’s all up to what Watson does. He can put a lot of lipstick on this pig if he stays. I don’t blame him in the slightest if he wants to force a trade — these are extraordinary times we’re watching down at NRG, as a naked power struggle has left someone who has no business running a football team as essentially the ruling executive. That executive has run off several good players, seems likely to run off more before the offseason is over, and has hired nobody with any definitive proof that they can be a good coach in the year of our lord 2021. We have rah rah promises, a guy who we have no idea about sans Deshaun, and a Tampa 2 dinosaur. All of them are devoted to the Church of Easterby.

Can’t wait for the presser! 😀

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Meditations on watching your favorite franchise turn into a dumpster fire

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.

***

Enough of this miserable, whining life. Stop monkeying around! Why are you troubled? What’s new here? What’s so confounding? The one responsible? Take a good look. Or just the matter itself? Then look at that. There’s nothing else to look at. And as far as the gods go, by now you could try being more straightforward and kind. It’s the same, whether you’ve examined these things for a hundred years, or only three.

Meditations

I want to start with humility. One of the things that you learn when you first start caring about how football works is that you are going to take a lot of losses along the way. I believed Robert Quinn would be a better fit for the Texans than J.J. Watt would in 2011. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had to correct course on my priors to get to where I am as a mind today — I started with background in football analytics and had to unlearn some parts of it. I am only beginning to grasp the technique and play calling area of the NFL in a manner I find acceptable. In three years, what I believe will likely change again in some ways. I never thought defensive back play was as important as pass rusher play, but studies have borne out that it is. I’m always open to being wrong and open to learning the lessons that are inherent in that.

So when you take that mindset, and apply it to the place the Texans currently are at, it’s easy to scan the situation looking for reasons to believe that they are coming from good faith. It’s easy to approach this situation believing that logic is guiding something. I see a lot of rationalizations around this tone. The Texans are interviewing Josh McCown, but actually the wording on this Tweet might mean that it’s not for a head coach position. The Texans are doing this interview because they might want McCown to be an offensive coordinator, and it’s a favor to him. I’ve seen many variations of this sort of idea.

The problem is that this isn’t an isolated incident. The Jack Easterby Texans have made many, many irrational decisions. They aren’t a rational actor. There was never any logic in trading DeAndre Hopkins. There was never any logic to believing that trading for Laremy Tunsil would be a long-term winner. There was never any logic in not replacing Jadeveon Clowney, D.J. Reader, and so on with anyone better than Eric Murray. When you look at this interview through the scope of the long-term rather than the short-term, it is not out of place. When you look at the rumors that have come out about Easterby’s tenure, when you look at the fact that the team continues to go out of its way to hire people who will not challenge his position in any way, it’s hard to come to any conclusion but that he is basically the owner of the team. The buck stops with Jack Easterby and the buck has been traded for a quarter and two nickels.

The reason it’s hard to believe that whichever of these not-Eric Bieniemy head coaches will work out is because none of Jack Easterby’s moves have worked out. The Easterby Texans as presently constituted have maybe a 5% hit rate on their bold, galaxybrained ideas. I brought up the trades already. The contracts for players like Randall Cobb and Whitney Mercilus were bad before the ink dried. I will give them maybe the tiniest smidgen of credit on Brandin Cooks las year, and that could still look bad in two years.

Normally, I am the guy who is low on most moves as compared to the fanbase. That comes with the territory of having a major background in analytics — I start with an approach founded in probability rather than on feel. You see a first-round tackle who has the tools to be a stud in Tytus Howard. I see a SWAC kid who has a lot to learn and believe the range of outcomes is not always going to solve itself in the positive, or at least not in the first four years. That said, I have learned to love surprises. I’ve learned to love being wrong. I would have dearly loved to have eaten some of the many words I’ve spilled on this blog over Texans trades and signings that they went out on a limb for. That I haven’t is as grave an indictment of the franchise’s direction as anything.

Remember: I’m supposed to be the idiot sportswriter. They’re supposed to be the franchise that has the data I don’t have, the knowledge I don’t have, and they are supposed to use those things to prove me wrong. When we play this game, me playing it with less information than them, I am supposed to lose.

If I would be outperforming you by virtue of just not doing stupid shit every year, that says a lot about how stupid that shit is and how unqualified the person leading the charge of all those moves is. To some people, that would be a sign that maybe they should get back on the trolley. To the Texans? They are permanently emboldened by Easterby’s toxic positivity.

So yeah, I understand in a vacuum that there’s nothing “wrong” with interviewing Josh McCown as a head coach. There’s nothing “wrong” with interviewing David Culley. But when your front office has a predilection for doing dumb shit, well, it’s dangerous. You see the gears working as they figure out how to pole vault off the tracks and into the Dunning-Kruger effect stratosphere. If the Patriots interviewed Josh McCown to be an offensive coordinator? Fawning everywhere. The Texans interviewing Culley? It’s like watching a child fiddling with a book of matches outside of a gas station.

***

“I don’t understand why we must do things in this world, why we must have friends and aspirations, hopes and dreams. Wouldn’t it be better to retreat to a faraway corner of the world, where all its noise and complications would be heard no more? Then we could renounce culture and ambitions; we would lose everything and gain nothing; for what is there to be gained from this world?”

Cioran, On the Heights of Despair

The Texans are a slave to Jack Easterby’s desires. He holds them in his hands. It is okay to admit that. I know it feels powerful to blame Cal McNair, and he certainly deserves some blame for falling under the spell of this seersucker of a man. But Easterby holds the keys to the kingdom.

This will never be stated overtly, and because it will never be stated overtly, a segment of intentionally dense people will refuse to understand it. But the power dynamics at play here make it very obvious.

In a sense, it’s not hard to blame Easterby for what he is doing. He’s been empowered beyond the wildest dreams he could think of while using edgy Grand Theft Auto fonts on his South Carolina bible study power points. He is making, per reports, a metric ton of money for a long time, and he intends to keep making that money for a long time. So he has worked hard behind the scenes to install a general manager of his choosing. Based on the candidate pool for the head coach job — as well as the reported finalist pool — it’s very clear he has influence on that. Easterby doesn’t want anybody in town that will challenge his authority.

And if that means that Deshaun Watson has to go? Well, the preacher did tell us that his favorite game was watching Jesus struggle on the cross for six hours.

In Easterby’s vision of the Texans, we’re about to watch a lot of competing on the cross, every Sunday.

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A cucumber is bitter. Throw it away. There are briars in the road. Turn aside from them. This is enough. Do not add, “And why were such things made in the world?”

Meditations

I have a certain knowledge of how to play with words. If I want to convey “this player fucked up his tackle on this play,” I have many options. I could just outright state it — that’s usually pretty irritating and players don’t tend to like it. I could say something more demure, like “This player makes it to the box, let’s see what happens,” that calls it out without necessarily being quite so direct. I could use my words to paint it as a mental mistake or a physical mistake, I could say that the physical mistake occurred because the tackling technique went bad when the player bent his helmet forward here. I could say that the mental mistake occurred because the player wasn’t positioned properly to begin with. There are many different ways to characterize an action.

