Optimism Prospectus: Texans Offense

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.

***

I am pretty much incapable of optimism as an operating system when it comes to these Houston Texans. I don’t trust the leadership of the team. I don’t believe the David Culley CEO head coach plan is a good one, much as I am pulling for him to make it work. I don’t believe that any organization that would dig in around a failed culture because the owner is a big fan of the culture leader has a bright future.

But I want to express what I believe is a rational optimistic viewpoint for this team as a thought exercise. Not because I believe any of it will happen, but because the fanbase gets a little whiny if I don’t throw in a little sunshine every now and then. Well, these are my beliefs of how much things can change.

The offense
2020 DVOA: 13th (8th pass, 32nd run, second-easiest schedule in the NFL, 15.5 adjusted games lost — third-lowest)

If Deshaun Watson, for whatever reason, comes back, the ceiling of this offense is high enough to make the team a playoff contender and a tough out in the playoffs. He is simply that good. I don’t know that this is in anyway feasible at this point, and I am not trying to get anyone’s hopes up or handwave the allegations he’s dealing with away. He made an ascension into a top-five quarterback last season that nobody saw, despite playing in an offense that absolutely could not run the ball and, at times, playing with almost no receiver help. Because I don’t see him coming back, I’m going to leave this paragraph hanging here and move on. But because it would change literally everything about this team, the caveat has to come first.

Tyrod Taylor’s best years were spent with the Buffalo Bills, leading a run-first offense with a Hall of Very Good back to three consecutive above-average seasons. The 2015-2017 Bills finished fourth, first, and then 20th in run offense DVOA in a year that got Greg Roman fired mid-season. The pass offense DVOA declined precipitously after a ninth-place finish in 2015. Since moving on from Buffalo, he’s been a place-holder for young quarterbacks, keeping the Browns warm for Baker Mayfield and the Chargers job to mentor Justin Herbert for a few games.

The two major knocks against Taylor as a passer are his lack of deep strikes and his sack rate. Taylor threw 25% of his passes as “deep” or “bombs” per FO charting with the Bills in his first season, but fell to 22% in 2016 and a ghastly 16% in 2017. To be fair, that 2017 Bills team had no receivers of note — Kelvin Benjamin was just about done with his time in the league and their leading receiver by targets was rookie Zay Jones. (Note that this is not slandering Taylor’s deep ball so much as noting he doesn’t uncork it often.) The Bills had a decent-to-good offensive line over those three years led by Eric Wood, Cordy Glenn (and then Dion Dawkins), and Richie Incognito. Taylor never threw more than 436 attempts in a season and was sacked at least 36 times in all three years. He took two sacks in his one start last year and 13 in three starts with the Browns. He’s going to take sacks.

What you want to get from Taylor is value in the running game — the read-option doesn’t quite have the same veneer of newness today as it did in 2012 or 2015 when Roman began using it extensively, but teams still generate a lot of value from it. Taylor had only three designed rushes with the Chargers last year and they generated a total of one yard, and he had only 22 yards on six designed runs with the Browns in 2018. Taylor is still a good athlete for a quarterback and it wouldn’t surprise me if the Texans took a page out of the Ravens notebook, however we’ve heard little from the players or the staff that would confirm that they’re doing this. At his best, Taylor was providing roughly 90 carries of 5.4 YPC to the offense every year in Buffalo. That is his major upside, provided he hasn’t lost a step.

Ryan Finley realistically needed to hit the ground running in his chances without Andy Dalton in Cincinnati and didn’t. He’s been a disaster in his 119 NFL pass attempts so far. No reason to wishcast a bunch of improvement on him or pretend he’s the quarterback of the future. He could be an adequate backup, but the list of quarterbacks drafted outside the top two rounds who go to a new place and suddenly thrive is short.

The Texans don’t have a Shady McCoy in their backfield rotation. I think the majority of David Johnson’s “breakout” at the end of last season was a fluke. His two biggest catches came on busted plays with Watson creating late in the down, his biggest runs were big holes caused by the re-insertion of Roderick Johnson.

If there’s a spot to be optimistic with Johnson it’s that the offense last year didn’t really provide him much space as a pass-catcher and there’s nobody in the backfield currently who should threaten his role there. But it’s not like Tim Kelly got him involved suddenly after O’Brien was deposed, and that’s a little bit of a concern to me. Dumpoffs are a more reasonable request for him, and I think that’s something that quarterbacks both control and that Taylor has a lot of history with. McCoy got 50 targets a year and led the team in targets in 2017. I could see a rise for Johnson along those same lines if he keeps the job.

If we’re being optimistic, I think the best-case scenario for the Texans is that Phillip Lindsay takes control of the job at some point in the first four weeks of the season. He’s the back with the most recent success — back-to-back 1000 yard seasons to start his career before a down 2020 as Melvin Gordon’s backup. I think the ideal distribution of roles is probably something like Johnson third-down back, Ingram goal-line back, Lindsay lead back. Well, I am actually not sure if Ingram has the juice to do goal-line stuff anymore, but I assume he’s going to get carries somewhere.

Brandin Cooks rebounded from his down 2019 in 2020 and then demanded to stay, so the Texans re-worked his deal. It still wasn’t quite the dominant aerial show of 2016-2018, but I think a lot of that was locked away by the offense being terrible at play-action. Only 26% of Cooks’ targets in 2020 qualified as “deep” or “bomb.” In 2018, it was 32%, and in 2017, it was 43%(!). However, going from Watson to Taylor probably hurts his chances of getting deep looks in a vacuum. One of the sneaky secrets of last year’s Texans offense is that there wasn’t much to “but they weren’t healthy!” about and Cooks playing 15 games certainly qualifies. Cooks was targeted 120 times last year and the most common route was a curl — but he was only targeted eleven times in the red zone, and four of those were against the Titans in the Week 17 finale. Cooks lacks the physicality to be a plus-plus player there or to handle the RPOs that went to Will Fuller last season. To me, he’s a good No. 2 receiver who will be stretched as a No. 1.

Unfortunately, without Hopkins, that tough interior player may not be on the Texans roster right now. Chris Conley was signed in free agency to give a bigger body and may wind up starting outside, but he had just six red zone targets all of last season and only one of them was completed for positive yards. He also had just eight red zone targets in 2019 — and six of them happened after Week 15 with the Jaguars basically eliminated. He did at least show a little more physicality inside on slants, catching six of the eight of them for four first downs in 2020 — that just wasn’t part of the package in the red zone for the Jaguars.

Randall Cobb and Keke Coutee sort of replicate each other as inside receivers. Five of Cobb’s 48 targets came as an outside receiver. Four of Coutee’s 40 targets came as an outside receiver. Coutee has the juice that I think Cobb has lost at this point, but Cobb has the surer hands and is less disaster-prone. It’s hard to tell the guy you signed to a big money contract last year that he’s not good enough to start, but I think a Coutee breakout is probably one of the only real chances this team has to improve on last year. Cobb is going to give you 50-70 catch-and-fall-downs.

At tight end, the Texans enter the last season of Jordan Akins’ rookie deal with no real idea of what he can be. Akins is 29 already, and Jack Easterby was lauded by John McClain for not trading him at the deadline for … some reason?

Akins has demonstrated the ability to be a No. 1 move tight end for a few years now, but seems to always get hurt or otherwise left behind whenever that chance should be occurring. After Will Fuller got suspended prior to Week 13, it was my supposition that Akins would grow into an enhanced target role. Instead he got just three total targets in Week 13, and wound up with just 21 total targets over the last six weeks of the season. To put that in perspective, Chad Hansen had 14 combined targets in Weeks 13 and 14 alone. I’m a big fan of the ability that Akins has, but it seems like the offense has a hard time getting to him as a read. Regardless, along with Coutee, this is one player who has a chance to breakout.

Pharaoh Brown was the best Texans tight end last year and, frankly, the only one who had any prayer at blocking anybody. I can see a lot of 12-personnel in this offense’s future given their likely reliance on running the ball. I don’t think there’s like, untapped potential here. What they saw last year was a jolt and they should be hoping they get to see it again this year. Kahale Warring is on the roster but the list of guys who come from doing almost nothing their first two seasons to being a major contributor in year three is so small that I can barely take his presence seriously. I also wouldn’t be surprised if he was cut, because he’s going up against Not My Guys! syndrome from Nick Caserio.

The offensive line is one area where the Texans should definitely improve next year after their firing of the disastrous Mike Devlin, who often seemed to be speaking a different language when interviewed. The media hasn’t gotten a real chance to speak to James Campen yet, but this is an addition-by-subtraction move to me.

The interior line did not play well last year. Zach Fulton and Nick Martin are gone, while Max Scharping will no longer be carrot-and-sticked by idiots.

The biggest thing this offense can do is to create a line that is worthy of the investment that has been spent here — Laremy Tunsil’s huge amount of picks, the first on Tytus Howard, the second on Scharping, and additionally now a trade for Marcus Cannon and his big cap hit. I don’t know exactly how the Texans will suss it out, but my best guess is that they will put Cannon at right guard. Outside of Tunsil, nobody on this line has played a lights-out 16 games yet — and even Tunsil has had a rough game or two. We’ve seen plenty of flashes from Howard. But this unit needs consistency in a big way in 2021, and Howard’s pass protection is going to be even more amplified in terms of importance with Taylor in the pocket.

Summing it up

Obviously without Watson (or some sort of trade that looks more unlikely by the day) there’s no way this pass offense is going to crack the top 10 in DVOA again. I think it would be overly optimistic to believe it will crack the top 20. I’d be more down at about 22-23 myself as an optimist’s point of view. Taylor is limited, the receiving corps has red zone limitations, and Will Fuller is a bigger loss than people are giving him credit for. I think the best-case scenario is, kind of like Bill O’Brien’s rookie season as head coach, the team is able to grind enough yards on the ground to make that irrelevant. Maybe not a top five season because of the lack of tackle-breaking talent and elusiveness involved, but I could see a read-option and offensive line-influenced, I dunno, 3% DVOA? Something along those lines. Something near the bottom of the top 10 that runs a lot of clock.

I know the roster isn’t full yet, I know the rookies haven’t been drafted yet. I think there’s some hope inherent to that that I’m pricing in (better receiver, more dynamic back, highly-drafted center). But it’s hard to see an optimistic upside for this offense, as currently constructed, as more than a top-20 unit without Watson. I think that relies heavily on Taylor being up to the task of 16 games started with his 20s athleticism, as well, which I’m not at all about to bank on. It’s a really old unit on paper and if their defensive schedule gets harder that’s also not great news.

***

I’m writing this article free of charge — this website is ad-free and non-intrusive. If you enjoy my work and want to encourage me to produce more, please feel free to leave me a PayPal tip.

What competition means for the Houston 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.

***

Something that became very evident in the pre-free agency scuttle for the Texans is that they believed heavily in the idea of “competition.” It’s something that David Culley preached in his latest presser, when he said “Competition makes everybody better, and you’re always trying to do that through free agency. You do that through the draft, and that’s a yearly thing, and that’s something that we’re trying to do right now.” It’s something that became apparent via Nick Caserio’s interview with Sean Pendergast and Seth Payne when he said that he was aiming for “singles” and “doubles” in free agency.

A feeling I am getting from a lot of the fanbase is that they are somewhat miffed that the Texans aren’t being given more credit for their moves. They want to talk about improving the culture and, to Houston’s credit, they’ve done a good enough job selling the idea of competition that several fans have begun parroting that idea to me. It’s a nice little dopamine hit to make real changes! I certainly don’t think anybody can be “upset” at what has happened in free agency. I have my idea: I would rather have signed a young player with some room to grow like a William Jackson or Carl Lawson than eight special teamers. But what we don’t know — or I should say, what we only know implicitly — is how free agents with actual options viewed the Texans.

https://texanswire.usatoday.com/2021/03/23/chris-conley-texans-david-culley/

So let’s make a distinction then: My major issue with the Texans offseason is that I think they should have hoarded money to sign more guys like Desmond King and Phillip Lindsay — guys who slipped through the cracks of real free agency — instead of spending in advance of free agency on David Johnson, Justin Britt, and Mark Ingram. They pre-determined their strategy and it felt like they got caught off-guard a bit by the market.

As I write this on Sunday night, Jadeveon Clowney is still a free agent. I know he comes with warts, and you should too, because he is unsigned in free agency after a few weeks for a reason. But he’s only 28, has shown the ability to be a core player for a team in the past, and could rebuild value here. I felt the same way about Sammy Watkins before he was signed on Friday night. Malik Hooker and Al-Quadin Muhammad are extremely young off rookie contracts. Maybe they see these guys and are trying to pounce — they’ve certainly treated the salary cap like it’s not much of an obstacle so far with the amount of restructures they’ve done. I would have prioritized that over what the Texans did in their opening free agency salvo.

