The eye of the Deshaun Watson storm remains over the Texans

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.


We’ve gone a while on this blog without having to talk about Deshaun Watson. I didn’t miss the subject matter, but it remains the most important thing about the Texans right now. Trading him remains their only way to accumulate real assets in a rebuild that forecasts to be a slog. He is the only part of the Texans franchise that matters to most NFL fans. Without the two sides being stuck with each other, the entire plane from a national perspective would just be “Brandin Cooks sure is underrated!” fantasy spins and “Davis Mills had better stats than some of his rookie counterparts, curious!” takes. The only Watson public comment we’ve had since March was:

Aaron Wilson dropped an enormous article on Pro Football Network about the situation this weekend, and it’s with this article that I’m beginning to crystallize the thought that had crossed my mind earlier this week: This might be a longer haul situation than anybody wants it to be.

The rhetoric both sides have used so far doesn’t paint a picture of a situation that’s getting solved any time soon

The tea leaves from Wilson’s enormous article are that the Dolphins are dead as a Deshaun Watson destination between Brian Flores being fired and Stephen Ross’ ownership suddenly becoming imperiled. The national media has tried to paint some dots about teams with quarterback situations that need fixing around Watson, but none of them have really stuck to this point. Watson’s own camp is talking about clearing Watson’s name first. It’s always been imperative that he solidify that ahead of a trade — the story that he would have been a Dolphin if all cases could have been settled at the deadline remains true in my eyes. But now that it has dragged on past a full NFL season, I think acquiring teams are getting more skeptical about the situation being settled in a timely fashion. Don’t look past this quote from the Wilson article:

Even if the civil cases get settled, there’s still plenty of other investigations ongoing. There’s a lot out here that could spook an acquiring team, from the potential discipline from the NFL to the potential of literally being charged with a crime. It doesn’t paint a pretty picture. So let’s go back to what the Texans have said when asked about it:

The openness that Lovie talked about the situation with is welcome, but being hopeful that the situation will get resolved points me more towards the idea that they don’t really know when they’re going to be able to trade him. The Texans would be stone-faced on discussing it if they already knew exactly where he’d get traded to, I’m sure. But other than wanting a resolution as soon as possible, it sure feels like it’s out of their hands. To me there’s no doubt that the Texans intend to trade him the first time they get an offer that measures up and that Watson is willing to accept. They want the cloud over the franchise to go away, and want it to be someone else’s problem. But they also can’t just release a player who has as much perceived value as Watson does. Lovie added to this in Football Morning in America with this quote, which to me feels like it’s about Watson rather than about one of the rookie quarterbacks:

Based on my limited sample of him as a head coach, Lovie’s an optimism salesman. He knows how much it would be worth to the fanbase to have a player like Watson in the fold. But I think he also has to throw this out there because, well, there’s a lot of uncertainty that remains.


The stubbornness of Deshaun Watson has been at the center of this situation for a long time

I don’t mean that in a snarky way, either. I have been pretty soft on Watson on these pages. That comes from a few different places:

1) I don’t think Watson is altogether in the wrong that Cal McNair and Jack Easterby are running the team in a disastrous manner that would prevent him from winning.
2) While what he’s accused of is heinous, and it sure seems likely to have merit given 22 accusations, he remains accused rather than convicted.
3) At my heart I believe in redemption for everybody. There remains a lot of time for him to redeem himself. I understand this is not a particularly popular take in today’s climate, and especially so when his stubbornness is at least partially preventing the Texans from moving on. But time heals a lot. People don’t really talk about Michael Vick as a dog murderer these days. Ben Roethlisberger had a large share of people upset at him this past season — and fair enough, I’m one of them if only for the fawning sendoffs — but you have to note that he did reform who he was in a more positive way after his sexual assault allegations.

What I’ve been more willing to say is: Deshaun Watson quit on his team. Whether that matters to you or not is a personal opinion, but I can guarantee you other NFL teams believe it matters. And whenever Watson has been given an option to pursue what he wants, he has not compromised in any way.

