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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