But my main objective to what the Texans have done is that it gets harder and harder to pull someone like that from a salary cap standpoint when you’ve signed five different linebackers/special teams players to have a competition. Likewise, when it comes time to pull undrafted free agents — a place where the Texans can actually potentially sign guys who will matter for four years instead of one — the amount of depth that the Texans have signed may make it hard for them to grab a deep class.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with wanting to have a competition. Bill O’Brien absolutely would have been better served to have competitions at times instead of sticking his favorites in their spots. The Texans will also draft players that will come in and provide extra competition at some of those spots as well. Special teams play will get better as an obvious emphasis point. You’d hope that bottom-of-the-roster play would get better as well, though that’s really about the evaluations.

But the thing about competition in the NFL is that when you do it with veteran free agents it is just a band-aid, and this team as currently constructed, without Deshaun Watson, will not benefit much from all these marginal improvements. They will improve, but they will improve from two wins to three, or three wins to four, or five wins to six with an extremely optimistic outcome as far as coaching and health goes. It’s not exactly what you’re hoping for if, say, your best-case season outcome for the team is to get the No. 1 pick. (I wouldn’t say I’m one of those people, by the way, but you still need a credible quarterback solution if Watson’s allegations do not lead to him somehow starting for this team in September.)

The real problem here — and the reason I would favor just hitting the salary floor this year if I couldn’t load up on the Clowneys and Watkinses of the world — is that once the competition is done here this year, they’re done. This team does not have many current paths to long-term roster improvement because of the Laremy Tunsil trade. Deshaun Watson is only on the roster in spirit, and may eventually give some new players in this box via trade. Outside of that, Lonnie Johnson, Charles Omenihu, Max Scharping, Ross Blacklock, Jonathan Greenard, and Tytus Howard are the only players under 27 with an inside track to a starter role that are guaranteed to still be on the roster in 2022. I don’t think many of those guys have star-level ascensions to come — I think we would have seen more from them by now if they did. That’s not to say that they can’t be very effective players, good starters, and so on. But I doubt there are multiple Laremy Tunsils or DeAndre Hopkinses or J.J. Watts in that group. You might find one, if you’re lucky.

Justin Reid, Jordan Akins (not appearing in this photo because he’s 30 and had a minor league baseball career), Jacob Martin, Keion Crossen, P.J. Hall, Buddy Howell, and Keke Coutee are going to be free agents after the year. That is a major problem with not giving your young players snaps and space to develop and calling it “not a rookie year” and blaming a lack of readiness on not having enough offseason reps like an imbecile. The only young player in this entire free agency class that’s gotten snaps is Vernon Hargreaves, and Hargreaves has proven time and time again he doesn’t deserve them. (That’s something that happened after O’Brien left, too, by the way, when Romeo Crennel continued to make sure young players never sniffed real playing time.) I don’t know how good any of those players are except for Reid. If the ethos is to simply get enough veterans to not rely on young players, well, those players aren’t going to develop.

If I’m Desmond King, why am I here for more than a year if the Texans don’t blow me away with an offer? They’re still fairly likely to not have a good team barring a complete change of heart on the trade stance by Watson. You get an in, and an in is something, but if your team is barren, players understand they’re not actually winning much here. If you can’t offer winning, or stars that promise wins, or youth, anyone with an option off the ship will probably take it unless you overpay them. If I’m Kevin Pierre-Louis, and I turn 30 in October as I’m going 5-12 while having a good off-ball linebacker season, do I want to be back here in 2022 or do I want to try to get a ring while I still can?

So I would prefer to flood the roster with UDFAs, make it more likely that you hit one, and if you do, suddenly, that’s an asset. If UDFAs don’t face a lot of competition to make a roster, by the way, that’s often a selling point to their agents! (The talent level matters too, which is why the Texans will still be attractive to some players, but I think the best way to approach this is on a grander scale, understanding that these things won’t always work out.) The Patriots in recent years have signed J.C. Jackson, Adam Butler, Jacob Hollister, Kenny Moore, Jakobi Meyers, Cre’Von LeBlanc, and Jonathan Jones out of UDFA spots. If Houston could get four or five undrafted free agents out of this class that have starter upside, that would be a huge coup for them.

Now, could that happen anyway? Maybe! But I would argue that priming the pump for that is the best use of Houston’s resources right now. I would argue that a UDFA special teamer who struggles Weeks 1-12 while he learns the NFL speed and comes on in the last month of the season is more valuable than anything Terrence Brooks could give them. That’s no slight on Brooks’ value or talent, that’s just an admission to the way the NFL economic model currently works. By flooding the roster with veterans that will eat offseason reps, the Texans are creating roadblocks for youth that could suddenly step up.

That’s a willful choice, and it’s one that remains consistent from the O’Brien administration. Maybe it works out in a positive way and someone flips a pick for some of these players at the trade deadline. I think a more realistic view of where the Texans are at would show that they would be better served letting the youth on the roster settle how good they are on the practice field and preseason, and then living with the inconsistency for 17 weeks. Trying to buffer the roster into five- or six-win territory doesn’t do them a lot of good as long as the quarterback questions remain unanswered.

***

I’m writing this article free of charge — this website is ad-free and non-intrusive. If you enjoy my work and want to encourage me to produce more, please feel free to leave me a PayPal tip.

The dynamic of fandom and Deshaun Watson’s sexual misconduct allegations

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 Ben Roethlisberger was accused of raping Andrea McNulty, what I remember the loudest from those days is the lashing out that Pittsburgh fans engaged in online. This came in a few different ways, be it discrediting the accuser, harassing the media that was covering the story, or the more benign “say it ain’t so” tact that heads straight down to denial.

With Deshaun Watson, I don’t see a lot of that. I’m sure some of that is because we are entering into a more civilized era of choosing to believe women when they allege something like this. I’m sure some of it is because the Steelers have bars in big cities with a bigger fanbase than the Texans have as a general concept. I’m sure there’s a racial tint to it, as there usually is. But I think most of it is because Watson has chosen the path of spiritual teamlessness and most of the people who would be in his corner in this way are mainlining Desmond King interception VODs and trying to talk themselves into the Texans winning six games instead of four.

If I put away the analyst hat and put on the fan hat for a paragraph or two, it’s one of the weirdest things I’ve ever experienced. Imagine you spend half of a decade post-Matt Schaub hoping for any kind of good quarterback play, let alone the kind that melts faces like Watson does. What he did in 2020 was something that, paired with that level of team success, is impossibly rare. Also, because of his totally understandable decision to pull his levers to get away from Texans upper management, something that is almost impossible to celebrate properly. While I don’t take it personally in any way that Watson wants out, well, am I supposed to celebrate having what we longed for over many years getting instantly yanked out of Houston the second it appears? Am I supposed to make highlight VODs that will get 300,000 Twitter views while people @ him with their fanboy jersey swap pictures?

Then there’s an accusation. Then there’s three. Then there’s 13 and 10 more women being talked to. It’s very hard to believe that it’s an isolated incident when there’s 13.

***

One of the things I struggle with the most as a self-editor is dealing with how I am supposed to treat players objectively and fairly. I know that Vernon Hargreaves has been very bad by almost any empirical or eye-based test that is public knowledge. I was raised on a background of Baseball Prospectus snark. I marinated at Football Outsiders, where we have written sharp-sounding things that have aged dull over the years. (For instance, I remember being called out in a predictions piece a couple of years ago about how I believed Antonio Brown would underperform with the Raiders because he seemed like he’d “left the reservation,” because that probably wasn’t a great choice of words. And I accepted that and asked for an edit.) At the heart of the job, there’s an acknowledgement that certain players aren’t good enough for the role that struggles with the idea that you need to find an entertaining way to say it without actually ravaging the player. It’s a hard line to walk and one that I haven’t always been great at.

So I think Hargreaves is terrible at the job the Texans ask him to do. He’s still in the 99.8th percentile of all football players, ever, by virtue of being an NFL journeyman in 2021. He’s obviously trying his hardest and has impressed someone at some level, because the Texans keep employing him. There’s an overwhelming drumbeat of positivity coming from the team itself about him, because the team isn’t going to put out anything negative about their own employees.

In the pandemic era, if a player doesn’t control the media about themselves by injecting themselves into it, what we get are surface-level insights. I know that Hargreaves laughs a lot when he’s on the field because he was mic’d up that one time last season. But if you asked me if I thought Hargreaves was a good person? I’ve got no idea. In fact, because of the things he talks about and the thought that I’ve seen him take on answers when taking questions, I’d be more inclined to say that Justin Reid is a good person. Only one of those guys called me an asinine punk on Twitter last year, and it wasn’t Hargreaves. But what I know about Hargreaves are some things he did. What I know about Reid is a little closer to a story. That doesn’t mean I’m tight with him, it just means he’s put a personality out there that I can empathize with.

And it is much the same way with Deshaun Watson. I’ve covered him for the better part of three years and the personality he’s put out there has been engaging and driven. He’s not afraid to promise the moon to the fanbase. He’s not afraid to straight up say that the culture needs to change. He’s not afraid to break down why how the Panthers were defending him worked and why how the Falcons were defending him didn’t. Outside of admiring his football prowess and understanding of the game both on and off the field, though, I don’t know much about who he is as a person. I know things he did: buy a house for his mom, start his own foundation, write a book. But there aren’t exactly unguarded 75-minute sessions of him shooting the shit with his friends. He hasn’t dialed me up and told me 10 Things He Hates About Jack Easterby and his entire trade pref list while we’re both cooking dinner.

Ultimately, the feelings that the player creates on the field becomes most of the fan sentiment around them. I think Brennan Scarlett is one of the best people the Texans employed over the past couple of years. I think Whitney Mercilus is a terrific speaker and a 100% team guy. 95% of the conversation I read about either player over the last six months is “thank God he’s gone” or “we’ve got to find a way to get rid of him.” At the same time, the feelings the player creates when they speak add sentiment for me. But those are just two layers in trying to figure out who someone is and what they’re capable of.

So, back to Hargreaves. I try to be kind. I try to wrap criticism of him more towards the people who keep playing him and employing him on this team. I try not to just scream out from the rafters that this guy sucks. But obviously, his level of play impacts a lot of how we feel about him. That’s just natural for anybody; fan, coach, general manager, beat writer, or whatever. If Hargreaves had 12 allegations about anything, he wouldn’t be a Texan right now.

Watson’s play and football mind impacts a lot of how I feel about him, and I think that’s natural. It’s also natural to want to give the benefit of the doubt about something like this when you like someone and want them to succeed.

This is why I’ve mostly tried to practice silence.

***

My major reaction to the sexual misconduct accusations of Deshaun Watson has been pretty simple: You have to separate it from football, and you have to listen. His agent said as much last week:

So, simply put, what I’ve been trying to do is listen. While I’m not conceited enough to think that all my Twitter followers are going to agree with a take that I put out there — quite the opposite, as I learn every day on the hellsite — I also don’t really want to create a pulpit about a serious legal matter. The problem is that fans generally just want the exact opposite: immediate conclusions, instantly, and often repeated at them daily.

It’s hard to find a perfect messenger when you’re trying to pick lawyers, and Tony Buzbee is far from that in my eyes. I don’t much enjoy the phrase “Tony Buzbee’s Instagram Account” entering my daily lexicon. I would have voted against him when he ran against Sylvester Turner had I still had an in-city residence to vote from. I think he’s trying to dial up public sentiment against Watson to create pressure for a settlement, knowing that an athlete can’t really undo the reputation hit that comes with this regardless of truth. That very well may be in the best interests of his clients, and I’m not going to put him on blast for it, but I don’t have to like any of it.

I am not a sources guy, and so you should take what I say with a hectare of salt, but my belief is that there’s probably some fire around this much smoke. Not saying that Watson did what was alleged. Not saying that Buzbee necessarily has good evidence about what he is alleging, or that Watson is going down in flames. Just saying that when DMs pop up wherein Watson apologizes to his masseuses about making them feel uncomfortable … that’s not the sort of thing I think would be sent about popping a boner in a session or something. It is also not the sort of thing I’d expect to see be brought out so early in the process, which makes me think there might be a lot more here.

Mike Florio came out the day that this DM surfaced and said it wasn’t a smoking gun, but he meant that from a legal standpoint. The fact that Watson made a woman uncomfortable enough for him to DM her is, to me, evidence that there’s something here.

The TexanSphere is versed with a great number of people with law backgrounds. Steph Stradley, Tim the Battle Red Blog face (who I can never figure out how seriously he takes his anonymity so I’m not going to put his last name up here), Mike Meltser, who has passed the bar in two states. Here’s one thing Meltser had to say about the situation last week:

I think that is the hinge to all of this from a legal standpoint: They’re all civil cases, so far none of the cases I’ve seen have a plaintiff who has gone to the police. There’s not anything at stake here beyond money for them. So, if you are hoping for something like an exoneration, that’s something I’d be interested in knowing the “why?” of.

But if what we’ve seen so far holds true, well, I wouldn’t be surprised if this escalates past the civil courts either.

