You can go wrong doing what’s right

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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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“We believe you can’t go wrong doing what’s right, and ask our fans to trust we know what’s right,” were Cal McNair’s words to the fanbase when given the podium without a question to introduce Nick Caserio. In the nearly six months since that presser, the only thing that has crystallized is how little trust the fans have for the leadership of this organization.

There will always be a section of the Texans fanbase that is raucously pro-team regardless of the circumstances that they are going through, and I respect the commitment to the bit that they have. I tend to write about the Texans in a way that irks that segment of the fanbase, because I try to traffic in reality as I see it and reality as I see it isn’t always a happy, smile-smile sunshine place. Trades can go wrong, signings can be bad in advance, draft picks can be low-upside, it can be a problem to keep someone who doesn’t know anything about running a football team in a major position of power with said football team. But as much as there’s a clash inherent in our points of view, I don’t begrudge people like this their optimism.

Even as someone who has been, broadly speaking, “right,” about how the last two years have gone, I don’t try to rub it in anybody’s face. I don’t get the same right extended to me, because a blue checkmark is a target, and being negative about a team gets psychologically compared to insulting the fan themselves. Fair enough. But I try not to go diving for old optimistic Tweets about Gareon Conley or whatever else to pile drive some 400-follower fan named Texans4Eva23. I don’t want this optimism to always be wrong! I would love it if TexansThoughts’ massive Jacob Martin stanning led somewhere.

But as someone who understands the various bubbles in the world and tries to deal with how people are thinking, it’s kind of undeniable that there is a large slice of the fanbase that doesn’t comment on the internet much at all, doesn’t call into radio stations — I’d call them low-engagement fans. That group doesn’t care about the negative/positive hoopla around the team, and just decides how things are going based on their own read of the situation. That group is also pretty hard to lose, because those are the kinds of fans that will believe, say, that Whitney Mercilus is a star because they watched him get two sacks in a game once. These are the people who teams have lured to the park by signing big-name free agents for the better part of a century. Those are the fans that know J.J. Watt is the best player on the planet and don’t think about his age or injuries, because he’s very handsome and, of course, why wouldn’t he just still be the best?

When you start losing those kinds of fans, it’s undeniable that there’s a problem. And that’s right about where the Texans are right now.

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Basically every NFL team sells the majority of its tickets for next season in free agency and at the draft. This is a graph of search interest in the Texans since Jack Easterby took over. Note the massive crash after the Kansas City Chiefs playoff game. Note that there are small bumps in March and April each year. The Texans actually spiked in interest this offseason simply on the sheer spectacle of the amount of free agents signed. But since then, they’ve settled into a very comfortable rut.

If you go to the Texans’ PSL marketplace, there are (as of Tuesday morning when I’m typing this) 3,633 seats available. That’s just what we officially see — there are ways around this if you’re clever. For the club level seats, which actually cost a decent chunk of change to renew, you can get a Texans PSL for under $75 easily. There are people who paid, at the time, thousands and thousands of dollars to secure that PSL. They are practically giving them away. If you’ve ever wanted to buy on to tickets with real money, this might be the best opportunity you’ve ever had … unless things just get worse from here.

The Texans have never had to really try to get season tickets renewed. Selling football in Texas is like pulling an ice cream truck up to the community pool. The banner they’re currently running that leaks out to this form showcases a lot of desperation. There are countless stories that have run or been mentioned on radio of the team straight-out depleting the season ticket waiting list, though perhaps the most famous one is Jerome Solomon’s. My wife had been on the waiting list since 2012, and never cracked the top 10,000 until 2020. Obviously, she hasn’t bought, but even if she’d wanted to, she’s a good enough researcher to figure out what’s going on here.

They are having David Culley drop in on new season ticket holders. They are running family packs. 610 advertises the benefits of company luxury box tickets often. To use a Gary Kubiak-ism since he’ll be brought up again in a little bit: They’re battling out there.

