ESPN is all over the Le’Veon Bell beat as the beginning of the offseason cycle begins. Both Mike Wells (in a bold predictions column) and Dan Graziano (in a less team-by-team focused bold predictions column) matched the Texans with the star running back.
I can understand where national reporters are coming from when they link the team and the player together. The Texans have $64 million in cap space before they decide what to do with Demaryius Thomas on a torn Achilles at a $14 million cap number. In other words, even Jadeveon Clowney’s inevitable franchise tag isn’t going to keep the Texans from having some cash to splash. Heck, releasing Lamar Miller would free up another $6.2 million in cap space — that can help pay for Bell.
Meanwhile, the Texans have been one of the NFL’s run-heaviest teams since Bill O’Brien took over. O’Brien’s default persona as a coach is to win with a conservative, run-heavy attack against any team that will let him. The Texans had an average lead of 1.61 points at the beginning of each of their offensive drives — to put that into perspective, they were ahead of the Saints as far as average lead. The perfect way to sustain a running game is to get a back for whom blocking barely matters. That’s what Bell has delivered.
In Bell’s last season on the field, 2017, he forced 79 broken tackles per Sports Info Solutions — the second-highest total in the NFL. I mention this because it is something entirely under his control, unlike yards per carry. He’s an empirically good running back in the sense that he was making something out of nothing more often than most of them. Bell was also in the top 5 of all running backs in the statistic in 2016, and likely would have been a leading candidate in 2015 had he played more than six games — he was on pace for 51, which would have placed him in third.
So in the sense of putting two and two together, I get where these writers are coming from and understand their rationale. On paper, the Texans should value Bell’s skill set more than most teams, and they also have the cap space to make it happen.
I think there are many reasons to disbelieve that the Texans will actually be interested, though most of them could be turned on their head by the ownership change from Bob McNair to Cal McNair being more of a shift than I think it will be.
— The team has steadfastly refused to spend big in free agency as a core value. Johnathan Joseph and Brock Osweiler are the only two times Houston has ponied up to sign any free agent, and the Osweiler signing was both a child-touching-a-hot-stove moment and, simultaneously, still cheaper than most quarterbacks. They’re a team that tends to bring in the Aaron Colvin or Antonio Smith-level player, or Robaire Smith for you older fans out there. — The team refuses to negotiate with malcontents. They got Dunta Robinson out the second they could after he wrote “Pay Me Rick” on his shoes. They traded Duane Brown for a second-round pick even though it made Deshaun Watson get destroyed last season. Bell was such a pill for the Steelers last year that I find it hard to believe the Texans would be comfortable investing in him. What he did in rejecting the franchise tag, be it his call or his agent’s, was off-the-charts crazy in a league where most teams want players to show up and be consistent. There’s nothing consistent about what Bell did. — Brian Gaine’s first year of free agency was limited to tepid splashes. Besides Colvin and Zach Fulton, nobody got much of a guarantee of being on the roster in 2019.
That isn’t to say there’s no chance that the Texans will pursue Bell — I just think it’s not very likely.
But, back to those broken tackle leaderboards for a second — let me show you why I wouldn’t chase Bell: Three of the top six players in broken tackles last year were not first-day picks or cheap free-agent signings. Adrian Peterson, Chris Carson, and James Conner. 2017’s top six included Alvin Kamara (third round), Kareem Hunt (third round), and Alex Collins (UDFA for Baltimore). 2016’s top six had David Johnson (third round), Devonta Freeman (fourth round), and Jay Ajayi (fifth round). NFL teams have proven to not be all that great at figuring out what a good running back looks like, and at the same time, NFL backs have notoriously been very poor returns on investment because the position only beats up it’s stars worse the longer they play. By the time any running back hits unrestricted free agency, he’s lost his best years. You want to develop Le’Veon Bell, not pay him.
If you follow me enough to be reading this, and are familiar with most analytical football thought about running backs, this conclusion won’t surprise you. Analytical football and valuing running backs are oil and water.
The Texans might have enough money to make Bell a compelling one-year offer (as far as actual guaranteed money) and see how he fits into things in 2020. Maybe even a two-year guaranteed layout could make sense. It kind of depends on how the Texans want to approach Will Fuller’s contract. But I would argue that it is imperative for the franchise to sign Deshaun Watson to a contract extension as soon as they can in 2020 for their long-term cap health. When you combine that with the negotiations for Clowney and J.J. Watt entering the last year of his guaranteed money in 2019 — maybe mix in something long-term for D.J. Reader if they want to really get frisky — it becomes difficult to see how the Texans can weigh their gigantic holes at cornerback and offensive line against the cash outlay I expect Bell to want and come to the conclusion that it makes sense.
While I love Bell as a player, and I have no problems at all with national writers “mocking him” (for lack of a better term) to the Texans, I think his situation is a lot more tenuous than it might appear from the outside. Football has mostly resisted the appeal to higher statistical knowledge, but I don’t know that there’s a team out there ready to give the Todd Gurley contract to Bell coming off a year where he did nothing but alienate his team. I could definitely see a Bryce Harper/Manny Machado-esque freeze coming for Bell. When you combine a negotiating team that wouldn’t even take the franchise tender with a slightly more enlightened NFL, it could be a tough sale. And that’s before we even get into the noise about the Steelers transition tagging Bell.
Inserting Bell into the Houston offense would give them a core of skill position players that would be among the league’s best. Bell’s past makes him worthy of a real investment. I just don’t think either the Texans or the rest of the league are going to be thrilled about making it.