***

One thing I think that society in general — and men in particular — have to get is that who someone is in public isn’t who they are in private. As humans, we generally all have flaws in one way or another. I didn’t publish this piece on Monday because I decided that watching the Houston Cougars play college basketball was more exciting to me than trying to slog through the very difficult thoughts and emotions a piece like this takes, even if it is “my job” and it would be “ideal to put a piece out on Monday.” That is a very small example of me being flawed. There are many, many, other examples.

Who Watson is to us and who he actually is to other people can be different things, and it’s not hard to square. We don’t have the intimacy required to enter that section of his life via football.

It goes without saying that the actions spelled out in this are things that nobody should do. I very much hope Deshaun Watson didn’t do them. I also don’t have a lot of reason to sit here and tell you that he didn’t, what we have right now is simply he said versus she said. There’s a helplessness to the whole thing because all I can do is spectate. This won’t be something that just goes away tomorrow. It is likely to be a pretty protracted process without a settlement — Harris County’s court systems are flowing quite slowly right now. And, well, every day we will likely read something new. All I can do is keep listening and not give in to the base reactions that bubble up.

Regardless of what happens, I think the damage has already been done to Watson’s personal brand and that there will need to be some ownership of that if he wants to move beyond it. If he wants to blanket no comment on these things, fair enough. I think that the members of his fanbase — wherever it winds up being — with a conscience are going to have weigh these lawsuits with a skeptical eye if he doesn’t speak up about it.

This initial statement was extremely strong. But as more and more of these lawsuits have popped up, there hasn’t been much in a way of a response to them. And, keep in mind, with civil suits, the easiest way to end them is to settle them. By coming up with this opening statement, we’re teetering on Not A Great Look territory if he decides to settle, right?

***

OK, now that we’ve ridden out 3,500 words to keep anybody but the diehards from getting this far, here are my takes on how this matters as far as commonly asked questions from a football perspective:

Is there a conspiracy?

This came up at Buzbee’s presser last week, where he said he had no idea who Cal McNair was. I can see why this particular front office would inspire people to believe that there’d be a conspiracy about this, but this kind of idea generates a lot of trails. Think of this less from the perspective of the Texans wanting to keep Watson and more from the perspective of an individual employee losing their job, potentially opening themselves up to NFL sanctions, and so on — what incentive do they have to do this? It’s an idea that catches a lot more flies before you think out all the repercussions.

No, I don’t believe there’s any conspiracy here for any NFL teams.

Is Watson’s trade value harmed?

I would say not a lot. Others would say otherwise. Here’s what John McClain wrote about it:

This was notable to me because that’s the first time I’ve seen McClain present that as “the Texans were planning” rather than “the Texans should” — but anyway, I disagree. I do think this will matter some for the very top-end of the market. I don’t think a team will be willing to trade you a Kyler Murray or Justin Herbert for Watson if these lawsuits continue to stick to Watson.

But broadly speaking, if you were getting assets before, I expect the assets to largely be unchanged. I don’t think the Dolphins and Jets can pivot to the Franchise Quarterback Store. You can either get a real thing, or you can roll the dice. It’s not surprising that a lot of the smoke coming from the well-sourced national reporters this week sort of tampered down on trade value expectations, because the people talking about the expectations aren’t the Texans, who have not talked about moving Watson at all. I could still see the Texans making a move that isn’t for enough value, but that was always an option with this front office dynamic. (And that isn’t a shot at Caserio so much as a shot at the volatility that Jack Easterby brings to the front office in my opinion.)

Did this change the timing of a trade?

Kinda depends on what you believed to begin with. I’ve never believed that the Texans were going to move Watson by the draft. Albert Breer wrote that this has frozen the trade market for buyers, too. Which, fair enough, but it takes someone to sell to be willing to buy. There’s really nothing at stake when someone who can’t buy something tells you he won’t buy it.

Where does this leave the Texans?

In an even weirder spot than before, if that were possible. By Texans Cinematic Universing the trade demand, they have run into a spot where that option might be off the table until some of these charges are settled or fought in court. And then there’s the possibility that Watson may be put on commissioner’s leave or whatever other form of self-justice the NFL wants to throw out there. It might be a cloud that hangs over this franchise for a while.

I’m actually more curious about where it leaves Watson. As recently as three months ago he was one of the brightest young stars in the NFL, nobody had a bad word to say about him. Now between these allegations and the trade demand, that public persona that he carefully crafted is being torn apart. I’m very interested to see what the reaction — if there is any — will be beyond how he and his lawyer respond specifically to the charges.

***

Keep listening. I really hope this turns out to be a non-story, but the more I’ve listened, the harder it has been to believe that.

***

I’m writing this article free of charge — this website is ad-free and non-intrusive. If you enjoy my work and want to encourage me to produce more, please feel free to leave me a PayPal tip.

Free agency’s opening salvo shows the many different masters that Nick Caserio has to serve

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.

***

The Texans drowned us in a sea of small stakes content over the past few days. The Shaq Lawson for Benardrick McKinney trade struck me as inspired, and I can see ways that some of their signings work out in a positive way.

However, what struck me hardest is the strain that the Deshaun Watson/Jack Easterby dynamic has put on Nick Caserio’s pursuit of re-imagining this team. Limited resources are one thing, but the future of the franchise is effectively in flux and that’s a hard thing to present in free agency to anybody who has a real option on where they want to play next year. In other words: you can overpay free agents who have a choice, or you can watch them sign anywhere but Houston. Here’s a quick rundown of the genres I think Caserio was put up against in deciding this plan:

The Greater Easterby Fellowship

As I have pointed out on this blog several times, Cal McNair (and Bob) have a belief in building-by-consensus. “We needed [interim head coach] Romeo Crennel to focus on coaching the team. Jack Easterby is a great person, a great leader and a consensus builder, so he is who I chose to serve as our interim GM,” McNair told ESPN in November. What that means is that anybody who is in a major position of power for the team has a real vote on what happens. And what that means is, of course, Jack Easterby is allowed to have a say. I want to share the video of Seth Payne and Sean Pendergast’s interview with Caserio and focus in on what he said when asked about bringing David Johnson back:

That abstract start to the answer is nothing new for Caserio, but I think it’s very telling that he didn’t even begin to defend Johnson’s piss-poor 2020 production. He offered “production at different points.” My read of this is that this wasn’t a signing that Caserio actually loved. My read of it is that he got outvoted.

I think anybody who was on the 2019-2020 Texans in a veteran, largely unproductive role has to be looked at with an extremely skeptical eye at this point. That extends to my large amount of frustration that the team will wind up yet again have Vernon Hargreaves at corner. The depth chart in front of Hargreaves is just unsettled enough for him to again wind up playing large portions of the season despite being empirically awful at the job no matter which set of numbers you look at. The Texans have continually defended him in public, be it Anthony Weaver as defensive coordinator or D’Anton Lynn as secondary coach in his few availabilities:

I don’t want to dwell on this too much, because every organization has their favorites and Caserio is not immune to his favorites either. But when a consensus builder literally just failed in a historical way at helping shape the roster that is in place today, he probably shouldn’t have much say! Yet he does! Go Texans!

Layers and layers of players

One thing it was impossible to leave the recent David Culley or Nick Caserio pressers with was a sense that they value quantity over quality.

This is an approach that is extremely weird to me for a team that doesn’t have a lot of finished parts and, in my opinion, lends some credence to the idea that Watson’s dispute with the Texans will take a long time to settle. These small special teams-focused moves and bargain-bin replacements you hope can hold up are finishing touches on a great roster. For a roster like the one that the Texans have right now, they feel tonally off. This team isn’t a fifth-place special teams DVOA from winning anything unless Watson is here, and even then, it’s not like that kept them from being 4-12 last season.

Most of these moves are one-year deals, so the Texans have a lot of space left to pivot to something if the Watson situation gets even worse. But at the same time, if one of these guys vastly outplays his contract, the Texans get no real reward out of it. The player is right back to free agency or in Caserio’s office angling for a big raise.

When you look at the opportunity cost of signing these special teams guys, potential linebacker solutions, Mark Ingram, David Johnson, and Christian Kirksey and put it up against trying to lure an actual talented football player to the Texans and backfilling with younger players who may not do as well, I think it’s a poor choice for a team with this little talent on the roster. This team needs to be embracing the idea that it can manufacture some good value out of youth rather than treating it with skepticism. Their ability to offer young guys a chance in a churn is one of the most valuable things they have right now.

Which leads us to another major point of the shadow that the Watson-Easterby/McNair standoff envelops:

Does anybody actually want to be a Houston Texan if they have a choice?

I listen to the readers and commenters of this blog/Twitter/the greater Texansphere, and I think a lot of you are tired of hearing about the Watson situation. I empathize in that it feels like your fandom is under attack on a daily basis, even if that isn’t a fully rational feeling. The reason it remains a big deal is not just because of Watson’s obvious talent and how badly other people covet it, but also because the perception around the Texans is currently awful. Players want to play with other great players. Watson is one of them. He’s one of them who you literally can’t find a non-hot take artist to say a bad thing about. And he’s holding out. That sets a tone that is hard for free agents to ignore.

Let’s imagine any rational top-of-the-line free agent with multiple suitors looking at what he sees in the Texans situation right now. There’s the state income tax not existing; that’s real nice. But the team finished 4-12 last season and the only reason they didn’t finish 2-14 is currently something you can’t count on being there. Upper management is the biggest joke in the NFL and they essentially exist in a mindset where there is no separation of church and state. David Culley is not a head coach with a long history of success in putting guys in roles to succeed — and because of where he was plucked from, there’s no way he could have that reputation yet. Any one of those things could be a red flag to a guy like Joe Thuney, John Johnson, or William Jackson signing with the Texans. All of them? It’s a death knell. You’re gonna have to overpay them to get their interest.

So when you see a Kirksey signing, a Justin Britt signing, a Mark Ingram signing, all happening pre-free agency and over the minimum, what that tells you is that the market for those guys is limited. Indeed, none of the three of them finished last season in their team’s plans. Britt didn’t even spend any of the 2020 season on a team after his 2019 ACL tear. That doesn’t mean they can’t claw out effective seasons in the right circumstances with the right locale. But it also is indicative of the very real issues those guys had in the eyes of other NFL teams.

Ingram had a 40-yard touchdown run, untouched, against the Texans on fourth down in Week 2. That run outgained or tied five of his 10 biggest yardage days of last season and he didn’t finish the season on the active roster; he’s 31. Kirksey has played 20 games in the last three seasons and will turn 29 before the season.

Maliek Collins, who I admittedly like a little more as an upside play compared to these pre-FA guys, had no sacks last season. The details of this contract don’t even really seem to trust Collins, guaranteeing him just $2 million of the reported $6 million. If they find someone else in training camp, he could easily be cut. We don’t have the details of my favorite signing of Monday’s lot, Kevin Pierre-Louis, but his contract is “up to $7 million,” not $7 million. I like Vincent Taylor and we considered him on the FO Top Prospects List a couple years ago. He’s getting $850,000 guaranteed.

None of these guys are taking minimum deals to play here, they are here because they had sad markets in a crushed offseason. The Texans set them slightly above that.

And what that really means is…

Real talent has to be acquired through trades

The two most talented players added to the roster were added via trade on Sunday. The Texans acquired Shaq Lawson from the Dolphins for Benardrick McKinney, and they acquired Marcus Cannon from the Patriots in a series of pick-swaps.

While I’m somewhat surprised that McKinney reportedly had multiple teams interested in trading for him, I think the Texans did good to fill a real need area with Lawson. Lawson reminds me a lot of former Titans EDGE player Derrick Morgan — he’s not a consistent finisher, but he can generate enough pressure to be a good secondary rusher. Big body, looks the part outside of shorter arm length. It’s not really Lawson’s fault that the Texans don’t have a No. 1 EDGE player, so it’s unfair to judge him in that context. But he’ll deliver some sort of known floor up front.

The Cannon trade price was largely inconsequential to the bottom line unless you believe this is such a deep draft that the 109th pick should be at a premium as compared to the 120th, which I can’t really see as true. Where he plays … that’s a great question. Either he or Tytus Howard will likely move inside to right guard, which makes Zach Fulton, Britt, and Max Scharping fighting to fill two slots assuming perfect health. At the end of the day, he’s a good lineman despite no 2020 to speak of because of the COVID-19 opt-out, but he’s also 33 and is likely not a long-term fixture or a reason to feel good about moving on from Laremy Tunsil or anything like that.

***

This isn’t really a column in defense of Caserio’s first day of free agency. I don’t think anything greatly changed for the 2021 Texans Monday, but I don’t think the signings in and of themselves are bad ones. They’re the kind of signings where, when paired with other big moves, you can look at as low-risk stabs at production that had to be chosen in deference to the salary cap. When they are the entire sustenance of the meal? That’s like making the entire plate out of broccoli. I love a good floret or five, but you know what else I like? Protein and starch.