What I am getting at as we continue to drown in Deshaun Watson non-action is a very simple feeling: That it all matters. Jack Easterby’s presence, especially, matters. But the season that he just went through matters. Did Bill O’Brien play a part? Look at what happened to the roster under his stewardship as GM. Does not interviewing Eric Bieniemy (until later) and Robert Saleh play into that? Sure, it sucks that one of the preeminent black quarterbacks of our time can’t see a single path to a minority getting in the front office until he speaks up about it. Does Cal McNair have a part in it? He has enabled and allowed a lot of meddling and hasn’t shown much indication that he knows how to steer the course of the franchise successfully. Does watching J.J. Watt throw his career away for this franchise have a part in it? We saw them walk off the field together.

My reading of what we’ve seen leaked about Watson’s unhappiness is that he feels like the main character in a Resident Evil game — not only is everything going wrong, but there’s not really any time to breathe before the next thing goes wrong. When he finds a potential solution, it turns out that the environment around him was five steps ahead of him and that whatever victory he thought he won was Pyrrhic. When the plot is revealed, the plot is actually eight different subplots, and you better be mashing the circle button during this cutscene or you’re going to be eaten. The objectives to creating the culture and team that he wants in Houston are so numerous as to be overwhelming. Nothing ever resolves, it just concludes in a way to create the next obstacle.

As Watson grows into whatever he will ultimately be, he understands a little more each day. We give him a lot of credit for his growth on the field, but I think maybe his growth off the field is undercovered and underreported. I think he’s beginning to piece together more about what he wants and doesn’t want his future to look like. And I think of him walking off that field with Watt as a powerful scene in what he doesn’t want to see.

Watson is the kind of man who has always been able to say that he wants to win a title and then back that up. It was enough to have the goal and enough to be transcendent on his own. He’s learning that this isn’t Clemson. You need the organization and culture to have a drive to win a championship that manifests in actions rather than words. And he just watched his fellow superstar on the team spend his entire season trying to get that across to anyone who would listen:

Watson isn’t turning away from the Texans because he’s mad at them hiring Nick Caserio. He isn’t turning away from them exclusively because of Easterby, even though that is definitely a main issue from what I’ve heard.

He’s turning away from them because, on a very elemental level, he’s growing, and they are not. That’s the wedge.

***

Notoriety follows you
like beatings follow rain

McLusky, “Gareth Brown Says”

Where does that leave the readers, where does this leave the fanbase, and where does this leave me? I feel like we’ve collectively tried incredibly hard to get some message to the Houston Texans organization that Jack Easterby can’t be allowed to manage this team. I personally have an honorary doctorate in Easterby speaking appearance forensics. The Texans Unfiltered crew held a rally that Watson had to tell them to call off:

It is, objectively speaking, ridiculous that this happened. I don’t know that I can even recall a similar event in history. Not for the owner, not for a coach, not for a general manager. For a vice president.

Literally everything the Texans put out as an organization is instantly ratioed, #FireEasterby has trended multiple times in the wake of the most high-profile bits, as well as after the second Sports Illustrated piece was put up.

Steph Stradley has put it well when she has noted that the organization has chosen Easterby over everybody. It almost transcends that for me when you consider that the Texans are ostensibly an organization that faces the public. It’s not just that the Texans are choosing people over other people, it’s that they are literally disengaging with one of the purposes of a football team — their community — to serve Easterby.

Since Nick Caserio has been hired, there has been almost nothing of substance put out by the team website about the team itself. It is in a holding pattern, an airplane circling around the port while a hostage situation happens below it. They also have started putting up pictures of players who have worn each number. Did you know Tom Savage and Brandon Weeden both wore No. 3? Guess we’ll get familiar with that sight again soon.

It would be incredibly easy to fire or re-assign Easterby. It would be incredibly easy to make the steps that would be real apologies to Watson for the way this offseason was conducted and hire the best head coach on the market instead of the best one who prays exactly as Jack commands. It would be incredibly easy to have as much respect and concern for Watson as the mayor of the city does.

But it is beyond this cabal of Generational Intellects to do anything but serve Easterby’s ego. To do anything but watch the fire in the dumpster as Easterby throws the next thing in it.

And as we all go into that fire, the organization, the players, the employees, the media, the fans, I want to tell you that I understand perfectly if you want to check out of it. I have zero ill will for you. Life is too short to be tethered to something that brings you pain, and I say that even though it means I have a lot of eyes to lose.

As we get deeper into the 21st century, it becomes more and more obvious that the institutions that were set up to protect us have been underfunded, destroyed, or otherwise incapacitated. The NFL doesn’t have a system in place to demand an ownership recall. It never envisioned a scenario in which a person who made enough money to own a football franchise would be so hamheaded that he’d throw the figurative implements of money-making away for his pastor.

That is what we are on the verge of. We’re all waiting to see what gets tossed in the fire next.

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Jack Easterby is a distraction that will never end until he’s gone

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.

***

We have spent many words on Jack Easterby and Jack Easterby’s fate on this blog since October. I am, frankly, exhausted by this situation. I didn’t get into writing about football to write about front office coups. I could’ve done that in politics just fine if I wanted that heat.

I’m not coming into this piece to say anything bad about Jack Easterby — not because I’m worried about lawsuits, but because nothing he does at this point can be surprising. Both Sports Illustrated pieces — here’s the latest — as well as my own fact-finding, have done little but support the idea that he is an agent of chaos. Line up his employment with the Texans in a timeline and it squares straight with this organization firing Brian Gaine and starting its descent into a 4-12, values-obsessed, cultureless, rejected Mean Girls Netflix sequel. I don’t think that warrants death threats, just someone to step up and say enough is enough.

And, more importantly, for those people to be listened to.

***

Deshaun Watson was in an impossible situation because of the standard quarterbacks are held to. Every Texans fan besides the rumored Easterby burner would rather keep Watson than Easterby, and that’s fine. But the old school mentality that players should never dictate anything to the front office was going to make it almost impossible for Watson to do that and not get widely blasted for it. The idea that a black quarterback was going to take out a religious-minded front office VP — on paper — is the stuff that Sean Hannity’s writers room can only dream of.

Watson has done a lot of maturation in his game over the past two seasons, and took a major step forward this year. In particular, he’s done a better job of diagnosing blitzes and finding his open receivers when they come. He’s always shown a rare ability to take hits, keep his balance, and deliver under pressure. But this season he began to intentionalize the idea that there are hits he shouldn’t take. He has praised the offensive line for playing better and the receivers for getting open — and that’s what a good quarterback should do — but it was his improvement that set the scene for it all.

How much Watson believes that Easterby has to go is probably something that will never be public record, and I’m not going to tell you that I know for a fact that he wanted Easterby gone. But by appearing in the above picture, with this caption, and saying nothing about it, Watson said all he needed to. He read the situation, checked it down to Andre Johnson, and got ready for the next play.

