My football feeling is helplessness

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I’m Rivers. My football feeling is helplessness.

I’m used to doing prescriptive analysis about the Houston Texans. I’ve written posts arguing for making things better for going on 11 years now. Sometimes it’s as simple as “this team should get a quarterback,” sometimes it’s as deep as “the Texans struggle to deal with heavy blitz schemes and here are three examples of it and some things that they could do to fix it.” I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I’ve often had a thought like “this is silly, they’re not going to change anything,” or “I am out of my depth as far as suggesting this,” I’ve never been vain enough to think that my opinions would matter to the team, but I’d like to think the ideas behind them have held up well over the years, or at least that I learned something from the ones that didn’t.

I’ve never felt like the local football team has been 100% smart or 100% dumb. Sometimes they catch you off-guard and you’re surprised — winning in Kansas City in 2019 — and often (lately) you’re let down. I’ve been doing this since the Gary Kubiak days, when they were actually winning and we’d talk about things like Matt Schaub’s future or Brian Cushing’s suspension. But until this year I’d always felt like putting these ideas into the world was worthwhile. Now it feels almost futile to suggest good things could happen or even pretend that good players want to play here.

Could the Texans do some decent things next year if they continue to stack on their defensive gains with an (Aidan Hutchinson or Kayvon Thibodeaux) and Jon Greenard pairing making the line of scrimmage hectic? I think they could. I wouldn’t expect the same turnover volume that they’ve created this year based on pure regression, but I’m open to reasons that we should believe Lovie Smith’s defenses are inherently turnover-heavy.

But what this team has done as an organization by being as broadly off-putting and demanding to everybody as they have is created a space where most ideas of them becoming good again barely have space to grow. Let me give you an example.

Here’s a good post idea I would run for a normal team: The offense is abysmal, so how do they fix it?

Well, they fire Tim Kelly. OK, and what’s the plan from there? If you’re Joe Brady or any other qualified offensive mind, why would you take a job where you’ll — at best — be coaching some stopgap players and unproven players next to Brandin Cooks while the people ahead of you in the organizational chart are just waiting to pounce in and tell you that your No. 3 receiver needs to be Danny Amendola? Is that the best way to increase your future earnings and better your career? I can’t see how it would be. If I were Joe Brady, unless I get wildly overpaid, I’d way rather rebuild my reputation at the college level again, where I can be in control of more.

OK, well, fine, maybe you just fire David Culley and start over! Here’s the problem with that: Who is going to want a job where your two direct superiors are on the sideline and headset (respectively) monitoring your every move, where you have no direct roster control, and where you are almost certain to pile up losses in the near-term in front of 25,000 people in the stands? How is a person who gets that job going to gain respect and continue an upwards trajectory? That’s the exact reason why the Texans hired David Culley in the first place — because as a situation, nothing is appealing about this job.

The people entrusted to run this organization’s day-to-day matters have spent the entirety of the season telling us variations of “you have a right to voice your opinion.” But it doesn’t really matter what the outside opinions are to them, and that’s something that’s been both codified in words and in a lack of actions taken to reassure people. Bring a Fire Easterby sign and you’ll get hassled by ushers. Have a radio personality or reporter ask a question about why this is not working and the answer is nothing beyond “we’re accountable for it.” Have them ask about why Tytus Howard played guard for roughly three months and the answer is “it was our best combination and Tytus is very smart” as if leaving him out to dry at guard was in any way defensible. Justin Reid gets forced to play box safety when he’s on the record as being happier playing deep. I’m no fan of David Culley the coach — I think the offense he and Kelly have used is regressive, pointless busyball and they never formulated a plan for what would happen if the run offense didn’t work — but I also agree that any head coach would struggle to turn this mess into more than a below-average offense.

So okay then, the answer is to go sign better players, right? But in a sport where careers are measured in years instead of decades, why would any marketable free agent come to play here and deal with the specter of Culture and getting deactivated for being late, something that apparently never happens anywhere else? For that matter, why would you come here and catch passes from Davis Mills if you’re a good wideout? Why would you come here and run behind the line that’s currently authoring two of the worst five run offense DVOA performances of all-time, particularly when you’re not going to be featured and David Johnson somehow is still here? Why would any player with an option come to this team? We’ve seen Laremy Tunsil’s four-week injury turn into an eight-week injury, with some people saying he had to be bribed to practice last year, does anybody believe he’s anything but done with this? And that’s why you see the one-year contracts. They are one-year contracts that speak loudly that the players are trying to rebuild their value, and if they have a way out of here, they’re going to take it.

So the initial post idea “How do we fix the offense?” doesn’t have an answer of “get a better offensive mind in here, bring in a better shifty receiver and an explosive back, grab a good lineman and hope it gels,” like it would for a normal team. Instead, it’s more like: “Well, circumstances dictate that the coaching isn’t likely to improve barring a home run hire out of left field) and circumstances dictate that the personnel isn’t likely to improve barring just absolutely crushing the NFL draft.” It’s very obvious what the circumstances are: Nobody else in the NFL has a power structure where the vice president of football operations and general manager are as important as they are here. Now let’s talk about someone who actually seems to want to be a Texan.