There is not a single game, viewing the SeatGeek listings for the Texans, that you can’t get into for less than $50. Those prices will likely fall further before we’re all said and done. Fans from other teams are going to use these Texans home games as affordable get-togethers. And to people who do want to renew tickets but have concerns about the environment, the Texans have not exactly been welcoming:

Any team that loses the kind of star power that the Texans have lost over the years would have problems selling tickets if they didn’t replace the stars. And to be fair, COVID has made this world a lot less certain for many people who might be on the fence about this sort of purchase. But the fact that you can get into season tickets for about the cost of an Applebee’s dinner for four says a lot about how desirable those tickets are in the first place. These are the seats that low-engagement fans have been dying to get for years! And, well, there’s still plenty of them available. I don’t judge you in the slightest for picking them up, and in fact am kind of hoping you do. A little-known secret that the people who like to say “clickbait” and such don’t know about is that writing about a team is more widely-read when the team is good and fans are engaged. But if you buy, it’s pretty inarguable that you know what you’re getting into at this point.

More importantly, it says a lot about something that we haven’t really touched on much over the past few months: How poor of a job the Texans have done at actually resonating with fans in the post-Amy Palcic era. It is hard to work on public relations when you don’t really want to publicly relate with the present.

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Please don’t blame the social media employees that this team has for what they’re being asked to post. But yes, it is embarrassing that unless the team has a message that is basically impossible to not mess up (wishing someone a happy birthday, donating to a charity), they get swiftly ratioed with anywhere from 8-30 comments of GIFs of them getting flipped off and pleas to fire Easterby.

Internal team PR has been given an almost impossible task. When they have to talk about today’s team, they absolutely can’t give any useful football information. Trying to be optimistic about this year’s roster amounts to useless buzz phrases like “I’m really interested to see how this backfield shakes out” or, the standby that I’ve heard a lot, “We don’t really know how it will turn out yet, it’s all pretty much brand new!” Trying to talk about them in 2016 brandspeak, where Laremy Tunsil runs out of a tunnel and we talk about how it is the weekend, just tries to pretend that fans are engaged with the team positively when they aren’t.

The only exciting player on the roster is Deshaun Watson, who a) doesn’t want to be here and b) can’t be talked about in any real terms right now because of pending litigations. Instead of segments about the players that this team has — most of which haven’t even been put on a podium yet — the Texans PR team has mostly taken to trying to groom the history of the franchise. Yes, the history of a franchise that started in 2002.

Now, for someone like me, who dug the 2011 Texans a lot, talking to Gary Kubiak holds some small amount of interest. But in the end the fact that it’s being pushed tells you a lot about the state of this franchise’s history and present. This team has done deep film dives into Cecil Shorts throwing a touchdown pass in 2015, Justin Forsett’s five-yard run that turned into a touchdown due to official error on Thanksgiving 2012, and Jonathan Joseph pick-sixing Nathan Peterman in 2018. That’s the level of history we’re working with here.

I have diligently listened to the Texans’ in-house radio bits all offseason. These guys can’t talk about anything, which means they talk about nothing. They’ve talked about the Friends reunion. They’ve talked about Sam Houston State’s championship. They’ve talked about the 1996 NBA Draft. And when I say these things, I don’t mean they’re asides late in the show or something — they literally talk about this stuff in the first segment, lead off the show with it, and eventually get to actually begrudgingly talking about the Texans. The last show the Texans did before the July 4 weekend led off with Marc Vandermeer and John Harris talking about Boston and Los Angeles fans for 10 minutes. There’s not a lot positive to say in the first place, and even if they wanted to say something positive, they have to run it through the Nick Caserio algorithm to see if they’re allowed to actually say it without creating a massive competitive advantage for all the NFL teams that monitor this stuff. (I would bet that there’s not a single non-Texans NFL team employee that listens to Texans All-Access regularly.)

