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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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