Jack Easterby is a distraction that will never end until he’s gone

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

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We have spent many words on Jack Easterby and Jack Easterby’s fate on this blog since October. I am, frankly, exhausted by this situation. I didn’t get into writing about football to write about front office coups. I could’ve done that in politics just fine if I wanted that heat.

I’m not coming into this piece to say anything bad about Jack Easterby — not because I’m worried about lawsuits, but because nothing he does at this point can be surprising. Both Sports Illustrated pieces — here’s the latest — as well as my own fact-finding, have done little but support the idea that he is an agent of chaos. Line up his employment with the Texans in a timeline and it squares straight with this organization firing Brian Gaine and starting its descent into a 4-12, values-obsessed, cultureless, rejected Mean Girls Netflix sequel. I don’t think that warrants death threats, just someone to step up and say enough is enough.

And, more importantly, for those people to be listened to.

***

Deshaun Watson was in an impossible situation because of the standard quarterbacks are held to. Every Texans fan besides the rumored Easterby burner would rather keep Watson than Easterby, and that’s fine. But the old school mentality that players should never dictate anything to the front office was going to make it almost impossible for Watson to do that and not get widely blasted for it. The idea that a black quarterback was going to take out a religious-minded front office VP — on paper — is the stuff that Sean Hannity’s writers room can only dream of.

Watson has done a lot of maturation in his game over the past two seasons, and took a major step forward this year. In particular, he’s done a better job of diagnosing blitzes and finding his open receivers when they come. He’s always shown a rare ability to take hits, keep his balance, and deliver under pressure. But this season he began to intentionalize the idea that there are hits he shouldn’t take. He has praised the offensive line for playing better and the receivers for getting open — and that’s what a good quarterback should do — but it was his improvement that set the scene for it all.

How much Watson believes that Easterby has to go is probably something that will never be public record, and I’m not going to tell you that I know for a fact that he wanted Easterby gone. But by appearing in the above picture, with this caption, and saying nothing about it, Watson said all he needed to. He read the situation, checked it down to Andre Johnson, and got ready for the next play.

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Faced with his choice on Friday, Cal McNair chose Easterby.

Here’s the thing: There’s no amount of words or “agree to disagree” that will ever work here. The thing about agents of chaos, as four years of the Donald Trump White House has taught us, is that there is always a new fire.

When nobody in the building trusts Easterby, what it means is that nuggets like those that appear in the SI piece will continue to leak. Combine that for a national sports media that wants Watson to be a winner, wants him to be a face of the NFL, and has no qualms with trying to “free” Watson from the Texans. What you have mixed together is akin to a rolling boil of canola oil. The job of trying to keep it contained is almost impossible without actually firing Easterby — turning the heat off. Maybe there will be a month where we talk about something else. But, as any Vice Presidents of Communications in the crowd could tell us — boy, the Texans sure could use one of those — eventually when you put something in the pot, scalding oil is splashing out everywhere. What McNair did on Friday is akin to noticing the boil, dumping two packages of fries into it, then running out the door of the house into the Lamborghini and beating a hasty retreat.

Deshaun Watson posted song lyrics on Twitter yesterday and it became near-unanimously known by fans of the other 31 fanbases that it was about how mad he was. Even after he clarified it, what people took away from it was that he was pissed off. This is a situation that doesn’t happen if Easterby just isn’t part of the Houston Texans organization anymore.

It’s a situation that will repeat itself several times in the months to come, and for as long as Easterby is an employee. It’s a flaming dumpster of a PR disaster, and Cal McNair has an extinguisher.

But have you considered how beautiful the fire is?

***

The thing about what happens in 2021 is that while we have likely had scenarios like the one playing out with the Houston Texans before, we’ve never had the level of access to it that we’ve had. It makes it feel infinite, neverending, like a Ulysses that we are trapped in every day. That impacts fans, yes, but it also impacts players, employees, their families. It impacts Deshaun Watson’s day-to-day life, whereas before it would have been a bad choice that appeared in a newspaper column and didn’t get any traction until Training Camp.

What should happen in a scenario like this is that, eventually, you can’t escape the truth. Fans have been livid for weeks. Watson is fed up. Logic would dictate that you simply remove the problems and obstacles involved with keeping the franchise quarterback happy. The negative energy invited by keeping Easterby is lowering the value of the franchise every instant he is employed.

I wrote about McNair’s inability to grasp what is happening last week. I almost feel pity for him, because he has no idea what he’s in for in choosing Easterby here. I should be writing an article right now on the owner being dragged, kicking and screaming, into getting rid of his best friend who was ruining the franchise. I have tried to not go after him as a person because, well, that’s not actually productive. But his actions continue to paint a more damaging picture of him than anything I could write ever would. Choosing Jack Easterby over Deshaun Watson is the most incomprehensible thing I have ever heard of in my life. It’s like filming a Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives episode that is 100% footage of Guy Fieri in his automobile. It’s the kind of thing that makes fans ask: What exactly are we doing here?

When Cal said in the piece that his religious beliefs don’t dictate how we play football, note that it was not a real answer to the question. Cal is not very good at answering the actual questions that are asked of him, and that’s not a great skill for somebody who has fancied himself a problem-solver. The problem is that the religious beliefs seem to be impacting who gets to stay and help lead a franchise. That is not technically dictating how they play football, but the business around it. It is all semantics in the grand scheme of things — Easterby is here for one reason, and we know what it is.

Cal has mentioned several times that he wants to build a consensus. That was something his father was big on, as well. But if you are a consensus builder, and people believe they should be part of the consensus and are ignored, you don’t actually have a consensus. The fans, the players, the employees and ex-employees that are leaking, the non-Easterby figures in this organization, everybody else seems to be aligned to ridding the team of its major problems.

But the consensus was never actual, it was just another front to hide behind as Easterby systemically stripped the organization of assets as if he were employed by another team to do it. If they somehow bungle away having Deshaun Watson, this organization will become one of the bleakest things in the NFL. I would say that we can get through it, but I read what the readers say. There are people who don’t even want to associate with this team if Watson isn’t here. I will be writing for six people.

Professional sports franchises are unique in that they are a corporation, but one that people actually want to interact with. Even when Bill O’Brien had obviously capped Houston’s upside as a playoff franchise, I had fans coming out of the woodwork to defend him or tell me they thought I was wrong. Sports teams have an imbued sense of community and representation that’s hard to fuck up.

But Cal, bless his heart, he’s trying real hard to prove that wrong.

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There are many megachurches in Houston

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 have been hoping to ignore this, because I know the kinds of comments these articles get and I don’t want to invite them into my life. But it continues to be a major theme of the Jack Easterby Houston Texans: The overbearing injection of religion and values as a factor in football operations:

It is clear from the Sports Illustrated article about Jack Easterby that Easterby’s hold on the Texans and his initial connection with owner Cal McNair came from their shared faith.

This is something that was a gateway previously between Bob McNair and Rick Smith, and that is an open secret as the clear mesh point between Cal McNair and Easterby.

I think that notation from Breer is a perfect way to put it: I’m not here to trivialize anybody’s religion or faith, but it is notable that we keep getting dragged back here and I want to explore why that is as the franchise continues to weight themselves down with the Easterby anchor. I think a lot of fans are struggling with the question of why a preacher could have such a particular impact on McNair. Let’s talk about it.

***

It is not all that notable that an NFL owner is getting grifted. NFL owners have been grifted by coaches and front office men since the dawn of football. The Cowboys hired Mike McCarthy this offseason after he went on an analytics photo opportunity at PFF. He brought along defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, who hasn’t run a good NFL defense for more than a half-decade. There was almost no chance that it would end well on the merits of the coaching. In that way, save his background, Easterby is no different than several other would-be prophets.

This particular owner, though — and I say this with no joy — has been completely out of his depth as a speaker in every public appearance since his father’s death. The 40 minutes he spent with us at Nick Caserio’s press conference were a tour de force of ways to prove that he does not understand the gravity of the situation he finds himself in. He could not answer basic questions about Easterby’s role in the company. He chummed around with reporters who he knew about ice bucket challenges and golf games. He continued to try to present an extremely optimistic point of view about a deteriorating situation — 4-12, one star gone, a second star pissed all season, a third star pissed by the reason for this presser — as if going 6-10 because of a better record in one-score games would have changed any of the underlying problems.

Press availabilities don’t really stagger you if you know how to speak in them — you learn the ebbs and flows, and you understand how to give the kind of non-answer that can at least imply a hint of what you’re doing. “Getting it corrected,” in Bill O’Brien’s parlance, conveys that he knows that something is wrong. If O’Brien had fielded a question about his running game and replied: “I want to talk about my running game, we ran a lot of plays and we saw some good results. We want to run the ball very good at all times, we ask our fans to believe in us,” he would have been destroyed. McNair’s inability to even tonally hit the answers that you don’t want to hear speaks to how unable he is to see that any of this is wrong. Particularly given that he had to have been aware and briefed about grievances the fans have had and that it was no secret how this would play externally.

A lot of fans have attacked McNair through the bounds of regular fan logic: They see an issue and wonder why it isn’t being addressed and why he can’t see it. The thing about growing up rich and disconnected from any consequences is that it manifests itself in ways that make you, to normal people, profoundly weird. Take this quote from Tania Ganguli’s profile of Cal McNair in 2012:

No normal Houstonian grows up not understanding what Bud Adams did to make fans mad at him. I empathize in a way, because if you are chummy on an ownership level, where you see all these little-publicized donations and charity events and galas, it’s easy to just see the good you think you are doing and wonder what you could do that would be bad. The fact that this quote happened nine years ago and that McNair still doesn’t seem to understand or appreciate what he has to do to connect with normal people is a window into why someone like Easterby was able to touch him. Fans like to project themselves on to ownership — probably because of the fetishization of having that level of money — and pretend they are owners and decide how they’d act. What if Cal McNair is just a family-focused goober who happened to own a football team and saw it as a cheat code for respect at cocktail events rather than a description to be lived up to?

Anyway, for no particular reason after that paragraph, this bit from the clips that didn’t make this story is fairly revealing:

This is not to say that anybody has done anything wrong in this story — it is just tonally weird with how normal people live their lives. Many women who get approached like this would be understandably angry at best, and possibly file paperwork. I’m happy it worked out for them, and I’m not trying to shame anybody here. It’s just one of very few windows we have into Cal’s life. He met a girl he found attractive on Valentine’s Day and decided that the way to make this happen was concierge services, like she was tickets to the opera.

I can’t pretend that I know who Cal McNair is. I’ve never even talked to him, let alone in person. But it’s not hard to interpret the signs of who someone is when a carefully-choreographed paper appearance and long press conference show us that he doesn’t understand much about his fanbase or how life works for it. My guess, given the fact that he’s tuned in to (hat tip Steph Stradley) Easterby’s toxic positivity, is that he sees the fanbase as something that produces a lot of negativity in his life, and something that he has a mandate to ignore because they don’t understand all the good he does. He chastised nobody in particular but obviously someone on the outside for “a lot of heat” that Easterby took for taking over as interim general manager. Even a last-ditch Sports Illustrated article effort couldn’t get McNair to understand the legitimate grievances any fan or player would have with this culture.

All of us are attuned to hear the people who are positive to us a little louder — it is human nature to not want to be shamed and to be kind to those who are kind to us. McNair is no different than any of us in that regard. It is just that, by nature of his upbringing and his dismissal of the general outside, the potential audience of people who interest him is a lot smaller.

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What is revealed, over and over again, is that “believes in family, believes in doing things the right way,” is what the Texans want. Since Bob McNair’s death, Cal McNair has run the team mostly in a hands-off way and wanted to build “consensus.” It was a “consensus” deal that they’d trade DeAndre Hopkins, ergo it was nobody’s actual fault.

As far as the consensus building goes, Easterby’s LARPing campaign as Texans GM was a lot louder when he was part of the committee. The committee could afford to believe that replacing DeAndre Hopkins with David Johnson would work. Hopkins, after all, would give footballs to his mother in the stands, which is dangerously close to glory. David Johnson, one imagines in Jack’s mind, calmly recited Psalm 34:18 as he waited for each gap that would never open. But once O’Brien ran out of HP and the decisions could actually be traced back to him, Easterby treated even Kenny Stills like an Elixir. You don’t want to waste that in a random battle, what if a third-round pick came in return? Let’s wait by the phone and see.

The most important part of the McNair family is that once you’re in with the McNair family, you’re there through thick and thin. A lot of faith is placed in you. Gary Kubiak coached here for eight seasons. Bill O’Brien for six and a quarter. Both of them had issues that would topple coaches in hotter markets fairly early.

But a family can only be as strong as the faith placed in it by all members. You’re reading this and you haven’t clicked out yet, so you’re part of my greater readership family. If you suddenly decide that I’m bad at this, the family dissolves. If I suddenly decide that I’d rather never write about the Texans again — maybe more of a possibility than it should be — the family dissolves. There’s a spirit of cooperation implicit in both a family and church structure where we don’t always do things we want to do for the greater good. People we are obligated to listen to. These are generally shared values. They are values that the Texans are trying to project on to their team and roster, yet they are ones that ownership is happy to overlook when applied to the family in charge.

