From the moment he became the de-facto general manager prior to the 2019 season, Bill O’Brien unfurled a rich tapestry of incompetence that is unrivaled in NFL history.
In less than two years, O’Brien, now the offensive coordinator at the University of Alabama, shipped off six draft picks across the 2020 and 2021 drafts, failed to receive even one first-round pick for DeAndre Hopkins despite his being under contract for several more seasons and even lost a 4th rounder in the deal, and also only received one third-round pick for Jadeveon Clowney… a pick he traded to the Raiders for cornerback Gareon Conley.
The Texans won’t have a first-round pick again this season, mirroring 2020, and their cap situation is, at best, grim.
But every Batman needs his Robin, and O’Brien’s was former Patriots chaplain Jack Easterby, who somehow managed to go from leading team prayers to executive vice president of football operations in far too small a window to have gained the necessary knowledge base for such a role.
If you’re looking for the seeds of discontent when it comes to Deshaun Watson and his desire to bolt the Texans, start there.
Then, pivot over to this…
Andre Johnson is the quietest of quiet superstars. He made his name during a time when you weren’t a successful wide receiver unless you were screaming about how great you were, yet there he was, quiet as the grave, letting his play do the talking, and, when Cortland Finnegan came over, his hands.
But I digress. This man, the only Texan thus far enshrined in the team’s Ring of Honor, and the likely first-ever Texan to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame; that man saw it fit to log onto Twitter and post THAT.
Until that tweet, Johnson had not made a personal tweet since 2009.
I don’t know where you, dear reader, come from, but where I come from, when a quiet person speaks, you listen.
Andre Johnson didn’t just publicly stand-up for Watson, completely unprovoked and out of the blue, he called out Easterby BY NAME, and called the Texans out for “wasting players careers”, and he ended his prose with the word “pathetic” followed by three exclamation points, which for Andre, seems like it would be three too many in just about any circumstance.
I’m not quite sure if the national audience, or even the rest of us, can fully appreciate or comprehend the gravity that single tweet holds, but that was the moment we all knew — this is bad.
We all know how we got here. The Texans have committed organizational malpractice over several years time and it’s all come to a head here.
When you draft a franchise quarterback, and that guy ends up actually being a franchise quarterback, the clock is officially ticking. You have to build teams around that QB, take advantage of his ‘cheap’ years and put as much talent and protection around him as you can and win as much as you can.
The Texans did the opposite. They fired most everyone involved with drafting Watson, including longtime general manager Rick Smith, who was on sabbatical due to his wife’s cancer diagnosis. Just to punch that one home, the Texans formally fired Smith six months into his sabbatical, one month before his wife Tiffany’s tragic passing, sending them scrambling to secure healthcare.
The Texans traded away his All-Pro left tackle, Duane Brown to Seattle after he made critical comments about the Texans and, specifically, owner Bob McNair, who made incendiary comments in regards to players kneeling during the anthem to bring awareness to social justice and police brutality towards black people.
When the Texans allowed O’Brien to assume the dual role of GM/head coach, he allowed several key free agents on offense and defense to depart, first attempting to replace them on the cheap, then panicking and sending all of their top picks in 2020 and 2021 to cover those losses.
The most incendiary trades being the Jadeveon Clowney trade, for whom the Texans received essentially nothing for, the Laremy Tunsil trade, for whom to Miami the Texans sent two first-rounders and a second-rounder despite his being in the same contract year quagmire that Clowney was in, and the DeAndre Hopkins trade.
The Hopkins trade was a shock to the outside world, but had been percolating for a while at NRG Park.
O’Brien, long-frustrated with Hopkins’ own frustrations, which were centered around the stagnancy and predictability of the team’s offense despite the presence of playmakers, rebuffed Hopkins’ request for an extension so early into his current deal and dealt the receiver to Arizona and its own young quarterback, Kyler Murray.
In exchange for Hopkins, a Top 2 receiver under contract for several more years and in the prime of his career, the Texans received… a second-round pick, a fourth-round pick, and… David Johnson, a running back of some repute years ago, but now an expensive body more known for the amount of bandages and gauze needed to cover his surgical wounds than yards he gained on the ground.