***

Faced with his choice on Friday, Cal McNair chose Easterby.

Here’s the thing: There’s no amount of words or “agree to disagree” that will ever work here. The thing about agents of chaos, as four years of the Donald Trump White House has taught us, is that there is always a new fire.

When nobody in the building trusts Easterby, what it means is that nuggets like those that appear in the SI piece will continue to leak. Combine that for a national sports media that wants Watson to be a winner, wants him to be a face of the NFL, and has no qualms with trying to “free” Watson from the Texans. What you have mixed together is akin to a rolling boil of canola oil. The job of trying to keep it contained is almost impossible without actually firing Easterby — turning the heat off. Maybe there will be a month where we talk about something else. But, as any Vice Presidents of Communications in the crowd could tell us — boy, the Texans sure could use one of those — eventually when you put something in the pot, scalding oil is splashing out everywhere. What McNair did on Friday is akin to noticing the boil, dumping two packages of fries into it, then running out the door of the house into the Lamborghini and beating a hasty retreat.

Deshaun Watson posted song lyrics on Twitter yesterday and it became near-unanimously known by fans of the other 31 fanbases that it was about how mad he was. Even after he clarified it, what people took away from it was that he was pissed off. This is a situation that doesn’t happen if Easterby just isn’t part of the Houston Texans organization anymore.

It’s a situation that will repeat itself several times in the months to come, and for as long as Easterby is an employee. It’s a flaming dumpster of a PR disaster, and Cal McNair has an extinguisher.

But have you considered how beautiful the fire is?

***

The thing about what happens in 2021 is that while we have likely had scenarios like the one playing out with the Houston Texans before, we’ve never had the level of access to it that we’ve had. It makes it feel infinite, neverending, like a Ulysses that we are trapped in every day. That impacts fans, yes, but it also impacts players, employees, their families. It impacts Deshaun Watson’s day-to-day life, whereas before it would have been a bad choice that appeared in a newspaper column and didn’t get any traction until Training Camp.

What should happen in a scenario like this is that, eventually, you can’t escape the truth. Fans have been livid for weeks. Watson is fed up. Logic would dictate that you simply remove the problems and obstacles involved with keeping the franchise quarterback happy. The negative energy invited by keeping Easterby is lowering the value of the franchise every instant he is employed.

I wrote about McNair’s inability to grasp what is happening last week. I almost feel pity for him, because he has no idea what he’s in for in choosing Easterby here. I should be writing an article right now on the owner being dragged, kicking and screaming, into getting rid of his best friend who was ruining the franchise. I have tried to not go after him as a person because, well, that’s not actually productive. But his actions continue to paint a more damaging picture of him than anything I could write ever would. Choosing Jack Easterby over Deshaun Watson is the most incomprehensible thing I have ever heard of in my life. It’s like filming a Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives episode that is 100% footage of Guy Fieri in his automobile. It’s the kind of thing that makes fans ask: What exactly are we doing here?

When Cal said in the piece that his religious beliefs don’t dictate how we play football, note that it was not a real answer to the question. Cal is not very good at answering the actual questions that are asked of him, and that’s not a great skill for somebody who has fancied himself a problem-solver. The problem is that the religious beliefs seem to be impacting who gets to stay and help lead a franchise. That is not technically dictating how they play football, but the business around it. It is all semantics in the grand scheme of things — Easterby is here for one reason, and we know what it is.

Cal has mentioned several times that he wants to build a consensus. That was something his father was big on, as well. But if you are a consensus builder, and people believe they should be part of the consensus and are ignored, you don’t actually have a consensus. The fans, the players, the employees and ex-employees that are leaking, the non-Easterby figures in this organization, everybody else seems to be aligned to ridding the team of its major problems.

But the consensus was never actual, it was just another front to hide behind as Easterby systemically stripped the organization of assets as if he were employed by another team to do it. If they somehow bungle away having Deshaun Watson, this organization will become one of the bleakest things in the NFL. I would say that we can get through it, but I read what the readers say. There are people who don’t even want to associate with this team if Watson isn’t here. I will be writing for six people.

Professional sports franchises are unique in that they are a corporation, but one that people actually want to interact with. Even when Bill O’Brien had obviously capped Houston’s upside as a playoff franchise, I had fans coming out of the woodwork to defend him or tell me they thought I was wrong. Sports teams have an imbued sense of community and representation that’s hard to fuck up.

But Cal, bless his heart, he’s trying real hard to prove that wrong.

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There are many megachurches in Houston

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.

***

I have been hoping to ignore this, because I know the kinds of comments these articles get and I don’t want to invite them into my life. But it continues to be a major theme of the Jack Easterby Houston Texans: The overbearing injection of religion and values as a factor in football operations:

It is clear from the Sports Illustrated article about Jack Easterby that Easterby’s hold on the Texans and his initial connection with owner Cal McNair came from their shared faith.

This is something that was a gateway previously between Bob McNair and Rick Smith, and that is an open secret as the clear mesh point between Cal McNair and Easterby.

I think that notation from Breer is a perfect way to put it: I’m not here to trivialize anybody’s religion or faith, but it is notable that we keep getting dragged back here and I want to explore why that is as the franchise continues to weight themselves down with the Easterby anchor. I think a lot of fans are struggling with the question of why a preacher could have such a particular impact on McNair. Let’s talk about it.

***

It is not all that notable that an NFL owner is getting grifted. NFL owners have been grifted by coaches and front office men since the dawn of football. The Cowboys hired Mike McCarthy this offseason after he went on an analytics photo opportunity at PFF. He brought along defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, who hasn’t run a good NFL defense for more than a half-decade. There was almost no chance that it would end well on the merits of the coaching. In that way, save his background, Easterby is no different than several other would-be prophets.

This particular owner, though — and I say this with no joy — has been completely out of his depth as a speaker in every public appearance since his father’s death. The 40 minutes he spent with us at Nick Caserio’s press conference were a tour de force of ways to prove that he does not understand the gravity of the situation he finds himself in. He could not answer basic questions about Easterby’s role in the company. He chummed around with reporters who he knew about ice bucket challenges and golf games. He continued to try to present an extremely optimistic point of view about a deteriorating situation — 4-12, one star gone, a second star pissed all season, a third star pissed by the reason for this presser — as if going 6-10 because of a better record in one-score games would have changed any of the underlying problems.

Press availabilities don’t really stagger you if you know how to speak in them — you learn the ebbs and flows, and you understand how to give the kind of non-answer that can at least imply a hint of what you’re doing. “Getting it corrected,” in Bill O’Brien’s parlance, conveys that he knows that something is wrong. If O’Brien had fielded a question about his running game and replied: “I want to talk about my running game, we ran a lot of plays and we saw some good results. We want to run the ball very good at all times, we ask our fans to believe in us,” he would have been destroyed. McNair’s inability to even tonally hit the answers that you don’t want to hear speaks to how unable he is to see that any of this is wrong. Particularly given that he had to have been aware and briefed about grievances the fans have had and that it was no secret how this would play externally.