When you hire opportunists to be family, and they are given a chance to seize more power in the family, they will. It’s how Bill O’Brien got Rick Smith out of the building. It’s how Easterby knifed Brian Gaine and, later, O’Brien. Opportunists can read the room and understand when a challenge is ready to be faced and how to avoid it. There are lofty standards about how the players and staff supposed to act and be, but they are applied inconsistently.

Easterby was supposed to be O’Brien’s right-hand man, but he understood that keeping power would not be easy after an 0-4 start, and distanced himself. O’Brien distanced himself from Smith because he was never interested in sharing power, something that was evident to anybody who watched their interactions on Hard Knocks. These people may have been “family,” in the sense that they lived with each other, but they don’t live up to the ideals and values that McNair set forth for them. They haven’t done things “the right way.” Easterby’s play to get close to McNair was easier than probably even he expected. To be fair to McNair, promises towards shared values and faith look damn good compared against O’Brien’s belief system of nihilism, inside zone, and the Yankee concept. To McNair, Easterby must have had an aura of extreme competency.

Because they can present themselves as people who did things the right way to someone without a discerning eye, they can be Houston Texans family and eat the family too.

***

Having subjected myself to a couple of different Jack Easterby sermons in the grander service of trying to understand how someone could be under his sway, there is little but enthusiasm there. The nervous energy he puts out as he spins his yarn is no different than a fourth-tier YouTuber asking for you to like and subscribe mid-video. His major sermon, and the thing that his foundation is named after, is The Greatest Champion. It goes a little something like this:

In the world that Easterby preaches, we are all “a mess” (his words) in the eyes of God. The way that you create your value isn’t through results, but through process and belief in the process.

Caillou-Manuel Propaganda over here preaches toxic positivity and improvement. The idea that if you’re just overwhelmingly positive, and you do “the work,” and “embrace humility,” that everything is going to be great. That in and of itself isn’t all that interesting — many people have written self-help books around that, and some of them, unlike Easterby, do it successfully. The problem isn’t that applying values to a person can inspire the person to find paths that make them happier. The problem is that applying values to an organization’s players isn’t Moneyball For The Galaxy-Brained. If there were a way for religion and values to create a winning football team, trust me, someone in the NFL would have found it before Jack Easterby. Probably Mike Singletary, maybe Tony Dungy, if we’re being honest.

The idea for his image of the team is self-contained: Why can’t your poem be greater? Why can’t you meet your challenge? The problem is that Easterby also preaches the process over the results, so the bar for the challenge is literally on the floor. Easterby’s promise falls flat when laid out to someone like J.J. Watt, who already has extensive self-motivation and doesn’t need to learn more about how to use his gifts from someone who can barely keep his anecdotes above the racially insensitive replacement level. If Whitney Mercilus gets four sacks but finds inner peace with his relationship with God, well, I’m very proud of Whitney but he’s not worth $11 million a season. This should be a business of results. The entire point of the game is the results.

The results since Easterby has taken over have been horrific. Not just on-field, but the destruction of relationships, the trades, the contracts, the constant theme of Entrance of the Gladiators that follows anything they do. The inability of this year’s team to give 300 snaps to a rookie on their way to 4-12, adjust to anything that this year gave them in terms of scheme, or do anything more than complain about the lack of tackling drills they had week after week for eternity. Once O’Brien was deposed, this team quickly became a loose collection of individuals playing in self-interest rather than an organization with any kind of direction. The Texans have brought up often that they are interested in competing for championships — McNair brought it up again on both Friday and Saturday — but nothing they do seems to understand the urgency involved with that goal.

Easterby’s vision for what the Texans are is self-preservation for his principles. The only ounce of shame in the entire thing is that even he can’t bring himself to go to the podium and speak about it. Jack tweets an awful lot about people who aren’t in the arena for a man whose one arena fight was Cal McNair’s bedtime on the team charter home from London.

But to Easterby, that line is just another challenge to motivationally Tweet through. If he has found a taker to his mantra in McNair, there’s ultimately no way within his reasoning to ever judge Easterby for what has gone wrong. After all, we’re all flawed creatures and we’re just following the process of the worker and the spirit to get to a better poem. What other opportunity could you want? Amen.

***

To be honest with you, I have had a terrible relationship with Catholicism. My grandfather wielded it as a cudgel on my mother and I. He would withhold money and benefits from us if we did not meet his standard of Catholicism. I responded by withdrawing. I don’t really mind that some Texans are religious and it doesn’t bother me that Deshaun Watson or Brandin Cooks mentions God often — I don’t connect with them in that light, but if that is what it takes to inspire their greatness then I embrace it. Likewise, I don’t begrudge Easterby for his faith. If Easterby and McNair were running a car dealership in Maine instead of the Houston Texans, I would blissfully not care.

If the Texans fancy faith and family as a major part of their approach, I think that’s both good marketing and a recognition of a major audience in Houston. But people don’t talk about football teams because of the charitable acts they do. People don’t consider the Texans in terms of them being a public good — if they want to be that way, McNair can turn ownership over to the city and we can pay teachers with their profits. People talk about how awesome Deshaun Watson is, how much help he needs, and how nice it would be if there were any chance he was going to get it. They talk about the last part that way because of Easterby’s greatest hits.

The fact that Watson trade rumors have been allowed to generate shows how this culture has failed. Forget the jolly forced summer camp hike to the end of the season that Romeo led, and forget the legitimate grievances Watson has over an ownership family that listened to his front office suggestions in the same way that our government listens to its citizens. The entire NFL news culture is thirsty to create a typhoon of poorly-sourced fantasies about where Watson would go. It draws eyes, it creates hope for a million fanbases, and it plays into the demand that he be “freed” from the Texans, which were an obligation to him this year and an outright piano on his back being forced to run O’Brien’s 2011 finest. This culture saw that and decided that the best move was to yank Watson around some more, as a matter of course, because the family is the family and they can’t just be handing out Zoom interviews to anybody; it would disrupt the nothing they had planned. That it has blown up in their face is both unsurprising and — outside of the effects of potentially creating an orphaned franchise nobody ever wants to read about — hilarious in the way that any ACME package delivered to Wile E. Coyote is.

In the press conference on Friday, McNair spoke to the need to “build a wall,” in an awkward word choice that possibly seemed like a nod to Joe Brady. In an interview with the official website on Saturday, McNair then said that he needed a head coach who would get players to run through a brick wall.

It was just another example of McNair’s public awkwardness, but it was also a perfect metaphor for what the mentality of this team has become since Easterby joined the front office. They want to build a wall, then they want to have the team run through the wall, and then they want to do it again. And again. And they want to embrace that philosophy eternally — defining walls and then breaking them down — because obstacles are what keep Easterby employed.

There are many megachurches in Houston. We don’t need a football team to aspire to be another.

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At Nick Caserio’s press conference, we learned that the Texans have no answers for why they’re keeping Jack Easterby or his culture

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.

***

Nick Caserio’s opening presser was overshadowed by the fact that the Houston Texans, as currently constructed, are just trying to put out a continually erupting series of brush fires. These fires have been caused and created by the fact that they continue to employ Jack Easterby and that he’s been tied directly to the hire of Caserio. Caserio did not help himself in that regard by referring to the relationship he has with Easterby as “special.”

Caserio dealt with malfunctioning microphones and was personable and alert — often to the point of jumping in front of Cal McNair to answer questions for him. It showed good instincts, but there isn’t really a way to cover up what McNair tried to sell people.

At his last media availability of the season — four days ago but somehow it feels like it happened two months ago — Deshaun Watson talked about the culture, and about people who think they have power but shouldn’t:

That culture was in the hands of Easterby. As is prominently displayed on his resume, “In his role, Easterby manages all football operations and directs the overall culture of the organization.” At Caserio’s presser, McNair’s opening monologue tried to stab at the idea that the culture was wrong, but never really touched on why that was.

“As we look forward, it’s important for me to remind everyone who the Houston Texans are as an organization. Our culture has been repeatedly under question this season, so let me clear that up for all of you right now … We believe you can’t go wrong by doing what’s right, and ask our fans to trust that we know what’s right.” If McNair had finished those first two sentences by uttering the phrase “and that is why we are firing Jack Easterby,” we could have all moved on to the business of football. I’d post something about Nick Caserio’s comments and how they relate to his job. But he didn’t. So I guess that’ll have to come later.

In asking the fans to trust in an organization that has sewn so much chaos within it’s relationship with Deshaun Watson and J.J. Watt these past two years, McNair is asking for something that can’t be given by an appeal to authority. It is something that has to be earned by actions and words. If this was as disappointing of a year as it was supposed to be, why are the Texans proud of everyone involved? Why did they never address any reasons behind their poor record but win-loss record in close games? They want the benefit of the doubt that they think sitting up at a podium grants them, without any of the icky introspection and self-examination that leads to transparency and critical thinking.

This is not helping anybody understand Jack Easterby’s role. This is a statement of fact. Jack Easterby is buddies with my new general manager. Was that the overriding factor in why Caserio was chosen? Sure sounds like it was, because no other reason was given. Why was Jack Easterby given the power? What does Jack Easterby do that is good?

“He took a lot of heat for it,” McNair says, as if that is something that is noble or admirable. The question asked by Brandon Scott — who killed it as always — is why he is around. There was no answer given. There was no answer given because there is nothing either man could point to about why he was around that anybody wants to hear. Here’s Vanessa Richardson from NBC asking what exactly Easterby brings to the table:

“Other things that Jack has done really well over the past,” such as? I’m not even going to get into the “build a wall” thing or the several other tone-deaf statements that McNair uttered in this presser. I don’t think he’s a good public speaker and I think, in time, he will learn that his role in this press conference was a mistake.

We had a 30-minute press conference with several questions about Jack Easterby. Neither Nick Caserio nor Cal McNair could answer why he is here or what he does that is worth keeping. What they tried to do instead was give a value-based, preach-heavy analysis of how they want their culture to be viewed. Here’s Caserio:

These are all words, and they all mean something in the sense that if you were creating a self-help program for a college football team, it would sound something like this. But they have no factual relevance in the situation the Texans find themselves in. No amount of selflessness or serving is going to erase the fact that DeAndre Hopkins isn’t here, J.J. Watt wanted to be out all last season and probably hasn’t changed his tune, and that they pissed off the franchise quarterback for no reason. No amount of values is going to change the fact that this defense was a trainwreck last season. There isn’t a mindset change that alters the fact that coaches see that Jack Easterby is on staff and remains in power and skitter away from taking interviews with the team.

What the Texans revealed on Friday wasn’t so much a master plan to fix the franchise as a defense of the fact that they are where they were entirely by happenstance. In that sense, it’s no different than your typical Easterby lecture, the one where we are all born sinners and must simply DO THE WORK to get out of a tough situation. Easterby didn’t attend a press conference that was essentially all about him — you’ll have to forgive him, his most recent appearance at a presser in early September isn’t him hiding under a pile of coats as he counts his money, no sir.

Caserio very well may fix various aspects of the Texans by attempting to actually do Football Stuff instead of playing 5d chess about Who We Should Value and engaging in Christian Phrenology on star players. But what we learned on Friday is that he’s going to have to fight the organization’s established culture the entire way.

We all know who the culture belongs to, even if he wasn’t at that press conference.


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Nick Caserio deserves a shot, but his hiring is an indictment of ownership

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.

***

Cal,

I hope this post finds you well. You won’t read it. It’s fine, no big. You seem like an affable guy — slightly awkward in interviews, but who isn’t? — and your only crime is being in charge of a multi-billion dollar organization that people care about and have expectations for. More succinctly speaking, you are in charge of the organization that was lucky enough to trade for, watch, and employ Deshaun Watson, one of the very few quarterbacks in this world that play well enough to create a playoff appearance all by themselves.

You may have noticed that this didn’t happen this season. They made you get on the radio and talk about it, defend the Hopkins trade. I think you got hassled and had to make a statement to Sports Illustrated about some article. In case your eyes glossed over at those games, the Texans finished 4-12. They were almost implausibly bad given the circumstances of having a quarterback like Deshaun Watson.

NRG has gotten to work pretending that this was all about Bill O’Brien, but it wasn’t. There was no magic turnaround. There was no different vibe in the city. In fact, other than beating a Jaguars team that was actively trying to fail twice — and nearly blowing a game to Jake Luton! — the Texans beat two actual opponents this year. One fired their head coach immediately afterwards. The other had the ball in the red zone to tie the game. Nowhere in the “the Texans didn’t win enough close games” calculus will you find it mentioned that they were very close to losing the two that they won, as well.

