Attempt to reconcile the Texans with me.
So…uh…where are we?
Where are we, as a group of collective people ravishing for sport? For entertainment?
A few weeks ago, Matt Weston tried to answer this question in his post David Culley Loves Nachos, and I Love David Culley. Where can we place ourselves in this most recent iteration of Texans football? To him, the answer was seated in front of David Culley, the lovable and unlikely star of his football universe in 2021. “Live, laugh, love David Culley, because if you don’t, you won’t make it through another rebuild.”
Approaching this season with the goal of finding excitement in ways that are not directly correlated with winning or successful play is becoming increasingly important as the reality of The Rebuild sets in. What do you like about football? What makes watching football on Sunday fun for you? Where can a losing team be entertaining?
As I got further introspective, my answers unfortunately spiraled into thoughts wildly broad and abstract. I wanted to reel in my ideas to something more…constructive, or thematically useful beyond just a pure love between people and the sport. But, I didn’t want to ignore my initial reaction to the now mostly completed 2021 Houston Texans roster. Every time I attempted to churn my opinions into something more digestible, my ideas either became more broad or my point was lost in translation. It was like a germ or virus that had infected my thought process on the Texans and actively fought my ability to reorganize it all. Being all over the place accurately reflects what being a fan of the Houston Texans means to me right now.
With that being said, my overall feelings are in fact positive. Maybe influenced by the heavy wave of vitriolic opinions about the Texans voiced over the past few months, I have formed an absolutely ridiculous perspective on the whole ordeal that I am happy to acknowledge in its absurdity as the reason I will continue to believe in it: I’m just excited to watch the Texans play football in September. I’m ready to dive into this year’s permutation of our beloved Houston based germ.
Back to the main question: where are we? Or, more accurately, where am I?
Well, we just saw everything we understood as the Houston Texans drown in spectacular fashion over the course of about six months. Then came scraping together the cannon fodder and cheese grater shavings of other NFL teams into a neat pile to create the next Houston Texans team, a team we will cheer for, and scream at, and hurl our various obscenities towards as if nothing has changed. This a profoundly different team, a profoundly worse team. It’s not something basic fan-tinted lenses can disguise, and thinking otherwise would be fooling yourself.
But…how different is this from any other NFL team? Is this really all that different from what every franchise goes through every few years?
The extraordinary consequences that Houston sports teams seem to always be a block away from running into are, in fact, extraordinary in many respects. But the actual act of remaking a team from the ground up is not exactly a rare experience, and in some respects, the Houston Texans were due for it.
Every NFL team is going through constant metamorphosis, and is nearly an entirely new team within every three to four years. The NFL and it’s talent base are constantly changing, carrying with it great expectations. Most NFL players have a two to three year career, and starting caliber players will usually only be in the league for a few offseasons beyond their rookie deals. Let’s start with the easiest comparisons, the Super Bowl teams of a few years ago: the 2017 Eagles, the 2017-18 Patriots, and the 2018 Rams. These teams had all of the incentive needed to try and keep as many players in house as possible since it got them the to the championship game. How they fare in these comparisons is indicative of how difficult the task of keeping them around really is.
First, the Eagles.
THE 2017 EAGLES
Pretty much a complete overhaul for the Eagles. After winning the Super Bowl with Nick Foles, the common belief was that the Eagles would continue to dominate for the next several years with their young, deep, and talented roster. Instead of a dynasty, we got a double-doink, and an amazing individual effort by 2019 Wentz to get a Eagles roster that was mostly on Injured Reserve into the playoffs. Then 2020 brought on an all out collapse.
How about the losers of that 2017 Super Bowl?
THE 2017 PATRIOTS:
Even the Patriots, infamous for playing a dizzying amount of veterans and holding onto their core players for as long as possible, are pretty much a completely different team entering 2021. Even Tom Brady, the lord of all football, did the unthinkable and signed with a different team! Imagine being told Tom Brady was gonna go down to Tampa Bay and win a Super Bowl with Bruce Arians and Antonio Brown and 2017. This is what I mean when I say you can never predict how the league will change even a few years into the future.
Although, the Patriots won the Super Bowl the very next year. Are there any players that got them over the hump that year still around to help them in a post-Brady world?