One of the things implored on me often by angry sports fans that have Twitter accounts is that I am criticizing things that I don’t know about. You don’t know what Josh Allen is like. You don’t know that drafting this particular running back early is bad. A lot of sports writing from an analytical perspective is about empirical reasons to not believe things that fans want to believe — and well, it’s not conducive to constructive conversations. People want to be inspired to believe that their team is different. Often, it isn’t.
So today I want to write about something that nobody can tell me I don’t know about: My own career in sports media. I will pull no punches about where I came from or what I did to get where I am today. Some of it was luck, some of it was skill, some of it was timing. Each of those things have been both good and bad, at different times. This is an exercise in sharing what I learned along the way. Hopefully it’ll help out some people who aren’t sure about whether they want to write or not.
The early years
I went to college to try to get a creative writing degree because it was essentially the only thing I’d been encouraged in since I was 13. I had a knack for writing terrible things as a child and being encouraged to write less terrible things.
I suppose I should perhaps explain that a bit more. When I was a child, my parents divorced when I was 2. This created, at first, a dynamic where I was almost drowning in attention. My parents competed for me in some respects. As I got older, my father became more distant. He gave a kidney to his brother and struggled with an addiction to painkillers he developed from that situation. My mother re-married, and all of the sudden I had two ADHD-diagnosed step-brothers and a new sibling that left me completely isolated in my own house — and then I’d just moved to a big high school from an elementary school with a graduating class of two.
In some ways, this was a good thing — I became a lot less needy and gained a lot of perspective I’d otherwise not have. But it also made me chase that encouragement gap. I don’t think about how things could have been different often because it’s something I just take for granted now. But looking back, that was probably the impetus for all of this.
I only remember small bits of the early years of college internet writing, but I was baseball-focused in those days. I wrote a dreadful fan fiction article at a site called MetsGeek that got me on the staff and won me a set of DVDs. I remember arguing that they should sign Barry Zito. I was really in on those mid-2000s Mets, with Carlos Beltran and David Wright. The 83-win St. Louis Cardinals broke my college-aged sports heart.
I’d always kind of admired the idea that someone could write on the internet. In those times, days of internet sharing before we all discovered how to really be assholes to each other, it was rewarding to bask in that earnest energy. You’d seek out your niche websites and accumulate good stuff to read and think about. I gravitated towards sports more and more because writing what I studied was much easier than writing fiction to me. My most successful fiction story at this age was about Al Borlin building a balsa wood bomb shelter, and not a single character in it had multiple dimensions.
I dropped out of college a couple of times because my now-divorced mother had suffered some heart attacks. She couldn’t work quite so much as more, and I was trying to help her out as the invoices of her graphic design company became less frequent. Investing the money I’d spend on college on trying to make her life easier was a sacrifice I wanted to make, and helping her with some of the duties of raising my half-sister made me feel like I was repaying her for all the trouble of raising me.
I became aware of this site called Football Outsiders for the first time around 2006 or 2007, and not only did I enjoy the basic vision of it, I was happy to see football in a new light now that my city had a football team and a head coach that wasn’t Dom Capers. One of the first things I remember doing with football is volunteering to chart games for Football Outsiders, back before there was a Pro Football Focus or anything like that. I taped these games on a literal VCR and rewound them for hours. The first game I remember charting was the game where this happened:
I finally became comfortable enough with my football knowledge to post about it on the internet in 2009. I started my own blog, posted some game charting observations, and wrote just often enough to catch the eyes of the SB Nation Blog for the Texans, Battle Red Blog. (Mostly by annoying them with e-mails. Remember when you e-mailed websites with stuff you thought would be relevant to their interests?)
2010 and 2011 were years of massive growth. I quickly ran up from Battle Red Blog to SB Nation Houston writer to SB Nation Houston editor — I took in some of the advertising money that BRB got when I did those posts, and the SBNH posts were some of my first actual paid writing pieces. (I believe I never made more than $60 for a post on any of these.) The writing was good, but not great. I memorably can remember then-SBNH editor Tom Martin pulling me aside to make me stop double-spacing after a period. I also remember an obsession with nose tackles that was passed on to me via osmosis from people I otherwise respect. I still spent plenty of time charting games for FO. This was all work that I could not have done without a lot of privilege, because a lot of it was for free or cheap. SBNH’s editor role paid $800 a month, if you’re curious to know about where we’re at with that. Compared to the media stuff I’d worked on in college — assistant editing at a magazine and writing for The Daily Cougar — it was a lot of money.
One thing about Battle Red Blog and SB Nation that I still feel like I’m chasing in some respects was the ability to write about whatever I wanted. The further up the food chain you go, the more you have to negotiate every piece. Editors get involved. Site direction isn’t yours as you cater to a specific audience. I’m not going to tell you I’m some unique flower who hits all the right notes when I write alone, because that’s not true. What’s actually true is I write Found Jacoby Jones poetry. But I do feel like writing alone makes me more productive on a per piece basis, because nobody is stopping me from just letting the words come out.
Anyway, they were years of massive growth, but they were also years of massive personal loss. My father overdosed in 2010. There’s a long non-fiction story about driving up to collect what he had left from a trailer park in Hays county that I still need to write some day. The hellstorm that his life became, that I walked into upon opening his trailer, was a sobering moment that I think scared me straight from some bad paths.
