Texans Training Camp Notebook — Week One: The Start Up

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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As I said on Twitter the day it looked like it was all coming to a head, it was a 99th percentile outcome for the Randall Cobb signing to have someone else come in and offer anything of value for that contract after the first year. The Texans were able to take advantage of the Aaron Rodgers situation to the extent of a sixth-round pick. There’s not a whole lot of value in the pick itself, but the freeing up of snaps for someone who could presumably be a long-term factor for the Texans in and of itself is a win. Cobb’s still a solid slot receiver, but no game-changer at this stage of his career.

I’ve read a few Invented Enemy Tweets that gravitate around the general idea that trading for Anthony Miller in the context of the Cobb trade is a win. (For what it’s worth, Nick Caserio denied that the trades were related when directly asked by Seth Payne and Sean Pendergast.) I don’t know that I see it that way so much as I see it as a non-loss. A fifth-round pick doesn’t have a metric ton of value, but the Texans were able to use one to “pilfer” Brevin Jordan last draft, and a seventh-rounder is a big dropoff. Miller is, like most players on this team, on the final year of his contract, coming off a season where he was mostly invisible. Miller was targeted just eight times in Chicago’s last four games of the year., and finished precisely four games all season with more than 50 receiving yards. He’s got some good traits to build on despite this — he was a very popular sleeper pick of Matt Harmon’s in 2019, and Harmon knows receiving talent — and I could absolutely see him as a major target hog in this offense, perhaps taking a step forward from his 2019 production.

He’s also turning 27 in October — he’s one year younger than Brandin Cooks despite being drafted four years later — and the Texans are going to have to immediately pay him if he’s good or he’s gone. Could it work out? Sure! Is a fifth-round pick a staggering ransom? Not really! Does it really change life from how things would have been with Keke Coutee in the slot? I can’t say I see it. But the team has its preferences, and it acts on them, and hopefully they’re right that Miller is a better bet than Coutee.

The Cobb signing was every bit the disaster the national media predicted it would be. When I covered it here I noted that it had more than a whiff of panic. While I think Cobb performed pretty well relative to the expectations (other than getting hurt) the team should have had for him last year, the contract was well outsized in comparison to those expectations and the team didn’t have enough slot wideout targets to go around. Comforting to know that Jack Easterby, a main cog behind getting rid of DeAndre Hopkins and replacing him with Cobb at this price, still has a lot of power and influence in the organization!

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The most interesting thing about the Cobb trade was the post-mortem as offered by Cobb:

Cobb coyly walked back the initial comments with some positivity at the end, but “see[ing] the other side” and using :ThinkingFace: at the comparison to prison was certainly not what you’d like to hear as a Texans fan. The most interesting part of it to me was the choice of words as a “start-up” because that is also exactly the comparison Nick Caserio gave at the Sloan conference this year.

I think that’s a wildly interesting choice of words for both of these guys to land on. Start-ups tend to be almost lionized by veterans of the dot com boom and they get wrapped in that same sort of entrepreneurial spirit blanket that makes their mistakes worth overlooking. Of course, you know, 90% of start-ups fail. Many of those that don’t fail, like Uber, are privately subsidized because the real cost of doing business is so high that there’s no way they can be profitable without becoming a monopoly. Then you have to think about what makes the Texans different from other football teams — what is the thing that they’re disrupting?

If you think about the Texans philosophically, they don’t really have a deep and acknowledged analytics department. They have two former Belichick Patriots in the front office — a thing many people do or have done. I would argue that they have put Nick Caserio front-and-center as general manager in a way that other teams don’t — I can remember years going by where we’d hear from Rick Smith less than five times total all season. Caserio was the first interview at training camp and between 610 and Texans Radio, he might hit five appearances before we’re done with the second week of camp.

David Culley isn’t in the same position of power that Caserio is. Remember haughty Bill O’Brien? Haughty Bill O’Brien would have loved the Deshaun Watson situation in this camp, and would have come to play every day with any reporter who asked about it. Haughty O’Brien would have told you that he only has to release so much information, and he would have done it with a defiant look on his face. David Culley? Company line guy. Who makes the company line if not David Culley? Why is 610 promoting it as Camp Caserio rather than Camp Culley? The power dynamics are pretty clear.