I think if there’s one player the Texans want to re-sign, it’s Kamu Grugier-Hill. He’s been vocally supportive of the culture from day one, and despite being undersized for the position he’s held up well. But if Grugier-Hill hits free agency and gets $6-7 million a season from a team that has a chance to win next year, what’s his incentive to stay here? Caserio hasn’t doled out big money to anybody; is he going to turn a 28-year-old linebacker into a core player? My read of both his Texans tenure and the sudden spend-heavy philosophy of the Patriots in his absence is that Caserio is extremely conservative in paying players and extremely aggressive in trading for guys that he believes in. In addition to that, the Texans have $35 million in dead money for next year before they do anything with Deshaun Watson (and possibly, Tunsil as well)

These are some of the debates I have with myself mentally when I sit down and try to think about what to write about this team’s future. Do I think Grugier-Hill deserves $7 million? I probably wouldn’t be comfortable paying him that based on one season. Would it still be a good sign if he got it? Maybe, and I certainly wouldn’t be upset about it, if only because it means the team is actually identifying a core piece! I thought the Greenard quote I posted above was very telling — the entire culture of the team seems to be that if they pile adversity on players that it will somehow make them better. I guess this is only allowed to just be my opinion, but I don’t think that’s been born out by the record this year. Or last year. Or by the fact that any number of good players aren’t interested in being here when other options appear. Or by the history of the NFL.

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There’s a lot of talk about the optimistic holdouts about the “narrative” of this team, and the narrative seems to be that because the Texans are getting rid of players and those players aren’t franchise-level stars, we should believe that it’s fine or a clear-out of Bill O’Brien Bad Players despite many of them becoming functional elsewhere. Now, I understand the power of a good national narrative — the Astros are subjected to plenty of it, and how the national media treated James Harden’s run in Houston was criminal — but the thing about that is that a) the Astros and Rockets won games hand over fist as the narratives were being created and b) winning games makes people care about you. The national narrative around the Texans is that it’s very sad and also, excuse me, do you know when Deshaun Watson will get dealt? If I called up seven national NFL writers and asked them to name Texans until they ran out of names, I doubt I’d get many real answers at this point beyond fantasy football quasi-relevant guys. In many ways, the Watson beat is more important to the future of the NFL than what is taking place in NRG Stadium. Yes, even though he quit on the Texans.

This is a team that is in a bleak enough place that they don’t really need to be adding additional obstacles in the way of them competing for good players or creating fans. But that is their organizational ethos at this point. They simply can’t understand why what they are doing is off-putting, and nobody from the outside can fix that, no matter how hard they try. (Note that when the first Easterby article came out in Sports Illustrated, several of the sources told the reporters that they were trying to do this to get Cal McNair’s attention. It did not matter.)

There’s an ever-hopeful quality about the NFL Draft, and one thing I think about a lot is that players like Will Fuller and Zach Cunningham are both a) very successful picks for their draft slots and b) guys that five years later, fans stopped being excited about. I write a top-25 prospects list for Football Outsiders that includes only guys taken after the third round every year going back to 2015 or so, and you know what I’ve learned? Most guys who don’t make it in their first two years aren’t going to become NFL starters, and most guys who are still on their rookie deals continue to get wonderful promising player rhetoric anyway. Remember Gareon Conley? It was very easy for optimists to believe that he was a great find for a third-round pick. Then he got hurt and never played again. Jordan Akins is someone who I thought looked really good in his rookie season and in his small samples in 2019 and 2020 — they never played him full-time. Tytus Howard is finally looking decent at left tackle, but there’s no guarantee they pick up his fifth-year option. The amount of times I have read overwhelming fan sentiment that this would be the year that a certain player develops in a Tweet or a comment or a Reddit post versus the amount of times it has actually come to fruition in a game-changing way is roughly 10 to 1. That’s not to say that players never surprise you or players never show you that they have talent — but becoming a consistent, game-to-game impact player if you don’t enter the league as one is extraordinarily rare. It’s worthy of celebration when it happens.

And that’s where I’m at right now: Relying on the general manager who was named general manager of the decade after he spent an entire season pushing dead cap into 2022 and whose most successful solo draft pick so far is probably Roy Lopez to just nail every pick. Because if he doesn’t, there’s certainly no other set up structure here that is good or interesting, and there’s certainly no other reason anybody else would want to come to this team short of just being enormously overpaid. Maybe one or two guys jump on that this offseason, I kind of doubt it. All that’s here is the idea of culture that the Texans have created, one that is, broadly speaking, if you don’t do everything we tell you to do, we distrust you at best.

So what I’m left with is helplessness. I can’t even pretend to write a post that would solve the problems this team has created for itself. I would love to tell you that, with me being branded as “the negative guy,” that people read me more during times where the Texans are 2-10. That doesn’t really happen. Nobody reads about teams that suck, and nobody donates to the site unless I barb about how nobody donates to the site. It sucks, and I see slim odds of anything changing before 2023.

I’ve never been more relieved that the end of the season is almost here. I’d like to be more hopeful about potential changes for the future, but nothing I’ve heard has inspired me to believe it’ll be anything more than different placeholders in these chairs and us running mock drafts for the next few years. Maybe those draft picks will turn out well, and maybe they won’t. Either way, odds are that they’re going to be fighting a tide that goes far beyond anything they can do.

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