Stephanie Stradley (@StephStradley on Twitter) is one of many people who wanted NFL football in Houston to be successful when it came back into town. She has been involved in many fan communities over two decades of Houston Texans football. She agreed to sit down with us to discuss the Jack Easterby situation and what the aftermath might look like.
A lot of the vitriol around Jack Easterby stems from those two Sports Illustrated articles. How fair did you find the reporting in those pieces? Do you think they resonated inside NRG?
It’s a difficult story because there’s a lot of viewpoints and to some degree, it is a story more about feelings than football. But also football. Apologies if this seems too nice or mean or earnest or wordy or paternalistic but too whatever, there’s no ideal way to talk about it that satisfies everyone’s taste and keeps humanity at its center.
Just structurally, getting the full truth in football is usually difficult. Basic agreed principles are: Win as a team, lose as a team, be a pro, have your teammate’s back and don’t throw your teammates under the bus, do your job, make it easier for others to do their jobs, treat others as adults, don’t be a distraction or make it about yourself. NFL football is the highest level, players risk everything and deserve the best support and coaching, and football jobs are hard to get and keep.
None of that is controversial but it can be if people feel like this code has been broken by people on the team. To over-generalize, issues people had with Jack Easterby, to me, had to do with their interactions with him involving these football professionalism touchstones. Things some people experienced and others did not, depending on who they were.
Communication discipline is essential for winning. Which makes it hard to get the full truth. I am not a traditional journalist, and I am not the kind of fan blogger looking for scoops but sometimes when team things are not aligned between people on a team, it is hard not to know bad or odd things. Before the SI articles, there were already a lot of unorthodox football moves that were not widely understood and have already discussed beyond what is healthy. Some involving Jack, and some not, and some we didn’t find out more information about until later.
And the team explanations to outsiders were poor to extremely insulting. They were heard as excuses and finger pointing, because sometimes they were. In a very untrusted environment, it can be more difficult to be heard as you intend, separate what is fact, what is viewpoint, what is gossip, what is plain old lies. Football leaders face on-field and off-field challenges regularly and how they professionally and appropriately explain and justify them to the people they want to support them is just part of the job.
The Texans had struggled with this because some of the choices were so absurd with timing or design or personnel choice or appearing to be self-serving, there is nobody on the planet who could explain what they were doing in a rational way. They seemed to be living in a magical thinking bubble about how others might react to their words and decisions.
The Sports Illustrated articles were the first national reporting on at least some viewpoints of the whys. Local radio people had already been discussing some of these things. Experienced reporters wrote the SI piece. They noted the double-digit number of sources. Stories like that are fact checked, are hard to get precisely right when not everyone is talking, and are vetted by lawyers.
The sources were anonymous. Anonymous sourcing is never ideal but is common in environments where employees fear retaliation and difficult discussions are not rewarded. When a story like that leaks so publicly and some of it seemed overly personal, there are any number of ways to deal with it. My inclination was that if Houston football people were willing to break football trust and code and talk to reporters about it for publication, the situation must be alarming. To the people at the center of the criticism, it is also alarming and a violation of football code and trust.
That culturally was not this team’s norm or any healthy team’s norm. It’s a violation of prime football code but sometimes, as a last resort, people feel the need to whistle blow if they can’t feel heard any other way and think it is necessary for winning. One way some people associated with the team handled things was trying to be professional, just not talk about the subject matter to people outside the building either positively or negatively or just say it is above their pay grade.
The Texans main response was to deny it, and then respond that Jack Easterby was trusted by ownership, trust is important, and if more trust needs to be built inside the building, it will be. Everyone had their own views of what this story meant. And how to deal with it. As the piece suggested, some people, including people who liked Jack Easterby, just did not want him to have anything to do with football or business leadership because they found some of his words and work to be off-putting or counterproductive to winning. Not just a football disagreement.
The team had been flailing without a traditional GM structure, and then Easterby was named in that position without a lot of trusted football people inside or outside the building understanding that at all. To others, these articles were trying to warn Texans owner Cal McNair of some things that they saw but he apparently did not see. And how it was hurting the entire organization.
Jack Easterby was extremely supportive of some of the people in the Texans community, and everyone had their own impressions of him. That he wasn’t widely trusted in Houston and supported for someone with an unusual background was always going to be a problem, no matter who the person was who held that role.
The way that Nick Caserio was hired as GM was also unorthodox. Publicly, the Texans discussed the process they were using and then did something completely different, said trust us, and said J.J. Watt and Deshaun Watson were aligned with what was happening, which clearly was not true.
Caserio had a good reputation as a draft person and roster builder but not much experience in talking to directly to a fanbase that had earned trust issues with how the team had been handling important things. Most of the 2021 leadership team did not have a lot of experience in communicating in the bigger roles they were in, and some had very limited understanding of local concerns.
After Nick Caserio was hired, and Easterby was given a long term expensive contract and a vote of confidence by ownership and GM, I actively looked to see if there was a way that the Texans community as a whole would be fine with him cemented in what was described as a more limited role but not defined at all.
