One thing I’ve been thinking about a bit recently is how the Rockets and James Harden are (source-wise) locking eyes with each other from across the hall. Several of our in-town sports personalities are against a reunion for the two sides, even though Harden is (empirically) a great player. Some of that is about where the Rockets currently are, some of it is about how Harden’s work habits aren’t a great example for a young team, and some of it is because it’s comical how checked out Harden has been at the absolute worst moments.
But I think, mostly, it is about where the Rockets are in the narrative cycle. Their storyline post-Harden has been a rebuild. Bringing Harden back doesn’t help the rebuild. It is a sharp turn from nine of your top 10 players in minutes per game being 22 or younger last season, and the 10th being the traded Eric Gordon. It is true that the Rockets owe a top-four protected pick to Oklahoma City next year, but it’s a weird set of motivations to be worried about that when a) it’s exponentially less likely the fifth overall pick is a building block than the top four and b) they could just get a top-four pick and it doesn’t actually matter.
Where the Rockets have been is in a place they’re familiar with: a stalled narrative. They have been rebuilding for three years and haven’t gone anywhere. They’ve accumulated some talented young players along the way, to be sure, but none of them are franchise building blocks yet. And the coaching has not reached them in some obvious ways — be it defense or, well, the effort to at least look like you’re playing defense — that are important. There is no easy narrative step from rebuild to trying to win without growth, and there has not been much growth. So the cultural zeitgeist is: The rebuild isn’t done yet. You bring in an old superstar, and you’re putting a finishing piece on a foundation that doesn’t exist. Maybe in a most optimistic scenario, Ime Udoka is able to get the most out of his crew and it suddenly comes together. Maybe. But bringing Harden is an affront to the cultural ideas of storytelling, and so it is meant to be belittled.
I think the primary reason that the Texans are looked at with tired eyes by what I’ll call the Smart Football Media — even after starting fresh with a pair of who I consider great prospects at head coach and quarterback — is that they’ve never really taken a step that acknowledges they’re in a stalled narrative. The recent New Orleans Saints are — to me — the most famous example of what this looks like. They’re old. Every offseason starts with them over the cap by like $40 million or $50 million or Calvinball Fake Number Dollars and they always restructure everybody and bring back their core. And there could not be a team Smart Football Media at large is more interested in just starting over with, because why would we want to see this run back? Where is it headed? It was one thing when they were 12-4, but now they’re 7-10.
I happen to think that what the Saints are doing rules because a) I hate the salary cap and think it’s a convenient excuse more than an actual deterrent and b) they probably could’ve gone somewhere the last few years with a better quarterback and now Derek Carr gets his chance. It’s not like the NFC South did anything all that scary this offseason, right? We scared of Baker Mayfield and Adam Thielen and Desmond Ridder? And once you make the playoffs, anything can happen. The Arizona Cardinals made the Super Bowl once after finishing 9-7. Catch a team on a bad day, have a matchup they can’t answer for, outcoach them, or some combination of the above … and the record doesn’t matter anymore.
But there are segments of the “national media” that tie up people’s perceptions about money and violating the “intent” of the salary cap into a giant hammer, using it to pound away at the Saints. It doesn’t “feel” fair that the Saints are going this far to exploit the cap, and so they should be punished. Or it should be celebrated when they fail. This kind of groupthink also infiltrated talk about the Rams over the famous “fuck them picks” vintage, where there were no shortage of writers waiting to crush them after they failed this year and had an offseason based on scavenging for picks. Please don’t ask those people who won the Super Bowl two years ago, as it makes them angry. The only correct way to try is to only draft at your spot every time and draft the good players, a strategy that is famously foolproof and has worked for every team that has tried it. Then you’re “building from within” and it’s good that you won, at least until you have to pay somebody. Or until we get bored of it, like we are with the Steelers since they never do anything exciting.
With the scene I wanted to paint set, let’s finally turn to the Will Anderson trade. Certain Smart Football Media members — particularly if they have a model that tells them what draft capital is worth — could not fall over themselves fast enough to praise the Cardinals for taking Houston’s first-round pick in 2024 over Anderson. I wrote about the Anderson trade, and I agree that the Texans got hosed on pure value in a vacuum. I think there are reasons to believe that Anderson is a) worth it and b) that the circumstances dictate a certain logic to the bet for the Texans, especially with how weak some of the picks looked in this year’s draft. But could it be a trade the Texans live to regret? I can’t argue that premise. I also think the Texans have been struggling with the same basic premise the Saints have been doing the last two years — they’ve just been failing at it because they had no core talent base, and the media has noticed and stopped betting on them to fix it.