My mother’s health continued to decline, and she succumbed to a stroke in early 2011. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything as painful to me personally as the night before she left for the hospital and never came back. My mother was a proud woman, who was always picking herself off the mat after bad things happened to her, over and over again. She was coming off another heart attack, had been diagnosed with cancer, and after doing some work for a friend she just plopped on the couch. She had nothing left. It never crossed my mind that she would die — and I don’t think it ever crossed her mind that she would die, either — until I saw her on that couch, exasperated with her state of being. She snuck in one last “I love you” on a gurney before a crew of doctors overwhelmed her. I was given her phone and instructed to call the family together. I never saw her awake again.
This was by far the most uncertain time of my life, in January 2011. I didn’t have a settled place to live. I didn’t have a plan for the future. I made that same $800 a month. I didn’t even know how to make scrambled eggs. I lived for a solid week off a huge portion of barbecue that my then-SB Nation higher up John Taylor sent me. In writing this post I dug through some of the old emails — it’s kind of ridiculous just how easy it is to document my mood swings from these moments. That’s what online journaling will do for you. But between my grandfather trying to kick me out of my mother’s old house, me self-medicating with food, and the uncertainty of where I was supposed to go and what I was supposed to do, it was a lot.
This was a tumultuous five months which then culminated with…
I’d been chasing the Bill Barnwell-vacated Football Outsiders Assistant Editor gig. I had no idea how many people were in the race, or what their qualifications were. I don’t want to say that Football Outsiders saved my life, because that’s kind of cliche. But … if I didn’t get this job, I was probably going to be working at Starbucks or something. I was probably about three months away from just taking any old job I could and getting out of the game at a serious level.
I came on with Danny Tuccitto and was alarmed when given the mailbag keys at the people I’d beat out for the job. Nate Dunlevy was one name I can remember. It was, uh, an interesting transition to go from “I edit a website that serves a very small community” to “I’m now writing reaction pieces to free agent signings on ESPN.com.” I went from making $800 to making $2500 a month, plus some other compensation that came with helping to write the book I’d grown up reading for most of my early adult years and other outside projects.
I took a few things for granted at FO. One was getting to edit much better writers. Imagine pouring over Mike Tanier’s stuff for three years and somehow not getting any better. The original roster we had at the time was phenomenal. I only briefly got to edit Doug Farrar. But we had Bill Connelly, we had Ben Muth, Tom Gower, Brian Fremeau, and Matt Waldman. And that’s only the people who were there when I first started, not even getting into other writers I loved editing like Cian Fahey and Matt Hinton.
FO is a family. I haven’t always kept up with those guys, but I feel like I could meet up with them anywhere and naturally shoot the shit. But when I was working there, our boss Aaron was dealing with some difficult times in his personal life — I won’t get into them here, but he’s documented them plenty well in the past — and after a few years I was looking for growth and not finding a lot of open areas. I wanted to apply the knowledge I had gained from editing all these guys, but wasn’t finding it easy to fit a niche that the website wanted fit. The result was I got a column that sometimes came out on Sundays called Three-Cone Drill, and it was all over the place both in the way I wrote it and in how it was received by both Aaron and the readers. To be honest, I was all over the place too around this time. I’d had a rough breakup that I’m still not entirely comfortable relating online, and the overall takeaway of it left me wanting to close myself off from everybody.
It was sort of a situation where I was looking for a next step, and I was getting frustrated with being held back. I understood why it was hard for Aaron to make that a priority — but I felt like I was dying on the vine because I wasn’t making the same sort of advancements I’d made when I was on my way up the ranks. I felt like I needed to get permission to do anything. I was getting jaded.
And that’s about when I got some feelers from Collin McCollough over at Bleacher Report kind of sussing out my interest in joining. I had reservations about joining an online publication that had such a bad record historically, but I also knew that they were chasing a bunch of other talented writers. And, well, as noted above, I like feeling like someone actually reads this stuff and wants me on their side. So, it was time for this…
I came aboard to Bleacher Report on a one-year contract for $47,500. That’s more than I’ve ever made doing this, and it was a first-class operation every step of the way. When I had acute bronchitis and could barely sleep without choking, they did not make me feel like I was doing them a disservice, and did not force me to the computer. I have nothing but good things to say about my main editor, Wes O’Donnell, nor the weekend editors Justin Onslow and Ian Kenyon. They had a writing coach on-staff (I forget her name and I think my Bleacher Report e-mail was scrubbed) who was a joy to talk to.
The problem from my perspective with the Bleacher Report gig became one of scale. I didn’t bring very much of a following with me. At the same time, something that becomes very true with every one of these big sports media websites is that there is only so much promotion that can be done on the company’s end. They can’t promote everybody, and when you pay big bucks to make your national team better with people like Matt Miller and Mike Freeman, the promotion deservedly goes to the people the company has the most investment in.
Another issue of that scale was that if the national writers cover something, you don’t want that duplicated. Some of our division writers got to write in places with huge economies of fan scales that had a lot of interesting players and topics for discussion. On my end, I covered the 2014 AFC South. The Jaguars and Titans were two of the worst teams in the NFL, and didn’t have big fanbases to begin with. The Jaguars literally started the season with Luke McCown at quarterback. The Texans had J.J. Watt’s near-MVP season — I think I wound up writing about 2-3 total pieces about Watt all year because national writers poached him. Then, we had the AFC South Champion Colts, with Andrew Luck being a witch and carrying an otherwise bad team through the Pagano-Grigsonverse. They made the AFC Championship, and got destroyed 45-7. Those were the two interesting players in the entire division and there was no real race. The only surprising thing I had to write all season was when the Colts beat the Broncos in the divisional round.
