By Breven Miller
June 9, 2021
Breven is a third-year undergraduate student at Bowling Green State University. Originally from Jackson Township, Ohio, Breven is a Sport Management major with a minor in Journalism. His interests lie in all sport, but he has a particular passion for football and soccer.
The Houston Texans were a team poised to win for years to come, boasting a core of talented players that they could build around to make a legitimately great roster.
Now they’re in complete disarray.
Let’s go back to late 2013 for a minute. The Texans had just finished one of the worst, if not the worst, season in the team’s history, going 2-14. They fired head coach Gary Kubiak mid-season, and interim head coach Wade Phillips wasn’t able to do much more than Kubiak (“Houston Texans franchise,” 2021) .
Changes needed to be made, and indeed change happened. In January 2014, the Texans announced Bill O’Brien as their next head coach. O’Brien was coming off of his second year at Penn State, where he led Penn State to a 7-5 record as their head coach. Before that, he started his NFL career in New England as the Patriots’ offensive coordinator during the 2011 season (Bill O’Brien, 2021).
Despite this apparent lack of experience, O’Brien did quite well in his first two seasons with the team. He made a 2-14 team into a 9-7 team for two consecutive seasons. Let’s not forget though that this was a team that still had Arian Foster, JJ Watt, Andre Johnson, and DeAndre Hopkins under contract. It’s not like O’Brien really solved the main problem in Houston either: They desperately needed a franchise quarterback.
Houston parted ways with Matt Schaub, their previous “franchise” quarterback, after the aforementioned 2-14 season. In O’Brien’s first two seasons, six quarterbacks started at least one game: Ryan Fitzpatrick (12 games), Brian Hoyer (9 games), Ryan Mallett (6 games), Case Keenum (2 games), T.J. Yates (2 games), and Brandon Weeden (1 game). That’s not the most inspiring list of names, but the results were okay (“Houston Texans franchise,” 2021).
In the 2015 season, the Texans somehow made the playoffs, despite their aforementioned 9-7 record. They won the AFC South though, meaning they won the right to play the Kansas City Chiefs in the wild card round. These weren’t the same Chiefs we see today, but they were still far better than the Texans, winning 30-0 (“Houston Texans franchise,” 2021) .
Somehow though, starting four quarterbacks in one season wasn’t enough of a low point for the Texans. Enter Brock Osweiler.
The offseason preceding the 2016 season saw one of the most infamous transactions in Texans (and maybe NFL) history happen. For $72 million, the Texans gained the services of quarterback Brock Osweiler for four years. Osweiler had just stepped in as the backup to Peyton Manning for a little more than seven games in Denver and led the Broncos to the playoffs in 2015. He even won Super Bowl 50, but he was on the bench while Manning returned from injury and worked his magic (Chassen, 2016). Despite Osweiler’s lack of experience, the Texans surely thought their quarterback woes would finally end. They couldn’t have been more wrong.
Osweiler failed to impress in his first season with Houston. He only threw 15 touchdown passes while throwing 16 interceptions. The offense ranked 28th in the NFL for points scored and 29th for yardage gained.
The team again made the playoffs that season, but only because of their stellar defense. In fact, they even won a playoff game that season! However, they beat an Oakland Raiders team who had seen their franchise quarterback, Derek Carr, get injured late in the season. The Raiders were forced to start Connor Cook instead, who threw three interceptions en route to a 27-14 Oakland loss. Houston was put in their place the following week when they were humbled by the New England Patriots, 34-16 (“Houston Texans franchise,” 2021) .
That game against the Patriots would prove to be Osweiler’s last game in Houston. In the offseason, Osweiler was traded to the Cleveland Browns in what amounted to a salary dump deal for the Texans. Houston gave away Osweiler, a 2017 sixth-round pick, and a 2018 second-round pick for the Browns’ 2017 fourth-round pick (Schefter, 2017).
The Osweiler deal also set up another franchise-altering move for the Texans. They gave the Browns their 2018 first-round pick to move up in the 2017 draft and select Deshaun Watson (Brinson, 2017).