It is still very funny to watch people praise the combo that forked over a third-round pick to the Eagles before the draft started because they illegally contacted their head coach for playing for the future. The Cardinals were going to look bad no matter what happened this offseason because Kyler Murray is hurt and I’m not actually sure when he’ll play again. But they didn’t have to alienate DeAndre Hopkins and Budda Baker, and they didn’t have to enter the 2023 season with a defensive depth chart of Isaiah Simmons, Zaven Collins, and a bunch of guys who have never done anything. They are another failed Patriots regime in the wild, just bringing in culture fits and leaking talent, hoping to find a star or two in the draft to get to eight wins in 2026. They remind me a lot of the 2020 Texans, and not just because they both got rid of Hopkins.
Meanwhile, the 2023 Texans violated one of the storyteller narrative norms, right? That’s what has happened here. It’s not even that they didn’t draft a good young player, it’s that they were bad and gave up a future asset, narrowing the band of outcomes to exclude a down year with a Kaleb Williams/C.J. Stroud situation that could have resolved with a ton of draft equity.
I have been probably the harshest person writing about Nick Caserio in any real depth, I would say? I don’t want to take any undue credit from someone who is embracing the medium more often than I am that I’m not aware of, but I have been very clear that nothing that he has done has embraced the potential ability to grow value on his roster. The national media at large has had no reason to think twice about Nick Caserio before he made this trade, because the Texans have been NFL-irrelevant outside of where they’d send Deshaun Watson.
But the reason I have been harsh on Caserio is because there was never a logical reason to believe that this team would be a contender from the moment he inherited it. If this team had the core talent that the Saints had when he took over? Sure, go nuts with your special team signings and work the edges of the roster so that your one sneaky May vet can block a punt or notch a sack to win a close game. The context of that roster was not correct for the moves he was making.
But adding two core players to the roster in the draft? That actually changes my mind a little bit about what the Texans did this offseason. It allows them to tell a story about winning the division that isn’t completely implausible and easily laughed out of the room. It is, to be clear, still an unlikely story. But it isn’t so far-fetched that C.J. Stroud and Will Anderson could both be instant impact players and that they can push the players around them into roles they can actually fill. Suddenly I can tell myself the story where this solid depth has an actual purpose rather than just showing up and looking presentable while Jeff Driskel takes snaps in one of the stupidest offenses in NFL history.
Caserio has never done anything for the good of the future Texans, unless you count trading up for umpteen of his picks in the draft and making draft picks as good moves on merit. He has always just put his blinders on for the idea that this team is stalled and believed the answer is “let’s put together the best roster we can for this season, this August, this tomorrow.” I have hated every minute of it, every Justin Britt signing, every Jordan Jenkins taking snaps from young players. If I’m being honest, I still think buying in on Shaq Mason as a long-term fixture is a poorer bet than local media wants to admit. But if he has spiked two core players that actually hit right away, then I can’t help but admit him going as hard on short-term guys was a better move than I gave it credit for at the time. I never really believed he had this kind of move in him on his own. It seemed a step too bold for someone who barely has paid market level for stars in free agency.
Because of the speed and the enormity of football news (really, all news) today, I think the narrative cycles have come and gone faster than ever before and as a society we’re very conditioned to begin thinking about the next thing when what is here isn’t working. Sometimes fairly, sometimes not. Every young quarterback deserves a runway to see what they can do, yet Davis Mills and Zach Wilson each got about 20 starts over multiple years and that was enough. I think both were given enough space, but in 1994 I think we might have seen a different story. Hell, the David Carr Texans somehow lasted five years and that was happening within the last 20 years. Bill O’Brien somehow coached seven seasons here. And I would argue that we knew what we had in him after two, and that for certain after 2018 there was little new to understand.
The bet that the Will Anderson trade has made is: “We understand our timeline better than the outside world does.” The stalled narrative is now unstalled. The quarterback and head coach are here, and the head coach has a defensive linchpin at EDGE and (hopefully) at CB. The narrative was going to actually take a step forward either way with Ryans and Stroud — from failed rebuild to rebuild part II: now with actual optimism attached — but the Anderson trade demonstrates a level of confidence that it can go faster and be feisty right away. To the credit of many Smart Football Media members, betting against the Texans to be right when they go for the heat check has been the correct move for most of the last five years. I have been — in the eyes of this town’s True Fans — obnoxiously negative about how that would go and I’ve been right about that.
But I do have some actual optimism about this working out because I believe in the head coach and quarterback bets. That does not mean Smart Football Media will be wrong, because close games and injuries will dictate a lot and the Texans absolutely have players they cannot afford to lose. But the problem with Caserio’s teams has always been there was no core to supplement.
If there is an instant core, suddenly winning isn’t as implausible as it once was.