Most NFL teams have put together a pretty cool insider video reel of what’s going on inside at this point. The Jaguars have “The Hunt,” the Colts have “With The Next Pick,” the Cardinals have “Flight Plan,” these are, you know, 12+ minute shows that are well-produced with a lot of internal content talking about draft prospects, OTAs, showing their players and so on. The Texans got through five “Building the Texans” episodes this offseason that don’t tell you anything about who is building the Texans, why they’re building the Texans that way, or do anything but provide empty David Culley smiles into the void. You can watch those episodes and — outside of the draft picks — not learn about a single player that plays for the Texans. They are attempts to sell the organization. Nobody’s buying.

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McNair’s riff about the fans trusting that this team knows what right was probably the most important public statement the team gave all offseason. It has also been answered. The fans have voted with their wallets. The team leadership is going to tune that out to the extent that they are able to — with the same internal righteous indignation that has been an Easterby trademark — but it seems increasingly likely that a team that basically had unprecedented levels of fan support no matter what it did wrong is going to run into some empty seat problems this year. Once that happens, it won’t get any easier to fill those seats. I’m a believer in NFL turnarounds being possible much faster than people expect them to be, but from where this roster is today, I have a hard time understanding how this team will be good before 2024. If they remain devoted to the plan in the building instead of having a firing spree and real culture change, I’d take the over.

This is going to get called a shitty football town again, and to be fair, even when the Texans were solid the last few years there were still plenty of tailgaters who weren’t in seats before kickoff. But that in and of itself just speaks to the lack of collective belief this town had in this organization after it clung to an antagonistic and nihilistic Bill O’Brien long past his expiration date. That should have led to a real regime change rather than running back Easterby. When the optimists carp up with something like “they’ll be good again, and you’ll be back,” well yeah, but … when? That’s the major question. This isn’t some sort of Astros-esque intentional tanking program — that would actually be a rational plan. This is one of the oldest rosters in the NFL built in service of maintaining egos and nothing else. Fans show up when winning happens, but they don’t usually come back overnight the minute the team hits 3-1. The lack of fan support is going to put a lot of spotlight on Houston for not supporting the team, but a lot of that should be directed at the people who created this I Can’t Believe It’s Not A Football Roster product and keep talking about David Johnson’s last two games as a reason for excitement.

I don’t feel like I am as down on this team as I could be. I’m pulling for the individual players to win their bet on themselves and get something out of it next season. I think they could get three or four wins. They have the parts for a great special teams unit. If they run into some good turnover luck they should be a mediocre enough offense with a positive game script to hold a random 10-point lead here or there. I’m not out here yelling 0-17 from the rooftops. But what young players am I supposed to be pulling for to get better that we know are starting? Tytus Howard at right guard, Lonnie Johnson at safety, and maybe Jon Greenard or Ross Blacklock? Who is this team getting to six or seven wins good for? And there’s almost no upside of this team in the playoffs unless David Culley is literally 17 games of Danny O’Shea’s best.

When I talk to people about the Texans these days, we talk about them like I would talk about my mother when she was in a medically-induced coma after her stroke. I try to remember the happy times, I say it’s a shame that she couldn’t give up cigarettes, that she couldn’t reach out to her father with the truth of how bad her health was sooner. That she never told me she had bladder cancer in those words. But, you know, she was stubborn! She sort of gambled on herself in that way, and she never thought she would die until the day before she did.

It’s a shame that the Texans couldn’t just let Deshaun Watson get the culture change he wanted, and it’s a shame that even if they’d done that, we’d all still be drowning in the sexual assault allegations and what that all means for when he can play again. It’s a shame the other two best players on the 2019 Texans are Arizona Cardinals for reasons nobody in the organization can actually explain logically without outright saying that Jack Easterby is in charge and he drove them away. It’s a shame that the entire vibe of the franchise is now hooked into nostalgia-holing the 2011 Texans, and that even if someone in PR wanted to get the fans excited about this team, they can’t say anything. The extremely successful Patriots Veil Of Secrecy is now up and John McClain has to complain to even get roster numbers.

The difference is that when someone dies, the funeral is usually something people attend.

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