At the end of the day, though, I still feel like I failed BR in some important ways that I had to learn. I didn’t really commit to the company the way I should have — I didn’t Tweet my fellow writers’ posts often enough, I didn’t follow enough of the right people at the right time. I wasn’t very good at Twitter at the time, and was afraid of self-promoting myself, let alone promoting other people. I don’t think I totally slacked it off or anything, but I think a little extra effort would have gone a long way towards getting my contract renewed in a different form than it was.
As it was, they completely axed the divisional writing program — a smart move by them, I think. The only thing I think a big national for-free brand gains from doing team-by-team coverage is the small share of fans who are so married to the brand that they never look for other team coverage. As the internet becomes more and more ingrained in our culture, people are more and more used to searching for the content they want.
I didn’t take this well, but it didn’t really have anything to do with Bleacher Report. It was just a bad fit for my first real time writing for a national audience. The minute I hit this beat it was irrelevant and it only grew more irrelevant with each passing day. My audience certainly couldn’t make it relevant.
The Freelance Life
Without breaking it down to specific dollar amounts — because it would take a long time to remember and list out every company I’ve written for over the past couple of years — I never wrote for less than $75, and my high dollar amount for an article delivered was $750.
Freelance writing has overall, not been my favorite job. It combines one of my least favorite things, uncertainty, with one of my other least favorite things, rejection. I mostly wound up here because I was a terrible networker. I could have spent the latter half of my Bleacher Report gig trying to find real work elsewhere, but I didn’t. A lot of the gigs I’ve wound up doing have been people approaching me, mostly from people who know me in the past. I’m no different than your average football coach, just staffing with whoever has worked with me before.
I learned a lot of harsh lessons about freelance writing in a very short time, mostly about what kind of #content people do and don’t want. But, as I said with Bleacher Report, I think when you are only a writer, and you come into it without a big pre-settled audience, you’re at a big disadvantage. I had problems holding on to bigger gigs because they were looking at their numbers and not seeing the kind of metrics they wanted. When you’re freelance, nobody invests in you. They give you a couple of articles to see if it’s working, then tell you to screw off if it’s not.
Football writing tends to be a seasonal thing. When football season has been on, and I’ve been actively trying to work, I often wound up with seven or eight pieces a week. When football season is over, I have working in the Football Outsiders Almanac, I have done Athlon Magazines a couple seasons in a row now. But other than that, it’s usually been pretty dead. Hopefully that’ll change with some of my recent things, and more of a re-commitment from me to the cause.
2017 was the closest I ever came to just giving up on writing. For one, I had a new hobby that I was rejuvenated and engaged by: speedrunning Final Fantasy IV at a world record level. It’s been extremely rewarding to actually have something I can make progress at and see results in without having to worry about how someone else sees it. The time is the ultimate arbiter, not some impressions number on a stats page. I can pitch a hundred things I think are awesome ideas at companies and not get anywhere … or I can play a video game for speed with the strats I already know are killer and satisfy that internal desire to compete with people that I thought died with my YMCA basketball days.
At the same time, I just felt like I was going through the motions and not learning anything new. I wasn’t sticking up for my writing time, I wasn’t trying to get better anywhere. I got married and moved in the 2018 offseason, so that contributed to the feeling that I just didn’t have a lot of time to deal with it anymore.
But … I was actually super inspired by the challenge The Athletic Houston gave to me this past season. It was a paysite, the best of the best, so I knew I’d want to spend time raising the quality of my work. They chased me and even had a phoner interview for a freelance position. I knew I’d get a chance to actually cover games at the stadium, which was something I had wanted to do for a long time but never had much experience with.
I knew I was in for some topsy-turvy asks when our site editor was assigned to us after I came on board. I wasn’t the editor’s pick, and the editor wanted to do what worked everywhere else in his opinion — film pieces. I hadn’t ever done specifically a film piece before, but I was happy to accept the challenge. I’m not claiming I became Chris B. Brown overnight or anything, but I think I created a good body of work and learned better practices for creating videos. The fans certainly seemed to respond to it, and as I got more comfortable with the gig I think some of the best work of the season happened down the stretch. I was getting good quotes from players. I was creating things I would have wanted to read. I was really hoping that I’d be able to spend more time working on the videos for them this offseason, maybe get a full press pass next year. But, alas.
Getting let go from that gig wasn’t a huge surprise because I don’t know that my role was ever going to be a long-term ride there. They hired a newer beat writer in the KC Star’s Aaron Reiss, and I think they wanted a more established name helping to bring people to the table for the start of things. Aaron is awesome, by the way, and he’s going to slay the gig. I can already tell.
Anyway, being let go kind of inspired this. Both this post and this rejuvenation to actual self-writing on a basic-ass blog. Because I had a funny feeling that I lost somewhere along the way of all this freelance stuff and rejection: I was earnestly wanting to share things again. When I got the phone call that I was let go, for the first time in several of these calls or e-mails, I had no dread about the situation. I pounded the goddamn rock for The Athletic. I gave it my all and improved. And I’m ready to embrace that improvement again.
Getting let go like that inspired me to look back on where I’d been and — for the first time in years — get myself in that mindset I had before the helplessness took over. And no matter how the freelance stuff goes this year (or hopefully, no matter what happens as far as me getting an actual full-time gig) I know I need to make sure to write some things that I want written no matter how many places reject them.
For some writers it will be the money, for some writers it will be about the fame, for me it’s the combination of feeling like I’m in the sandbox and people I respect are admiring whatever I happen to slap together.
I wrote several times about the Houston running game for The Athletic in 2018. It was wildly inconsistent on a pure results basis. The first two games both yielded at least 148 rushing yards, then the team went a month rushing for under 100 yards just once … and then, they ran for 145 yards or more in four of their next five games. Finally, to close the season, they were held under 100 yards in three straight games, then had 134 against the Jaguars with Deshaun Watson holding the ball more often than ever.