So let’s call this what it was, Cal:

You have given control of an NFL franchise to a guy who connects with you religiously and who you trust implicitly, but has had a huge hand in dragging the franchise down. Bill O’Brien never made the kind of wackadoodle trades we all now associate with him until you hired this man. He worked with general managers who quashed his worst instincts. Easterby emboldened them. It is not a mistake that the team has floundered under his lead. He is woefully out of his depth, as anyone who cosplays an NFL general manager would be.

Deshaun Watson is going to cover up so much of what is wrong with this team, and I think it would be hard for the Texans to not improve record-wise from last season just because they have so many improvement areas. They failed massively at so many things. That’s how you get scenes like this:

To let a man who is almost universally reviled by the fan base choose the direction of this franchise — and for that direction to be right back to the Patriots tree that just burned down — it takes a special kind of tone-deafness. It takes a person who not only ignores what the fans think, but ignores the things that his star players say, ignores every warning sign the media can put in front of his face, and ignores the results on the field. It is the kind of thing that could only happen to someone who is entirely out of touch with what owning a football team means outside of how it affects them.

The scary thing about it is that Deshaun Watson is so good he might win them some titles anyway. He might get Football Osteen a ring, and Football Osteen can preach that he won something when he was born between third and home plate and thinks he knocked it out of the park. (Rick Smith knocked it out of the park.) I will get to what I think about Caserio is a hire in a second, but I certainly don’t think he’s out of his depth.

This move is a public relations disaster because what has been conveyed to us is that Cal McNair’s friends matter more than the business of winning games. That’s a hard box to close once it’s open. Maybe Easterby will get fired before the season and we’ll all get to look back and Cold Takes Exposed this post — God I hope we do! — but the message that has been sent tonight is that the culture of the Texans is what Jack Easterby says it is. I don’t know how you can expect to sell this any other way, Cal. I really don’t. Listen to the on-field results. Listen to J.J. Watt and Deshaun Watson talk about the culture.

Image

What 2020 and 2021 have been teaching people — over and over again — is that the people who should have your best interests at heart often don’t. I hate that we’re anchored here talking about Jack Easterby instead of being excited about improving the football team, Cal. But it’s really kind of an unavoidable topic. That’s on you.

***

Like David Johnson, I feel bad for Nick Caserio because his employment is an afterthought in the grander scheme of this transaction. There’s so little enjoyment in what has happened that it’s hard to talk about Caserio rationally. I think it’s almost impossible for us as outsiders to judge Caserio’s results — not only because Bill Belichick had final say, but also because so little of what happens in a front office is actually public knowledge.

I want to spend a little more time with this once we have more public statements from the parties involved and once I do some deeper research on Caserio’s drafts and what not I will have some stronger feelings. But purely as a reaction, I’ll start with: No matter who the Texans hired as a general manager, it was going to be an upgrade because it was guaranteed to be somebody who had an actual background in this business instead of Coach Napoleon and Smeagol.

But, yes, to have a bushel of rings with the Patriots is impressive. To be only 45, to have coaching experience, that’s good. To be as widely desired as Caserio was over the last six seasons before finally taking the Texans job, that’s a good sign. His presser with the Patriots after his hiring was blocked the first time was a total stonewall and, frankly, makes me think we’re in for some unexciting times whenever he actually speaks:

One thing that I think is very great about the hire is that the Patriots have quite a history of trading down and collecting picks. I don’t know if that follows Caserio here — nobody knows for sure what happens without Belichick — but the fact that he was exposed to that culture is good because this is a team that needs to be doing some trade downs to accumulate assets. They did trade down out of the first round last season.

Diving into, say, the transcript of his post-Day 2 draft presser last year. The Pats picked Kyle Dugger in the second round, who played pretty well this season. I think you can see a lot of nuance and appreciation for the bits and pieces of his job in his answers.

Now, the big question here is something we don’t know the answer to: How will Caserio react to having to fix this defense?

How creative is he willing to be? What does he see as the answer? Can he keep J.J. Watt in a Texans uniform? Some of that is about the head coach, yes, but the general manager of this football team is in a very special predicament where they have a preposterously bad defense and not a lot of cap room to play with to fix it. How do they take an honest stab at it and not waste the offense’s time? (Do they take a stab at it in the first place, or are they writing off 2021 as previous regime’s fault?) This is his main task off the bat, and it’s something I think we need the Houston media to sit down with him and talk about before I get too deep into the weeds about it.

I don’t think this is a job that Caserio is unprepared for. I don’t think he’s a bad general manager candidate at all. I am willing to reserve a lot of judgement on his evaluation skills and what they mean for the team going forward because he never had final say. He talks the talk and I’m looking forward to getting deeper into what that means for Houston.

The problem is that the process that creates him as general manager is a process that should, rightfully, infuriate a fanbase that just wants to move on from the 2019-2020 Texans and get the people around Deshaun Watson that can make him a champion. Easterby has done enough damage to call into question why he should be involved in any of the decisions around this, and yet, here he remains, given the reins to pick the general manager. For all I know, Caserio is the next Tex Schramm. Maybe it turns out that way. But this is not the person who should have been making that decision.

It feels like the entire football world, everyone in it, knows that except for Cal McNair.

***

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Four Downs: Titans 41, Texans 38

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.

***

With 18 seconds left, the Titans completed a pass to field-goal range from their own 25 — a 52-yarder where Keion Crossen was left to deal with A.J. Brown:

The Texans gave up another four-yard run, and a doinked-in field goal to somehow lose a game where they scored on their last eight possessions. There’s a lot of talk about the Texans going 2-8 in close games, but this loss buttressed incredibly well with the one that started the O’Brien/Easterby era: The one where the Saints got a last-second field goal off after a blown coverage by Aaron Colvin.

The Texans have lived this life before. The story of the Bill O’Brien era was that in the mindset of “an 8-8 league,” as he always used to say, you’re only as good as your opponents. It’s okay to have a somewhat deficient defense when you’re facing Alex Smith or Jake Luton. When you face Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Philip Rivers, Ryan Tannehill, Ben Roethlisberger, and so on … not quite so easy. This defense has always been shreddable under Romeo Crennel. They have a terrible and easily exploitable game plan on third-and-long. That came to roost several times today, and again, one final time, for the game-winning field goal.

The story of Bill O’Brien’s Texans, beyond doing all of the world’s worst trades and acquisitions for literally no reason, is that they refused to adapt as the game did. They refused to figure out why David Johnson would be a bad fit for them, they just assumed he’d be good at zone. They refused to believe that they needed more talent on defense or that J.J. Watt wasn’t just going to be an era-defining superstar in every season. They refused to believe that they could do anything but run Yankee concepts out of play-action. They refused to believe that there was a better path on zone defense. They refused to defend play-action in any way but having linebackers get psyched out and opening huge holes. They promoted in-house aggressively and then turned it back over to the guy who had failed, and he — unsurprisingly — failed again. They tried to play 8-8 league football as O’Brien would have played 8-8 league football in 2014.

It didn’t work because it could never work. It isn’t 2014 anymore.

1) The same ol’, same ol’

I have watched this team get its ass kicked by Derrick Henry four times in two seasons. He coughed it up once in this game when Zach Cunningham spun into him protecting the football high, but other than that, he had his way with the run defense. They continued to struggle on practically every level. I remember maybe four or five plays where an edge contained him, otherwise, it was off to the races.

The Texans didn’t magically learn to tackle. They continued to employ passing downs players as run downs players. Even J.J. Watt got in on the act by blowing an edge assignment late in the game. Whenever the Titans wanted to run read-options with Ryan Tannehill the edge was completely open and vacated.

Outside of the fumble, they didn’t force a single punt all day after their first drive. Every time it got to third down, the Titans knew they’d go right at Vernon Hargreaves or Keion Crossen with A.J. Brown and it was almost pre-ordained to work.

This defense was broken from the beginning. I would like to tell you that individual parts improved — and I guess they did to the extent that Crossen was playing instead of Phillip Gaines or something like that — but this is the 2020 Houston Texans. They never actually tried to fix anything. They never went all-out with blitzes after the few games they won running Justin Reid at Cam Newton and Matt Stafford. They just kept on doing the same stupid ass things they’d been doing all season. Kept making Charles Omenihu a run-down player, kept using EDGE players who had no business being out there, kept pretending Brandon Dunn and Ross Blacklock could run the same kind of scheme that D.J. Reader had, kept running out cornerbacks that were utterly hopeless (and praising them for it!), kept pretending Zach Cunningham was going to diagnose holes and attack them well. None of those things ever happened in the scope of what the Texans did. There was never a reason to believe they would.

The defense is a multi-year rebuild project. It needs love and attention from a defensive coordinator who made his chops stopping what is popular in the NFL now. It needs a massive talent injection at cornerback, edge defender, and interior defensive line. It probably could use a few extra parts as well. And all of that as we wait to see how the world turns with J.J. Watt.

It is an absolute joke that this team never appeared to try anything different after firing O’Brien. They hid behind excuses about a lack of practice time or offseason. Romeo Crennel never talked about fixing scheme — it was always players that had to do more lifting and play more soundly. I have no idea based on the quotes that were coming out about the defense just how much input Anthony Weaver had after what looked like a couple of promising early-season games.

It was a waste of everybody’s time. If Brandon Staley Bar Rescued a college defense, they could have done better than this.

2) The season that should have saved the franchise

Deshaun Watson led the NFL in passing yards. He took a massive step forward even as DeAndre Hopkins was traded and his passing corps was shuffled entirely this offseason, then shuffled again after Will Fuller’s suspension and Randall Cobb’s injury. He threw two picks in his last 11 starts, one of which was a ball wrestled away from Brandin Cooks and one of which he described in the post-game presser as a fluke:

You can (and I will, later) make a highlight video of Watson’s best throws this season that would be the equal of a career highlight reel for most of the NFL’s quarterbacks. This should have saved the franchise and it should have saved the record from being as bad as it was this season. Quarterbacks that play as well as Watson did this year don’t wind up with records like this:

It is a goddamn shame that we’re going to have to endure an offseason of win-loss trolls telling us that it’s his fault that Nick Martin blew a snap that one time, that Keke Coutee fumbled that one time, that the defense failed umpteen times with a lead or chance to close something out.

This was a special, special year. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about special years in sports — think about the year the 2011 Texans had, particularly as an offensive line and as a defense — it’s that you can’t waste them. You just can’t. They don’t follow up as often as you’d like. And I hope that weighs heavily on the minds of the decision makers down at NRG as the offseason starts.

Bill O’Brien’s firing coincides nicely with Watson’s ascent to true NFL stardom. It’s a wonder that he played as well as he did. He’s everything you could ever hope would happen when you draft a quarterback, and he’s played as well in these circumstances as anyone could have. I’m sure he thinks there is a next level — and maybe he’s right, I sure as hell won’t doubt him — but it’s hard to imagine anybody playing as well as he did this year and finishing with four wins to show for it.

You can’t waste years like this, Houston Texans. You just can’t. It is criminal to the work that this man has put in at his craft and the improvement that he’s shown.

3) What we’ve endured

The Texans have had an almost unfathomably bad run of management over the last calendar year. I wrote about the individual decisions here, but suffice to say, this goes beyond that. Individual sections of this team have been broken with almost no focus on fixing them for the entirety of the season. The play-action passing game. The running game. The offensive line’s play with stunts. The defensive line outside of Watt has been brutal at stopping the run. The linebackers bite on literally any play-fake.

We’ve watched the Titans grow from a 9-7 team to a real AFC contender, and seen that regression isn’t going to take down Ryan Tannehill that easily. We’ve watched the Colts build a bully that is a quarterback away from being a dominant team and still has a lot of room to grow. We’ve watched the Jaguars successfully tank their way to Trevor Lawrence, meaning they ostensibly won’t be pushovers in the future.

This has been a painful year. It feels like a Fiona Apple record come to life. As someone who was always a skeptic of the Bill O’Brien Era and who often finds himself tampering down on optimism, I think there’s a lot of people who would believe that I’d be happy to be “right.” Even as I picked the Texans to hold off regression this year behind Watson’s growth. But this, as J.J. Watt said last weekend, sucks.

We’ve been through a lot, friends. There’s still plenty of time for things to turn around and the Texans have one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL to do it with. But there’s no denying that it is likely going to take a couple years for the defense to get good and to recover from a salary cap perspective. If you stuck it out this entire season, lemme say, you are a diehard. This season was, as I noted on Twitter:

I don’t have shame for anybody who fled. Just praise for those of you who stuck it out with me.

4) Thank you

So to everybody who stuck it out with me and with this team as it continued to inflict pain: Thank you. To the readers who are still here even in a 4-12 campaign that is nothing but misery, thank you. I have some individual thanks to follow:

-Thank you to the donators. There were 32 of you from August to Week 16, and though I won’t share names so that I don’t out anybody who doesn’t want to be outed, you pooled together a little over $650 with no real prodding and no promises from me. I appreciate you all, and … give me a second to get back to this.

