Welcome to the Dead Sea

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

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There’s a very thematically interesting dungeon in the ill-fated Chrono Trigger sequel Chrono Cross called The Dead Sea. The concept is that it’s a collection of timelines that didn’t happen for one reason or another — the Chrono Trigger universe that was supposed to be destroyed, for example, is one of many scenes from dead universes. Or, to quote directly from the game text: “A future denied of all existence because of a change in the past… A future that was destroyed even before it was born rests here… condensed into the Dead Sea.” These snapshots become ruins that are stagnant, frozen in time, and ghosts rummage around the place. It’s such a cool concept for a dungeon that the game hooked into … and then immediately could not keep up with on any real level.

This is the most exciting time of the NFL calendar year for most teams, because they are thinking about creating their future. Fans get to squabble over who the best player in the draft is, get to think about the future of the franchise and how it could change with one correct pick. Guess right and you get DeAndre Hopkins. Guess wrong and you get Cordarrelle Patterson. Even teams with low first-round picks can look forward to that kind of debate. But that future, like many for the Texans, is consigned to the Dead Sea.

The future where Deshaun Watson was traded before his many lawsuits made it implausible. The future where the team kept Brian Gaine and never decided to listen to Jack Easterby. The future where the organization didn’t lose the plot in the eyes of their franchise quarterback. The Texans still exist in so much as they are a real entity, but as a franchise they have become a team of what could have been rather than what is.

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I think it might be a little overstated the extent that Watson’s trade value has declined or to say that his market is dead; it only takes one team. But there’s likely little to be done about moving Watson right now as his crisis continues to escalate, for sure. We have seen players with haunting off-field issues like this move after things are done — Astros fans may remember Roberto Osuna — but to make a move for someone as an investigation is being undertaken by the NFL and as a lawsuit begins to form would create a PR vortex for the acquiring team that would be hard to swallow. When these lawsuits do eventually resolve, the offers that would have been on the board for him before the draft may not reappear. It could potentially get to the point where the Texans decide it’s not worth moving him for the quoted prices, and they carry the most valuable asset in the NFL that has no interest in playing for the team. Perhaps on the suspended list for a bit.

There are fans who are trying hard to believe that this team has improved, and maybe they have in some small ways on special teams and with depth. But those moves don’t make up for losing two of the four best players on a 4-12 team to free agency and a request to be released, then watching the Watson situation go from denial to bargaining to no acceptance. This team doesn’t pick until the third round of the draft. The only player they’ll have in the first two rounds from either of the 2020 and 2021 drafts barring a trade up is Ross Blacklock, who had an abysmal rookie season while getting yanked around into roles he wasn’t fit for. Outside of Shaq Lawson, Desmond King, and Phillip Lindsay, this team didn’t add much in the way of established starter-level talent in their prime either.

I’m at the point where I’m trying to imagine writing about this team in September. I’m trying to imagine putting together a gamer after a, let’s say, 23-10 loss to the Titans. The run game got some yards with Tyrod Taylor. Here are some passes he couldn’t connect on for one reason or another. He said he had to hit those throws and he didn’t. David Culley said he wanted to dial up some plays early to get him comfortable but they couldn’t find a rhythm. Special teams blocked a field-goal attempt. The defense held on in the red zone pretty well, but gave up a back-breaking run to Derrick Henry in the third quarter. And this offense can’t play from behind and that was that. There’s one bullet point about how (Lawson, Tytus Howard, Justin Reid, etc.) played well and how that’s cool and might be something to build on. This is the optimistic side of me trying to match them against good teams.

This team has been consigned, folks. This team is in the Dead Sea. When I write about them as a football unit, you vote with your eyes about how little you believe in them. Me trying to craft a realistic optimistic upside to the offense was roundly ignored. I can’t blame you, because I can’t defend anything that’s happened here. All that’s left is what happens with Deshaun Watson.

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Watson’s status deteriorated rapidly after the public testimony from Ashley Solis and the written testimony of Jennifer Baxley hit two Wednesdays ago. He was hardly in a great place before that, with the Texans issuing a letter to season ticket holders in which Cal McNair said the team was “deeply troubled by any form of abuse and we condemn this type of behavior.” But after that public testimony entered the record, Watson was dropped by sponsors and dropped out of almost all of the in-house Texans TV video introductions purposely. Innocent before proven guilty does not apply to optics. I don’t consider this a prelude to a trade, I consider it a play where an unpopular figure is minimized.

The court of public opinion on sexual assault has become a much tougher environment for a defense to win in, and while I’m not sitting here telling you I know that these cases are going to prove that Watson is guilty, I definitely think Tony Buzbee understands the positives of pressing knowledge to the public. Watson’s lawyer, Rusty Hardin, has spent the last three weeks digging up 18 masseuses that would testify to Watson’s character and trying to get defendants publicly named. Listen, if there are 40 masseuses willing to testify to Watson’s character one way or another, and 22 of them are willing to accuse him of something untoward, that’s not exactly a batting average I would want to be trumpeting.