But the idea of someone having more power than someone else in a roster-building/coaching dynamic? Not new. What is new about this team?

That, I’m pretty sure, is the real answer here. The premium on player personality and drive. It squares with Caserio’s years of experiences interviewing prospects on the road. It squares with Jack Easterby’s real in towards a major job despite no experience in the area — and his reported desire to have certain players trailed — because Easterby’s sale is that he is a connector. This major focus on competition (in theory) brings out the best in this select group of individuals, but not everyone. This isn’t to say that player personality isn’t important, by the way. But if you try to envision this as a start-up company, the personality and the culture is what the Texans are doing that makes them different.

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One major epihphany hit me while I was listening to Sean and Seth’s interview with Caserio on Thursday morning. Here’s the clip that jogged me:

That answer, in and of itself, wasn’t particularly noteworthy. Caserio has held his cards towards his vest, and he has a few verbal tics that he goes to over and over again when he doesn’t really want to answer a question. (The guy who knows which reporter compared him to Dodgeball and singles her out on a call is obviously tuned in enough to not be dismissed as an idiot, right? Right.) But that got me to thinking about the short-termness of all of this, reminded me of Caserio not being willing to comment on Justin Reid as a foundational piece, reminded me that a core mantra for this team has become “we’re trying to get better one day at a time.”

When I hit this team with my critiques about its lack of long-term planning, its inability to put rookies or young players in major roles to succeed, and so on — I am thinking about tomorrow. I am thinking about the 2023 Texans, who are as important to me as the 2021 Texans already because I have little belief the 2021 Texans are going anywhere. (And so do they, in my opinion, if they’re trading Randall Cobb for a sixth-round pick before a game is played?) This team has been a treasure trove of reactionary thinking with their roster, and has invented a churn that is so all-encompassing that trying to remember every last transaction they’ve done over the past eight months will be an undefeated Sporcle in three years.

So the question that leaves me with is: What is the churn accomplishing? it’s not accumulating great contracts for the team. It’s not accumulating youth. On the surface there’s not a real difference between Ryan Finley and Jeff Driskel — you don’t want either of them to start and neither of them are young. But when you talk about “getting better one day at a time” and view it from a fit and personality standpoint, suddenly I think you’re getting somewhere interesting. They bring in these guys, get to see them up close and see if they live up to the personality profile they’ve idealized, and let them go if they don’t. They’re invested in this thought for this year, but they aren’t approaching it in a way where they’re locked into the thought. I know it sounds silly to say this out loud — it sounds like a Secret Base video that plays out in Football Manager or OOTP — but maybe this is a science experiment about just how far the value of Desired Off-Field Traits and Habits can go.

That’s how far I have to go to try to attach a sense of logic to the constant roster moves. Yup.

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That backdrop is important when we discuss what’s actually happening at training camp. What is happening at training camp that actually matters? Per Culley, not much:

(via Texans.com Transcripts)

So when we talk about who is starting where in certain areas of camp, not only are we fighting against the fact that there’s a lot of depth on this team, we’re also fighting against the fact that the thing that the coaching staff feels is most important — padded practices — hasn’t happened yet. And the way these things have tended to change quickly, I’m not all that invested in who starts where, because that might not last all that long.

So, sure, Justin McCray is starting right now with both Lane Taylor and Marcus Cannon on the sideline. Does that mean a lot? For his chances of making the team, sure. For his chances of starting? Probably not. I’m coming at this anticipating the Texans are going to make a lot of changes in the next few weeks, as they have tended to do. Austin Reiter could agree to terms here and everything could change tomorrow. You have to measure that in to the prognostications of how much “having a spot” matters right now.

Does Davis Mills struggling in the red zone in practice against air matter? Maybe a bit, but it’s not something I’m going to breathlessly remember in a few years. It’s easy to think of examples like Russell Wilson taking control of the Seahawks job during his rookie season, and you’d certainly rather have that happening than not. But, you know, Aaron Rodgers didn’t light it up either in his early training camps.