A lot of fans have attacked McNair through the bounds of regular fan logic: They see an issue and wonder why it isn’t being addressed and why he can’t see it. The thing about growing up rich and disconnected from any consequences is that it manifests itself in ways that make you, to normal people, profoundly weird. Take this quote from Tania Ganguli’s profile of Cal McNair in 2012:

No normal Houstonian grows up not understanding what Bud Adams did to make fans mad at him. I empathize in a way, because if you are chummy on an ownership level, where you see all these little-publicized donations and charity events and galas, it’s easy to just see the good you think you are doing and wonder what you could do that would be bad. The fact that this quote happened nine years ago and that McNair still doesn’t seem to understand or appreciate what he has to do to connect with normal people is a window into why someone like Easterby was able to touch him. Fans like to project themselves on to ownership — probably because of the fetishization of having that level of money — and pretend they are owners and decide how they’d act. What if Cal McNair is just a family-focused goober who happened to own a football team and saw it as a cheat code for respect at cocktail events rather than a description to be lived up to?

Anyway, for no particular reason after that paragraph, this bit from the clips that didn’t make this story is fairly revealing:

This is not to say that anybody has done anything wrong in this story — it is just tonally weird with how normal people live their lives. Many women who get approached like this would be understandably angry at best, and possibly file paperwork. I’m happy it worked out for them, and I’m not trying to shame anybody here. It’s just one of very few windows we have into Cal’s life. He met a girl he found attractive on Valentine’s Day and decided that the way to make this happen was concierge services, like she was tickets to the opera.

I can’t pretend that I know who Cal McNair is. I’ve never even talked to him, let alone in person. But it’s not hard to interpret the signs of who someone is when a carefully-choreographed paper appearance and long press conference show us that he doesn’t understand much about his fanbase or how life works for it. My guess, given the fact that he’s tuned in to (hat tip Steph Stradley) Easterby’s toxic positivity, is that he sees the fanbase as something that produces a lot of negativity in his life, and something that he has a mandate to ignore because they don’t understand all the good he does. He chastised nobody in particular but obviously someone on the outside for “a lot of heat” that Easterby took for taking over as interim general manager. Even a last-ditch Sports Illustrated article effort couldn’t get McNair to understand the legitimate grievances any fan or player would have with this culture.

All of us are attuned to hear the people who are positive to us a little louder — it is human nature to not want to be shamed and to be kind to those who are kind to us. McNair is no different than any of us in that regard. It is just that, by nature of his upbringing and his dismissal of the general outside, the potential audience of people who interest him is a lot smaller.

***

What is revealed, over and over again, is that “believes in family, believes in doing things the right way,” is what the Texans want. Since Bob McNair’s death, Cal McNair has run the team mostly in a hands-off way and wanted to build “consensus.” It was a “consensus” deal that they’d trade DeAndre Hopkins, ergo it was nobody’s actual fault.

As far as the consensus building goes, Easterby’s LARPing campaign as Texans GM was a lot louder when he was part of the committee. The committee could afford to believe that replacing DeAndre Hopkins with David Johnson would work. Hopkins, after all, would give footballs to his mother in the stands, which is dangerously close to glory. David Johnson, one imagines in Jack’s mind, calmly recited Psalm 34:18 as he waited for each gap that would never open. But once O’Brien ran out of HP and the decisions could actually be traced back to him, Easterby treated even Kenny Stills like an Elixir. You don’t want to waste that in a random battle, what if a third-round pick came in return? Let’s wait by the phone and see.

The most important part of the McNair family is that once you’re in with the McNair family, you’re there through thick and thin. A lot of faith is placed in you. Gary Kubiak coached here for eight seasons. Bill O’Brien for six and a quarter. Both of them had issues that would topple coaches in hotter markets fairly early.

But a family can only be as strong as the faith placed in it by all members. You’re reading this and you haven’t clicked out yet, so you’re part of my greater readership family. If you suddenly decide that I’m bad at this, the family dissolves. If I suddenly decide that I’d rather never write about the Texans again — maybe more of a possibility than it should be — the family dissolves. There’s a spirit of cooperation implicit in both a family and church structure where we don’t always do things we want to do for the greater good. People we are obligated to listen to. These are generally shared values. They are values that the Texans are trying to project on to their team and roster, yet they are ones that ownership is happy to overlook when applied to the family in charge.

When you hire opportunists to be family, and they are given a chance to seize more power in the family, they will. It’s how Bill O’Brien got Rick Smith out of the building. It’s how Easterby knifed Brian Gaine and, later, O’Brien. Opportunists can read the room and understand when a challenge is ready to be faced and how to avoid it. There are lofty standards about how the players and staff supposed to act and be, but they are applied inconsistently.

Easterby was supposed to be O’Brien’s right-hand man, but he understood that keeping power would not be easy after an 0-4 start, and distanced himself. O’Brien distanced himself from Smith because he was never interested in sharing power, something that was evident to anybody who watched their interactions on Hard Knocks. These people may have been “family,” in the sense that they lived with each other, but they don’t live up to the ideals and values that McNair set forth for them. They haven’t done things “the right way.” Easterby’s play to get close to McNair was easier than probably even he expected. To be fair to McNair, promises towards shared values and faith look damn good compared against O’Brien’s belief system of nihilism, inside zone, and the Yankee concept. To McNair, Easterby must have had an aura of extreme competency.

Because they can present themselves as people who did things the right way to someone without a discerning eye, they can be Houston Texans family and eat the family too.

***

Having subjected myself to a couple of different Jack Easterby sermons in the grander service of trying to understand how someone could be under his sway, there is little but enthusiasm there. The nervous energy he puts out as he spins his yarn is no different than a fourth-tier YouTuber asking for you to like and subscribe mid-video. His major sermon, and the thing that his foundation is named after, is The Greatest Champion. It goes a little something like this:

In the world that Easterby preaches, we are all “a mess” (his words) in the eyes of God. The way that you create your value isn’t through results, but through process and belief in the process.

Caillou-Manuel Propaganda over here preaches toxic positivity and improvement. The idea that if you’re just overwhelmingly positive, and you do “the work,” and “embrace humility,” that everything is going to be great. That in and of itself isn’t all that interesting — many people have written self-help books around that, and some of them, unlike Easterby, do it successfully. The problem isn’t that applying values to a person can inspire the person to find paths that make them happier. The problem is that applying values to an organization’s players isn’t Moneyball For The Galaxy-Brained. If there were a way for religion and values to create a winning football team, trust me, someone in the NFL would have found it before Jack Easterby. Probably Mike Singletary, maybe Tony Dungy, if we’re being honest.