Well, they’ve kept half of the offensive line around? Sony Michel is still in New England, too, but he’s fallen down the depth chart. With both Damien Harris and James White in front, he could be out of the job by the end of this year.
The defense, although, does look familiar. With eight starters from 2018 likely to start in 2021, five are on defense (with the other three on offensive line). What’s funny is the brief extraneous careers some of these starters had in the interim of these two seasons: Kyle Van Noy had a pit stop in Miami, Trent Brown took a vacation in Oakland, then Las Vegas, and Dont’a Hightower opted out of the 2020 season. It’s like the gang is coming back together for one more crack at it. Still, though, 14 new starters after just three years, which will possibly be more if rookies impress in training camp.
How about the team this Patriots defense made an embarrassment out of in the 2018 Super Bowl: the 2018 Rams?
Besides a few mainstays on offense and Aaron Donald, this is an entirely new team. Traditional wisdom would say this is a bad thing, expecting to be a better team than the one that got you to the Super Bowl just three years ago. But, in this context, these Rams might actually be better.
With Matthew Stafford, Jalen Ramsey, Darious Williams, and Leonard Floyd coming in to help out Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods, and Aaron Donald, I’d say the Rams are in better shape now than they were in 2018. With more talent on defense (especially the backfield) and a better quarterback, they’ll be the team to beat in the NFC West.
Although, the inflection point on this team will be the offensive line and running backs. If these positions excel in 2021, the sky is the limit. If they fall apart, we’ll all wonder if the Rams would’ve been better off if they just drafted Jalen Hurts and built around his talents. Because of the Goff and Wentz dilemmas, the Rams and Eagles will be constantly compared, and these coming years will be interesting to watch for both teams.
But, how about our own team? Do we have any starters from the 2018 roster still around?
…it is kind of sad, isn’t it? It’s like a final, cold acknowledgment that things have profoundly changed forever, and this is list of what is the 2021 Houston Texans must be accepted. There is no fighting it or dancing around reality, now: here’s the receipt, all we can do is read it.
But, if the last few comparisons were any indication, this was our due course. NFL teams are constantly shedding their skins and growing into new ones, with the cycle completing every three to four years.
The Texans entered their Super Bowl window in 2018 with a talented franchise quarterback (Deshaun Watson) surrounded by several other young players on rookie deals with high ceilings (Will Fuller, Justin Reid, D.J. Reader, and Zach Cunningham), skill position players under contract that will lift our new passer to new heights (DeAndre Hopkins, Whitney Mercilus, Benardrick McKinney), and veterans (Johnathan Joseph, Kareem Jackson, and Ryan Griffin) scattered everywhere to fill the gaps the superstars (Hopkins, J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, and Tyrann Mathieu) can’t.
History tells us that this window where we can have all of these players at our disposal is only a few years long at most, and then things will quickly begin the shed away. In 2019, Bill O’Brien doubled down on this window by trading the future to build the offense around Watson, but he bet too much on young players and rookies on defense to make up for what was lost when Joseph and Jackson were dumped. In 2020, those reckless gambles caught up with the team as the Super Bowl window was slammed shut on our fingers.
We still have a few old guys around (Mercilus, Brandon Dunn), some more that are no longer starters, but it’s most likely they will be gone by 2022, leaving Zach Cunningham and Justin Reid as the longest tenured Texans.
But, the Texans had special players. Exceptional players that defy these standard timelines. Players like J.J. Watt, DeAndre Hopkins, and Deshaun Watson. Not just good players, or great players, but generation-defining talents that could carry an entire team on their own. There is no excuse to trade one of these players willingly, and then enter such dire straits that the other two demand to have the exit door opened for them. What is the excuse for this?
Arguments can be made about Watt’s impact being negligible in 2020, but removing Watson and Hopkins from the mix kicks the rebuild into high gear. We were going to lose a lot of games in 2021 regardless of whether they were here or not, but our ability to become a competent NFL team on the other side of the tunnel has dulled.
Of course most teams try to keep their superstar players around for several championship windows, and the Texans were no exception until recently. Andre Johnson, Kareem Jackson, J.J. Watt, and Duane Brown are all the Hall of Fame caliber players we’ve had, and they’ve all had at least eight years to call Houston their home. That’s enough time for three Super Bowl pushes. Only Arian Foster was below that eight year time period, but running backs rarely last more than four years with their original team. Only did DeAndre Hopkins did the Texans buck this trend.
