Seven lessons learned from covering a terrible football team

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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Since 2020 started, the Texans have beaten the Jaguars three times, the Lions once, and the Patriots once. They have won five of their last 25 games, and beaten exactly one team that finished with more than five wins in a season over that timespan. Coming into Week 10, they have the worst point differential in the NFL, are 30th in DVOA, and have a playoff chance of roughly 0.0%. They are somehow doing this while being one of the oldest teams in the NFL.

This is on top of a cataclysmic couple of offseasons that saw them trade away DeAndre Hopkins, lose J.J. Watt, lose Will Fuller, and piss off their franchise quarterback and most talented player to ever play for the franchise while he spent the offseason becoming a pariah and wrecking his own trade value. They signed Zach Cunningham to a massive extension and he’s now a two-down linebacker who plays 15 snaps a game when everyone is healthy. They signed Whitney Mercilus to an extension that he could never live up to and released him when he didn’t. They signed Randall Cobb to a contract he could never live up to and traded him only because Aaron Rodgers cosplayed as GM for a spell. Eric Murray’s contract was bad the moment it was signed. Limiting it to just the last two offseasons doesn’t even get into trading for Laremy Tunsil and trading away Jadeveon Clowney while paying his entire salary. They have $39 million of dead cap this season, and have $22 million lined up for 2022 before they even get around to trading Deshaun Watson. The product on the field is anchored by a coach who mostly seems to be out of his depth at anything beyond motivating:

Simply put: This has been a disaster to cover and a disaster to live through. While the Texans were never a legitimate contender under Bill O’Brien and had an extremely short window as one during the Gary Kubiak years, they were still entertaining. The only season they’ve out-and-out stunk for before these last two was a cursed 2013 that fell into an avalanche of pick-sixes. The team O’Brien took over still had a ton of raw talent. This team? Doesn’t have a lot of it. It’s hard to find angles to discuss the future of the team because the team itself doesn’t really seem all that interested in creating one of those. Maybe they’ll get around to it this offseason. In the meantime, people don’t want to read the truth about this team unless it’s in a rubbernecker-stares-at-accident sort of portal. The fans that are left want to read about how turning Jon Greenard into a capable edge rusher (by actually playing him) means the Texans can fix anybody, and how many all-pro players Nick Caserio will draft this offseason while ignoring his entire draft history. The fans that were turned off by (broadly gestures) all of this don’t read a lot anymore.

So in the interest of creating content that spans beyond the very depressing circumstances that this team have created and built a nest in, I wanted to share some thoughts about covering this bad team. I want to be clear that outside of exchanging DMs or texts with players, people in the building, or people that have talked to people in the building, I haven’t been on the ground for any of this. The Texans don’t really seem all that interested in extending me press credentials (personal parenthetical aside below*), so I don’t ask the questions in these interviews. At the same time, nobody has really approached me with a good offer to be a beat reporter full-time or anything like that, so there’s no reason for me to push for these credentials and waste a ton of gas money. It doesn’t pay my bills, and the few positions that exist that have shown any interest will pay you a Happy Meal per post.

(*-I was getting into the press box in 2011 when I was with Football Outsiders. The Texans started to crack down on that a bit after the season, I think partially in response to me never showing up for training camp after my car died during the worst summer of my life. I didn’t get credentialed again (tried a few times) until I joined The Athletic late in the 2018 offseason. They had me commute from Humble to NRG an additional time every week to go pick up a weekly parking pass just so I could go to the games — that’s like an 80 minute back-and-forth commute if you’re not a native — and no matter how many times I approached and was like “this is kind of unreasonable,” nobody actually helped.

I also have my own personal demons around this where I kind of never feel like I belong anywhere. I don’t have a lot of living family that talks to me. I can count on one hand the number of people in all my years writing about football who have actually been happy to see me in a press box. I don’t say this as like a “Houston media has never accepted me!” sort of thing — I’m just not very outgoing and don’t make easy friends, so it’s easy for me to convince myself that I’m not really desired. As a person I am kind of stuck in my own head and aloof when I don’t fight those feelings, so the people that are closest to me tend to be the ones who keep messaging me or engaging with me through that. There’s a reason that my wife is a chatterbox. Therapy over.)

