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The Texans’ Theory That Good Character Translates To Good Percentages Is Bogus

It’s unfortunate, but the numbers don’t lie.

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Houston Texans quarterback Brian Hoyer (7) hands off to running back Arian Foster (23) during the second half of an NFL football game Thursday, Oct. 8, 2015, in Houston. (AP Photo/Patric Schneider)
AP Photo/Patric Schneider

It looks like Whitney Mercilus is following in the footsteps of Longhorn freshman Kris Boyd. On Sunday evening, Mercilus weighed in on the current state of the Houston Texans via Twitter. As CBS Houston’s Alex Del Barrio reported, Mercilus retweeted this on Sunday night:

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And you can hardly blame him after the rotten egg laid by the Houston Texans in their game against the Indianapolis Colts last week. This time around their JJ Watt-led defense—so hyped in the preseason—was shredded like room temperature cheddar on their own field by a trio of old dudes, one of whom almost died of natural causes earlier that week.

Halfback Frank Gore has more miles on him than a 1996 Camry, but the Texans made him look like 1996 Emmitt Smith. Virus-stricken Colts back-up QB Matt Hasselbeck, so old his rookie year came four years before the Texans even existed, crawled out of his almost actual literal deathbed, ripped out an IV, and proceeded to lead his team up and down the field like he was prime Johnny Unitas. Just to put the cherry on top, Texans cast-off Andre Johnson, by far the greatest offensive player in the history of the franchise, got sweet revenge on his former team, grabbing two touchdown passes. Up to that point the Texans had looked wise in letting him go. Johnson hadn’t done diddly in the Colts first four games. Bring on the Texans and suddenly AJ rounded into 2000s form.

Look it up: The Houston Texans are the third-worst franchise in NFL history. If you look a little deeper, there’s a strong case for the Texans as the absolute worst. Of the two teams with inferior winning percentages, one (Arizona) has made a Super Bowl, and the other (Tampa Bay) has won their sole appearance. The same goes for the two teams just ahead of the Texans: The Falcons have been to a single Super Bowl, and the Saints—yes, the Saints—triumphed in their lone appearance. The Texans? The Texans and the new Cleveland Browns are the only NFL teams to have never made it past the divisional round of the playoffs. Even Jacksonville and Detroit have pulled that off.

To their credit, I guess, Texans brass are aware of the team’s irrelevance and ineptitude, as head coach Bill O’Brien famously said on HBO’s behind-the-scenes reality show Hard Knocks this summer:

Let’s be honest with each other. This place has no respect in the league, just so you guys are all aware of that. This organization is 96-126. [Actually, it was 90-122 at the time and is now 91-126.] Thirty games below .500. Turn your TV on. Nobody talks about the Houston Texans because nobody thinks we’re gonna win. And the disrespect that they show our quarterbacks? I’m tired of that, too. Because both those kids can play. They just need a chance and one of them is going to get it. Enough is enough. Every player that is out there — all 90 players — are players that I want for the 2015 season. When you f—— guys show up to practice tomorrow, they better be ready to f—— go.

Stirring words, indeed. And about half of them true, right up until he started talking about how both Ryan Mallett and Brian Hoyer could play winning football at this level. So even the head coach acknowledges that the Texans are woeful, pitiful, forgettable. But why do the Texans, who sell out every single-game in their football-mad mid-major market, continue to perennially stink?

Well, there is one statistic in which the Texans lead the NFL. Unfortunately, this tally is not chalked up on the field.

The Texans lead the league in players not getting arrested. Only one Texan has been arrested over the last five years, and that player (rookie Brandon Ivory) was an undrafted free agent who never even made it to his first Texans training camp, because he was cut from the team a few days after his arrest for first-degree burglary charges in Alabama.

This is no accident. The choirboy Texans are very much the deliberate creation of owner Bob McNair and his braintrust.

Three years ago, McNair and general manager Rick Smith were riding high on the hog. As November rolled into December 2012, the Texans were coming off two overtime victories in five days and sported the NFL’s best record at 10-1.  Back then, McNair and Smith were keen evangelize the world with their message that Leo Durocher had been wrong. Nice guys didn’t always finish last.

McNair said there were three types of guys who were “unacceptable” as Texans draft picks: Those with a pattern of domestic violence (“People who do that are just a bully. Bullies are usually not courageous when they’re facing someone as strong as they are”); substance abusers (“That can become a habit, and they might bring that habit with them. I’m not talking about someone who smoked marijuana. I’m talking about a persistent user of drugs. We take them off the list”); and guys with no respect for authority (“We have a very strong chain of command. Our coaches don’t want to have a debate with a player every time they tell him to do something”).

Smith put in his two cents on that last theme:

Guys that are disciplined … those are the guys that when the pressure is on, they will execute. That’s how character gets translated onto the field in terms of helping you win. Is that the guys that typically do the right thing will do the right thing when the pressure’s on and you need them to go make a play.

The Texans take it farther than that. In examining prospects, they looked beyond the police blotter and into his NCAA locker room, training table, and dorm room. As the article notes:

For the Texans, the question is about more than legal trouble.

Does he practice hard?

Is he late for his treatments?

Does he follow through on academic commitments?

Is he compliant with NCAA rules?

“It just depends on how egregious the infractions are,” Smith said. “We have taken guys off our draft board because we don’t think they fit our organization or they won’t fit into our locker room or our team because of character issues, yeah.”

More often the Texans simply will move a player down on their board if he is a character risk. But Smith said no level of talent erases character considerations.

