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.
This was a painful post to write and it’s going to be a painful post to read. I apologize if it digs up any scars or trauma. Know that I, too, want the Texans to be good. But the only way to dig through it to the light at the end of the tunnel is to speak truth to what has amassed in front of us. I blame none of this on the players and only one of these is actually about them — they were set up to fail. If you need some positive things to balance you, here’s last week’s post.
1) It’s painfully obvious that Jack Easterby retained some power
This is sort of the elephant in the room for a lot of you. There are some people who won’t accept this because a) they have an incentive not to and b) there’s nothing overt that has said so. The offseason forecasted a very clear power dynamic with a story that has yet to be refuted anywhere, one where Easterby found out the Texans were going to hire Steelers executive Omar Khan and steered the search directly to Nick Caserio so he could keep his job. Easterby is close to the McNairs, and Easterby has been given unreasonable power for somebody who already had a disastrous run of meddling in personnel that led to perhaps the worst trade of the 2000s where he and Bill O’Brien sent DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona for the pick that would become Ross Blacklock and David Johnson.
Easterby has not given a public interview since the very beginning of the 2020 season, so there’s no way of getting it from the horse’s mouth. But is he there on the sideline every week, in a role that wildly exceeds what most vice presidents of football operations do? He is. I don’t have a lot of sources I can cite here without ruining information given to me off-the-record, but let me put it like this: I have a strong reason to believe that Easterby is well aware that he is the most powerful person the team employs.
And if you take that and look at what has happened this offseason, it aligns pretty well. Why would any new general manager come into this team and decide that they had to keep David Johnson, let alone guarantee him money? And … hey, what did Nick Caserio say about that?
A riveting endorsement! And did Eric Murray get yet another chance to start at safety? He sure did! And does Vernon Hargreaves continue to get opportunities despite the fact that he has roundly been bad in every season? He sure does! And did 2020’s weird fetish with blocking young players on the roster continue? Mostly! How about layers and layers of players? Tell me your favorite Tae Davis moment, tell me about the good Rex Burkhead has provided while being outrushed by Jordan Akins. Versatility? Tytus Howard is taking reps at tackle and guard every week and is struggling! The wild mood swings where nobody knows who is starting and who is on the roster next week? Goodbye Whitney Mercilus and Andre Roberts! Welcome to the bench, Desmond King!
I’m by no means trying to say here that Nick Caserio doesn’t have control of personnel in name, nor trying to absolve the job that he has done so far. But I do think there are players that Easterby has stuck up for that are there, and I don’t think it should be surprising in the slightest that 2020s biggest bugaboos have continued to be a big part of how this team is constructed and run.
One last thing here: I know that there are a lot of people out there who are sick of hearing about Easterby, and I’ve dialed it back a little because over the years I’ve learned to let people get optimistic in training camp and early in the season. I am at my most optimistic about the Texans the day the season ends, before the mistakes happen. Other people are not like that — their optimism grows as football activities begin again. Trying to fight that wave is like spitting into the wind. Fans will justify literally anything they can to continue rooting for the team, and that means there have been quite a few conspiracy theories invented to help Easterby along the lines of “he was trying to stay in front of Deshaun Watson’s massage problems” or whatever else that eventually spreads to my mentions and is largely bunk spread to allow tribalism to continue.
I don’t have a dog in the fight of “is Easterby a good person?” I don’t care about who he is or what his intentions are beyond trying to understand how he’s approaching his role with the team better. I specialize in results, and his results have been awful. His culture results: multiple PED suspensions in 2020, multiple waves of players on the COVID-19 list this year, and we just spent two days listening to members of a 1-5 team try not to call out their teammates by name but say that the effort isn’t good enough. Justin Reid noted that the entire locker room fell apart last year in a presser last week after O’Brien was fired. What kind of culture is that? What kind of players have been protected here, and why? As long as he’s involved, I think it’s fair for fans to be skeptical that this team will ever turn around.
It’s not like Easterby’s Texans have tried to acquire anybody who is actually currently good. They’ll draft some in 2022 because the team is so bad they couldn’t help but do so … but those young players are just fighting against the established order. As we’ve seen time and time again, already. If you’re ready to excuse, let’s say, the 12th overall pick cornerback not playing because he’s young and Random Patriots Vet Free Agent With Culture has value and didn’t miss a meeting, you’ll excuse anything this team does. I’m not saying you need to be as pessimistic or cynical as I can sometimes be, but set a realistic expectation. This team has one win in two seasons that isn’t against the Jaguars or Lions. It’s dire, and the last of the people who created it should not be here. (And you can’t fire the owner.)
2) David Culley is a dinosaur strategically and tactically
I never had high expectations for David Culley’s strategic acumen because my initial impression of him led with him saying “the most important thing about football … is the football.”
