Texans Retrospectus: J.J. Watt

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.


A lot can change in a very short period of time, and I was reminded of this when I was viewing Drew Dougherty’s old Fox Sports Southwest tape of J.J. Watt arriving to Reliant (now NRG) Stadium for the first time in his life.

Watt’s wide eyes looking up at the stadium betray an enthusiasm that seems almost naïve today. As we listened to Watt speaking out about the state of the Texans twice a week for the past season in talk that was as real as could be without actively calling anybody out, it’s hard to square that with this excited boy in the above clip who immediately asked for his playbook. J.J. Watt left this city with many gifts. The money he raised for Harvey. The franchise’s first sure-fire Hall of Famer. (Please elect Andre Johnson too, though.) The pick-six of Andy Dalton in the franchise’s first ever playoff game. The carrying of team after team that had piss-poor quarterback play. The incredibly rare self-awareness that he developed about the team’s relationship with its fanbase.

What this team taught him in return is interesting. Watt was able to raise millions and millions of dollars for Harvey relief on his own. He was able to create a 20-sack season. Twice. But ultimately, what he learned and I think what set in as this season was winding down, is that an NFL team is a village. His individual greatness did so much for so many, but this team was never going to compete for a championship unless it was mirrored by greatness all around him. Again, tens of millions of dollars raised for hurricane relief as a complete outsider to the scene who just showed up and said “let’s do what we can to help.” But you can’t fight an NFL team that doesn’t learn from its mistakes in the same way that you do. Watt once told Grantland’s Robert Mays that “when it’s me against you, you know in your head whether you worked hard enough. You can try to lie to yourself. You can try to tell yourself that you put in the time. But you know — and so do I.” While he wasn’t talking about the Texans at the time, it’s not much of a stretch to take what is inferred in that clip as a philosophy and move it to what the Texans have become.

J.J. Watt couldn’t get his culture to stick with these Texans. His culture has been clear from the outset: Dream Big, Work Hard. The fact that none of this resonated with anyone in the NRG front offices in 2020 is, unfortunately, not surprising. This team sucked the joy out of J.J. Watt, and I’m excited for him to rekindle it.


I didn’t want the Texans to draft J.J. Watt in 2011. I wanted them to draft Robert Quinn. I was hardly alone, as this post from Battle Red Blog shows. (Sadly, all the old comments have been wiped as part of SB Nation’s stunningly brilliant move to move to Coral. Coral: The Jack Easterby of blog software.) The people who truly hated the pick made fun of his pizza delivery backstory. I was more measured about it than some of those commenters were at the time, mostly because I had already begun to realize that I don’t know anything about the NFL Draft and that Wade Philips is smarter at this than I am. I wanted the Texans to take an edge rusher and wasn’t even considering defensive end plus moving Mario Williams outside as an option. I was purely focused on the hole. Turns out Texans brass was on the same page as me! Rick Smith wanted to trade up for Patrick Peterson. Phillips, though, took control of the draft room:

Thank goodness. “A lot of them wanted Nick Fairley, a lot of them wanted Prince Amukamara,” Watt told Tania Ganguli in 2012, in a piece that revealed that a video of (a few) fans booing him was on his computer. “There were a lot of people saying I was just a big white guy, that the team was taking a high character guy, not the best football player.”

What I remember most about Watt showing up anyone who would even dare to question this draft pick was actually when this video of him box jumping began to spread. This was after his breakout year, of course, but just watching Watt generate the force he needed to get that body that far off the ground was mesmerizing.

Watt finished his rookie year with merely 5.5 sacks, and the Texans looked like a legitimate contender after they reeled off three straight double-digit wins to get to 6-3. Unfortunately, in their fourth-straight win at Tampa Bay, Matt Schaub was lost for the season. The Texans were ready to ride with Matt Leinart until Leinart also got hurt against the Jaguars, then went with fifth-round rookie T.J. Yates the rest of the way out of necessity. It would have been easy for them to roll over, but they did not do that. They squeaked out their next three games and clinched the division before teams got the book on Yates and dropped the Texans from 10-3 to 10-6.

It’s probably not fair to say that the light wasn’t on yet, but towards the end of the season, you saw Watt start to understand just how he could dominate by stringing all of his talents together. He deflected three passes against Dan Orlovsky in a loss to the Colts, adding a sack and a couple of tackles for loss. With the Bengals and Texans locked at 10 as Cincinnati began driving at the two-minute warning in Houston’s first-ever playoff game, Watt broke things open with his most memorable moment as a Texan:

As impressive as that was, the Texans defense followed that up by shutting out the Bengals for the rest of the game. They won 31-10. On the six drives following the pick-six, the Bengals gained 86 yards and Dalton was picked off two additional times.

The Texans would go on to lose 20-13 to the Ravens in the AFC Divisional Round, but it wasn’t anything that the defense did wrong. Yates was picked off three times and threw about four or five more balls that could have been intercepted as well. Watt sacked Joe Flacco 2.5 times in that game, one that is kind of lost to time because there’s nothing he, Andre Johnson, or Arian Foster could have done to alter the outcome. That was just as far as a team run by rookie T.J. Yates was going to make it. Watt got those 2.5 sacks — as a rookie — primarily lining up against Ravens right guard Marshal Yanda, who might be a Hall of Famer:

Baltimore scored touchdowns on drives of 2 and 34 yards after a Yates interception and a Jacoby Jones muffed punt. The Houston defense gave up just 227 yards of offense, and only two drives went more than 40 yards.