All of which is well and good if you are staffing an operating room, investment bank, or air traffic control tower, but the NFL is none of those things. The NFL is insane. These guys risk paralysis, crippled knees, and debilitating brain injuries play after play, year after year. Every player in the league knows they are potentially one violent collision away from being wheeled off on a cart and breathing through a tube for the rest of their life, that all those helmet-to-helmet hits might one day in the not-too-distant future leave them unable to recognize their wives and children.

How many well-adjusted young men want to risk that? Yes, the fact the Texans are able to stock a full roster every year shows that there are some, but as losing seasons plague the Texans, it appears ever more apparent that their policy of passing up the troubled (who are often also the hungriest) players is simply not working. That maybe cranky old Leo Durocher had been right after all.

This is not to say that the Texans should be out there trying to spring Aaron Hernandez and slot him in at tight end, or that they should dust off Ray Rice and line him up behind Mallett and Hoyer. But think about it: Former New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor enthusiastically waved most of McNair’s red flags through his whole career, and yet to call him a game-changing player sells him short. He didn’t just alter individual games, but the very way defensive football was played across the entire sport.

You can argue that JJ Watt and Reggie White prove that guys who don’t drink and snort cocaine the night before games can put up the same stats, and you would have a point. But if you only have room on your roster for guys like White and Watt, you are disqualifying your team from having its best chance of success on the field. That’s far more an indictment of the NFL than it is McNair and Smith, but it’s just a fact.

“For me, crazy as it seems, there is a real relationship between wild, reckless abandon off the field and being that way on the field,” Taylor said way back in 1987, at the peak of his Hall of Fame prowess.

The Texans would not have drafted Taylor, or would have cut him loose after a drug bust or two. They would have dropped Ray Lewis like the proverbial overheated spud. Brett Favre? A little too rough around the edges, even before he revealed himself to be a loose cannon. We’d rather have that fine Christian gentleman David Carr. Ndamukong Suh? No sirree. Jim Brown? No respecter of the chain of command. Marshawn Lynch? Mean to reporters.

Let’s roll back to that Chronicle article, the one written when the team was at its brief peak, 10-1, looking like Super Bowl champs. The next week they took care of business against the Titans. And then, the team’s wholesome image blossomed into full-on corn-pone swagger. That was when the Texans broke out high school style letterman jackets and bundled up in them on their road trip to Foxboro Stadium, where the New England Patriots awaited them. It was whimsical, and kind of adorable.

“I used to say before the season it feels like we’re on a college team,” gushed linebacker Connor Barwin a few days before kick-off. “Everybody gets along. We have so much fun. And this jacket, you feel like you’re on a high school team where it’s all about winning, it’s all about being around a group of guys. This jacket is just another symbol of that.”

Like a concealed pride of lions observing a few baby antelopes stray into their domain, the bemused Patriots yawned and licked their chops as they watched the Texans arrive at the stadium in their matching jackets. Said an anonymous Patriots player:

“They look cute. They look like a high school swim team.”

And they played like one. Their letterman jackets were no match for Bill Belichick and his Unabomber-meets-Sith Lord hoodie, as the Dark One’s team dismantled the Texans by a misleadingly close 42-14 margin. As Mike Freeman put it for CBS Sports:

Lettermen jackets? The Patriots showed the Texans what this sport really is: a brutal arena that is part chemistry lab and part punch to the face. The Texans made a nice statement of unity with their stately jackets but in doing so they forgot the NFL isn’t for lettermen. Or gentlemen. It’s for men. It’s for brutal, ruthless men who think lettermen jackets are for Friday nights and memories over a beer.

All told, since 2012, the Texans have gone 11-1 before the letterman jackets, and 14-25 since. (That’s one Texan Jinx theory. The other has it that the team has never been the same since Vanilla Ice performed at the halftime of their second and last win of the 2013 season. Since that concert, the Texans have racked up 10 wins and 25 losses.)

But they’ve only had that one arrest over that same span, so there is that. Bill O’Brien’s f-bombs aside the NFL doesn’t have a better group of guys to counter the league’s tarnished image. Think of the out-of-control Dallas Cowboys of the nineties, the Raiders of the seventies, and the institutional cheaters in New England.

The Texans are fundamentally at odds with all those teams, and it is a point of pride for some of the team’s fans that it has never had an Aaron Hernandez, Rae Carruth, or even a Greg Hardy. But by steering away from guys like that and instead investigating college GPAs and willingness to abide by NCAA regulations, it is becoming ever more clear that the Texans will never be truly competitive in this ruthless octagon.

Back at their peak in 2012, Tania Ganguli reported that “the Texans believe that good character correlates to a high winning percentage.”

Unfortunately, cruel facts indicate that in this NFL climate, good character correlates to nothing better than the bottom of the barrel. Football is a vicious sport played by rough men, many of whom have trouble staying out of trouble off of the field. You can’t run a successful team without bringing in a few guys with questionable character.

That’s just cold hard truth of a savage, brutal game. And to quote intermittently successful (if eternally quotable) former University of Colorado coach Dan Hawkins, if you can’t deal with that, “Go play intramurals, brother. Go play intramurals.”

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  • Jed

    this article has offensive overtones and undertones.

  • Alyssa Burgin

    Oh, come on. The same criteria apply to Coach Pop’s creation, the multi-championship-holding San Antonio Spurs. The Texans aren’t losing because they’re choirboys. They’re losing right now because they made some dumb decisions, particularly about what constitutes a winning quarterback (hint: it’s not Ryan Mallett). You don’t have to lower yourself to the level of the Dallas Cowboys to have a winning team. Ugh.