The thing is, there’s no way I can sit here and tell you I believe that all of this is a grand Caserio design. I do think he would have chased special teams guys either way. But beyond that? What can you really do when you general manage these Houston Texans and there’s no clarity on Watson’s future? What can you do about players and roster spots that are clearly Easterby-given? The Texans Cinematic Universe has created a stasis that makes it impossible to compete for free agents with other real options. The only solutions are more money or pre-existing relationships. They might win a medium-sized fish before this is all over, but if they do, I bet it comes because of one of those two things.

Maybe one or a couple of these guys comes out and has a nice season and it can be a bright spot in what is looking more and more likely to be another lost year. I appreciate that as these signings come down they are a dopamine hit for fans and any kind of move is viewed as a “culture shift” and even the older players can be “mentors for young players.” If you wanna get high off of that, I’m not shaming you in the slightest. But the culture has been set by upper management, and it is here to stay regardless of how many pass-rush moves Charles Omenihu learns from Lawson or what Cannon teaches Scharping about bull rushes.

This team is in a state of suspended animation until Watson is traded or appeased. The only people who don’t know it are the owner and Cal McNair.

***

I’m writing this article free of charge — this website is ad-free and non-intrusive. If you enjoy my work and want to encourage me to produce more, please feel free to leave me a PayPal tip.

Glory Deflecting (How To Disappear Completely)

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.

***

This week the big Texans news was J.J. Watt fleeing this terrible front office and the very same front office giving David Johnson a contract for some reason. I’ve written about both of those topics at length already, so let’s instead focus in on what the Texans primed us for on Wednesday:

Jack Easterby, I will spare you the six minutes if you are busy, does not appear in this video. He has not appeared publicly since last September’s Deshaun Watson extension press conference. The only comments he has offered in public since that point are responses to Sports Illustrated exposes — and not answers, just responses. Texans in-house media goes out of their way to avoid acknowledging that he exists. Despite that, he continues to gain more and more power in the organization, having burrowed deeper into the business side of the organization after Jamey Rootes’ resignation.

I want to talk about the power dynamics of this situation because they are revealing. For the most part — Jerry Jones is a notable exception because he literally can’t help himself — owners do not make a lot of public statements. Some of that is because they employ people below them, like, say Culture Vice Presidents, to make statements for them and their team. Some of that is because, as you may have noticed under the stewardship of Cal’s father, Bob, team owners are really good at saying incredibly stupid shit and creating public relations fires. And some of the second part feeds into the first part because several owners are smart enough to know that nobody wants to hear what they want to say. Words can never override actions as far as trust lost goes, and the best way to shut up a bunch of unhappy fans is to win.

To go back to the end of the second SI article though, I want to give you the quote that matters here: “They got the owner to take the blame for everything. Never heard that.” That’s a major issue here and something that has only grown over the last two weeks: Cal McNair somehow feels like an employee at the company he owns.

Jack Easterby feels like the owner, the guy who says nothing and is letting his football people work under his parameters.

***

In my role as Senior Easterbyologist of the Internet I have come across many quotes in podcasts and sermons and what not that explain a lot about how all of this happened. One that strikes me as pertinent to this scenario is Easterby’s shift away from public speaking:

A term that Easterby has used in similar talks before — and a reason why he himself is practically a ghost of a person — is “deflecting glory.” By that he means that you shouldn’t want the attention of your works, you shouldn’t relish that. Instead you should deflect your glory to making others look good and, more pertinently for his past role, making God and Christianity as a whole look good.

You see this reflected (deflected?) in how the Texans have pushed their media campaign of late. The Texans are spending a lot of time talking about the community, having Cal McNair out and about on the streets, and just generally talking up his leadership:

At one point last week, here’s what the Texans website looked like as far as media videos:

The players are afterthoughts. This is a team that is about good deeds and human interest stories. Two McNair stories, one thing about twins playing each other on Thanksgiving, and another of the free agent special teams player being nominated for the Walter Payton award. OK, OK, it’s the offseason. The winter storm thing was a big deal. Let’s look at what other teams with brand new staffs are doing, though:

Some football teams, it turns out, realize that their fans care about football. Sorry, I know I’m dwelling here, but it’s jarring to realize that there’s a whole football world out there beyond the Houston Texans that understands that their fans … care about football.

When the Texans released their “Building the Texans,” video, it was immediately apparent that Easterby was doing more glory deflecting. McNair, Nick Caserio, and David Culley were all front-and-center. Each of them provided absolutely nothing to the video about what the actual plan is here, because there isn’t really a plan beyond whatever we’re living through currently is. Drew Dougherty and Deepi Sidhu telling the fans once a week that they can’t talk about the employment status of their higher-ups is literally the closest this franchise has right now to an actual connection with the fanbase. This video fell on ears that have already drowned in the toxic positivity that this organization has embraced. The result was that the social media person got ratioed, again.

Like most of Jack Easterby’s problems as an executive, this is a problem of scope. It doesn’t really matter that you’re a glory deflector when you are preaching or pursuing disciples or whatever. When you have immense power in an organization that is generally perceived as a public trust, though, you owe people explanations. You need to have accountability for your actions. You don’t get to just make an “oopsie, I lost the franchise quarterback’s trust forever” and then nothing happens.

However, when you look at who is in power here. When you look at who chartered the jet to head over and pick up Caserio, who put these plans in place for the assumed Josh McCown takeover as head coach at Some Point When David Culley’s Time Is Up, who is putting the McNairs front and center on media … you quickly realize that actually, you do get to do that. Because you are the power. You don’t have to be the owner in name, and you get to have the cake and eat it too.

It is inherently selfish for Easterby to force other people to answer for him and to hide. John McClain noted on a radio hit on Friday that he’s been trying to get Easterby to answer questions on the record since he became interim GM in early October, so it’s not like the media interest isn’t there. He talks about servant leadership, but won’t serve the fanbase.

Because he’s a coward, you see.

***

It’s natural to want to believe, as a fan, that something deeper than this is taking root somewhere. That Nick Caserio is going to be taking advantage of the free agency period to ink the kinds of bargain contracts this team needs. That maybe Deshaun Watson will show up and his bitterness will wither away as he spends more time away from Easterby and McNair.

Here’s what gets me: It’s not materially hard to get fans on your side. I have lived through several stupid PR campaigns about bad moves that have done their job. People to this day still believe in the Laremy Tunsil trade, even when one of the picks is third overall. They even got, I would say, at least 25-50% of their fanbase to buy the stupid-as-hell idea that wideout speed mattered more than DeAndre Hopkins. Only the very adamant fanboys are even trying the “David Johnson’s last four games mean he’s actually good!” line on me. Because this team isn’t even pushing that. Hell, they haven’t even announced Lovie Smith as the defensive coordinator yet! They have pivoted to Not Football.

I think largely we’ve been shown by this organization what they care about by what they’ve focused on first. We’ll see some mid-grade signings of people with Patriots backgrounds and maybe a player or four willing to be overpaid to have a story to tell in 2025 for his future media career. But the David Johnson re-signing told us all we needed to know about the direction of the team. They care much more about how good they’re going to make the McNairs look handing out things other people cooked than they care about creating the scenario that would make this team palatable for a superstar quarterback. One decision begets another.

Some football organizations care about football. It may just not be for this one anymore.

Perhaps if Texans fans could brand themselves as a charity in need of assistance, maybe their owner could get some valor from running the organization like he gives a damn about it.

***

I’m writing this article free of charge — this website is ad-free and non-intrusive. If you enjoy my work and want to encourage me to produce more, please feel free to leave me a PayPal tip.

The Texans Cinematic Universe Presents: A David Johnson Reboot

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.

***

The Deshaun Watson firestorm continues to envelop the scope of the Houston Texans and what exactly they are supposed to be. While the blaze has continued, it has managed to — broadly speaking — throw a blanket on top of stories that would otherwise be major stories for the market. In normal football circles, the release of a guy who you gave up a third-round pick for less than two years ago would be a major breaking story. With the Texans, where we are still awaiting the new J.J. Watt team, seeing Will Fuller dodge the franchise tag, canvassing the scope of the Watson situation, Duke Johnson is just another plank of charred timber floating in the shipwreck. Nick Martin’s release barely registers as a surprise.

And then, there was this:

Less than a year ago, the Texans traded DeAndre Hopkins and a fourth-rounder for David Johnson, a second-round pick, and a fourth-round pick in 2021. It’s a deal that was dead on arrival. It didn’t make sense to begin with, and the Texans somehow managed to end the 2020 season with it making even less sense than it did when it happened. Johnson was an abject disaster. Ross Blacklock provided so little value in his rookie season that the team ended the year playing UDFA Auzoyah Alufohai over him. Hopkins didn’t exactly thrive in Arizona’s offense — Kliff Kingsbury anchored him to the left side of the formation — but still played up to his talent and was a second-team All-Pro. The trade served to galvanize the rest of the players — catching the eye of Watt and reportedly being one of the first turning points of the Watson/Texans relationship — and they rallied around getting Bill O’Brien fired as the team fell to 0-4.

Not content to just sink the Texans by treating Watson like a child having a tantrum in a crowded restaurant, the Texans Cinematic Universe is now going to try to rehabilitate Johnson’s horrific season. It’s an amazing display of arrogance and belief in things that go beyond football. It is, unsurprisingly, foreshadowed by a piece I wrote before the last few games of the season. Instead of discovering what Scottie Phillips could be, the Texans finally got a few major wide-open holes for Johnson to run through and found a way to talk themselves into that meaning he was actually good the whole time.

But the heads are down, the drive to finish the season with as respectable a record as possible is in place, to own the Dolphins, or maybe to make Jack Easterby’s stock go up half a point. It’s hard to even say that what they’re doing is ruining the future, because given what we’ve seen so far with players that have been off the playing time radar, they’re actually ruining the present too. It’s prime NFL cocoon hours, and we have to have been right that David Johnson can get 100 rushing yards in an NFL game still. We can’t just accept that this is a battle worth abandoning. The only opportunity is the one in front of us: moving to 5-8 for … some reason.

Here’s the thing: David Johnson and the Texans are not good for each other. The Texans came into last year with a plan to use Johnson as an every-down back in an inside-zone focused scheme and it floundered spectacularly. He wasn’t a main target on passing plays. Now I’ve heard John McClain talk on the radio about the possibility of, well, he takes a paycut, maybe he’s a less important part of their offense. OK, well, why does that have to be David Johnson? What about David Johnson makes him a good fit for what’s going on here, in an offense with no real stated direction as of yet? And if the Texans never resolve the Watson situation in a way that ends with him as their starting quarterback, why does it matter what Johnson gives you in a reserve role over a younger back?

Meanwhile, for Johnson, dealing with COVID-19 and the trade last year figuratively put him in therapy:

I have nothing but respect for Johnson seeking help when he needs it, but if your workplace situation ends up like this, I don’t understand why you’d be chomping at the bit to sign up for more of it. Now, it may very well be the case that nobody else in the NFL is interested in him at this point in his career. Running back retirement ages are trending pretty early. But he can’t know that right now, and to sign up for another lost season on a team going nowhere when, potentially, someone out there might have a change-of-pace role on a playoff team? It sounds like a waste of everybody’s time for him to be back in Houston.

One thing I respect a lot about the Texans Cinematic Universe is the way it is constantly generating scenarios that I would have dismissed two months ago as too on the nose to be effective satire. When this came up on Friday, many Twitter followers pointed to David Johnson’s religion as a reason that he could be kept. At this point, I can no longer approach that kind of comment with condescension because I refuse to be Freezing Cold Taked by any organization willing to go this far to desecrate itself. They’re holding on to someone in one of the worst trades in recent NFL memory — someone that, through no fault of his own, no Texans fans want to see — because they need to be right.

There’s been a lot of effort made to push the idea that Nick Caserio being in charge of football operations means a lot for this team and that he should be given a chance, but I can’t imagine this as a pure Caserio decision. To understand the Texans, I think you need to remember that both Cal McNair and, before he died, Bob McNair, preach this idea of “consensus decision-making.” What that means is that, because Jack Easterby is still in a position of power, his vote continues to matter. Nobody has more to lose from the legacy of the Hopkins trade than Easterby, who has been singled out in SI reports as the original driving force behind ditching Hopkins.

Now, maybe Caserio is the guy who thinks Johnson has some juice left. I imagine he’s the only person we’re going to get to talk to about it, because McNair can’t talk to the media without slipping on a banana peel and because Easterby is a coward. So we’re going to get the Caserio view on it eventually. But the fact that the question even has to be asked about keeping a poorly-performing remnant of a horrific trade is pretty telling about the ethos of the organization.