What I was hopeful that he’d do would be a CEO/manager-type coach that would elevate everyone else around him with his positivity, and that maybe some of the Ravens analytics department mantras had touched him just a little bit. Instead what he’s done is installed a ground-and-pound offense that doesn’t run read-options or in any way make it hard for the defense to attack them. The only time this team is actually able to throw deep — even when Tyrod Taylor was healthy — is off-script buying time on the outside. None of their route concepts have dialed up a throw the quarterbacks on the roster can hit reliably beyond 20 yards. And they lean quite heavily into the wideout screens, the horizontal game, and … I know this sounds harsh to say, but there’s no ambition behind his plans. He’s not a problem solver. He can see the problems, but his response is just something along the lines of “we’ll have to really stick to our keys,” rather than “Kyler Murray’s frightening, what are we going to change about Lovie’s game plan to fight it?”
There’s no grand design to get this team out of the gutter. There’s no secret game plan adjustment that they’ll be making against the Cardinals. David Culley started coaching in the 1980s-1990s NCAA and NFL and has fully absorbed all the lessons from that. None of them matter now in 2021. He defends the system and appears to have almost no interest in game planning based on what opponents do from what I’ve seen in interviews.
Do I cut him some slack because this is an impossible situation? I do. Do I cut the Texans some slack for hiring him because they may very well have had a limited pool of applicants? Not really, because they know why they had that pool. But I accept the role that played in him being the head coach here.
I will hold no grudge against David Culley when his watch ends. I find him quite affable and I enjoy his personality when he’s not talking about the football. I won’t miss him complaining about penalties in every press conference. It’s become very apparent to me that there was a reason nobody hired him to be even an offensive coordinator before this year. He just doesn’t seem that interested in tactics. This is a perfect cushion job for him, to babysit the boy scout troop, get some NFL head coach money, and retire back to Tennessee. Godspeed with those dreams. He’s the exact opposite of what you need in a 2020s head coach from a tactics and in-game analytics perspective.
3) The fans have voted with their wallets
I don’t blame the fans at all for being turned off by this team. But I believe this will be the biggest storyline of the 2021 season. Nobody is going to these games. The Texans, who have never had to ask any seat to be filled throughout their existence, are now advertising non-stop during their own games to try to get people to come out. Every post on their website ends with a footer about how you can go to their next game. Every lengthy video they produce ends with a call to action to how you can go to their games. They’ve increasingly resorted to desperation gimmicks like the below:
How do I put this delicately: I don’t think the Texans are in any danger of being moved or anything, but this kind of mass exodus of fans does not augur well in the long term. There is some chatter in league circles about St. Louis getting an expansion team out of the Rams case. I don’t think the Texans are likely to become a team that gets moved or anything, but a lot can change depending on how ownership reacts to what I’m expecting are going to be skeleton crews at NRG throughout the rest of the season. So far they have resisted any kind of internal movement towards understanding why that is.
They’re probably behind the Jaguars in any sort of pecking order for a reckoning. But the fact that the crowds could be compared to what is happening in Jacksonville is a tough indictment of the situation that they, alone have created. Just on a human, person-to-person level, I can’t tell you the last time I had a conversation in real life with someone who is excited about the direction this team is going in. I have seen the few Twitter people willing to defend the team, but as you can see from the stands, contrarians aren’t lining up to pay money to watch this team play. A lot easier to project what a big fan you are on Twitter, and a lot less expensive as well.
One reason that has unfolded the way that it has been is…
4) Very few people with power in the organization seem to acknowledge any idea of how badly the trust with the fanbase has been shattered
People forget this now that there’s been some distance put between the Texans and this offseason, but after Caserio’s introductory presser there was about a 10-day gap where nothing happened for the team and they entered virtual silence. They were getting bombarded on social media by (largely) their fanbase after the tone-deaf answers that Cal McNair gave for the disaster that the 2020 Texans had become.
I don’t know that the sports media world as a general concept wrestles with what fan buy-in really means, but there’s an excitement that’s palpable. Even when I didn’t think the Texans would win anything important under Bill O’Brien, there was still a sense of “there’s a playoff game to go to!” or, perhaps more famously, “this team is 40 minutes of good football from playing in the AFC Championship game.” Fans and analysts may wind up reacting negatively to that in the end when it falls apart, especially when it gets repetitive, but they’re still engaged. They’re still wanting to see good things happen. They’re still wanting to see the next step.
When you try to pull the wool over on a bunch of Texans with these terrible explanations about why Easterby is here and appeal to an authority that has no results worthy of mentioning, it turns out that they become quite embittered! Long-time followers of this team … I’ve lost count of how many have told me they’re never watching again until something changes upstairs. When you follow something closely, you can tell when someone is all hat and no cattle, as the saying goes.