Anyway, that has put me in an interesting situation. I’m not wired in enough to ask questions to players and coaches in pressers, but nobody has absorbed as much of this team’s dumbass content as I have. I’ve suffered through Easterby sermons looking for clues to the way he’d run a team. I’ve listened to probably 80% of the team’s in-house radio content since 2020 started. I’ve listened to every scrap of an interview I can get my hands on. I know that David Culley likes horror movies, I know that David Johnson prays before every game, I know that Kamu Grugier-Hill was a terrible high school student, and I know that Davis Mills knows what sous-vide is. I know things that nobody who follows this team should know, because I have let myself drown in the content spigot.

Let me tell you what the last 22 months of these Texans has taught me about covering terrible football teams.

1) When teams say they’re going to correct something, but don’t offer a real reason why things would change, they’re not going to correct anything.

The Texans have offered essentially three different messages over the last two seasons for their inability to run the football:

-“We’ll get it corrected.”
-“We have to stick to it and we’ll get better, we have to be more consistent.”
-“We have to execute better.”

I have lost count of the number of times I have heard the team trot out that they will get something corrected.

When they don’t give you a specific reason that they’ll get something corrected, what that means is that they don’t have one. They are caught up in a reactionary id cycle. We all have these. The Texans and their players — rightfully, I’ll add! — have a lot of pride in themselves as competitors. That is commendable. But when you don’t have the right mix of players and coaching, you don’t have the right mix of players and coaching.

You can’t make Laremy Tunsil a fierce run blocker. You can’t make Max Scharping pick up a stunt correctly. You can’t make Tytus Howard reach his man across a few gaps. You can’t stop getting penalties with the click of a pen. Those guys can talk a great game, they are smart as hell, and they are among the top 98% of all football players in the world. But … that doesn’t mean they’re going to improve, because football is as much a sport of ingrained reactions as it is a test of memory and thought. You don’t get to spend ten seconds in the middle of a play remembering that the coach doesn’t want you to hold. You can hold and win the down and hope it doesn’t get called, or you can potentially let the running back get killed.

When you hear a coach say that they’re going to get it corrected without offering a real reason to believe that they are, that coach is just hoping and praying that it will work out. Sometimes it works! Sometimes a player takes a step forward or someone takes over that is better. But it’s hope, not an answer.

2) Curiosity may have killed the cat, but a lack of it kills the football team.

To this day, the Texans have no public acknowledgement of the reasons that they are bad. They chalked up 2020 to bad luck and will chalk up 2021 to Deshaun Watson ruining the season before it began. They’re not really interested in any kind of self-examination or outside ideas of why they’re bad, all they’re going to do is fall back on the new crutch of every bad team: “We’re trusting the process,” while they put their fingers in their ears and ignore any outside noise.

Listen, I’m a big fan of the process. But if one of my processes is “I’m not going to order $30 of food from Whataburger,” and then I do it, I generally tend to be curious about why that is and try to get to the bottom of it and how I can fix it. The Texans haven’t been interested in finding out why they’re eating junk food. They’re interested in explaining that the junk food won’t continue because they’re working very hard on that, but that’s about the extent of it.

The Texans have not begun to understand why J.J. Watt left the team. Watt talked about the team as an institution of the past when Texans media met with him before Week 7. They “mutually parted ways,” but that’s just PR-speak for Watt asking for his release so he could compete for a championship. Something like that should spar some real thinking about what exactly it is the team is doing: Why is our long-time star player who by all accounts loves the city unsure of what we are doing as an organization?

But if you close the door, as The Velvet Underground sang, the night could last forever. And that’s an important part of making sure that the Texans are able to maintain the delusions that they have that any of their leadership team is operating with ideas that are going to bear fruit. So that’s where we are. They’re not curious because being curious is going to lead to answers that are self-implicating. Being positive in a toxic way? That’s cheap, and easy, and good junk food for the hangover after yet another ass-kicking.

3) No matter how bad things get, there will always be optimistic fans looking for positive cues

One of the hardest things to understand about the way the world works today is that there are people that, in your opinion, have bad opinions. This goes beyond sports, obviously, but in sports it is a special kind of galling because there’s not even anything at stake. If a Texans homer watches a game and decides that actually Nick Caserio didn’t have a good offseason, their life changes not one iota in reality. But the psychology behind that is so powerful that some people would rather deathgrip that opinion until he’s fired, and sometimes even beyond that.