The Texans are post-ironic. They create ways of hurting themselves that fiction writers couldn’t invent. They’ve spent the last two weeks trying to position Cal McNair as a successful leader via heavily-edited video clips when the fact that he literally can’t speak in public is not lost on anyone who has listened to him. That’s not to say that I’m not grateful that he’s trying to help people who lost power in the storm, who are hurting, and what not — that’s way better than him being a callous ogre — but no amount of editing can hide that he is kind of a reclusive doofus. Or that the majority of the people who care about his existence care about it in so much as they want to root for a winning football team rather than a YMCA he donated to or a Sloppy Joe he handed to someone one time.

Having David Johnson remain a part of this team is a waste of Houston’s time and a waste of Johnson’s time, so I can think of no other way for this to end than with 83 more carries of him running into Zach Fulton’s back for a one-yard gain.

***

I’m writing this article free of charge — this website is ad-free and non-intrusive. If you enjoy my work and want to encourage me to produce more, please feel free to leave me a PayPal tip.

Texans Retrospectus: J.J. Watt

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.

***

A lot can change in a very short period of time, and I was reminded of this when I was viewing Drew Dougherty’s old Fox Sports Southwest tape of J.J. Watt arriving to Reliant (now NRG) Stadium for the first time in his life.

Watt’s wide eyes looking up at the stadium betray an enthusiasm that seems almost naïve today. As we listened to Watt speaking out about the state of the Texans twice a week for the past season in talk that was as real as could be without actively calling anybody out, it’s hard to square that with this excited boy in the above clip who immediately asked for his playbook. J.J. Watt left this city with many gifts. The money he raised for Harvey. The franchise’s first sure-fire Hall of Famer. (Please elect Andre Johnson too, though.) The pick-six of Andy Dalton in the franchise’s first ever playoff game. The carrying of team after team that had piss-poor quarterback play. The incredibly rare self-awareness that he developed about the team’s relationship with its fanbase.

What this team taught him in return is interesting. Watt was able to raise millions and millions of dollars for Harvey relief on his own. He was able to create a 20-sack season. Twice. But ultimately, what he learned and I think what set in as this season was winding down, is that an NFL team is a village. His individual greatness did so much for so many, but this team was never going to compete for a championship unless it was mirrored by greatness all around him. Again, tens of millions of dollars raised for hurricane relief as a complete outsider to the scene who just showed up and said “let’s do what we can to help.” But you can’t fight an NFL team that doesn’t learn from its mistakes in the same way that you do. Watt once told Grantland’s Robert Mays that “when it’s me against you, you know in your head whether you worked hard enough. You can try to lie to yourself. You can try to tell yourself that you put in the time. But you know — and so do I.” While he wasn’t talking about the Texans at the time, it’s not much of a stretch to take what is inferred in that clip as a philosophy and move it to what the Texans have become.

J.J. Watt couldn’t get his culture to stick with these Texans. His culture has been clear from the outset: Dream Big, Work Hard. The fact that none of this resonated with anyone in the NRG front offices in 2020 is, unfortunately, not surprising. This team sucked the joy out of J.J. Watt, and I’m excited for him to rekindle it.

***

I didn’t want the Texans to draft J.J. Watt in 2011. I wanted them to draft Robert Quinn. I was hardly alone, as this post from Battle Red Blog shows. (Sadly, all the old comments have been wiped as part of SB Nation’s stunningly brilliant move to move to Coral. Coral: The Jack Easterby of blog software.) The people who truly hated the pick made fun of his pizza delivery backstory. I was more measured about it than some of those commenters were at the time, mostly because I had already begun to realize that I don’t know anything about the NFL Draft and that Wade Philips is smarter at this than I am. I wanted the Texans to take an edge rusher and wasn’t even considering defensive end plus moving Mario Williams outside as an option. I was purely focused on the hole. Turns out Texans brass was on the same page as me! Rick Smith wanted to trade up for Patrick Peterson. Phillips, though, took control of the draft room:

Thank goodness. “A lot of them wanted Nick Fairley, a lot of them wanted Prince Amukamara,” Watt told Tania Ganguli in 2012, in a piece that revealed that a video of (a few) fans booing him was on his computer. “There were a lot of people saying I was just a big white guy, that the team was taking a high character guy, not the best football player.”

What I remember most about Watt showing up anyone who would even dare to question this draft pick was actually when this video of him box jumping began to spread. This was after his breakout year, of course, but just watching Watt generate the force he needed to get that body that far off the ground was mesmerizing.

Watt finished his rookie year with merely 5.5 sacks, and the Texans looked like a legitimate contender after they reeled off three straight double-digit wins to get to 6-3. Unfortunately, in their fourth-straight win at Tampa Bay, Matt Schaub was lost for the season. The Texans were ready to ride with Matt Leinart until Leinart also got hurt against the Jaguars, then went with fifth-round rookie T.J. Yates the rest of the way out of necessity. It would have been easy for them to roll over, but they did not do that. They squeaked out their next three games and clinched the division before teams got the book on Yates and dropped the Texans from 10-3 to 10-6.

It’s probably not fair to say that the light wasn’t on yet, but towards the end of the season, you saw Watt start to understand just how he could dominate by stringing all of his talents together. He deflected three passes against Dan Orlovsky in a loss to the Colts, adding a sack and a couple of tackles for loss. With the Bengals and Texans locked at 10 as Cincinnati began driving at the two-minute warning in Houston’s first-ever playoff game, Watt broke things open with his most memorable moment as a Texan:

As impressive as that was, the Texans defense followed that up by shutting out the Bengals for the rest of the game. They won 31-10. On the six drives following the pick-six, the Bengals gained 86 yards and Dalton was picked off two additional times.

The Texans would go on to lose 20-13 to the Ravens in the AFC Divisional Round, but it wasn’t anything that the defense did wrong. Yates was picked off three times and threw about four or five more balls that could have been intercepted as well. Watt sacked Joe Flacco 2.5 times in that game, one that is kind of lost to time because there’s nothing he, Andre Johnson, or Arian Foster could have done to alter the outcome. That was just as far as a team run by rookie T.J. Yates was going to make it. Watt got those 2.5 sacks — as a rookie — primarily lining up against Ravens right guard Marshal Yanda, who might be a Hall of Famer:

Baltimore scored touchdowns on drives of 2 and 34 yards after a Yates interception and a Jacoby Jones muffed punt. The Houston defense gave up just 227 yards of offense, and only two drives went more than 40 yards.

***

If those playoff games were a flash of what Watt was to become, 2012 was the reality. J.J. Watt was just different, and I want to illustrate how different he was by pointing at current three-time defensive player of the year, Aaron Donald. Donald is a wrecking ball. He crushes interior lines, draws more double teams than any other player in the league, and essentially was a one-man pass rush for the Rams last year with Leonard Floyd as the lone complementary bit.

Donald has defensed 16 passes in seven seasons. Watt defensed 16 passes … in 2012.

One of the ways to get around a defensive lineman as dominant as Watt is to throw those quick slants, screens, and swing passes. In his athletic prime, Watt was half-bulldozer, half-hawk. He was going to rush, and if he saw a blocking scheme he didn’t like, or he smelled a quick pass based on alignment, he simply stopped his rush, read the quarterback, and reacted. The Dalton interception was the coming-out party for this talent, 2012 was the implementation of it for an entire season. At least three different Texans interceptions came as a result of Watt dropping back and batting the ball. His hands basically killed the Jaguars in overtime in Week 11.

Watt has 61 passes defensed in 10 seasons, three of which were massively cut short due to injury. The stat has been officially kept since 1999, the defensive linemen who have more than him are Carlos Dunlap (62 in 11 seasons), Terrell Suggs (63 in 16 seasons), Julius Peppers (82 in 16 seasons), and Jason Taylor (87 in 15 seasons). It would be unfair to say that nobody has ever played the passes defended game as well as Watt did, but I think when you combine the sacks (20.5) and tackles for loss (39, second place was 18), nobody ever blended those three forms of disruption as well as Watt did at his peak. Jon Gruden called him “J.J. Swatt” after calling a Monday Night Football game of his against the Jets. Rex Ryan said the Knicks should pick him up.

“A pass knockdown is almost as sweet as a sack,” Watt was quoted as saying by USA Today. “It demoralizes quarterbacks.”

I think it was very tempting nationally to discount some of Watt’s stats because of the competition in the AFC South, but he made a real statement about who he’d become against the Broncos and Peyton Manning in Week 3. The Texans went to Denver and won, Watt had 2.5 sacks of Manning and added on four tackles for loss to show off:

He added on two sacks of Aaron Rodgers. The Texans were 11-1 at one point in this season, before injuries suddenly just caught up to Matt Schaub, who wilted down the stretch and in the playoffs. I wrote a post about it. People HATED that post. I can’t show you the comments anymore because of Coral, but it was quite divisive and I can remember at least one person suggesting that I was the washed up one, not Schaub.

Chris Wesseling (RIP) wrote a sensational article about that 2012 season and just how historical it was. Phillips called it “the best defensive line play in the history of football. He had more tackles, blocked passes, pressures on the quarterback. The conglomeration of all that was the best that anybody has ever played. I’ve had some great ones, but they’ve never made that many great plays in one year.”

We can talk about the other sports radio jabber topics at the time: The dreadful letterman jacket MNF game, the way the Patriots managed to hold him down with a standard Belichickian impressive game plan for most of the two games they played. (I think losing Brian Cushing to a broken leg hurt a lot in both of those games as well.) But ultimately, the Texans fell apart because Matt Schaub fell apart. They learned nothing from it, started him in 2013, and lost 14 games in a row under an avalanche of pick-sixes, costing Kubiak his job and relegating Watt to a season of defending runs in lopsided games. Watt was held sackless in seven games that season. The Texans’ point differential in those seven games was minus-104. Trading in Glover Quin for a washed-up Ed Reed was also spectacularly not helpful.

In the end, we were robbed of years of Watt playing under Wade Phillips. I think it was clear that Houston was tired of Kubiak as a head coach and that he was wanting in some ways even though he had tangible benefits. But that Watt/Phillips connection felt like something amazing at the time. I know we’re about to talk about what happens after this, where Watt is still excellent, but I legitimately think the difference in creativity between Phillips and Romeo Crennel might have meant like, Watt breaking the single-season sack record.

Watt was an absolute force and he was seemingly only at the beginning. He immediately took the 2-14 record of 2013 and decided he needed to isolate himself to become even better. “When you’re 2-14,” Watt told Mays, “you have moments of doubt.”

***

Bill O’Brien took over the Texans in 2014 and, much to everyone’s dismay, there was no real attempted solution at quarterback. Ryan Fitzpatrick was the journeyman that would get the Texans over the hump. They had the No. 1 overall pick, which they used on Jadeveon Clowney, in a draft where the top quarterbacks available were Teddy Bridgewater, Derek Carr, Blake Bortles, Jimmy Garoppolo, and Johnny Manziel. Steph Stradley’s time capsule of answers to the question of who you’d take there is instructive. Here’s what I wrote:

Because the NFL was (and is) still committed to a tall quarterback/big arm ethos, Bortles went No. 3 overall. Manziel went in the first round because ownership wanted to make a splash in Cleveland. Had I known then what I know now, I probably would not have advocated for him at all. But as an outsider it’s hard to understand the level of not giving a shit that he had. The Texans had a chance to trade up for Bridgewater at 32, which would have been a major coup. They also had the opportunity to stay put and draft Carr or Garoppolo. They did neither of those, spending 33rd overall on Xavier Su’a-Filo and damning Watt (and, as, you can see above, Andre Johnson) to quarterback purgatory. They picked Tom Savage in the fourth round.

Behind another vintage Arian Foster season with a good offensive line and Watt’s skills, the Texans did indeed rebound to 9-7. Some kid named DeAndre Hopkins had a breakout second season and absorbed a ton of targets next to Johnson. Parts of the the defense had gotten old but they still had Johnathan Joseph — the best free-agent signing in Texans history — and saw a major uptick from undrafted rookie A.J. Bouye and (finally) long-time burn victim Kareem Jackson. Clowney played in just four games.

Watt, meanwhile, played 16 games, caught three touchdowns (something he’d been advocating for even back to the Kubiak days), and notched 20.5 sacks again. Watt saved his best for Bortles, who he sacked six times in that season alone. He added eight tackles for loss in two games against the Jaguars. He pick-sixed EJ Manuel for 80 yards against the Bills in a 23-17 win.

His best game that season considering the competition? I’d probably give that to the Thursday Night Football Colts game in Week 6. Two sacks, one touchdown, three tackles for loss, four quarterback hits, and three passes defensed.

It is absurd that the Texans had a chance to win this game. They were down 33-21 with 17:52 of game time remaining and Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback. They had the ball 33-28 with 2:15 remaining after Watt turned second-and-4 with 2:42 left into fourth-and-6 all by himself on a TFL and pass deflection. Fitzpatrick was strip-sacked on the second offensive play, the Texans lost. Their other game against Indianapolis was a seven-point loss where he provided two sacks, two tackles for loss, three quarterback hits, and a pass defensed. The offense, with Fitzpatrick breaking his leg mid-game, scored three points. (A pick-six added seven more.)