One thing I wasn’t able to do in-season was look on a broader scope about certain types of plays — losing an entire day to charting a game is a tough sell when there’s only so much time in the season in which I can write. Thankfully, Sports Information Solutions can help us here, as they chart every play in the NFL season and even chart what types of runs each team uses on each down.
I suspect that if you are a fan of the Texans or have followed my writing at all, you’ll already know that despite the Texans finishing 26th in rushing DVOA, Deshaun Watson was a major positive influence on their running game. Watson finished with 89 carries, the second-most of any quarterback in the league, and a 7.7% rushing DVOA.
The problem with Houston’s running game isn’t hard to see, but I will bold it anyway
Houston Texans running offense by rush type:
NFL Success Rate
Yes, the Houston Texans were a zone running team that could not run zone to save their lives in 2018. The funniest part about this chart is that you can draw a direct axis to games they ran for 100 yards and how likely it was they ran Power — only 14 of their Power runs came in the seven games they didn’t reach 100 yards rushing.
While charting blown blocks is a highly subjective thing, and the Texans offensive problems go beyond just blown blocks, I think it is instructive to focus on Nick Martin here. Martin is the one player on the line that I think escaped most criticism, but he had more blown blocks than any lineman that ran zone for the Texans last year.
Per SIS, Martin blew seven rushing blocks on zone plays in 2018. No other Texans lineman or tight end had more than four blown blocks on all rushing plays in 2018.
Martin simply has to be more consistent on his combo blocks and with his initial get-off at the line of scrimmage. Most of his blown blocks are issues of hand positioning on the run rather than play speed. He gets his arm on an opponent, but not the full block — I think he also has a tendency to get a bit too upright when he’s on the move.
Another factor is an NFL truism that makes a lot of sense and is something the Texans will have to deal with next year: Zone blocking schemes take chemistry and time to grow that chemistry. It could be argued that when Martin passed off Steve McLendon up there, that he thought Kelemete would be in good position to make that play. That’s the kind of sixth sense about teammates that grows over time. The Texans core offensive line (Kendall Lamm, Julian Davenport, Kelemete, Zach Fulton, and Martin) had barely played together at all before 2018.
Now Houston is faced with another offseason that seems likely to be rife with change. I think Fulton is safe because his contract tells us he is. (He would save the team almost no money on being cut.) My thinking is that Davenport will not be an unquestioned starter, and that Martinas Rankin will get a long look at left guard. Kendall Lamm and Seantrel Henderson are likely to be part of a battle to start at right tackle. This is before we even get into how free agency and the draft will play out and who might be added besides a Davenport challenger.
I think as the Texans head into next offseason, they need to be a little more cautious with just how much zone they run. The personnel in place — Lamar Miller notwithstanding — wasn’t great at it, and it’s likely that the offensive line will all be learning how to play with each other again in 2019. This unit had most of it’s success running with Power and using Watson to get a numbers advantage. That’s where I’d build the run game to start with, mixing in zone on a good basis to get a read on how the players are gelling.
Unfortunately, this coaching staff clings stubbornly to what it wants to do, and it would not surprise me if I’m writing this same post somewhere next offseason. The big key is Martin — if he’s the linchpin of this offensive line, the Texans need a resurgent 2019 season from him in the worst way.
I’m a freelance writer and editor for hire with bylines at The Athletic, ESPN.com, Bleacher Report, Football Outsiders, VICE Sports, and several others. If you made it this far, and you have a say in a media company, I’m happy to listen to offers at rivers dot [email protected]
Nearly a month ago, I got to sit in a press conference where Bill O’Brien said the same thing he says after every big loss. The Colts had just destroyed his offense, holding the Texans to seven points. In so many words, it was his fault, and he’d have to coach better.
The problem isn’t that O’Brien can’t coach better. I have a lot of respect for the things he handles well, and he runs a locker room as well as any NFL coach as far as demanding the respect of his players. The problem is that there’s no actual accountability for O’Brien to coach better — at the end of the day, he is accountable only to himself as far as improving. He hasn’t done much to improve his game-calling or situational issues. The same old issues crop up over and over again. The team plays too slow in hurry-up situations. The team comes out unprepared against any head coach who plays against tendencies. The offense wants to play their game and never what the defense gives them. And so on.
Ownership — busy dealing with the fallout of Bob McNair’s death — has rubber stamped “good enough.” Brian Gaine’s done a fabulous job during his first season but clearly isn’t O’Brien’s peer as far as final say, no matter what the job titles would lead you to believe. The idea of where this head coach’s coaching will improve falls squarely on the head coach.
Enter Tim Kelly, a lifetime O’Brien assistant coach, who worked with O’Brien at Penn State as a graduate assistant. This post is going to be fairly critical of Kelly’s hiring, but it doesn’t have a damn thing to do with him, because I don’t think anyone can tell you how Kelly will run an offense. Kelly has never been an offensive coordinator at any level. Maybe he’s been a terrific tight ends coach — I don’t know of any way to measure his work from the outside beyond conjecture. He was made available for one media session by the Texans this year. Best I can tell from my Google-Fu, he seems to be trusted to take scouting visits for the team as well.