The one thing that has never happened since 2020 started is that the Texans have shown no remorse for anything they’ve done. To do so would be to tell on how poorly it is all going, in a way, but other than maybe a Drew Dougherty nod to the fans in a livestream here or there, there’s been almost no reckoning publicly with what they’ve done here. There’s been whining about rotten luck, and there’s been a lot of variations on “we have to do a better job,” but at no point has anyone ever said that the Hopkins trade was bad. I’m curious how many people in the organization will even talk about it this week. No public recognition of this team’s many issues. I can barely get the few people I have some link to in the organization to talk about it off the record beyond dismay. And publicly? It’s all just gritted fake smiles and pretending that filming community events at fire houses and hospitals is the same thing as building a fanbase.
These people got pissed off. Then they left. I can’t tell you how many donations this site has got this year — it’s got to be in the single digits — nobody follows this team. Trying to build content that people want to read about the day-to-day struggles of Davis Mills is the NFL equivalent of public access news stories about new library initiatives. These fans are checked out. Getting them back is going to require some real accountability at some level. None seems forthcoming, so I guess this is just where we are now.
5) Nick Caserio’s obsession with personality and intangibles has not borne any fruit
The entire premise of this offseason is that with enough hard practice and discipline, that the Texans can create a good team out of a bunch of NFL outcasts that their secret methods would somehow unlock the latent potential in. The result has been that this team is 1-5, with only a win over the similarly disjointed Jaguars at home, and that many of the players feel like some of the players aren’t holding up their end of the bargain on being “disciplined.”
The reality of the situation is that — pardon my language — this isn’t fucking Rudy. This team is outmanned, and being outmanned makes it hard for them to play above their talent level because they’re put into uncomfortable positions. Desmond King is pushed into playing outside because there are no outside cornerbacks, then he gets benched because he’s — stunner — not great at it! Outside of Brandin Cooks I am struggling to think of someone who has legitimately been playing well through all six games. A couple of the signings have wound up being fine cost bargains — Ingram has been better than I expected, Britt’s been better than I expected as a run blocker — but these are players in search of a core that can make them look good. That core was systematically stripped off, traded, released, or alienated. There’s nothing left but Cooks and … maybe Greenard.
The guys Caserio has brought in? They haven’t really added much. Maliek Collins has flashed some pass rush but has no sacks. Grugier-Hill has probably been the best they’ve had and I don’t think he’s more than a gap-shooter who looks good compared to Zach Cunningham. Tavierre Thomas has been … okay at nickel corner? Vincent Taylor got hurt. Jordan Jenkins is most notable for being the guy who took Charles Omenihu’s roster spot. Terrance Mitchell’s forced fumbles have been a boon but he’s just an adequate outside guy. Maybe we want to talk about trades? Marcus Cannon is on IR. Shaq Lawson didn’t make the 53-man roster. Ryan Finley didn’t make training camp. Special teams has been a dumpster fire.
And when you consider that some of these guys could be elsewhere while there’s youth waiting to be served, the entire offseason was a waste of everyone’s time. All this wave of culture veterans showed was that they can still be bit players in this league. They’ll all be free agents soon, and I am rooting for them. But as far as the greater game of establishing value for this franchise, this bet was pointless and needless. The Texans could have gone 1-5 without any of this. The idea that Caserio has some kind of hidden tell on player personality that will somehow provide value has not been vindicated in any way.
How about finding some good young players by giving young players a chance, and signing some other good players, like a normal team? Why does this team need to continually pretend there’s any reason to be confident when a team run by fan vote on the internet would have returned more value than they have over the past two years?
6) The offensive line — the only area with any real investment over the past few seasons — has been an utter disaster
The Texans are dead-last in the NFL in adjusted line yards. They were average in sack rate through Week 5, and I doubt that changed much after the Colts game. I don’t think that shows the full scope of what they’re up against because there’s almost no explosiveness at the running back position. Nobody but Ingram is setting up guys to miss in the open field, let alone actually breaking tackles. They’re also dealing with Howard moving from guard to tackle for absolutely no reason, and Laremy Tunsil is now hurt and also dealt with COVID-19 in the lead-up to the season.
Simply put, without any value judgements on what they’re going through: Tunsil was not playing like the best tackle in the NFL. He was maybe in the conversation as a pass protector only last year. His next good season as a run blocker in Houston will be his first. Tytus Howard has not played well enough to make me feel comfortable picking up his fifth-year option, which is a disastrous outcome for someone who you thought was showing some flashes at right tackle last year. Max Scharping is pretty replaceable at guard. Tied up in those three are the last three Texans first-round picks and two of their last three second-round picks. That’s a travesty. This is the only area that anybody around the team talked up as a definite positive all offseason and they were so bad at run blocking that bringing in Charlie Heck and Geron Christian made them better last Sunday.
To leave three drafts with that investment at offensive line and for the line to be as bad as it is today is simply unacceptable. This can’t just be a “it’s all Mike Devlin’s fault!” thing anymore. Unless Howard turns it around in a hurry — and I have a little hope there — the Texans are going to be paying for these decisions for a long time. And they barely were getting any benefit out of them when they were actually a contending team, either. It has been a systemic destruction of resources to try to replace Duane Brown — who is still very good even though he’s old.
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