-Thank you to Steph Stradley and Sean Pendergast, who I consider the two people who share my work the farthest and widest. Steph has been by far the biggest supporter of my content and work since I got serious about writing and without her chiming in on what I’ve written, sometimes I feel lost. May you both have excellent years to come.

-Thank you to Mike Meltser, who probably kept me from retiring this blog in 2019 with an off-hand comment at his post-bar exam party (remember when we could leave the house and go to bars?) that was something along the lines of “you’re the closest thing to the truth that there is on the Texans.”

-Thank you to my wife for putting up with me holing myself up behind the dual monitor set up and essentially being unreachable for seven-hour chunks of Sundays. She hates it, and it’s been even worse this year because the pandemic has kept her from being able to go out and do other things. I’m sorry I ruined football for you.

-Thank you to Justin Reid for calling me out on Twitter and making it seem like I had any say at all in his mid-season resurgence before being lost to a hand injury. Twitter followers loved to pretend like me “calling out” Reid led to anything, but have conveniently ignored all the other people I’ve called out who did not suddenly start kicking ass. Regardless, salute. I hope your recovery goes well and that the new staff fits you well. The largest donation this blog took in this year was $100. I have sent that to Kids’ Meals Houston in your name:

-Thank you to J.J. Watt and Deshaun Watson for being the kind of people you want to promote in this world. There are certainly teams in Houston right now dealing with stars that, uh — searching for a kind way to say this — are making it hard to pull for them. I know that there are fans out there that don’t have positive opinions of the two of you, but they are the outliers. Even as the team was losing, I’m happy that both of you continued to be A+ people to cover.

-Thank you to all the people who would probably rather not have it revealed that they read this blog. Thank you to all the lurkers who talk about this stuff in their group chats. Thank you to the people who only talk to me via DM. Thank you to the people who know me from playing video games that humor me by reading this stuff. If you don’t say anything to me but you’re still a reader, I appreciate you and I totally understand why you wouldn’t want to engage with anybody on social media.

-Thank you to the Texans Unfiltered crew for their support as a fellow voice in the independent Texans content-sphere

-Thank you to Battle Red Blog for their support, and for being the old home you love and miss even as everybody still slags it.

-And, just generally, thank you to anybody who shared the posts, read the pieces, and engaged with it in a level beyond their own anger and snark. I appreciate your time and attention, the most valuable things you have to give. With your help, the Twitter account gained over 1200 followers in a lost season, and we continue to bring more people I love to interact with into the fold.

***

As we scoot into the new year, we’re entering a terrifying proposition for me where the blog is growing and I have to consider expanding. People are speaking up about wanting me to do things I haven’t done before or haven’t done in a bit. I will try to accompany that to the best of my ability.

The reason it’s scary is because these last two football seasons have put a lot of mileage on me. I don’t know if you guys know this, but this blog and level of Texans coverage is basically a part-time thing that I’m treating as a second full-time job. Yeah, you can pick at little things like “posting a bunch of clips from press conferences isn’t hard” — but understanding what those things mean, trying to understand these guys at a human level, delving through all the rest of the content the team puts out and so on … that’s not easy. It’s a time-intensive undertaking to try to collate, edit, and put together all these clips into leans on who these people are. I feel like only Brandon Scott — the best questioner on the scene — could really identify with that.

So I simultaneously need to find a way to work smarter — less waste and less time spent on things that don’t matter — and I also need to find a way to get more people interested in paying for this, which is generally an area of expansion. That’s terrifying! I’m happy that I have had plenty of money from other gigs over the past couple of years, but the human toll of what I have done here is real. I haven’t touched some of my hobbies in months as the football season has drowned me. I rarely have off-days in-season and even when I do, there’s no telling when the brain will just come up with a good idea and decide to obsess about it until I write it out.

All of which is a way to say: I want to give you more of what you want. Please don’t be offended if it takes some missteps along the way to do that, because as good as I am at learning things, all of us only have so much bandwidth for that and I am also looking at spending a big chunk of my bandwidth getting deeper into Xs and Os this offseason. There’s likely to be a move to a platform that will encourage you to pay to read, and there’s likely to be a way to read things after a set period of time. There’s likely to be a podcast in some form or another. But what that does to things that you enjoyed previously? I can’t say for sure.

Or someone could just pay me a lot of money to just do this, and then I could not work for anybody else and have a reasonable amount of work in my life. That’d be nice too.

***

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.

Four Downs: Bengals 37, Texans 31

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 were seven-point favorites to the Cincinnati Bengals, a team starting a backup quarterback that sports records like the ones I put in the post’s header picture. They had a massive talent edge at starting quarterback. And, as this season has taught us, it’s not worth anything if you don’t use it correctly.

This is a story of a defense that broke. The only good news you can really share for the defense is that, midway through yet another dwindling finish to a close game, the FOX guys casually mentioned that J.J. Watt told them he intends to be back next season:

That’s great news because, even if he isn’t who he was in 2014, Watt is still the best player the Texans have and would do a lot in different schemes. Schemes that actually try. What the Texans did as a defense today — and I’m not even putting this on the players — was put together a plan to roll over and die. There’s nothing any player could do about it.

I wouldn’t call this one of Deshaun Watson’s best games, because he missed a few deep throws as the half was closing. But he was still plenty, plenty good enough to win — evaded some key rushes, made some great plays on the run. Typical Watson stuff that has us spoiled. He got some help from a running attack that hasn’t existed all season.

The Texans somehow managed to feel like they were tanking without having a first- or second-round pick. That’s special, and not in a good way.

1) Where has this stuff been all season?

The Texans ran a play-action pass with Brandin Cooks in the first quarter. Cooks shook his man. Watson uncorked a throw under pressure.

Houston’s play-action attack has been lacking for the entirety of the season, married into Bill O’Briens defective “I’m going to run Yankee concept (double crossers) max protect” stuff. Look at how easy this became. They let the fast man … run fast. On his own. And he won. Wow. Who could have foreseen such an event?

The Texans made it to the goal line in the third quarter and had David Johnson lined up wide. They ran dual slants to that side of the formation. They threw to Johnson. He caught it. Touchdown.

Johnson had a big day receiving against the Colts, but the majority of that came out of structure, with Watson scrambling or just dumping the ball off against aggressively deep drops by zone defenders. This was an intentional usage of him out wide. It worked, as it should work when he’s as accomplished a receiving back as he is.

I hate that it feels like a revelation that two very simple things would work, but that’s kind of how things have been with the Texans this year. They can’t get out of their galaxybrain 4d chess ways to just use players the way they have successfully been used in the past. And what I will remember about this game in a positive way, as the season began turning to ashes, is that suddenly they realized they could use David Johnson as a receiver in a structured way and have it work.

2) Brandon Allen throws for 371 yards … what the fuck is going on out there?

Sorry, it feels unprofessional to curse like that. But also: I can’t think of a better way to state this. Allen is a career backup. He has six career starts to this point and has gone over 217 passing yards in one of those starts. His career yards per attempt before this game was 6.08. Cincinnati’s offense as a whole had not gone over 309 total offensive yards in a game since Joe Burrow’s injury. And the Texans turned that into this:

Lemme put aside the Crossen stuff for next segment and focus on that large clustering of dots on the left side of the line of scrimmage. Plays like this were routine in the course of this game:

The Bengals screened the Texans to death on these, almost always getting 5+ yards as the linebackers bit and then tried to recover.

The Texans have sold out so hard to try to stop the run by shifting to a 4-3 that none of their linebackers knows how to drop to a correct depth. They’re little yo-yos that even junior level programmers like Zac Taylor and Matt Nagy have been able to own, working on the *mocking Boris from Goldeneye voice* guidance system.

Watt’s big speech after the game got the highlights, but just as importantly I think you can read how exasperated he was from his answers about how the defense played:

There’s nothing he can do, no way to win a down fast enough, to make this defense work schematically. The Texans had no sacks on Sunday. They had one in Week 15. Three in Week 14 when they actually got Trubisky to process blitzes from Eric Murray. But when an offense is just throwing on the air to these flats, there’s nothing Watt can do about it.

I would only be speculating about who he could be trying to reach — Steph Stradley pointed out that this was theoretical, but he’s done it before this season at other times — it feels like Watt has been trying to tell someone on this team to wake up for the entirety of this season via the media. I appreciate how much Watt understands about the media today — it’s a rare level of self-awareness that lets an athlete go on one like this and connect with the fans. I just wish whoever he was calling out had that same level of awareness.

3) Crossen Corner

The only person who was competitive in any real sense today on defense was Texans cornerback Keion Crossen, in his third career start. When the Texans did play man coverage, the Bengals saw his 5-foot-10 frame against their big wideouts and went right to work on it. Crossen made some good plays:

I think he had a hit-or-miss game in this position. I don’t think he often got good initial position outside of a few throws, like this one:

But he also had a few where it was clear he wasn’t up to the NFL-sized task of outside corner:

Here’s the thing about this: It doesn’t bother me at all. I don’t care that Keion Crossen got burned. I respect that he came close on some of those plays. I don’t care that John Reid got burned deep for a touchdown by Tee Higgins, someone who has probably a half-foot of height on him at the very least. I want to see these guys play and if they line up and get beat, that’s perfectly fine. We’re learning more about what the Texans need to think about for the future. I don’t think Crossen is a future superstar cornerback because he made a play or two on about 11 or 12 man-coverage targets as the Bengals went after him. But he a) sure as hell did a lot better with them than Phillip Gaines ever did and b) didn’t embarrass himself.

It turns out when you put pressure on receivers and quarterbacks to actually make tight throws, you see, they actually miss them. I’m not saying the Texans should never run zone. I’m saying that the amount of zone they’ve run these last two games has been downright cowardly. The building is on fire all around them and they’re reacting not with the desperation that deserves, but with a display that turns a journeyman third-string quarterback into a superstar. Your guys are probably going to get beat if you play honestly, sure. Some of them may not be ready to play every down, sure. But line up and fight for it, man. Make them earn it.

4) Did you miss Laremy Tunsil?

I don’t want this to sound trolly. I realize that I’m fighting an uphill battle on that because I see how hard some sections of this fanbase lionize over this. So I will lead with why I’m wrong: Laremy Tunsil is a much better tackle than Charlie Heck is. He would have made the difference on a number of key plays, including the one that got Watson hurt and eventually turned into a game-winner for the Bengals:

But Tunsil went out somewhere in the middle of the second quarter and the Texans didn’t really seem to miss him all that much on a grand scale picture. David Johnson had his best rushing game of the season and almost all of the big runs came post-Tunsil’s injury:

Roderick Johnson did a great job clearing the left side hole on this enormous run. He did a great job sealing the inside on this other enormous run:

I wanna be clear: I’m not coming after Tunsil’s money. I’m not saying he doesn’t deserve the accolades. It is very clear that he’s one of the best tackles in the game and if the Texans had a must-win game on Sunday, I want him healthy and available.

But to me it is also clear that the offense barely suffered at all for his absence. And that is a trend, my friends. He missed the Patriots game, the Texans won 27-20 and Watson had one of his best games of the season. He missed the London game last year, the Texans won 26-3 and Watson was barely pressured. It’s a small sample size against bad defenses, yes. But just the utter lack of any real change in production … when you look at how much the Texans gave up as they’re stumbling into securing a top-10 pick for the Miami Dolphins … is gutting.

And a quick side note on David Johnson actually getting going: After watching his presser, I wanted to give David Johnson a hug.

None of this is worth that kind of self-doubt, man. All the bullshit of us critiquing his every move. All the fan hate I’m sure he’s taken as splashback for something he never asked for. It’s terrible. I don’t want him to suit up here next year and nothing will change that because it’s not about him at all — but I’m glad he got a little moment in a lost season that maybe he can take and rebuild his confidence with.

***

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.

Ranking the 17 biggest mistakes of the Bill O’Brien/Jack Easterby administration

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.

***

(Exhale.) Texans fans, it’s been a year. To be more specific, it’s been a year-and-a-half. Jack Easterby took over as the executive vice president of team development in April of 2019. In the time since that arrival, so many people who were integral to the success of the 2018 Houston Texans were exiled to the far ends of the Earth because of ego. Ultimately, they were joined by Bill O’Brien.

It is a popular misconception that O’Brien was a solo driver. While he was responsible and has paid for that, I think you have to take him at his word: the Texans were a consensus team that made consensus decisions.

Even though a lot of the pre-Easterby moves were bad or middling moves — the kind that pop up when you’re trying to find consensus between two different egos in O’Brien and Rick Smith/Brian Gaine — the franchise-crippling moves didn’t come until Easterby joined the ship. The Houston Texans didn’t improve themselves much in the early 2019 offseason by not spending what it took for Tyrann Mathieu and replacing him with Tashaun Gipson. They also didn’t destroy themselves. But once the adults were out of the room, the bad moves could begin in earnest.