To me, not a lot has changed since Watson’s first statement with the defense: The defense is that none of this happened and that they’ll prove it in a trial. I would love to believe that world where he is cleared exists, but just from the outside? This looks really, really bad. The number of people involved in the lawsuits and how specific the details are in a few key areas that repeat are not great signs. This could get him an NFL suspension and it already has Watson’s public image getting destroyed daily. Whether or not his desire to get traded elsewhere is happening or not is almost a non-event right now. Now that this has become a public relations firestorm rather than a small civil suit, this has become an issue where it has been bad enough for long enough that it has become easy human heuristics to assume the worst. By that I mean: Nobody with a majorly-sourced public platform that I can see is talking about this in a way that suggests the Texans will make out well.

Something Pro Football Talk brought up last week was that the Watson camp was willing to pay some money at some point: “[I] wanted to check in on this to see if Ms. Solis wanted to either help us understand the rationale behind the $100k demand or come back with a different figure,” Scott Gaffield wrote on Watson’s behalf. “As I said to [attorney] Cornelia [Brandfield-Harvey] last week, we don’t believe that the alleged facts show that Deshaun did anything wrong with regards to Ms. Solis, but we are nevertheless happy to continue the conversation around a reasonable settlement figure because we believe he can learn a lesson about having put himself in this situation.” That’s been repeated in reporting by the Washington Post, that there have been a couple different settlement windows that the defense has not taken.

I am not a lawyer, nor do I know the details of these cases front and back. But I think we’ve given the Watson team about a month since these allegations first started popping up and they have floundered themselves in the court of public opinion. I have to think if they had an easy way to protect Watson’s image — reminder, he is losing millions because of these endorsements being cancelled — they’d have gone to it. The best they have so far is that Watson engaged in consensual sex with some of these women. And, well, that’s not what you’re hearing from 22 women. The thing is, until or unless the Watson campaign has a tact beyond denial and attacking the character of the accusers, it’s kind of hard to hit on an effective defense — in the court of public opinion — that exists in 2021.

That’s about it until they actually get to a courtroom or a settlement table, Buzbee has proven that he is going to continue to effectively use the media to push out what is best for his clients, which has repercussions for Watson that are already mattering now.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to see how much changes as things stand today. There’s more hearings to be done, and more listening for us all, as we see just how far into the Dead Sea Watson’s career will go. Even a settlement may not assuage the commissioner’s office.

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When Bill O’Brien was fired, there was a sense of relief from Texans fans that finally the Texans could coalesce around their young star quarterback and build something new. As I wrote at the time, it was an opportunity that they needed to ace. There were many potential positive futures for this team that they themselves sabotaged by holding on to Easterby. The Watson situation could not have been anticipated — the generally accepted company line I’ve heard is that they knew about a one-woman lawsuit but did not see it blowing up and becoming this — but they chose to put their heads in the sand about moving him because it did not fit the narrative they wanted to craft. In doing so, they may have consigned the future where this team had a highly drafted quarterback this year into the Dead Sea. And then, cherry on the shit sundae, Watson’s ongoing litigation has a potential ending of him throwing the best version of who he could have been in there as well.

All there is right now is a team that cannot find a ceiling to the number of positive situations they can self-sabotage. And it’s sad and dumb and heartbreaking to just understand how the team that was up 24-0 on the soon-to-be Super Bowl Champion Chiefs could not possibly believe any harder that they are on the right track. Because what has been created here is a situation not unlike the Hue Jackson Browns or post-Jim Harbaugh 49ers or Dennis Allen Raiders. The talent level is so depleted and the reputation so bad that it may take three or four years to finally reload it to contender status … except those teams I mentioned were actually willing to make big changes. Crap on Jed York all you want, but he didn’t hold on to Chip Kelly for a second season. This Texans team ardently seems to believe that it knows what it is doing. In fact, in the above VOD, Cal McNair asks fans to “trust that they know what’s right,” but nothing they’ve shown since Easterby joined the front office deserves that trust. That’s the most dangerous part.

Twice in three months, Nick Caserio has been forced into the “there’s a lot bigger problems in society” than the Texans rhetorical device. He’s right about that. But the fact that he even has to say it belies a lot about the state of this franchise now. It may be the worst-run major sports franchise in major American sports, maybe neck-and-neck with the Rockies and maybe the Sabres depending on the eye of the beholder.

As Steph Stradley would say, this is the time to put your feelings in escrow. This situation has been bleak for so long that it’s only natural to believe that surely things can only get better from here. I’m trying to hold on to the little scraps of hope and faith I see along the way — hopefully the third-round pick is a steal, and the UDFA class is terrific and a lot of these vets that got signed are beaten out and catch on somewhere else. Hopefully the Watson allegations are resolved in a way that is a positive outcome for the women involved and in a way where Watson can rehabilitate his status in a way that jives with the character he’s displayed in the past.

But it’s hard to think of this team as anything but an aftermath right now. What could have been is gone. What remains is a team of players who don’t deserve the rancor they’re going to get because they’ve been asked to do the impossible: make this look good.

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