It would have been possible to settle cases to make his move work initially, before trenches were dug in. But he hasn’t done this. In fact, recall that all but four of the cases could have been settled to make the move to the Dolphins work, right? But none of those cases were actually settled. It would have been, in some ways, a PR victory to have “only” four cases remaining. And he made no real movement towards settling the cases until a deal was in place. I don’t know who is talking to him, who is moving the levers here — I’m simply not that deeply embedded in the Watson camp — but it was extremely obvious from the start that a long-drawn out legal battle would be brutal for his career. But for him, as he says, it’s about clearing his name. I don’t know that his name will ever be cleared at this point without a full-flung trial that he wins, and such a trial is not going to get him on the field any sooner. The perception amongst the fans and media has already taken hold.

Source: Pro Football Talk

Watson has used his no-trade clause to drive the forces of his market. He reportedly denied to waive it for the Eagles. He did … whatever this was in legalese … to the Panthers. If he wanted a fresh start to his career, I think it’s possible that one could have materialized without the Dolphins had he been more open to it. Instead we heard things like the Panthers wanting to meet with Watson but being unable to do so. I think if Watson wanted to talk to the Panthers, he could have found a way to make that happen through a back channel. My belief is that the only team he could have been traded to from March to November was the Dolphins because that’s the only team he would accept.

Finally, with it becoming extremely likely that a trade wasn’t happening in August, Watson could have recanted and tried to play this season for the Texans. I don’t think a situation like that would have been “normal” or “healthy” for anybody. It would have forced the NFL to take a stance on him, and might have cost him money as compared to the extremely kind “you’re on the roster and we’re paying you but you’re obviously not playing wink wink nod” scenario the Texans came up with. But he could have continued to showcase his talents and kept himself in the minds of decision makers, and getting any kind of NFL clarity on his status probably would have helped him be moved this offseason. I guess you can say he’d be risking injury, but outside of literally the worst-case scenario, I don’t think any injury he suffered was likely to drive down his price much. I think he might have done more damage to his ultimate price sitting out than he would have getting hurt.

Watson has had many opportunities to “hedge,” so to speak, on the lawsuits, the Texans, and with his no-trade clause. There have been opportunities to settle for less. He hasn’t taken any of them that we know of. I’m not saying this to judge the decisions, but note that his stubbornness has not done anything to help the situation he wants resolved get a real resolution. I think if you truth serumed Watson’s camp, they’d tell you that they wish they could go back in time and settle the cases before this became Operation Shutdown. But now, they simply are where they are.


So, what do the Texans do? Who actually wants Watson at this point?

I don’t know that there’s a lot the Texans can do besides lowering their asking price for Watson. There are three reasons for this:

1) We’ve seen no indications that Watson plans to waive the no-trade clause for just anybody at this point, meaning as good as a Panthers or Broncos fit looks on paper (I know that Jonathan Albright reports that the Broncos aren’t interested), we have no idea if they’ll actually be in the pool of available teams.
2) The scenario where Watson is on the roster this year, getting paid $35 million in guaranteed money, is much worse than it was in 2021. The Texans could try to get him commish-exempted this year, but that creates bad blood in a situation that has to this point been fairly congenial to this point.
3) If Watson really isn’t interested in providing teams while he’s working on the legal situation, the Texans can’t magically “make” a team appear that Watson will accept a trade to.

When I posed this as a poll question and even kept it at two first-round picks, it turns out a lot of you were not happy about that concept:

The flow of time has not been kind to the Texans, who already lost Nick Caserio’s first head coach — a guy who said that Deshaun Watson would be a Texan emphatically in his presser! — and desperately need some of what Watson can return to sell a rebuild. At the same time, we have this line from the Wilson piece:

Those are two nos, to go along with the Dolphins and Giants nos earlier in the piece, and two teams that Watson has so far refused to waive the no-trade clause for. Now, obviously, things can change in a hurry in the NFL. It only takes the whiff of someone potentially losing their job to fuel desperation. But it’s hard to see much of a market for Watson without everything settled, and it’s hard to see everything settled in a way that will make trading for Watson risk-free, be it criminally or from the NFL.