In a way, this post is therapy and a way to pat myself on the back for some correct takes at the end of a hard year. In another way, it’s a PSA to all of you that the really bad stuff didn’t start hitting the Texans until about the same time Easterby came on board. Did I mention that you can email the Texans about that? I should do that:

I would love nothing more in my stocking than the ability to not have to worry about Easterby undermining whoever is given a position of power in this franchise.

While the obvious No. 1 is obvious, I think there are some deep cuts on here that you may not have fully embraced or appreciated. I also want to note in advance that I will:

-Not be critiquing draft picks in this post — this is only free-agency signings or trades.
-Not be critiquing coach hirings in this post — so Mike Devlin’s employment is not taking up eight spots on the list.
-I will also, in the interest of fairness, provide moves I thought were good.

Actual Good Moves

Signed Deshaun Watson to a contract extension.
My post on this move at the time: https://www.riversmccown.com/2020/09/05/breaking-down-deshaun-watsons-extension/

Of all the things we have to be thankful for in this hellscape, the one that matters most is that Deshaun Watson is still here. It doesn’t take any deep analysis to think about how much he’s grown this year, how much he has gotten better at reading defenses, how much more confident he’s gotten with the ball. To put up about 750 yards on the Colts in two weeks without any established NFL receivers besides Brandin Cooks is a feat that I think is being undersold as this Texans season slowly bleeds out.

Signed as low-level free agents: Pharaoh Brown and P.J. Hall
My post on this move at the time: Too small stakes!

The Hall signing was working out pretty well for the Texans earlier in the year before he got hurt, and I can see how a man of his power and prowess could be a factor for the team going forward. He’s going to be a restricted free agent next year, which generally means nobody will touch him in a fairly conservative NFL. I could see him and Charles Omenihu playing inside together on passing downs and generating a hold-your-own amount of hurries.

Brown is what the Texans dreamed Darren Fells was. He’s a powerful blocker — he’s won some blocks so decisively this year that he’s been called for holding just because it looks like he should have been holding. He’s also delivered us highlights like this:

I know everyone got snarky about his Tweet about payday, and fair enough, you’re entitled to your Twitter layup lines. But he’s one of the few bright spots I’ve seen this season.

Trading Martinas Rankin for Carlos Hyde
My post on this move at the time: https://www.riversmccown.com/2020/02/04/the-carlos-hyde-conundrum/ (That’s actually from after the season.)

Carlos Hyde was the exact kind of back that O’Brien never knew he needed. He started off in a supporting role to Duke Johnson in 2019, and quickly became the best interior runner O’Brien ever had. The rumored two-year, $10 million deal that he turned down with the Texans was a disaster for both sides as Hyde lingered in veteran free agency until the start of the season and the Texans, well, you know.

Hyde was a good fit for inside zone, and even though O’Brien still called it too often and had Hyde running on fumes towards the end of the 2019 season, I think Hyde performed it better than any back has under O’Brien.

Re-signing Bradley Roby to a three-year, $31.5 million contract
My post on the move at the time: https://twitter.com/riversmccown/status/1315706812788805635 (I didn’t post about this either, I’m so bad at blogging!)

This is very close to the “jury is probably still out on” list, but two things save it for me:

  1. Without Roby, the Texans look absolutely and completely lost. He was not a terrific-graded player or anything like that this season, but he was often just stapled to the best receiver on the field. He’s not an A+ corner. He’s a B+ corner who was pushed into a role above his weight class.
  2. The contract itself wasn’t onerous, and the PED suspension wasn’t something anybody could foresee at the time.

Now, is he here next year? I’m not sure. But if he’s not here, the Texans are going to have a hell of a time replacing him. It’s good to have lines about things that players can’t cross, it’s good to want your guys in the building … but at some point you have to actually accumulate talent. The Texans don’t have enough of it. And outside of Roby, the current cornerback roster is depleted.

Moves I personally don’t like but that are, as a general rule, not important enough to rock the boat

If a move isn’t listed, it probably belongs here in my mind. I feel this way about signing A.J. McCarron and giving Brandon Dunn a big extension. Neither of those moves are devastating, they’re just the small wastes of money that many, many NFL teams have because they like a guy a little too much.

Moves the jury is probably still out on — could be rising later:

17) Re-signing Zach Cunningham to a four-year, $58 million contract
My post on this move at the time: https://www.riversmccown.com/2020/08/17/training-camp-digest-week-1/

Woo boy, this season for Zach Cunningham.

Cunningham has played this year like a pop-punk song: he’s loud, he’s often got no consideration beyond getting to his next verse, and if he makes mistakes he’s not going to dwell on them much. He even sat up at the podium recently and talked about how he thought he deserved to be leading the Pro Bowl balloting, which wasn’t exactly a great look considering how many busts he’s had this year.

Do I think the next defensive coordinator can turn him around? I do. Do I think that he’s ever going to be a value on that contract he got? Probably not. I think there’s a lot to like about him as a player, but non-zone coverage is not a strong suit and his radar feels like it just comes and goes. He needs a strong ecosystem to thrive and this Texans defense is not that.

16) Trading a second-round pick for Brandin Cooks and a future fourth-round pick
My post on this move at the time: https://www.riversmccown.com/2020/04/10/the-brandin-cooks-trade-is-yet-another-potential-disaster-in-the-making-for-bill-obrien/

Through one year, Brandin Cooks has mostly been able to allay my concerns that the price was too high for him by staying healthy. His production spiked without Bill O’Brien around to keep him anchored to the outside, where he can’t really win, and he’s been a reliable receiver as far as catch rate, which he wasn’t with the Rams. Without Will Fuller, his flaws are a little more obvious, but that was always going to be the case.

I still think there’s a lot of downside to this move. For one thing, we have no idea if the Texans can or want to afford him next season at his $12 million cap hit. A long-term extension for a player with his concussion history is still a scary prospect and has the potential to be a bad cascade move. I also think that there will be several receivers picked at or around that Rams spot that have a chance to be much better and cheaper than Cooks — Denzel Mims or Bryan Edwards in particular — and that the trade will look worse in that perspective with another season gone.

I cannot deny that Cooks has brought what he generally brings his team: a seam threat that lifts coverages for underneath players. The Texans have a regressive play-action game that ruins a lot of his pure bomb upside and makes me think he might thrive under a new coach if he gets there. I think he has won year one of the battle on this trade. I don’t think he’s won the war.

Small stakes bad stuff:

15) Re-signing Ka’imi Fairbairn to a four-year, $17.65 million contract
My post on this at the time: https://twitter.com/riversmccown/status/1237447537855995904

Fairbairn has lived up to established expectations with this contract. He’s never hit 90 percent of his field goals in a season, and he’s 13-of-21 in his career from over 50 yards. He’s missed big-time kicks against the Chiefs in the postseason and the Texans punted an inordinate amount of long field-goal attempts away in 2019 because they didn’t want to give him a chance.

So this is nothing against Fairbairn, who seems like a fine guy and is in my mind a league-average kicker. I’m very glad he got his. He’s also not a top-ten kicker in any universe. His contract? It’s a top-ten kicker contract. Sixth-highest on total value, fourth-highest on average per season, eighth-most money. He’s yet to have one season where I feel like he’s been a top-10 kicker. When he lines up to kick an extra point or a run-of-the-mill 40-yarder, I don’t assume it’s going in.

14) Picking up Vernon Hargreaves as a street free agent and pretending he was more than a stop-gap cornerback
My post on this at the time: https://twitter.com/riversmccown/status/1194727652394983425

Vernon Hargreaves seems like a delightful individual. He’s just a guy who keeps getting handed jobs that he can’t really perform. I don’t understand why he’s being handed this job, and I’m not sure why Texans coaches continue to assert that he’s played well or that he’s good.

The Texans are married to a bad corner. It’s okay to sign a guy like this and think you can change him. It’s okay to re-sign him after it’s a midseason thing and think maybe a training camp will change things. But when the corner who has played bad football for his entire career continues to play bad football, why do we have to pretend it’s not true? By the way, this isn’t asking for the coaches to tell us Hargreaves is a bum who doesn’t deserve a job — just be honest. Say he’s struggling, praise his work ethic, tell us about where he’s doing a good job. It doesn’t look like it’s on the field. And if it is on the field, we need a major reckoning about why this is.

People jumped down my throat on signing Hargreaves because it was “low-risk.” The risk has been cashed: The Texans refuse to move on from this player because they don’t want to give any young player snaps. They love him and can’t quit him. I don’t understand it on any level.

13) Re-signing Darren Fells to release Jordan Thomas
My post on this at the time: https://twitter.com/riversmccown/status/1302728045309161473

The Texans spent a modest sum on retaining Darren Fells this past offseason — it’s a two-year, $6.3 million deal. The problem isn’t that Fells is bad — he’s fine — but again in how the Texans used him. He’s not a blocking tight end in any real way. He led Sports Info Solutions’ charting in blown blocks at the position in 2019. The Texans? Well, they thought he was a blocker. So they kept him, used him that way, and then were astonished to find out Brown was a better blocker than he was and was freely available. Wow, it’s almost like you shouldn’t make long-term fixtures out of players who were picked up for little in the first place!

Losing the last two years of Jordan Thomas’ rookie deal isn’t something that should make you tear up inside. He’s a fine player who I think had a shot to do some real things in a bigger role in 2018. But the idea that any team would prefer an old Darren Fells to a young Jordan Thomas on a rookie contract boggles the mind. It could only happen on a team that didn’t make production a priority.

12) Releasing Tashaun Gipson
My post on this at the time: https://twitter.com/riversmccown/status/1253756432303996933

Gipson was a fine player for the 2019 Texans. His mistake was having an injured back towards the end of that season which, in the eyes of the crew leading the team, made him expendable.

Gipson hasn’t been a superstar or anything for the Bears, who signed him to a cheap deal as a replacement for Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, but he’s been a solid supporting player. The Texans, meanwhile, have used A.J. Moore, Michael Thomas, and have been forced to move Lonnie Johnson to safety this season. It has become wildly clear that none of those players except Johnson should be on the field in more than a dime role, and they’ve not performed well in those spots. They are special-teamers playing safety because they’re good guys. Meanwhile, what was a promising offseason for Johnson working on his ability to be a corner has been extinguished and now we’ll probably never know if he would have been a good corner. Even Johnson didn’t understand why he was moved, it sounded like, when he was asked:

I don’t know who Gipson hurt or upset, but it was beyond pointless to cut him and create a $4,250,000 dead cap hit this year when there was never a plan to replace him beyond hope and wishful thinking.

11) Letting D.J. Reader walk
My post on this at the time: https://www.riversmccown.com/2020/04/04/so-thats-gonna-happen-every-single-year-thoughts-on-houstons-spending/

I don’t think Reader was a must-keep player. As you watch Houston’s salary cap balloon in real time, it becomes apparent that a run-stuffing nose, no matter how good he is, is an expense that the roster could not have held after its 2019 decisions.

The problem was that in replacing Reader with Brandon Dunn, they created a gaping wound in a run defense that really couldn’t take more hits. They also did not spend the money they saved by letting Reader walk well: this was a cascade effect of several bigger moves that rank higher on this list. The Texans are 29th in run defense DVOA this year though 15 weeks, and were 19th last year. Reader was kind of the last thread holding it all together.

Now, Reader got hurt this year. If you look at it that way, it’s not a bad move to not re-sign him. But in the context of what would happen following Reader’s defection? Whew.

The Big 10

10) Firing Brian Gaine
My post on this at the time: https://www.riversmccown.com/2019/06/10/how-to-lose-a-gm-in-17-months-what-to-make-of-the-brian-gaine-firing/

If we were to point out the canary in the coal mine of what was to come, it was firing Gaine, who was (checks notes) coming off an extremely successful first season and with a lot of money still owed on his five-year contract that he signed in 2018.

Gaine reportedly wanted to extend Jadeveon Clowney. Bill O’Brien didn’t. We’ll talk about that in a bit.

While a lot of the 2019 offseason to that point had been calm and measured — if not mistake-prone — as soon as Easterby took some power, the Texans became a much more impulsive organization. I don’t write about Gaine as if he’s the best general manager who ever lived, and I don’t think the job he was doing in Houston was particularly great despite the Tyrann Mathieu one-year revival. I do think he drafted well and was on his path to build a solid talent base with some better picks.

Gaine was the last adult in the room. Once he was gone, the Keystone Kops began LARPing as GMs and that led to where the Texans are today.

9) Re-signing Nick Martin to a three-year, $33 million extension
My post on this at the time: https://twitter.com/riversmccown/status/1171482281828999173

I have no idea if Nick Martin is a good center. But I know that he hasn’t played like one.