If those playoff games were a flash of what Watt was to become, 2012 was the reality. J.J. Watt was just different, and I want to illustrate how different he was by pointing at current three-time defensive player of the year, Aaron Donald. Donald is a wrecking ball. He crushes interior lines, draws more double teams than any other player in the league, and essentially was a one-man pass rush for the Rams last year with Leonard Floyd as the lone complementary bit.

Donald has defensed 16 passes in seven seasons. Watt defensed 16 passes … in 2012.

One of the ways to get around a defensive lineman as dominant as Watt is to throw those quick slants, screens, and swing passes. In his athletic prime, Watt was half-bulldozer, half-hawk. He was going to rush, and if he saw a blocking scheme he didn’t like, or he smelled a quick pass based on alignment, he simply stopped his rush, read the quarterback, and reacted. The Dalton interception was the coming-out party for this talent, 2012 was the implementation of it for an entire season. At least three different Texans interceptions came as a result of Watt dropping back and batting the ball. His hands basically killed the Jaguars in overtime in Week 11.

Watt has 61 passes defensed in 10 seasons, three of which were massively cut short due to injury. The stat has been officially kept since 1999, the defensive linemen who have more than him are Carlos Dunlap (62 in 11 seasons), Terrell Suggs (63 in 16 seasons), Julius Peppers (82 in 16 seasons), and Jason Taylor (87 in 15 seasons). It would be unfair to say that nobody has ever played the passes defended game as well as Watt did, but I think when you combine the sacks (20.5) and tackles for loss (39, second place was 18), nobody ever blended those three forms of disruption as well as Watt did at his peak. Jon Gruden called him “J.J. Swatt” after calling a Monday Night Football game of his against the Jets. Rex Ryan said the Knicks should pick him up.

“A pass knockdown is almost as sweet as a sack,” Watt was quoted as saying by USA Today. “It demoralizes quarterbacks.”

I think it was very tempting nationally to discount some of Watt’s stats because of the competition in the AFC South, but he made a real statement about who he’d become against the Broncos and Peyton Manning in Week 3. The Texans went to Denver and won, Watt had 2.5 sacks of Manning and added on four tackles for loss to show off:

He added on two sacks of Aaron Rodgers. The Texans were 11-1 at one point in this season, before injuries suddenly just caught up to Matt Schaub, who wilted down the stretch and in the playoffs. I wrote a post about it. People HATED that post. I can’t show you the comments anymore because of Coral, but it was quite divisive and I can remember at least one person suggesting that I was the washed up one, not Schaub.

Chris Wesseling (RIP) wrote a sensational article about that 2012 season and just how historical it was. Phillips called it “the best defensive line play in the history of football. He had more tackles, blocked passes, pressures on the quarterback. The conglomeration of all that was the best that anybody has ever played. I’ve had some great ones, but they’ve never made that many great plays in one year.”

We can talk about the other sports radio jabber topics at the time: The dreadful letterman jacket MNF game, the way the Patriots managed to hold him down with a standard Belichickian impressive game plan for most of the two games they played. (I think losing Brian Cushing to a broken leg hurt a lot in both of those games as well.) But ultimately, the Texans fell apart because Matt Schaub fell apart. They learned nothing from it, started him in 2013, and lost 14 games in a row under an avalanche of pick-sixes, costing Kubiak his job and relegating Watt to a season of defending runs in lopsided games. Watt was held sackless in seven games that season. The Texans’ point differential in those seven games was minus-104. Trading in Glover Quin for a washed-up Ed Reed was also spectacularly not helpful.

In the end, we were robbed of years of Watt playing under Wade Phillips. I think it was clear that Houston was tired of Kubiak as a head coach and that he was wanting in some ways even though he had tangible benefits. But that Watt/Phillips connection felt like something amazing at the time. I know we’re about to talk about what happens after this, where Watt is still excellent, but I legitimately think the difference in creativity between Phillips and Romeo Crennel might have meant like, Watt breaking the single-season sack record.

Watt was an absolute force and he was seemingly only at the beginning. He immediately took the 2-14 record of 2013 and decided he needed to isolate himself to become even better. “When you’re 2-14,” Watt told Mays, “you have moments of doubt.”


Bill O’Brien took over the Texans in 2014 and, much to everyone’s dismay, there was no real attempted solution at quarterback. Ryan Fitzpatrick was the journeyman that would get the Texans over the hump. They had the No. 1 overall pick, which they used on Jadeveon Clowney, in a draft where the top quarterbacks available were Teddy Bridgewater, Derek Carr, Blake Bortles, Jimmy Garoppolo, and Johnny Manziel. Steph Stradley’s time capsule of answers to the question of who you’d take there is instructive. Here’s what I wrote:

Because the NFL was (and is) still committed to a tall quarterback/big arm ethos, Bortles went No. 3 overall. Manziel went in the first round because ownership wanted to make a splash in Cleveland. Had I known then what I know now, I probably would not have advocated for him at all. But as an outsider it’s hard to understand the level of not giving a shit that he had. The Texans had a chance to trade up for Bridgewater at 32, which would have been a major coup. They also had the opportunity to stay put and draft Carr or Garoppolo. They did neither of those, spending 33rd overall on Xavier Su’a-Filo and damning Watt (and, as, you can see above, Andre Johnson) to quarterback purgatory. They picked Tom Savage in the fourth round.