O’Brien has been a head coach for five seasons now. The only assistant coach he’s had on his staff that has received a real promotion from an outside team is Mike Vrabel, and Vrabel is more Romeo Crennel’s assistant than O’Brien’s. Most have either made lateral moves like Sean Ryan did in heading to Detroit, or have headed down the food chain or back to college. Pat O’Hara went from offensive assistant to quarterbacks coach under Vrabel, I guess. Wes Welker may head elsewhere for a promotion on name value alone.
This is not to say that Kelly can’t be a playcalling genius — maybe he’s a visionary and we’d have no idea from the outside. But the optics need to inform an outside take of this situation. Here are those optics: Bill O’Brien has never had a good coordinator waiting in the wings in his offensive staff, and he has promoted somebody who has never been an offensive coordinator before rather than chasing somebody, anybody, who could provide a different perspective. O’Brien has doubled down on what the Texans have already created, and offensive coaches have tended to flee his staff.
My read of the situation is that O’Brien believes he needs to have full control of this organization even though it’s clear from the outside that he is struggling with it. That it would be better off if he delegated some tasks. In the words of Richard Feynman, “you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.” O’Brien believes it must all be on him, so it is.
We haven’t even gotten into whether Kelly will actually call the plays or not — maybe that’s something we get more clarity about once the hiring is official. But regardless, there’s not a lot I think anybody can be confident about with this move. If you want to explain it away from a place of optimism, you probably can. I’d just note that if the Texans hired, say, Todd Monken (to name one guy who settled for a similar job title) as their offensive coordinator, it would make me a lot more optimistic about their outlook.
A lot of a fan experience, I’ve come to realize over the years, is about expectations. What are your expectations for the season to come, and what is a reasonable expectation for this team? My expectations for the Texans are that they have so much offensive talent that, if everyone is healthy, they could still have a great offense even with mediocre playcalling. It’ll torch some other talented teams, and that will spark optimism. But my expectations are also that good coaching is necessary to beat the best teams, and nothing that O’Brien has done yet has backed up his frequent proclamations that he has to improve.
I’m a big believer of the idea that your actions speak a lot more to me than your words do. It’s easy to talk about doing something better. Harder to actually do it when you make no changes. Hopefully Tim Kelly is the next head coaching superstar and this post gets retweeted at me over and over again years from now. I wouldn’t bet on the process that created him as an offensive coordinator getting it right.
The 2017 NCAA season was a disappointment for two quarterbacks that were highly thought of in 2016. Lamar Jackson, Louisville’s quarterback, saw his passing numbers stagnate while the Cardinals defense dragged the team down to an 8-5 record. The Cardinals allowed 30 or more points six times last season, going 1-5 in those games. Allen saw a massive statistical decline at Wyoming, going from 28 touchdowns to 16, and watching his yards per attempt drop from 8.6 to 6.7.
But one of these quarterbacks is the drum beat of MockDraftLand, a seasonal construct that takes over NFL news for three months, and the other is surrounded by accusations that he may need to move to wide receiver despite his statistical success. It’s worth taking a moment to wonder how we got to this point, and what it means.
Allen is, in many ways, the prototype scouting quarterback. Here’s why I think the prototype is failing us:
NFL Evaluators still make a big deal about Allen’s size, when we’ve proven that height doesn’t mean much at this level: Drew Brees is likely going to have the NFL’s passing record by the time he’s done playing, and he slipped to the second round because of his height. Russell Wilson isn’t six feet tall and is the most successful quarterback in his age bracket. Deshaun Watson, the NFL’s latest sensation prior to his ACL tear, was dogged for his lack of ideal build and his hand size. To a point, height does matter. It’s obviously better for a quarterback to have more visibility over an offensive line. It got ingrained as a scouting virtue for a reason. But when we’re looking at the recent history of quarterbacks, most of the ones drafted and hyped purely on their bodies have been busts. Brock Osweiler received the lowest QBase score in the history of Football Outsiders’ projection stat and continues to draw start after start despite this. Mike Glennon got a starting role because he was a giraffe and predictably flopped. Christian Hackenberg was a second-round pick purely for looking the part. There’s probably still a reason for scouts to hunt for the ideal size, but the degree of emphasis they put on it leads them to miss the forest for the trees. The ironic thing about making a big deal about Allen’s height is that he was discriminated against as a high school quarterback because of his size. A growth spurt at community college pushed him to 6-foot-5, from his old 6-foot-2, 190-pound high school frame. Now all of the sudden he gains three inches and NFL scouts drool. What’s the sense in that?
NFL Evaluators make a big deal about Allen’s arm strength, when we’ve proven that at the NFL level it’s a luxury item in a quarterback’s tool set:Atlanta’s Matt Ryan led the NFL in deep passing in 2016, under Kyle Shanahan, where he won the MVP. Ryan averaged 10.3 yards per pass out of play-action, ranking second in the NFL. Ryan’s lone NFL tool that keeps him from being Aaron Rodgers-great is that he doesn’t have a hose. These two facts may sound weird together, but they’re true. There are a lot of ways to attempt a deep pass in the NFL. Play-action matters, half-field reads matter. Many NFL defenses spend a lot of time in quarters coverage now, leaving the seams and posts as a major way to generate deep yardage. If the NFL were being played in a vacuum where single-high safeties made back-shoulder throws 35 yards down the field the only way to generate deep passes, I’d understand the emphasis on arm talent. Instead, we spend our days being bombarded by quotes about Allen’s arm talent. Mike Mayock says he’s the “biggest-arm quarterback” since JaMarcus Russell. Quarterback coach George Whitfield talks about how “there hasn’t been a talent like this come out of college football since Cam Newton.” There’s a ton of emphasis on this arm talent and not enough of it on what that will do for Allen at the NFL level. Joe Flacco won the Super Bowl and has spent every season since (outside of his year with Gary Kubiak) as a doddering sub-replacement level sieve. His arm can still make all the throws, and nobody in these credible NFL circles has talked about how he needs to be pushed out of Baltimore. But it doesn’t really matter how many throws you can make in theory if you can’t score points, right? The emphasis on arm talent treats these things as if they are one in the same.