Once Watt started catching touchdown passes, it almost felt like he was making a mockery of the game. Here was a thing that tight ends spend their whole lives trying to do properly and this 20-sack guy is just gonna make it look stupidly easy on each of the three occasions it happened. Watt’s drive and talent made him famous in a way that made him attractive to every woman in my life, and there’s a good Texas Monthly piece that leads off with about 500 words about the positive attention he was dealing with. “The map led to my house from a place just north of Dallas,” Watt told Skip Hollandsworth about discarded directions to his house. “Somebody had driven five hours to come to my home on Halloween.” I think the best way I could describe what Watt has done is that he’s lived the ideals that he’s spoken out loud, something that is so rare and impossible-seeming that everyone from Justin Timberlake to Hollywood producers wanted to just be in the same room as him to see how on Earth it could be true. The funniest part of it is that there’s not much of a secret: He just did what he said he was going to do.

Watt won defensive player of the year in 2014 unanimously. Lawrence Taylor is the only defensive player to win the AP NFL MVP award in the last 40 years — he did it in 1986. Watt received 14 votes for MVP in 2014, probably due to the handsome arguments laid out for him by whoever I just linked to at Bleacher Report was. He’s the only defensive player to receive more than three votes for MVP in the 2000s. The last defensive player to receive even 10 votes for the award was Bruce Smith in 1990.

The 2015 Texans did the exact same thing the 2014 Texans did, except instead of Fitzpatrick, they created a quarterback controversy between Ryan Mallett and Brian Hoyer. The only quarterbacks taken in the first round were Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota at No. 1 and No. 2 overall, respectively. The Texans picked cornerback Kevin Johnson 16th overall. It was the offseason where they got rid of Andre Johnson. There was no reason to believe in their offense anymore, and yet, they got on HBO’s Hard Knocks anyway. (Much to Bill O’Brien’s dismay,) Wonder what made them think the Texans would be interesting.

Watt would make Jake Matthews eat shit on Hard Knocks. And Alfred Blue. And the Washington (REDACTED) team store.

Texans opponents got together with four years of tape on Watt and learned about triple teams, limiting him to merely eight passes defensed, a league-leading 17.5 sacks, and a league-leading 29 tackles for loss. This time, he actually did take them to the playoffs at 9-7, but in what would become a classic Bill O’Brien Playoff Game, Houston did not score a single point in a 30-0 blanking by the Chiefs that started with a 106-yard kickoff return touchdown by Knile Davis. Hoyer threw four interceptions. Kansas City had 314 total yards but almost none of it came until midway through the third quarter, after Watt had left the game due to injury. Before that drive, the Chiefs had 136 total yards. We’ll come back to the injury.

Watt’s best game by the numbers was probably the season finale against Jacksonville, where he put up three sacks, three tackles for loss, and two passes defensed. However, when you take into account quality of competition, let me lobby for the rare game in the O’Brien Era where the Texans actually stood up and kicked around a great quarterback: When they held the Saints to six points in Week 8. That Saints team finished seventh in pass offense DVOA. Watt had two sacks, two tackles for loss, and eight quarterback hits.

Watt won his third defensive player of the year award after the season. There didn’t seem to be a lot of doubt at this point as to who the most valuable non-quarterback in the NFL was.

***

Watt left a game against Miami with a back injury as the Texans were down 35-0 in 2015. That game, played in a bit of a downpour, also ended Arian Foster’s Texans career with a torn Achilles. It was not the only injury Watt played through that season. He was listed with a groin injury. He broke his hand late in the season. Had the Texans beaten the Chiefs, he told Peter King in April of 2016, he might not have been able to play in the next game.

Watt aggressively tried to rehab his herniated disc injury and do as much as he could to take the field in 2016. He noted before the season and then again after Week 3’s re-aggravation of the herniated disc that in January and February, he wasn’t sure if he’d ever play again. Watt became the fastest to ever reach 75 sacks (in 82 games compared to Reggie White’s 68) against the Chiefs in Week 2. But the herniated disc had to be repaired after Week 3’s embarrassing Monday Night loss to Jacoby Brissett’s Patriots. Watt blamed an “element of pride” on attempting to come back too quickly, he also wrote a lengthy article in The Player’s Tribune about everything he’d gone through, which included a staph infection in 2015 that we previously hadn’t known about.

Coming back in 2017, Watt was being eased in slowly out of the gate, and then broke his leg against the Chiefs in Deshaun Watson’s fourth start.

I think it behooves a lot of football discourse to talk about injuries in an abstract way so that we don’t really get the actual pain and suffering there. It’s not fun to admit that a sport that you love destroys bodies. Watt is no different in that regard. The only difference is that this was the first sign that he appeared mortal in any real way. Oddly enough, it humanized him by actually showing us something he had to fight.

His body has taken a ton of wear. I remember the gruesome bruise he got against the Bills most when I think about that. There’s also this of him walking with stitches after his broken leg:

The amount of mental strength it takes to come back from where Watt was in January 2016 and play again is monumental. Let alone to have to do that twice more off a couple of other season-ending injuries. This is why I am as loud as I am when I see the Texans slacking on something. To have wasted those 2014 and 2015 seasons with quarterbacks who were never going anywhere is a disservice to the work Watt (and Johnson, and Foster, and Cushing, and Joseph, and Duane Brown, and so on) put in. To their credit — yes, I am giving them credit for this — the Texans made some bold moves to try to fix the quarterback position. They brought in Brock Osweiler, and when that didn’t work out, they didn’t sit on him for another year, moving up in the draft to select Deshaun Watson. It cost them two first-round picks, a second-round pick, and a boatload of upfront cash. It was worth it.

2017 was somehow, simultaneously an affirming of how bright the future could be with Watson and Watt and, also, a disaster to live through. Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston. Watt immediately committed to his new gig as fundraiser, something he’d never done before, and was great at it.

It is wildly telling about Watt that even as he dealt with the biggest crisis of his football career that he was still helping everyone else around him. You can scroll through old Texans news posts in October of 2017, when they got to $37 million and began planning distribution of the funds, and see that as he’s serving the greater good of the city, the major story about the Texans is Bob McNair calling rhetorical players “inmates” that can’t run the asylum.

The Texans finished 4-12. It was an open question at that point just what Watt would come back to be, but it said a lot about the cumulative goodwill he had created that a player with his cap number and his recent injury history that there was not even an internal discussion about letting him go. Hell, he made the NFL Top 100 list after playing three games in 2016.

As Shea Serrano said in a 2015 column, “There’s an obvious bigness to Watt, but there’s also a philosophical bigness to him.” I don’t even have space here to get into the non-Harvey stuff he did for this city. The hospital visits, the various people he became close to through his foundation, the charity softball games, the people he sought based on news reports, the funerals he paid for of Texas school shooting victims. It went deeper than football.

***

The late stage Bill O’Brien Texans, at one point, had J.J. Watt, Deshaun Watson, DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller, Jadeveon Clowney, and Duane Brown on the same roster. They never won more than 11 games. Some of that is because some of those players were injured at the wrong time. Some of that is because Brown lasted just one game post-holdout before being traded. A lot of it is because O’Brien was a bologna sandwich of a head coach.

I had the pleasure of covering the 2018 Texans with The Athletic. Watt came off his lost 2016 and 2017 seasons and, while he wasn’t the Watt that played in 2014, he wasn’t that player … all the way to 16 sacks. Five years after the Clowney pick, it was the first time the two of them ever got to wreak havoc together. Clowney was used as an interior rusher on passing downs which added some dimensions to the defense that weren’t there in earlier Romeo Crennel years. Crennel’s zones were, sadly, sitting chum for a good quarterback. But they dominated the bad quarterbacks they played.

Andrew Luck versus Deshaun Watson in the AFC Wild Card game should have been a golden matchup between two great quarterbacks. Instead, Luck took a 21-0 lead and O’Brien’s offense couldn’t get Watson out of first gear, huddling for much of the second half as it trailed by an enormous amount. For as weak as that team was at cornerback, (Kareem Jackson was playing corner instead of safety because the team couldn’t get a better corner healthy) 21 points against the Colts is pretty solid. One touchdown happened on a Shareece Wright double move — Wright, 31 at the time, would never play in the NFL again after this game — and another was set up by a busted deep zone coverage over the middle with Texans owner T.Y. Hilton. Watt had the team’s lone tackle for loss, the tip above, and one of the four quarterback hits. They did not sack Luck.

O’Brien told everyone after that game that he needed to do a better job. He never did. Watt took two questions from the press, complimenting the Colts and dressing up in football clichés his frustration.

What I think Watt will be most remembered for in this time period, though, was 2019. He had four sacks in eight games and change — I think a lot of the scuttlebutt over the last few years has been he should have been played inside more and he absolutely was torching Atlanta’s interior guys in that win in 2019. I don’t know what to believe as far as reasons he didn’t do it, whether it was something with Watt’s body or something with Crennel’s scheme. But it was not hard to find ways to get Watt, Clowney, and Whitney Mercilus rushing at the same time and it always stood out after Watt’s early dominance inside that he rarely played there on passing downs after Phillips left.

Coming off another great game against the Colts, Watt tears his pectoral against Oakland during a tackle for loss in Week 9 and his reaction is to shake the joint a little and then jog off the field:

He decided that this injury was actually optional. He rehabbed. Out of nowhere, near the end of the season, he signaled his desire to play with a torn pectoral muscle — something that IRs most good pass rushers for the season even if it happens early. He created one of the greatest pre-game sound bytes I can remember. He began to turn the momentum when he sacked Josh Allen in the Wild Card round, a game where the Bills were staked to an early 16-0 lead behind more brilliant O’Brien offensive design. The Texans came back to win because Deshaun Watson bailed them out of yet another play, avoiding two separate Bills defenders to check it down to Taiwan Jones. Watt has to be rotated. He’s playing at an immense risk to his future. He laid it all on the line.

24-0 against the Chiefs happened, there was a brief moment when I begun to contemplate the existence of the Texans hosting the AFC Championship game against Tennessee. In the end, a unit that had been bad without Watt simply collapsed under the weight of that responsibility, against a dominant offense. Watt’s words after the game were apoplectic.

He’d given everything he could. He only played about half the snaps in that game, because it was ludicrous that he was out there in the first place. Ultimately, the decay process that had begun that offseason with Clowney and Tyrann Mathieu leaving left the team without any room for error. They simply didn’t have enough talent that could step up. They, again, had just one sack — by Gareon Conley, who is a cornerback, on a trick play with Sammy Watkins at quarterback — and four quarterback hits.

***

Last season, if you believe the reports — and I have no reason not to believe them — Watt played a major role in sacking O’Brien. One of the last straws for BOB on the way to the Texans falling apart after a disastrous offseason was the shouting match the two reportedly had.

Watt after that mentioned something that I think is rare for a player to talk about: the ability to unite the fans again.

Well, he did all he could. The fanbase and team are more united than they’ve been since 2012. Unfortunately, they’re united in loathing Cal McNair and Jack Easterby. That wound up being the highlight of Watt’s last season in Houston. Under Easterby’s interim management, the team spiraled into a chaotic assembly of people acting in whatever they perceived their best interests were rather than anything we’d call a team.

Watt finished the year with a poor sack total, but that belied his actual skill on the field. Several teams were able to just throw quick, short balls against the Texans and negate the pass rush entirely. Brandon Allen, yes, Brandon Allen, threw for 371 yards against a Texans team that was supposedly trying. Mitch Trubisky decimated them in much the same way. Houston’s run defense fell to shambles without D.J. Reader. The Texans defense was defeated before it even hit the field, and Watt spent much of his press conferences trying to alert anybody he could to that fact without actually saying it out loud. There’s been a movement by a certain subset of fans to call him washed up to justify moving on here, and I think it’s not hard to admit that Watt isn’t who he was in 2014 right now. But 90% of who that J.J. Watt was is still a superstar.

In the end, in typical 2020 Texans fashion, media was asked before Watt’s final presser to save discussions about the future for a promised later presser. Good thing somebody asked the question anyway, because it was the last time he’d do a presser as a Texan:

Watt spent the 2020 season on the Texans, but it felt like his biggest plays were off the field rather than on it. His rant about finishing the season with professionalism. The sulky press conferences that followed many of Houston’s losses. Noting that he heard the boos during the Thursday opener against the Chiefs when they had that moment of silence for racial equality. He didn’t speak in his Wednesday press conferences about being a Houston Texan so much as what being a Houston Texan should be. And, looking back at all the wear and tear he put himself through for … whatever this was and is becoming … it’s hard to criticize him for that.

***

As someone who has competed at a high level in certain things — yes, fine, it’s video games, I’m not athletic, leave me alone — one thing you begin to understand as you live the competition is that you only have the moment you have. Only one person or team holds the final trophy. The odds are heavily stacked against it being you. The paradoxical thing about having the kind of high standards you have if you’re J.J. Watt is that it’s hard to live up to them because you can’t control it all. It’s not Watt’s fault Matt Schaub’s career as a starter was ending as his was beginning, and it’s not his fault that the Texans never tried to get a real quarterback in 2014. It’s not his fault he got hurt playing a brutal sport. It’s not his fault that the O’Brien era squandered the talent it gathered. It’s not his fault that defensive ends don’t have the same impact on the game as a great quarterback or coach.

