How should we read the Shaq Lawson trade?

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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I tread lightly on this territory because it is September, and Training Camp-September is the league-mandated Time Of Optimism where I get eight times the amount of crap I’d otherwise get for being interested in potential dysfunction. But, here we go. The Texans traded Shaq Lawson on Sunday after an extremely quiet training camp where he a) wasn’t talked about a lot in-house, b) was playing deep into the preseason games and c) wasn’t productive when he did play in those preseason games. Per PFF data, Lawson did not have a single pressure in 50 pass-rush snaps.

So I understand how true-blood fans would like to just take this as a very simple trade: Lawson was bad, and Lawson was traded because he was bad. Even though the Texans had restructured him before the season to push more of his guaranteed money into the 2022 cap year and all they received was a sixth-round pick.

However, what I come back to is this:

“It’s not going to work like that here. It just can’t. Not with all these guys putting out the effort they are,” those are the alarms of culture taking place. So, rhetorical you who is made out of people I’ve had yelling at me on Twitter the past 24 hours about this, your counter might be that the Texans are cultivating the culture that they want, but that Lawson being bad in preseason is why he didn’t make the team.

But the thing about that is: Teams can say that all their decisions are based on training camp play, but we know that’s not true. We know some people are managed and looked at a little bit differently than others. I want to specifically come to the example of Whitney Mercilus here. Mercilus finished the preseason with one hurry. He has not been a productive pass rusher in the regular season since 2017, which is a big contrast to Lawson’s regular seasons. The most productive thing Mercilus gave us in the preseason was a Papa John’s commercial.

Now, I’m a Mercilus fan. I think he’s a very good guy, and I don’t begrudge him for signing the contract that he got. But on the objective face of things, if we’re looking at who attacked training camp and was productive, I don’t think he’s much above Lawson. One of them was treated with kid gloves, and one of them was treated to fourth quarter snaps in Green Bay. I also tend to think it’s okay if a player isn’t productive in training camp — if the player is productive when the lights come on in the regular season, that’s what matters most.

But I don’t think the Texans think that way. And I think that quote from Vander Meer kind of demonstrates the culture inside the building. The competition, competition, competition mindset and ethos. That in itself is a very big cultural choice. And that’s why Shaq Lawson asked to be traded.

Something that becomes very apparent in looking at PFF’s preseason data is that Lawson has not exactly gone full-bore in any of those games. He has just seven total pressures in 157 pass rush snaps over four preseasons, compared to an average of about one in every 10 plays in the regular season. Or, as Shaq Lawson would put it:

So the Texans clearly have a vested interest in protecting their culture after it was a major focus of Deshaun Watson’s ire and the culture leader was kept, protected, and put in bubble wrap so he didn’t have to answer to anybody following Sports Illustrated’s well-sourced reports of his power seizure. Kamu Grugier-Hill will loudly tell you about how great it is any time he’s at the podium, and so of course he did that again yesterday. And the result of that culture’s impact on Lawson was: “I can finally be myself here” after he was traded to the Jets.

That sounds like Shaq Lawson wasn’t a cultural fit more than anything else. Preseason stats be damned (and there are tons of other examples of players who played bad making the team — Davis Mills and Vernon Hargreaves, come on down), not drawing from that inner reservoir of fortitude and grinding out every practice and going all-out in practices and preseason games is the negative in the eyes of the Texans. I say “sounds like” because this is circumstantial, I didn’t watch every practice or anything, but the evidence that we have publicly available sure points to that.

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Now, when I posted this, it riled a lot of the true-bloods up:

But there’s a very clear reason I chose “weird” here and not “bad” — if I wanted to slag the Texans, trust me, I can be way clearer than I was.

Now, my supposition based on the past is that this culture is player-unfriendly and that being player-unfriendly is, to take a Steph Stradley line, the Texans making life harder for themselves than it has to be. It is the kind of culture that drove DeAndre Hopkins out of the room. (A major talking point being that they didn’t like how he didn’t practice.) It is the culture that Watson spoke up about before he became a pariah. It is, in my opinion, the unstated reason that several of this franchise’s best players have packed up and left. This doesn’t mean that hard work and practice shouldn’t be celebrated, but I think this particular overemphasis by this particular assistant vice president of football operations — who has never played the game and struts on the sideline in preseason like he’s a coach — has pretty clearly been a problem for some players. It appears to have been that way for Shaq Lawson as well.

In trying to combat that with “their type of player,” with their intangibles, ala Nick Caserio’s Sloan speech, the Texans may very well have totally changed over their locker room culture in a way that creates the exact sort of eager beavers that they were looking for:

The problem is that in creating this team, the Texans have limited their player pool by self-selecting their traits. Many teams do this in other ways. They’ll want all their tackles to be 6-foot-4 with a 36-inch wingspan (or whatever), and that’s a major reason why certain draft pick busts continue to get more chances. They were drafted highly because they have physical traits other players just don’t have.

The Texans are approaching this from the standpoint of player mentality. The result they have created is a roster full of older free agents that have little upside. If they play beyond their tools, they’ll have to be re-signed and will command more money. If they play below their tools, the team will have wasted a year of snaps on someone who could have been a young, cost-controlled player. What they do have is the ability to show up for practice, bust their ass during practice, and give it their all in the eyes of Jack Easterby and Nick Caserio.

The players the Texans have wound up with are not appreciably talented at football. They aren’t terrible players, and they aren’t the most untalented roster in the history of the game. But they lack upside now and they lack upside in the future. They are knowns. Some will be average, some will be average for backups, and so on. The bet is that there’s some sort of extra benefit to filling the room with the kind of personality traits and intangibles that Caserio and Easterby value. It’s almost a science experiment.

What is that worth? We’re about to find out.

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