I say that because Martin has spent his entire career playing for offensive line coach Mike Devlin, a man who rotates linemen even though nobody else in the NFL does, and who says things like this in public:

When the Texans signed Martin to his extension, he became the ninth-highest paid center by total value, the fifth-highest by average per year, and the 11th-highest in guaranteed money. I think Pro Football Focus has a lot of problems grading centers and gives them higher figures than they should, but Martin has literally never been a top-10 center in their grading. He hasn’t even been a top-15 center. The contract wishcasted that he was better than he was. And as the interior line has continued to struggle with picking up stunts this season, this guy is the one making the calls. Notice I didn’t mention the botched snap against Indianapolis: I don’t care about that. Everyone botches a few of those, and that came at the worst time. The problem with Martin is … everything else.

So what keeps him low on this list? As bad as the contract is, it was basically a two-year extension with some money paid in advance. The 2021 Texans can save $6.25 million by releasing him and leave only $2.5 million in dead money. That’s a bargain compared to some players on this roster! I can’t pass judgement and say I think Martin is bad because, I will be honest with you, I want to see any player on this line play a game with a real coach before I fully judge them. But he clearly has never played up to his deal and the deal in and of itself was a reach.

8) Signing Eric Murray to a three-year, $21 million contract
My post on this at the time: https://www.riversmccown.com/2020/03/23/eric-murrays-contract-is-pure-projection/

This move has played out to be even worse than it was because the Texans valued Murray’s versatility.

The problem? Murray’s versatility doesn’t make him good at either of his spots. If we want to cut him a break for his cornerback play, we have to acknowledge that the safety play he posted with the Chiefs was loudly not great. He was destroyed by Jared Goff in the Monday Night Football score-a-thon in 2018.

I think what the Texans did here is pay starter money to a dime-caliber defensive back because he could play two spots instead of one.

The only upside is, just like the Martin contract, it was basically a two-year deal. The problem is that releasing Murray will free up exactly $250,000 of cap room this coming season — $1,750,000 if it’s done post-June 1 — and so there’s really not much incentive to do anything but trade him. So … unless the Texans can find a way to incentivize someone to take his deal or make some sort of junk-for-junk trade, they’re kinda stuck paying him starter money next year. Many players with the same skillset Murray has will make NFL rosters for the minimum next season.

7) Trading a third-round pick for RB Duke Johnson
My post on this at the time: https://www.riversmccown.com/2019/08/12/will-bill-obriens-plan-for-duke-johnson-be-worth-the-price-of-admission/

The thing is: Duke Johnson is a natural fit for an offense built around Deshaun Watson. That kind of empty-set cheat code should thrive with a player like Johnson. The problem is that the Texans don’t use him that way. He has the fourth-worst Rushing Yards Over Expectation in the entire NFL this year, and the Lions game was the only time all year we saw Johnson actually used like a wide receiver.

I consider Johnson a quality running back despite the poor numbers this year — he’s just not a fit for what the Texans installed.

The problem is that panic-trading a third-round pick to get a player that you barely use, and then later usurp with a running back you overpay by even more, is an absolute disaster of resource management. Johnson has played 920 snaps with the Texans. Remember how J.J. Watt missed a lot of last season? Watt has played, over that same time span, 1,344 snaps. Whitney Mercilus has played 1,565 snaps.

The pick that Johnson was traded for wound up being a top-100 pick. Jacob Phillips, a run-stuffing linebacker, was who the Browns selected. His rookie year? Not great. But top-100 picks in general are pretty valuable commodities, and several players in this area like Harrison Bryant, Alex Highsmith, Adam Trautman, and Tyre Phillips have all shown bits and pieces of promise early on in their career. They could also have traded the pick for something more valuable. Did I mention Duke Johnson has a top-15 average annual value among all running backs? It’s probably a fair contract, but it’s not free.

6) Trading a third-round pick for Gareon Conley
My post on this at the time: https://www.riversmccown.com/2019/10/23/gareon-conleys-flashes-are-worth-buying-in-on/

I know, I’m the worst. Just a big ol’ hater. Can’t wait to hear it from you.

I think a lot of people have overrated how good Gareon Conley was in the first place based on his small sample of targets upon taking over outside for the Texans, and I wrote about it here. Was he an upgrade on what the Texans had on the roster? Absolutely. But that’s mostly because the Texans never had a real plan to replace Kareem Jackson, who walked to Denver without an offer because he wasn’t considered a cornerback. Nobody knows what this organization wants out of a cornerback outside of just “being Vernon Hargreaves.”

So my break from Texans Optimistic Conley Twitter — which I have never understood how it was created — is not all that surprising. It sucks that he got hurt, and it’s not really his fault that his body capital got used up. But he was also a) never a good corner in Oakland, b) never showed much in the way of promise beyond a fluky breakup rate, and c) was going to a coaching staff that hasn’t done a lot to develop any defensive back better than what they were before they walked in the door. I think the hype was set up to fail.

And, again, a late third-round pick is not nothing, as discussed with Duke Johnson a few paragraphs ago. You can find an impact, promising rookie who sticks on your roster for cheap for four years with a top-100 pick. The story some fans tell themselves is that the Texans don’t typically find those guys — it doesn’t matter. The draft is a crapshoot in a lot of ways. You want more shots rather than less.

5) Trading Jadeveon Clowney to the Seahawks for a third-round pick (would later become Gareon Conley), Jacob Martin, and Barkevious Mingo
My post on this at the time: https://www.riversmccown.com/2019/08/20/jadeveon-clowney-should-be-more-valuable-to-the-texans-than-bill-obrien/

Jadeveon Clowney has not been worth the energy we spent on his contract in 2019 because he hasn’t been used like he was in Romeo’s scheme in 2018, where he was a stand-up rusher that destroyed gaps. The Seahawks used him as a more traditional EDGE, and the Titans have watched him be overweight and hurt for most of this season.

It’s a shame we don’t know how things would have turned out here, and it’s very true that Clowney may have underperformed a big contract in Houston. However, what’s also true is that by getting rid of him, the Texans destroyed the matchup problems their front seven caused in 2018. That’s something that they haven’t even come close to correcting two years later. If anything, they’re backsliding.

Jacob Martin has been good when he gets on the field. The coaching staff is never going to let him be a full-time EDGE if it hasn’t happened by now, in a lost season with Mercilus not providing anything against the run. Barkevious Mingo blocked a punt once. The Texans watched Dee Ford get traded in this same offseason for a 2020 second-round pick, and they did absolutely nothing about it because the front office was of two minds. Once one mind won out, as Clowney said to Ian Rappoport, they pretty much pre-determined he wasn’t going to be a Texan anymore:

The Texans never had a real plan to replace Clowney’s production. They expected that by trading him, the magical forces of chemistry and tough/smart/dependable would bless them with instant pass rush from someone like Brennan Scarlett. That never happened. Talent, it turns out, is hard to come by in the NFL when you decide to narrow your personality scope as the Texans did.

Makes you wonder why you’d ever let a coach’s personality be bigger than his star players.

4) Re-signing Whitney Mercilus to a four-year, $54 million contract.
My post on this at the time: https://www.riversmccown.com/2019/12/28/in-committing-to-whitney-mercilus-the-texans-played-it-safe/

Man, my headline for this move when I wrote about it was embarrassingly safe, but I think it comes from a place of just enjoying Whitney Mercilus as a person. He’s always so genuine to talk to in the locker room. He’s been a Texan for so, so many years. He’s a really good dude who in his prime did a lot of the little things coaches are saying he’s been doing now.

But this contract, from the moment the ink dried, was a bad deal for the Texans. Mercilus regressed in 2020, moving from below-average second pass rusher to a rotational end. He’s essentially unplayable on run downs, and his magnum opus this year was the “our linebacker” moment where he let Kirk Cousins get to the edge because he was blocked by a wide receiver.

The contract that Mercilus was signed to makes him essentially a locked-in Texan for next season barring a trade, as the team gains nothing for cutting him. He’s looked so bad this year that — and I don’t want to speculate wildly here — I wonder if he got hurt in the offseason or had something else happen to him. He’s just so, so, impossibly slow on the edge. He moves like he’s stuck in invisible Jell-O.

The contract never had real upside and was always a “the devil you know” kind of starting point that valued intangibles. He has managed to play it to its downside. I don’t know if there’s any reason for the next coach to consider keeping him active on the roster next season based on this year’s tape. I think he’ll have to earn a rotation spot with a big training camp. It’s a sad ending to the career of a guy who fought his way back from being labeled a first-round bust that every time I post about him he just gets shat on by every fan on the timeline. I hate it. NFL contracts are terrible for making this scenario happen.

3) Signing Randall Cobb to a three-year, $27 million contract.
My post on this at the time: https://www.riversmccown.com/2020/03/19/houstons-randall-cobb-signing-has-more-than-a-whiff-of-panic/

Randall Cobb is a guy I highly respect as a player. Randall Cobb also never had a purpose on this 2020 team beyond blocking Keke Coutee from playing. Several people have mentioned Bill O’Brien putting Coutee in a doghouse. Cobb was a chain-link fence put up around that doghouse. They had similar skill sets, and Cobb’s 2019 season was never so good that he should have been positioned as a real upgrade at slot receiver. He hadn’t had a season like that since 2016. It was an overvaluing of who he used to be and what his character was about.

To Cobb’s credit, this can’t be what he imagined when he signed this. He was supposed to be the finishing piece for an offense that was playoff bound, with a quarterback ready to take a leap. Instead the head coach and general manager was fired four games into the season.

Cobb is on the books for a $10,625,000 cap hit in 2021. Releasing him would cost the Texans money. He’s not a real upgrade on Coutee or Chad Hansen. He is, like Mercilus, stuck on the roster, but simultaneously not useful. The only difference is that pass rushers rotate so you can imagine a reduced-role Mercilus at least providing some kind of juice next year. Cobb’s only real path to playing time should be through injuries.

It’s going to take a creative trade to get him off the roster and save money. Whoever the general manager of this team is in 2021, he has a lot to deal with right off the bat. The production was impacted by an injury, but even when Cobb was healthy, he was barely ever a major target for the Texans. It was a massive overreaction to the target void that was caused by a certain trade we’re going to talk about very shortly. Cobb’s a good egg, he doesn’t deserve this, but that is how NFL contracts work. He can still be useful for someone else — here he is pointless.

2) Trading two first-round picks (2020 first round, Austin Johnson, 2021 first round), a second-round pick (2021), Johnson Bademosi, and Juilen Davenport to the Dolphins for Laremy Tunsil, Kenny Stills, a fourth-round pick (2020, eventually John Reid ), and a sixth-round pick (2021)
My post on this at the time: https://www.riversmccown.com/2019/08/31/the-reckoning-of-bill-obriens-power/

So this was a massive overreaction and, I would even go so far as to say, a lib-owning of Brian Gaine’s disastrous Matt Kalil contract. If you don’t remember Matt Kalil — bless you for becoming a fan this year — I made a video of his time as a Texan:

Easterby, by the way, joined the team just after the signing of Kalil. So though it spiritually feels like a move that should be on this list, it’s disappointingly not.

I want to point out that there’s one person who I blocked recently — not for this, but just for being condescending — that came to me with an attitude of “Why are we belaboring the trade, everyone knows it’s a bad trade!” You think so? Look at this poll of Battle Red Blog fans circa November, 18th, 2020. It says 82% of fans believe it was a good trade. It was not! The article it was attached to was highly persuasive that it was not! But you believe that what Tunsil offers is valuable because it’s rare and because of the history of bad tackle play in this organization in general and on the 2018 Texans in particular. I love watching Laremy Tunsil play and believe he’s one of the probably five best tackles in the game. But you do know that Joe Thomas never made the playoffs in Cleveland, right?

The Laremy Tunsil trade has barely touched upon anything the Texans did as an offense because there’s no way it could. He is but one man trying to deal with a systemic poisoning of the offensive line by the coaching staff. He’s done an admirable job in the circumstances. I think he’s a great player. I would also rather have Austin Jackson, the top-10 pick that’s coming to the Dolphins, the second-round pick that’s coming to the Dolphins, and $22 million in cap space than Tunsil. Particularly when the No. 1 trade on this list came from a perceived reason that there were too many people pay. Even, from the mouths of babes, Tunsil would have traded Tunsil for that. Kenny Stills is probably one of the five Texans players of the O’Brien Era that I most admire, and I think he was railroaded out of a job in 2020 for no reason, but he probably would have been a free agent had he not been included in the trade.

The trade being bad doesn’t mean Tunsil is bad, it doesn’t mean it’s not a joy to watch him play tackle. It doesn’t mean he should be heckled or shamed or whatever. But he’s not worth this trade because nobody, not even Anthony Munoz as I said in my initial take on it, could ever be worth this price. It is the trade that is crippling the roster as the Texans try to figure out who to pay and who to let go. It is the trade that will keep them from infusing good young talent that other teams in the AFC playoff race will have. It is the trade that makes their GM job questionable in the eyes of a few pundits even though they literally have one of the three best quarterbacks in the NFL.

