Empty Cans

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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But something that was not meant to be is done
And this is the start of what was

Hard times started last year. They’re here to stay.

It’s very easy to write a history of how this happened and focus on Deshaun Watson’s sexual assault allegations. There will be many other people writing pieces centered on this. I’m gonna talk about the football here, not to dismiss the allegations or claim they were without merit. He is facing 22 civil lawsuits. I would be surprised if all of them were without merit.

The record shows that Watson wanted off of this team before lawsuit one was filed. While other franchises have managed to piss off their young franchise quarterbacks, none of them have ever managed to piss them off enough to effectively quit on the franchise. That’s what Texans leadership did. And they were more than happy to tell you about how Deshaun Watson was going to be a Houston Texan until those lawsuits dropped and it became unpopular to say his name. 

Since the end of the 2018 season, dovetailing with the death of Bob McNair and the hiring of Jack Easterby, the Texans have chased off their best players in droves with their decisions and behavior. They were so pissy about DeAndre Hopkins’ practice habits that he reckoned he could get a trade by asking for a raise and he was right. An incredulous J.J. Watt was left trying to call attention to what was wrong in pressers throughout the 2020 season, he left without even getting a final presser, then told Houston media before a 2021 game that he saw this massive turnover coming. Will Fuller. Jadeveon Clowney. DJ Reader. Tyrann Mathieu. Kareem Jackson. Justin Reid. Zach Cunningham. Bradley Roby. Not every one of these guys is a superstar, but they were all valued heavily by other NFL teams. They got good contracts in new locales, or in Cunningham’s case got his big contract claimed.

The only two players the Texans have brought in since that have anywhere near that cachet are Laremy Tunsil — who also appeared to quit on the team last season after getting hurt — and Brandin Cooks, who noted that the team’s Mark Ingram trade was “bullshit” last year and is the only person on the team who was Easterby pre-cleared. 

So much as I’d like to be bitter that Watson is leaving, because he quit on the team I’m a fan of, I can’t say his thought process is off. This surely on the face of things is not a place to win a championship. He leaves behind a complicated legacy with the Texans. I guess we’ll never know how things would have turned out without the lawsuits — would the Texans have eventually folded anyway, or would they have pressed things? — but even without that as fans we have to embrace the fact that he was becoming a quarterback savant in 2020 and made every single game watchable and enjoyable. And that’s gone. Never coming through that door again. And while it’s easy to hunt his character for what happened later, most of the 2020 vets agreed with his choices and backed him publicly. He was far from the only one the team — overtly or inadvertently — pushed away. 

The sexual harassment allegations give us reason to be angry at him, or hate him if you’re the kind of person who can feel that about someone you don’t really know. I don’t want to downplay them in any way. They are serious, he can be circumstantially guilty without literally being guilty. The whole process felt sickening and it’s made me eager to be done with the trade. I also think once we get some time and distance between the situation, it’ll become a little like what happened to Ben Roethlisberger. The majority of NFL Media will be happy to overlook what happened for the greater good of the league. There will be snarky Twitter comments about massage parlors until the end of time. We won’t ever forget that it happened because it was part of the story that sent him away, but the immediacy will fade for all but those who feel the strongest about what he did to those women. Most people watch football to be entertained and Watson has a lot of entertainment value left to give. Like Tyreek Hill before him, and several others before that. The NFL will dole out a random number generated punishment and be done with it. For the rest of us it will be a matter of our attention span, something that most of us don’t have much of. I think the women deserve to be heard in civil court. I hope that they remain a part of the discourse. But on a purely football level? I don’t think they’ll amount to much.

In making this trade, the Texans are admitting that they aren’t going to be an NFL team with real goals for a while. We mostly knew that from how last year shook out, when they spent the year watching veterans be babysat by David Culley while sending off or burying almost anyone who played for the 2020 Texans besides Cooks. But there was no last-minute reprieve. The team has only itself to blame for what it has become. The leadership that they’ve embraced — whether you want to blame Easterby or Cal McNair or Nick Caserio or all of the above — is reaping what it sowed on the field.

As usual, I want to point out that just because the truth is harsh does not mean it is hyperbolic. The players the Texans employed fought hard last year. They were never going to be a winless team. This year’s team won’t be that either. There are non-zero chances that 2021 rookies take real steps forward. There are non-zero chances that some of the 2022 rookies are instantly good. They are going to play their asses off, partially because that is part of the front office criteria for their selection. They’re just not a very talented football team as a whole. Chris Conley won’t suddenly become a superstar. Cedric Ogbuehi won’t develop into a real NFL tackle here. Jeff Driskel won’t be good at quarterback or tight end. They’re good men sent to win two or four or, if Davis Mills really develops, maybe six or seven games. They’re good men who will talk about how they just need to be a little more consistent to win next week, most every week. And time will march forward. And maybe one day there will be a good team here again. 