My 2021 was trying to see if the Texans could make things healthier with the entirety of their fanbase. Sometimes when looking at an issue, I wonder what I would do if I were asked to counsel on it. It was hard to navigate because as I discovered, there was not a lot of shared realities or connection with the language people were using or what people’s jobs were. And well, there was a lot of weird stuff going on in 2021.
The way the team tried to deal with it was to say Jack Easterby was out of personnel choices, which really did not deal with the many of the fair and unfair concerns fans had based on the information they could see publicly. That year felt to me like quicksand, where the harder people worked and tried, the worse it got. It’s not to say everything was bad but so many of the bad things tended to distract from any good.
Anyway, at some point, I decided I couldn’t blog about it and be helpful to all the people working so hard, so I just didn’t. It’s horrific to work hard at something for others that gets so little positive feedback. Ultimately, I just asked for things to be healthier between people. That if people don’t have a healthy way to be heard, they will pick unhealthy ways.
The fairest view of things was not everything was Jack Easterby’s fault, the team was dealing with some odd things, and his departure does not fix all that concerns people, but he needed to go. For his sake and everyone’s.
Reports have had Easterby’s influence waning in recent months. Are these reports accurate? If this is true, why do you think they made this move now instead of the end of the season or at the end of his contract?
It was made clear to media members over the summer that “Jack no longer is going to be a problem.” I figured something was in the works, and that there were likely reasons it was delayed, but I was going to wait and see. There were many times where it would have been beneficial to everyone for him to leave but it didn’t happen.
In attending 2022 camp, his role was visibly diminished, and in the most obvious way, some of the counterproductive team choices he made in trying to interact and control the media were diminished. I have no idea about why now versus in the summer when many football job transitions happen. Ultimately, I care less about that and more about the future.
It has been speculated that he was responsible for Josh McCown being a prominent candidate. Do you find this reporting accurate? If so, how do you see his exit affecting the coaching situation long-term?
I’ve seen reporters write this and do not have any independent observations. I have no idea what the future holds for this team other than I believe they are committed to Nick Caserio.
How do you see this affecting the day to day operations moving forward? Do you foresee them making any changes down the road with regards to management? Could they possibly add a president of football operations or something like that down the road?
I think they had mentally moved on from Easterby since this summer. My impression is that they care less about the titles than some do.
I know you care deeply about the ties between the team and fan base and the community at large. Considering everything that has happened, do you see the team’s recent efforts a move in the right direction? As a fan and advocate for fans, what else would you like to see them do from here?
Fans are people, have their own views on football and how they expect to be treated, and as people have different things that motivate them. Things that are entry and exit points. This move might help with some but there are others who still do not feel like they are being heard about things that are rightfully valuable to their football fandom.
There’s the view winning fixes everything, and it does for some people, but you can find plenty of examples where that is not true. Everybody has their own biases on what they like in sport, and I sometimes think the team as a whole and the fans are not hearing each other very well and haven’t for a long time. It is common for people to see different realities in the modern world where we have false familiarity and snapshots of people’s thinking.
I want what lots of people inside and outside the building want, a true and authentic connection between the team and ALL its fans and potential fans. I can’t count how many conversations I’ve had about this with people of different backgrounds. It’s unavoidable just because of my accidental and mostly lovely history with the Houston sports community. Largely productive conversations. It’s the same wish J.J. Watt had his final year: Wanting to be on the same page with fans again. Basic sports stuff.
This is what I know now:
The team wants to make peace with fans.
They want you to know that these is their intentions.
They are asking for grace because there are a mix of old and new people with different understandings of Houston and its fanbases and history.
They want you to know they care about fans, they want to win, they are committing to doing this.
They are committing people and resources to this.
This is hard to do when the team is not winning and there may not be full understanding and confidence and trust in their football and business direction.
People fan in their own ways. This seems obvious but sometimes people don’t fully understand and respect the differences.
Fans want to help in the ways that they feel good about helping but sometimes that help is not welcomed or valued, not through bad intentions but by people just not understanding each other well.
There have been a lot of strong ugly feelings about a lot of things in recent years, and those things can often be the most difficult to fix. The birth of the Texans was actually one of those things that sprung from difficult times, and the skills used to navigate that are the most Houston business skills that exist.
I used to have a better feel for how the Texans did business with stakeholders. What they excelled at and what they struggled with at times and how to direct people to engage with them in a helpful way. Now I feel more like a rookie about those things but that is not a bad thing. As I keep saying, the past is fixed, and the future can be anything.
Sometimes when people are working towards a better thing together, it happens. I would like to see that happen as my mind remembers the best and most connected times in Houston sports, and to borrow a phrase from Jose Altuve, I literally love Houston fans. Winners win, and the most meaningful wins for me are when we all win.
We want to thank Steph for spending so much time with us coming up with very thoughtful answers to our questions. Obviously, any human endeavor is going to have layers of intrigue and feelings involved and she made it a point to try to be as balanced as possible.