It was a disaster. And if you are on the other side of that, you’re going to need to let go of the initial take. It was a disaster that was created so that Bill O’Brien could win exactly one 2019 playoff game. Deshaun Watson dragged him to it, while getting slaughtered, while taking multiple hits on the play that got the ball out to Taiwan Jones. Because the Tunsil trade doesn’t fix the core issues and it never could.

1) Trading DeAndre Hopkins and a 2020 fourth-round pick (Rashard Lawrence) to the Cardinals for David Johnson and a second-round pick 2020 No. 40 (Ross Blacklock)
My post on this at the time: https://www.riversmccown.com/2020/03/16/cal-mcnair-come-get-your-boy-its-over/

The big kahuna. The king. The unprecedented. The dumbest trade in recent NFL history. A combination of all the stupid things that led to these other moves: a misunderstanding of the salary cap, a misunderstanding of what star players are worth, a misunderstanding of how tough, smart, and dependable you can make a team.

As bad as the trade was when it was conceived, every possible out for it has also come up dry so far. Ross Blacklock is barely playing. David Johnson is part of a historically bad rushing attack and has been hurt, barely providing anything as a receiver outside of Week 15. He can’t run inside zone and that is basically all the Texans wanted to do with him. DeAndre Hopkins leads the NFL in receiving yards despite barely ever being moved inside in Kliff Kingsbury’s offense.

It’s incredible to this day that the trade was conceived, created, and defended by management multiple times. It was defended as recently as after O’Brien was fired! And it led to Cal McNair being called “Kyle” by Hopkins in a deleted post that will live forever. The money has never mattered, by the way, I debunked it.

This is the defining moment of the era. Just two idiots, drunk on their own power, ruining what should have been one of the defining quarterback-wide receiver tandems for a decade because they believed their baby mama observations and practice habits mattered. Because they were given control beyond what they should have ever been granted.

Because smart, tough, and dependable personalities they could control mattered more than talent.

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Four Downs: Texans 20, Colts 27

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 have had two chances this season to take a game from the Colts (or at least tie it) on the final drive. They have two fumbles in the Indianapolis red zone to show for it. Keke Coutee had the ball punched out from behind and the result was an agonizing loss in a year where the close losses have tended to be that way.

I feel bad for Coutee, and I think it’s very telling that the Texans are again going to be in a position where they’re forced to make a small-sample size decision on him. He has three fumbles lost this year — one on a punt return — and had an additional fumble in 2019 in the asskicking against the Broncos.

I think Coutee’s explosiveness has been on display. You saw that he could at times get open in man-coverage against Kenny Moore. You saw him win a touchdown on an RPO in this game. He’s a good player trying to make a good football move and not carrying the ball close enough to his person at a bad time. We have almost a full-season of Keke Coutee targets. The seven today made 105. He’s at four touchdowns, 72 catches, and 797 yards. The catch rate is very good. His drops in this one — and honestly all year — have been him coming up a little short (no pun intended) downfield. Four fumbles is a lot, sure, but it’s not a lot in the grand scheme of regression until we get a larger sample size. It’s just that three of the four of them have been absolute gut-punches.

Me? I like what I’ve seen from Coutee and Chad Hansen down the stretch. I’d be very comfortable with those two vying it out for the No. 3 receiver role in camp in 2021. I think they complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses in an interesting way as well. But we can’t know for sure how much of what Coutee has shown us negatively is something he’s going to get better at with playing time because instead the Texans signed Randall Cobb. And Cobb is still on the roster, uncuttable, Cobbing it up.

I think we’ll forget about the loss outside of it becoming trivia. But what bothers me is that this team has young players on the roster that I still don’t think we have a good handle on who they ultimately are. That’s all on the upstairs and the people who were in positions they weren’t qualified. Or in one person’s case, still are unqualified for.

1) The offensive line has been destroyed for the last three games.

It is factual that the Houston Texans were going up against their toughest stretch of the season from a defensive line standpoint. The Colts have DeForest Buckner, Denico Autry, and Justin Houston. The Bears have Khalil Mack, Robert Quinn, and Akiem Hicks. Those are not easy matchups for any team to deal with. But the Texans did not fail to deal with them so much as get completely embarrassed by them.

Deshaun Watson took 16 quarterbacks in two games against the Colts. He took 11 against the Bears. He took 16 in the four games before those three combined. And yes, he does make some of it worse by trying to create off-the-cuff, sure, but he also had an entire red zone possession in the first half that was essentially all throwaways. I think the level of risk he’s played with this year has been well below what some of our more fervent “latent ingrained thoughts about black quarterbacks” fans are at on the scale of who is to blame here.

The simple fact of the matter is that when you invest two first-round picks and a second-round pick (along with some other minor picks) and a $22M a year contract on Laremy Tunsil, a first-round pick on Tytus Howard, a second-round pick on Max Scharping, top-10 center money on Nick Martin, you need to see returns on it. You team them with one of the best pocket movement quarterbacks in the entire NFL right now. An eight-quarterback hit game is unacceptable. I don’t care that the narrative is that they improved later. I don’t even say this from a basic tenet of you have to protect the franchise quarterback. I say it from a pure talent standpoint: these results are unacceptable. To do it three games in a row is a dereliction of duty.

Things will improve, I’m sure. But the very fact that we have the lingering question in our minds of “what happens when this unit is well-coached?” — that is extremely telling about what the Texans have done this year and every year under Mike Devlin, whose public appearances have come off as if he barely understands what is going on. Get these line rotations out of my life, and get someone who can teach a guard to pick up a stunt. Thank you.

2) David Johnson and the infinite sadness

I came into this game expecting to come out of it with a big missive about the Texans continuing to obliterate themselves by using David Johnson. But what I ended up feeling was just … pity for David Johnson.

Listen to Johnson talk and you see a guy who I think is almost hyper-critical of himself. He’s telling you that he thinks he could do things better in literally every game. He’s saying that he thinks he needs to do more to help Deshaun Watson out. He’s saying, unprompted, that you never know when your last play in the NFL will be. This guy is so far in his own head that he’s costing himself plays his God-given talent should be able to make. That’s what it feels like.

So, yeah, look, involving Johnson to the extent that he was — it was a giant waste of everybody’s time and we all learned nothing from it. He had eight carries for 27 yards. He caught 11 balls for a game-high 106 yards, but two major plays were made downfield as Watson bought time and outside of those it was more like nine catches for 39 yards. Including plays like this, which he self-critiqued as he should have been able to make a move here:

Buddy Howell looked like he had more want carrying the rock. Scottie Phillips got involved a minimal amount and I thought also acquitted himself well. There’s nothing the Texans could ever do in my eyes that would make using David Johnson this much worth it at this point. He has no future on this roster.

But on Sunday, when David Johnson said that he felt bad for Deshaun Watson because he can tell that he cares, I learned that I could feel bad for David Johnson, because I know he also cares. He just, for whatever reason, can’t do what his body wants him to anymore.

3) Red zone issues: Can’t run, nobody can win one-on-one

When you run the ball with your running backs 15 times and get 58 yards — sadly that qualifies as pretty solid this season — it’s hard to not be one-dimensional. But with seven carries for 19 yards with your main ballcarrier outside of an opening eight-yard plunge, you hamstring this offense when the field gets constricted. Since Will Fuller went out, the Texans do not have a single wide receiver that can reliably win a contested ball in press-man coverage. That’s not Brandin Cooks’ game. It’s not Chad Hansen’s game. If anything it’s closest to Jordan Akins’ game but he can’t get involved in this offense for reasons I won’t understand as an outsider.

That has made the red zone a disaster for the Texans. The Texans had an 0.5% DVOA on red zone plays through Week 14’s games. When they targeted Fuller in the red zone, he’s four-of-eight with three touchdowns, a first down, and the bobbled out of bounds Vikings play. That even undersells him because one of his incompletions was from Randall Cobb.

But over the past two weeks prior to this game, that number had declined to minus-20.8% DVOA. The Texans lost this game mainly because as soon as they got the ball at first-and-goal at the Indianapolis 10, they gained zero yards on three incompletions. Then, when they got the ball on their opening possession of the third quarter, they false started on third-and-1 and this happened:

If you can explain how that route combination would ever work, you are a better football analyst than I am. On those two drives, the Texans took 10 snaps inside the Indianapolis red zone and gained 14 yards. This play didn’t even count but I want to show you one of the many throwaways:

There’s not really a lot to say about this at this point. The DeAndre Hopkins trade ripped this team’s heart out in the red zone. Removing Fuller is like removing another limb. There aren’t a lot of potential answers this team has for man-coverage in the red zone right now outside of the tight ends. Coutee won on one touchdown on an RPO, yes, but other than that, this is going to be a dark place for the remainder of the season. Thankfully it barely matters anyway.

4) Run defense pilloried yet again

To the extent that the Texans were able to hang in this game as a defense, I didn’t really see a lot of reasons outside of the Colts simply losing interest in running the football. 23 carries for 127 yards in a game that you’re winning most of the way feels wonky. One of those was a kneel by Rivers, and another was an important-but-predetermined quarterback sneak by Jacoby Brissett. That means the other 21 carries — by Nyheim Hines and Jonathan Taylor — went for 125 yards all on their own. The Colts did this despite a long carry of just 23 yards. That means that, more often than not, the Texans were getting gashed. Right up the middle.

Missed tackles were here. Multiple defensive linemen getting knocked four-to-five yards off the ball any time they were doubled was a fixture. As well as linemen just hanging out on their knees in the backfield:

To the extent that the Texans were able to “hold” the Colts to 27 points, a lot of it was just unforced mistakes. Charles Omenihu’s sack was probably held a beat too long by Philip Rivers. The punt before the two-minute warning came because Rivers slightly overthrew a wide-open Trey Burton. The first Colts field goal came when they passed the ball three times in a row despite the fact that they were running as you saw above.

There’s not a positive spin to put on this. I’m not saying there aren’t some positive individual performances to be taken, but largely this defense played like we thought it would on Sunday. It had to play soft without Justin Reid and Bradley Roby. Just when it had a chance to be the hero, it let T.Y. Hilton steal the scene yet again:

It sucks. But, you know, it is what it is at this point, as Bill O’Brien liked to say. It is what it is. This defense just isn’t very talented, and the parts of it that have some potential are largely raw. It’s J.J. Watt, a good Zach Cunningham stuff or two a game — hopefully without him also adding a bad miss on a long run — and that’s about it. Lonnie Johnson is learning safety on the spot while Eric Murray plays corner in a Petey Faggins cover band. Ross Blacklock spent a lot of today learning how far back a good block can push him. Charles Omenihu is an interior pass-rusher on passing downs to me. Tyrell Adams has good hits but the things that kept him from seeing the field before this year aren’t hard to see. It’s just a bunch of limited players right now with nobody to cover for them.

I don’t understand how anybody can watch this game and believe that this defense is one or two pieces away. I will be stunned if it is good next year. Average? Maybe, with the right coach. But there are so many holes to fill before we even get into what happens if Watt decides he wants out that it’s hard to gussy them all up in one offseason. Particularly one in which the Dolphins have your likely top-10 draft pick.

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The 2020 Houston Texans are a loving re-creation of the 2013 Atlanta Falcons

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.

***

What happens when you hit on your franchise quarterback, but between bad coaching decisions, bad free-agency decisions, and bad luck, you’re irrelevant after a nice little stretch? That’s the situation the Houston Texans find themselves in, and it’s a situation that reminds me a lot of what the Atlanta Falcons were up to in the middle of last decade.

The re-creation of that scenario

After the Falcons drafted Matt Ryan in 2008, they immediately became a good team. They finished 11-5 in Ryan’s first year, losing a wild card game, and after a year of reconsolidation, they made three straight playoffs, winning 36 games in three years, but getting labeled chokers after Aaron Rodgers kicked them around in a divisional round game and they blew a 24-14 halftime lead to the San Francisco 49ers in the 2012 NFC Championship game.

The Falcons didn’t know it at the time, but Mike Nolan’s defensive chops were fading. The offense would fight like hell over the next two seasons to get anywhere, but losing Dunta Robinson, Asante Samuel, and especially John Abraham would make it an uphill battle. Their defense simultaneously got too old and they didn’t hit on any of the picks they had, as well as losing players like Sean Weatherspoon to injury attrition. They had committed a trade-up for superstar wide receiver Julio Jones, and he was immediately great. But at the cost of two-first round picks and a second-round pick, as well as some additional picks, it made it hard for the Falcons to bring in fresh blood for a bit.

The 2013 Falcons would finish 26th in defensive DVOA. Their major offseason additions were Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson. I’m sure you’ve heard of them. In related news, the 2014 Falcons finished 31st in defensive DVOA, finally getting the head coach fired. Once Dan Quinn was installed and the offense was handed over to Kyle Shanahan, the Falcons immediately trended up to 8-8 in 2015 (after a 6-1 start), and then the Super Bowl the next year.