NFL Evaluators scout the highlight clips and don’t put as much emphasis on down-to-down consistency: One buzzword that I think is a betrayal of NFL scouting is when they say that a quarterback “has toughness” or “resilience” to hang in through the bad times. Sometimes it is company to an injury. It showed resilience to bounce back from a torn ACL. But other times it hangs there as if to say “give him enough snaps and he’ll wow you.” And Allen is capable of making you say wow. When you look at his highlight clip, he delivers gobsmackingly great throws. I think that’s awesome, fun to watch, and don’t want to demean the fact that Allen can make these plays in any way. It’s a definite part of the ideal quarterback skill set to create in situations like that. At the same time, I’m reminded of a quote from NFL Films’ Greg Cosell, discussing a passer coming out of college for the 2012 draft. The quote was “if you looked at only this quarterback’s 10 best throws, he’d be the top prospect in the class.” The prospect was Ryan Lindley. NFL scouts see the raw talent and think that they can taper down on the easy mistakes, that every kid at a college program just needs NFL coaching to get better. NFL teams also handcuff themselves to Blake Bortles even when he readily admits to CBS that he is not a “natural thrower of the football.” There’s a lot of cognitive dissonance in the quarterback selection process. My belief is that NFL teams over-evaluate those best 10 throws and hope they can fix the 40 bad ones. After all, the kid has resilience.
On the other side of things is Jackson. His consensus in mocklandia is all over the board in the first round. Most of what is said about the Heisman winner in a negative point of view, and the reason that he’s looked at as far behind the other three first-round quarterbacks, can be summed up in ESPN’s terms through Bill Polian. “Short and a little bit slight. Clearly, clearly not the thrower that the other guys are. The accuracy isn’t there. … I think wide receiver. Exceptional athlete, exceptional ability to make you miss, exceptional acceleration, exceptional instinct with the ball in his hand and that’s rare for wide receivers. That’s [Antonio Brown], and who else? Name me another one, Julio [Jones is] not even like that.”
NFL Evaluators are nervous about quarterbacks that make hay in the running game: It even makes some sense that this would be the case, given how college football running attacks have fewer NFL-caliber athletes to worry about. Then, you add in the history of college running attacks around option plays, especially in the 80s and 90s, and realize that many of them didn’t go anywhere. Match this with an obviously talented physical specimen and, of course, a certain subset of people with worldviews farmed in that period are going to want to move them to a different position. But here’s a funny thing about the NFL: traditional running games in general don’t do much work anymore. Sure, you’ve got the odd case of the 2016 49ers giving it up to backs every week. You’ve got the game last year where the Bills were completely run over on the ground by the Saints. But think about the recent history of running backs making a lot of noise as they hit the scene. Todd Gurley electrified everybody for five weeks. So did Leonard Fournette. NFL game plans adjusted easily to them once they saw what both backs could do. But the most consistent driver of NFL rushing offense lately? A quarterback who can add rushing value. The Seahawks and Bills have consistently been among the best running teams over the past five years with Russell Wilson and Tyrod Taylor. Cam Newton is stuck in a dinosaur offense but still offers exceptional diversity in the red zone. Dak Prescott has helped keep the Dallas run game afloat even without Ezekiel Elliott. It’s not a surprise that this change has happened and NFL talking heads are the last to know. After all, they’re just shouting their worldview at the screen, and if their worldview could change, they’d still be employed by a team. Jackson’s versatility as a runner should be adding to our evaluation of him, not subtracting from it.
NFL Evaluators still remember Michael Vick and Robert Griffin III, and are great at typecasting:Vick was 6-foot-0, 215 pounds, and NFL teams went gaga for him despite the size, making him not only the No. 1 overall pick, but also a No. 1 overall pick that the Falcons traded up for. The Chargers received a third, a future second, and Tim Dwight for moving down just four spots. Vick’s career in Atlanta led off with promise as he outdueled Brett Favre in the playoffs, but ultimately was never a statistical success. Of course, that’s not necessarily all on Vick. The mid-2000s Falcons were coached by nepotism favorite Jim Mora Jr. The offense was coordinated by Greg Knapp, and didn’t use Vick’s run game abilities as much as it could have. Instead, they ran T.J. Duckett into the line a lot. And they still made the playoffs in three of the four seasons where Vick was a full-time starter, despite the Atlanta defense getting worse in every year of Vick’s career. In a different world, one where he was managed by a better offensive design and didn’t murder dogs, Vick could have been so much more. But instead, evaluators from this era learned the lesson that … he was too short. Robert Griffin III went 6-foot-2, 220 pounds. NFL teams went gaga for him despite the size, making him the No. 2 overall pick only because he was behind another generational prospect in Andrew Luck. To trade up to get him, Washington gave the Rams two future first-round picks and a boatload of other picks. Griffin’s rookie year was electric. He led Washington to the playoffs, and the Skins finished sixth in offensive DVOA. Griffin finished fifth among all quarterbacks in rushing DYAR, and would have been even higher had he not fumbled seven times. Griffin’s knee gave way on poorly maintained FedEx Field turf in his first playoff game against the Seahawks, and he was never the same player. Washington had an offensive formula that was working, but moved to try to make Griffin play Mike Shanahan’s preferred style of offense and the quarterback struggled. Not only was Griffin mismanaged, but we’ll never know what he would have been without the injury. Instead, evaluators from this era learned the lesson that Griffin was too small. Cam Newton succeeded, but he was 6-foot-6, of course he’d succeed! His body can take NFL punishment. No, I’ve never heard of Russell Wilson. Why do you ask? The idea is that every NFL player should be able to thrive in any system, but I’d argue that both Vick and Griffin showed plenty of flashes of success, if not outright success. The cocoon closed ranks and pretended that they were the problems, not the way they were coached or the outside factors. So, in retrospect, they must have been bad picks.