While obviously I’m hoping for a resolution that favors the Texans more than this, my instincts are just screaming at me right now that the three first-round picks offer from the Dolphins is going to be the best offer the Texans will see. And — to be clear — it is no fault of their own that they couldn’t take that offer given it was contingent on settlements. I don’t think Nick Caserio deserves blame for not being able to work with this situation. He would have looked like a witch if he got a Watson trade settled before allegations popped up, but I think that’s an unfair standard to hold him to.

I think lowering the price for Watson would be an admission that the Texans just need to be done with this whole situation. I think this team’s remaining fans would eventually come to grips with that after griping about the trade. This isn’t DeAndre Hopkins in 2020 or Matthew Stafford in 2021, where the entire NFL market should be open and interested at the very least — you need a team willing to deal with the baggage that Watson brings. It’s not an easy sell!

At this point I think the Panthers are the team that has the most known interest. They are the right combination of desperate and willing to deal. That comes with a few buts. One is that the longer the Watson courtroom battle carries on, the longer the Panthers have to shift eyes elsewhere. And then, as we saw with Flores and Ross in Miami, regimes can topple quickly. What if Matt Rhule doesn’t make it past Week 11 while Watson is suspended? Is that a situation Watson wants to potentially interject himself into? Would Philadelphia re-engage? Would Washington or Tampa engage? Would Watson be willing to join any of those places? I think the price could be a significant issue for some of these teams to meet.


What happens if Watson is still here in August?

As I’ve said, things can change quickly. But I don’t think anything is currently pointing towards them changing quickly. We are blessed with a lot of law scholars in the Texansphere and one of the best is Mike Meltser, who covered Monday’s hearing:

A deeper thread of Mike’s coverage on the hearing can be found here. It is, broadly speaking, good news for the Watson camp that they expect to hear a decision from the Harris County District Attorney’s Office on the criminal aspect of this case by April 1st. (Well, it is good news if there are no criminal charges out of that, anyway.) They also pushed Watson’s deposition date to after April 1st. My opinion: Courtroom delays do not help the Texans or Watson, and yet the system around our legal system currently creates a lot of delays. For instance, some of the delay in this case is from Watson’s attorney, Rusty Hardin, not being available again until March 7th. It would not surprise me at all if portions of this continued to be delayed, including the criminal aspect, because that is the overarching theme of things right now.

The Texans are in the eye of the storm. They can implore Watson to consider playing, but it seems like they’ve decided that’s not in the best interests of the football team. (Or, more accurately, the football team’s image.) The new timeline of the course would seem to encourage settlement, but Watson hasn’t exactly seemed interested in settling unless it is a pre-requisite to him finding a new team.

Is Watson sitting out a second consecutive season going to help his value? I find that hard to believe. NFL teams have short memories and most of them, already, hate holding on to players they perceive to be injury risks. Uncertainty is hard to tolerate in this business. This is obviously an extremely special situation, but outside of Vick, how many guys have essentially quit football for multiple years and come back? And how many of those guys were worth first-round picks? Vick was released.

I continue to believe there is only a very tiny chance of Watson ever suiting up for the Texans again, because at this point I think both sides are firmly dug in. When you tie your timeline to our court system, you are anchored to uncertainty. The best-case scenario for Texans fans is probably something like: it is announced early that no criminal charges are coming, the Panthers are willing to meet the three first-round picks and change cost, Watson considers this enough to waive the NTC and settle the cases, and Carolina has to deal with the fallout of the NFL personal conduct policy. But just listing all of that out, it feels like a lot has to go right for that to happen. There are a lot of pitfalls here. I have internally begun setting the bar lower and hoping I am pleasantly surprised, which has been a good rule for Texans fandom so far. There are a lot of possible futures here and many of them are not quite this kind to the organization.