I think some of you non-Texans fans from the outside might think that with the way that the Texans have been mismanaged over the years, there’s just a settled negative mentality from everyone involved. Let me send you to this post I made a few Tuesdays ago:

In the comments to this alone, I received these varying thoughts of positivity:
-Tyrod Taylor is a good bridge quarterback.
-Davis Mills can be a franchise quarterback.
-The fans who are very excited about the draft and think that (Matt Corral, Malik Willis, etc.) are going to be way better than Tua.
-The fans who have fully embraced the tank and think the Texans will draft well and be a great team in 2023 or 2024.

I’m not trying to shit on anyone’s tastes here. Outside of muting the people who come after me like I’m the antichrist for having my own opinions, I don’t really care if we disagree. But I think it might surprise outside onlookers just how active positivity as a general concept is with this team’s fandom after everything that’s happened. It surprises me how many people still want this team to be a part of their lives after all these years. Some of that might be Twitter-ism — it’s not like these people are filling seats at NRG, so it’s not reflective of the fan culture as a whole — but there are an amazing number of people to me who are willing to be served lemons and make them into lemonade despite the ability to check out at any time.

Fandom is a weird affliction, and for many it survives a lot of bad times. This team also is used to saying things like “this was a close game” and getting away from it after the Bill O’Brien years, where nobody thought they were good and they kept winning games anyway. They built those division titles on a panoply of other bad quarterbacks, and they hung those banners anyway. Wins chase away any ability to recognize something isn’t working. More on that in a couple of hundred words.

I’m not saying that I expect rationality. In a perfect, rational world, I’d simply leave this team behind and do something more productive with my life. But I am still here posting, aren’t I? I still care. (Even if I don’t do it in the way that some people would prefer.)

4) Supporting the greater Houston community is nice, but you’re never going to change a conversation about the team through that alone

Let’s talk about That Football Feeling. The campaign is a filmmaker’s inside joke of propaganda brought to life. The Texans produced a cringe-worthy special full of people defining what exactly a Football Feeling is.

What the Texans have tried to do as they have floundered is try to lean further into their standing as an icon among the community. They’ve tried to do a better job of branding big moments — to the point where they have an all-22 breakdown on some random Cecil Shorts touchdown pass in 2015 because it was the first time they beat the Colts. They want to be thought of as an institution that helps out everyone else here. When they spoke to McNair after the disastrous Nick Caserio presser, one of my major takeaways was McNair saying that he’d finally be able to get back to serving the community. The blueprint of this is set up via a painful old Easterby project called The Bible Out Loud.

Cal McNair literally went into a fire house and told his in-house camera guys that he was here because he was e-mailed. That’s bulletpoint one. To eliminate entitlement they have done this weird thing where the Texans players have “Texans Care” on the back of their jerseys in public events. They still make the numbers the same as they are in reality, so it’s not like it’s an effort of saving on printing costs. What is the point of that? Are the players important here, or is it just the charity?

To bullet point three, several of the team’s best players — Brandin Cooks and Justin Reid for starters — did press appearances on Monday where they talked about how nice it will be to get away from football for a while. Football has become an overwhelming part of their lives because the culture demands that you breathe it. I’m all for people taking their jobs seriously, but humans aren’t football robots. They need to eat and talk with other people, have other hobbies and have rest.

When you do ordinary things extraordinarly (sic) well, nobody cares. I’m sorry, but nobody cares! Let’s set aside the fact that Cal decided to Not Be Cancelled during his “witty rejoinder” at charity golf. Let’s set aside the fire house thing. I’ve watched a dozen of these Texans charity things but have no scope for how that compares to the rest of the league. I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt and say that they’re good. Nobody cares! Nobody is talking about this. You might create some long-term Football Feelings in a kid or two? But like even as part of the local conversation, it is broadly irrelevant.

We as a nation are soaked in corporate charity messaging right now. I can’t go to a CVS without having to tell them I don’t want to round up to donate money to something on a pin pad. There are a ton of advertisements about companies doing a civic duty (not by paying taxes, though, not that one) and they also are broadly irrelevant.