Behind another vintage Arian Foster season with a good offensive line and Watt’s skills, the Texans did indeed rebound to 9-7. Some kid named DeAndre Hopkins had a breakout second season and absorbed a ton of targets next to Johnson. Parts of the the defense had gotten old but they still had Johnathan Joseph — the best free-agent signing in Texans history — and saw a major uptick from undrafted rookie A.J. Bouye and (finally) long-time burn victim Kareem Jackson. Clowney played in just four games.

Watt, meanwhile, played 16 games, caught three touchdowns (something he’d been advocating for even back to the Kubiak days), and notched 20.5 sacks again. Watt saved his best for Bortles, who he sacked six times in that season alone. He added eight tackles for loss in two games against the Jaguars. He pick-sixed EJ Manuel for 80 yards against the Bills in a 23-17 win.

His best game that season considering the competition? I’d probably give that to the Thursday Night Football Colts game in Week 6. Two sacks, one touchdown, three tackles for loss, four quarterback hits, and three passes defensed.

It is absurd that the Texans had a chance to win this game. They were down 33-21 with 17:52 of game time remaining and Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback. They had the ball 33-28 with 2:15 remaining after Watt turned second-and-4 with 2:42 left into fourth-and-6 all by himself on a TFL and pass deflection. Fitzpatrick was strip-sacked on the second offensive play, the Texans lost. Their other game against Indianapolis was a seven-point loss where he provided two sacks, two tackles for loss, three quarterback hits, and a pass defensed. The offense, with Fitzpatrick breaking his leg mid-game, scored three points. (A pick-six added seven more.)

Once Watt started catching touchdown passes, it almost felt like he was making a mockery of the game. Here was a thing that tight ends spend their whole lives trying to do properly and this 20-sack guy is just gonna make it look stupidly easy on each of the three occasions it happened. Watt’s drive and talent made him famous in a way that made him attractive to every woman in my life, and there’s a good Texas Monthly piece that leads off with about 500 words about the positive attention he was dealing with. “The map led to my house from a place just north of Dallas,” Watt told Skip Hollandsworth about discarded directions to his house. “Somebody had driven five hours to come to my home on Halloween.” I think the best way I could describe what Watt has done is that he’s lived the ideals that he’s spoken out loud, something that is so rare and impossible-seeming that everyone from Justin Timberlake to Hollywood producers wanted to just be in the same room as him to see how on Earth it could be true. The funniest part of it is that there’s not much of a secret: He just did what he said he was going to do.

Watt won defensive player of the year in 2014 unanimously. Lawrence Taylor is the only defensive player to win the AP NFL MVP award in the last 40 years — he did it in 1986. Watt received 14 votes for MVP in 2014, probably due to the handsome arguments laid out for him by whoever I just linked to at Bleacher Report was. He’s the only defensive player to receive more than three votes for MVP in the 2000s. The last defensive player to receive even 10 votes for the award was Bruce Smith in 1990.

The 2015 Texans did the exact same thing the 2014 Texans did, except instead of Fitzpatrick, they created a quarterback controversy between Ryan Mallett and Brian Hoyer. The only quarterbacks taken in the first round were Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota at No. 1 and No. 2 overall, respectively. The Texans picked cornerback Kevin Johnson 16th overall. It was the offseason where they got rid of Andre Johnson. There was no reason to believe in their offense anymore, and yet, they got on HBO’s Hard Knocks anyway. (Much to Bill O’Brien’s dismay,) Wonder what made them think the Texans would be interesting.

Watt would make Jake Matthews eat shit on Hard Knocks. And Alfred Blue. And the Washington (REDACTED) team store.

Texans opponents got together with four years of tape on Watt and learned about triple teams, limiting him to merely eight passes defensed, a league-leading 17.5 sacks, and a league-leading 29 tackles for loss. This time, he actually did take them to the playoffs at 9-7, but in what would become a classic Bill O’Brien Playoff Game, Houston did not score a single point in a 30-0 blanking by the Chiefs that started with a 106-yard kickoff return touchdown by Knile Davis. Hoyer threw four interceptions. Kansas City had 314 total yards but almost none of it came until midway through the third quarter, after Watt had left the game due to injury. Before that drive, the Chiefs had 136 total yards. We’ll come back to the injury.

Watt’s best game by the numbers was probably the season finale against Jacksonville, where he put up three sacks, three tackles for loss, and two passes defensed. However, when you take into account quality of competition, let me lobby for the rare game in the O’Brien Era where the Texans actually stood up and kicked around a great quarterback: When they held the Saints to six points in Week 8. That Saints team finished seventh in pass offense DVOA. Watt had two sacks, two tackles for loss, and eight quarterback hits.

Watt won his third defensive player of the year award after the season. There didn’t seem to be a lot of doubt at this point as to who the most valuable non-quarterback in the NFL was.


Watt left a game against Miami with a back injury as the Texans were down 35-0 in 2015. That game, played in a bit of a downpour, also ended Arian Foster’s Texans career with a torn Achilles. It was not the only injury Watt played through that season. He was listed with a groin injury. He broke his hand late in the season. Had the Texans beaten the Chiefs, he told Peter King in April of 2016, he might not have been able to play in the next game.

Watt aggressively tried to rehab his herniated disc injury and do as much as he could to take the field in 2016. He noted before the season and then again after Week 3’s re-aggravation of the herniated disc that in January and February, he wasn’t sure if he’d ever play again. Watt became the fastest to ever reach 75 sacks (in 82 games compared to Reggie White’s 68) against the Chiefs in Week 2. But the herniated disc had to be repaired after Week 3’s embarrassing Monday Night loss to Jacoby Brissett’s Patriots. Watt blamed an “element of pride” on attempting to come back too quickly, he also wrote a lengthy article in The Player’s Tribune about everything he’d gone through, which included a staph infection in 2015 that we previously hadn’t known about.