Maybe you’re thinking: “OK Rivers but this defensive roster is SO bad!” Yeah, okay, let me run you the table that we ran in the Falcons chapter of the 2015 Football Outsiders Almanac:

This isn’t even a team that had a J.J. Watt. That front seven barely had young players you could describe as “as promising as Charles Omenihu.” Yeah, that’s right Prince Shembo fans. I’m calling you out.

***

The Texans don’t have the exact same circumstances because, if anything, they have done what the Falcons have done but condensed it into a much smaller period of time. Even for how much our attention span has been attacked over the last decade by cell phones and alerts, it’s hard to believe how much upheaval and damage was done in the period between Brian Gaine’s firing in June 2019 and Bill O’Brien’s in October 2020. It’s been a constant string of bad news.

The big trade for an elite talent (Laremy Tunsil is getting paid, Jones was not), the defections of older good talent on defense leading to decay, and the franchise quarterback (Ryan is no Deshaun Watson and that’s no slam on Ryan) make this feel like a fairly relevant scenario to me. The Falcons got further into the playoffs than the Texans did, but I think you can charitably apply the choker label to a franchise that blew a 24-0 lead to Kansas City and barely showed up as an offense against the Bills and Colts.

They stand in roughly the same spot as the Falcons were after they fired Mike Smith at the end of 2014 — they’ve got the franchise quarterback, they have a terrible defense, and they’re in need of some updates to the roster. There’s been a lot of talk about how you turn things around quickly without draft picks, mostly from people who just want to separate Deshaun Watson from the Texans for their own selfish reasons.

But the Falcons didn’t really do anything special after the 2014 season. If anything they released a lot of old hands like Steven Jackson and Harry Douglas, They signed Alex Mack as a free agent after the 2015 season, but other than that they just crushed it in the draft — even in the lower rounds — and the turnaround was more a matter of just, well, not doing dumb shit. Hiring coaches that had more of a clue. Creating a system that amplified what they already had. And so on.

The Texans don’t have quite the same options because financially they’re in a different situation — set to be over the cap on a $176 million estimate before they deal with Will Fuller and how to untangle what he means with all his Not Playing Today baggage. The only way to overcome bold moves blowing up in your face is to either wait a while or just continue making bold moves. Given just how many bad contracts are on the roster, it might behoove the Texans to try to Brock Osweiler away some of this cap space. Whitney Mercilus will cost money to get rid of this offseason as a release, but if you trade him, you can reap as much as $10.5 million. Eric Murray saves almost no money as a cut — trading him can free up about $4-5.25 million depending on the designation. Randall Cobb is on the same basic plan as Mercilus, with up to $8.6 million available if he’s traded away.

There’s not a lot on this roster that needs to be sacred after a year like this and pairing these guys into a trade ala the Osweiler thing where you tempt a low-spending team into using their cap is a way to deal with this and let the Texans fix their holes in free agency without major constraints. Hell, with several teams over the cap, there might even be some space for some challenge trades with other underperforming or suddenly questionable players. (How about a Brandon Brooks reunion challenge trade with the $65 million over the cap Eagles?) I think if the Texans want to compete next year, they need to approach this offseason with the belief that the salary cap is there to be manipulated if they want to really bring in impact talent. There’s nothing stopping that from happening besides the front office’s creativity.

But the major plan for this roster doesn’t need to be very complicated — I roll my eyes whenever I see someone suggest that this is a long-term rebuild. They need to maximize Watson, recreate the defensive roster to a different system if a new DC is hired, and bring in defensive backs who can play to surround Justin Reid and (if they still want him) Bradley Roby. Kudos if you can get them in the draft, but don’t pretend that you’re going to without a pick in the first two rounds. And that’s pretty much it. There is no will-the-quarterback-be-good, do-we-need-to-find-the-quarterback, etc. debate. I think the running game is a matter of scheme. I think the offensive line will play better under new coaching. The defense being bad at stopping the run isn’t ideal, but the Chiefs have been terrible at stopping the run the last two years and that hasn’t really held them back in the slightest.

Just hire smart people and don’t do dumb shit to them. That’s all it takes to get this back on track.

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Four Downs, Texans 7, Bears 36

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 played a form of Football Product on Sunday that makes you wonder what the point of all of this is. They were eliminated from playoff contention officially rather than reasonably. They did not put up any real fight and there are no moral victories in Mitch Trubisky slaughtering your defense for 30 first-half points.

Deshaun Watson had an elbow injury occur that seemed scary even if he was able to shake it off and keep playing. The offensive line plays like they all just met for the first time three hours to kickoff. The best drive of the game was the opening drive of the third quarter, one that took eight minutes off the clock because Buddy Howell was killing it between the tackles. Because not a single Chicago Bear cared and everybody wanted the game to end.

I’m glad Buddy Howell got his chance here, as I am glad that Keke Coutee caught another touchdown, that Chad Hansen caught another 56 yards of balls, and that Keion Crossen got a start. It didn’t go very well for Crossen, because Bears wideout Allen Robinson, it turns out, is much better than him. But that’s not a death sentence for his NFL career and he did make a few plays.

But mostly, my gratitude is limited to Deshaun Watson appearing to come out of the game unscathed and the fact that there are only three more games left in this season. It took me seven hours to get to writing this recap because CenterPoint Energy had a power outage in my branch of Houston and I was thinking about ways I could have continued to deliver content through that in a COVID-19 world. I did have a few, but thankfully, it wasn’t necessary, because this team’s current form is so irrelevant that I don’t think beating somebody to the punch on speed matters at this point. Those who would read this were already going to read it, whenever it got put up. The fans who are here for a winning sugar rush have moved on to something else. I appreciate you if you are still reading this.

1) “We’ve Got To Get Deshaun Out Of Houston”

If there is one thing that has been drilled into my head by posting a lot of Deshaun Watson clips on Twitter this year, it’s that there is vast media interest in Deshaun Watson, almost all of it positive, and almost all of it wants good things to happen to him. What the Texans have done this year is generate a large section of the football internet — Twitter, Reddit, newspaper columns, websites, wherever — that thinks that they aren’t good enough to have this guy’s rights. That thinks that something has to be done to move him off the team because the team is that poorly run.

I am beyond exhausted of this because, you know, obviously, it is in my best interests to have Deshaun Watson around to write about for a long time. Nobody starts blogging about a football team to write about Tom Savage or Brian Hoyer. And at the same time, I have to admit that they have a point about the organization as it is currently constituted because I think what happened on Sunday was malpractice.

Deshaun Watson wants to play. That’s understandable! Athletes are wired in a different way. I have absolutely no problems with him saying that or even wanting to play. He’s a competitor. Of course he wants to play and of course he wants to continue improving. Here’s what I have a problem with:

As I wrote about on Thursday, when there is nobody in the organization that cares about the long-view, you get answers like what Romeo Crennel put out here. There was never a consideration about that because to do so would be admitting that this season is pointless for the team. Everyone is just left to follow their guttural instincts. In Romeo Crennel’s case, that was to avoid making the risky move to pull Watson and have to answer questions about it because he said he could play. And it led to at least three more sacks as Houston’s beleagured offensive line was ransacked over and over again by Chicago’s front, which notched 11 quarterback hits and six sacks, as well as seven scrambles since I can’t remember a single designed Watson run.

I admit that I don’t have a lot to say in counter to this. I think if you’re a fan you breathe deep, believe that Easterby can be sunk by the Sports Illustrated article that you all should read front-to-back, and know that new leadership will be brought in. The new leadership is the most important decision in Cal McNair’s life. He’s got to nail it, or the people who have been collecting receipts about why the Texans hold back Watson will move from circumstantial evidence (a lost game in a lost season that he survived) to the actual warrants.

This franchise is incredibly fragile right now. It’s disconnected, the owner doesn’t know how this situation is supposed to be operated, and the leader of the culture is essentially a multi-level marketing pariah who connects with the owner via religion. We need to hold our noses and hope that things get better. Fast.

2) Mitch Trubisky’s big day was fueled by asking Texans to tackle

Mitch Trubisky threw 11 passes behind the line of scrimmage in this game. The Bears caught nine of them. That, in and of itself, isn’t very interesting. What is interesting is that those passes went for 93 yards and a touchdown. The average pass behind the line of scrimmage this year averages 4.7 yards per play. 303 of 1980 passes thrown behind the line of scrimmage from Week 1-Week 13 went 10 or more yards, or roughly 15% of them. Those other plays averaged 2.7 yards per play.

The Chicago Bears, on the season, averaged 2.9 yards per throw behind the line of scrimmage through Week 13. They do it a lot. They don’t play risky, they just ask you to tackle. The Texans couldn’t even begin to do that.

That was a bubble screen thrown because there were only two guys in coverage on that side of the formation. Eric Murray was destroyed. A cool two sack game for Murray, I guess, if you want to give him some plaudits. But, you know, this sucked. The Bears ran play-action to the flat over and over again and the Texans could not have looked less interested in defending that. It happened in the first quarter, it happened in the third quarter:

52 played this to get outside leverage, of course. But after that, you know, he just let the back run right past him. Cunningham eventually rallies to the ball, but Adams is standing there five yards away just waiting for a move. There’s no aggressiveness left. There’s such a thing as smart zone defense. We watched the Colts play it last week. This is just passive. Passive leads to this:

The only Bears receiver that was within the league average of separation was Robinson, and only then just barely. 6.45 yards? 7.91 yards? 7.55 yards? This defense never put a single drip of real pressure on Mitch Trubisky in this game. J.J. Watt said it himself:

There are games this year where if you view them, you come out of it thinking something along the lines of “Anthony Weaver’s unit is undermanned, but at least they’re trying some things.” I don’t mind that Robinson roasted Crossen. That’s going to happen. But this stuff … why even show up and play the game? That’s the kind of performance that gets coaches fired when coaches haven’t already been fired. I’m not questioning manhoods here — I believe those players want to win, and I believe they want to fight — that scheme is an abject failure at allowing them to do that. People have been dunking on how terrible this Bears scheme is all year and the Texans made it look like 2010 Auburn.

3) Jordan Akins is playing himself out of a bigger role in 2021

As the wide receiver core has drifted from killers in Week 10 to multiple practice-squad elevations every week over the last two weeks, one thing I expected to happen was that Jordan Akins would take the reins of this offense and be a focal point. Instead, he’s been largely irrelevant. In today’s game, he was part of two of the only non-offensive line sections of the game plan that were dusted. He had an end-zone target that drew gambler’s ire and that looks like someone clipped it off a video game glitch because he lost it in the sun:

And, earlier in the game, he and Watson had a miscommunication that almost led to an interception, one that left Watson furious after the play:

I’m not certain why the Texans haven’t just used Akins purely as a receiver at this point. I’m not sure what part of route-running he needs to learn better because I’m not in the building. The coaches noted him improving before his concussion. But whatever this was … well, this is not how you get on the good page with the franchise quarterback. This stretch was supposed to be a big opportunity for Akins to establish himself.

Instead, he’s establishing himself in the vein of players like Jared Cook. “Say, why does that guy never just get seven targets a game?” Hall of Famers who have great highlights and hidden skill sets that keep the from ever getting more than that.

4) J.J. Watt, a Texans Standard, and who that exists in the mind of at this point

The role of J.J. Watt in this lost season has been fascinating to me. On one hand, he has not been very subtle about Bill O’Brien’s firing being a good thing for the team. This is, in my mind, the defining quote of the 2020 Texans (and he was absolutely right about it):

On the other hand, I feel like there’s a disconnect between Watt and this organization right now. He says things like that, but his own rhetoric about staying in Houston has died down noticeably. He did not do much to allay fears of him leaving on Sunday when asked if he was thinking about his future:

He’s somehow the closest thing this organization has to somebody who understands what NFL football is supposed to be, and yet at the same time, my outside interpretation of the last two months is that he’s got one foot out the door waiting to see if Easterby is here after Week 17 is concluded. It’s a bizarre set of circumstances, this 2020 Texans team.

But I guess most of all what hit me about this is that you have him again advocating for a higher standard — he’s advocated for a higher standard for a lot of the season — and yet I don’t feel like most of the other players on this defense are, how can I put this delicately, vibing with that mindset. Zach Cunningham came out in his presser the other day and said he wasn’t surprised he was leading Pro Bowl voting at inside linebacker and felt like the recognition could have come sooner. This is a guy who has covered at times this year like the plastic bag in American Beauty, and has dipped into quite a few gaps on run plays that he should not have gone down.

Watt has complimented Tyrell Adams a few times and spoke about helping Charles Omenihu but I haven’t really felt like outside of that, there’s a lot of common ground between him and this defense. They exist together, but they also kind of don’t? Like when he ran off the field against the Packers after a tackle for loss without celebrating?

Watt has this standard and it’s excellent. He’s excellent. I don’t know who he’s subtweeting anymore when he talks about this, but it’s a subplot that has caught my eye in a lost season. In some ways, it’s a natural little outbreak of what happens when nobody else is around to actually lead the team. In other ways … I wonder what exactly is going down in this locker room that I don’t know about.

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