Nick Caserio has created CultureBall

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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The bet that Nick Caserio has made this offseason is the same one he made last offseason. It’s not about tanking, because if they were tanking, they’d trade Brandin Cooks and Laremy Tunsil. They’d employ a full lineup of young guys and try to find some long-term value out of some of them rather than signing veterans. It’s not about full-on getting the best players, because, well, look at the roster. There are clearly enormous sacrifices made for talent in the name of culture. Some teams get Robert Woods and Amari Cooper for their late-round picks. The Texans get Blake Cashman and Ryan Finley. And they retained almost all of their myriad free agents, bringing back 18 of the 22 free agents they had that have signed so far. Even guys like Jeff Driskel.

The bet is something that I think you can best find in this answer from the We Traded Deshaun Watson presser:

Over and over again, the culture is enjoined as a reason for these particular players to be here. There’s an unstated belief that these players can somehow instill the values that the Texans want all their players to have into the next generation. Combine that with the front office self-selecting for their favorite personality traits in drafts, as noted below:

It feels like the Texans are trying to create the players that they cannot find — the mythical players who are both really good at football and also have their desired level of conviction, self-starterism, and teamwork values. When the rubber hits the road on those things, they pick the player with the characteristics they value over the talent.

It also feels like a very, very stupid way to run a football team to me. I’m not saying that you have to build a team 100% with talent over culture, there are plenty of players on the roster and selecting for chemistry over talent is a sensible tradeoff at times.

The problem is that the Texans are all-in on it. They’re doing CultureBall.

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Having gone through two Nick Caserio offseasons — talking about the actual acquisitions, not the everlasting Watson drama that he couldn’t do much about — my major conclusion beyond the culture is that it’s fence-paintingly boring.  I don’t think that his signings are bad in a vacuum, I just think they’re all so low-risk as to be pointless, and there’s so many of them that the big picture largely becomes pointless.

Could Ogbonnia Okoronkwo become a good rotational edge rusher? Sure, I could buy that as a potential outcome. Does the contract he signed benefit the Texans if he does? Not really! It’s a one-year contract for a 27-year-old. He’ll have to be re-signed almost instantly to be a part of the next good Texans team. Could Dare Ogunbowale be a solid third-down back? Sure! Does the contract he signed benefit the Texans if he does? Not really! It’s a one-year contract for a 28-year-old (in May). These are the kinds of deals that make sense if you’re trying to create competition for a role on a contender. This team isn’t a contender. If I tried to analyze every Texans contract, 85% of them would end up in that same basic vein.

Caserio’s best signing from last year’s initial flurry, Tavierre Thomas, is also one of the few players that he actually gave a two-year deal to. (The only reason nobody praised it at the time is because Thomas had almost no NFL playing history on defense, he was primarily a special teamer.) This offseason he’s handed out more two-year deals, but instead of giving them to players who could be risers, it’s to 31-year-old Justin Britt, 30-year-old Christian Kirksey, and 28-year-old Desmond King. Caserio has approached roster building for this team like he’s an insurance adjuster. Even nominal splurges like Jacob Martin — one of the players they were rumored to want to keep — getting a three-year deal at $4M per season are too much to match. Caserio defended re-signing Britt and Kirksey like so:

Now, I don’t know what kind of metrics Caserio is relying on in saying these two were good last season, but the run offense was historically bad and performed slightly better without Britt. (The best game the run offense had all season, against the Chargers, actually had Jimmy Morrissey at center and Cole Toner at guard.) The defense suffered no drop-off without Kirksey and gave up plenty over the middle with him. I’m not saying these guys are “bad” players. They’re NFL pros, and obviously as you can glean from the clip, their locker room contributions are valued. Enough so that they don’t even get dinged for being hurt last season by the front office. But I can’t get behind them being two of the better players on the team last season from any space of objectivity.

Is Caserio right in a vacuum to not add risk to this team’s future cap space? I guess I could squint and believe that. But at a certain point, you have to believe in some football players to be good. Someone to be the core of what this team will be in 2024 besides rookie contract guys and Brandin Cooks. And he just doesn’t seem to do that. Brandin Cooks is here, and Laremy Tunsil is here, but neither of them are currently on contracts that go past 2023. (I’m sure they’ll work to extend Cooks if he wants to be here.)