Coming back in 2017, Watt was being eased in slowly out of the gate, and then broke his leg against the Chiefs in Deshaun Watson’s fourth start.

I think it behooves a lot of football discourse to talk about injuries in an abstract way so that we don’t really get the actual pain and suffering there. It’s not fun to admit that a sport that you love destroys bodies. Watt is no different in that regard. The only difference is that this was the first sign that he appeared mortal in any real way. Oddly enough, it humanized him by actually showing us something he had to fight.

His body has taken a ton of wear. I remember the gruesome bruise he got against the Bills most when I think about that. There’s also this of him walking with stitches after his broken leg:

The amount of mental strength it takes to come back from where Watt was in January 2016 and play again is monumental. Let alone to have to do that twice more off a couple of other season-ending injuries. This is why I am as loud as I am when I see the Texans slacking on something. To have wasted those 2014 and 2015 seasons with quarterbacks who were never going anywhere is a disservice to the work Watt (and Johnson, and Foster, and Cushing, and Joseph, and Duane Brown, and so on) put in. To their credit — yes, I am giving them credit for this — the Texans made some bold moves to try to fix the quarterback position. They brought in Brock Osweiler, and when that didn’t work out, they didn’t sit on him for another year, moving up in the draft to select Deshaun Watson. It cost them two first-round picks, a second-round pick, and a boatload of upfront cash. It was worth it.

2017 was somehow, simultaneously an affirming of how bright the future could be with Watson and Watt and, also, a disaster to live through. Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston. Watt immediately committed to his new gig as fundraiser, something he’d never done before, and was great at it.

It is wildly telling about Watt that even as he dealt with the biggest crisis of his football career that he was still helping everyone else around him. You can scroll through old Texans news posts in October of 2017, when they got to $37 million and began planning distribution of the funds, and see that as he’s serving the greater good of the city, the major story about the Texans is Bob McNair calling rhetorical players “inmates” that can’t run the asylum.

The Texans finished 4-12. It was an open question at that point just what Watt would come back to be, but it said a lot about the cumulative goodwill he had created that a player with his cap number and his recent injury history that there was not even an internal discussion about letting him go. Hell, he made the NFL Top 100 list after playing three games in 2016.

As Shea Serrano said in a 2015 column, “There’s an obvious bigness to Watt, but there’s also a philosophical bigness to him.” I don’t even have space here to get into the non-Harvey stuff he did for this city. The hospital visits, the various people he became close to through his foundation, the charity softball games, the people he sought based on news reports, the funerals he paid for of Texas school shooting victims. It went deeper than football.


The late stage Bill O’Brien Texans, at one point, had J.J. Watt, Deshaun Watson, DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller, Jadeveon Clowney, and Duane Brown on the same roster. They never won more than 11 games. Some of that is because some of those players were injured at the wrong time. Some of that is because Brown lasted just one game post-holdout before being traded. A lot of it is because O’Brien was a bologna sandwich of a head coach.

I had the pleasure of covering the 2018 Texans with The Athletic. Watt came off his lost 2016 and 2017 seasons and, while he wasn’t the Watt that played in 2014, he wasn’t that player … all the way to 16 sacks. Five years after the Clowney pick, it was the first time the two of them ever got to wreak havoc together. Clowney was used as an interior rusher on passing downs which added some dimensions to the defense that weren’t there in earlier Romeo Crennel years. Crennel’s zones were, sadly, sitting chum for a good quarterback. But they dominated the bad quarterbacks they played.

Andrew Luck versus Deshaun Watson in the AFC Wild Card game should have been a golden matchup between two great quarterbacks. Instead, Luck took a 21-0 lead and O’Brien’s offense couldn’t get Watson out of first gear, huddling for much of the second half as it trailed by an enormous amount. For as weak as that team was at cornerback, (Kareem Jackson was playing corner instead of safety because the team couldn’t get a better corner healthy) 21 points against the Colts is pretty solid. One touchdown happened on a Shareece Wright double move — Wright, 31 at the time, would never play in the NFL again after this game — and another was set up by a busted deep zone coverage over the middle with Texans owner T.Y. Hilton. Watt had the team’s lone tackle for loss, the tip above, and one of the four quarterback hits. They did not sack Luck.

O’Brien told everyone after that game that he needed to do a better job. He never did. Watt took two questions from the press, complimenting the Colts and dressing up in football clichés his frustration.

What I think Watt will be most remembered for in this time period, though, was 2019. He had four sacks in eight games and change — I think a lot of the scuttlebutt over the last few years has been he should have been played inside more and he absolutely was torching Atlanta’s interior guys in that win in 2019. I don’t know what to believe as far as reasons he didn’t do it, whether it was something with Watt’s body or something with Crennel’s scheme. But it was not hard to find ways to get Watt, Clowney, and Whitney Mercilus rushing at the same time and it always stood out after Watt’s early dominance inside that he rarely played there on passing downs after Phillips left.