The idea for his image of the team is self-contained: Why can’t your poem be greater? Why can’t you meet your challenge? The problem is that Easterby also preaches the process over the results, so the bar for the challenge is literally on the floor. Easterby’s promise falls flat when laid out to someone like J.J. Watt, who already has extensive self-motivation and doesn’t need to learn more about how to use his gifts from someone who can barely keep his anecdotes above the racially insensitive replacement level. If Whitney Mercilus gets four sacks but finds inner peace with his relationship with God, well, I’m very proud of Whitney but he’s not worth $11 million a season. This should be a business of results. The entire point of the game is the results.

The results since Easterby has taken over have been horrific. Not just on-field, but the destruction of relationships, the trades, the contracts, the constant theme of Entrance of the Gladiators that follows anything they do. The inability of this year’s team to give 300 snaps to a rookie on their way to 4-12, adjust to anything that this year gave them in terms of scheme, or do anything more than complain about the lack of tackling drills they had week after week for eternity. Once O’Brien was deposed, this team quickly became a loose collection of individuals playing in self-interest rather than an organization with any kind of direction. The Texans have brought up often that they are interested in competing for championships — McNair brought it up again on both Friday and Saturday — but nothing they do seems to understand the urgency involved with that goal.

Easterby’s vision for what the Texans are is self-preservation for his principles. The only ounce of shame in the entire thing is that even he can’t bring himself to go to the podium and speak about it. Jack tweets an awful lot about people who aren’t in the arena for a man whose one arena fight was Cal McNair’s bedtime on the team charter home from London.

But to Easterby, that line is just another challenge to motivationally Tweet through. If he has found a taker to his mantra in McNair, there’s ultimately no way within his reasoning to ever judge Easterby for what has gone wrong. After all, we’re all flawed creatures and we’re just following the process of the worker and the spirit to get to a better poem. What other opportunity could you want? Amen.

***

To be honest with you, I have had a terrible relationship with Catholicism. My grandfather wielded it as a cudgel on my mother and I. He would withhold money and benefits from us if we did not meet his standard of Catholicism. I responded by withdrawing. I don’t really mind that some Texans are religious and it doesn’t bother me that Deshaun Watson or Brandin Cooks mentions God often — I don’t connect with them in that light, but if that is what it takes to inspire their greatness then I embrace it. Likewise, I don’t begrudge Easterby for his faith. If Easterby and McNair were running a car dealership in Maine instead of the Houston Texans, I would blissfully not care.

If the Texans fancy faith and family as a major part of their approach, I think that’s both good marketing and a recognition of a major audience in Houston. But people don’t talk about football teams because of the charitable acts they do. People don’t consider the Texans in terms of them being a public good — if they want to be that way, McNair can turn ownership over to the city and we can pay teachers with their profits. People talk about how awesome Deshaun Watson is, how much help he needs, and how nice it would be if there were any chance he was going to get it. They talk about the last part that way because of Easterby’s greatest hits.

The fact that Watson trade rumors have been allowed to generate shows how this culture has failed. Forget the jolly forced summer camp hike to the end of the season that Romeo led, and forget the legitimate grievances Watson has over an ownership family that listened to his front office suggestions in the same way that our government listens to its citizens. The entire NFL news culture is thirsty to create a typhoon of poorly-sourced fantasies about where Watson would go. It draws eyes, it creates hope for a million fanbases, and it plays into the demand that he be “freed” from the Texans, which were an obligation to him this year and an outright piano on his back being forced to run O’Brien’s 2011 finest. This culture saw that and decided that the best move was to yank Watson around some more, as a matter of course, because the family is the family and they can’t just be handing out Zoom interviews to anybody; it would disrupt the nothing they had planned. That it has blown up in their face is both unsurprising and — outside of the effects of potentially creating an orphaned franchise nobody ever wants to read about — hilarious in the way that any ACME package delivered to Wile E. Coyote is.

In the press conference on Friday, McNair spoke to the need to “build a wall,” in an awkward word choice that possibly seemed like a nod to Joe Brady. In an interview with the official website on Saturday, McNair then said that he needed a head coach who would get players to run through a brick wall.

It was just another example of McNair’s public awkwardness, but it was also a perfect metaphor for what the mentality of this team has become since Easterby joined the front office. They want to build a wall, then they want to have the team run through the wall, and then they want to do it again. And again. And they want to embrace that philosophy eternally — defining walls and then breaking them down — because obstacles are what keep Easterby employed.

There are many megachurches in Houston. We don’t need a football team to aspire to be another.

***

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At Nick Caserio’s press conference, we learned that the Texans have no answers for why they’re keeping Jack Easterby or his culture

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.

***

Nick Caserio’s opening presser was overshadowed by the fact that the Houston Texans, as currently constructed, are just trying to put out a continually erupting series of brush fires. These fires have been caused and created by the fact that they continue to employ Jack Easterby and that he’s been tied directly to the hire of Caserio. Caserio did not help himself in that regard by referring to the relationship he has with Easterby as “special.”

Caserio dealt with malfunctioning microphones and was personable and alert — often to the point of jumping in front of Cal McNair to answer questions for him. It showed good instincts, but there isn’t really a way to cover up what McNair tried to sell people.

At his last media availability of the season — four days ago but somehow it feels like it happened two months ago — Deshaun Watson talked about the culture, and about people who think they have power but shouldn’t:

That culture was in the hands of Easterby. As is prominently displayed on his resume, “In his role, Easterby manages all football operations and directs the overall culture of the organization.” At Caserio’s presser, McNair’s opening monologue tried to stab at the idea that the culture was wrong, but never really touched on why that was.

“As we look forward, it’s important for me to remind everyone who the Houston Texans are as an organization. Our culture has been repeatedly under question this season, so let me clear that up for all of you right now … We believe you can’t go wrong by doing what’s right, and ask our fans to trust that we know what’s right.” If McNair had finished those first two sentences by uttering the phrase “and that is why we are firing Jack Easterby,” we could have all moved on to the business of football. I’d post something about Nick Caserio’s comments and how they relate to his job. But he didn’t. So I guess that’ll have to come later.

In asking the fans to trust in an organization that has sewn so much chaos within it’s relationship with Deshaun Watson and J.J. Watt these past two years, McNair is asking for something that can’t be given by an appeal to authority. It is something that has to be earned by actions and words. If this was as disappointing of a year as it was supposed to be, why are the Texans proud of everyone involved? Why did they never address any reasons behind their poor record but win-loss record in close games? They want the benefit of the doubt that they think sitting up at a podium grants them, without any of the icky introspection and self-examination that leads to transparency and critical thinking.

This is not helping anybody understand Jack Easterby’s role. This is a statement of fact. Jack Easterby is buddies with my new general manager. Was that the overriding factor in why Caserio was chosen? Sure sounds like it was, because no other reason was given. Why was Jack Easterby given the power? What does Jack Easterby do that is good?