The end game feels so far away right now. We’re all just waiting for that moment the eye passes, and motion returns to the situation.


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Hiring Lovie Smith makes me feel like a lonely bird

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.


When I met my wife, she had two birds — budgies. They were named Wilbird and Orbird, and were brother and sister. They bonded very close, because my wife (back in the days before COVID existed) worked long hours at an office. Wilbird wanted to make eggs with Orbird, and Orbird would tend to fly away from him because she didn’t want that. Sometimes she even hung from can lights on the ceiling to get away from him. But despite that lack of understanding, they were very close and took care of each other.

After we moved, Orbird suddenly became ill, we suspect from chewing too much on the walls of our new house. She had cancer, which is somewhat common for budgies. It’s almost impossible to do anything about budgie cancer, as their bodies are too small. We drained her once, but she had no chance of fighting the thing off long-term. She died.

We expect a certain emotional state from people at times like these, and we turn our expectations on to our animals. And my wife was really upset at Wilbird, because he wasn’t emotional at all about his sister passing. In fact, what overtook him was … boredom.

And it makes sense, in a way, as a flock member with no flock, that your life just kind of feels pointless, right? Wilbird ate, and he drank. He flew around a few times. But he didn’t have a bond with either of us. He didn’t miss his sister emotionally, but he missed her presence. He missed being part of something bigger than him. And even though we weren’t sure if it would work, we wound up getting him two new bird friends. They don’t always get along, but they’re a flock and Wilbird is energetic and engaged in helping his new bird friends, even as he hits an older age for budgies. (He especially likes the yellow female bird.)

Where I’m at with my Texans fandom right now is kind of about where Wilbird was without his flock. I’m not emotionally upset at them, because I don’t know that anybody involved in this enterprise is a bad person and because there’s nothing I can do that changes the fact that they’re collectively not interested in seeing what they’re doing wrong. These are the facts of the situation: Unless they draft well and all their young players develop beyond their initial draft grades, they’re not going anywhere for years. The team is incapable of luring a new head coach with any options, and doubles down on that approach by making sure the front office has to have a heavy hand in every bit of the process. On a team that has completely crumbled as they have made decisions against the grain of the NFL, Bill O’Brien was the only one punished for those moves.

And I am alive, and I am moving around and eating, but I don’t really know what the point of any of this is. It’s just kind of here because it’s the only situation this current leadership can muster.


There are two sections about hiring Houston’s abrupt Josh McCown circling that ended with Lovie Smith: the optics and what actually changes. Let’s start with the optics.

The weirdest thing about firing David Culley wasn’t that Culley was fired, because he was essentially hired to be fired. It was just how effusive the praise of Nick Caserio was when he was fired. Caserio’s post-firing presser went out of its way to say amazing things about Culley.

That doesn’t really read like Caserio wanted to let go of Culley. I know this organization is tainted with toxic positivity, but it would have been very easy to just say “philosophical differences” a bunch of times. He didn’t have to go in like he did about “the foundation” that Culley laid:

My takeaway from the Texans firing Culley was that they thought they were trying to get their coach of the future. Their version of, as Caserio alluded to in the presser, Mike Tomlin. When asked about retaining Smith, Caserio was completely non-committal.

Lovie Smith isn’t anybody’s coach of the future. He’s 63, and will turn 64 before next season. So, what happened?

I think some of the theories I’ve seen floated have overrated the effect that the Brian Flores lawsuit has had on the optics vis a vis not being able to hire Josh McCown. The Jaguars literally just hired Doug Pederson over Byron Leftwich to keep their terrible general manager employed. I also don’t think the NFL league office — the same place that called Flores’ allegations “without merit” and then spent most of last week producing memos that proved that there was some merit — is organized well enough to put down a McCown signing. I do think Caserio probably realized how bad it would look in a post-Flores lawsuit world to hire a guy with no coaching experience anywhere, but I don’t think there was guidance from above on that.