Coming off another great game against the Colts, Watt tears his pectoral against Oakland during a tackle for loss in Week 9 and his reaction is to shake the joint a little and then jog off the field:

He decided that this injury was actually optional. He rehabbed. Out of nowhere, near the end of the season, he signaled his desire to play with a torn pectoral muscle — something that IRs most good pass rushers for the season even if it happens early. He created one of the greatest pre-game sound bytes I can remember. He began to turn the momentum when he sacked Josh Allen in the Wild Card round, a game where the Bills were staked to an early 16-0 lead behind more brilliant O’Brien offensive design. The Texans came back to win because Deshaun Watson bailed them out of yet another play, avoiding two separate Bills defenders to check it down to Taiwan Jones. Watt has to be rotated. He’s playing at an immense risk to his future. He laid it all on the line.

24-0 against the Chiefs happened, there was a brief moment when I begun to contemplate the existence of the Texans hosting the AFC Championship game against Tennessee. In the end, a unit that had been bad without Watt simply collapsed under the weight of that responsibility, against a dominant offense. Watt’s words after the game were apoplectic.

He’d given everything he could. He only played about half the snaps in that game, because it was ludicrous that he was out there in the first place. Ultimately, the decay process that had begun that offseason with Clowney and Tyrann Mathieu leaving left the team without any room for error. They simply didn’t have enough talent that could step up. They, again, had just one sack — by Gareon Conley, who is a cornerback, on a trick play with Sammy Watkins at quarterback — and four quarterback hits.


Last season, if you believe the reports — and I have no reason not to believe them — Watt played a major role in sacking O’Brien. One of the last straws for BOB on the way to the Texans falling apart after a disastrous offseason was the shouting match the two reportedly had.

Watt after that mentioned something that I think is rare for a player to talk about: the ability to unite the fans again.

Well, he did all he could. The fanbase and team are more united than they’ve been since 2012. Unfortunately, they’re united in loathing Cal McNair and Jack Easterby. That wound up being the highlight of Watt’s last season in Houston. Under Easterby’s interim management, the team spiraled into a chaotic assembly of people acting in whatever they perceived their best interests were rather than anything we’d call a team.

Watt finished the year with a poor sack total, but that belied his actual skill on the field. Several teams were able to just throw quick, short balls against the Texans and negate the pass rush entirely. Brandon Allen, yes, Brandon Allen, threw for 371 yards against a Texans team that was supposedly trying. Mitch Trubisky decimated them in much the same way. Houston’s run defense fell to shambles without D.J. Reader. The Texans defense was defeated before it even hit the field, and Watt spent much of his press conferences trying to alert anybody he could to that fact without actually saying it out loud. There’s been a movement by a certain subset of fans to call him washed up to justify moving on here, and I think it’s not hard to admit that Watt isn’t who he was in 2014 right now. But 90% of who that J.J. Watt was is still a superstar.

In the end, in typical 2020 Texans fashion, media was asked before Watt’s final presser to save discussions about the future for a promised later presser. Good thing somebody asked the question anyway, because it was the last time he’d do a presser as a Texan:

Watt spent the 2020 season on the Texans, but it felt like his biggest plays were off the field rather than on it. His rant about finishing the season with professionalism. The sulky press conferences that followed many of Houston’s losses. Noting that he heard the boos during the Thursday opener against the Chiefs when they had that moment of silence for racial equality. He didn’t speak in his Wednesday press conferences about being a Houston Texan so much as what being a Houston Texan should be. And, looking back at all the wear and tear he put himself through for … whatever this was and is becoming … it’s hard to criticize him for that.


As someone who has competed at a high level in certain things — yes, fine, it’s video games, I’m not athletic, leave me alone — one thing you begin to understand as you live the competition is that you only have the moment you have. Only one person or team holds the final trophy. The odds are heavily stacked against it being you. The paradoxical thing about having the kind of high standards you have if you’re J.J. Watt is that it’s hard to live up to them because you can’t control it all. It’s not Watt’s fault Matt Schaub’s career as a starter was ending as his was beginning, and it’s not his fault that the Texans never tried to get a real quarterback in 2014. It’s not his fault he got hurt playing a brutal sport. It’s not his fault that the O’Brien era squandered the talent it gathered. It’s not his fault that defensive ends don’t have the same impact on the game as a great quarterback or coach.

You live your competitive life for the moments Watt created, and they don’t always end well. Things don’t end well for pretty much anybody, and you can’t let yourself get caught up in that. What the Texans had here for 10 years was someone who made it his personal mission to do anything in his power to win ballgames, create lasting memories for fans, and do good for the community. He was the dominant defensive force of the first half of the 2010s. He made the impossible seem possible. He made his first head coach think of him like a quarterback even though he was not one.

And that’s really all you can ask of a football player. We can’t go back in time and make Yates complete a bomb in 2011. We can’t make the 2019 Texans field a good defense around him. All we can do is acknowledge that who Watt was got them to those moments in the first place. Because he was that damn good.

Watt has been pretty open about talking about retirement in his career — not as an end goal, but just as something that he’s always known is coming. He told Mays in 2014: “If I dedicate all my time, if I cut out all the other crap from my life, if I give everything I have to this game for 10 or 12 years, maybe it is. And when I’m done, I’ll go sit on my front porch with my buddies, have a beer, and say, ‘That was pretty cool, wasn’t it?'”

J.J. Watt’s Texans career: That was pretty cool, wasn’t it? May some team that is better run than this one get him a ring.


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The Houston Texans are a cult of personality of a person with no personality

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.


The Houston Texans will no longer employ the services of their best player of all-time. They “mutually agreed” to part ways, which is a very Happy P.R. way to say that J.J. Watt asked for his release and was granted it.