NFL Evaluators Think Stats Are For Losers: There’s not much to be said about that, I’m sure. Have scouts and stats ever been pitted against each other in an article or a book, anything like that? That war was settled a long time ago. The answer was not scouts or stats. The answer was “yes.” But what this more broadly points to is the idea of the “system” quarterback. Chip Kelly did a lot wrong as an NFL head coach, but one thing he did right was prove that his system could score points and work. The Eagles were an offensive juggernaut with Nick Foles. Many systems may work in the NFL, it turns out. Now, it may be the case that Lamar Jackson isn’t an ideal fit for Norv Turner’s 1990s Cowboys offense, which of course is the measuring stick all offenses are put up against. But Bobby Petrino seemed to have no problems using him to score a boatload of points, and he coached in the NFL. I would argue that head coaches and front offices that embrace the idea that all offensive players are only system fits or worthless are not long for the NFL. A lot has changed in a short time. Except in the media discourse, where a disproportionate amount of our attention is rationed out to provocateurs acting as analysts. Huh, do you think maybe all of this talk about Lamar Jackson as a wide receiver feeds people because all news in our society must make people angry or it doesn’t matter? Perhaps that’s why we can just ignore Josh Allen’s stats when people talk about them?
I think it’s pretty clear which side I am on in this debate from how this article is written. But let me say: I don’t think Josh Allen is a guaranteed bust, and I’m open to hearing about other things he does well. I don’t think Lamar Jackson is a guaranteed franchise quarterback, and I’m open to hearing about other things that might hold him back.
It’s just that, in my rational mind, there’s no way that these two quarterbacks are comparable prospects as far as risk goes. One quarterback has college success, is built to give his NFL team an edge in the running game, and throws down the field an awful lot for a player with no deep ball. The other quarterback couldn’t dent the scoresheet in the middle of nowhere and has several traits in common with, in my eyes, some of the biggest busts of recent NFL history.
These two players will define a lot about the elevated discourse of quarterback play over the next five years. I’m fascinated by how it will turn out. Just don’t tell me what Bill Polian has to say about it in three years.
When Philadelphia won a Super Bowl with their backup quarterback, they didn’t do it by getting lucky. Typical, conservative head coach dogma would look a little more like this:
We’ve got to shorten the playbook, we’ve got to play to keep the ball and take advantage of our opportunities. We’ve got to give our quarterback easy reads and keep on schedule. By playing total team football, we can win.
The Eagles, instead, dropped 41 points on the Patriots. Not by being a conservative, run-first offense, but by engineering their quarterback to take advantage of the defense and being aggressive. They did it by going for it on fourth-and-goal with 50 seconds left in the second quarter. They did it by going for it on fourth-and-1 … in Eagles territory … and converting on their drive to get a go-ahead touchdown. This was the coaching equivalent of a Dominique Wilkins-Michael Jordan dunk contest, with each trick play raising the bar a little higher than the last one.
I’ve seen several pieces and stories either talk about or bring up in passing Jeff Fisher’s ineffectiveness with Nick Foles. (Or Case Keenum, or Jared Goff, if we want to expand the search area a bit.) And yes, Jeff Fisher’s passing systems were antiquated by the end of his career. It is, in fact, pretty funny that the Rams faltered on his watch for years and suddenly went 11-5 when they brought in an offensive mind who seized the full meaning of his job.
But the important thing that this Super Bowl taught us was about Fisher’s mindset as a head coach, not his offensive schemes. A lot of other head coaches could have matched Xs and Os on Matt Patricia’s defense and found points. Some of them could have even done so with the brusque efficiency that the Eagles did: 6.1 yards per carry and 8.5 yards per pass.
I can’t think of a single other NFL head coach in my lifetime who would push the pedal like Doug Pederson did in the face of apparent disadvantages. I have no idea where his future takes him, if this was a one-time thing or not. But I was appalled, in a good way, to see someone seize the NFL’s biggest stage and out-aggro the best coach in NFL history. Nick Foles is likely better than some backup quarterbacks, but not by enough to make what happened on Sunday out of the line. The Pats finished 31st in defensive DVOA … but the Vikings had one of the best defenses in the NFL, and the Eagles ravaged them as well.
This game should be the beacon for the rest of the NFL to wake up and stop pretending that they have a Patriots problem. I don’t want to hear any excuses about offensive personnel in Cleveland when they can’t score points. I don’t want to hear about how the backup quarterback can’t be trusted. If it’s an old player who can’t make the throws Nick Foles makes anymore, perhaps that’s a sign of an evaluation failure by the front office! Find someone who can run an offense like this, then do it.
Because, in the biggest game of our lifetimes, the Eagles won by throwing the middle finger up at the entire accumulated conservative NFL establishment. Not only did they win with Nick Foles, they created an offense where they could win because of Nick Foles.
And if they can do it, you can too. Let’s put that copycat culture to work on something that might actually make football more exciting.