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The 2015 Texans had a quarterback competition between Ryan Mallett and Brian Hoyer. The winner of the competition was every other team in the NFL, because neither player had the requisite talent to just be named a starter outright.
To be sure, this is a glib view of competition as a general ethos — not every position is as difficult as quarterback, there are many positions where a competition can produce a productive player — I get that it’s an oversimplification and that there are places where a competition can help a team. But carrying it as a cudgel rather than a natural outgrowth of accumulating young talent that deserves to play is something that, in my head, is worth sounding an alarm about.
The Texans are repeating one of their worst mistakes from last season, a lesson that they should have learned after it repeatedly smacked them in the face during an 0-4 closeout to the season. It is not much of a surprise, you see, because everyone involved in that disaster of a year closed ranks and pretended nothing bad happened. Romeo Crennel is still on the staff as a consultant. Tim Kelly is still the offensive coordinator. Jack Easterby survived with unprecedented power for a non-GM/HC. You see, if only they’d not gone 2-9 in one-score games, it would have changed everything about the perception of that season. That’s a core value they have retained, and it is something I fear will make the 2021 season unbearable.
Do you remember anything John Reid did last season?
Reid was the Texans’ fourth-round pick. I wrote a scouting report on him because I liked him the most of the Texans draft picks last year. He sounded smart and he walked the walk as far as I could tell. He was coming into a situation where the team had very little in the way of good established corners; that’s generally something that portends playing time for young players. Reid instantly got on the field against Kansas City in the opener, though he was fairly quiet.
He didn’t have another 30-snap game until Week 16.
I don’t have a lot of ego tied up into my evaluation here. Obviously, I’m rooting for John Reid to be a great player, but if he doesn’t become an NFL starter that’s a fairly expected outcome for a fourth-round pick. The problem is that by not giving him snaps, the team has created a situation where nobody has any idea what he actually is. The upfront investment in rookies is a four-year contract, and the upside is that if they overperform their draft spot, you are gaining value over the course of that rookie deal. Sometimes they don’t work out, or they play poorly, and that’s where competition can be a good thing. But if they never get a chance to play, was it a competition, or was it just a decision?
Keke Coutee has been with the Texans for three seasons. He hasn’t had 350 snaps in a season yet. The team has had every reason to want to boost Jacob Martin as he’s the main piece they got from the Jadeveon Clowney trade. He hasn’t reached 400 snaps in a season yet. In-house radio went and fluffed Easterby’s hog for not trading Jordan Akins. Akins fell from 655 snaps in 2019 to 405 last year. Some of that is about missing three games, but even after coming back from his concussion he was never the full-time tight end. All three of those guys are going to be free agents after 2021 and nobody has any idea what kind of season they’d put up with a full snap share. They’ve each had some big individual highlights in small samples, so why have they not been given those snaps to grow?
Outside of Tytus Howard, the Texans haven’t had a first-round pick since Deshaun Watson. That’s a big part of the reason the roster is in the state that it is. But it’s hard to not see the pattern of a lack of trust in the youth that they’ve created since Easterby has been installed. It’s hard to develop players if they can’t play. If Justin Reid were drafted in 2019 instead of 2018, would he have 800 snaps yet?
Coming off a 4-12 season, with Will Fuller and J.J. Watt gone and an expectation around the league that Deshaun Watson will not play for the team in 2021, the Texans would seem to be an ideal roster for an undrafted free agent to crack. They are the only team in the NFL with a win over/under total of less than 5 in Vegas circles.
So, of course, the Texans have signed just four undrafted free agents so far: A&M linemen Ryan McCollum and Carson Green, UCF WR Marlon Williams, and Missouri WR Damon Hazelton.
Undrafted free agents all sign three-year contracts with a restricted free agent option in 2021. While it’s obviously patently silly to bank on your team generating Arian Foster, it has happened before! Many big-name NFL stars come out of undrafted free agency, and even if you only hit on someone to “role player” or “solid,” that’s a lot of money saved over the course of the contract. As this team is widely predicted to be terrible, it should have been set up to be big players in undrafted free agency. The Texans should have been banging on Dylan Moses’ and Marvin Wilson’s phones with a huge guaranteed offer. Instead, this happened:
The team filled up 87 of its 90 roster spots, mostly early in free agency, mostly in the name of competition. Listen, I’m not going to trash the players on this roster. Live your dreams out Cole Toner, I’m pulling for you as long as you put on Steel Blue. But given that this team is widely projected to be awful the second a Watson trade goes down and it becomes inescapable reality rather than widespread belief that he won’t play for the Texans ever again, there’s not a lot of value to the Texans for Cole Toner being here. If Cole Toner wins a center job over all his other competition, and plays poorly, he won’t be playing long. If he plays well, the Texans have to immediately pay him. Bill O’Brien uttered the phrase “layers and layers of players,” during the 2020 offseason. That philosophy never existed with this organization before Easterby’s hiring. In fact, I think you can draw an interesting line to the Laremy Tunsil trade, where they were bent over a barrel, and this desire to make sure that they have multiple “answers” of depth at every position.
