There are two recent reminders of how quickly things can turn bad in football. The first is the Houston Texans, a franchise that won one playoff game and led the eventual Super Bowl champions by three touchdowns in another in this calendar year but is now a football wasteland. The other is Justin Herbert’s haircut. Let’s stick with the first one.
Picture 1: Justin Herbert on Sunday.— NFL Update (@MySportsUpdate) November 18, 2020
Picture 2: Justin Herbert today: pic.twitter.com/HhoGNZWkOL
Broadly speaking, the Texans have been a successful franchise. They have made the playoffs six times since the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ last playoff appearance. Those six appearances all came in the last decade. There are a handful of teams—the Bears, Raiders, Browns, and Football Team among them—who haven’t had six playoff appearances in the last 25 years. The Texans found a franchise quarterback—a quest that has doomed countless teams—and even locked him in with a long-term contract extension. They have drafted and developed some of the best players in the sport. That is why it is so strange not just that the Texans have ruined their franchise for the near future, but how they did it, with such energy and vigor. They serve as a Ghost of Christmas Future for how a relatively short stretch of bad decisions can doom a franchise. Those mistakes are remarkably easy to compound; as more bad decisions are made, things can get very bad, very quickly. The lesson from the Houston Texans for NFL decision-makers is that you are, at all times, perilously close to running your team ashore and staying there.
The team’s fading fortunes came into focus once again this week for two reasons: First, DeAndre Hopkins’s Hail Mary catch was one of the most impressive moments of this season. This is the same Hopkins the Texans traded away earlier this year. The second is that Hopkins’s star turn coincides with a handful of stories that don’t bode well for the Texans’ future. One of those, from NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport on Sunday, said interim coach Romeo Crennel might get the full-time head coaching job in 2021 because of the complications of hiring a coach during the COVID-19 pandemic. Peter King, writing for NBC Sports this week, said of that rationale: “That might be the dumbest thing I’ve heard all season.” Other reports say the team will change coaches and hire a GM this offseason, a position that has gone unfilled in the last few years as former head coach Bill O’Brien served dual roles. This dovetails with the rise of Jack Easterby, a former character coach with the Patriots, who’s currently the Texans’ VP of football operations, and the firing of a longtime, respected PR executive, Amy Palcic, for not being a “culture fit.” (As King pointed out, if Palcic isn’t a culture fit, “then a thinking, intelligent person who cares about doing things the right way and takes pride in his or her work should not want to work in the culture of the Texans.”) This franchise seems genetically engineered in a lab to be dunked on for its poor decision-making.
There are two unique things about the Texans’ current predicament. The first is that they still have a lot of good players. Because of this, they could have some success in the near future, just not a lot of it. Watson is so good that you can’t simply tear down the franchise and start over, as most teams would when near-term hope is lost, which is why they’ll likely end up right back where they started: relying on Watson to do too much. This is what is so deeply frustrating and why, as a football fan, you should be angry this is happening. Deshaun Watson is a football treasure, who is still putting up great numbers in 2020 despite the chaos around him. If the Texans want to ruin their franchise, they should do it on their own time. There are not enough elite quarterbacks on the planet to waste one’s career with mistake after mistake. Wreck your own career if you want, not Deshaun Watson’s.
The second unique part of this is that everyone saw this coming. The Texans were driving off a cliff and while they were doing it, the entire world kept yelling, “Hey, watch out for the cliff there.” Even when they were good last season, it was obvious the bills would come due on the moves O’Brien made. They were pre-bad. In every action movie ever, the scientist’s warning of impending doom (a role played admirably by Paul Giamatti in San Andreas) is always ignored until it’s too late. In this scenario, this role is played by anyone who follows football. All the warning signs were there and every single person saw them except the three or four people in the Texans’ facility with decision-making power. When Laremy Tunsil saw that the Texans offered two first-round picks for him, he told the Dolphins that he would trade himself for that haul. The short version of the mess facing the Texans is that they have no picks and no cap space to get out of it. They are 2-7 this year, and it will take a lot for their circumstances to change anytime soon. It’s a shame because the players, including Watson and J.J. Watt, deserve better.