“He took a lot of heat for it,” McNair says, as if that is something that is noble or admirable. The question asked by Brandon Scott — who killed it as always — is why he is around. There was no answer given. There was no answer given because there is nothing either man could point to about why he was around that anybody wants to hear. Here’s Vanessa Richardson from NBC asking what exactly Easterby brings to the table:

“Other things that Jack has done really well over the past,” such as? I’m not even going to get into the “build a wall” thing or the several other tone-deaf statements that McNair uttered in this presser. I don’t think he’s a good public speaker and I think, in time, he will learn that his role in this press conference was a mistake.

We had a 30-minute press conference with several questions about Jack Easterby. Neither Nick Caserio nor Cal McNair could answer why he is here or what he does that is worth keeping. What they tried to do instead was give a value-based, preach-heavy analysis of how they want their culture to be viewed. Here’s Caserio:

These are all words, and they all mean something in the sense that if you were creating a self-help program for a college football team, it would sound something like this. But they have no factual relevance in the situation the Texans find themselves in. No amount of selflessness or serving is going to erase the fact that DeAndre Hopkins isn’t here, J.J. Watt wanted to be out all last season and probably hasn’t changed his tune, and that they pissed off the franchise quarterback for no reason. No amount of values is going to change the fact that this defense was a trainwreck last season. There isn’t a mindset change that alters the fact that coaches see that Jack Easterby is on staff and remains in power and skitter away from taking interviews with the team.

What the Texans revealed on Friday wasn’t so much a master plan to fix the franchise as a defense of the fact that they are where they were entirely by happenstance. In that sense, it’s no different than your typical Easterby lecture, the one where we are all born sinners and must simply DO THE WORK to get out of a tough situation. Easterby didn’t attend a press conference that was essentially all about him — you’ll have to forgive him, his most recent appearance at a presser in early September isn’t him hiding under a pile of coats as he counts his money, no sir.

Caserio very well may fix various aspects of the Texans by attempting to actually do Football Stuff instead of playing 5d chess about Who We Should Value and engaging in Christian Phrenology on star players. But what we learned on Friday is that he’s going to have to fight the organization’s established culture the entire way.

We all know who the culture belongs to, even if he wasn’t at that press conference.


***

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Nick Caserio deserves a shot, but his hiring is an indictment of ownership

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.

***

Cal,

I hope this post finds you well. You won’t read it. It’s fine, no big. You seem like an affable guy — slightly awkward in interviews, but who isn’t? — and your only crime is being in charge of a multi-billion dollar organization that people care about and have expectations for. More succinctly speaking, you are in charge of the organization that was lucky enough to trade for, watch, and employ Deshaun Watson, one of the very few quarterbacks in this world that play well enough to create a playoff appearance all by themselves.

You may have noticed that this didn’t happen this season. They made you get on the radio and talk about it, defend the Hopkins trade. I think you got hassled and had to make a statement to Sports Illustrated about some article. In case your eyes glossed over at those games, the Texans finished 4-12. They were almost implausibly bad given the circumstances of having a quarterback like Deshaun Watson.

NRG has gotten to work pretending that this was all about Bill O’Brien, but it wasn’t. There was no magic turnaround. There was no different vibe in the city. In fact, other than beating a Jaguars team that was actively trying to fail twice — and nearly blowing a game to Jake Luton! — the Texans beat two actual opponents this year. One fired their head coach immediately afterwards. The other had the ball in the red zone to tie the game. Nowhere in the “the Texans didn’t win enough close games” calculus will you find it mentioned that they were very close to losing the two that they won, as well.

So let’s call this what it was, Cal:

You have given control of an NFL franchise to a guy who connects with you religiously and who you trust implicitly, but has had a huge hand in dragging the franchise down. Bill O’Brien never made the kind of wackadoodle trades we all now associate with him until you hired this man. He worked with general managers who quashed his worst instincts. Easterby emboldened them. It is not a mistake that the team has floundered under his lead. He is woefully out of his depth, as anyone who cosplays an NFL general manager would be.

Deshaun Watson is going to cover up so much of what is wrong with this team, and I think it would be hard for the Texans to not improve record-wise from last season just because they have so many improvement areas. They failed massively at so many things. That’s how you get scenes like this:

To let a man who is almost universally reviled by the fan base choose the direction of this franchise — and for that direction to be right back to the Patriots tree that just burned down — it takes a special kind of tone-deafness. It takes a person who not only ignores what the fans think, but ignores the things that his star players say, ignores every warning sign the media can put in front of his face, and ignores the results on the field. It is the kind of thing that could only happen to someone who is entirely out of touch with what owning a football team means outside of how it affects them.

The scary thing about it is that Deshaun Watson is so good he might win them some titles anyway. He might get Football Osteen a ring, and Football Osteen can preach that he won something when he was born between third and home plate and thinks he knocked it out of the park. (Rick Smith knocked it out of the park.) I will get to what I think about Caserio is a hire in a second, but I certainly don’t think he’s out of his depth.

This move is a public relations disaster because what has been conveyed to us is that Cal McNair’s friends matter more than the business of winning games. That’s a hard box to close once it’s open. Maybe Easterby will get fired before the season and we’ll all get to look back and Cold Takes Exposed this post — God I hope we do! — but the message that has been sent tonight is that the culture of the Texans is what Jack Easterby says it is. I don’t know how you can expect to sell this any other way, Cal. I really don’t. Listen to the on-field results. Listen to J.J. Watt and Deshaun Watson talk about the culture.

Image

What 2020 and 2021 have been teaching people — over and over again — is that the people who should have your best interests at heart often don’t. I hate that we’re anchored here talking about Jack Easterby instead of being excited about improving the football team, Cal. But it’s really kind of an unavoidable topic. That’s on you.

***

Like David Johnson, I feel bad for Nick Caserio because his employment is an afterthought in the grander scheme of this transaction. There’s so little enjoyment in what has happened that it’s hard to talk about Caserio rationally. I think it’s almost impossible for us as outsiders to judge Caserio’s results — not only because Bill Belichick had final say, but also because so little of what happens in a front office is actually public knowledge.

I want to spend a little more time with this once we have more public statements from the parties involved and once I do some deeper research on Caserio’s drafts and what not I will have some stronger feelings. But purely as a reaction, I’ll start with: No matter who the Texans hired as a general manager, it was going to be an upgrade because it was guaranteed to be somebody who had an actual background in this business instead of Coach Napoleon and Smeagol.

But, yes, to have a bushel of rings with the Patriots is impressive. To be only 45, to have coaching experience, that’s good. To be as widely desired as Caserio was over the last six seasons before finally taking the Texans job, that’s a good sign. His presser with the Patriots after his hiring was blocked the first time was a total stonewall and, frankly, makes me think we’re in for some unexciting times whenever he actually speaks:

One thing that I think is very great about the hire is that the Patriots have quite a history of trading down and collecting picks. I don’t know if that follows Caserio here — nobody knows for sure what happens without Belichick — but the fact that he was exposed to that culture is good because this is a team that needs to be doing some trade downs to accumulate assets. They did trade down out of the first round last season.

