A 2022 promise, delivered in 2023

When you’ve been beat down by so, so many dumb decisions, certain things stick with you. David Culley telling us all that the key to football is “the football” in his first interview with the in-house Texans media crew. A certain trade for a running back that we don’t need to fully remember in a moment of victory. Things of, to Roth it up, that nature.

But one that sticks with me often, I think because of how many times he repeated it, was Lovie Smith comparing the Texans to the Bengals, noting that they made the Super Bowl after being 4-11-1. As if the turnaround was just that easy, as if it happens all the time that you just draft the best franchise quarterback and everything else falls into place. There’s a certain level of Football Brain that you need to be a head coach, and one of the ways that brain sustains itself is the blinding optimism and “drown out the outside noise” operating manual that leads you to watch Davis Mills tape and say “we’re this close to turning it around.”

Lovie wasn’t right — he was the wrong coach for the wrong time. I’ll fondly remember his parting gifts of getting Jack Easterby fired, a No. 2 overall pick, and a beard for the ages. But I’ll also remember his son, now unemployed like his father, being a major part of his game plans — and local media spooning that father/son story up — as well as Derrick Henry running over the Texans for roughly 8000 yards from 2020-2022. But what Lovie was? He was pre-right.

Because the rebuild that just about everyone — myself included — thought would take a few years actually did end up being just that easy. Simply draft one of the best rookie quarterbacks in the history of the sport with the No. 2 overall pick, stop hiring head coaches nobody else would interview and pluck the most qualified defensive coordinator in the sport who also used to play for your team, and add a little close game luck. Oh, and also your third-round rookie wideout is one of the best picks of the entire draft. And you become the first team in quite a bit to turn a third-year wideout who hadn’t looked good under the old staff into someone who might get a $20 million a year contract. And then, you know, you just make the playoffs. You have the third-most projected cap space of any team in 2024, and you made the playoffs. And veterans are playing better under your new head coach (DeMeco Ryans, is his name) than they have under any other coach of their careers.

When you type it all out, actually, it seems like the fanbase has lucked into something truly magical.

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The irony of a moment like this is that we’re so new to this team, so new to this quarterback, that anything feels possible. If you told me that C.J. Stroud was going to be the best quarterback in the NFL in seven years, I couldn’t mount a real argument that he won’t be. That’s broadly within the spectrum of plausible outcomes. But we also just lived through a moment where anything felt possible with a certain quarterback who will be not in uniform, but employed by, Houston’s first playoff moment. The very past that created this moment proves that while anything is possible, life often conspires to ruin the greatest fantasies we can create. It’s found money that the Texans became who they are this soon, but much as the power of compound investing runs the actual money world, finding the money is only the start of the battle to turn it into a fortune.

What the Texans did this offseason is going to be, as Cincinnati was for Lovie, the model for a lot of teams. Prior to 2023, Houston’s recent history under Easterby was about trying to be the cleverest team in the room, the team that did all the little things better than anybody else did. The team that can trade for an old running back and have it work, the team that doesn’t need to push the envelope to build the talent base around their franchise quarterback because the culture was so strong, and their hand-picked guys so good. The team that can spend two first-round picks on a franchise left tackle, not have an extension worked out, then get dragged by said left tackle in contract talks because they had no leverage. The team that knows so well what to look for in a head coach — that everybody else has overlooked, the fools! — that it lands on David Culley. And so on.

When you type out how the Texans did what they did this offseason, the thing is, none of it was all that hard. It was fortunate. But it wasn’t hard. The boldest thing they did was trade up for Will Anderson, and while that could have gone against them from a value perspective, it wasn’t like you could find people who believed Anderson wasn’t a top-tier EDGE prospect so long as they actually watched football. Prospects can miss, of course, and injuries did take part of Anderson’s season, but he played up to who he was as a prospect when he was on the field.

The most agonizing part of the broad enterprise I undertook here for about four years when I was doing this regularly rather than caring for an infant was: Almost all the moves the Texans made that were bad were easy first-guesses the moment they happened. And when the Texans simply just did the things any rational observer would do and “hire the head coach prospect with the best track record as a defensive coordinator” and “draft a legitimate franchise quarterback prospect with your second overall pick when you don’t have one,” I was happy. And then things worked out. And then life as a fan was actually pretty swell. What a concept! I’m not saying they have done everything exactly to the letter as I would have done since DeMeco Ryans was hired — I was pretty down on some of their OL investments, for instance, and don’t think Shaq Mason is a great bet to continue to age well — but you nail the major stuff and you get some benefit of the doubt on your less-important moves.

None of the big picture questions matter today, because even as neutered as the passing game feels without Tank Dell, the Texans have a chance in every game because of how good Stroud is. Already. (I don’t love the matchup against the Browns defense, but to me the Texans are live home underdogs so long as they can bring more than one reliable wideout to the field.) This isn’t a story of this year being over, but a confession of my awe at how quickly the pieces of this puzzle came together.

But when you have a franchise quarterback and two young good wideouts, and probably a star-caliber EDGE, and perhaps Derek Stingley is on his own path to stardom as well, and they’re all on rookie deals, you have the leverage to do a lot in the world of football. “Knocking one draft completely out of the park” was the start of long era of successful Seahawks football and one title.

Is it the beginning of something special? It sure feels that way. That’s paradoxically the most dangerous feeling of all specifically because once you hit that, you can actually be disappointed again. I’ve been lucky enough to almost make it to 40 years old, and I’ve seen a lot of supposed golden eras come apart at the seams pretty quickly.

But the greatest compliment I can pay is — even if I quibble at a move here, don’t love this prospect there — the team has finally made enough rational decisions that I actually have some trust in the momentum of this year continuing.

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