I am but a casual onlooker of the Houston Astros. (I’m a Mets fan, my mom’s fault.) I can’t tell you a damn thing they do for charity, but I’m sure they do a lot of it. (I assume the raffles they run at their games help a charity? Well, maybe not actually, but in theory.) What I can tell you is that people are excited about them in the city even despite the cheating allegations. They have a collective goodwill behind them. All they had to do was build a good team and win a lot of games, and nothing else mattered. Speaking of wins…

5) Wins are the life-blood of culture, not people

People are important to a team, I’m not denying that in the slightest. Even though I found Mark Ingram’s public personality a little grating, I am in no way denigrating what he provided to this team in the locker room or what he gave the team as far as leadership. But … those things do not really matter when your team does not win games.

Let me give you an example: The Texans have a show called “Texans Replay.” The tagline is: “Get back in the game, from the line of scrimmage to the locker room, this is Texans Replay, your weekly look back at what happened and why.” Here’s Week 7’s Texans Replay. You’ll notice that it contains an interview with Zach Diles, who last started for the Texans in 2010. They don’t start covering what happened in the actual game until the 36-minute mark, because they’re not proud of it. It is hard to be proud of things when you get cleaned out, as it turns out.

It’s also hard to maintain all the positive energy you are supposed to have and bring when there is no light at the end of the tunnel. It’s easy to shut up and do your job, as Maliek Collins says:

I don’t say this to destroy the idea of culture: it is definitely a good thing to have a good culture. But you can’t maintain a good culture without a constant validation of the culture, and no amount of Easterby retweets about the importance of your struggles is going to change that. The reason that the Culture Vets didn’t turn this around wasn’t that anybody was wrong about them being great locker room guys or leaders — it’s that the team wasn’t good enough for any of that to matter. They hollowed out the core years ago. The culture is now the team.

The Texans’ current culture is very simple: They want to protect leadership, and they want to bring in people who will continue to protect leadership and say things that leadership wants to hear. The people who don’t fit that aren’t here. And as you can see from the turnover, that’s a lot of players.

6) The scheme matters a lot more than you’d think when everyone is an NFL-caliber player

Talent naturally is a big reason that the Texans are where they are, but this team’s inability to embrace any kind of new-world offense or defense are major factors in them getting crushed over the last two seasons.

I lead with the above video to show you that it’s completely possible to put spackle and grout around an untalented offense and make it, well, not good, but feisty. That’s how things went for the Patriots with Cam Newton in 2020. They were a bad offense, but they were a bad offense with a -7.3% DVOA because they knew they were a bad offense. They used Newton’s legs to make the run game better than it was. They used gadget plays often. I’m not saying Josh McDaniels deserves a medal (and please, please, don’t bring him to Houston, I don’t want to see anyone with a Patriots background ever again) — but he did a competent job of understanding his offense’s limitations and working with them.

The Texans do that in an infuriating way: They show that they understand it by creating plays like this, then they forget that they can ever call them again. The Texans have a run-heavy approach that has no prayer of going anywhere. They have had three games of more than 110 net rushing yards against a non-Jaguars team since 2020 started: The Chiefs in Week 1 of 2020, the Bengals in Week 16 of 2020, and the Colts in Week 6 of 2021. They get stuffed in a phone booth on a regular basis, and that’s the identity of the team.

The Texans on defense are married to a system that disguises what it’s doing less than any other NFL team. It is a system that works only if your pass rushers crush an offensive line, and while Jon Greenard’s breakout feels real, they are still extremely light on pass rush against good lines. They don’t tend to bring that up when they’re praising group efforts over Miami and Carolina, who can’t block.

The selling point of the system is that it creates turnovers, but outside of Week 9’s avalanche and Lonnie Johnson randomly being in the right throwing lane at the right time on two clunker throws, they have forced two turnovers in their last seven games. It was a hot start, but once other teams got film of what was happening, they adjusted. There’s been no adjustment back, because Lovie Smith’s defense is extremely rigid. The Dolphins were simply a team that is just as dumb as the Texans are. Houston generates many fumbles on peanut punches and if those don’t work, they are not going to have a good day.

This team could be much more competitive than it was, but the culture of this team is unnecessary suffering. So they keep doing the things that they have come to expect will get them beat, rather than aspire to something greater, because that is how football is supposed to be in a bunch of minds that are closed.

7) Public momentum in terms of perception matters a LOT more than most people are willing to admit

When I was younger, I remember building dream offseasons for the Texans. You sign Nnamdi Asomugha, you re-sign Owen Daniels, you sign up Jason Taylor to provide some pass rush. You make Madden franchise rebuilds. You can draft and dream on players for years and years. I remember thinking that Cordarrelle Patterson was better than Hopkins coming out. I also remember thinking that Russell Wilson should have been the heir apparent to Matt Schaub.