Diving into, say, the transcript of his post-Day 2 draft presser last year. The Pats picked Kyle Dugger in the second round, who played pretty well this season. I think you can see a lot of nuance and appreciation for the bits and pieces of his job in his answers.

Now, the big question here is something we don’t know the answer to: How will Caserio react to having to fix this defense?

How creative is he willing to be? What does he see as the answer? Can he keep J.J. Watt in a Texans uniform? Some of that is about the head coach, yes, but the general manager of this football team is in a very special predicament where they have a preposterously bad defense and not a lot of cap room to play with to fix it. How do they take an honest stab at it and not waste the offense’s time? (Do they take a stab at it in the first place, or are they writing off 2021 as previous regime’s fault?) This is his main task off the bat, and it’s something I think we need the Houston media to sit down with him and talk about before I get too deep into the weeds about it.

I don’t think this is a job that Caserio is unprepared for. I don’t think he’s a bad general manager candidate at all. I am willing to reserve a lot of judgement on his evaluation skills and what they mean for the team going forward because he never had final say. He talks the talk and I’m looking forward to getting deeper into what that means for Houston.

The problem is that the process that creates him as general manager is a process that should, rightfully, infuriate a fanbase that just wants to move on from the 2019-2020 Texans and get the people around Deshaun Watson that can make him a champion. Easterby has done enough damage to call into question why he should be involved in any of the decisions around this, and yet, here he remains, given the reins to pick the general manager. For all I know, Caserio is the next Tex Schramm. Maybe it turns out that way. But this is not the person who should have been making that decision.

It feels like the entire football world, everyone in it, knows that except for Cal McNair.

***

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Four Downs: Titans 41, Texans 38

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.

***

With 18 seconds left, the Titans completed a pass to field-goal range from their own 25 — a 52-yarder where Keion Crossen was left to deal with A.J. Brown:

The Texans gave up another four-yard run, and a doinked-in field goal to somehow lose a game where they scored on their last eight possessions. There’s a lot of talk about the Texans going 2-8 in close games, but this loss buttressed incredibly well with the one that started the O’Brien/Easterby era: The one where the Saints got a last-second field goal off after a blown coverage by Aaron Colvin.

The Texans have lived this life before. The story of the Bill O’Brien era was that in the mindset of “an 8-8 league,” as he always used to say, you’re only as good as your opponents. It’s okay to have a somewhat deficient defense when you’re facing Alex Smith or Jake Luton. When you face Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Philip Rivers, Ryan Tannehill, Ben Roethlisberger, and so on … not quite so easy. This defense has always been shreddable under Romeo Crennel. They have a terrible and easily exploitable game plan on third-and-long. That came to roost several times today, and again, one final time, for the game-winning field goal.

The story of Bill O’Brien’s Texans, beyond doing all of the world’s worst trades and acquisitions for literally no reason, is that they refused to adapt as the game did. They refused to figure out why David Johnson would be a bad fit for them, they just assumed he’d be good at zone. They refused to believe that they needed more talent on defense or that J.J. Watt wasn’t just going to be an era-defining superstar in every season. They refused to believe that they could do anything but run Yankee concepts out of play-action. They refused to believe that there was a better path on zone defense. They refused to defend play-action in any way but having linebackers get psyched out and opening huge holes. They promoted in-house aggressively and then turned it back over to the guy who had failed, and he — unsurprisingly — failed again. They tried to play 8-8 league football as O’Brien would have played 8-8 league football in 2014.

It didn’t work because it could never work. It isn’t 2014 anymore.

1) The same ol’, same ol’

I have watched this team get its ass kicked by Derrick Henry four times in two seasons. He coughed it up once in this game when Zach Cunningham spun into him protecting the football high, but other than that, he had his way with the run defense. They continued to struggle on practically every level. I remember maybe four or five plays where an edge contained him, otherwise, it was off to the races.

The Texans didn’t magically learn to tackle. They continued to employ passing downs players as run downs players. Even J.J. Watt got in on the act by blowing an edge assignment late in the game. Whenever the Titans wanted to run read-options with Ryan Tannehill the edge was completely open and vacated.

Outside of the fumble, they didn’t force a single punt all day after their first drive. Every time it got to third down, the Titans knew they’d go right at Vernon Hargreaves or Keion Crossen with A.J. Brown and it was almost pre-ordained to work.

This defense was broken from the beginning. I would like to tell you that individual parts improved — and I guess they did to the extent that Crossen was playing instead of Phillip Gaines or something like that — but this is the 2020 Houston Texans. They never actually tried to fix anything. They never went all-out with blitzes after the few games they won running Justin Reid at Cam Newton and Matt Stafford. They just kept on doing the same stupid ass things they’d been doing all season. Kept making Charles Omenihu a run-down player, kept using EDGE players who had no business being out there, kept pretending Brandon Dunn and Ross Blacklock could run the same kind of scheme that D.J. Reader had, kept running out cornerbacks that were utterly hopeless (and praising them for it!), kept pretending Zach Cunningham was going to diagnose holes and attack them well. None of those things ever happened in the scope of what the Texans did. There was never a reason to believe they would.

The defense is a multi-year rebuild project. It needs love and attention from a defensive coordinator who made his chops stopping what is popular in the NFL now. It needs a massive talent injection at cornerback, edge defender, and interior defensive line. It probably could use a few extra parts as well. And all of that as we wait to see how the world turns with J.J. Watt.

It is an absolute joke that this team never appeared to try anything different after firing O’Brien. They hid behind excuses about a lack of practice time or offseason. Romeo Crennel never talked about fixing scheme — it was always players that had to do more lifting and play more soundly. I have no idea based on the quotes that were coming out about the defense just how much input Anthony Weaver had after what looked like a couple of promising early-season games.

It was a waste of everybody’s time. If Brandon Staley Bar Rescued a college defense, they could have done better than this.

2) The season that should have saved the franchise

Deshaun Watson led the NFL in passing yards. He took a massive step forward even as DeAndre Hopkins was traded and his passing corps was shuffled entirely this offseason, then shuffled again after Will Fuller’s suspension and Randall Cobb’s injury. He threw two picks in his last 11 starts, one of which was a ball wrestled away from Brandin Cooks and one of which he described in the post-game presser as a fluke:

You can (and I will, later) make a highlight video of Watson’s best throws this season that would be the equal of a career highlight reel for most of the NFL’s quarterbacks. This should have saved the franchise and it should have saved the record from being as bad as it was this season. Quarterbacks that play as well as Watson did this year don’t wind up with records like this:

It is a goddamn shame that we’re going to have to endure an offseason of win-loss trolls telling us that it’s his fault that Nick Martin blew a snap that one time, that Keke Coutee fumbled that one time, that the defense failed umpteen times with a lead or chance to close something out.

This was a special, special year. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about special years in sports — think about the year the 2011 Texans had, particularly as an offensive line and as a defense — it’s that you can’t waste them. You just can’t. They don’t follow up as often as you’d like. And I hope that weighs heavily on the minds of the decision makers down at NRG as the offseason starts.