From a value proposition, though, 4-7 year free agency is a non-starter when compared to undrafted free agency. Particularly this year, when scouts were not allowed as much contact with players as usual and you would expect there to be more mistakes and guys who should not have made it to this point.
I haven’t brought up the idea of tanking here because a) I don’t think the Texans are trying to tank and b) I think it’s harder to tank in the NFL than you’d expect from an outside theoretical sense. But since I keep being asked: Not only do I think the Texans are not trying to tank, I think they have doubled-down so far on their own beliefs that they believe they’re going to compete. They say all of this stuff so openly and so often that it’s hard to escape the fact that they believe it matters:
The Texans don’t just have a plan to improve you as a football player, they need to “assimilate” you. You need to give yourself to them entirely. They earnestly believe that this “program” matters. To some people, it might just be football, a sport that you play. Not to these guys, who have bought in so hard on this collective attitude that if you want to get deep into the weeds you can start to wonder if what it means to be a Houston Texan is a lifestyle instead of a profession.
To them, all of that matters much, much more than just signing talented football players and letting them play. There’s a dogma that what they believe about scouting personality and character traits matters more than, say, cost-value propositions about what kind of players are valuable to team building and which aren’t. It’s why David Johnson and Mark Ingram will completely block us from ever knowing if Buddy Howell and Scottie Phillips are good enough to be NFL running backs.
As long as it persists, this team will be spinning its wheels.
I don’t have high hopes for the 2021 Houston Texans. It — earnestly — is taking a lot of restraint to come back to pulling for the players in the face of how stupid all of this seems, because my instinct is to just bury my keyboard in the yard and never think about Texans football again until there’s another regime change. What happened last year should have been punished instead of rewarded.
I think the gap comes down to this:
My best-case expectation for the Texans is for them to spend 2021 developing as many young players as possible and seeing what happens. If that means some of them get beat in a big situation, or some of them do not embody “what it means to be a Houston Texan” when they have an extra strawberry shake on Friday or come in at 6:15 instead of 6:00, that doesn’t matter to me. You see who John Reid and Ross Blacklock and Jon Greenard and Jacob Martin and Garret Wallow and Jordan Akins and Brevin Jordan are and if they are good enough to be long-term fixtures on your roster. You start looking ahead to 2022 and have no belief that you’re going to make the playoffs until 2023, when you might have finally accumulated enough talent to make that feasible.
I have no faith the management of this team agrees with a word of that. The actions have spoken very loudly — from 2019 to now — that this team does not care about developing its young players. If it happens, they’re cool with it. They’re not going to spend a lot of snaps on it. They’d rather have a cornerback competition and let Vernon Hargreaves allow 7.5 yards per target than let Keion Crossen allow 8. They believe they can win instantly because they have the right group of player personalities and beliefs in place. They have already told you exactly what they believed in by heading to the free agency counter and signing older players by the bushel.
In short, they learned nothing from 2020. There are ways that this can play out that can be better for their long-term growth than others. Someone who wins a competition could be a trade deadline asset — quick aside to Jack Easterby’s beautiful, beautiful work in not trading Will Fuller while also managing to piss him off last season. Youth that flashes heavily in the preseason can get claimed on waivers and allowed to flourish here. But as a general rule, they have decided what the player they want thinks and acts like and what his floor is, and that’s more important than young players getting snaps, because those players might make mistakes.
It’s very easy to tune out what the Texans are trying to tell you, because on the surface there’s not a lot of distinguishing notes between Typical Vague Football Talk and the kind of amateur phrenology they’re banking on here. But in simple terms: They believe they’re smarter than the rest of the league despite how big of a flop the last two years have been and how disastrously they’ve been owned in every trade they’ve made. They earnestly believe that. They have to, to continue operating how they have.
Over the past three seasons, Deshaun Watson and the rest of the stars and solid contributors on this team have been able to mostly brush aside the dumb things that this team did and take them to the brink of contention. Those players have left or been sent away en masse. Watt, Fuller, Clowney, DeAndre Hopkins, D.J. Reader, Tyrann Mathieu, Kareem Jackson, Benardrick McKinney. Andre Johnson has basically quit his association with the team. Watson would like to.
Front and center this year, with no more star cover? This team’s poor management, from ownership to personnel to the man who has his hand in just about everything they do. They believe you can’t go wrong doing what’s right, to paraphrase our last Cal McNair public appearance with questions, but they’ve yet to do anything to build the trust that they know what’s right, let alone how to build a football team.
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