It is hard to wrap up exactly what J.J. Watt means to this city and this post ultimately isn’t about that because trying to sum up a 10-year career of modern excellence is something that takes breathing room. It took my words away when the news came out on Friday not because I wasn’t expecting it, but because the finality of it happening is heavier than the concept. The Texans had nine turnovers last season as a defense. Watt forced the fumbles on two of them, recovered another, and added a pick-six on Thanksgiving. He’s not 2014 Watt, but he was far and away the best player on this defense and the fact that he wanted out is not a terribly auspicious sign for the future of the Houston Texans. Then again, what has been since 24-0 at Kansas City?

If your culture can’t contain space for a player of Watt’s caliber who generates millions on millions of charity dollars for the city? Who commands respect from everybody in the NFL? Who has done nothing but inspire countless people, and who everyone in Houston seemingly has a good story about? It’s not much of a culture. And if that culture would drive someone you could say these things about away? It’s not a great sign.


If Jack Easterby is in charge of the culture of the Houston Texans (he is) and if the culture is under attack (it also is) from the media, the fans, and even the team itself, there’s really no reason he needs to stay involved with the team. There are McNair ski chalets and tax shelters that need a manager that can do the bare minimum of “looking alive” and “causing discord among people that actually work here.”

The most disappointing thing about Jack Easterby’s vision for running this football team, and the man who fell for it, is that there’s not even anything to fall for. I have absorbed a ton of Jack Easterby words, videos, and otherwise, in the service of trying to understand what exactly is going on here. But beyond the very basic level of God being important and that being an assumed fact, there’s not anything extra that Easterby has for anybody.


Jack Easterby is a mirror for Cal McNair. In watching, at this point, tens of hours of video or podcasts with Easterby, he doesn’t answer questions directly. This is something that he calls “serving people,” where everything is dressed in a story and is an enigma wrapped in a fable, and you’re being judged from the start on your reaction to the story. You wanted an answer about why he moved to Houston, but instead he’s going to tell you about how there are different seasons in life and how his family meditated on it together and they’re ever so grateful for what happened in New England but that this was a new season for them. (That’s a real answer.) Now, I don’t need people to be overt when they’re talking. I don’t need Easterby to answer a question like that with “well, it moved me … TO A BIGGER HOUSE!” But normally in a conversation, you give and you take. Easterby doesn’t give. He just takes in all the information you offer him.

There’s one bit from a podcast I listened to recently that I found incredibly revealing for how quickly some of his stated goals could be betrayed.

You notice the answer here is shot out in typical Easterbese — abstract and vague words, then a respect for God — but the host tries to drag Easterby back to human terms by bringing up wives and the truths you have to tell them. The host realizes that he needs to make Easterby relatable — but Easterby fights it all the way, talking about a counter-question, then about a street code for husbands.

There’s not really a lot relatable about most sports players, so I think we try to hang on to what we have. J.J. Watt played through a torn pectoral muscle in the 2019 playoffs. I can’t even begin to understand what that might have been like. I relate more to Watt talking about the team like a fan than I do about understanding his reactions to an alignment and a pass set and what he’s thinking of at the snap. Darren Fells likes baths. I love baths! Me and Darren Fells, who would have thought? Two peas in a pod. That’s what good NFL PR does: It creates an emotional connection.

But with Easterby, there’s an almost obstinate desire to not be known in any real terms. He wants to understand you, but doesn’t want to be understood himself. The best way I can describe it as an aesthetic is that he is trying to be the good cop but instead of saying “listen, I know the judge,” he’s just asking you to incriminate yourself over and over again in his eyes. He wants to be remembered for “love and truth,” two of the vaguest concepts, and he refuses to go into much more detail than that or give a concrete example of what that means.


So imagine a locker room trying to interact with a man like this. As a worker bee? Fine. It’s a little weird, sure, to have note cards left in your locker. But ultimately he has no real power in that case and is just reporting opinions to people who make decisions. It’s a place where his eye for discernment — not his judgment — becomes valuable.

But when you put a man like this in a position of power, what happens is that players don’t know where they stand and can’t get a real answer out of him. He hasn’t played the game, and doesn’t have any coaching experience, so he’s barely part of their world to begin with. (He allegedly may decide to stalk players, if you believe Sports Illustrated reports.) He won’t do interviews so the fan base has no reason to trust him or even, if we’re being honest, any lies to cling to. There are still some Texans fans who are holding to the idea that this is all “fake news” or whatever, but the level of effort required to maintain that delusion is so high right now that it’s difficult. He’s entirely unrelatable. He’s Doctor Manhattan on Mars.

So if you’re most fans, you judge him on the results. The results are terrible. The franchise quarterback wants out. The best player in the franchise’s history got released on Friday. The team went 4-12 last year and has slowly built, through talent losses, one of the worst defenses in the NFL. Other than Laremy Tunsil, Brandin Cooks, and Will Fuller if they want to franchise him, they don’t have much in the way of established high-level talent that actually wants to be here. It feels like he’s pushed out tens of respected front office members for no real reason. When football people complain about analytics-focused front office outsiders coming to power, those people are at least trying to marry two things together that matter for winning.

In trying to understand where Easterby comes from, I’ve spent a lot of research on the public words that we have — be it video, audio, or print — and unfortunately a lot of trying to understand who he is comes back to his relationship with God. (Unfortunately for me, that is, someone who walks on eggshells discussing religion on the internet.)