Bill O’Brien’s firing coincides nicely with Watson’s ascent to true NFL stardom. It’s a wonder that he played as well as he did. He’s everything you could ever hope would happen when you draft a quarterback, and he’s played as well in these circumstances as anyone could have. I’m sure he thinks there is a next level — and maybe he’s right, I sure as hell won’t doubt him — but it’s hard to imagine anybody playing as well as he did this year and finishing with four wins to show for it.

You can’t waste years like this, Houston Texans. You just can’t. It is criminal to the work that this man has put in at his craft and the improvement that he’s shown.

3) What we’ve endured

The Texans have had an almost unfathomably bad run of management over the last calendar year. I wrote about the individual decisions here, but suffice to say, this goes beyond that. Individual sections of this team have been broken with almost no focus on fixing them for the entirety of the season. The play-action passing game. The running game. The offensive line’s play with stunts. The defensive line outside of Watt has been brutal at stopping the run. The linebackers bite on literally any play-fake.

We’ve watched the Titans grow from a 9-7 team to a real AFC contender, and seen that regression isn’t going to take down Ryan Tannehill that easily. We’ve watched the Colts build a bully that is a quarterback away from being a dominant team and still has a lot of room to grow. We’ve watched the Jaguars successfully tank their way to Trevor Lawrence, meaning they ostensibly won’t be pushovers in the future.

This has been a painful year. It feels like a Fiona Apple record come to life. As someone who was always a skeptic of the Bill O’Brien Era and who often finds himself tampering down on optimism, I think there’s a lot of people who would believe that I’d be happy to be “right.” Even as I picked the Texans to hold off regression this year behind Watson’s growth. But this, as J.J. Watt said last weekend, sucks.

We’ve been through a lot, friends. There’s still plenty of time for things to turn around and the Texans have one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL to do it with. But there’s no denying that it is likely going to take a couple years for the defense to get good and to recover from a salary cap perspective. If you stuck it out this entire season, lemme say, you are a diehard. This season was, as I noted on Twitter:

I don’t have shame for anybody who fled. Just praise for those of you who stuck it out with me.

4) Thank you

So to everybody who stuck it out with me and with this team as it continued to inflict pain: Thank you. To the readers who are still here even in a 4-12 campaign that is nothing but misery, thank you. I have some individual thanks to follow:

-Thank you to the donators. There were 32 of you from August to Week 16, and though I won’t share names so that I don’t out anybody who doesn’t want to be outed, you pooled together a little over $650 with no real prodding and no promises from me. I appreciate you all, and … give me a second to get back to this.

-Thank you to Steph Stradley and Sean Pendergast, who I consider the two people who share my work the farthest and widest. Steph has been by far the biggest supporter of my content and work since I got serious about writing and without her chiming in on what I’ve written, sometimes I feel lost. May you both have excellent years to come.

-Thank you to Mike Meltser, who probably kept me from retiring this blog in 2019 with an off-hand comment at his post-bar exam party (remember when we could leave the house and go to bars?) that was something along the lines of “you’re the closest thing to the truth that there is on the Texans.”

-Thank you to my wife for putting up with me holing myself up behind the dual monitor set up and essentially being unreachable for seven-hour chunks of Sundays. She hates it, and it’s been even worse this year because the pandemic has kept her from being able to go out and do other things. I’m sorry I ruined football for you.

-Thank you to Justin Reid for calling me out on Twitter and making it seem like I had any say at all in his mid-season resurgence before being lost to a hand injury. Twitter followers loved to pretend like me “calling out” Reid led to anything, but have conveniently ignored all the other people I’ve called out who did not suddenly start kicking ass. Regardless, salute. I hope your recovery goes well and that the new staff fits you well. The largest donation this blog took in this year was $100. I have sent that to Kids’ Meals Houston in your name:

-Thank you to J.J. Watt and Deshaun Watson for being the kind of people you want to promote in this world. There are certainly teams in Houston right now dealing with stars that, uh — searching for a kind way to say this — are making it hard to pull for them. I know that there are fans out there that don’t have positive opinions of the two of you, but they are the outliers. Even as the team was losing, I’m happy that both of you continued to be A+ people to cover.

-Thank you to all the people who would probably rather not have it revealed that they read this blog. Thank you to all the lurkers who talk about this stuff in their group chats. Thank you to the people who only talk to me via DM. Thank you to the people who know me from playing video games that humor me by reading this stuff. If you don’t say anything to me but you’re still a reader, I appreciate you and I totally understand why you wouldn’t want to engage with anybody on social media.

-Thank you to the Texans Unfiltered crew for their support as a fellow voice in the independent Texans content-sphere

-Thank you to Battle Red Blog for their support, and for being the old home you love and miss even as everybody still slags it.

-And, just generally, thank you to anybody who shared the posts, read the pieces, and engaged with it in a level beyond their own anger and snark. I appreciate your time and attention, the most valuable things you have to give. With your help, the Twitter account gained over 1200 followers in a lost season, and we continue to bring more people I love to interact with into the fold.

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As we scoot into the new year, we’re entering a terrifying proposition for me where the blog is growing and I have to consider expanding. People are speaking up about wanting me to do things I haven’t done before or haven’t done in a bit. I will try to accompany that to the best of my ability.

The reason it’s scary is because these last two football seasons have put a lot of mileage on me. I don’t know if you guys know this, but this blog and level of Texans coverage is basically a part-time thing that I’m treating as a second full-time job. Yeah, you can pick at little things like “posting a bunch of clips from press conferences isn’t hard” — but understanding what those things mean, trying to understand these guys at a human level, delving through all the rest of the content the team puts out and so on … that’s not easy. It’s a time-intensive undertaking to try to collate, edit, and put together all these clips into leans on who these people are. I feel like only Brandon Scott — the best questioner on the scene — could really identify with that.

So I simultaneously need to find a way to work smarter — less waste and less time spent on things that don’t matter — and I also need to find a way to get more people interested in paying for this, which is generally an area of expansion. That’s terrifying! I’m happy that I have had plenty of money from other gigs over the past couple of years, but the human toll of what I have done here is real. I haven’t touched some of my hobbies in months as the football season has drowned me. I rarely have off-days in-season and even when I do, there’s no telling when the brain will just come up with a good idea and decide to obsess about it until I write it out.

All of which is a way to say: I want to give you more of what you want. Please don’t be offended if it takes some missteps along the way to do that, because as good as I am at learning things, all of us only have so much bandwidth for that and I am also looking at spending a big chunk of my bandwidth getting deeper into Xs and Os this offseason. There’s likely to be a move to a platform that will encourage you to pay to read, and there’s likely to be a way to read things after a set period of time. There’s likely to be a podcast in some form or another. But what that does to things that you enjoyed previously? I can’t say for sure.

Or someone could just pay me a lot of money to just do this, and then I could not work for anybody else and have a reasonable amount of work in my life. That’d be nice too.

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