Regardless, a rebuild was imminent. The three year clock struck 2021, and with no championship, it was time to go back to the drawing board with a new coach and general manager. This, unfortunately, is the way most teams are structured. So, if the tanking was imminent with or without those star players, what’s the big deal?
Sometimes it’s feels more satisfying to think we’ll be happier on the other side of this mess if we take the huge rebuild pill all at once by getting rid of practically everyone, but there’s a reason they’re called franchise players. Even the Eagles held onto Fletcher Cox and Lane Johnson.
The quarterback nightmare this year has been especially brutal. It’s a quarterback’s league, and every team that made their respective conference’s championship game the past four seasons have designed offenses to compliment their quarterback. That’s what the Chiefs did with Patrick Mahomes, what the Ravens are doing with Lamar Jackson, and what the Bills are now successfully doing with Josh Allen. Literally every position on your team can have obnoxious turnover, but as long as you have a great quarterback and a supporting cast that plays to his strengths, you’ll probably be fine. It’s paradise for an NFL roster. It’s why four quarterbacks were taken in the first round in 2020 and five in 2021.
Every team that doesn’t have a franchise quarterback dreams of having one. They can single handedly change the outlook of an entire team. And now, because of the Texans fallout with Deshaun Watson that led to his trade demand, we will be on that list of those in search of a quarterback savior. Just a few months ago, it looked like we’d be as far away from those trenches as possible for the next several years, but the NFL never ceases to show how lucky you have to be to catch and hold onto a player of that caliber.
But the whole Deshaun Watson saga has taken an increasingly awful turn as the allegations of sexual assault against Watson became public. At this point, given the most recent Sports Illustrated piece on the matter, it seems very likely Watson will be suspended at least a handful of games in the 2021 season, meaning whichever teams are interested in giving up a haul of draft picks and players will hold their hand until those matters are resolved. It’s a truly ugly and saddening situation, tainting the image of a wildly popular public figure in the Houston area. Regardless of the outcome of these multiple damning allegations, Watson will eventually be traded, and it’s time to move on.
At the end of the 2020 season, our Super Bowl window had been slammed shut and the curtains shuttered around. In the shadowed grey inside, the rebuild began. Nick Caserio dove into his phone book and offered a contract to as many no-name cannon fodder players you can think of, maybe in an effort to cleanse the palate of the entire Texans fan base. The next era of the Houston Texans was here, and he wanted to make sure even those over the hill knew about it. The old core has been booted and replaced with numerous expendable players. They are meant to bridge us to the new core Caserio hopes to create through the next few drafts, molded in his own, Caserio-y image. But, like I said before, this process is fairly milquetoast in the NFL world.
The quarterback controversy of our nightmares, and the hiring process of the new regime being more akin to drunken bungling, than any standard hiring search, is what pushed everything over the edge. It ripped the heart out of Texans, and caused many to completely give up on the franchise. This couldn’t be how things ended, we couldn’t be starting from zero all over again! It was abrupt. It was exhausting to watch Houston’s second best team in franchise history explode into smithereens over the course of one calendar year.
The Texans have a history of throwing curveballs, though. Even in my defenses of the current state of affairs, I can’t pretend that how we got to this moment was in any way normal. In fact, with this organization, it’s not bad advice to keep a wary eye and always expect the unexpected. Many may look back on this moment and say, “Of course we fell apart and became the worst team in the NFL that fast. We’re the Texans, it’s what we do.”
So…is this what should be treated as normal? It’s unacceptable either way, even if the rebuild was bound to happen anyways, but, the fact we got here feels fitting of the Texans. Like this was preordained in some dysfunctional hellscape that the Houston Texans are manifested from.
So, how abnormal is it, really? The absurdity of it all is, admittedly, is pretty entertaining. It’s like we’re pushing some otherworldly boundary of weirdness, and at this point, I’m curious to see how far we can go. Maybe this is a step too far, but I’m ready to move on and start from zero. I want to see where in the world we’ll end up after starting from the bottom, again.