A lot of Easterby’s writings about what God means are interesting purely in that they seem almost self-prescriptive pep talks. Easterby writes above about the sort of unshakeable faith he needs in his beliefs and refers over and over again to the external view not being everything. In the end, it almost feels like this view of his colors everything that the Texans have done. Think about hiring David Culley, who nobody else even interviewed, as your head coach. Then read this quote:

Now, take in one of my favorite quotes that explains the downfall of the Houston Texans, this Bill O’Brien quote about the “right kind” of free agency.

Easterby is a catalyst for change in this organization because he is the voice in the room that is fighting for the little guy. There’s nothing altogether ignoble about that — many teams need big contributions from the lower-rung players on their roster, the equipment managers in their room, and so on — it’s just that the philosophy is entirely pointless in NFL team-building terms. A team of 53 expertly managed 53rd men on the roster aren’t going anywhere but home in January. I’d be willing to bet dollars to donuts that he’s the one leading the charge for Eric Murray’s contract. I’d be willing to bet he’s the one that thinks DeAndre Carter deserved free snaps at wide receiver over Keke Coutee.

A healthy skepticism of good players, likewise, is not altogether out of line with the NFL’s norms. How many quotes do we see every offseason about formerly good players who are broken? Old? Don’t have such-and-such important characteristic anymore? That’s a natural part of NFL life. But under Easterby this has been taken to an extreme: character over talent isn’t just an operating philosophy for the 53rd man, it’s an operating philosophy for every player on the roster.


I think this quote sums up a lot about the artist at work here. Easterby starts with the belief that everyone isn’t good enough. It probably takes a lot of cognitive dissonance for him to fight “making everybody else in the front office pointless through my selfless contributions,” but fortunately he always covers that by continually noting that it’s okay to make mistakes as long as they are mistakes in the service of the Lord, which of course, he is.

What happens is that it creates a shame-based cycle I’ll call the persecution pinwheel. The Texans make a bad move, and it gets slammed. So there are two forks here — one is that as long as you are righteous, your mistakes will eventually be forgiven by the Real Champion, as Easterby would call him. Another is that it feeds the persecution complex that Cal McNair is certainly holding on to, one where everybody is against the team and spouting claims of “misinformation” only further emboldens the belief that they are doing right. And so, they make another stupid move. And the pinwheel turns again.


The ultimate level of Jack Easterby’s vision is what happens to you as part of God’s story and under the trust of that pact through the afterlife. As long as you are bound by God’s story, you’re a flawed creature, but you’re doing right by God. That essentially means that you can be terrible at your job, but as long as you’re doing it for the right reasons, you’re fine.


So I think this is kind of above the pure idea of Christianity and I want to make my point by invoking Tony Dungy. Tony Dungy was one of the staunchest Christians in the NFL, a man who has written several Christian-focused books and devotionals. In his book Mentor Leader: Secrets to Building People And Teams That Win Consistently, Dungy writes about living the message, enhancing potential, and building other lives of impact. Jim Caldwell writes in the preface of that book about how Dungy empowered him and molded teams. Dungy as a coach wasn’t purely a Christian, but someone devoted to making lives better. This is a direct quote from the intro:

In order to be absorbed, it must be practiced. The thing about operating the “Galatians 2:20 life” is that what it really means is that you are an empty vessel of a human. To embrace the level of discipline that it takes to make your life all about reflecting Christianity to everybody else while also not having any kind of ego or sense of self, you have to give up just about any kind of concept about who you are as a person and what your purpose is. And that’s been reflected in what the Houston Texans have created here.

The plan has not been to rebuild. The plan has not been to retool. The plan certainly hasn’t been to actually have a response to Deshaun Watson wanting a trade. The plan is simply to hide in plain sight, because revealing anything about yourself means that you are acting against the interests that you’ve given yourself to. The story of the Houston Texans has become the story of an organization that can’t say it’s overtly about Christianity, but largely is. They promote the work they do in the community. They promote the message of faith and family. They don’t really go beyond that because … people don’t generally connect with concepts. They connect with people. Do you remember how the play-action pass that got Andre Johnson the space to get open, or do you remember Andre Johnson catching the ball over someone?

Somehow, the Texans are owned by the one person on Earth that has fallen for the Easterby mirror as he simultaneously turns off every single other person interested in building a winning culture around him. In that way, Easterby is less preacher and more Silicon Valley Disruptor — you find the target market, you promise something that barely makes sense, and you get locked into the money before you ever have to deliver anything.

There is no message beyond Christianity. At the core of Jack Easterby, there is nothing.

And so, mirroring the person given control of them for no reason, that is what the Houston Texans will become.


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Believing in Lovie Smith to fix the Texans defense is a tough sell

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.


In 2019, Illinois Football won six games. It was the culmination of what Lovie Smith was supposed to have built to after three seasons as Illinois head coach in which he’d gone a combined 9-27. I talk about this instead of 2020 because college football happened in the pandemic in the same way that anything important happened in the pandemic: a loosely organized way that makes it easy for excuses to take root. Let’s cut the excuses and go back to what was supposed to be the crowning year — the one that was worth all the pain.

Illinois upset No. 6 Wisconsin 24-23 in a game in which they forced three turnovers and only turned it over once themselves. They held on to beat Michigan State 37-34 in a game in which they forced four turnovers and the Spartans only created two. Those two wins disguised what was a typical season for the Illini under Smith, giving them a berth into the “Redbox Bowl,” whatever that is. Over the course of the season, Smith’s Illini defense would give up a tremendous amount of yardage, would lose to Eastern Michigan at home, and would allow 34 or more points five times, including to California in their bowl game.