That seemed to be the beginning of the “win-now” mentality for the Texans. They were trading away draft capital quickly and therefore needed to win since they weren’t going to be able to acquire reliable young talent in the near future. Winning didn’t happen much in 2017 though. To be fair, their 4-12 record in this season was wholly a result of Watson’s ACL tearing in practice midseason. Watson went 3-3 over the first six weeks of the 2017 season, while the combination of Tom Savage and T.J. Yates won one game between them in weeks 8-17 (“Houston Texans franchise,” 2021) .
The worst part about the losing season for the Texans though was that they wouldn’t get to take advantage of it. Usually when a team loses their quarterback or another key player that early in a season, they’re able to look to the draft and use their bad season to improve a likely already good roster. However, the Texans traded away their 2018 first and second-round picks. They would go into the 2018 season with largely the same squad as the year before.
The following are the two best years of Bill O’Brien’s tenure as the Houston Texans’ head coach. The 2018 team was probably the best team O’Brien had while in charge. The defense forced the second-most turnovers in the league and the offense wasn’t bad, ranking 11th in points scored and 15th in yardage. Even with this team, which boasted six Pro Bowlers, the Texans couldn’t make it past the wild card round. Even worse, they lost to their division rivals, the Indianapolis Colts (“Houston Texans franchise,” 2021).
It was after this season that more change was sought within the Texans organization. General Manager Brian Gaine was fired in June 2019 and his duties for the 2019-20 season were performed by Bill O’Brien, who was later officially named general manager (Starr, 2020). At this moment, alarm bells should’ve started ringing. However, the mood stayed positive surrounding the Texans. In fairness, the media was still fawning over Watson, who was now clearly the future of the franchise, and optimistic about the rest of the Texans’ squad. In a video from the summer of 2019, Chris Simms of NBC Sports spoke highly of the Texans, saying that the only hesitancy for him when it came to predicting their possible success was how tough their division was (NBC Sports, 2019). And truthfully, Simms and others weren’t inherently wrong in saying things like this. But a wrong move at the general manager position can cost a team everything, and that’s why more attention should have been given to this topic.
In 2019, the Texans, yet again, made the playoffs, though this season the defense dropped off. They went from 4th in points allowed in 2018 to 19th in 2019, and from 12th in yards allowed to 28th. As a result, they were able to beat the offensively-challenged Buffalo Bills in the first round of the playoffs, before blowing an enormous 24-0 lead to the Kansas City Chiefs, who never looked back after scoring 28 unanswered points in the second quarter (“Houston Texans franchise,” 2021) .
The 2019 season won’t be remembered for Houston’s performance on the field, though. It will be remembered largely for the trades made by new GM Bill O’Brien. He started by trading away 2014 #1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney. The South Carolina stud was injury-prone throughout his first few years in Houston but picked up form once he was healthy. Clowney had been to three straight Pro Bowls before being traded, but he and the Texans couldn’t agree on a contract extension. He was traded to the Seattle Seahawks for Jacob Martin, Barkevious Mingo, and a 2020 third-round pick that was traded for Gareon Conley (Weston, 2020). Those three players have started a combined eight games for the Texans, and Mingo now plays for the Chicago Bears.
Somehow, this wasn’t even the worst trade the Texans made around this time. It was clear that Deshaun Watson needed some better pass protection, so O’Brien went looking for a new left tackle. He found Laremy Tunsil in his search, who was playing for the Miami Dolphins at the time. O’Brien decided to trade for Tunsil in a deal that looked like this (Kasabian, 2019):
Houston receives: OT Laremy Tunsil, WR Kenny Stills, 2020 fourth-round pick, 2021 sixth-round pick.
Miami receives: CB Johnson Bademosi, OT Julie’n Davenport, 2020 first-round pick, 2021 first-round pick, 2021 second-round pick.
The players in this deal aren’t what’s concerning. Tunsil is a quality tackle and has done well for the Texans, while Stills, Bademosi, and Davenport have all failed to make a really significant impact for their new teams (Bademosi now plays in New Orleans). What’s bothersome in this deal is the lost draft capital. Houston lost three very high value picks for two low value picks and a good left tackle. This move screams “win-now”, and even at that it’s reckless at best. That doesn’t apply to the next trade, which happened prior to the 2020 season. The best word for that one might be something along the lines of franchise-damning.