A truly terrible football decision is like a moveable feast because it can stay with you forever and pops up all the time in different ways. The badness of the Hopkins trade will evolve. It will make other Texans moves look worse. Anyway, without further delay, here is The Houston Texans Present: How to Ruin a Franchise:
Make Shortsighted Moves Constantly
This will not be a rundown of all of the Texans’ terrible moves. The internet, supposedly an infinite space, doesn’t have room for that. Houston’s original sin is that in an era of teams going “all in” when they have a chance to win a Super Bowl, it went all in on the NFL equivalent of a pair of 5s. Decisions to recklessly trade away draft picks mean the Texans cannot plug their considerable roster holes until the third round in next year’s draft. It also means that the Miami Dolphins, on the upswing and in the AFC playoff hunt this season, will likely have a top-10 pick—at present, the Texans owe them the sixth overall pick. The Texans married giving up too much in trades with asking for too little in others. This is the problem with dealing Hopkins or waiting too long to trade Jadeveon Clowney in 2019. Houston acquired Tunsil without having agreed to an extension agreed, meaning he had considerable leverage when negotiating with the team. He eventually struck a deal this year that made him the highest-paid offensive lineman in history.
But again, this is not all about O’Brien. It’s worth pointing out that he was an employee of the organization. You cannot become a coach and GM through a hostile takeover. Ownership and team executives promoted O’Brien, even when it was clear that it might not be a good thing, and let him keep making bad decisions. O’Brien was a good coach who assumed too much responsibility. Let’s say you’re the CEO of a construction company, and the guy you put in charge of building houses keeps burning them to the ground. It becomes his thing. He becomes extremely famous for this. At some point, shouldn’t you stop him? Wrestle the nuclear codes away, so to speak?
O’Brien’s tenure went on for long enough that the Texans’ prospects have significantly dimmed, suggesting, at some level, that something is broken. This is explained further by owner Cal McNair’s defense of the Hopkins trade. McNair explained that giving Hopkins a new contract simply wouldn’t fit under the salary cap. He continued: “When Hopkins wanted to redo his contract, it just wasn’t something we could do. We did trade him, we moved him. We moved him to a team that had the salary cap room to extend. We moved him to a team that I know the owners, it’s a great ownership. We moved him to a team that has an exciting and fun offense. I think we did a good job placing him in a good place. He’s a talented, talented guy. We would love to have him but it wasn’t going to fit financially with all the constraints that we have in operating … under the salary cap. It just wasn’t possible to do at this time.”
Hopkins has since insisted that he did not want a new deal, just a Band-Aid raise. (Even better, in a since-deleted tweet, Hopkins called Cal McNair “Kyle.”) Regardless, there was no excuse for giving up Hopkins for a quarter on the dollar. Trading him to an “exciting and fun offense” like the Cardinals’, with good ownership, as McNair outlines, is not the point of team-building. Even if the Texans decided that Hopkins could not continue on with the franchise, the point of roster management is to get a massive haul for him, not panic trade him for a bad, overpaid running back in David Johnson and a pick swap that moved you up two rounds. Bill Belichick has spent two decades shipping off players who would otherwise screw up the Patriots’ salary cap, but with two important distinctions: He kept them for as long as he could to take advantage of their talents, and then he sold high when he needed to. The Texans dumped Hopkins when they didn’t need to and the return seemed like an afterthought. It was as though O’Brien had been half-listening to Belichick when he worked under him in New England: He got the trading part right but the value part wrong. Belichick runs the Pats like he’ll run them for a thousand more years—always playing the long game. The Texans have operated as if the apocalypse is near.
A half-hearted attempt to emulate the Patriots is one of the problems in Houston. After Easterby arrived in Houston from New England, the Texans were hit with tampering charges when they tried to hire Patriots personnel czar Nick Caserio. In October, ESPN’s Dan Graziano said the “easy connection” between Easterby and the Texans’ job is Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, the implication being that Easterby will use his Patriots connections to make things in Houston even more New Englandy.
Put the Wrong People in Power
Easterby’s role in the organization is symptomatic of broader concerns, as is Palcic’s firing. It is unclear to me what the “culture” is in Houston. Two Houston teams, the Texans and Rockets, are in so much turmoil that the Astros, famous worldwide for cheating, are by far the most normal franchise in the city. The Texans replaced longtime general manager Rick Smith with Brian Gaine in 2018, and then fired Gaine after just one season. (Easterby was tasked with evaluating the front office before the firing.) O’Brien took over GM responsibilities after the Caserio debacle, and now he’s gone; shortly after his firing, Rapoport reported that O’Brien and Easterby were not seeing eye to eye before the firing. What the Texans will do now is a mystery, but the team has announced that Easterby will not be the GM. Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer, appearing on Ryen Russillo’s podcast last month, outlined Easterby’s career, saying he essentially played a “quality control” type of role toward the end of his tenure in New England. Breer said it raised eyebrows when Easterby signed with an agent and that he was lined up to go to Indianapolis with Josh McDaniels during McDaniels’s brief connection with the job in 2018. Easterby’s current role with the Texans involves assessing the people coming into the organization and building a culture.