After the Wisconsin win, Smith preened in a way that I think will sound familiar to a lot of Texans fans:

If you look at things through this certain warped perspective that I simultaneously admire and want to criticize, everything always looks okay in football coach speak. Your guys are always one win away from changing everything, and the development is always about to spark something incredible.

While VODs of Smith’s Tampa pressers are a little harder to come by these days — 2015 was an eternity ago in terms of data storage — I think this quote from the presser before his firing is pretty telling of how things were left in Tampa:

Smith’s Bears defenses were amazing, but if 2021 football is the present, football in 2012 was The Renaissance. He also stacked those teams with a ton of deserving Hall of Fame and Hall of Very Good caliber players like Brian Urlacher, Peanut Tillman, Lance Briggs, Julius Peppers, and so on. The Tampa 2 defense has fallen out of vogue — though I’d argue the Cover-3 Seahawks scheme that replaced it as vogue isn’t really all that great either — and Lovie hasn’t really evolved what he does with those times.


It’s hard for me to really communicate to you the perspective I get deep-diving Smith’s Illinois years because I can give you tidbits, and your inclination will be to say “okay, but that happened one time.” Trust me when I tell you that there were times that college kids were getting beat by better college kids, but also that there were a ton of schematic breakdowns along these lines:

When teams got to the red zone against Lovie’s defenses, they were able to effectively move the ball horizontally. The Cal team that we’re talking about here had a starting quarterback with a 60.9 percent completion rate — they finished 95th in offensive SP+ per ESPN’s Bill Connelly. This is not Alabama, and not the Jared Goff Bears. This was a fair fight. And Lovie’s defense just kept finding themselves in quandry after quandry.

Look at the situation this corner found himself in. He can handle the tight end underneath, or he can let the wide receiver go over the top. Both linebackers eat this fake. (This is familiar to you Texans fans, I’m sure.) The scheme has won so dramatically over the defense that either throw is successful. This is a big third-and-short in the biggest game in Illinois football’s tenure with Smith. It was easy pickings.

Move beyond the scheme and listen to the man talk — again, I absorbed a lot of pressers trying to find out how he reacts to things — and it’s just that same old 2020 Bill O’Brien brand stuff. Listen to him talk after the Eastern Michigan loss:

Lovie is as steady as they come, but that comes with a learned helplessness that has infected him the same way as it infected O’Brien about the running game in his final days as Texans coach. He’s not going to tell you it isn’t a problem, and he’s not going to not work hard to fix it, but at a certain point it feels like the zest for this was beaten out of him. If you can beat the scheme he’s been running for umpteen years and his guys can’t beat yours one-on-one? Well, tip your cap to ’em. They were the better team that day. And they often are.

When I listed ambition as a trait I was looking for in my head coach, I wasn’t necessarily thinking of the kind that David Culley brings. I want someone who is able and unafraid to make mistakes, understand why they made mistakes, and create new solutions to those problems next time. But I have to admit that Culley’s actual enthusiasm for his job is at least fresh and interesting when you compare it to O’Briens Grumpy Dwarf. Lovie is more of a Sleepy Dwarf to me, he’s seen all that he’s wanted to see and the idea of learning something new feels beyond him in his recent roles.


Now, that said, I think a reason for optimism for Lovie as Texans defensive coordinator is that, well, he is finally only a defensive coordinator. Outside of a year off in 2013, Smith has been a head coach somewhere in every season since 2004. I’m open to the idea with less on his plate, he might have some space to grow a little. A lot of head coaches learn or reconsider things only when they have a break from the daily intrusion on their space. Maybe de-elevating to a defensive coordinator means Lovie can get a little more specific on the why of his scheme fails and innovate a little bit. It feels like grasping for straws, but at least it’s a sensible reason as to how we could look back in eight months and see the team off to a good start.

Last year’s Texans finished dead last in the NFL in turnovers with nine. They were one of just two teams since 2002 to finish with less than 10. (The 2018 49ers had seven.) Meanwhile, in college, Lovie’s defense was pretty much all about how many turnovers they could force. The 2019 team forced 19 fumbles and recovered 16 of them — remarkably lucky by the standards of how we know a random ball bounces. They also picked off 12 balls. In 2018, they forced nine fumbles and recovered five. They also allowed six of their nine Big 10 opponents to drop at least 46 points on them.

The Texans don’t have a lot of game-breaking talent to begin with — they’d kill to have that 2015 Bucs squad that Lovie failed with — and all the public signs are pointing towards a divorce with J.J. Watt, the best player on the defense by far. While that will free up some cap space, you don’t just find J.J. Watt replacements in free agency. You find players that, largely, for one reason or another, teams don’t want to commit to. Assuming they continue to sit on Deshaun Watson’s trade demands, they won’t pick until the third round. The building blocks you’d need to create the kind of talent the Bears had on defense are lacking.

Given how much Lovie’s defenses have relied on winning on talent, this looks like a marriage that makes no sense for either side. The Texans can’t provide him with turnover-forcing talent, and Lovie can’t scheme the Texans into the kind of 20th-place defensive finish they need to threaten the playoffs in the event Watson is here and dealing. Maybe he’s got more juice than I think he does — and as I’ve mentioned, I would dearly love for the Texans to make me start eating some skepticism — but from where this franchise sits now it’s hard to connect the dots in a way that makes me excited about this move.


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