Look at what has broadly happened to this franchise and you’ll see that the entire tenor of these discussions have changed. The top free agents this year are players like Davante Adams and Chris Godwin. Why would they ever want to play here, in a place where they need to constantly kiss the ass of leadership? In a place that is so bereft of talent that winning is an afterthought? In a place where the only talk about the team is about the culture they’re building? The Texans have effectively disqualified themselves from any discussion about upper-level free agents for the next two years by their decisions this offseason. Nobody talks about them like a serious franchise, and players and coaches who have other options will take them.

I think the Texans would have hired Joe Brady last year had Watson not held out. There’s a potentially awesome future that could not exist because Jack Easterby was retained. And the momentum of clinging to the problems has continued to ride this team down. I can control + F “Houston,” “Texans,” on every national NFL column and rarely do I get any hits. They are irrelevant. They played on Thursday Night Football against a team that has its own problems maintaining a fanbase, and 75% of the conversation was about the Panthers as the Texans enabled a short-lived “Sam Darnold is actually good” conversation to surface. Also, nobody really came to the game, and by the end of the game, only Panthers fans were left:

Signing David Culley led to chasing Mark Ingram and Chris Moore, it didn’t give them any inroads on players that would be actually helpful. The slew of Patriots guys the team brought in have largely done nothing.

Imagine sitting down today and trying to even come up with a dream offseason plan for making this team an eight-win team, let alone a playoff contender. There might be a good free agent or two that they’re able to overpay — I doubt it, but I want to be open to the possibility — but why would they want to come here? I would be wishcasting into the void. This team is ostensibly competing for talent in free agency and the draft, but are they really doing that at this point?

The truth is that every NFL team is as good as their talent and coaching currently are. If there were a world where the Laremy Tunsil trade was for a great quarterback in, say, 2014 when the Texans needed one, it would have been fine. That’s what the Rams did, and the Rams are going after a Super Bowl now. This team has developed almost no long-term talent this year, and it has no coaches that put the players in a position to succeed schematically. I can’t speak to how they’re coached individually — maybe someone on the staff is good at that! — but the output is making just about everyone who doesn’t play defensive line look bad.

And the momentum of that decision is … nobody should want to play here if they have a better option. Which makes it hard to see a point where this team is going to have enough NFL talent to compete before 2023. (Realistically, 2024 would be a better fit for how players develop.) The player pool of guys who want to play for this front office is startlingly small and extremely insular. Many teams operate that way, but none have added the layer of culture to it quite like the Texans have. Does Jimmy Garoppolo want to come here and talk about bible study while he loses 17 games in two seasons? He might end up here anyway, but that’s going to be about the other options he has. Careers are short, these guys want to win and they want to play well enough to make more money. This team gives them no chance.

It’s hard to overcome the momentum at place here. It’s hard to understand the escape plan for this team out of talent purgatory if what they have put out there is broadly offputting to the league around them. Not to even mention their own fans.

This is a franchise that is stuck in quicksand and is talking about how smooth it feels between their toes as they continue to sink further and further. Any rational outside observer who wants to offer them a hand out of it is up against the problem that they don’t want to be saved. They already were.

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3 Replies to “Seven lessons learned from covering a terrible football team”

  1. Fantastic read. There aren’t many these days that have to do with the imposters in Texans uniforms.

    Funny enough, I don’t think they’ve hit bottom yet.

  2. Great article (again) Rivers. I am so grateful to you, Matt Weston & the BRB crew and Steph Stradley for treating us as adults and giving us the unvarnished (dare I say unfiltered) truth about this team. I don’t understand the fervent denial I observe amongst the small but hyper vocal proportion of the fan base who believe the historical underperformance from this team & FO is irrelevant. I really believe most of us fans just want the FO to articulate a cogent plan to deliver improvement, one based upon factual reality; not naïve hope, subterfuge and false presumptions.
    Time for another tip; you deliver more insight than all my other subscriptions combined.
    Sincere thanks Rivers.

  3. I had a Domanick Davis jersey and was a regular poster on the Texans MB for years. This year I’m happy we reached a point where CBS no longer shows the Texans games in Austin so I don’t have to sit through Cal McNair’s failures. I don’t see a way back.

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