The issues at the Houston Texans can be neatly summed up by Cal McNair’s press conference to introduce the team’s new general manager, Nick Caserio.
Jack. Nick. 99. 4. Throughout the mess, the CEO of the franchise and the son of the late owner, Bob McNair, rattled off the people most important to the success of the franchise: Jack Easterby, the executive vice president of football operations; Caserio, the new GM; JJ Watt, “99”, the team’s star defensive player; Deshaun Watson, “4”, the team’s quarterback. McNair was trying to show a united front. Words like “collaborative” and “team” and “culture” were chucked around. But it only served to show the divide: The men in suits were friends – Nick and Jack. The players in uniform were numbers.
Deshaun Watson is having none of it. He is ready to take a bat to the Texans power structure, to force a trade out of Houston, and to help redefine owner-front office-player dynamics across the NFL.
Prior to the Caserio hire, Watson was assured he would have input into the future direction of the team, according to a recent report from ESPN. He would get to sit in on GM and head coaching interviews. The team valued his input.
Or not. “Reports about Deshaun Watson’s unhappiness with @HoustonTexans are accurate,” Chris Mortensen reported. “Sources close to the QB say he is still angry about team’s insensitivity to social justice, including hiring practices, after the franchise failed to interview Chiefs OC Eric Bienemy this past week.”
Watson was able to overlook the decision to trade away Jadveon Clowney. He was incensed by the move to deal DeAndre Hopkins for a heap of nothing last offseason, though not enough to demand a trade. He stood by as former head coach and GM Bill O’Brien torched everything around him on his way out the building – stripping the franchise of much-needed assets. He sat out the ensuing Game of Thrones scenario that saw a former team pastor, Easterby, emerge as the franchise’s almighty. But that former preacher hiring his friend to help run the team, and that duo reneging on Watson’s request, has put the quarterback’s future in doubt.
What we’re seeing in Houston is a series of culture wars. The shut-up-and-play traditional model v the ‘”It’s my career, I’m the talent, I want more control” attitude that has risen in a post-LeBron landscape. It’s competence v incompetence. It’s a young black athlete during a moment of racial reckoning across the country taking a swing at the all-white hierarchy. Interview all the candidates, Watson is saying. Hire the best person for the job, not the pastor’s buddy (funny, that). Govern by competency, not by relationships or religion.
Watson wanted the team to interview Chiefs’ offensive coordinator Eric Bienemy. The Texans didn’t even request an interview with Bienemy. By the time they finally got around to acknowledging Watson’s request, once his ire had made its way outside the building, it was too late: the window for requesting formal interviews with coaches still in the playoffs had passed. McNair and his friends botched it.
That Bienemy is a black coach who has been overlooked for head coaching gigs for far too long clearly bothers Watson. In a period of racial reckoning across the country, Watson wanted to use his voice and leverage to empower a black candidate. He wanted to have his say. The Texans silenced him.
You can disagree with Watson if you like. The player should play. The coach should coach. The GM should GM. And the owner gets to pick them all. You could point to the power dynamics of the sport’s best dynasties. Most ran top-down. The player was subservient to the coach/GM.
But times are changing. Star quarterbacks are looking at the player empowerment movement in the NBA and deciding they want a piece of the action. Not the nonstop movement. Not even the super-team building (a true hard salary cap disincentivizes that). But to be partners with the decision-makers, not the help. To work with management, not fall in line with the rest of the huddle. The pressure is different; shouldn’t the privileges?
The coach-quarterback relationship should be more of a collaboration than an autocracy – at least when the team is assured it has a great quarterback on its hands.
And Watson is indeed great. That’s important to note. Even in a brutal year, Watson threw for 33 touchdowns and nearly 5,000 yards. And this wasn’t a case of a quarterback juicing his stats on a bad team in garbage time: Watson finished fifth in DYAR, a measure of a quarterback’s overall value to his team with garbage time stripped out. It represents only the second time in 12 years that a quarterback has finished top-five in DYAR and not led his team to the playoffs.
Flatly: no quarterback has done more with less.
And the outlook is bad. Houston’s cap sheet is a mess. The asset cupboard has been stripped bare by a string of ill-conceived trades. Heading into 2021, the Texans have the bleakest situation in the league: they’re paying for a perennial contender but are fielding a team that stinks. The culture stinks. The effort stinks. And there is little in the way of talent on either side of the ball, or the ability to attract talent without compromising the few encouraging pieces already on the roster.
Watson could be forgiven for looking at the other top young quarterbacks in the league and thinking, really? Give me a decent team and I’d be in the MVP discussion. Give me a good team and I’d be a cultural phenomenon. Give me a solid, well-run organization and maybe I could be the NFL’s answer to Michael Jordan after all.
Moving won’t be easy for Watson. The price will be steep. Four first-round picks has been the mooted figure. But Watson holds some of the cards: his contract has a no-trade clause. Houston cannot move him anywhere without him waiving that clause in order to facilitate a deal, an unusual amount of power for a young player.
The destinations are obvious. All the quarterback-needy teams will be interested, as will a bunch of the non-needy teams. Watson’s contract is structured in such a way that puts almost all of the salary cap liability on Houston in 2021, regardless of whether he’s on the team or not. With some creative accounting, any team in the league will be able to add Watson this offseason and then reconfigure their books heading into 2022. Most teams in the league should be interested given Watson’s talent, age, and the price-tag.
Of all the destinations, Miami remains the most logical fit. Over the past two seasons, Miami’s decision-makers have orchestrated a quality rebuild. They tore the roster down, rebuilt it in the image of head coach Brian Flores, and turned a tanktastic 2019 into a 10-6 record in 2021 while chopping and changing quarterbacks. The Dolphins also remain one of only two teams in the league, at the time of writing, with a minority general manager and head coach. In Washington, Ron Rivera holds both positions for now.
The Dolphins have two first-round picks in the upcoming draft. If they add Tua Tagovailoa to the deal, their first-round pick from a year ago, that’s essentially three picks. Tack on a 2022 first-round pick and there are your four picks, while only compromising two future draft classes.
For a player of Watson’s caliber, that’s a tiny asking price. Such players come around once in a lifetime. The Texans have blown it. Now it’s up to the Dolphins to take advantage, and in doing so, redefine the league’s current power-structures. Both practically and visually.