Or maybe the one thing that has held constantly true here since 2018 will continue, and turnover will spiral again and again and again. And everyone who can leave will, while Nick Caserio will replace them with his latest thrift store find. Even in unprecedented NFL circumstances like, say, losing a young franchise quarterback you’d just signed to a four-year extension. 

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Here’s how I’ll frame this trade:

-I don’t blame Nick Caserio for the fact that it’s not fair value. It’s not his fault that Watson demanded a trade. It’s not his fault that Easterby, the negotiator of his contract, gave Watson a no-trade clause that he used to great effect. None of this is on Caserio’s hands. He was simply the guy tasked with carrying out what he could with a bad situation. It feels weird to type that about getting three first-round picks, but it’s true. Carolina would have offered more and almost nobody is disputing that.

-The Texans can still generate plenty of value from this trade, and the trade can deliver players who may one day want to play for the Houston Texans while being good. It’s not even impossible that it helps them find their next franchise quarterback. Just unlikely. 

Of all the trade destinations for Watson, Cleveland was the worst for the Texans. They’re the best team to make the rumored final four cut, for one thing. They were 8-9 despite a couple of massive COVID-19 replacement games and starting Baker Mayfield hurt all season. Their future first-round picks, in other words, are more than likely appearing in the 20s or 30s. Whereas with say, Atlanta, there was at least a possibility that things could tilt one way or another in 2023.

The fact that they couldn’t get a second-round pick is disappointing, and the fact that this is a deep class and that there are rumors that they won’t come out of it with a single Day 2 pick in 2022 are also disappointing. The 2022 Browns first hits at 13th overall, which isn’t bad. It opens up taking a quarterback at 3 if they really love one — I doubt they do. It really feels like the Texans should be hoping to stockpile these two future ones to move up for the quarterback of the future. As for 13th overall, I’d be looking at a wideout or corner if I were the Texans.

It isn’t everything most fans were hoping for when the grand jury refused to bring criminal charges against him. There were no defensive young stars. No second-round picks. No Day 2 picks in 2022. It’s also not nothing. It’s a big help for the future of the franchise for a guy who wasn’t going to play here anymore. If you want to be upset about what they got, you’ve got one place to direct your anger towards — 2020 Texans upper management.

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Where I close on this is: We just watched the ending of one of the most incredible squanderings of talent in NFL history. A team that was leading the Chiefs 24-0 in the Divisional Round, 40 minutes from hosting the AFC Title Game, with one of the most valuable QB/WR combos in the NFL even after a year of horrific moves, was systematically destroyed. I understand that the fans want to be happy again, and I’m not providing anything here that I think is broadly mean-spirited. I’m just caught up in the spectacle. 

The leadership who oversaw this disaster have replaced that team with the promise of what may be a football team again some day. They did it move-by-move, in steps that were so easy to first-guess that even this schmuck with a shitty WordPress blog has documented them and ended up in the right an astonishingly high amount of the time. 

At best this team is a Thought Experiment brought to you by the people who traded all their players for draft picks in Madden, except without any of the certainty that playing a tangible game with resets and ratings could have provided. At worst it’s a parody of a classic Silicon Valley story where some dumbass got a bunch of investor money and power to Disrupt The System and eventually landed on “I know NFL players are generally sorted by how good they are, but I know better and keep practice data, and I’m out to re-sign the same guys I had that went 4-13 last year to prove it, except this time with MJ Stewart.” They’ve brought in enough Football People You’ve Heard Of to cover the stench up with Lovie anecdotes and quotes about Cooks’ leadership and underratedness. They produce half-heated optimistic slop as a major export almost out of obligation rather than any real belief this is going somewhere. 

Like most trades the Texans have made over the past three years, the old team for the new one isn’t fair. It’s not fair to the fans who wanted to root for good and exciting players, it’s not fair to the players that appeared to be building something. It’s not fair to the new players, who are forced into roles they can never fill. It’s not fair to the diehards who will cheer for this team no matter what because it leaves them isolated and singled out to be mocked. The only humans to benefit from what has happened here are an unaccountable couple of people who never answer for what they’ve done short of being invited on a Philadelphia high school duo’s podcast. So, I guess congrats to those people on the final achievement of a period in time that will go down in NFL history. And not in the way they intended.  

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