The 2023 Texans, post-Watson trade, will have about $100 million in cap space available. Some of that will go to draft picks, sure. But that’s before they renegotiate with Laremy Tunsil, who has a $35 million cap hit in the last year of his contract. They are literally nothing but rookie contracts and Some Guys at that point. Before you get all excited about the free agents Caserio can sign, well, teams that go 4-13 three years in a row don’t really get the pick of the litter. Players like winning. Players like winning on their terms. Short of overpaying somebody who is actually in demand, something that would seem wildly against the Caserio Brand after these past two free agency periods, why would anyone come here? The Texans are going to need instantaneous dominance from both their 2021 classes and 2022 classes to get to a point where players want to come here in 2023. There’s a long recent history of teams like the Jaguars and Browns and 49ers in their Losing Eras getting stonewalled by free agents. To some extent, that may already be happening to the Texans, and they may be dealing with laughs from someone who might make sense on paper. Let’s imagine a New England roots free agent who has a real chance to be good in 2024. I’ll call him J. Jackson, no, too obvious, how about J.C. J.  

Now, would I like if they signed Jackson? Sure. Remember: Literally $100 million in cap space next year with easy avenues to more. They can backload the hell out of any deal they want right now, please do not tell me things like “Rivers they can’t because Deshaun was on the books still!” Bullshit. The goal is to build a good football team and every brick you put in the wall for 2024 — to use a McNairism — helps. That’s my point of view. 

But even if that’s not something you want to do, because Jackson could get hurt in 2023 or whatever, Caserio also isn’t using his wares all that creatively. He’s eaten cap space to make a trade, but outside of having to do so to deal with the Saints, he’s not really canvassing the league trying to help broker things. He’s trading for low-risk guys with his late-round picks. His biggest swings were for Marcus Cannon and Shaq Lawson and those were disastrous trades. You’re telling me the Texans can’t find an Osweiler contract to take on for a third-round pick? I don’t believe it. Caserio talks all the time about how thorough the operation is, but it’s thoroughness wasted in the guise of staring at mortality rates for football injuries or caring deeply about culture instead of getting players that are or could be good at football in 2024 signed up for it. Once you clear the culture veil, you have a free pass. He literally even re-signed his waiver claims this year. Royce Freeman! Early in free agency! 

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OK you fucking smartass, who would you sign then? Fucking so smart, not an NFL GM, are you!

I get some variation of this sometimes. I hope I got the spirit of it right.

Lemme tell you some players I would have been targeting if I were the Texans, who have successfully turned second-year contract players like Kevin Walter into solid/average fixtures. I’m not trying to hit home runs here; I’m simply trying to nail down some young guys who I think could still be good in 2024. There’s a very clear type here in my eyes: Guys who could be 28 or younger in 2024.

*Tim Settle, who signed with the Bills, has a history of being good and is just 24. He got a two-year deal. Maybe you would have had to pay him a little higher than the Bills did to get him in the door, but this is the kind of guy who could both a) be swayed by a higher payday and b) could still be starting/in a big role in 2024.
*James Washington turns 26 in April and has spent his past three seasons anchored to Ben Roethlisberger’s inability to throw deep. Signed with Dallas.
*Ja’Whaun Bentley is coming off a nice season in New England and turns 26 in August. They brought him back.
*Former first-rounder Jabrill Peppers is coming off an ACL injury and is just 26.
*The Falcons just brought on Lorenzo Carter, another 26-year-old with some versatility. I can keep going.

I want guys who could be in their primes in 2024. Or I want to be paid to take on guys who can still play. What if the Texans had accepted Austin Hooper as part of the trade with the Browns for Deshaun Watson, and they got an extra pick out of the deal? When a team like the Saints plays salary cap hell on a fiddle, why aren’t the Texans there with a fifth-round pick seeing if there’s a deal to be made for someone talented that makes money on the roster? “Oh, well, they don’t have the cap space!” you might say. But, well, a) they did and b) every contract is made to be re-negotiated. The Texans chose to spend a lot of it bringing back older culture players, and a little of it on Maliek Collins. Now for all I know, the Texans were in on one or two of the guys I mentioned. I’m almost positive they have internal measurements to be met that might make Washington a bad fit in their eyes on body type. That’s part of why I’m not all that interested in TwitterDebating specific guys. Forget about the specific players; it clearly isn’t an ethos to chase guys in this vein. (They finally brought in Marlon Mack for a workout after I started crafting this post, he’s 26!)

I admit that I’m not a professional general manager, and I have mostly stopped creating pieces in the vein of “the Texans should trade/sign for (THIS GUY)” because it has felt wildly pointless since 2019. I don’t know everything an NFL team knows. I also don’t think the Texans are operating in the same parameters I am because they don’t believe the same things about football that I do. But for all the Deep Process the Texans claim to have … it sure doesn’t amount to anything all that creative, and certainly not to anything with a real risk to it.