The Texans even managed to lose a fourth-round pick in the deal.
Circle back to the Tunsil deal and you’ll see a double-whammy of stupid. O’Brien, clearly unaware that he could negotiate a long-term extension with Tunsil as a condition of his acquisition, simply spent the farm on him and backed himself into a negotiating corner, with Tunsil, knowing the Texans would have to now give him whatever he wanted so as not to lose him in free agency, receiving a market-setting deal, further imperiling Houston’s cap issues moving forward.
O’Brien made stupid trades and he was bad at everything an executive is supposed to be at least competent in.
No two general managers are equal, and some are vastly better than others, but none of them ever get taken to the cleaners like O’Brien did.
But next to every O’Brien decision was an Easterby and McNair co-signature. It is impossible for O’Brien to do any of this damage without the consent of those two guys, neither of whom are qualified and competent enough to hold their positions.
McNair is simply the beneficiary of his father’s investment and the age-old tradition of succession. Where his father managed to be out of the spotlight for any reason, minus his final year on Earth, Cal McNair has managed to be in the spotlight quite a bit and never for a good reason.
Since the day Colin Kaepernick took a knee in silent, peaceful protest of police brutality and social injustice for black people in this country, the Texans and their owners have found themselves at odds with the push for social justice and raised awareness, only kowtowing to the pressure of abiding it when the league as a whole did.
From the late McNair’s problematic analogy of not letting prisoners run the prison in regards to players kneeling, to the treatment of their former GM Rick Smith, a black man and loyal executive who had cultivated every successful team up to that point in franchise history and had drafted both Watson and JJ Watt, the Texans’ attitude has been incredibly problematic.
Watson, their young superstar, has been watching.
Not only has this team deconstructed itself to the point where Watson has been subjected to 174 sacks in four seasons, they have also allowed their socially-conscious star to see obvious chasms in the organization’s treatment of minorities.
When McNair met with Watson prior to the commencement of their GM and head coaching search, McNair asked Watson to be a part of the process and requested a list from Watson of candidates that he and his teammates would like to see interviewed or investigated.
We all know Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bienemy was on that list, as was 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh. The rest of the list’s contents remain between them for now, but there was an emphasis put on figures who would bring accountability, excellence, and discipline into the locker room.
McNair took that list and spoke to none of those people.
Bienemy eventually received an interview, but only after every other team with a vacancy did and only once the Chiefs’ bye week was over, necessitating a delay in their process.
When the Texans did finally make a hire, it wasn’t a hotshot coordinator from KC or Buffalo or Baltimore. It was the Ravens’ passing game coordinator and assistant head coach, 65-year-old David Culley.
I don’t know a lot about Culley. I know he’s been an assistant, though never a coordinator, in the NFL since 1994 and worked with Andy Reid for 16 years between Philadelphia and Kansas City. I also know he was the wide receivers coach in KC the year his receivers failed to catch a single touchdown the entire season, and that he oversaw the Ravens passing game this past season, which ranked dead last in the NFL.
Coaches like Andy Reid and John Harbaugh swear by him; as do players across the league.
I also know that he’s the only black man hired during this coaching cycle, which is great for the Texans, and for the city of Houston, which now sees all three of its major league franchises being coached or managed by a black man.
But look closer and it gets a bit more nefarious.
Why is Dusty Baker the Astros’ manager? It should be because he’s a proven winner with an innate ability to relate to players, even as he nears his mid-70s.
But really, it’s because the team was embroiled in a cheating scandal that threatened to derail the franchise and hardly anyone wanted to touch the job after the firing of AJ Hinch.
Why is Stephen Silas the Rockets’ head coach? It should be because he’s a 19-year NBA assistant coming from a strong program in Dallas.
But really, it’s because the owner wanted Jeff Van Gundy, a former Rockets coach who has been out coaching since Houston fired him in 2007, while James Harden and Russell Westbrook wanted Ty Lue. Their compromise was Silas and then Harden and Westbrook immediately demanded trades and set off a rebuild.
Why is Culley the Texans’ head coach? Because no one else wanted that job.