You live your competitive life for the moments Watt created, and they don’t always end well. Things don’t end well for pretty much anybody, and you can’t let yourself get caught up in that. What the Texans had here for 10 years was someone who made it his personal mission to do anything in his power to win ballgames, create lasting memories for fans, and do good for the community. He was the dominant defensive force of the first half of the 2010s. He made the impossible seem possible. He made his first head coach think of him like a quarterback even though he was not one.

And that’s really all you can ask of a football player. We can’t go back in time and make Yates complete a bomb in 2011. We can’t make the 2019 Texans field a good defense around him. All we can do is acknowledge that who Watt was got them to those moments in the first place. Because he was that damn good.

Watt has been pretty open about talking about retirement in his career — not as an end goal, but just as something that he’s always known is coming. He told Mays in 2014: “If I dedicate all my time, if I cut out all the other crap from my life, if I give everything I have to this game for 10 or 12 years, maybe it is. And when I’m done, I’ll go sit on my front porch with my buddies, have a beer, and say, ‘That was pretty cool, wasn’t it?'”

J.J. Watt’s Texans career: That was pretty cool, wasn’t it? May some team that is better run than this one get him a ring.

***

I’m writing this article free of charge — this website is ad-free and non-intrusive. If you enjoy my work and want to encourage me to produce more, please feel free to leave me a PayPal tip.

The Houston Texans are a cult of personality of a person with no personality

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.

***

The Houston Texans will no longer employ the services of their best player of all-time. They “mutually agreed” to part ways, which is a very Happy P.R. way to say that J.J. Watt asked for his release and was granted it.

It is hard to wrap up exactly what J.J. Watt means to this city and this post ultimately isn’t about that because trying to sum up a 10-year career of modern excellence is something that takes breathing room. It took my words away when the news came out on Friday not because I wasn’t expecting it, but because the finality of it happening is heavier than the concept. The Texans had nine turnovers last season as a defense. Watt forced the fumbles on two of them, recovered another, and added a pick-six on Thanksgiving. He’s not 2014 Watt, but he was far and away the best player on this defense and the fact that he wanted out is not a terribly auspicious sign for the future of the Houston Texans. Then again, what has been since 24-0 at Kansas City?

If your culture can’t contain space for a player of Watt’s caliber who generates millions on millions of charity dollars for the city? Who commands respect from everybody in the NFL? Who has done nothing but inspire countless people, and who everyone in Houston seemingly has a good story about? It’s not much of a culture. And if that culture would drive someone you could say these things about away? It’s not a great sign.

***

If Jack Easterby is in charge of the culture of the Houston Texans (he is) and if the culture is under attack (it also is) from the media, the fans, and even the team itself, there’s really no reason he needs to stay involved with the team. There are McNair ski chalets and tax shelters that need a manager that can do the bare minimum of “looking alive” and “causing discord among people that actually work here.”

The most disappointing thing about Jack Easterby’s vision for running this football team, and the man who fell for it, is that there’s not even anything to fall for. I have absorbed a ton of Jack Easterby words, videos, and otherwise, in the service of trying to understand what exactly is going on here. But beyond the very basic level of God being important and that being an assumed fact, there’s not anything extra that Easterby has for anybody.

https://theincrease.com/a-heart-submitted-jack-easterby/

Jack Easterby is a mirror for Cal McNair. In watching, at this point, tens of hours of video or podcasts with Easterby, he doesn’t answer questions directly. This is something that he calls “serving people,” where everything is dressed in a story and is an enigma wrapped in a fable, and you’re being judged from the start on your reaction to the story. You wanted an answer about why he moved to Houston, but instead he’s going to tell you about how there are different seasons in life and how his family meditated on it together and they’re ever so grateful for what happened in New England but that this was a new season for them. (That’s a real answer.) Now, I don’t need people to be overt when they’re talking. I don’t need Easterby to answer a question like that with “well, it moved me … TO A BIGGER HOUSE!” But normally in a conversation, you give and you take. Easterby doesn’t give. He just takes in all the information you offer him.

There’s one bit from a podcast I listened to recently that I found incredibly revealing for how quickly some of his stated goals could be betrayed.

You notice the answer here is shot out in typical Easterbese — abstract and vague words, then a respect for God — but the host tries to drag Easterby back to human terms by bringing up wives and the truths you have to tell them. The host realizes that he needs to make Easterby relatable — but Easterby fights it all the way, talking about a counter-question, then about a street code for husbands.

There’s not really a lot relatable about most sports players, so I think we try to hang on to what we have. J.J. Watt played through a torn pectoral muscle in the 2019 playoffs. I can’t even begin to understand what that might have been like. I relate more to Watt talking about the team like a fan than I do about understanding his reactions to an alignment and a pass set and what he’s thinking of at the snap. Darren Fells likes baths. I love baths! Me and Darren Fells, who would have thought? Two peas in a pod. That’s what good NFL PR does: It creates an emotional connection.

But with Easterby, there’s an almost obstinate desire to not be known in any real terms. He wants to understand you, but doesn’t want to be understood himself. The best way I can describe it as an aesthetic is that he is trying to be the good cop but instead of saying “listen, I know the judge,” he’s just asking you to incriminate yourself over and over again in his eyes. He wants to be remembered for “love and truth,” two of the vaguest concepts, and he refuses to go into much more detail than that or give a concrete example of what that means.

***

So imagine a locker room trying to interact with a man like this. As a worker bee? Fine. It’s a little weird, sure, to have note cards left in your locker. But ultimately he has no real power in that case and is just reporting opinions to people who make decisions. It’s a place where his eye for discernment — not his judgment — becomes valuable.

But when you put a man like this in a position of power, what happens is that players don’t know where they stand and can’t get a real answer out of him. He hasn’t played the game, and doesn’t have any coaching experience, so he’s barely part of their world to begin with. (He allegedly may decide to stalk players, if you believe Sports Illustrated reports.) He won’t do interviews so the fan base has no reason to trust him or even, if we’re being honest, any lies to cling to. There are still some Texans fans who are holding to the idea that this is all “fake news” or whatever, but the level of effort required to maintain that delusion is so high right now that it’s difficult. He’s entirely unrelatable. He’s Doctor Manhattan on Mars.

So if you’re most fans, you judge him on the results. The results are terrible. The franchise quarterback wants out. The best player in the franchise’s history got released on Friday. The team went 4-12 last year and has slowly built, through talent losses, one of the worst defenses in the NFL. Other than Laremy Tunsil, Brandin Cooks, and Will Fuller if they want to franchise him, they don’t have much in the way of established high-level talent that actually wants to be here. It feels like he’s pushed out tens of respected front office members for no real reason. When football people complain about analytics-focused front office outsiders coming to power, those people are at least trying to marry two things together that matter for winning.

In trying to understand where Easterby comes from, I’ve spent a lot of research on the public words that we have — be it video, audio, or print — and unfortunately a lot of trying to understand who he is comes back to his relationship with God. (Unfortunately for me, that is, someone who walks on eggshells discussing religion on the internet.)

***

https://theincrease.com/seen-or-unseen-jack-easterby/

A lot of Easterby’s writings about what God means are interesting purely in that they seem almost self-prescriptive pep talks. Easterby writes above about the sort of unshakeable faith he needs in his beliefs and refers over and over again to the external view not being everything. In the end, it almost feels like this view of his colors everything that the Texans have done. Think about hiring David Culley, who nobody else even interviewed, as your head coach. Then read this quote:

Now, take in one of my favorite quotes that explains the downfall of the Houston Texans, this Bill O’Brien quote about the “right kind” of free agency.

Easterby is a catalyst for change in this organization because he is the voice in the room that is fighting for the little guy. There’s nothing altogether ignoble about that — many teams need big contributions from the lower-rung players on their roster, the equipment managers in their room, and so on — it’s just that the philosophy is entirely pointless in NFL team-building terms. A team of 53 expertly managed 53rd men on the roster aren’t going anywhere but home in January. I’d be willing to bet dollars to donuts that he’s the one leading the charge for Eric Murray’s contract. I’d be willing to bet he’s the one that thinks DeAndre Carter deserved free snaps at wide receiver over Keke Coutee.

A healthy skepticism of good players, likewise, is not altogether out of line with the NFL’s norms. How many quotes do we see every offseason about formerly good players who are broken? Old? Don’t have such-and-such important characteristic anymore? That’s a natural part of NFL life. But under Easterby this has been taken to an extreme: character over talent isn’t just an operating philosophy for the 53rd man, it’s an operating philosophy for every player on the roster.

https://theincrease.com/declaring-spiritual-bankruptcy-jack-easterby/

I think this quote sums up a lot about the artist at work here. Easterby starts with the belief that everyone isn’t good enough. It probably takes a lot of cognitive dissonance for him to fight “making everybody else in the front office pointless through my selfless contributions,” but fortunately he always covers that by continually noting that it’s okay to make mistakes as long as they are mistakes in the service of the Lord, which of course, he is.

What happens is that it creates a shame-based cycle I’ll call the persecution pinwheel. The Texans make a bad move, and it gets slammed. So there are two forks here — one is that as long as you are righteous, your mistakes will eventually be forgiven by the Real Champion, as Easterby would call him. Another is that it feeds the persecution complex that Cal McNair is certainly holding on to, one where everybody is against the team and spouting claims of “misinformation” only further emboldens the belief that they are doing right. And so, they make another stupid move. And the pinwheel turns again.

***

The ultimate level of Jack Easterby’s vision is what happens to you as part of God’s story and under the trust of that pact through the afterlife. As long as you are bound by God’s story, you’re a flawed creature, but you’re doing right by God. That essentially means that you can be terrible at your job, but as long as you’re doing it for the right reasons, you’re fine.

https://theincrease.com/acknowledging-the-author-jack-easterby/

So I think this is kind of above the pure idea of Christianity and I want to make my point by invoking Tony Dungy. Tony Dungy was one of the staunchest Christians in the NFL, a man who has written several Christian-focused books and devotionals. In his book Mentor Leader: Secrets to Building People And Teams That Win Consistently, Dungy writes about living the message, enhancing potential, and building other lives of impact. Jim Caldwell writes in the preface of that book about how Dungy empowered him and molded teams. Dungy as a coach wasn’t purely a Christian, but someone devoted to making lives better. This is a direct quote from the intro:

In order to be absorbed, it must be practiced. The thing about operating the “Galatians 2:20 life” is that what it really means is that you are an empty vessel of a human. To embrace the level of discipline that it takes to make your life all about reflecting Christianity to everybody else while also not having any kind of ego or sense of self, you have to give up just about any kind of concept about who you are as a person and what your purpose is. And that’s been reflected in what the Houston Texans have created here.

The plan has not been to rebuild. The plan has not been to retool. The plan certainly hasn’t been to actually have a response to Deshaun Watson wanting a trade. The plan is simply to hide in plain sight, because revealing anything about yourself means that you are acting against the interests that you’ve given yourself to. The story of the Houston Texans has become the story of an organization that can’t say it’s overtly about Christianity, but largely is. They promote the work they do in the community. They promote the message of faith and family. They don’t really go beyond that because … people don’t generally connect with concepts. They connect with people. Do you remember how the play-action pass that got Andre Johnson the space to get open, or do you remember Andre Johnson catching the ball over someone?

Somehow, the Texans are owned by the one person on Earth that has fallen for the Easterby mirror as he simultaneously turns off every single other person interested in building a winning culture around him. In that way, Easterby is less preacher and more Silicon Valley Disruptor — you find the target market, you promise something that barely makes sense, and you get locked into the money before you ever have to deliver anything.

There is no message beyond Christianity. At the core of Jack Easterby, there is nothing.

And so, mirroring the person given control of them for no reason, that is what the Houston Texans will become.

***

I’m writing this article free of charge — this website is ad-free and non-intrusive. If you enjoy my work and want to encourage me to produce more, please feel free to leave me a PayPal tip.

Believing in Lovie Smith to fix the Texans defense is a tough sell

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.

***

In 2019, Illinois Football won six games. It was the culmination of what Lovie Smith was supposed to have built to after three seasons as Illinois head coach in which he’d gone a combined 9-27. I talk about this instead of 2020 because college football happened in the pandemic in the same way that anything important happened in the pandemic: a loosely organized way that makes it easy for excuses to take root. Let’s cut the excuses and go back to what was supposed to be the crowning year — the one that was worth all the pain.