The Patriots media has painted Easterby as a good guy who was beloved in his role in New England. The Providence Journal’s Mark Daniels collected some glowing praise of Easterby from Patriots coaches and players this week. “Jack, he was great, a great leader. Someone we could go to [and] a mentor for a lot of us,” said running back Rex Burkhead. NBC Boston’s Tom Curran wrote: “Easterby has a long, long line of people I deeply respect who have vouched for his character over the years. Regardless of how good a person he is, he’s also got a naked desire for collecting power.”
I’ve never met Easterby. (Breer, interestingly enough, said Easterby is close with Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, who coached Watson.) It’s possible that Easterby is the greatest character coach of all time. I have an open mind on such things. But I can call this: This is all a little weird.
I can take some clues purely from the transactions the franchise has made to say that the Texans’ front office is, at the moment, an unstable mess—firings like this lead to more instability and more firings. There is a chance, however small, that these sorts of firings will create a type of power vacuum that will, and I do not say this lightly, have Texans fans praying for a return to the Bill O’Brien era.
A note on Crennel: He is one of the most beloved and respected people in football. A good man and a great defensive coordinator who absolutely deserves a shot to continue on in the defensive coordinator role. If he remains the head coach, that would be further confirmation that Houston is rudderless. The team should target an offensive coordinator like Kansas City’s Eric Bieniemy or Carolina’s Joe Brady to maximize Watson while he’s one of the only good things the team has.
Don’t Maximize What You Do Well
Watson is under contract until 2024, at the earliest. He’ll make an average of $39 million annually for the duration of his deal, so it’s not the worst situation in the world for him, but from a football standpoint, it’s not looking particularly good. The offensive line has regressed. The defense is awful. The play calling is worse.The run game was—surprise—not helped by Johnson. The Texans have major work to do to help Watson at all in the next four years, and they don’t have the picks or cap space to do it. There is no modern equivalent to one of the best quarterbacks in the league being stuck in an absolute disaster zone in the first year of his new deal. Watson is better and younger than, say, Matthew Stafford, who is stuck in a similar mess in Detroit.
The Texans shouldn’t think of trading Watson—the dead cap hit is too large and they wouldn’t get fair value for him. The fact remains that they have the thing that matters most in the sport: a great quarterback. It’s the quickest and easiest way to compete, but I worry that their mismanagement has made it so that even that advantage won’t matter. The team must find a way to keep wide receiver Will Fuller with an extension. It is important to note here that Watson is good enough to overcome his surroundings and still play extraordinarily well, he just won’t win nearly as much as a player of his caliber should. There is only one true solution: Hire an innovative offensive coordinator as head coach and let Deshaun be great. They don’t have any other path forward. The Texans drafted Watson and it became apparent almost immediately that he was going to be one of the best quarterbacks in football. When this happens, you have to rearrange everything you do in your organization to support the quarterback. The problem is that the Texans did attempt to do some of this—the Tunsil trade, in theory, was meant to support Watson, but it was executed so abysmally that it took away other parts of their roster. The story of the Texans in this era will be that they had Watson and didn’t do enough to help him.
Have No Plan
A smart person inside the NFL once explained to me that as hard as it is to sustain success in the league, it’s fairly easy to luck into a playoff spot every once in a while with a basic level of football competence. The quest to become average in the NFL, he explained, is mostly idiot-proof, since parity guarantees higher draft picks and easier schedules for bad teams, and bad teams typically have more salary cap room as long as they maintain some financial discipline. I often think of the Warren Buffett quote, relayed by Bill Gates, that you should rely on “a business that even a fool can run, because someday a fool will.” This is how the NFL is set up. Even a fool would have some shred of success running an NFL team. It’s by design. A team should be able to stumble into wins and, every once in a while, a playoff spot.
But what the Texans have done, unfortunately, threatens their ability to build anything. Looming cuts to the salary cap due to COVID-19 make this a particularly difficult challenge. Here’s a question: After so many stops and starts and bad decisions, what is the Texans’ plan? Is there one? Is it to rely on Watson to bail them out from every situation? Because as amazing as he is, their team is so bad even he can’t do that. And now comes the hardest part: Players may not want to be there. CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora reports that JJ Watt is a “virtual certainty” to be dealt this offseason. “I don’t think it’s any secret that I don’t have 10 years left in this league,” Watt said this month. “I personally believe that I do have a few more great ones left in me. But you also can’t ... I’m not looking to rebuild. I’m looking to go after a championship, and that’s what I want to do. So, whatever is in the best interest of the Houston Texans, that’s in the best interest of myself.” Watt doesn’t know what’s ahead for the Texans. Join the club, buddy.