The Texans Cinematic Universe Presents: A David Johnson Reboot

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The Deshaun Watson firestorm continues to envelop the scope of the Houston Texans and what exactly they are supposed to be. While the blaze has continued, it has managed to — broadly speaking — throw a blanket on top of stories that would otherwise be major stories for the market. In normal football circles, the release of a guy who you gave up a third-round pick for less than two years ago would be a major breaking story. With the Texans, where we are still awaiting the new J.J. Watt team, seeing Will Fuller dodge the franchise tag, canvassing the scope of the Watson situation, Duke Johnson is just another plank of charred timber floating in the shipwreck. Nick Martin’s release barely registers as a surprise.

And then, there was this:

Less than a year ago, the Texans traded DeAndre Hopkins and a fourth-rounder for David Johnson, a second-round pick, and a fourth-round pick in 2021. It’s a deal that was dead on arrival. It didn’t make sense to begin with, and the Texans somehow managed to end the 2020 season with it making even less sense than it did when it happened. Johnson was an abject disaster. Ross Blacklock provided so little value in his rookie season that the team ended the year playing UDFA Auzoyah Alufohai over him. Hopkins didn’t exactly thrive in Arizona’s offense — Kliff Kingsbury anchored him to the left side of the formation — but still played up to his talent and was a second-team All-Pro. The trade served to galvanize the rest of the players — catching the eye of Watt and reportedly being one of the first turning points of the Watson/Texans relationship — and they rallied around getting Bill O’Brien fired as the team fell to 0-4.

Not content to just sink the Texans by treating Watson like a child having a tantrum in a crowded restaurant, the Texans Cinematic Universe is now going to try to rehabilitate Johnson’s horrific season. It’s an amazing display of arrogance and belief in things that go beyond football. It is, unsurprisingly, foreshadowed by a piece I wrote before the last few games of the season. Instead of discovering what Scottie Phillips could be, the Texans finally got a few major wide-open holes for Johnson to run through and found a way to talk themselves into that meaning he was actually good the whole time.

But the heads are down, the drive to finish the season with as respectable a record as possible is in place, to own the Dolphins, or maybe to make Jack Easterby’s stock go up half a point. It’s hard to even say that what they’re doing is ruining the future, because given what we’ve seen so far with players that have been off the playing time radar, they’re actually ruining the present too. It’s prime NFL cocoon hours, and we have to have been right that David Johnson can get 100 rushing yards in an NFL game still. We can’t just accept that this is a battle worth abandoning. The only opportunity is the one in front of us: moving to 5-8 for … some reason.

Here’s the thing: David Johnson and the Texans are not good for each other. The Texans came into last year with a plan to use Johnson as an every-down back in an inside-zone focused scheme and it floundered spectacularly. He wasn’t a main target on passing plays. Now I’ve heard John McClain talk on the radio about the possibility of, well, he takes a paycut, maybe he’s a less important part of their offense. OK, well, why does that have to be David Johnson? What about David Johnson makes him a good fit for what’s going on here, in an offense with no real stated direction as of yet? And if the Texans never resolve the Watson situation in a way that ends with him as their starting quarterback, why does it matter what Johnson gives you in a reserve role over a younger back?

Meanwhile, for Johnson, dealing with COVID-19 and the trade last year figuratively put him in therapy:

I have nothing but respect for Johnson seeking help when he needs it, but if your workplace situation ends up like this, I don’t understand why you’d be chomping at the bit to sign up for more of it. Now, it may very well be the case that nobody else in the NFL is interested in him at this point in his career. Running back retirement ages are trending pretty early. But he can’t know that right now, and to sign up for another lost season on a team going nowhere when, potentially, someone out there might have a change-of-pace role on a playoff team? It sounds like a waste of everybody’s time for him to be back in Houston.

One thing I respect a lot about the Texans Cinematic Universe is the way it is constantly generating scenarios that I would have dismissed two months ago as too on the nose to be effective satire. When this came up on Friday, many Twitter followers pointed to David Johnson’s religion as a reason that he could be kept. At this point, I can no longer approach that kind of comment with condescension because I refuse to be Freezing Cold Taked by any organization willing to go this far to desecrate itself. They’re holding on to someone in one of the worst trades in recent NFL memory — someone that, through no fault of his own, no Texans fans want to see — because they need to be right.

There’s been a lot of effort made to push the idea that Nick Caserio being in charge of football operations means a lot for this team and that he should be given a chance, but I can’t imagine this as a pure Caserio decision. To understand the Texans, I think you need to remember that both Cal McNair and, before he died, Bob McNair, preach this idea of “consensus decision-making.” What that means is that, because Jack Easterby is still in a position of power, his vote continues to matter. Nobody has more to lose from the legacy of the Hopkins trade than Easterby, who has been singled out in SI reports as the original driving force behind ditching Hopkins.

Now, maybe Caserio is the guy who thinks Johnson has some juice left. I imagine he’s the only person we’re going to get to talk to about it, because McNair can’t talk to the media without slipping on a banana peel and because Easterby is a coward. So we’re going to get the Caserio view on it eventually. But the fact that the question even has to be asked about keeping a poorly-performing remnant of a horrific trade is pretty telling about the ethos of the organization.

The Texans are post-ironic. They create ways of hurting themselves that fiction writers couldn’t invent. They’ve spent the last two weeks trying to position Cal McNair as a successful leader via heavily-edited video clips when the fact that he literally can’t speak in public is not lost on anyone who has listened to him. That’s not to say that I’m not grateful that he’s trying to help people who lost power in the storm, who are hurting, and what not — that’s way better than him being a callous ogre — but no amount of editing can hide that he is kind of a reclusive doofus. Or that the majority of the people who care about his existence care about it in so much as they want to root for a winning football team rather than a YMCA he donated to or a Sloppy Joe he handed to someone one time.

Having David Johnson remain a part of this team is a waste of Houston’s time and a waste of Johnson’s time, so I can think of no other way for this to end than with 83 more carries of him running into Zach Fulton’s back for a one-yard gain.

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