Illinois upset No. 6 Wisconsin 24-23 in a game in which they forced three turnovers and only turned it over once themselves. They held on to beat Michigan State 37-34 in a game in which they forced four turnovers and the Spartans only created two. Those two wins disguised what was a typical season for the Illini under Smith, giving them a berth into the “Redbox Bowl,” whatever that is. Over the course of the season, Smith’s Illini defense would give up a tremendous amount of yardage, would lose to Eastern Michigan at home, and would allow 34 or more points five times, including to California in their bowl game.

After the Wisconsin win, Smith preened in a way that I think will sound familiar to a lot of Texans fans:

If you look at things through this certain warped perspective that I simultaneously admire and want to criticize, everything always looks okay in football coach speak. Your guys are always one win away from changing everything, and the development is always about to spark something incredible.

While VODs of Smith’s Tampa pressers are a little harder to come by these days — 2015 was an eternity ago in terms of data storage — I think this quote from the presser before his firing is pretty telling of how things were left in Tampa:

Smith’s Bears defenses were amazing, but if 2021 football is the present, football in 2012 was The Renaissance. He also stacked those teams with a ton of deserving Hall of Fame and Hall of Very Good caliber players like Brian Urlacher, Peanut Tillman, Lance Briggs, Julius Peppers, and so on. The Tampa 2 defense has fallen out of vogue — though I’d argue the Cover-3 Seahawks scheme that replaced it as vogue isn’t really all that great either — and Lovie hasn’t really evolved what he does with those times.

***

It’s hard for me to really communicate to you the perspective I get deep-diving Smith’s Illinois years because I can give you tidbits, and your inclination will be to say “okay, but that happened one time.” Trust me when I tell you that there were times that college kids were getting beat by better college kids, but also that there were a ton of schematic breakdowns along these lines:

When teams got to the red zone against Lovie’s defenses, they were able to effectively move the ball horizontally. The Cal team that we’re talking about here had a starting quarterback with a 60.9 percent completion rate — they finished 95th in offensive SP+ per ESPN’s Bill Connelly. This is not Alabama, and not the Jared Goff Bears. This was a fair fight. And Lovie’s defense just kept finding themselves in quandry after quandry.

Look at the situation this corner found himself in. He can handle the tight end underneath, or he can let the wide receiver go over the top. Both linebackers eat this fake. (This is familiar to you Texans fans, I’m sure.) The scheme has won so dramatically over the defense that either throw is successful. This is a big third-and-short in the biggest game in Illinois football’s tenure with Smith. It was easy pickings.

Move beyond the scheme and listen to the man talk — again, I absorbed a lot of pressers trying to find out how he reacts to things — and it’s just that same old 2020 Bill O’Brien brand stuff. Listen to him talk after the Eastern Michigan loss:

Lovie is as steady as they come, but that comes with a learned helplessness that has infected him the same way as it infected O’Brien about the running game in his final days as Texans coach. He’s not going to tell you it isn’t a problem, and he’s not going to not work hard to fix it, but at a certain point it feels like the zest for this was beaten out of him. If you can beat the scheme he’s been running for umpteen years and his guys can’t beat yours one-on-one? Well, tip your cap to ’em. They were the better team that day. And they often are.

When I listed ambition as a trait I was looking for in my head coach, I wasn’t necessarily thinking of the kind that David Culley brings. I want someone who is able and unafraid to make mistakes, understand why they made mistakes, and create new solutions to those problems next time. But I have to admit that Culley’s actual enthusiasm for his job is at least fresh and interesting when you compare it to O’Briens Grumpy Dwarf. Lovie is more of a Sleepy Dwarf to me, he’s seen all that he’s wanted to see and the idea of learning something new feels beyond him in his recent roles.

***

Now, that said, I think a reason for optimism for Lovie as Texans defensive coordinator is that, well, he is finally only a defensive coordinator. Outside of a year off in 2013, Smith has been a head coach somewhere in every season since 2004. I’m open to the idea with less on his plate, he might have some space to grow a little. A lot of head coaches learn or reconsider things only when they have a break from the daily intrusion on their space. Maybe de-elevating to a defensive coordinator means Lovie can get a little more specific on the why of his scheme fails and innovate a little bit. It feels like grasping for straws, but at least it’s a sensible reason as to how we could look back in eight months and see the team off to a good start.

Last year’s Texans finished dead last in the NFL in turnovers with nine. They were one of just two teams since 2002 to finish with less than 10. (The 2018 49ers had seven.) Meanwhile, in college, Lovie’s defense was pretty much all about how many turnovers they could force. The 2019 team forced 19 fumbles and recovered 16 of them — remarkably lucky by the standards of how we know a random ball bounces. They also picked off 12 balls. In 2018, they forced nine fumbles and recovered five. They also allowed six of their nine Big 10 opponents to drop at least 46 points on them.

The Texans don’t have a lot of game-breaking talent to begin with — they’d kill to have that 2015 Bucs squad that Lovie failed with — and all the public signs are pointing towards a divorce with J.J. Watt, the best player on the defense by far. While that will free up some cap space, you don’t just find J.J. Watt replacements in free agency. You find players that, largely, for one reason or another, teams don’t want to commit to. Assuming they continue to sit on Deshaun Watson’s trade demands, they won’t pick until the third round. The building blocks you’d need to create the kind of talent the Bears had on defense are lacking.

Given how much Lovie’s defenses have relied on winning on talent, this looks like a marriage that makes no sense for either side. The Texans can’t provide him with turnover-forcing talent, and Lovie can’t scheme the Texans into the kind of 20th-place defensive finish they need to threaten the playoffs in the event Watson is here and dealing. Maybe he’s got more juice than I think he does — and as I’ve mentioned, I would dearly love for the Texans to make me start eating some skepticism — but from where this franchise sits now it’s hard to connect the dots in a way that makes me excited about this move.

***

I’m writing this article free of charge — this website is ad-free and non-intrusive. If you enjoy my work and want to encourage me to produce more, please feel free to leave me a PayPal tip.

Deshaun Watson, Texans lost in the Texans Cinematic Universe

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.

***

There are many disagreements in our current society about what reality actually is. I am sure you can conjure up those examples on your own without being told precisely what they are, and though I think my audience probably leans one way, I think there are people who read this and believe the opposite of what you think. Truth used to be a thing that was hard to deny. I drop a pencil, the pencil falls down. Gravity did it.

But today, anybody can shape their own version of the truth with the same number of facts, and anybody can ascribe meaning into what facts matter and what facts don’t based on their interpretations of motivations. For example: I can’t tell you how many times I have read from a fan that the Texans are being brought down because Amy Palcic is leaking things when there’s literally a Sports Illustrated story with 40+ sources and it’s very obvious that the Texans have burned many, many bridges.

So here’s what we know about Deshaun Watson and the Texans:

The Texans don’t want to trade Deshaun Watson. That is not only evident by spoken words, but also just sourced reports. Their stance has roots in two real places. One is that Watson just signed an extension and really doesn’t have any recourse the way that the current NFL is designed. The other is something that I think is a little darker to talk about, and comes from Nick Caserio calling him “the player,” and Cal McNair calling him “4,” in the Caserio presser: They feel entitled to what he gives them and are almost insulted that we’re even pretending that anything will happen.

Meanwhile, at the same time it is very clear that Watson has mentally unpacked from being a Texan. He wiped all reference to the team on social media. When the topic was breached with Deion Sanders in a rare public appearance on Friday night for a show called Versus — by the way, the Texans were not mentioned at any point during this program despite it being a Watson highlight VOD — Watson did nothing to quiet the rumors that he wanted out.

(Sidenote: You’re entitled to your reaction on how that video makes you feel. I intentionally put “Oh” up here because I was processing it myself. It’s one thing to see someone else say that he wants out, and another to see him laughing about it, right? I don’t think that’s unfair. I also don’t think he did anything “wrong” in this video. The shock value is about laying out what was happening behind closed doors to everybody.)

So those are two diametrically opposed stances. The Texans are very much right that they can just sit on Watson’s career. Watson very much is in the right to use whatever is in his power to get away from them after a horrific season and an offseason where Jack Easterby remained the main power broker in the building by accumulating people who were loyal to him. The fact of the matter is that, from the Texans perspective, there is no fair deal for Watson. That’s tied up both in the fact that a) Watson is one of the most valuable players in the NFL full stop and b) that any marginal downgrade to Watson is going to have their own questions about why he wanted out of here and have immense skepticism about the situation. There’s not a picks package you can create that has the same value as a locked-and-loaded top-five quarterback (at minimum) for however long he’s healthy, on a fair contract.

The problem the Texans have is one of their own creation, and nobody should feel bad for them. In embracing Easterby they have created a brand that is toxic to everybody except their leadership. You may not hear players talk about it very often, because they are well-trained in media relations, but it was no accident that when Andre Johnson brought the fury on the organization that some current players liked that Tweet or Instagram post.

And, well, one thing that Easterby has always been very clear on is that you have to block out the noise. The Texans have created a building that literally has filibustered any media question asked about Easterby’s employment, Watson’s very reasonable conflicts, Andre Johnson’s posts … if you ask them about something they do not want to talk about, they will just talk about what they do want to talk about.

In that way, what the Texans are really creating here is the Texans Cinematic Universe: the one where Deshaun Watson’s relationship with the team is salvageable, the one where going 2-9 in one-score games last year means they just need to make one more play a game, the one where hiring David Culley is a good move because he’s a motivator and that’s all the team needed last year. This is what happens when Toxic Positivity is allowed to take root: In choking out the reality of the situation, you create a future where it’s almost impossible for a normal, functioning football team to blossom.

I’m not going to compare it to politics because they aren’t in the same realm of harming people. But the game plan, in and of itself, is no different than a New York Times piece about imposing martial law by a standing U.S. senator because you’re losing people on videos of cops beating protestors. If the facts look bad for you, why embrace them? Why not just talk loudly about anything else?

***

If you close, the door
The night could last forever
Leave the sunshine out
And say hello to never

Velvet Underground, “After Hours”

The problem with where the Texans sit from a rational perspective is that there’s really no way for this team to go forward without either firing Easterby and attempting a reconciliation with Watson and J.J. Watt or destroying the team for years to come. They haven’t got the memo yet, because they have been reading their news from the Texans Cinematic Universe and believe that they can get Watson back on board, but the longer they wait on the decision, the worse off they will be.

Everything around this team is tooled around Watson, and any attempt to trade him is an immediate admission that this team won’t compete next year. I have a pre-written post sitting in my queue about how I would shop Brandin Cooks for a mid-round pick to free up cap space because I’d rather keep Will Fuller and I don’t think you can keep both. But if Watson isn’t here, what does it actually matter? This team was horrendous last season with him. Without him, they might have won two games. You can’t marginally improve a team like this. You’re basically out of win-now mode until you have a quarterback that can tell you otherwise, and you’re right back to asset accumulation mode.

That’s before we even get into the fact that with Watson gone, the pull of becoming a Houston Texan goes out the door with him. Tyrann Mathieu cited Watson as a reason to join the team in 2018. J.J. Watt has pretty much kept the door open on Houston, in my opinion, specifically because of them having Watson. Remember when the team tried to trade Will Fuller at the deadline?

Why would Will Fuller want to re-sign with this team if Watson isn’t here? Stars want to play with stars. Somebody will take Houston’s money, sure. But it will be Jacksonville, just on the Gulf of Mexico. An irrelevant franchise, forsaken by many of its fans. Paying the Joe Schoberts and Toby Gerharts of the world to win four games instead of two.

A standoff with Watson threatens the team’s present just as much as it threatens it’s future. Maybe the Texans don’t actually want Watt back anyway — that goes with what I’ve seen so far — but without Watson here there’s likely no reason for him to want to be back. When Brandon Scott asked the question to Caserio about the team’s reputation and got back “And believe me, there’s a lot worse things that could probably, that are happening in the world,” that was Texans Cinematic Universe brain. It was an admission that the question was fair without ever answering it.

Now, a franchise operating in its best interests would have just rid itself of Easterby, but the Texans have committed two massive contracts into their general manager and head coach that say that Easterby’s job is pretty safe. If there’s not a trade to be made for Watson to move on from the scenario, then what we are watching isn’t an offseason of moves around Watson — much as the Texans Cinematic Universe will probably have to sell it — it’s a hostage negotiation.

I’m sure there will be plenty to talk about as the Texans have a new general manager and there are cap situations and what not to be addressed in the short-term, but this franchise has no real direction until the question about Watson is answered. As we talk about these things, we’re constantly going to be talking about two very different worlds.

I wouldn’t blame the Texans for playing hardball; this is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. But if they’re playing hardball and aren’t willing to make any reconciliations to Watson’s camp about how the franchise should look, this is going to be an ugly, ugly eight months. The time to make those reconciliations was in December, and the door is shut. The shape of the team was welded without him, but simultaneously, without him, none of it matters.

Seems like the kind of guy you’d want to get on the same page with. I dunno, might just be me.

***

I’m writing this article free of charge — this website is ad-free and non-intrusive. If you enjoy my work and want to encourage me to produce more, please feel free to leave me a PayPal tip.