But who knows? With how fast players come and go in the NFL, and the frequency in which the spotlight is taken from established players to random hotshot rookies may mean we get going sooner rather than later. Even the Texans have had good draft classes and found diamonds in the rough. Maybe this rebuild will guide us down the stream towards the greatest quarterback in Texans history! Maybe it will lead us to the first Super Bowl!
I mean, who would have thought the Texans would go from [NAME REDACTED] to trading up in the first round, to 11-5 and then 10-6, and then to a full nuking of the roster in just five years? We’ve experienced the full menagerie of emotions with our football team in just that stretch of time, who’s to say we can’t launch ourselves back to stardom in half that time? We’ve done it before, we can do it again!
Of course, it’s just as possible that the Texans either miss their chance at franchise changing players or goof up their tenures in Houston like they did with their previous stars. But, the offseason is the offseason, it’s designed to breed optimism. Nobody really knows anything about these players until they take the field in September, so any positive or negative sentiments are just speculation.
It’s an ever-changing constantly rolling wave of interconnecting relationships and consequences that demands no rest and no looking back. Only forward, as all the coaches and general managers say. I often wonder why they utter that phrase so frequently…because of habitual coach speak, or an acknowledgment that time simply moves too fast for any sort of reflection? To players, you’re only as good as your last season, to coaches, you’re only as good as last year’s record, and to managers, you’re only as good as your last draft. These demands paint a scene of constant change and adaptation, meaning the only thing that truly remains the same about the Texans every year is their uniforms. How can we become such rabid fans for an organization that is constantly changing, making mistakes common and uncommon, and constructing a team we can’t be sure will even exist a couple years down the line?
Because it’s football, and it’s the Houston Texans. It’s always been like this, it’s always been this wild and unpredictable, it just found a few new flavors this year. It’s the same old Texans we love and hate, scream and cry about, and complain about online. It repulses and eventually scares away some, makes others comfortably numb, and enraptures the rest. Maybe I’ve just gone crazy and fell in love with the beast, but doesn’t that fit the theme? It’s the, “who could have expected things would work out like this?” For better or worse, we’re always chasing that feeling.
This is what will keep me going through this season. We’re going to be bad, and I’m okay with that. You have to find other characters this season to create entertainment. For me, it won’t exactly be David Culley, but the acknowledgement that football is crazy and something crazy will definitely happen to the Texans this year because of it. I don’t know if it will be Tyrod Taylor putting up an MVP season, or we lose every single game, or sixth round pick Roy Lopez turns into a stud…or maybe not. I don’t know, and that’s the point. Football is absurd, and it creates absurd stories, and that will keep me going. Reckless optimism does appear to be a side effect of this thought germ.
Maybe it’s time to let go of our inhibitions and lose our minds a little bit. Embrace the lunacy that is the Texans, and hope that all these late round picks turn into Pro-Bowlers. It’s not like anyone really knows what’s going on, anyways.
So, that’s what’s happened this year so far. We have lost all of our best players, signed a million mediocre players in free agency, and drafted a handful of boom-or-bust players that will do little to impact the win column in 2021. In other words: it’s the same old Texans.
Just absolute craziness from all fronts nonstop, which is pretty cool if you just think about it as a sports team trying to entertain us. If you don’t like it, don’t worry, it’ll be a whole new team in a couple years. But, for the time being, let’s see how this germ continues to infect our minds over time, maybe it’ll turn into something unholy new by September. Until then, I’m going to continue to listen to this ’90s pop song. It captures my feelings on the Texans perfectly, while being very catchy at the same time.
It feels like tremendous drama led us here, and no standard method of attacking the offseason would have led any team to as wild a result as this. It feels like only the Houston Texans could manifest this result into reality. Isn’t that beautiful? There is literally no team in the NFL like us. Yes, there are things we did wrong. Horribly wrong. But this moment is uniquely ours. The rebuild could have been spotted over the horizon, but no one could have expected the path that was taken to get us all here. The wild unspooling of the core of the Texans, the hilarious politics that led to the new regime, the protests, the stories, the third overall pick. There are questions that can’t be answered, will never be answered, and will continue to be nonsensical forever. It’s amazing, beautiful, and exciting at the same time. The season isn’t even close to starting, and I can’t wait to see what happens next with this team.
Follow me on Twitter: @FizzyJoe
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