Likewise, does the defense being better in early camp matter a lot? Probably not. I think we’re all anticipating a bump of some sort from him as compared to last year’s awful defense. I’m very happy to read about Justin Reid flying around, to see Ross Blacklock seem to be catching eyes. But both Lovie Smith and Romeo Crennel never had problems dealing with pedestrian quarterbacks, guys with real flaws, and the Texans don’t have a quarterback who’d give them problems in a seven-on-seven situation. To be clear: If there’s one area to be optimistic about, it’s the defense as compared to last year’s defense. But, you know, no pads, Deshaun Watson isn’t throwing on them, I’m more wait-and-see than crown-em after four training camp days.

I’m also going to be curious to see how Laremy Tunsil’s words here hold up. He is not the first person to mention Kelly’s return as a step towards last year — David Johnson did in an interview with Drew Dougherty in April. There’s an assumption of rational coaching over the past few months that tends to say that the Texans are going to do some Ravens run game stuff because of Culley, Mark Ingram, and Andy Bischoff. What if they aren’t? It’s unpadded practices and all, but we don’t exactly get a lot of read-option talk from anything that the team reporters post.

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Deshaun Watson is here, though spiritually absent. He’s protecting his money, and after four days of training camp has mostly been uninvolved with anything happening beyond the workouts. He’s withdrawn, hasn’t spoken to media, and whatever the Texans currently have worked out with him, they aren’t talking about it publicly and deflecting any attempt to have it out in the open.

Caserio’s definition of his responsibility is a short-sighted one in my opinion, and one that further fuels the fire. A clear plan laid out to media with expectations would have made what happened less of a spectacle because the raw video of one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL playing scout team safety is a rubbernecker. But it fueled the fire for a few days, and three days later the questions about Watson seem to have mostly dissipated. The attention span comes and goes rather quickly these days for most people, and stories require some motion. If Watson isn’t going to work out on a day with an excused Tyrod Taylor absence, he probably isn’t going to be involved deeply in anything the Texans do for the entirety of camp.

I found Lance Zierlein’s take on this fascinating and something that I would’ve thought might be more appealing to the team more when I wrote about Watson a few weeks ago. Despite my very real misgivings about the front office right now, they have tended to accede to player wishes and that is honorable in its own way, even as the Texans sit here with a departed J.J. Watt and no draft pick compensation.

Watson has been steadfast that he won’t play for the Texans again. The Texans literally can’t trade him for good value until the legal process plays out. Even if the Texans wanted to trade him before the season, nobody has any idea how that would be perceived by the Arbitrary Punishment d20 that the NFL keeps under lock and key.

I guess if I had to handicap this today, I still think there’s more of a chance of Watson playing with the Texans in 2021 than playing elsewhere just because of the firestorm that a bad Watson trade would create with a franchise that is already falling out of the minds of everyone gearing up for another Astros playoff run. The other players certainly seem to have his back, as Brandon Scott chronicled. If this were 1995, I don’t think you’d hear that kind of reaction to the quarterback holding out for a trade.

Watson blinked by showing up. As I laid out in the piece I wrote a few weeks ago and linked above, there’s not much actual downside to him playing, and the checks can either clear or disappear. And hey, with Carson Wentz down for a bit, who is to say he couldn’t torch the rest of the league for not being willing to part with a real asking price? Why couldn’t he lead the Texans on a surprise run that flips the script on all that negative energy this franchise has been subjected to since the Hopkins trade was consummated? I don’t personally ascribe a “revenge” narrative to this sort of thing because I don’t pretend I know what happened between Watson and his accusers. But I have to think if I’m in his shoes, and believe I did nothing wrong and I’m being punished for it, it’s not a narrative that I would have to reach far for. The AFC South is not a hard division to win games in with a star quarterback.

What I’m more curious about at this point, and what I think is more of an open question given what they’ve done with him so far, is: Do the Texans want that future to happen? Is it in the best interests of their organization to let a maligned quarterback win games for them? That’s a deep question, and one that we’re not privy to any real public thoughts on beyond the two company lines: They’ll do what’s in the best interest of the team, and they’ll take it one day at a time.


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