My reading of this is a little more simple: The Texans wanted Brian Flores to be their head coach. He was the first interview with the team, the day that they announced Culley’s firing. But the lawsuit makes him unemployable in the eyes of the NFL, which organized very effectively to collude against Colin Kaepernick as a free agent. The league refuses to have a head coach who is actively suing the league get a grand platform to continue to say what he thinks. That’s a future they weren’t going to allow happen. It sure feels like Flores felt the same way:

So who was left? I think you had McCown as Jack Easterby’s finalist, Jonathan Gannon as Caserio’s finalist, and a situation where the two couldn’t agree on a coach. That led them to the compromise candidate: a guy who they literally had last season.

Regardless of the vibes put out earlier by Caserio after he dispensed with Culley’s job, what we have here in Houston is a situation that still has no appeal to outsiders. Part of that is because the team is bad and just fired their head coach after one season. Part of that is because the roster is still barren of long-term talent after last year’s ingenious decision to prioritize older players on one-year contracts, one where essentially the only offensive or defensive starter they found for next year was Tavierre Thomas. They extended two players all season: Rex Burkhead and the kick returner. And, my belief is that part of it is also the fact that the head coach role in this scheme barely has any power.

Caserio’s on the headset. It’s not normal. I know that it’s something that the sect of you who are still hardcore fans don’t enjoy hearing about. I know that same sect of fans doesn’t understand why a big deal is made out of Easterby hanging on the sidelines. Well, the reason a big deal is made out of this team’s power structure is because this team just completed two head coach hiring cycles and barely got interviews with top head coaching candidates. It was a sideshow where people like McCown and Hines Ward were interviewed and taken seriously. They brought in Eric Bieniemy for one interview in 2021 and didn’t like that he wanted some actual agency. I wouldn’t have been a humongous fan of the Jonathan Gannon hire because I think this team really needs someone who will fight back with upper management and he was the “consensus builder,” but at least he had some experience and another team had interviewed him. They’ve been turned down by candidates like Matt Eberflus. Brandon Staley had no struggle in deciding between the Texans and Chargers.

The people who this team have hired have not been on the radar of any other team in the NFL. Nobody else was looking to give David Culley or Lovie Smith (or Josh McCown, for that matter!) a head coaching job. And it’s impossible to escape that this team’s organizational structure is helping to deliver these results. Whether you think that’s purely Easterby, Easterby and Cal McNair, or the whole trio. This can’t be the outcome of your coaching search if you’re a serious franchise, which means you can’t be a serious franchise with your current situation.


Let’s lead off the actual changes with some praise for Lovie Smith: His defense truly did do what it promised and turned the ball over plenty last year, and they adjusted away from being a wildly outrageous Cover-2 team early in the season. I was worried after that Panthers game that they would be absolute toast all season, and they showed a bit better than that. It was still a turnover-heavy profile, but the defense improved from 30th in DVOA to 23rd in his first season as Texans defensive coordinator. It had, in my opinion, less talent than it did the year before when J.J. Watt was in uniform and they had the full buy-in of players like Bradley Roby and Zach Cunningham. He was also cited by numerous free agents who joined the defense — Christian Kirksey most loudly — as a reason to join the Texans.

But in a weird way, signing Smith to be your head coach turns into an endorsement of last year’s staff. The one where the guy who led the charge was fired. In fact, the darkest part of the Josh McCown-Lovie Smith “debate” is that they could have hired McCown and still had Smith. They didn’t have to fire Culley to retain Smith. And I think defensive coordinator is a better role for him than head coach at this point. If you think Culley was a conservative stick-in-the-mud as a play caller, Lovie is not going to appeal to that in any real way. Lovie finished 90th out of 131 coaches from 1983 on in aggressiveness index, which measures how often coaches go for fourth downs compared to their peers.