These are the types of roles black men get when they finally do break in to these jobs. They don’t get handed the Brooklyn Nets, like Steve Nash did, they get the Rockets or the Knicks or the Hawks.
Some do get through, like Jason Kidd or Dave Roberts. But the system, by-and-large, is geared against people of color getting these prestigious jobs.
That is systemic racism. It’s not saying the teams themselves are racist, but it certainly means that when a team is looking to take that next step, they’re looking at Josh McDaniels, or Adam Gase, or Lane Kiffin.
Watson, while still giving the Texans the benefit of the doubt, I’m sure hoped not just to see minority candidates in these vital roles, but to simply not be lied to.
He didn’t care that Nick Caserio got the GM job, he cares that he was lied to about the process and that he wasn’t kept in the loop. I’m sure Watson is happy for David Culley, but I’m also sure he has no plans to play for him.
Ultimately, it may very well come to pass that Watson has no other choice but to reconcile with his current team.
Back in 1992, just as the Rockets were wrapping up a miserable 42–40 campaign that saw them fire their coach 52 games into the season and miss the playoffs for the first time since the early 1980s, their own star, Hakeem Olajuwon, was fed up and demanded a trade.
Like Watson, Olajuwon was essentially carrying the franchise by himself. Every year, the team would reach the playoffs and, ever year, the team would get bounced out earlier and faster. It seemed like his peak years were being wasted in an organization that didn’t value winning, or its franchise star’s desire to win.
Near the end of the season, Olajuwon, locked in a contract dispute and coming off of a team-induced suspension for what the organization claimed was a fake hamstring injury by Olajuwon, demanded a trade.
If not for the economics of the game at that time, it’s likely Olajuwon spends his prime years in LA, or Miami, or Portland, or any number of teams that called about him.
But the offers weren’t up to snuff, most teams couldn’t fit his current salary, much less the raise he requested, under their cap, and so the two sides were left with only one option — reconcile.
They did, though I’m sure the timely selling of the franchise from Charlie Thomas to Leslie Alexander just a year later certainly helped further smooth things over.
Unlike today’s NBA where a star simply needs to say ‘trade me’ and he typically gets to go when he wants and where he wants, the NFL is very different. There is no leverage for players unless they’re in a contract year, and even then, it’s not assured you won’t lose a year of your career holding out.
Watson, like Hakeem, is locked into a very expensive contract and is rightfully worth on the trade market what most teams refuse to surrender.
The Texans are such a bad spot for him, he’s actually pining for the Jets, of all teams.
But the reality is, unless the Texans lower their asking price or another team says ‘screw it’ and deals the house, the reality of trading Watson is about as real as Hakeem in a Lakers jersey.
The odds still sit more in the ‘reconcile’ camp than they do the ‘trade a franchise quarterback before he even hits his prime’ camp.
How do the Texans bring Watson back into the fold? First, get in a room with him, face-to-face, and make amends for the many transgressions that have taken place in his four years in Houston.
Every team with a franchise star at QB has one job — make him happy. That’s the game! Make that guy deliriously happy.
Paying him is a great start, but players want to win and Deshaun Watson, a player likely headed for a Hall of Fame career, deserves to be playing for Super Bowls, not AFC South titles.
Make a plan with him, lay it out, be transparent, and give him the hope he needs to stay engaged and the help he needs to stay upright.
The Texans must own their mistakes. They can’t foul up anymore than they already have.
If the Texans do manage to trade Watson, rest assured, the franchise’s future is in deep peril.
I would urge the loyal fans in Houston to find their enjoyment elsewhere. Switch allegiances, or just observe the sport as an unaffiliated fan. Give other franchises and sports your hard-earned time and money and let the McNairs reap what their collective incompetence has sown.
It’s clear, to this point, that they value Jack Easterby over the city, their fans, their quarterback and everyone else. Let him take snaps under center. It’ll be just as bountiful as his tenure as executive vp, I assure you.
The Texans were given a roadmap to prosperity with Watson and managed to compress that wide-open map to a single, narrow road that they must now follow to a tee or face certain mass indifference in the fourth-largest city in the United States.