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Let’s be blunt: For everything the Texans can claim they did well in 2021, all of it is fleeting. Their culture is so good and important that they fired the head coach and had to have a last-hour intervention stop them from hiring someone who’d literally never coached anywhere before in his life. They turned the ball over a lot more on defense. Cool, thankfully no team has ever regressed in turnover rate. They brought back several key veterans from a 23rd-ranked DVOA defense only now those players are older and Lonnie Johnson is projected to start at corner and Justin Reid is gone. The less said about the offense the better. None of this, broadly speaking, matters. While I’m not a tanking guy, the four wins don’t matter. Nobody cared, certainly not the fans who didn’t show up.

There are moments to be remembered (Tyrod’s first game, picking off Tannehill with no targets four times, some bad things I won’t rehash to save your memories) and that’s about it. The broader NFL will pretend this team doesn’t exist post-Deshaun outside of whoever they pick high in the draft. Do I think it’s good to have a good culture? Sure! Did it materially change anything for the Texans as far as better players on the roster? Nope. All the rookies played, and that was good. But despite flashes, nobody really established themselves as a core piece going forward just yet. 

They spent the entire year playing older veterans at several positions — why is Eric Murray still here? — and those players have largely either declined in value or held steady. A few guys got raises — Kamu Grugier-Hill got $750,000 more this offseason, for instance — but that’s mostly because of the cap increase. They all stayed in roughly the same dollar bracket. They signed almost no undrafted free agents, and with 69 players on the roster and a ton of draft picks, they’re likely looking at the same tiny class of UDFAs they did in 2021. Let me set aside the actual starters on this team for a second. Why would you rather employ Cedric Ogbuehi than an undrafted free agent if you already have a tackle surplus? It’s a complete disregard for any rational semblance of value.

Listen, I’m not going to tell you the Texans are the worst team that ever existed. They’ll probably win 2-6 games again. I’m not going to tell you Caserio’s a dumbass, in over his head, and so on. He believes in culture and he clearly is not a risk-taking GM in free agency, and I think there’s an argument in those things even if I don’t personally agree with it. But the team’s identity right now is “there will be a team here one day.” You can’t pop out literally one non-rookie on a below-market rate contract for one year and get anywhere when you are as behind as the Texans are.  

To a certain extent, from the moment Watson wanted out this was going to be about developing rookies. And fair enough, they do provide most of the value contracts on a roster and the 2021 draft was pre-compromised by the Tunsil trade. But other NFL teams also sign good players to play for them, and it’s important to put rookies and young players in spots where they could develop next to legitimate NFL talent. Caserio has shown no interest in using his cap space to supplement these guys. There’s no No. 2 receiver for Davis Mills if Nico Collins doesn’t step forward. There no interior OL fix. Just the same guys they had last year who weren’t providing a lot of tangible value.

It’s reclamation project after reclamation project, without a real reward for actually being right beyond “we sure have a great culture!” quotes and this vague promise that Cooks and Grugier-Hill’s approach to doing things The Texan Way will eventually rub off on Brevin Jordan. It’s actively paternalistic and, when you really drill down on it, a little insulting to those young players to assume they can’t find their way without a Culture Roster. (Jordan credited Dylan Thompson for helping him grow into his role late last season, and last I checked Thompson isn’t on the active roster.) Some football teams rely on the coaches and other employees to teach players how to grow up and do things their way, but I guess those teams don’t have a culture director who has never played football either.

Outside of spot-checking the young players, I can’t give you a single reason to watch this team next year. Just as I couldn’t in 2021. Whatever progress the front office thinks is happening, it’s mostly progress about seasons that don’t yet exist. When the Sixers coined Trust The Process, they continually wound up with high-value assets when they made controversial trades. When the Astros tanked openly in the early 2010s, outside of their bad contracts, they played almost exclusively young players. Even the A’s — famous champions of sports analytics with Moneyball — knew enough to find high-value free agents for cheap and continually get good value in trades for guys they couldn’t keep.

CultureBall? It’s staring at two four-win seasons in a row and about to bring in another season that almost certainly will be bad. It’s sent almost every talented player on the team packing. It’s been easily first-guessed since the 2019 offseason — and yes, this is a Jack Easterby dig. It’s been very clear that the culture shifted the moment he came aboard, ask That Person. There is almost no value being created on this roster besides the rookies.

It’s put them in a position where the Texans almost have to nail every first-round pick to be a real live NFL organization again. After years without a high pick thanks to horrific trades, the pressure and expectations on this team’s first-rounders are going to be enormous. And hey, maybe they will succeed. Maybe it will all work out. But the roster built around the draft picks seems like a huge heat check that is utterly pointless from the outside. The modern NFL is all about creating good young players, so if you torture your logic a little bit, you can squint and understand why the Texans are doing what they’re doing.

But it’s a big departure from what every other team in the NFL is doing. The Texans do not have a good track record on going out on a limb over the last four years if you haven’t noticed.

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