The Houston Texans had put themselves into “draft hell,” lacking a pick in 2020 that landed within the top 50. Bill O’Brien realized this but dealt with the problem in quite possibly the worst way possible. Wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who led the team in receiving yards from 2014 to 2019, was traded in March 2020 to the Arizona Cardinals. The deal went as follows (Rapp, 2020):
Arizona receives: WR DeAndre Hopkins, 2020 fourth-round pick.
Houston receives: RB David Johnson, 2020 second-round pick, 2021 fourth-round pick.
If the alarm bells aren’t ringing by now, something’s gone haywire. Let’s establish that DeAndre Hopkins was (and still is) one of the best, if not the best, wide receiver in the NFL at this point. For the sake of this examination, we’ll say the fourth-round picks cancel each other out, so Hopkins was traded for an injury-prone, out of favor running back and a second-round pick. Most people would say this was a terrible deal for the Texans, and yet the media weren’t thinking that a drop in form was on the cards. In the words of NBC Sports’ Mike Florio, “I think they’re building something, I think (Watson) is getting better every year, I think (Watson) is being overlooked, I think the Texans, even though they keep finding a way to get back to the playoffs, continue to be overlooked,” (NBC Sports, 2020). Deshaun Watson would carry the squad and everything would be alright, right? Well, not quite.
The 2020 season was the culmination of years of bad trades, bad signings, and overall ineptitude by whomever was running the Houston Texans, be it Bill O’Brien or someone else. The 2020 Texans went 4-12, this time with a full season of Deshaun Watson. 2020 saw the end of the Bill O’Brien era, as he was fired from both his head coach and general manager roles in October (Shook, 2020). Romeo Crennell took over the head coaching position and the GM role remained vacant until the following offseason. The David Johnson project didn’t work, as the Texans ranked 32nd out of 32 teams in both rushing yards and yards per carry (“Houston Texans franchise,” 2021) . But even this was only the beginning of the inevitable end.
After the dismal 2020 season, a video circulated around the NFL world that only added to the negativity surrounding the Texans. It wasn’t known then, but it would seemingly be the last clip we saw of Houston legend JJ Watt in a Texans jersey.
Watt approached the front office after the season and expressed his interest in leaving the organization. The Texans obliged, releasing Watt and allowing him to explore the free agent market. Trading Watt would have been harsh, but surely if you’re an organization who traded away DeAndre Hopkins, you fashion a trade for Watt. This seems like a particularly puzzling move given that Houston is still in the aforementioned “draft hell”, as they are without their first round pick for the 2021 draft. The lack of draft picks wouldn’t be a massive issue if the Texans weren’t now rebuilding. And it certainly would be a much smaller issue if Deshaun Watson wanted to stay with the Texans.
In a final gut punch to end the Bill O’Brien era, the firing of O’Brien led to the hiring of Nick Caserio, who had previously been tipped for the job before O’Brien was initially hired. Quarterback Deshaun Watson, who realistically is all the franchise has left at this point, was and is unhappy with the hire and now wants out. Watson’s wish to be traded or released has not yet been granted, with the Texans adamant that Watson will not only remain with the organization but will play as well. Watson has no intention of doing either of these things and is apparently willing to sit out games if he stays in Houston (Holleran, 2021).
So now the Texans find themselves at the point of no return. They either accept their inevitable rebuild now, taking an NFL record $51.2 million cap hit while gaining invaluable draft capital by trading Watson, or they keep themselves in purgatory, unable to fully rebuild via the draft while holding onto an asset that will very likely yield no returns. And all the while, the warning signs were there. Signing Brock Osweiler for $72 million and dumping his salary the next offseason (while losing draft capital), appointing the head coach who has no experience as an executive to be the general manager of the franchise, trading two first-round picks and a second-round pick for what amounted to one impactful player, and trading one of the best wide receivers in recent memory for pennies on the dollar. Houston had all of these instances of misused assets and overall mismanagement, and yet the media were too caught up in the brilliance of the Texans’ stars to care. The Houston Texans seemed to go from hero to zero in the blink of an eye. In reality, we should’ve seen this coming a long time ago.
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