In his only professional stop since leaving the Bears, Lovie was a quick two-and-done in Tampa. They were a bad defense in both years, and only improved on offense in his second year by drafting Jameis Winston. The offense they asked Winston to run was based heavily on running the ball and shorter passes. He finished 20th in Football Outsiders’ ALEX ranking — something that measures the average distance to the sticks on third down. When Lovie was fired, and Dirk Koetter took over, that number immediately leaped to sixth, then third in 2017.

In other words, it sounds exactly like what the Texans ran last year. So much for “philosophical differences!” Ultimately if the final two choices were McCown or Lovie, what it really came down to is McCown or Pep Hamilton. I don’t think Hamilton is some sort of savant that will quickly work magic here or anything, because I covered those Andrew Luck Colts for Bleacher Report and wasn’t all that impressed by the offense. But I also don’t think the Texans had much in the way of better options that were interested in coming here. Heck, they were connected to Joe Brady heavily in the 2021 offseason and he’d rather be the Bills quarterbacks coach, apparently. I expect Hamilton will probably carry much of the actual play calling.

I don’t mean to insinuate any lack of respect for Smith here. He’s a huge part of football history, both in Texas and in America in general. He and London Fletcher are big reasons the Rams defense turned around in a major way. The Bears defense was absolutely stellar for the better part of a decade. He’s shat turds that have more schematic knowledge of the game than I have. There’s a reason he commands the respect of the players.

It’s just that, at this point in his career, set in to the ways that he is, I thought DC was a better role for him because it gave him more space to make adjustments. The last two stops as a head coach that he had were brutal.

Lovie got a ton of time to work at things in Illinois, too. That wasn’t a fluky pandemic thing. They never finished over .500 in a season in his five years there, peaking as a 6-7 bowl team in 2019. They immediately went 5-7 in Bret Bielema’s first year in 2021, beating all but one of Lovie’s win totals.

I don’t think you can see a 64-year-old as the next coach that’s going to lead the Texans to the playoffs. I don’t even necessarily see any reason why he’ll survive beyond this season other than pure optics. In many ways, it feels like an extension of the Culley era — partially because Lovie was a big part of the small measures of success in the Culley era. Lovie’s the coach with the better track record, yes, but a lot of it is ancient history in the grand scheme of the NFL at this point. I don’t care about Super Bowl appearances in 2006 when we’re in 2022. I’m not surprised that fans are rallying around him being a better candidate historically than Culley and talking themselves into it. But that’s mostly because at this point I fully believe that this team’s loudest fans — the ones who always complain about how the team is covered negatively — would take news of Nick Caserio eating a baby whole from the NRG rooftop and respond with “wow, he really did eat the whole thing tho, pretty good can’t lie” or “that’s a natural part of the process that has to happen, the baby had to go.” If the last two years haven’t broken your optimism, nothing will.


In the end, where I’m at with this is that the Texans are stagnant and that it probably doesn’t have a lot of bearing on this team’s real future. The potential Deshaun Watson trade matters much more than the head coach in 2022 does. The draft picks that this team has this year are more important than anything the head coach in 2022 does. I don’t expect Lovie Smith to be here when this team is ready to compete.

But I think the backlash I’m seeing hits from a place of again seeing this front office just look comically out of their depth. They ran a head-coaching search with three finalists and didn’t pick any of them, and in which the only one who had real NFL experience was busy filing a lawsuit against the NFL. Caserio set expectations very high in the press conference in which he fired Culley.

Things were supposed to be different with Nick around. And instead of something new or inspiring, this head coaching search just reverted back to what it has been for the better part of the last four years: Same. Ol’. Texans.

12:50 P.M. 2/8 Edit: I changed two years (2020 to 2021) that I misremembered when I wrote this post, and I also added Rex Burkhead to the re-signed players list.


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